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PFN Volunteer in Palestine

Contributed by Miluse Tumova on 18.08.2007:

An article from November 2006

Welcome to the palestine-family website!

My name is Mila. I am a Czech volunteer who came to Palestine nearly a month ago to spend here one year (contact:, Skype-nick: aei.mila). I work at the Arab Educational Institute (AEI) in Bethlehem and the topic of my work is the documentation of the cultural heritage of the Palestinian people and writing articles for about Palestinian culture, history, the contemporary political situation, daily life and of course also about my personal experiences here.

I have just started the fifth week of my stay in Palestine. I have a lot of very interesting impressions and stories which I would like to share with you.

At first, let me introduce myself a little so that you know about my social and educational background, something about the reasons why I came to Bethlehem, what exactly I do here and then I start to tell you about the amazing life in Palestine.

I am a postgraduate student of the Charles University in Prague where I finished my master studies in the subjects ethnology and history. I am 25 years old, an emancipated woman, living in Prague. During my master study I was interested above all in religious minorities and comparative research of historical textbooks. For one year I studied also in Germany, mainly at the Leipzig University. Formally I am Catholic but I refuse to belong to any church. I don´t consider myself to be a non-believer but refuse to be a member of a religious organisation. I defy each kind of dogmatism and fanaticism and don´t believe in „universal right rules“ for human life. I am interested in philosophy, the questions of multiculturality and the situation and developments in the Near East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My hobbies are writing stories, reading, many kinds of sports, making photos, speaking with people and of course travelling.

PFN Volunteer Mila

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I made the decision to go for a long time to the Near East to have the possibility to observe the situation here in detail myself I already had some experiences with doing voluntary service in Europe and when the possibility appeared to be sent as a volunteer by the European Voluntary Service to a Mediaterranean country I didn´t hesitate and started to search for contacts in Arab countries in the Middle East, as there were no contacts with organisations able to engage a volunteer. I had good luck to come in contact with the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem (AEI-Open Windows, affilated to Pax Christi International), which was not only able to conduct all the bureaucratic formalities but above all offered a very interesting project to me, which raised my already high motivation and interest.

As mentioned above the focal point of my work here is the documentation of the Palestinian cultural heritage and helping to develop the website (PFN). The work includes a broad range of activities such as the notation and description of genealogy trees of local families with many branches, the collection of Arab recipes, descriptions of material culture, documentation of architecture and cemeteries, many kinds of handicraft, the notation and recording of personal real-life stories. They are often very moving because of people’s suffering under the hard political reality but they also show admirable joy in life. I observe here the local customs, religious and social occasions, popular practices in and outside the home, and how normal family life looks like. I am also interested in Palestinian Art and folklore traditions; of course I monitor the actual political events and study the history of this terrible conflict. I live at a hosting Arab Palestinian Christian family and I have become one of the family members. My participation in the normal daily routine makes an immediate personal contact with the Palestinian people possible. It helps me to observe the family relations over a long time, and every time I can ask for an explanation when I am not sure to have understood something quite well. Every three months I will shift from hosting family so as to have a variety of experiences. Then I will have become a member of the „AEI family“ (see:

At AEI I can come in contact with youths groups of different age levels, and with the women´s group, and I can share their activity programs. AEI often hosts foreign visitors. For example during the first week of my stay in Palestine I could travel with a group of ten Dutch women coming to observe the contemporary situation in the West Bank and preparing a future exchange visit for Palestinian women in Holland. In addition to observing and having talks I am making a lot of photos. The photo-documentation will be one of the most important parts of my work and I will also use a dictaphone. I would like to scan old photos from family archives to show family life in a lively way. I hope to bring some real benefits to Palestinian society.

Now, after one month in Palestine, and in spite of the very sad events as a result of the Israeli occupation, I gained passion for my work and a strong sympathy and a certain admiration for the Palestinian people. I was surprised by many things and changed my outlook in many ways. I think many people in Europe have a lot of misjudgements about Palestine and carry distorted images about the life of the Palestinian people. Some of these prejudices may seem to be ridiculous but unfortunately they can have fatal consequences.

