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5: ISM volunteer experiences on the frontlines
Episode 55th February 2023 • The International Solidarity Movement Podcast • The International Solidarity Movement
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In the fifth episode of the International Solidarity Movement podcast we are joined in the village of At-Tuwani by two ISM volunteers - Herbie and Maria - who both spent several months volunteering as internationalists in Palestine. They tell us from a personal perspective what it's like to be an international volunteer in Palestine, and especially in the South Hebron Hills. ISM is focusing it's presence here because of to the ongoing demolitions of Palestinian homes and infrastructure by the Israeli occupation.

We ask Herbie and Maria what brought them to Palestine, what they would say to people who are thinking of joining ISM but aren't sure yet, and also what it's been like witnessing some of the violence of the occupation. 

View the episode transcript here

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If you would like an explanation of the terms used in this podcast, you can find a useful glossary on pages 140-154 of Shoal Collective's Ebook Interviews with Radical Palestinian Women.

Supported by Shoal Collective.

Transcripts

Introduction:

Hey, welcome to international solidarity

Introduction:

movement podcast [followed by Arabic translation]

Hazel:

azeazeaHello and welcome to the fifth episode of the

Hazel:

International Solidarity Movement podcast.

Hazel:

Today we are joined in the village of At-Tuwani by two ISM

Hazel:

volunteers - Herbie and Maria - who both spent several months

Hazel:

volunteering as internationalists in Palestine.

Hazel:

they tell us from a personal perspective what it's like to be

Hazel:

an international volunteer in Palestine, and especially in the

Hazel:

South Hebron Hills, where ISM is focusing it's presence, due to

Hazel:

the ongoing demolitions of Palestinian homes and

Hazel:

infrastructure by the Israeli occupation.

Hazel:

We touch on what brought them to Palestine, what they would say

Hazel:

to people who are thinking of joining ISM but aren't sure yet,

Hazel:

and also what it's been like witnessing some of the violence

Hazel:

of the occupation.

Hazel:

At the end of the interview, Herbie and Maria discuss the

Hazel:

culpability of Western states in the ongoing colonisation of

Hazel:

Palestine and - in opposition to this - how we can directly take

Hazel:

action to stand with and struggle alongside the

Hazel:

Palestinian people in their fight for autonomy and freedom.

Nicole:

So we're really happy to be joined by two volunteers from

Nicole:

ISM, the International Solidarity Movement, who have

Nicole:

been in Palestine for several months this year at different

Nicole:

points. And we're going to be asking them some questions about

Nicole:

their experiences here, some of the challenges, things they've

Nicole:

learned, and also enjoyed since they've been here. But yeah, if

Nicole:

you'd like to introduce yourself, that would be amazing.

Maria:

Hi, everyone. So I’m Maria, and yeah, I've been, I'm

Maria:

almost at the end of my visa. So I've been here for three months

Maria:

now. And I was here a month over the Summer.

Herbie:

Hi, everyone, I'm Herbie, I've been here for

Herbie:

nearly two months now. And I've got about another month left of

Nicole:

Can you share a little bit about how your experiences

Nicole:

my visa.

Nicole:

have been here?

Maria:

Yeah. So I think the situation in general is very

Maria:

challenging on the ground. I was here for the first time this

Maria:

summer. And it was quite mind blowing. I've been campaigning

Maria:

for Palestine in the UK. But I think when you see things on the

Maria:

ground, and you live them, and you experience them, and you

Maria:

talk to people, it's... it's completely different.

Maria:

I think you get used to like the rhythm quite quickly. But yeah,

Maria:

I think overall it has been amazing. I've met lots of very,

Maria:

very interesting people. The Palestinian activists are great.

Maria:

The international activists are all amazing. And we've also met

Maria:

lots of Israeli activists, which are really nice. So I think

Maria:

generally, like very recommended experience and very positive,

Maria:

but yeah, it's, it's challenging. And ISM is very

Maria:

often on the first line. So you are, yeah, very often like, in

Maria:

[a] conflict situation. And some of them can be very challenging,

Maria:

but I think you develop as a person as well. So yeah,

Maria:

positive in general.

