In September 2019 our new programme manager Isabelle Abersold visited the Horyzon programme in Palestine and talks about her many different impressions.
With my trip to the West Bank I broke new ground in my function as project manager for Palestine: Never before had I traveled to an occupied territory and what I read in the media about the occupied Palestinian territories prepared me only to a limited extent for reality. You have to see the checkpoints, the 8 meter high dividing wall and the refugee camps with your own eyes before you can even imagine the extent of this conflict. As soon as I arrived in Jerusalem, I was confronted with the mistrust of both parties to the conflict. The Israeli taxi driver did not seem very pleased when I told him that I had to go to Checkpoint 300 in the direction of Bethlehem. He also asked me immediately whether I was for Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, or Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority. My answer was that I was solely for peace.
I spent the next day getting to know the rehabilitation program of Horyzon and YMCA East Jerusalem. In Jenin, a village in the north of the West Bank, we met Mohammad, a young family man who lost a leg after a serious work accident. The accident was followed by a period of depression: Mohammad felt useless and could no longer care for his family due to his injury, which for him was tantamount to failure in his duty as father and husband. Through the rehabilitation program, Mohammad received both psychological support to work through his trauma and start-up funding to re-enter the labour market. The leg amputation hindered Mohammad from working as an electrician, but with the help of relatives he was able to buy an old container and convert it into a small supermarket. His wife helps him store the goods, but otherwise Mohammad runs the shop on his own. He told me that he was glad that he could generate enough income today to support his family and that he had regained his independence.
After saying goodbye to Mohammad, we drove on to the YMCA local office in Jenin, where a group therapy session for young people was taking place. All these young people have experienced a trauma due to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. In the group therapy sessions the young people process what they have experienced and find like-minded people. The central element of the therapy sessions is the development of initiatives for peace. This should also prevent the young people from joining radical groups because of their traumatic experiences.
The next day I visited the "Joint Advocacy Initiative" supported by Horyzon, which is jointly implemented by YMCA East Jerusalem and YWCA Palestine. This project contributes to strengthening the rights of the Palestinian population and raises awareness for a just peace in the region. Both Palestinian young people and foreign students travelling to Palestine through the project are trained in workshops on various topics: Nonviolent conflict resolution, implementation of initiatives for peace, the importance of human rights for the Palestinian population, etc. The foreign students also get to know the everyday life of Palestinian families during their trip and help, for example, Palestinian farmers with the olive harvest or visit one of the refugee camps in the region.
Another component of the project is the olive tree campaign. In Palestine there are olive trees that are up to 4,000 years old, which is why the olive tree has a very special meaning in Palestinian culture: it stands for permanence, resistance, peace and honour. But the olive tree also has a territorial importance in Palestine, because according to the Israeli law of absence, an agricultural area that has not been cultivated for more than 3 years can be confiscated by the Israeli state. For Palestinian farmers, the permanent cultivation of their land is therefore of utmost importance so that they do not lose their claim to their land. However, the Israeli government's expansion of infrastructure in the occupied Palestinian territories makes it increasingly difficult for many Palestinian farmers to reach their land and irrigate it adequately. Roads, security fences and new settlements block access to their fields and they have to take long detours to get to their land. So the financial and time effort for those farmers who own land in critical areas has increased enormously. This is why the project supports Palestinian olive farmers with sponsored young olive trees, so that they can secure their claim to land and protect themselves from expropriation.
On the third day I took part in a workshop of the project "Youth Participate" in Ramallah. The project is implemented by our partner YWCA Palestine and aims to support young people from all over the West Bank to get actively involved in Palestinian politics. Political fatigue among Palestinian youth is widespread. Although young people make up 30% of the total Palestinian population, less than a third of young people in the West Bank are interested in political elections and voting. This has to do with the fact that young people do not feel represented and taken seriously in politics. The Youth Participate project aims to address this problem by helping young people to develop a youth strategy, which will then be presented to the Palestinian government. However, the group in Ramallah did not correspond to the cliché of uninterested, uninvolved youth. Within a very short time, heated debates arose about how and whether the youth could contribute to political changes in Palestine. I left the workshop with a feeling of confidence and made my way back to Bethlehem, where I spent a few more days with our partners discussing strategic issues and planning our projects.