I would like to point out above all the following facts:

1. Palestine is not only an Islamic country. The territories under the Palestinian authority consist of the West Bank (5 655 km2) and the Gaza Strip (about 365 km2). In these territories live both Arab-Palestinian Muslims and Arab-Palestinian Christians for centuries together. Christians represent a religious minority, in the Gaza Strip about 3-5 000 Christian believers, in the West Bank about 100 000 people. There are no official statistics available, and the estimates vary. In the West Bank the most numerous Christian populations live in the Bethlehem urban area (Bethlehem – about 30%, in Beit Jala some 50%, while in Beit Sahour Christians are the large majority), Ramallah and some villages north of Ramallah, Nablus – Rafidiyah district, while there are also some Christian families who live in Jericho and Jenin. As a whole Christians represent less than 1,5% of Palestinian population. In Nablus there is a small group of Samaritans (about some hundreds of people) who are religiously similar to Jews but don´t sympathize with the occupation and are part of the Palestinian nation. Generally Muslims and Christians live together in very good relations, in an harmonic way and in respect to each other. They share an Arab Palestinian identity but are different in religious dogmas, and in some social and cultural aspects. I have seen good Muslim-Christian friendships. On the other hand, they keep their borders and usually don´t marry with each other. I think it is very logical to protect own’s society from melting and disappearing, especially for a small Christian minority surrounded by a Muslim majority. The definiton of cultural specificity and care for it is something what we Europeans have forgotten, and now we face many so-called multicultural problems and the threat of the disappearance of „old Europe.“ Actually only few Europeans know of what they can be proud and what „European identity“ means. I asked AEI director, also member of my hosting family, Fuad Giacaman, what it means for him to be an Arab Palestinian Christian, because he defines his identity in such a way. It means for him to belong to a certain historical, traditional and cultural heritage. Fuad is happy to be an Arab Palestinian Christian and is proud to come from the country where Jesus was born, where He suffered and was crucified. He believes in Jesus’ return. This expected coming back makes him stronger and gives him hope for the future and energy to surmount the worries in his life. „Jesus will come back and save me, He´ll save me from tyranny, oppression, injustice, occupation, from economical, social and politican challenges. We have to wait and be prepared for his return. Sometimes I feel painful, hurt, tired, exhausted, nervous but I have still hope and keep the spirit of Sumud (steadfastness and resilence) .“ Fuad doesn´t wait passively; on the contrary he´s waiting and working hard for salvation and the making of good deeds. He believes that two thousand years ago Jesus came from heaven to earth where he was born from the Virgin Mary, sacrificed Himself for all people and left for us a message of love. He´s the God of love, justice and peace and Fuad wants to follow this model. „Jesus is a loving father and I am also a loving person. Jesus never gave up, He was never fed up, He´s a symbol of resilience and gives me belief in human dignity.“ Fuad sees in Jesus the first martyr and the first social reformer. „Jesus´ peace is for me the only solution.“ Fuad’s belief in Jesusreturn keeps him optimistic and working for development and freedom. „With Jesus light will come to the world, He´s the path, He´ll establish peace in the whole world.“

To be an Arab and Palestinian involves a belonging and a commitment to Arabism and the Palestinian nation. „This sense of commitment and belonging to the land helps me to defend and save it.“ Fuad tries to combine his Christian and Arab-Palestinian identity and to be a follower of Jesus, a good Christian and also a good citizen who has his rights and duties. Fuad loves his country and tries to save its heritage and develop it. My work should support this effort. Fuad is aware of a big responsibity for the next generations and says „What we have we received from our ancestors and now we must work for our grandchildren and their children.“ Plenty of people from Palestine have already emigrated and many of them intend to do it. This trend is exceptionally strong in Palestinian Christian families. Fuad says: „It annoys me that the Palestinian Christian community becomes smaller and smaller and I try my best to stop the emigration and hope the importance of the Christian presence will be not in its quantity but in its quality.“

My hosting family and me

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Fuad Giacaman, his wife Silvana and grandchildren Fuad and George and me

Fuad and his family

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Fuad Giacaman, his son Teddy, daughter-in-law Rawan and grandchild Lourdes. The photo was taken in Hindasa, Bethlehem.