Nicole:

What's your kind of like day to day, what would like an

Nicole:

average day look like here?

Herbie:

I mean, to be honest, like, every day is different.

Herbie:

And it's very dependent on where we are. At the minute, we're in

Herbie:

Masafer Yatta. And we're kind of based in a couple of different

Herbie:

villages. In one of them, we do the like morning and afternoon

Herbie:

school run, because some of the children have to walk through a

Herbie:

settlement, Havat Ma’on – sorry, [it’s] an illegal outpost - to

Herbie:

get to school, and they sometimes get attacked by

Herbie:

settlers. So they have a military escort. And then we are

Herbie:

also there waiting for them on the other side, to make sure

Herbie:

they've arrived safely. But things often pop up very

Herbie:

unexpectedly - like you, you can never predict what's going to

Herbie:

happen in a day. For example, on Monday, everything was very

Herbie:

lrelaxed. I, like, didn't have a lot to do. And then the next

Herbie:

day, I was at three different demolitions in different

Herbie:

villages in Masafer Yatta. And there was also a fourth

Herbie:

demolition, and then I went to another village to visit some

Herbie:

children whose school was recently demolished. So it

Herbie:

varies a lot.

Nicole:

We’ve been interviewing in some of the villagers we hear

Nicole:

about the demolitions and their experiences, but could you share

Nicole:

a little bit about what your - your role is, while that's

Nicole:

happening, and what you've observed?

Herbie:

Yeah, so I suppose the most important role for us and

Herbie:

and what the locals want is that we're there to document what's

Herbie:

happening. Because we're like, in the area, we can, we're

Herbie:

either like, already living in that village, or we can get

Herbie:

there very quickly. We can get there like, a lot faster than,

Herbie:

you know, the UN can or anyone else. So we're there to like,

Herbie:

document the whole thing so that the world can hear about what's

Herbie:

happening otherwise. You know, most people would just never

Herbie:

know that these people's homes and villages are being

Herbie:

destroyed.

Herbie:

In an ideal world, if there was enough of us here, then we could

Herbie:

take direct action to actively resist the demolitions for

Herbie:

example, like going on the diggers, blocking vehicles,

Herbie:

surrounding the house. But unfortunately, since lockdown

Herbie:

there is like a very low number of volunteers here. And it's

Herbie:

just not safe or effective for us to try to do those things if

Herbie:

we don't have the numbers for it. So yeah, it's quite, it's

Herbie:

quite difficult just standing there filming instead of trying

Herbie:

to resist it happening. Another thing we can do is try to

Herbie:

de-arrest Palestinians if they're being taken by the

Herbie:

police.

Nicole:

And I know like some people in the UK that have

Nicole:

considered coming - like maybe they're nervous because they

Nicole:

don't know what to expect or they have health issues. They

Nicole:

don't feel like they can do it. Or like mental health

Nicole:

challenges… Like do you feel like it is accessible for

Nicole:

everyone here or do you feel like there are different roles

Nicole:

people can do, or do you think it has been quite kind of

Nicole:

physically demanding, the work here? Like what's the kind of,

Nicole:

yeah, experiences in terms of like your own health and your

Nicole:

own well being.

Maria:

Yeah I think as an organization it is quite wide.

Maria:

And there are roles for everyone. And you can show

Maria:

solidarity in lots of different ways, even only just living in a

Maria:

village and like showing people that, you know, internationals

Maria:

are there, and they're aware of the situation. And they are

Maria:

filming, if needed, then that gives Palestinians strength and

Maria:

like, is a push for them to continue the fight. If you feel

Maria:

like physically able, then there is of course, like more

Maria:

challenging - physically challenging - work to do. But

Maria:

like, it's, it's nothing crazy. And we've got media roles,

Maria:

international coordinator roles.

