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Meet the pair who left Wolverhampton and Stafford to experience life under fire in Palestine

Staffordshire | News | Published:

Whilst their reasons for travelling to the troubled territory were different, both Melissa Plant and Chris Venables shared similar experiences in Palestine.

Chris Venables, aged 25, spent three months as a human rights observer in Palestine, whilst Melissa, aged 20, spent time with a Palestinian host family in an attempt to improve her Arabic.

Chris was part of a team of five which tried to ensured children got to and from school safely - and to record any violations.

Chris Venables - human rights observer
A Palestinian child in Hebron asks an Israeli soldier if he can pass by

But even on his first week in the area, known as H2, a Palestinian was killed during clashes - and many more were injured with live ammunition.

Chris is a former pupil of Stafford schools Blessed Mother Theresa Primary and Blessed William Howard.

He was in Palestine as part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Israel (EAPPI) mission.

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The aim was to put observers with cameras and notepads into situations so parties to conflict may think twice before acting.

Chris found everyday life for children in Hebron meant soldiers searching their school bags at checkpoints.

Children aged eight and nine detained by the Israeli military allegedly for throwing stones

Teachers were often reduced to pleading with soldiers to let them pass through.

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"We intervene when we think we can help," Chris said in one of his regular blogs.

"We have seen tear gas and sound bombs being fired at children whose only 'crime' seemed to be wanting to get home from school.

"Search and arrest of children is an almost daily occurrence."

Chris witnessed live ammunition being used while he stood near checkpoints.

And he is not optimistic about the future.

"It seems the only interaction children have with each other is to fight in the street, or, worse, throwing stones at each other," Chris said.

In one of Chris's blogs he reported: "We watched as the Israeli army detained a number of young children during clashes involving tear-gas and sound-grenades outside school.

"As far as we could tell, the soldiers simply grabbed children at random."

He said in 2013, at least 41 children and five teachers were arrested in H2 on their way to or from school by Israeli forces.

"Being in a conflict zone it would be easy to lose your faith in humanity," Chris admitted.

"But we also met many people who believe in peace and are prepared to give up a great deal to work tirelessly for it," Chris added.

Palestinian workers try to cross the border into Israel to find work

He described the courage of human rights activists and many Palestinians as 'astonishing'.

There are over 30 military checkpoints in H2. And young Palestinians may be asked to produce their ID 10-15 times a day.

It is 'normal' to be searched there - even if people are just visiting a friend, going to the shops or to the mosque, Chris said.

Yet he could see 'almost no security reasons' for the searches.

Night raids are an everyday reality for Palestinians living in the West Bank.

Chris even received a call at 3am from a local contact whose 14-year-old brother had been detained by the Israeli army following a night-raid at their home.

In July this year 192 children were detained by the Israeli military.

"I remember sometimes at school (in Stafford) we would hold a fair on Friday afternoon," Chris said.

"Everyone would turn up. It was very exciting. You'd see your school friends without their uniform, see the bushy moustaches of your friend's dads, and play games in the playing field."

But he reported in his blog: "At the Qurtoba School this would not be possible.

"Every Friday like clock-work there are clashes at the main access checkpoint to the school.

"The teachers tell us it is not possible to run after-school classes or any extra-curricular activities because of the danger to the children and teachers of being in that area outside of normal school hours."

Chris did experience some successes.

Palestinian children play in the kindergarten in the H2 area of Hebron. Their bags are searched at checkpoints on their way to school

A 25-year-old man in Hebron told him soldiers let him go quickly when they realised Chris was watching.

The man told him:"The soldiers said you would take photos. That's why they let me go so quickly."

Chris added: "It is likely that EAPPI observers will continue to see children subjected to searches, arrests, tear gas, sound bombs and occasionally live and rubber bullets.

"But EAPPI observers intend to carry on being here, writing and speaking about what we witness."

Back in Stafford visiting his family Chris admits he found it unnerving hearing fireworks which 'sound like other things'.

"Being back it hits you how dangerous the situation is in Hebron."

He said frightening experiences included being detained by the military for 20 minutes and having to run from stone-throwing Israeli settlers who pushed, shoved and spat at Chris and his colleagues.

Chris, who now works in London, is giving talks about his experiences. His first will be at the Stafford schools where he was a pupil.

He has not ruled out returning to Palestine.

See chrisjvenables.eappi@gmail.com

Melissa Plant, a former pupil from Wolverhampton Grammar School
Soldiers throw concussion grenades and tear gas during demonstrations in Hebron in June. Picture by Asger Victor Hansen

Here she shares her experiences of the troubled region and the day-to-day challenges of life under fire.

We rumbled through the village in the back of the tractor, moving on through the olive trees into the fields, happy for the distraction from our hunger.

There were still a few more hours until we could break the Ramadan fast. On the way, we'd picked up a few more members of my friend's host family: young kids and men joining for the ride to a beautiful wooded clearing.

