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Solidarity Intervention

Monique Jo Beerli

4. Transnational Solidarity in Practice

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 “La croyance de tous, qui préexiste au rituel, est la condition de l’efficacité du rituel. On ne prêche que des convertis.”
– Bourdieu, Langage et Pouvoir Symbolique

1Even within a social movement built upon challenging the status quo, in this case the cause for Palestinian rights, “structures of domination” are nonetheless strongly embedded and ever-present amongst the individuals and organizations that define a given cooperative unit. Taking the Israeli occupation itself as a “field” of society, defined by Bourdieu as “the site of struggles between holders of different powers which […] have at stake the transformation or conservation of the relative value of different kinds of capital” (Bourdieu, 1996: 215), many actors are competing with one another for hegemony and control within the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Of the constellation of actors involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, solidarity activists personify one community of agents operating in competition with others—such as the state of Israel, the Israeli military, the settler community, international organizations, Islamic Jihadists, the Palestinian Authority, etc.—in both concrete and abstract terms over the fate of the territory of Palestine and its respective population. While the notion of solidarity activism attests to certain criteria which have been discussed throughout this work, such as advocating for benefits which will not directly benefit the volunteer, there are dimensions of everyday practices of solidarity activism which have not been sufficiently captured in theory. Though the limits of this thesis do not permit a comparative analysis of the range of actors active in both the perpetuation and the contestation of the occupation, I would like to focus on the “habitus” (Bourdieu 1977) of international solidarity activists in their field of operation during a specific temporal period, which I refer to as their “transnational moment”.

2To begin, one can ask how it is that solidarity activists justify their actions? What logics of language are used in order to create a space of political and social legitimacy for transnational solidarity activism? Furthermore, how do international volunteers interact with their field and adapt to their new environment? Assuming that acting as a solidarity activist differs from one’s everyday experiences in their “normal” life, what sets of attitudes, commitments, and rules of behavior (Friedman and McAdam 1992: 157) will be expected for the volunteer to subscribe to as they assume their newfound, yet perhaps temporary, identity? As such, how does the specific context of engaging in transnational activism alter one’s practices and beliefs? In order to answer the proposed questions, I will present a micro-level synthesis of the actions and behaviors of individuals whom are recruited as volunteers in Palestinian rights solidarity organizations. First, I will conduct an analysis of the discourse used by international volunteers, which works to validate and justify their presence, demonstrating a direct link between language and power. Next, I will outline the process of socialization experienced by international volunteers in the field, while highlighting the specific symbols and capitals relevant to the functionality of their engagement. As opposed to maintaining a sense of continuity relative to one’s “previous” or “principal lifestyle”, the practices of volunteers while in the field testify to encounters of fluctuation and transformation as they attune themselves with the collective identity of a Palestinian rights solidarity activist.

4.1. Language and Power

3Focusing on the “linguistic habitus” (Bourdieu 1982) of solidarity activists, one dimension of their symbolic and actual role in the conflict, my attempt is to demonstrate the terms and the issues on which their struggle is defined. Thus far, I have tried to illustrate the conditions and strategies of cooperation along with the type of individuals involved whereas now, I will focus on the ways in which solidarity activists define their struggle in the specific social and territorial space which constitutes their activities.

4As progressively demonstrated throughout the body of this work, solidarity activism is presented as an alliance between the local and the global in the name of justice, democracy, human rights, and freedom. Though already demonstrated at the institutional level, the stakes of engagement are equally defended and reproduced at the individual level. When discussing both the goals and the justification of their intervention in the West Bank, international solidarity activists both recognized and reproduced a logic of judgment against Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers. Thus, to convince and reinforce themselves of the legitimacy of their presence, it is essential to first stress a depiction of the atrociousness and the barbarity of the occupation in an effort to delegitimize it and the actors involved, as indicated here by an ISM volunteer:

  • 1  Interview with Participant D., held March 15, 2012.

“You hear so many things, so many bizarre things, it’s like every time you get shocked, like ‘WHAT? Are you serious?’ Like putting poisonous snakes in children’s bedrooms for example. Or poisoning the olive trees, that are so ancient. Or, like now, with the checkpoint in front of the school.”1

5According to this second-hand description of incidences as experienced by Palestinians living in the H2 district of Hebron city, the living conditions of Palestinians are contextualized as existing outside the boundaries of normality. Words such as “bizarre” and “shocked” indicate that abnormality.

  • 2  Interview with Participant K., held February 9, 2012.
  • 3  Interview with Participant H., held March 15, 2012.

6Also, it was quite common for solidarity activists to express both their anger about conditions under the occupation as testified by Palestinian civilians. These normative evaluations were generally accompanied with an indication of the manifestation of “injustice”. One EAPPI volunteer explained, “I was just outraged by what’s going on here, the injustice, and so many people living for such a long time under these military laws and they don’t really have any rights.”2 A CPT volunteer asserted a comparable attitude, “I think, when you see all the harassments and all the injustice, you can’t believe. I can’t stand it. So I think that’s why I came.”3

  • 4  Interview with Participant T., held March 5, 2012.

7In an account of the difficulty for a third party intervener to avoid having prejudices, an Operation Dove volunteer designated the killing of children as one of the most gruesome aspects of war: “It is possible someone becomes against all the Israeli citizens, you know, its not easy because there is a lot of anger when you read that 50 children die.”4 Reactionary emotions regarding the plight of Palestinian children as a result of the occupation enliven both passion and conviction within the vindictive narrative of solidarity activists.

  • 5  Interview with Participant P., held March 2, 2012.
  • 6  Interview with Participant A., held February 29, 2012.

8Another component of justifying solidarity intervention included the systematic use of moral declarations of “right” and “wrong”. One ISM volunteer, though at times unclear about certain facets of the occupation and unable to propose possible solutions to the occupation, insisted that “[w]hat is clear is that what is happening is unjust, is wrong and needs to be fought.”5 Similarly, an American-Israeli Ta’ayush volunteer described a similar position regarding violence targeted against Palestinian villagers, “And it just felt like there is this amazing little village and these fucking settlers are just beating people up. What’s going on. Like it just felt wrong, metaphysically wrong even.”6Even when questioned about the subjectivity of measures of morality, some activists still defended the objectivity of labels such as “right” and “wrong”, alluding that a sense of morality should be as relevant to any individual in any given situation. In discussing the criteria upon which the Israeli army base the assignment of Israeli soldiers to duty in the Occupied Territories, one activist argued that regardless of one’s background, humans share a basic set of universal morals:

  • 7  Interview with Participant D., held March 15, 2012.