2. The Palestinian people is not a nation of terrorists and religious fanatics (as they are often presented by Western media). Most Palestinians are normal civilians who want to have a normal life and who dream about peace. The educational level in Palestine is of a good quality and the people understand well the history and context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have been present in discussions with pupils at a high school in the village of Bir Zeit. There were both Christians and Muslims in the classroom and they were speaking about their desire to end the occupation, the checkpoints, the domination of Israeli soldiers in Palestine, equality in rights, respect and peace. They lack security and safety and look for a way to help achieve these dreams. They were discussing nonviolent forms of resistance demanding their rights and freedom. For example, they discussed Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King as peace and nonviolent activists. They were also taught what their religions say about peace. They agreed on both Jesus and Mohammed as models of peace and treating others well. When the Muslim wants to say „good day“ to you, he says „assalaamu ´alayykum“ which means „peace upon you.“ They were telling their experiences how to overcome the hard political, economical and social reality in common daily life and how they try to fight the Israeli occupation through peaceful resistance. They mentioned as nonviolent activities the writing and drawing about their feelings, singing, acting, dancing, praying or cooperating with each other.

Peace-disccusion with pupils

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At the institute where I work the members hold meetings in which they discuss peace and non-violent ways of resistance. For example, on Wednesdays a woman´s group meets and speaks about different themes and events. They learn English because the discussions and talks are conducted in English. The main theme of one such meeting was the following quotation: „We have all known the long loneliness and have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.“ (Dorothy Day). A discussion developed about the sharing of problems, mutual help, mutual communication, learning from each other, the importance of community life, the consequences of long-lasting solitude and how to overcome loneliness, for example by keeping oneself busy and doing something useful for other people. From my experience, life here in comparison with Europe is really much more communal. I will write later more about this. The meeting was held on 8.11.2006, on the day of a very brutal Israeli attack in the Gaza Strip, at Beit Hanun. On this day eighteen Palestinian civilians were killed, including women and children (on the Israeli side nobody died). Eleven of the dead were from the same family and another forty people were wounded during the shelling. I observed these horrible events on 8.11. in the morning, at Fuad´s son Teddy´s shop while watching the TV news. It was for me a very strong and painful experience to see innocent children dying after being shot. I couldn´t help shedding tears and I had to think about these pictures many days afterwards. After the woman´s group meeting at the AEI most of the women decided to march in silence carrying posters calling for peace and an end of the occupation. They went to the Church of the Nativity where according to the biblical tradition Jesus was born. They stopped in front of the Church and sang peace songs. It was their way to demonstrate. Some of them joined a bigger demonstration at midday organized by students of Bethlehem University (I estimate more than 100 people). They marched through the center of Bethlehem, had a lot of posters and flags and called for justice and the stopping of the killing of Palestinians. The whole demonstration happened without any kind of violence. All participants stopped in front of the building of the Red Cross office and peacefully finished the protest. One woman said to me: „ The Israelis want to kill all Palestinians and say that we are terrorists but it is them who are terrorizing us.“

Protest against Occupation

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Student` s protest

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Palestine is an occupied country, not a real autonomy. Palestine is a territory where Israelis openly violate the human rights of the civilian population. Palestiniens are discriminated in many ways, they are considered to be „people of a second category.“ Israelis contravene rules of international law. Through the building of the Wall Palestine has become one big prison, separated from the neighbouring world, without a chance for economic development and a normal life for the inhabitants. It was the second day of my stay in Palestine when we were woken up by shooting in the middle of the night. I was concerned for my hosting family but it turned out to be nothing new. Israeli soldiers were looking for a young man who was active in anti-Israeli resistance. He was shot dead in his house and half of the house was demolished. During this operation another two were killed and a third person, an old woman, died in hospital of a serious injury. In the next days a tent was built beside the destroyed house and hundereds of people sent their condolences and offered their sympathy to the surviving relatives. After a few days posters appeared in many places in Bethlehem with the picture of the 23-year old man who was killed. There are many posters for such „martyrs.“ You can watch pictures of these people who lost their life during the many Israeli attacks. Not every victim was active in anti-occupation resistance. For example, one of the recent martyrs was a 12-year old boy who was shot by mistake on Manger Square (the main square in Bethlehem) in September 2006.


