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The role of international volunteers in Palestine: what am I doing here?

Should international volunteers initiate debates about Palestinian social issues such as the place of religion, or are they misusing their authority in doing so?
Tanzil Chowdhury
24 June 2012

One is hard-pressed not to constantly question the value of their work in a seemingly intractable conflict like Israel-Palestine; a conflict where the end becomes increasingly opaque. With such a huge presence in the occupied territories and more internationals finding opportunities to work or volunteer in the region, there is the very real worry that well-intentioned NGOs merely dilute the long-term problems of the region with short-term solutions while actually perpetuating the conflict. Having worked in a refugee camp and currently volunteering for an organisation which valiantly works to twin schools, I too am faced with this existential dilemma.

International volunteers working in Palestine and Palestinian-interest organisations in Israel (such as Adalah in Haifa) have had a positive effect, educating people on the austerity of occupation and dispossession. There are many kinds of occupations on offer to internationals but most are ‘logistical’ in nature. These include skills-sharing (i.e. teacher exchanges with twinning networks – something similar to the work I do), human rights monitoring (for B’tselem, Amnesty International), humanitarian work (for MSF and MAP), field journalism and non-violent direct action (i.e. ISM or ICAHD). The incidental effect of these programmes is that they imbue a sense of solidarity, figuratively breaking the walls of occupation and globalising the struggle of an isolated people. Organisations working on educational skills sharing may be among those most accessible to young volunteers.

With an infrastructure so unsustainable, so annihilated by the siege and occupation, volunteers in the West Bank and Gaza provide a resource for Palestinians in the form of empowering knowledge and ideas. The aim of such missions is to offer expertise, so that when volunteers arrive in Palestinian cities and villages, they may ask ‘how can we help?' rather than issuing the imperative of ‘how we will help’. But can such a presence become damaging? What sort of impact do volunteers have on the ground?

The question posed itself in the programme I currently work for. One teacher, a devout atheist, visited schools, was entirely well intentioned, and wanted to debate or even challenge the existence of God. Palestine is, not surprisingly, a society in which religion and religious identity is pervasive. Some choose to keep their faith personal, with no external manifestations of their religiosity in their work and activism. Others decide that their religion forms a solid basis for liberation and (post-liberation) for a model of future social and political organisation. Thanks to the activism of the student branches of the Islamic parties, among others, a sizeable cultural consensus is emerging that takes religion’s centrality in politics seriously. These questions are indeed openly and healthily debated amongst Palestinians, from the coffee shops to the student campuses, with many internationals partaking in these discussions. Bearing this context in mind, is the international volunteer who lectures Palestinian children on the merits of atheism educating them or rather are they misusing the channel of education to promote their own views in an effort to change people?

One thing is certain: the common ground uniting all non-Palestinian activists is their acknowledgement of the inalienable right of Palestinians to self-determination, as they are in the best and only legitimate position to decide their own future, what it should look like and the means to attain this often moving target. This can mean that we, internationals, support people who may state opinions radically differing from our own moral reasoning. But one must remember that a volunteer’s work is based not on congruency of opinion but rather empathy with the oppressed. Thus, we ought to disengage ourselves from the terrain of political debate in conducting our work, although it may be very difficult.

Such a position may be aided by refraining from initiating debates about societal issues. Perhaps the most difficult thing for internationals to understand is that one's role is not to bring forward one’s own form of liberation but rather to just provide logistical help. Political contributions in Palestine are imbued with a sense of self-righteousness and fail to bring the conflict’s end any closer. While this may come as a harsh realisation, internationals ought to understand that their liberating efforts are best served by working outside of Palestine, that is that our efforts should be focused on helping from the outside by pressuring our own governments.

That said, was the atheist in my programme in a position to proselytise on the existence of God? Clearly the answer is negative as it violated the principles of self-determination, penetrating a sphere which we had no right occupying. Our aim is to encourage those who promote critical thought and accelerate the liberation process, not to reform people. The classroom should not be a space for critical demagogy where conventional wisdom is persistently challenged.

Debates on religious issues or social matters such as homosexuality should be carried out by Palestinians, not internationals. It is their civic duty, not ours - and the Palestinian LGBTQ organisation Al-Qaws illustrates that this debate is under way.We need to acknowledge the parallels to the occupation in our activities when we symbolically conquer the land that is the classroom, or any place where internationals operate.

In essence, our role as volunteers should address the asymmetry caused by top-down ‘solutions’ by working together with Palestinians for the empowerment of their communities. In doing so we ought to avoid self-righteousness and accept that all that we achieve as an international must be short term. Any long-term meaningful contribution is most likely to be achieved, as a foreigner, from abroad.

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