The separation wall in Bethlehem

We sat on rocks that passed for makeshift seats, and listened to my friend play some sweet Arabic tunes on his oud.

Others joined in with their voices and one with a drum. We were close to the neighbouring settlement of Etzion, but unlike last time we had gone out for some peace in the fields, no friendly warning of the Israel Defence Force's (IDF) nearby presence came to us. Luckily, the night passed without event, save for the beautiful meal as the sun set and the taste of shisha in the air as we sat on the roof.

Other nights in Beit Ummar have not been so serene.

A village just north of Hebron, Beit Ummar has the misfortune to be situated in Area C of the occupied West Bank. While the Palestinian Authority exercises at least some control over Areas A and B, Area C is subject to full Israeli civil and military authority. It covers about 74 per cent of the area of the West Bank, and contains some 350,000 illegal settlers.

The settlements, including those of Etzion and Karme Tzur which surround Beit Ummar, are ever expanding in a region where land is precious and limited.

The 150,000 Palestinians who live in these tense and tight quarters have no police force.

The separation wall in Bethlehem

The tallest military watchtower in the West Bank looks over Beit Ummar and grows taller every year.

Just a few weeks ago, this tower was set on fire during clashes in reaction to the killing of three men (Hashem Abu Mariya, Sultan Az-Za'aqiq, and Abd Al-Hamid Brigheith) by live fire at a peaceful march in solidarity with Gaza earlier that day. Abu Mariya worked for Defence for Children International, protecting the human rights of Palestinian children. Brigheith, a member of my friend's host family, died trying to save Az-Za'aqiq's life.

Beit Ummar, according to Defence of Children International, has the highest child incarceration rate in the West Bank.

A few years ago, while working in the fields, a 17 year old member of the same family was shot in the head by a settler. Fields just like those in which we sat happily, listening to music that Ramadan night, are scarred by such violence. The poet Mahmoud Darwish said of Palestine, 'on this land we have all of that which makes live worth living'.

Indeed the land should be paradise, yet it is marred by miles of tangled barbed wire, concrete and an ever present psychological foreboding, in addition to the constant threat of physical violence.

Melissa with friends in Hebron. Credit: Amos Libby.

I came to Hebron, a city often seen as a microcosm of the Israeli occupation due to its division between Palestinian and Israeli authority, to study Arabic. I arrived just three days after three teenage settlers were kidnapped from nearby Etzion settlement. Operation Brothers' Keeper officially began shortly after the kidnapping, initiated by the IDF under the guise of rescuing the teenagers who they claimed had been kidnapped on the orders of Hamas leaders.

The Palestinians felt the operation, which ended on September 23, was really collective punishment, rather than dealing with a few rogue operatives.

The feeling among many was that Israeli soldiers had treated all Palestinians as suspects. I have a friend living in the town of Halhul, where the bodies of the settlers were found on June 30.

Melissa with friends in Beit Ummar

All of us, Arabic students and voluntary English teachers alike, were caught up in some way in this operation, whether it was being shot with a rubber bullet, trapped between flying rocks and soldiers, or just playing the nightly game of 'fireworks or gunfire?'. And the explosions that pockmark the heavenly breeze that comes in the evenings in Hebron were very rarely fireworks. Palestinians do love to celebrate with them, but this was not a time of celebration.

The only time we were all sure that the sounds we heard were fireworks was on the day I left Hebron. Across the West Bank, high school students celebrated their final results, in anticipation of their future. Fireworks popped regularly in the air, as results were read alphabetically on the radio. The Palestinians of Gaza could not join in on the celebrations, the bombing of their towns and villages having already begun a week before. For that past week, we'd been hearing the almost constant sound of jets and drones flying overhead. Before the bombardment of Gaza began, the skies had been quiet, devoid of commercial air traffic, so we knew that the low-flying sounds we were hearing were those of the instruments of death. We never saw their impact, but friends in Beit Ummar saw Hamas rockets flying overhead, either exploding in the air or being intercepted by the Iron Dome, on their way to the nearby settlements.

Melissa in a bar in Ramallah with friends. Credit: Emma Herman

The primary purpose of the centre where I studied was to teach English to Palestinians of all ages. I would often sit in on lessons, and these young students were infinitely engaged: volunteering homework answers, speaking and debating in a language they'd only just started to learn.

They were students who, anywhere else, would have many opportunities in life. In a world that forces non-native speakers to study English as a political and economic prerequisite for success, Palestinians need the language even more than most. It allows them to express their hardships and share the truth about a country so often misread in the international news media.

Melissa with fellow travellers on a road outside Bethlehem. Credit: Pablo Liras Laita

Still, even those with perfect English, like my host sister Marwa, struggle to find a forum that is receptive to their voices.

Reflecting this, the words that fell from the lips of many students were that it was our job, those of us who had come to the occupied territories, to spread their stories for them as best we could.

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