“Even if you score low on an IQ test, you still know the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. You still have some kind of morality. You know that beating up a kid that is 7 years old is not right. You know that.”7

9Ethical rationalism is further reinforced by a sense of counter-logic to describe the situation in Israel and the Occupied Territories. One CPT volunteer highlights what he describes as a contradictory behavior of Israeli Jews:

“And it’s incredible that a people that have suffered through the Holocaust could turn right around and then you know, ghettoizing people here, pushing them off their land and taking it from them, you know, that just doesn’t make any sense to me. So, we’re here.”

10One international volunteer for Rabbis for Human Rights characterized the Israeli occupation as an extreme case of anti-democratic practices carried about by a democratic state:

  • 8  Interview with Participant W., held March 11, 2012.

“Also the fact that, so there are many countries, Zimbabwe, Uganda or Eritrea with awful human rights records and awful governments but Israel is very much looked at as an advanced nation, as a Western democracy. So for a country to make such a claim and to be seen as totally on par with the US or Europe and still be making those violations, it multiplies it for me. How can a country like this get away with this, a country that is supposed to be full of democracy and transparency?”8

11Though it can be argued that the United States and Europe do not necessarily have better track records, in the mind of this participant Israel was designated as the least authentic of any democratic country.

12Other efforts to delegitimize and condemn the practices of the state of Israel included the use of the terms “fascist”, “ethnic cleansing”, “apartheid state”, “oppression”, “repression”, “colonial state”, “terrorist state”, “crazy”, “nonsense” and so forth. In general, however, ISM volunteers, conceived as the most ideological and radical in comparison to other organizational volunteers, used a more extreme vocabulary and expressed a stronger opposition against Israel. Yet, without the use of such labels, which are targeted to delegitimize Israel’s practices, solidarity activists would have difficulty justifying their own actions.

13In order to stress the issue of victimization and the disproportionate use of force exercised by the Israeli army, a commonly used technique of solidarity activists, and human rights advocates more generally, is to stress a “concern with protecting the most vulnerable parts of the population” (Keck and Sikkink 1998: 205), namely infants and children. In some cases, it is sufficient just to refer to the Palestinians as the “oppressed people”. One participant even expressed his participation in terms of an interest in marginal populations:

  • 9 Ibid.

“And so, I’ve always sort of been interested in the ignored population and the people who daily experience injustice and oppression and whose cries are never heard or heard by very few. And I feel like it’s like that with the Palestinians here.”9

14When highlighting the asymmetry between the Israeli army and Palestinian civilians, solidarity activists emphasized the experience of Palestinian children as a consequence of the conflict more than any other segment of the Palestinian population. When summarizing his understanding of the occupation, one ISM volunteer explained with disgust:

  • 10  Interview with Participant P., held March 2, 2012.

“It’s about the military coming in and doing whatever they want because they think they are God. That they can come and arrest kids, and beat them, or shoot them, and that nothing will happen to them because they’re just Palestinians.”10

  • 11  Interview with Participant T., held March 5, 2012.

15In conjunction, the priority of the organizations is then to protect Palestinian children subject to violence. An Operation Dove volunteer noted that while the organization is involved in other activities, the primary purpose of their project was to guarantee the safety of children on their way to school, “So Ta’ayush called CPT and Operation Dove, first to accompany the children of Tuba to the village of At-Tuwani.”11 An ISM volunteer asserted the same prerogative when questioned about how the organization allocates its services:

  • 12  Interview with Participant D., held March 15, 2012.

“Well, most of the time, the kids are first. Like, if they need protection. We were talking about that last night when we walked into the city center, they [the soldiers] were putting up a checkpoint in front of an elementary school to check the children’s bags. How dare you, as the army, do that.”12

16As observed on a day out in the old city of Hebron, CPT dedicates half of its daily duty to the monitoring of the movement of children from home to school, passing either through checkpoints or near settlements. CPTers keep logs of how many children’s bags were searched as they walked through a checkpoint, yet do not keep statistics on the number of adults or even women who are subject to a search.

17While the processes of defamation, as evidenced by the delegitimization of Israeli practices and the localization of vulnerable victims, is primarily designed to reframe the perception of the Israeli occupation, the coinciding effect is the glorification of the work performed by the global civil society. Founded on a reductionist approach, the mere alliance between the TSMOs and the destitute warrants self-righteousness. When discussing his place in the political spectrum, a Rabbis for Human Rights volunteer explained his affinity towards morality above all else:

  • 13  Interview with Participant W., held March 11, 2012.

“Eventually I became more critical but I felt I wasn’t really comfortable arguing for the Palestinian side. I don’t like to say pick a side, I like to say I am on the side of the ‘right’, of justice and peace.”13

  • 14  Interview with Participant K., held February 9, 2012.

18An EAPPI volunteer, skeptical of the political impact solidarity work could actually have, nonetheless affirmed the mere importance of being on the “right” side, “It’s just trying to relieve the suffering a little bit on the ground and to be on the side of the solution, not on the side of the problem.”14

19Having themselves witnessed injustice and human rights abuses, solidarity activists validate the importance of their presence and often argue that more internationals should become involved. Though one EAPPI volunteer at first explained her uncertainty as to whether it was her role to intervene, her experience in the field led to a shift in opinion:

  • 15  Interview with Participant K., held February 9, 2012.

“So, I’ve become more convinced that there needs to be internationals. And I mean, the values that are the organization’s and mine, these are universal values. Human rights, equality, it’s not pro-Palestinian, even though we get more, through conversations and meetings, of the Palestinian narrative and we have less to do with normal Israeli people which is a bit sad.”15

20Another volunteers also expressed a logic of need for the increased involvement of internationals “on the ground”:

  • 16  Interview with Participant H., held March 15, 2012.