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Israeli soldiers come to Bethlehem regulary, at least once a week, and look for Palestinian freedom fighters. During such invasions the Israeli forces behave inresponsibly towards the civilian population. It often depends on the mood of the individual soldier whether he kills somebody or not. Things are quickly a „state of emergency“ and the smallest suspicion is sufficient for killing innocent persons or to capture somebody and put him into prison. Nobody is able to change this situation and to help the Palestinian people – certainly not until the US government stops its massive support for Israel, its ambiguous behavior and its use of the right to veto while the rest of world condemns the shameful events in Palestine. Israelis can do everything in Palestine. In the meantime no power exists which limits the Israelis’ violent actions. Last Monday (20.11.) at noon Israeli soldiers came to Bethlehem near Manger Square with their tanks and machine-guns to look for a suspected man and encircled a whole quarter. Pupils returning from school started to throw stones at the tanks and the soldiers started to shoot at the crowd of children. They aimed at the lower part of the bodies and about ten children were injured. At that moment I was at the Institute, approximately 300 meters from this place and could watch live TV and hear the shooting. Later in the evening I went home with Fuad through Manger Square. On the ground were a lot of splinters and stones. The Israelis were still in town. In one corner of the square were noisy groups of Palestinian youths, in the other corner Palestinian policemen seemingly doing nothing because of their powerlessness and irrelevance. In other parts of Bethlehem normal life continued and out of some windows we could hear nice music.

Thinking about the Wall the association with the former Berlin Wall come to mind. What in Europe is over, here has begun. Palestine is one big ghetto. The Wall has far-reaching consequences for many kinds of problems for the Palestinian people. First it is psychologically hard to live „behind a concrete monster.“ Some factories had to close (e.g. one man possessing a stone-cutting factory lost his business after the building of the Wall, as he lost access to the stone supply). Many families have been divided because it is now very difficult to cross the Wall into Israel. The only possibility is to come to Israel through a checkpoint. As a Palestinian you need to have a special permit and an important reason to go to Israel, e.g. medical treatment. You need written confirmation from the doctor with the exact date and hour of your appointment but even in serious cases you have no cetainty to be admitted into Israel. Many people lost their work in Israel.. Before the building of the Wall there were about 150 000 people working there; today only about 30-40 000 receive a labour permit (the permit is given for three months maximum; after that period it has to be extended).

The Wall

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The Israelis solve the shortage of workers by inviting and employing Russian and Rumanian workers some of whom are Christians. Palestinians work in Israel almost only as manual workers with no social and health security. (Some Palestinian women also work in Israeli houses). But because there is a large unemployment in Palestine, people are interested to work in Israel in spite of these bad conditions. (Some of them collaborate with the Israeli occupation so as to get a work permit). The people who used to go for work in Israel earned a salary of some 100 NIS (1 Euro = 5.2 shekel) per day. In Palestine you can earn between 1-2 000 NIS per month, but it is also common to work e.g. for 20 NIS per day (picking olives). One young graduated man said to me: „We have a problem to find an income; there is no work, the people are willing to work for 5 dollars per day but then another ten people are willing to work for three or four.“

The control at checkpoints takes a lot of time. Workers stand up very early because of the long queues where they might wait several hours. The behavior of Israeli soldiers and officers at checkpoints depends on their character and mood. It isn´t unusual that they treat people without any basic respect and it isn´t extraordinary when somebody is killed or injured at a checkpoint. In the meantime about 600 km of the Wall has been built. At the end it should stretch approximately 700 km. At the rest of the border a barbed wire will be placed (especially in areas not so densely populated). In the process of the building of the Wall, the Israelis ignore the real legitimate border. Based on their power, they illegitimately confiscate large parts of the Palestinian territories and build there their settlements. I visited a house of one Palestinian family (near Rachel’s Tomb) which was faced at three sides by the Wall. The family literally faces the Wall on three sides. The only view from the windows is towards the Wall. The apartment became quite dark and they have to light the rooms also during the day. Palestinians are limited through the many restrictions they face also inside the so-called Palestinian autonomous areas. The Israelis control the water resources in Palestine and the access to many sites. There are two types of roads: roads which can be used only by Israelis and bypass-roads used by Palestinians.