Maria:

So yeah I think the good thing of ISM is that everyone, yeah,

Maria:

so the good thing of ISM is that like everyone can participate in

Maria:

the capacity that they feel they can. So if you want to be more

Maria:

based in the flats, or like in house in a village, you can do

Maria:

that. Again, if you feel like being in the front line, and

Maria:

like, put yourself more at risk, you can also do that. So it's

Maria:

really up to the person. Mentally it is a challenging

Maria:

situation, but you will always, always have support from people

Maria:

on the ground. So I think it's, I think it's generally

Maria:

accessible to most people.amar

Herbie:

Yeah, I would, I would agree that like the ISM will,

Herbie:

like, try and accommodate for people's health needs. But I do

Herbie:

think it is important to consider that like, it is a very

Herbie:

mentally challenging situation. I'm definitely someone who's

Herbie:

like struggled with my mental health. And I really had to

Herbie:

think hard about whether I was like mentally stable enough to

Herbie:

deal with this context. And it has been a challenge. And I

Herbie:

think it's also really important to look after yourself whenever

Herbie:

you go home as well, because I think also, although being here

Herbie:

is difficult, I think also leaving and going back to

Herbie:

‘normality’, and having to process everything is - can be

Herbie:

quite difficult for people.

Herbie:

And I think it's also important to consider that like, a lot of

Herbie:

the work here is quite physical, like we do a lot of like,

Herbie:

walking from village to village, we don't have - we can’t always

Herbie:

get a lift to places. There is like, you know, like, yeah,

Herbie:

physical work to do, as well. And at demos you might have to

Herbie:

run if there's like, gunfire and things. So, yeah, it is

Herbie:

accessible to different people's needs. But it is also important

Herbie:

to like consider what you're able to do before coming. And,

Herbie:

like, not put yourself in dangerous situations.

Nicole:

A lot of people will see Palestine on the news. And yeah,

Nicole:

like, for someone that's never been here before, like I think,

Nicole:

it does feel like extremely intimidating. Of, “oh my god, am

Nicole:

I gonna get shot? Am I gonna witness someone else getting

Nicole:

shot?” Like, it's really got this kind of like, I mean, it is

Nicole:

a conflict zone, right? But I think it's been very different

Nicole:

being here and seeing the kind of normality in the day to day

Nicole:

things, even though everyone is like, relentlessly affected by

Nicole:

the occupation. And it kind of defines everyone's lives. I just

Nicole:

wondered like, how it's been for you in terms of violence and

Nicole:

like, you don't have to disclose what you don't feel comfortable

Nicole:

with but, like, yeah, how has it felt being here and seeing the

Nicole:

occupation and how it affects people?

Nicole:

For me, that has been a bit challenging. I think, especially

Nicole:

over the summer, I've been to a couple of demos where two kids

Nicole:

were shot, and they died. So we've been to funerals as well.

Nicole:

And like, the funerals are, like a whole experience here. Because

Nicole:

there are like, thousands of people that attend and, you

Nicole:

know, it's like, sort of a national mourning. So it's a

Nicole:

very intense experience. I don't know if that's the right, like-

Nicole:

[it’s] very beautiful on one side in the sense that there are

Nicole:

all these communities that come together, and you know, like

Nicole:

mourning the martyrs. But yeah, I mean, in terms of violence,

Nicole:

you might experience some here and witness some and that's very

Nicole:

hard. As I say. So seeing like people getting shot or like

Nicole:

seeing settlers’ violence. We've ended up in a couple of

Nicole:

situations where we thought that we're gonna get injured, then

Nicole:

that didn't happen. But yeah, I think, again, ISM tries to cover

Nicole:

this situation – there are a lot of different lines. It's then up

Nicole:

to the volunteer if they want to go, if they want to participate,

Nicole:

and things like that.

Nicole:

Especially like demonstrations this summer, they were very

Nicole:

intense. I was here when they - the two or three days that they

Nicole:

bombed Gaza. So like they were doing demonstration here in the

Nicole:

West Bank and those like, they were quite tough and they were,

Nicole:

like, repressed horribly, by the IOF [Israeli Occupation Forces].