“I used to say there are not so many people that can, that want to go to Palestine to do this work and I think I am more needed here than in Sweden. And we are a lack of people, we should be many more here.”16

  • 17  Interview with Participant P., held March 2, 2012.

21This line of argumentation was often supplemented by the inability of Palestinians to have their voices heard. Conscious of the inequalities between international volunteers and the Palestinian communities they work with though less concerned with the transformation of North-South relations, the unison of the privileged and the weak is presented as an acceptable and even desirable solution. When analyzing his own participation in solidarity activism, one Operation Dove volunteer identified his objective as follows, “I am trying to echo and amplify the voice of Palestinians and people on the ground so that the injustices can be heard around the world.”17  An EAPPI volunteer went a step further and claimed the importance of such an alliance as communicated in an interaction with a Palestinian:

  • 18  Interview with Participant L., held February 8, 2012.

“One of the things that occurs to me is that there are a lot of internationals here and I think, I think Palestinians want that, as we were saying before, it’s the eyes that go back and tell. Many people say, ‘I’m glad you saw this, go back and tell.’ So I think that is important for the Palestinians.”18

  • 19  Interview with Participant D., held March 15, 2012.

22With little regard for the effectiveness or long-term effects of an international presence on a grassroots level, the principal rationale of action is first and foremost to resist illiberal practices: “When you don’t think a situation is honest or righteous, you should do something about it. And not let other people handle it. Not trust governments to handle it, for sure not.”19 A CPT volunteer seemed unconcerned about the question of effectiveness, explaining that worrying to much about making change can add unneeded stress:

  • 20  Interview with Participant J., held March 14, 2012.

“There are laws and cultural aspects that cause societal problems for people and I don’t know if any of the work that we did had an impact, but when I say, I’m called by my faith, and I feel like that I am called to be faithful, not to be effective. I have no power to change these things, but again, it’s like planting seeds. We don’t know if and when it will make a difference. That is a tremendous help in not having burnout. There is a lot of frustration when you are doing something for a purpose of change and if you think that what your doing is to be effective and it doesn’t come to pass, then you just want to quit. It’s like ‘what am I doing this for, am I making a difference?’ I mean I don’t know if it makes a difference or not. But at least people know about it.”20

23Given the disposition of solidarity activists with respect to the occupation, it is quite common for them to articulate their political identity in terms of their endorsement of human rights and justice. Whether religious or secular, solidarity volunteers promote such universalizing principles as the ideal canons of governance. As one international Ta’ayush volunteer stated when depicting the transformation of his political ideology over the years:

  • 21  Interview with Participant O., held March 8, 2012.

“but this [volunteering in Palestine] is a much bigger thing in terms of the way I’ve developed as a person, the way I see the world, reflecting on the kind of ideas I had when I was younger as a radical Marxist. Those ideas are still there but the most important thing for me is human rights. If you haven’t got an ideology or belief that put human rights at the top, then your ideas are fairly useless to be quite honest.”21

24Willingly indoctrinated and prepared to use opportunities offered by transnationalism and hence global civil society to advance their beliefs, human rights stand out as the new secular religion of the New Left.

  • 22  Interview with Participant K., held February 9, 2012.

25Despite a strong identification with the principles of human rights and justice, solidarity activists limited the application of such principles to criticism of the Israeli occupation. As support is one of the main functions of solidarity activism, when questioned regarding the state of human rights within Palestinian society, solidarity activists, though perhaps willing to discuss their impression, did not consider it their within the role of internationals to become involved in such matters. As one EAPPI volunteer commented when asked about whether or not EAPPI gets involved, for example, in women’s rights projects: “That doesn’t contribute to the goal of to end the occupation. We don’t look into family. I think other people are doing that.”22

  • 23  Interview with Participant H., held March 15, 2012.

26While maintaining the need for internationals to intervene in situations of conflict, responsibility for other occurrences of violence or human rights violations were generally believed to be within the realm of domestic issues to be managed by the Palestinians, as one CPTer remarked, “I think they have to do their own work. I don’t think its useful if we come from abroad and say you must do like we are doing.”23 Despite the bestowal of a discourse on human rights, the practice of that discourse in the case of anti-occupation solidarity TSMOs is practically restricted to issues related to the occupation, giving priority to conflict management. As one ISM volunteer realized, the most urgent matters should be worked on first:

  • 24  Interview with Participant R., held February 9, 2012.

“I think though it is really a big problem with the women. It’s difficult to focus on all the fights at the same time. I would also like to include animal rights and everything but it would be too much so I thought maybe its most necessary to work with human rights in the occupation first.”24

27Some volunteers, however, seemed to express hope that the endorsement of human rights in relation to the occupation would encourage Palestinians to apply the same principles in a more widespread and consistent manner. As an EAPPI volunteer reasoned:

  • 25  Interview with Participant L., held February 8, 2012.

“The more that human rights and international law are being talked about then it will make people look at different things. So you would hope that if people are applying it in one context that they start looking at it in another.”25

28Whether proponents of human rights, justice, international law, or Christian service, solidarity activists legitimize their engagement in the West Bank by using principles of moral universalism. Before defending such principles in a transnational space, solidarity activists must first confirm that one or more adversaries do not obey those principles. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, those adversaries are primarily defined as the Jewish settlers and the Israeli army, which by logical extension implicates the Israeli state. The delegitimization of the adversary is thus essential to the legitimization of the TSMOs. Yet, criticism is not without its limits. Charged with the single task of contesting the occupation, solidarity activists are limited in the situations where they may apply their universal principles. As opposed to being truly universal, universal principles are strategically employed in particular situations, defining the very identity of the given organizations and its affiliates. Furthermore, these solidarity activists come to the West Bank with a certain disposition already in mind based on previously held convictions, what Hecker calls an “assumed subjectivity” (2011: 236), which are then validated once in the field as the volunteers both absorb and produce a specific type of knowledge and capital.