The control in front of the Abraham Mosque in Hebron

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At the beginning of November we undertook a trip to Jericho and the Dead Sea. We had to use the bypass roads. The biggest surprise was waiting for me at the Dead Sea. For Palestinians acces to the Dead Sea is forbidden. We had however luck to be considered all as European tourists because we were in the bus with a group of Dutch women and it happened that our passports weren´t checked. Then it turned out that you cannot go to the sea for free but that you must pay a lot for it. The Israelis wanted the half-empty bus to pay a fancy price of 1 300 NIS! (about 250 Euro) Finally we paid 800 NIS and stayed at the Dead Sea for two or three hours, in rather cold weather.

On the way home our bus was controlled by an Israeli soldier. It was for me an intense experience: a very young boy, maybe 18 year old carrying a machine-gun and going through the bus where the Dutch ladies, our Palestinian hosts and I were sitting. Everybody was absolutely quiet and I was thinking about this young Israeli man. I felt very interested about what he felt, whether he felt any joy about his power over us or whether he was sick of this situation too.

4. The Palestinians live in an autonomy which is no real autonomy and in a ‘state’ which is no real state, without any sovereignty. Seven months ago democratic elections were held and the Hamas party won, but this party never started to rule. After the elections nobody was ruling. Because of the international boycot the state employees did not receive their salaries for seven months. Till now post offices barely function in the whole of Palestine. And not only employees at post offices, but also the teachers at government schools didn´t receive their income for five months. They went on strike. All state schools were closed for two months at the beginning of this school year. The schools have recently been opened again (after the teachers received a payment in advance) but the future is still uncertain. Medical services are costly because not all sections of the society have insurance while many patients have to go to a private doctor because the quality of the state clinics is not good enough in many cases. In Palestine the courts don´t work, many cannot be punished because the courts often cannot deliver a verdict. According to the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, in October 2006 78.6% of the Palestinians living here were worried about their personal security, 80.9% about the naked survival of their families, 62.3% were pessimistic about the improvement of the political and economical conditions, and 62.1 held the USA, Israel and other donor countries responsible for the deterioration of the economic conditions in the Palestinian territories.

The Palestiniens live without any social security, they cannot expect payments of old-age pensions, social benefits or health care guaranteed by the state. University education has to be privately paid too. The Palestinians are aware of the necessity to earn enough money for their old age because they cannot rely on state help. It is important to have sons who care for the parents when they are old. The feeling of togetherness in the Palestinian families is admirable. Firstly, the mentality of the local people is not individualistic like in Europe and, secondly, they need each other to be able to live under such hard circumstances. The members of my hosting family share the care for the household and work from morning till night six days a week to keep their life standard. Teddy told me: „We don´t want more than we have but it becomes harder to keep the same level, we must work more and more… and then I want to save something for my children when they grow up.“

5. Palestine is not years behind, it is not a backward country. Such standards as having a bathroom is quite common also in a village. I was surprised at the very nice houses and the furniture which could be considered by many Europeans as luxurious. At first I could not believe that people living in such nice houses were poor. Then I started to understand that you have to apply here quite different criteria for wealth. If you own a big house and a car in Middle- and Western Europe, most people will think about you as a rather rich person. But here many families possess a house; it is a source of some security in an unstable country and building a house is a great priority for many. They do not spend on travelling and entertainment but save for building their house. Several members of the family help saving for the house and the people here are accustomed to help the extensive family and neigbours as well. But also: if you own a house you may not have enough money to eat. For example: in some suburbs of Bethlehem the price for 1000 m² of land is about 4 000 dollar, but the town center is much more expensive and the prices move there between 200-300 dollar for 1m². For about 65-70 000 dollar you can build a good house. If you want to rent a flat the monthly bill ranges from 300 till 600 dollar, the monthly costs for electricity are 600-700 NIS, a water bill is about 120-150 NIS)

In the shops in Bethlehem you can buy western goods. However, the monstrous globalisation you can see in supranational commercial chains haven´t reached Palestine yet – what I enjoy very much. Here are still a lot of small businessmen and shopkeepers, no mega-Tescos, Carrefules etc. It makes life warmer, more personal and human. And these small businesses are mixed with the eastern, oriental disorder which helps to preserve a special local charm.

