‘The settler kids? Trust me. You’re gonna hate them.’ The words of Francesco, an Italian trainee on the London course. This was right at the end of the weekend, and it seemed to me a sad final comment.
He was responding to a question from Henry, a Londoner who I probably got to know better than anyone else, on account of us being paired up at the start of day one for generic ‘ice breaker’ session. You know the sort of thing: Tell your neighbour a few things about yourself, including an interesting fact. They do the same. Then present each other to the group.
Henry is a 24 year old Spurs fan. He works with social services – not as a social worker, he was quick to point out, but offering support to families who might be about to have their kids taken away. Sometimes he is able to help keep the family unit together, other times it’s in the childrens’ best interest that he doesn’t.
‘Yeah. Can be.’
‘And your anecdotal interesting fact?’
He smiled and shook his head, ‘I don’t know, man. Nothing really. Life has brought me here. Perhaps now it gets interesting.’
I liked him immediately.
I liked Francesco too though. He had strong feelings, but they certainly didn’t come from a position of ignorance. On the Saturday afternoon I was in a small group with him, attempting to put together a timeline of key events in the history of Palestine. From the early Zionist settlements in 1880, through the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the liberation of Austwitz (1945), the Nabka (1948), the Six Day War (1967), and right up to the recent Intifadas. I was mostly without a clue, and grateful of Francesco’s near encyclopaedic knowledge of the region and its history.
Henry’s question had been about speaking with the Zionists in the illegal settlements. The International Solidarity Movement is Palestinian led, but what if a settler wanted to speak with us, to share their side of the story, offer their position on the conflict? What if their children were intrigued by us, could we at least speak to them?
It was this that resulted in Francesco’s comment. And whilst stopping short of condoning his attitude, the course leaders said nothing to contradict it either. I found myself wondering if it is perhaps not such a bad thing that after three or four visits as an activist, the Israeli authorities get wise and blacklist a person. There are perhaps only so many times you can walk a young Palestinian child to school in Hebron – whilst Zionist children throw stones – before indignation calcifies into something less helpful.
It is right that the acts of violence and intimidation carried out by illegal Israeli settlers should cause revulsion and anger. But hatred, I’m not so sure. At that point, we stop trying to understand.
Henry spoke calmly, for the whole room to hear: ‘Nah, mate. I definitely won’t hate them. They’re children.’
I was right to like him.