4.2. Socialization in the Field: Capital, Symbology, and Experience

29As a solidarity activist volunteering for a transnational social movement organization in a foreign country, the very act of entering into that country in affiliation with an organization transforms the role of the individual. The spatial context thus plays an essential element in the actualization of transnational activism. Once in the field, however, international activists experience heavy socialization in light of their new environment. Both due to the intensity of their work and the drastically different cultural milieu they find themselves in, activists take up new roles and practices, which have an impact on themselves and the people they are in contact with throughout the process.

30In order to spread awareness among the locals about their work and distinguish themselves from other groups, such as tourists or even settlers, wearing symbolic clothing enables the integration of international volunteers into the space of occupation. The more formal TSMOs require that their volunteers wear a standardized, “uniform-like” insignia. CPTers wear a red hat with the CPT logo on the front; EAs dress themselves in a khaki vest with “EAPPI” written in bold situated below a yellow dove on the back of the vest; IWPS volunteers equally wear either a vest or t-shirt with the organizations logo visibly displayed. Given the relatively short amount of time that volunteers spend in the field and the speed with which they are expected to be integrated, marked clothing acts as a recognition and distinction device, both to Palestinians who may need their help and to Israeli soldiers and settlers who are further made aware of a legitimate international presence. One EA analyzed the advantages of wearing a vest:

  • 26  Interview with Participant L., held February 8, 2012.

“Well, we’re not in small villages; we’re in communities around Jerusalem. So, it takes a long time [to get used to things and meet people], well, I suppose that’s why we wear those vests so that people recognize we are from the program even if they don’t recognize us. And the important thing in cases like in Silwan where there are so many tourists is that they know that we are sort of not tourists that we’re a supportive protective presence. So the vest gets known.”26

  • 27 A keffiyeh is a traditional Arab headdress which has become a symbol of the Palestinian national li (...)

31In contrast, neither the less organized TSMOs, such as ISM, nor those that operate on a very local level, such as Operation Dove and PSP, enforce a dress code. In the case of ISM, not having an enforced uniform mostly symbolizes the anti-hierarchical ideology of the organization, yet, ISMers generally standout given their own extreme apparel, which differs little from the manner they dress back home and acts as its own type of uniform. ISMers can be divided into two dominant, yet in normal circumstances typically marginal, identities—the “anarchists” and the “hippies”. In sharp contrast to the socially traditional milieu in which they operate, the “anarchist-types” can be observed wearing tight black clothing ordained with anarchist buttons and pins, combat boots, fully or partially-shaved heads, and a collection of face and body piercings; the “hippy-types” usually have a slightly different “uniform”, dressed in loose-fitting clothes made of natural fabrics and their hair in dreadlocks. For some, however, their alternative clothing is not sufficient to separate them from other actors and thus many strategically wear the keffiyeh27 to clearly demonstrate their allegiance to the Palestinian cause. As a “hippie-type” ISM volunteer illustrated:

  • 28  Interview with Participant D., held March 15, 2012.

“Also for the kids, for example, when we are watching the checkpoints, I wear always a keffiyeh because some of the children are scared of you because they think you are a settler too. So it’s just to make it more comfortable for them, and to make it more annoying maybe for the soldiers. To show them that there is an international presence.”28

32As for the volunteers of PSP and Operation Dove, as they maintain a permanent presence in small local communities in villages or towns where other foreigners are unlikely to roam, their level of operation excludes them from the necessity of marked clothing. Nonetheless, once again, volunteers still subscribe to an informal uniform. Given the intensity of their daily activities and the amount of time they spend outside, cargo pants, outdoor travel vests, hiking boots, and long-sleeved t-shirts make up the general wardrobe of solidarity activists while in the West Bank. EAPPI, CPT, and IWPS volunteers also wear the same style of apparel in addition to their insignia clothing. As volunteers are advised to dress modestly out of respect for Palestinian culture, particularly as volunteers generally operate in more rural as opposed to urban settings, volunteers are unlikely to be seen wearing revealing clothing—such as sleeveless shirts, shorts, skirts, etc.—hence they adapt themselves explicitly to the temporary social setting. Coinciding with this trend, female volunteers commonly wear their hair back or cut it short and in some cases cover their head with a scarf or piece of cloth out of respect for local traditions and customs.

  • 29 Unfortunately, the photograph of the ISM library came out blurred, making the majority of the book (...)

33As discussed briefly when reviewing the structure of each organization, volunteers experience a specific form of socialization that corresponds to the type of work they are doing, namely Palestinian rights solidarity activism, though it varies according to the intensity of the recruitment process and training program. While volunteers may at first “play” the role of a Palestinian rights activist, the field eventually transforms them into an actual Palestinian rights activist. Whether through their own will or enforced by the organization, volunteers become acquainted with a wide range of intellectuals and academic scholars who try to present an alternative narrative to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as books that deal with the tactic of non-violence and civil disobedience. In my interviews, the following authors were given notable mentions: Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Robert Fisk, Edward Said, and Walid Khalidi. Also, each organization has its own library with an assortment of books for volunteers to consult during their stay in the West Bank. At the CPT headquarters in Hebron, book titles included Rise Up Singing: The Group Singing Songbook, Light Force: A Stirring Account of the Church Caught in the Middle East Crossfire, A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam: Badshah Khan, A Man to Match His Mountains, A Geographical Atlas of Palestine: The West Bank and Gaza, The Olive Tree Dictionary: A Transliterated Dictionary of Conversational Eastern Arabic (Palestinian), New Covenant, and No-Nonsense Guide to Fair Trade. At the ISM apartment in Ramallah, the following works were noted: Palestine and the Palestinians, several editions of “Journal on Palestinian Studies”, many Arabic language books, First Aid Manual, Lonely Planet: Iran, and an assortment of fiction.29

34In addition to a particular literary culture, other environmental surroundings construct a specific cultural space lived and experienced by volunteers during their service term in the West Bank. In terms of role models, pictures and quotes of progressive political activists and intellectuals—such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Leon Trotsky, contemporary Palestinian nonviolent activists, and other historic figures—can be found on the walls in the living quarters of solidarity volunteers. Second, both for pragmatic and political reasons, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) maps of the West Bank are the most common geographical reference for solidarity activists. While these maps are useful considering the level of detail on checkpoints, the Wall, geographic representation, demographic population distribution, etc., it is also their recognition of an altered representation of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, wherein the borders between the two is less clear-cut and the effects of the occupation made more obvious, according to the territorial “facts on the ground”.