Nicole:

So that was harsh. And I think in general, like I think as

Nicole:

Herbie said, the situation can kick off anytime, so... and

Nicole:

soldiers and settlers don't like to see international[s] filming

Nicole:

and being here. So you often are the targets of of soldiers -

Nicole:

like not in a physical way, but you know, like them trying to

Nicole:

scare you, or like making you leave. So you kind of need to be

Nicole:

mentally prepared for that sort of violence as well.

Nicole:

I think I've been very - not surprised here, but people

Nicole:

have really been like, “oh, we need internationals to talk

Nicole:

about this, we need pressure, like… things are getting worse,

Nicole:

because there needs to be more pressure from the international

Nicole:

community”. And I think maybe I hadn't come previously in my

Nicole:

life because of, I guess, okay, like, you know, there's a lot of

Nicole:

language around like white saviourism, or people traveling

Nicole:

abroad when there's like, oppression in the UK, you know,

Nicole:

like the prison system or racism or how like refugees and

Nicole:

migrants are treated in the UK and stuff. So I think I've never

Nicole:

been like a natural internationalist, if that makes

Nicole:

sense. But I'm - it's kind of very interestingly, like,

Nicole:

massively made an impression on me that people seem so

Nicole:

welcoming, like just buying us coffees on the street, or, you

Nicole:

know, like sweetcorn from a stand or just people -

Nicole:

everyone's interested in us and asking questions and people are

Nicole:

like, “thank you for coming.” And there seems to be this like

Nicole:

amazing, like openness and hospitality. I just wondered if

Nicole:

you had any kind of thoughts about that. Maybe someone is

Nicole:

listening, and they're like, “Oh, I feel weird about going”,

Nicole:

or, like, has that stuff come up for you?

Herbie:

Yeah, the whole like, white savior thing is definitely

Herbie:

something that I was quite worried about. You know, if that

Herbie:

if you think that you're going to come here and save people and

Herbie:

free Palestine, like that is very much not the case. You're,

Herbie:

you're here to learn from the people and be led by them and

Herbie:

show solidarity with them. And yeah. So it is important to

Herbie:

think about your intentions for coming for sure. But my

Herbie:

experience of being here, as you said, like everyone is, like, so

Herbie:

welcoming. And I think just grateful that we're here because

Herbie:

you know, there is just such a lack of coverage of what is

Herbie:

really happening here. So it's so important for us to be here

Herbie:

and to see the reality on the ground and to go home and share

Herbie:

that with people.

Maria:

Yeah, completely agree. And ISM is 100% Palestinian led.

Maria:

We're non-violent, of course. But we would never ever take the

Maria:

initiative of doing anything if the Palestinians around us are

Maria:

not – like we’ve not consulted them before. So that's an

Maria:

important point. And yeah, I think as Herbie was saying,

Maria:

like, we're not saviours. But I think the Palestinians

Maria:

understand how isolated they are outside this... the situation on

Maria:

the ground, and like in Western countries, and whatever. And

Maria:

because like, Israel has all these ties with like Western

Maria:

countries and countries outside, I think they need this sort of

Maria:

connection with the outside world. So it's, yeah, it's not a

Maria:

matter of us coming here and being saviours, but more like

Maria:

documenting in, and then try to like, lobby and do diplomacy

Maria:

when we're back home.

Nicole:

Amazing. What was the trigger for coming here? Like

Nicole:

what inspired you to join? Obviously, there's lots of

Nicole:

places you could have gone or things you could have done,

Nicole:

like, what was it that kind of called you here?

Maria:

So I've been campaigning for Palestine in the UK, quite a

Maria:

lot. It’s something that I've been knowing about, lately

Maria:

shap[ing] my life, but like, I don't know, I just feel that

Maria:

this is so much dependent on like behaviors of Western

Maria:

countries, and we can actively do something to stop what's

Maria:

happening here. So that made me like more and more involved back

Maria:

home. And then I just thought that it would have been good to

Maria:

actually come and see the situation on the ground. And

Maria:

this, for me, is the first time that I find myself in a

Maria:

situation like this or like in a conflict area, and like having

Maria:

to deal with soldiers or this violence. So it's been an

Maria:

interesting growth. But yeah, I think knowing things from

Maria:

outside... it just fed naturally then to come and see things on

Maria:

the ground. But yeah, um, first time that I’m in like this sort

Maria:

of situation.

