Gerard Foster reflects on his recent trip tot he Middle East. Gerard Foster is a republican socialist from Belfast.
Back in Belfast and still trying to absorb the visit I had to the Middle East.
Alistair Little and myself were invited by a group called "Combatants for Peace" who are made up of former Palestinian and Israeli combatants.
We spoke at a number of events: the Freedom March to the "Tunnels Checkpoint" in the West Bank, at the dividing wall, an ex-combatants panel in Tel Aviv, the release of a film called "Disturbing the Peace" and at the Jerusalem Film Festival about how the Combatants for Peace came about (I recommend you watch this film as it shows that making peace can be just as difficult as making war, maybe even more difficult).
We visited a refugee camp near Bethlehem where we met and spoke with NGO's and community activists.
I found all the people we met inspiring, courageous and willing to look for ways to work with the "enemy" that offers hope where none seems possible.
The most amazing thing I found about all these people is the fact that the conflict is still ongoing, the hurt and pain continues, yet they work together for peace and an end to the occupation.
They face many political difficulties, but they also face problems in their personal lives because of their actions. Family life is strained, their social circles accuse them of being traitors, or "normalisers" to the occupation, some of the Israelis go to prison rather than serve in Palestine, not because they are cowards or pacifists, but because they see the occupation as wrong.
We met with members of the Parents Circle Family Forum. These are families who had loved ones killed because of the conflict, yet they see through the image of "the enemy" and see the hurt they are suffering in each other as humans and not as Palestinians or Israelis.
Unbelievable people each and every one of them.
We saw the poverty in the refugee camps. I expected anger from these victims, but instead only saw friendliness, a willingness to welcome us without any bitterness for their situation. Former Israeli soldiers walked with us, and not one word of anger was expressed to them.
Then there was the kids: like kids the world over, they ran up to us asking where we were from, wanting to know what are we doing and with wide smiles they let us take photos of them.
I have been to the region a few times now, and I never feel that these people are without hope for their future. It really does spring eternal in the Middle East. Amazing people the lot of them.