35This adaptation described as a general process of socialization in the field also temporarily or perhaps indefinitely impacts the “hexis corporel” (Bourdieu 1982), that is the physical comportment of volunteers when in the field. As the majority of volunteers come from either Europe or North America, they are accustomed to different social customs, wherein, for example, the exchange of contact, whether physical or verbal, between men and women is common. Some volunteers try adjusting their own habitus, at least partially, to the more traditional Palestinian culture, however, but not without difficulty. One Operation Dove volunteer elaborates on this when reflecting on the role of an international in a small Palestinian village:

  • 30  Interview with Participant L., held March 5, 2012.

“I think it’s difficult to be a woman but it’s really difficult to be a man because they [local villagers] have a lot of expectations. Like you’re a man, so you have certain things you do and don’t do. Sometimes they see us cooking or washing dishes, which for them is not a man’s job. On the other side, I think every day about how we don’t have the possibility to have a relation with the women of the village. I think it is one of worst things to be a man here. Because I think there are a lot of wonderful women, persons, that can’t speak with us because they are women. Sometimes we go to visit a family, if the husband is in the house, the wife don’t speak with us. And it’s terrible for me because we are used to a different culture. I am not saying our culture is better or worse, but this is very difficult. So I think in the Arab countries, it is difficult to be a woman but it’s difficult to be a man.”30

36In addition to cultural differences, language barriers can also complicate the interaction between international solidarity activists and their local Palestinian counterparts.

  • 31 The Arabic word for ‘thank you’.
  • 32 A greeting in Arabic typically used by Muslims.

37The language skills of solidarity activists have a serious impact on their experience in the field and inevitably their perception of the conflict. With the exception of a few American Jews who are currently living in Israel for a more extended period of time, solidarity activists did not speak Arabic or Hebrew. Even among volunteer-activists who have been coming to Palestine for years, their Arabic is very limited and their Hebrew is generally non-existent. Furthermore, given the international milieu that describes transnational solidarity in the West Bank, English is the lingua franca spoken both amongst solidarity volunteers themselves and between solidarity volunteers and the local population, whether Israeli or Palestinian. With the exception of a few basic words or phrases in Arabic—such as shukran31 or as-salam alaykum32—which international volunteers can be heard repeating over and over, English is vital to their communication with local Palestinians and their Israeli partners. Their lack of language skills thus only facilitates the voice of those Palestinians who speak English and enables a certain level of selective censorship. Based on similar observations in the field, one Hebrew-speaking American-Israeli Ta’ayush volunteer described international volunteers as “semi-present”:

  • 33  Interview with Participant A., held February 29, 2012.

“I think one has to have so much background if you are going to do something like this. I think if I didn’t speak Hebrew, I wouldn’t do this. Just because communication is so crucial to any kind of organization, and any kind of political activity, for an individual to express themselves, ask questions, and to be present in an action or an activity whatever it is, and not being able to do that, I couldn’t do what some of the internationals do.”33

  • 34  Interview with Participant T., held March 5, 2012.

38Solidarity activists, however, when questioned about communication barriers, commented on the difficulty of working in a country without knowing the local language, but did not see it as a real obstacle: “Maybe you don’t understand what they are saying, but this is not important. We communicate with them, and they communicate with us.”34  Language is generally perceived as less important in comparison to the experiences lived and the situations witnessed along their field experience in the West Bank.

39Despite a seemingly simplistic presentation of the social harmony lived between international volunteers and local Palestinians, the picture is more nuanced. There is no denying that contact exists between international volunteers and the Palestinians they encounter throughout their journey. The fact remains, however, that internationals generally tend to drift towards a social circle that includes other internationals like themselves and perhaps Israelis, with whom international volunteers have more in common with than Palestinian activists and civilians. With the exception of volunteers that live in isolated, small villages—such as in the case of Operation Dove—time spent in Israel or the Occupied Territories outside of activism activities testifies to a social divide between those that want to help and the population they claim to be helping. When organizing interviews with participants, international volunteers often requested to meet in places such as the Jerusalem Hotel, the Austrian Hospice, the Educational Bookshop, and so forth, which are known to be expatriate hangouts. Even in the field, internationals tended to congregate with one another, demonstrating a shared sense of solidarity and belonging; one that is likely more profound between two internationals than an international and a Palestinian villager. Side-by-side with other volunteers embarking on a similar exploration, moments of solitude and frustration become somewhat more manageable.

  • 35  Interview with Participant K., held February 9, 2012.

40Alongside the task of finding one’s place while volunteering abroad, as mentioned when discussing the operational strategy of TSMOs in the West Bank, volunteers not only render a service to impacted Palestinian communities but also engage in a pedagogic formation themselves. During their service term, volunteers frequent specific spatial locations and witness social interactions that inevitably form their impression and knowledge base of the occupation. As expressed and repeated numerous times by volunteers, the power of coming to the West Bank is bearing witness to the occupation, “seeing it with your own eyes.” During their time in the field, volunteers encounter checkpoints, demonstrations, house demolitions, guns, settler attacks on Palestinians, military violence toward Palestinians, teargas, detainment, skunk water, barbed wire, the wall, military jeeps, and so forth. Usually in stark contrast to the environments they are used to back home, solidarity activists often commented on the shock and intensity of working in a conflict zone, yet, over time, they become acclimated. An EA cynically recounted her transformation: “Nothing could have prepared me for this experience [first time at Qalandia checkpoint]. It’s just a shock but you get used to it. All the guns and everything. I don’t even look at it anymore. It’s like a handbag.”35  After some time living in a conflict zone, solidarity activists eventually acclimatize themselves to the environmental setting that makes up the occupation. Yet, the majority of volunteers have little exposure to the “Israeli experience” or even to Israeli society, in general, given that they live and work for the most part in the West Bank.

  • 36  Interview with Participant O., held March 8, 2012.