Industry in Palestine is very light. The most important branch is tourism but now the situation is very bad. The tourists (supported by Israeli propaganda) are afraid to visit Palestine. Tourism is much weaker than before the building of the Wall. The Palestinians produce olive oil, make religious figures from olive wood and sell the wood, work with mother-of-pearl and other small handicrafts, and grow fruit trees near Jericho and in the Gaza Strip (but they cannot export the fruit). A big problem are the water resources. These are under Israeli control. There is also not enough land. Palestine has a lot of graduated young people but they do not have a chance to get a job. This is the most serious reason behind the decision of many to emigrate. On one income from one small olive-wood shop depends the livelihood of sometimes twenty family members (and there are no customers). One woman told me: „I would never emigrate because of the economic situation, I love my country, even if I would have a last shekel I would stay… but if it is a question of shooting, life and death … I don´t know…I am not sure.“

6. The women in Palestine are not considered to be less then men. Of course, the mentality about relationships between men and women is very different from the European one.

Nobody forces me to be covered from top to toe. It is quite common to wear jeans and by far not all women wear a scarf (including all the Christian women). But a miniskirt wouldn´t be accepted. I have only quite rarely seen Muslim women covered completely. Generally Palestinian women take care of their appearance quite in a western style and tey wear nice dress. Most Palestinian women are housewives but a lot of women work because of the economic situation. In the majority of cases they have many children (the average is 5-6 children for one woman in the West Bank; Muslim families have on the average more children then Christians). They look after the children, take care of the house and help their husbands. Absolutely normal are the women who drive a car or discuss with men like an equal partner. I met here many inteligent, educated, courageous, hardworking and good-looking women.

The family is for the Palestinian people value number one. Actually, another life style than family life is not common. To get married and become a mother before the mid-twenties is the most usual woman´s deal (even if more and more people stay living alone because they do not have money to establish a family). Couples get divorced very rarely. The rules for family life and life generally are clearer here than in Europe. The objective social-economic conditions and the traditional conservative society create a strong mutual bond and responsibility for family matters.

Absolutely socially unacceptable is living together with a partner before marriage. It is not tolerable to have a boyfriend or girlfriend and to practise premarital sex. There are also very limited chances to meet a partner. Young people (above all young women) don´t go out alone and most of them spend their free time with their family and by visiting friends of their family. In this circle of family and friends the girls usually meet their future husbands. If you fall in love with somebody you will get engaged with him. Before engagement the future husband and his father visit the girl’s family. The boy´s father proposes to the girl’s father who is expected to agree. It is usual that after the engagement period the wedding follows. The engaged couple cannot stay alone without the presence of other people. To have a boyfriend or a girlfriend is not very common and it is a secret matter. If such a secret relationship would come public the girl would be discredited. On this point the local society is very rigid and conservative. Palestinian society is not anonymous like the European city. The people are interested in what others do and social control is very strong. If a Palestinian man looks seriously for a wife, it is a basic condition to get married with a virgin. I miss the quite normal category „male friend“ with whom I have no sex, no physical contact but with whom I can spend my free time alone, discuss with him, have fun, go to cinema, listen to music, dance, make a trip, visit him at home or he me… Such friendship between woman and man is here unknown and abnormal. People here cannot imagine a friendly relation between boy and girl without suspecting promiscuity. The woman would gain a bad reputation. And actually while the European boys are used to have also female friends, Palestinan boys do not and probably would expect something more then having a good talk or to have fun without touching and so on. The society and the mentality here is in this way quite different. Youths in Palestine usually do not have sexual education and things related to sex and relationships are generally tabooed.

7. At last I would like to mention the wonderful Palestinian hospitality. The behaviour to the guest is really very kind and generous. One woman told me: „Also if I wouldn´t have something to eat I would borrow from the neighbour and give it to my guest.“ People are used to help each other, are not negligent, phlegmatic or disinterested in others. For instance, my hosting family cares for me in a very hospitable, friendly and warm way and I feel like being a family member. In spite of the permanent political uncertainty, Israeli attacks and discrimination, social and economic insecurity, despair and suffering, the Palestinians are very sympathetic to one another and feel a deep national solidarity. The hard conditions bring them together. They care to have good families, are very human and helpful, and stay admirably strong. Fuad says often in the face of troublesome circumstances: „We will manage …“ or „We will triumph.“

8. And of course Palestine is a beautiful country, with unique, not only biblical sights.

The coming year I will write many items and articles about Palestine. If you have any idea or comment and would like to contact me, write me please a mail.


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