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International voluntarism in Palestine

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The Palestinian cause continues to attract supporters from around the world. Volunteers wishing to give some of their time and expertise in solidarity with Palestinians have become a regular feature in Palestinian society.

Many young people wanting to spend a year or so in a conflict area choose Palestine for many reasons.

By volunteering in Palestine a person is clearly and publicly siding with the oppressed in their just struggle for freedom and independence. Some of the volunteers involve themselves in Palestinian nation building while others take on a more direct role in the resistance to the Israeli occupation.

Even those who are involved in overt acts of solidarity with Palestinians and resistance to occupation can be divided into a number of groups. Some express their solidarity by joining Palestinian demonstrators protesting various symbols of occupation.

Perhaps the most repeated act of international solidarity in recent years has been the participation of internationals in the weekly Friday demonstrations against the Israeli security wall built deep in Palestinian territories.

Internationals expressing solidarity are seen weekly in protests at Bilin, Nabi Saleh and other Palestinian locations.

The international and Israeli protests against the wall were featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary "Five broken cameras".

While these protests are largely non-violent, they tend to end with a round of stone throwing by Palestinian youth, to which Israeli troops respond with tear gas or rubber-coated metal bullets.

Internationals and Israelis do not take part in these activities, although their presence is credited for keeping the Israeli response from being much more brutal.

Another group of international volunteers chose to participate in acts of solidarity with Palestinians, but on a slightly different track. They are totally committed to absolute non-violent acts.

These pacifists are willing to put their lives on line protecting Palestinians as long as no violence is committed on the Palestinian side.

Among them is the Christian Peace Team, an international movement that works in many hot spots around the world.

The Christian Peace Team, which was established by what is called the peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers and Brethren) chose Hebron as their main theatre of operations and have been working with volunteers in this turbulent city for years.

The most visible act of solidarity that the team members carry out on daily basis is touring the volatile old city of Hebron and helping Palestinian schoolchildren reach their schools.

The presence of a small but boisterous group of settlers in the heart of Hebron has made the lives of these schoolchildren a hell. In order to get from their homes to school, the children have to cross areas where the settlers are regularly present and try to bully the Palestinian children in order to make them and their families quit getting to the area and thus "purify" the old city of Hebron of its indigenous population.

International volunteers from the Christian Peace Team literally hold the hands of these children and help them get to school, providing a physical shield, relatively protecting them from the hooligan radical settlers. Other than their physical presence, these international volunteers at time carry video cameras that can help document abuses, but more than anything act as a deterrent.

International volunteers, who usually come from the US and Europe, reach the Palestinian areas through Israeli border crossings. The Israeli government and the occupation forces refuse to recognise and accredit these organisations and so they are constantly having to deal with visa and residency issues.

While many are able to slip into Israel gaining a 3-month tourist visa, the Israelis often spot these volunteers, especially after repeated crossings, and turn them back.

The Palestinian government, which welcomes and supports the presence of these international volunteers, is unable to do anything about Israel's attempts to keep out individuals who wish to live in the Palestinian areas.

One of the most important issues that the current Palestinian-Israeli negotiators are dealing with is that of control of the crossing points into Palestinian territories.

No country can be considered sovereign and independent without control over the movement of people and goods into its territories.

Until this crucial issue is resolved, international volunteers will have little choice but to try and slip into Palestine posing as tourists, hoping that they are not singled out and denied entry in the occupied territories.