41Among the other realities of social life while volunteering in a foreign country, many solidarity activists attested to having to compromise their own ideological convictions in the name of solidarity. Using della Porta and Tarrow’s term, solidarity activists could be described as having “flexible identities”, that is identities geared towards inclusiveness and a positive disposition towards diversity and cross-fertilization, and “multiple belongings”, that is activists with “overlapping membership” in a number of “loosely, structured, polycentric networks” (2005: 238-239). In other words, though there are undoubtedly exceptions, not a single volunteer had been previously affiliated with a Palestinian rights movement before coming for the first time to the West Bank as a solidarity activist. Nonetheless, many solidarity volunteers expressed having been involved with other NSMs with origins in post-industrial countries—such as animal rights, environmentalism, women’s rights, human rights, gay rights, anti-globalization, social justice movements, etc. Thus, as supporters of more post-materialist oriented movements and ideas, some volunteers expressed difficulty compromising their ideological values which contrasted with the social life in Palestine. To begin, one Ta’ayush volunteer commented on the conflicting social lifestyles that generally describe the solidarity activists and the Palestinian communities they work with, stating that “I wouldn’t say it’s a kind of victim-helper relationship, its more complicated than that, but the relationship with most of the people there is not one between people coming form the same social environment.”36 Taking that into account, he went on to speak about some of the frustrations of undertaking solidarity work limited to trying to end the occupation:

  • 37  Interview with Participant A., held February 29, 2012.

“What actually gets to me is the animals, the way that animals are treated in these places. Like I am vegetarian myself, but just to see donkeys standing out in the rain and the sun all the time, chained down, and the way that little kids abuse the dogs. I think a lot of the anger and frustration gets taken out on the animals. That’s really tough to see. And I feel like I can’t really say anything. I remember a couple of weeks ago, it was pouring rain, and I remember that day there was a dog running around the construction sight where we were building, like a little puppy, and the kids were just throwing stones at it, running after it, yelling at it, and I’m like ‘no, it’s a puppy, be nice to the puppy’ and we came up with a name for it. I don’t know if that helped at all, if the dog survived, but trying to humanize it. So that is really tough and frustrating.”37

42Though the question of gender relations evoked more varied responses among solidarity activists, with some troubled by the role of women within Palestinian society and others not, one ISM volunteer reflected on her experience as a women working mostly with Palestinian males:

  • 38  Interview with Participant R., held February 9, 2012.

“It was so terrible, I was in Silwan and we were keeping watch on the house for the family that was going to be evicted, so we were having shifts and I had the morning shift and we were sitting in their yard together with the men from the family and some neighbors, only men. And then the family got a phone call from the lawyer that the eviction had been delayed, and they were really happy, and they were celebrating, and other men came by from the streets were also informed. But the women in the house, who were also waiting to be evicted, no one informed them so they didn’t know what was going on and I mean they live there, and not one of their husbands or sons or brothers were interested in informing them. And then I just felt like ‘oh, what am I doing here? I don’t want to sit with these patriarchal men all the day’ and they can’t include their own relatives and women in their house. […] Sometimes I try to think that ok ‘I can show another way of living maybe its inspiring for the women and men to see me here but on the other hand maybe they’re just like ‘oh, there’s that white whore who doesn’t have a husband’ or something.”38

43While not an issue for all solidarity activists, some asserted discontent about doing activism in a context that does not honor all of the same ideologies as appropriated by the international participant.

44Another interesting contrast arose when discussing with anarchist participants who, in the context of their work in Palestine, are in support of a Palestinian state despite their anti-statist ideology. One anarchist volunteering for ISM depicted this divergence in philosophies:

  • 39  Interview with Participant R., held February 9, 2012.

“It’s strange because I’m an anarchist and back home I just want to smash the state and here I’m preaching for the Palestinian state. […] A friend of mine from ISM posted a photo of me where I stand with my Palestinian scarf, Palestinian cap and flag, just like everything was Palestinian colors and I felt a bit ashamed when she posted it. I mean how did I end up here, how can I be for the freedom of the Palestinian people without waving their flag all the time. […] I realized that, ok, I am not this person that will waive the Palestinian flag anymore but of course, I’m still pro-the Palestinian rights to a state. I think it is a pragmatic solution. We are organized in states today and so Palestinians must have a state because it is connected to many privileges that you don’t have if you don’t have a state.”39

  • 40  Interview with Participant D., held March 15, 2012.

45Given the political context, most anarchists interestingly seemed to make an exception to their ideology, explaining the importance of a statist-approach with regard to the future of Palestinian rights. As another anarchist confided, “Ya, well in Holland I think that’s creepy if people take up the Dutch flag, but here I think they should. They have every right to do so. To show ‘hey, we have the rights to be here’.”40

46Less critical of the Palestinian political scene than the Israeli one, most solidarity activists did not want to discuss political issues too deeply, arguing that it was not up to internationals but up to Palestinians to decide how they wanted to be governed. Despite this common trend, one volunteer was willing to discuss this discomfort in relation to working alongside the Islamic Jihad:

  • 41  Interview with Participant P., held March 2, 2012.

“One situation came up actually where, a protest that I fully support, supporting the rights of political prisoners, in Hebron, a demonstration organized by the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society, which is a group organized by former prisoners, um that is something I fully support, and they were having a protest for support for Khader Adnan [a hunger striker], whatever he’s done or not done, the way that he is being treated is the way that so many other Palestinians are being treated is unjust and needs to be fought, so I’m fully supportive. Then there was going to be a breakaway march, and at that point, all the flags, all the imagery was black and gold, the flags of Islamic Jihad. Once again, I don’t know so much about it. I don’t think it’s wrong and I don’t know the particularity of their actions but that is outside the realm of what I would want my image represented with.”41

47Unwilling or perhaps disinterested in discussing the Palestinian political landscape, solidarity activists typically avoided entering into a critical debate on entities such as the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and so forth, cautious not to call into question their support of the “Palestinian side”. Nonetheless, such a paradoxical position testifies to the limited “pro-Palestinian-ness” of solidarity activists, unable to align themselves with the major Palestinian political players but reserved to supporting civilians, more specifically the “victims” of occupation.

