Living behind walls in Palestinian territory

More than five million people live in the Israeli occupied Palestinian territory: three million in the West Bank and two million in the Gaza Strip. Discontent with the occupation and with their own government is simmering among young people in the Palestinian territory.

Ambassador Päivi Peltokoski says that t is uplifting that the Palestinians have such a strong national identity and that they have faith in the power and future of education. Photo: Finland’s representative office in Ramallah

Finland’s Ambassador in Ramallah Päivi Peltokoski sees the task of Finland’s development cooperation as maintaining a glimmer of hope for a two-state solution and an independent Palestine. Finland started development cooperation to build infrastructure in the Palestinian territory in the 1990s.

How would you describe the current situation and the biggest challenges in the Palestinian territory?

We are in a strikingly violent period that started last spring.  Israel is still carrying out their daily counter-terrorism raids, and young Palestinians are risking their lives in defying the raids. Some political scientists believe a third intifada, a Palestinian uprising, is brewing, while others reject the idea because the current resistance lacks a political leadership.

The situation is especially marked by young Palestinian men being frustrated with Israel’s military occupation and with the walls and the lack of democratic means of exerting influence. The walls prevent free movement and free trade. Unemployment is rife.

The Palestinian leaders have not been able to meet young people’s demands for democracy and free elections.

At the same time, violent attacks against Palestinians by Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian territory have escalated and become commonplace. Violence by settlers has increased by 34 per cent on the previous year and by 84 per cent on 2020.

Although Israeli settlements are illegal, according to international law, as many as 750,000 Jews live in them and new settlements are being built. Now that the olive harvesting season is on, the strikes are targeting especially farmers.

A particular characteristic of development cooperation in the West Bank is that the Israeli army is destroying property donated by foreign countries. For example, Israel has issued a demolition order on 23 schools, some of which have received funding from Finland. The demolitions are ordered under pretext of the lack of building permits. Last year, the Israeli Administration refused 96 per cent of Palestinian applications for building permits in Area C of the West Bank.

How is Finland supporting the Palestinian territory?

Like many other countries, Finland opened a Representative Office in Ramallah in the 1990s in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords. We want to help the Palestinian Authority to build well-functioning institutions for a future independent Palestinian state. The two-state solution is still our guiding light.

The main focus of Finland’s development cooperation with the Palestinian Authority is education. This cooperation started in 1997, and Finland is well known for its work in the education sector.

Another focus of our cooperation is to support Palestinians in the most vulnerable areas, which are the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and Area C in the West Bank. Finland is a member in the West Bank Protection Consortium, which is helping these poor areas.

The support can mean the building of container schools in Bedouin villages or water pipelines, grain storage solutions and solar panels. It can even mean legal assistance and exerting political influence against forced evictions and confiscation and destruction of property.

The third focus of Finland’s development cooperation is to support state building efforts and the civil society. This means, among other things, support to the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights. Civil society organisations are an important part of the Palestinian society, and we would like to support them even more than we do at present.

How do you see the future of the Palestinian territory?

On one hand, the future of the Palestinian territory will depend on how long and in what ways the Israeli occupation continues. On the other hand, much depends on the ability of the Palestinian Authority to renew itself under the Israeli occupation.

We wonder sometimes how long the Palestinians would need development cooperation if the people had free movement and free trade. Free links to the world outside would bring new ideas, too.

Peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been at a standstill for a long time now. Most Palestinians are still in favour of unarmed resistance. However, we are meeting more and more young Palestinians who claim that only armed resistance can bring independence to Palestine. Wider use of weapons is a frightening scenario. Radicalization of young people and the growth of popularity of extremist movements are a part of this reality.

It inspires hope that the Palestinian civil society has a strong foundation, and most young Palestinians are well informed. We use development cooperation to support a peaceful solution and to strengthen the Palestinian identity, and we continue to support the building of independent institutions.

What has uplifted you personally in the Palestinian territory and what can we learn from the locals?

It is uplifting that the Palestinians have such a strong national identity and that they have faith in the power and future of education. Even when things are bad, people try to give their children as high an education as possible.

People are resourceful, kind-hearted and open-minded. There is a lot of innovative spirit among young people. The Palestinians have a word, ‘sumud’, that has a similar meaning to the Finnish ‘sisu’, and we Finns could learn from the Palestinians’ courage and determination.

In this article series, Finnish ambassadors around the world tell what is happening in their duty station.

Text: Hanna Päivärinta