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Searching for their own personal Palestine

Why middle-class Westerners like Kate Burton are queuing up to get into Gaza.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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What drives young middle-class Westerners into the line of fire in Gaza?

Peace activist Kate Burton and her family were kidnapped in Gaza at the end of December, and only a day after their release an Italian peace activist, Alessandro Bernardini, suffered the same fate. They join a roll call of activists who have been caught up in the conflict: a 23-year-old American, Rachel Corrie, was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer; a young British man, Thomas Hurndall, was shot in the head with an Israeli bullet.

The Palestinian territories seem to hold a special allure for some young Westerners. Though Gaza is little more than a squalid prison, activists are queuing up to be let in.

A brief kidnapping experience doesn’t seem to put them off, either. Burton had only good words for Gaza: ‘I definitely want to stay working with the Palestinian people one way or the other…. I’ve never met people like the Palestinians. They’re the strongest people I’ve ever met. I would feel kind of guilty turning my back on them.’ (1) Although the kidnapping was unfortunate, she had no regrets: ‘I’m glad that my parents saw the place I was living in and met a lot of amazing people, and despite everything that happened, they understand I think, finally, why I was there.’

Westerners have long travelled to conflicts abroad, as missionaries or as revolutionaries, but today’s globe-hopping is different. Activists seem to be trying to find themselves by stepping into Palestinian shoes, empathising with Palestinian suffering. Young Westerners disillusioned with pampered modern lives go looking for their antidote in the Middle Eastern territories. Palestinians are seen as authentic, gritty and real. ‘I am with the Palestinian people’, said Bernardini after his release.

These activists don’t do anything much. Missionaries of the past thought they were bringing the light of Christian civilisation to ignorant natives; leftists of the past campaigned to win political solidarity with those they saw as oppressed, or even took up guns in support of their struggle. Today’s peace activists merely plonk themselves in the Palestinians’ vicinity and say that they feel their pain. They are ‘human shields’, sitting in front of houses that are about to be demolished or escorting children across the road.

These activists come across as self-obsessed. This is all about young Westerners’ search for personal meaning. A premier London play was adapted from Rachel Corrie’s private writings, entitled My Name Is Rachel Corrie. This was clearly all about her, not about the trials of the Palestinian people. A few years ago one peace activist, Lilian Pizzichini, wrote in the New Statesman about her experience ‘under siege’ in a house near Bethlehem, being ‘kept awake by the ear-shattering sound of supersonic jets’. ‘I’m beginning to understand what it must be like to be a Palestinian’, she concluded (2).

Theirs is a cartoon version of the conflict: victim-Palestinians versus aggressor-Israelis. They ignore the increasingly messy and fragmented state of both sides in the battle. The kidnappings, for example, are emblematic of a Palestinian Authority descending into chaos, with rival factions vying for position and police officers storming government offices. Palestinian militants are using activists as pawns in their attempts to undermine the Palestinian Authority.

Yet Burton’s picture-book story seems to have survived intact. She tried to explain to her captors: ‘I came here to work with the Palestinian people and I feel I have been stabbed in the back.’ (3) Their response to her lectures? ‘They just told me politely to shut up.’ She decided that they only did it because they were victims: she said she felt ‘sorry for the guys’ because of their ‘shattered lives’, and the fact that they were on the run and had family members killed in the conflict. It seems that Burton is more comfortable with Palestinians as mute victims, rather than as people who fight.

Activists may go searching for the gritty reality of conflict, but it appears to be a bit of a game. Unlike the Palestinians, these Westerners aren’t really trapped; there is always the option of the next plane out. The visit from Burton’s parents, for example, smacks of conflict tourism. It’s hard to imagine the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War getting mum and dad out to the front. The Burton family didn’t seem to take their captors seriously: apparently her dad kept telling the kidnappers that he and his wife had a plane to catch.

Palestinians have enough to cope with already, without these do-gooders knocking around. It might be better if Burton and co thought about the issues politically rather than personally.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Middle East

(1) Kate Burton: I cannot forgive them for what they have done, Independent, 4 January 2006

(2) New Statesman, 8 April 2002

(3) Kate Burton: I cannot forgive them for what they have done, Independent, 4 January 2006

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Topics Politics

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