48Moving on to inconsistencies found between the theory of solidarity and its practice, solidarity activists embody a valuable resource for the Palestinian communities they work with, though their value is not always exploited purely according to the terms of activism. Carriers of knowledge and expertise, particularly with regard to technology and English language skills, solidarity volunteers in the West Bank stand out as a privileged population, granted with opportunities that many Palestinians do not have access to. As such, some communities or individuals may try to take advantage of international volunteers in order to exploit them for their cultural capital. When visiting the Operation Dove base in at-Tuwani, a group of village children came knocking on the door around nine o’clock in the evening, insisting the Italian volunteers help them with their English homework. Likewise, one ISMer discussed the high demand for volunteers to give English classes:

  • 42  Interview with Participant D., held March 15, 2012.

“Like English class, for example, we’ve been asked a lot for English class but it’s not a priority, it’s not what we came here to do. And none of us knows how to teach, basically, we do not have any experience in that. And if we get a call from somebody that has all kind of soldiers in his yard, then we go there.”42

49On an even more basic level, solidarity activists may potentially be used for free labor by Palestinian farmers who do not have enough manpower to cultivate or harvest their land. Even though the objective of their presence is generally protection, an ISM volunteer described the way in which solidarity activists can be exploited for other ends:

  • 43  Interview with Participant R., held February 9, 2012.

“I came during the olive harvest, so it meant we went to different villages everyday and picked olives from early in the morning till late in the evening. I felt more we were used as free labor than really there for any protective presence because usually when we arrived in different villages, which was different villages almost everyday, we were just asked to start picking olives somewhere. And we were like ‘ok, the settlement is there, isn’t better if we pick olives in the valley where there might be conflicts, and they were like, ‘no, no, we take that another day just take this’.”43

50In the mind of the locals, international volunteers are a resource, a resource that is not only conceptualized in terms of its political utility but also its social and economic potential.

51Excluding volunteers holding a negative reflection about their experience in the West Bank, those volunteers which have been deeply and positively impacted by their volunteerism may potentially be recruited to the Palestinian rights movement in a more long-term capacity. Socialized as an “activist” while in the field, volunteers have grasped the strategies and practices of human rights advocates, both when in the field and as a supporter back home. Furthermore, while their transnationalist practices are exclusive to the transnational moment that they find themselves in while in the West Bank, the sustained recruitment and training of international supporters could one day provide the structural and network base for a truly transnational social movement. As a number of volunteers described it, while their initial motivations were primarily self-interested and ideological, spending time in the West Bank added a personalized element to their work. One Operation Dove volunteer illuminated his personal journey:

  • 44  Interview with Participant U., held March 5, 2012.

“For me, maybe you start with the ideas of struggle against injustice or more equality, and human rights. And then you associate faces and person to those things and then maybe you struggle for them. Maybe here is for Ahmed or Mohammed and in Columbia it is for Carlos, and I don’t know, Pedro. For me the philosophy pass in a second, into the background.”44

52Such expressions and visions were particularly common among Operation Dove volunteers who live in a small village and eventually develop close relations with the local villagers. One Operation Dove volunteer depicted her connection to the village:

  • 45  Interview with Participant M., held March 5, 2012.

“So I decided to come here for 3 months, and after when I came back in Italy, each day I pass to think of At-Tuwani because I learn too much. I learn that some people here react everyday to defend their life and their land.”45

53After having such an intense and intimate experience, it becomes difficult just to abandon a community, even if the international volunteer goes back home to their country, they know that the Palestinian struggle continues. In some cases, the internationalization of the conflict has also evoked a sense of responsibility among non-partisan actors in the conflict, especially among citizens whose native countries have played a role in the conflict, whether actively or passively, throughout history.

54Beyond a process of personalization with the movement, volunteers are inevitably changed by their experience in some way or another. As opposed to coming into the experience as an individual with set values and ideas, those subjective perceptions may be altered by a volunteer’s experience in a different country where the social, political, and economic life are different from what they had previously known. For some, that change of mind may reflect a pessimistic view of the international order, particularly of the media:

  • 46  Interview with Participant U., held March 5, 2012.

“I’ve become more critical but not just back home, but about the world system. The role of the media in our society, what they are saying to us, what is the reality instead. It helps you to make questions to yourself and other people. It gives you a new way to contextualize the world.”46

55For others, criticism might be evoked regarding the practicality and feasibility of the enforcement of universalizing principles such as international law:

  • 47  Interview with Participant L., held March 5, 2012.

“I studied about world governance and these things, but when you come here, and you know that there is international law, you studied that there is international law, but when you come here you say ‘where is this law? Is there something that respects that law?’ Everyone knows that our neighbors, the Israeli settlers can’t stay here. And so why no one came here and pushed them away? It’s just the law.”47

56Still, transformations might also take place with respect to an individual’s everyday way of life and perspective regarding living standards:

  • 48  Interview with Participant T., held March 5, 2012.

“You keep inside you this little world, made of schoolchildren, of shepherds. So, it’s an experience that really doesn’t start and have an end, really, it continues everywhere. Sure, it is different when you are here and when you are back in Italy because here the life is more simple. So, you don’t have distractions, in the evening you don’t say to yourself ‘I will go to the cinema or the pub’, there is nothing, but this change also you when you are in Italy. You feel that there are some things that you don’t need, that aren’t so important. So you see what is important and what is not so important.”48

57An elder CPT volunteer framed her transformation in terms of personal consumption:

  • 49  Interview with Participant H., held March 15, 2012.

“I like the lifestyle to have it very simple. (Is it an escape for you?) Ya, maybe. But I’d like to have it like that in Sweden also. Not buying all these things all the time. When I come home I am very aware of water and all this that we have here. But in Sweden we don’t care about water, it just comes. We try to make people aware of it. But it’s hard when you’re used to it.”49

58At the end of it all, the individual is likely to experience a sense of estrangement and detachment, no longer feeling a sense of belonging to their own society or any other:

  • 50  Interview with Participant T., held March 5, 2012.