Herbie:

Yeah, that's, like, coming here has been, like, a

Herbie:

long time coming for me. So I was like, very much raised as a

Herbie:

Zionist. My, like, most of my family are Israeli. And I've had

Herbie:

to do a lot of like unlearning. And yeah, finding out the truth

Herbie:

about the situation here. And yeah, I think, I mean,

Herbie:

obviously, I want to be here to show solidarity with

Herbie:

Palestinians, but also like to, like, see, for myself, to be

Herbie:

able to, like, communicate with my family and like, try and

Herbie:

explain to them what's really happening here because like,

Herbie:

although some of them are sympathetic to the cause,

Herbie:

they're very inactive. And it's, it's very easy for them to just

Herbie:

like, live their lives, sort of ignoring what is happening just

Herbie:

like a few miles away from them. And yeah, I want to try and show

Herbie:

them what's really going on and hopefully inspire them to - and

Herbie:

empower them to - actually stand in solidarity with Palestinians.

Herbie:

And yeah, I think also as a Jewish person, it's particularly

Herbie:

important to, for me to - I guess I have, there's definitely

Herbie:

guilt there. And I feel like I almost need to like show that

Herbie:

not all Jewish people are Zionists.

Nicole:

Yeah like a final question, I guess is, what would

Nicole:

you say to someone who's maybe like, on the fence about coming,

Nicole:

like thinking about it, maybe they're saving up for it, but

Nicole:

they're just not quite sure whether to come on up. And you

Nicole:

know, there's only a handful of us here. And I know from

Nicole:

friends, they've talked about this history of ISM, where there

Nicole:

was like hundreds of people here all over the West Bank doing

Nicole:

different things. And it's quite – like you said at the beginning

Nicole:

with the pandemic, it's really affected the amount of people

Nicole:

coming. So, obviously, you know, we're hoping with this podcast

Nicole:

that people will listen, and that will inspire them to join

Nicole:

ISM here, but yeah, what would you say to anyone that was

Nicole:

considering it, but not quite sure yet?

Maria:

Yeah. I mean, I guess it's individual cases. But I

Maria:

And yeah, we're saying like, there are challenges there, like

Maria:

would generally encourage people to come. It's, even though it's

Maria:

people should think about so again, depends on individual

Maria:

a tough experience, but you grow a lot as a person. And there's

Maria:

situation. But yeah, I think just think that you will never

Maria:

so much to learn from people here on the ground. And I think

Maria:

just seeing things with your own eyes is so much different than

Maria:

be forced to do things or to be in situation where you don't

Maria:

like reading or listening to stories. And yeah, like

Maria:

Palestinians are absolutely amazing. And there's lots of

Maria:

want to be in. So if you want to start with like a lighter

Maria:

support on the ground.

Maria:

approach and just understanding the situation. There will be

Maria:

room to do that and maybe just go around and talk to families

Maria:

like without necessarily being involved in maybe [a] conflict

Maria:

situation, although that might happen. I mean, it is at risk

Maria:

that you need to consider. But I think in general, it's been such

Maria:

a like eye opening experience. That yeah, I cannot think of one

Maria:

reason not to come here.

Herbie:

Yeah, coming here for me was like such a daunting

Herbie:

challenge. But one that I like… I'm 100% so glad that I made. I

Herbie:

think that if you're like, unsure and you probably have

Herbie:

like a lot of questions and uncertainties, like you can get

Herbie:

in touch with ISM by email and attend a training and they'll

Herbie:

answer all of the questions that you have. Yeah, as Maria said,

Herbie:

like, it's just I mean, for me, it's like definitely been like a

Herbie:

life changing experience in a good way. And yeah, you're

Herbie:

stronger than you think you are. And you can, like, you know, I

Herbie:

think the Palestinian people are incredibly resilient and face

Herbie:

these things every day. And I think we are in a very

Herbie:

privileged position to be able to like, come here and witness

Herbie:

this and then go back home. And I think you won't regret coming.

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