How to volunteer in Palestine

This guide will teach you a little bit about Palestine and how to volunteer in the West Bank. Gaza is pretty much cut off right now, and as the two areas are very different and I’ve only been to the West Bank, I won’t be talking about Gaza at all.

What, where, why?

I left my London office job in March 2015 to spend just under 3 months volunteering in the West Bank. It was one of the best decisions of my life.

The organisation I went with, International Citizen Service, is open to UK volunteers under the age of 26. It had its ups and downs but was honestly pretty great for a first foray into voluntourism. All UK volunteers have to fundraise a certain amount before leaving, and this is used to pay for a local volunteer who you are matched with. It’s a great model to ensure a) local kids got experience too and b) it wasn’t just us middle class British kids being flown in to fix things.

Seriously, why Palestine?

Yeah, I got a lot of that before I left, and plenty of it now. Part of the reason people worry about going to Palestine is you become a witness to the occupation, which can be seen as a political act. But if people can go beach-bumming in Tel Aviv or volunteering in a kibbutz without being seen as making a political statement, they should also be able to get the bus across the border to see Palestine.

Yes, there are buses. More on those in the next blog.

When I first went I had a kind of ignorant hipster awareness of the situation, like “I dunno about bombing Gaza, that seems kinda bad”. My three months there were an intense learning experience, the kind where you cry almost every day. It was also a chance to see a beautiful part of the world, rich in religious and cultural history, with the most amazing cheap food, and the most welcoming people you’ll ever meet. I spent easter in Jerusalem the first weekend and things went uphill from there. I tend to be sceptical (surprisingly) about anyone who says travel changed them, but this trip really did.

Working to plant trees in Palestine
Volunteering in Mashjar Juthour

Is it safe to go now?

Er. I dunno. From around September 2015 violence has escalated. The unfortunate reality for the people living there is that while attacks are small-scale and sporadic, almost anything could happen. Personally, I’m planning on going back this year or the next, but I’d advise against staying in any of these hotspots without a local buddy: Jerusalem, Qalandia, Hebron, or Nablus.

If you’re still interested in visiting and volunteering, great! Here’s a starter list of organisations making a real difference in the West Bank.

Mashjar Juthour

Children and adults help with olive harvest at Mashjar Juthour
Olive harvest at Mashjar Juthour
  • Where: Ramallah
  • What: WWOOFing, admin, misc

I love these guys. They’re an awesome duo who started a volunteer-run arboretum on a patch of land they managed to buy a few years back after lots of hard work and saving. They also run my favourite café in Ramallah, where they make delicious food with the crops they’ve grown.  A lot of Palestinian land is inaccessible under occupation. The effect on the environment and agriculture has been devastating. Mashjar Juthour preserves native plant species and runs educational workshops to combat this problem.

Mashjar Juthour needs hands-on work to make their land fit for planting and to rake in crops at harvest time (olive harvest is October/November), so it’s perfect for anyone looking to get their hands dirty on a WWOOF-style placement. If your skills lie in other areas they’re looking for photographers, bloggers, and admin staff to help catalogue the plants. They offer a room for volunteers from around £46 per week.

Tent of Nations

  • Where: Near Bethlehem
  • What: WWOOFing, workshops, misc

Tent of Nations has a brilliant philosophy based on bridge-building and turning the other cheek. Volunteers from all over the world, including Israel, help out on this large farmstead. As well as WWOOFing, Tent of Nations runs an empowerment project for women. They are looking for volunteers in these areas:

We refuse to be enemies
The Tent of Nations motto
  • Animal Farm
  • Construction
  • Farming and Agriculture
  • Giftshop and Cafeteria
  • Greenhouse and Gardening
  • Housekeeping and Kitchen
  • Office Work
  • Workshop

The women’s empowerment project runs workshops for women in topics like computer skills, leadership, art, and health. They need volunteers to help deliver the workshops and run things behind the scenes.

Witness/accompaniment programmes

  • Where: Multiple locations (Hebron for CPT, rural areas for EAPPI)
  • What: Providing foreign presence in at-risk areas

One pretty unique and useful way to volunteer in Palestine, even without skills or experience, is as a witness/accompanier. You do, however, need to be fairly strong-willed.

Volunteers are stationed in a Palestinian community to act as a deterrent against acts of violence and injustice, and to document them when they take place. I met numerous volunteers working in this role, with a big presence from two Christian NGOS: the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) and Christian Peacemaker Teams. There is also the non-faith, Palestinian-led International Solidarity Movement.

For an idea of what I mean by “strong-willed”, take a look at the CPT Instagram, and think about standing in the shoes of the volunteer behind the camera.

Freedom Theatre

  • Where: Jenin refugee camp
  • What: Drama, youth projects, misc

The Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp was established by an Israeli and her half-Palestinian son. Recognising that the occupation oppresses Palestinian culture as well as all its other atrocities, it uses drama to channel the frustrations of young people who might otherwise turn to violence.

Last year I was lucky to see their production of The Siege on their home turf. They’re an amazing organisation; if you work in drama or drama therapy, you’ll understand how worthwhile theatre can be in desperate situations. The theatre has achieved much and faced a backlash because of it, including the murder of its co-founder in 2011.

The Theatre’s WorkAway page lists the kind of volunteers they are currently looking for. At the moment it includes teachers, Google Apps techs, translators, and designers, as well as dramatists.

NGOs and grassroots

  • Where: Ramallah, multiple locations
  • What: Misc

Ramallah is absolutely swarming with NGOs who may be open to taking on volunteers for admin or (with the right experience) field work, grant writing, legal aid, and other crucial work. Even if they just want someone to do stapling, you’ll be helping much-needed organisations which are currently stretched to capacity.

Here’s just a small fraction of the NGOs in Palestine:

Next time I’ll give a bit of info on how to get to and around Palestine, and what to see at the weekend. Happy easter!