“I think it’s, for us as internationals, it’s a strange position, because if you are here, for the people of your country, sometimes you are a strange person, like crazy. And also, for the people that lives here, you are still an ajam, a foreigner, so it’s a strange position because you are not a Palestinian but you are not completely in the average way of the Italians or the Europeans. So, in a way, there will be sometimes, like in a middle position. But the good thing of the Arabs in this area, they make you feel at home, they do their best to make you feel as at home. Yes, there are some big differences between us and them but it’s a strange position for us as internationals. Because in our country, we are seen as strange people, not as strange, but people that made a radical choice. For the Arabs, we are still foreign, we are ajam. We stay in the middle, we try to arrange.”50

59In some sense, volunteering in Palestine offers estranged Westerners an escape from what they perceive to be a materialistic and shallow culture back in their home countries:

  • 51  Interview with Participant J., held March 14, 2012.

“I know Palestinian culture […]. It’s refreshing to me and I have a very hard time when I go back to the United States, with the consumerism and the independence, with the lack of community, the lack of extended family, the lack of joy in one’s life. So many people are taking medication for depression, they’re bored to death […], anyway, I love being here with families and the culture. It’s refreshing. And the children. Especially being an old woman now, I feel so discounted in the United States. It’s all about youth, beauty, and money and all this and I’m not interested in any of it.”51

60For most, that feeling of detachment is most evident once the volunteers return back home and experience a slight form of culture shock:

  • 52  Interview with Participant J., held March 14, 2012.

“You know, you go back home and you feel very detached from the kind of life that most people lead. And when I go back home, I just can’t believe that people are so concerned about material things. It seems completely, obviously you have needs, but when I live here I’ve got nothing really. I don’t have much and I don’t need much. It’s the people around me that are important to me. And you get that through internationals and through knowing Israeli activists and the Palestinian people. And it’s kind of a remarkable experience in a sense.”52

61While it is difficult to say to what extent international volunteers actually change their living habits once they have returned home and how long such changes in everyday practices persist, be it as it may, the consciousness and awareness of that contrast seems meaningful and compelling to the participants concerned.

62Taken together, while TSMOs provide the structure and opportunity for international volunteers, solidarity activism functions within a wider realm of social relations and processes that describe and determine the phenomenon as a whole. First, TSMOs operating in the West Bank offer a unique opportunity for both idealist liberals and pacifist Christians, young and old alike, to participate in global society initiatives. While the emphasis in this work has been on leftist groups, the development of a “global consciousness” relates to a broader political spectrum, wherein the proponents of a global civil society are those that wish the spread and success of their own value systems. Conditioned by their leftist upbringing and middle class values, volunteers engage in Palestinian rights not because of their affinity towards the Palestinians, but more due to the internalization of humanist or Christian doctrines which defend the universal rights and humane treatment of individuals.

63Skilled both with technical expertise and liberal value systems, solidarity activists engage in a process of denunciation of the Israeli state and its practices in order to legitimize their own presence and actions. Regardless of whether or not these volunteers continue to struggle for the Palestinian cause when they return to their home countries, “they bring with them new forms of action, new ways of framing domestic issues, and perhaps new identities” that may one day facilitate more sustainable transnational campaigns (Tarrow 2005: 2-3). Finally, it is the emergence of solidarity activists in the territorial space of the West Bank that actuates new social relations and processes that can have a profound impact on both the volunteers and the individuals with whom they interact. Along the way, common identities by way of experience and interaction are constructed between individuals emanating from different societies and culture (Eterovic and Smith 2001: 200).


1  Interview with Participant D., held March 15, 2012.

2  Interview with Participant K., held February 9, 2012.

3  Interview with Participant H., held March 15, 2012.

4  Interview with Participant T., held March 5, 2012.

5  Interview with Participant P., held March 2, 2012.

6  Interview with Participant A., held February 29, 2012.

7  Interview with Participant D., held March 15, 2012.

8  Interview with Participant W., held March 11, 2012.

9 Ibid.

10  Interview with Participant P., held March 2, 2012.

11  Interview with Participant T., held March 5, 2012.

12  Interview with Participant D., held March 15, 2012.

13  Interview with Participant W., held March 11, 2012.

14  Interview with Participant K., held February 9, 2012.

15  Interview with Participant K., held February 9, 2012.

16  Interview with Participant H., held March 15, 2012.

17  Interview with Participant P., held March 2, 2012.

18  Interview with Participant L., held February 8, 2012.

19  Interview with Participant D., held March 15, 2012.

20  Interview with Participant J., held March 14, 2012.

21  Interview with Participant O., held March 8, 2012.

22  Interview with Participant K., held February 9, 2012.

23  Interview with Participant H., held March 15, 2012.

24  Interview with Participant R., held February 9, 2012.

25  Interview with Participant L., held February 8, 2012.

26  Interview with Participant L., held February 8, 2012.

27 A keffiyeh is a traditional Arab headdress which has become a symbol of the Palestinian national liberation movement.

28  Interview with Participant D., held March 15, 2012.

29 Unfortunately, the photograph of the ISM library came out blurred, making the majority of the book titles illegible.

30  Interview with Participant L., held March 5, 2012.

31 The Arabic word for ‘thank you’.

32 A greeting in Arabic typically used by Muslims.

33  Interview with Participant A., held February 29, 2012.

34  Interview with Participant T., held March 5, 2012.

35  Interview with Participant K., held February 9, 2012.

36  Interview with Participant O., held March 8, 2012.

37  Interview with Participant A., held February 29, 2012.

38  Interview with Participant R., held February 9, 2012.

39  Interview with Participant R., held February 9, 2012.

40  Interview with Participant D., held March 15, 2012.

41  Interview with Participant P., held March 2, 2012.

42  Interview with Participant D., held March 15, 2012.

43  Interview with Participant R., held February 9, 2012.

44  Interview with Participant U., held March 5, 2012.

45  Interview with Participant M., held March 5, 2012.

46  Interview with Participant U., held March 5, 2012.

47  Interview with Participant L., held March 5, 2012.

48  Interview with Participant T., held March 5, 2012.

49  Interview with Participant H., held March 15, 2012.

50  Interview with Participant T., held March 5, 2012.

51  Interview with Participant J., held March 14, 2012.

52  Interview with Participant J., held March 14, 2012.


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