Symbols of the Land: My Experiences in Israel and Palestine

By Kendra La Fave

One Hot Summer in 2019

It was a bright June day in 2019, and I had just landed in Tel Aviv for my month-long study abroad trip in Israel and the occupied West Bank. As I sat waiting for the rest of my university group near baggage claim, I was overcome by a sudden onslaught of nerves. I wondered: What is awaiting me here, and am I ready for what I will find? Over the next month, I would spend my days visiting various cities and villages in Israel and Palestine, meeting with Palestinian and Israeli organizations and becoming familiar with peace efforts attempted by both sides.

Now, two and a half years later, I realize how privileged I am to have been able to witness dimensions of the conflict firsthand and to discuss peace efforts with experts there. I have since built on my experiences and used them in conversation with scholarly work during my term-long study abroad at the University of Oxford, where my 2019 trip motivated me to enroll in a course on the Arab-Israeli conflict. During this course, I delved into the historical basis of the Arab-Israeli conflict and some of its characteristics (e.g. nationalism, Great Power involvement, refugees, etc.) that may contribute to creating a seemingly “incurable” issue spanning decades. I also spent a great deal of the course reflecting on my 2019 trip in respect to my weekly readings, and I discovered that I would ask myself again: What did I find while in Israel and Palestine in 2019? I found an experience laden with symbols.

I recall, below, three particularly striking experiences that took place in Hebron, the Aida and Jenin refugee camps, and Ramallah. These instances highlighted different dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from settler violence to judicial apartheid, while presenting stark symbols of the Palestinian resistance. Through ordinary objects like nets, glass, a key, and a souvenir, these symbols depict the conflict’s prevalence in everyday life and the feelings of oppression and hope within.

An Afternoon in Hebron
Nets and glass.

Metal nets protecting Palestinian businesses from stones and trash thrown by Israeli settlers in Hebron, West Bank. Photograph by Dr. Manal A. Jamal, June 17, 2019.

My time in Hebron was short, a mere afternoon, but it was long enough for me to understand the divisive implications of Israeli settlements, settlers, and military presence within the West Bank. Reflection on Hebron brings to my mind images of nets and bulletproof glass, materials put in place to protect Palestinians from historically violent Israeli settlers. 

The city of Hebron, nestled in the southern West Bank, is the only Palestinian city with Israeli settlements within its walls. In fact, it is internally divided between two zones: H1, under the Palestinian Authority, and H2, under Israeli military authority (the Old City of Hebron falls under H2). Walking around the city, this division is palpable, as towering checkpoints (18 total) divide streets and restrict day-to-day movements between zones.

I was in Hebron on the 17th of June when I met with the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, an NGO aiming to boost the Hebronic economy and restore the Old City. Learning about the organization and its work put the situation in context: there are 34,000 Palestinians who live within H2 and are especially affected by the 700 Israeli settlers who reside in the Old City. [1] Indeed, “Settlers have attacked Palestinians… playing a key role in driving out 15,000 to 20,000 Palestinian residents and 1,500 to 1,700 Palestinian businesses from the city.” [2]

I remember walking through the market of the Old City (having first entered through a checkpoint whereby I had to present my passport and walk through a turnstile-like door) and looking up at the nets covering the roofs above. What are those nets for, I inquired. The nets are to protect the vendors from stones and trash thrown by settlers, I was told.

The nets were clearly a literal manifestation of the political turmoil within the Old City, but I could not help but think of them as symbolic as well. Here sprawled nets of oppression and inequality, of dwindling hope as Palestinians lay covered beneath and forgotten by the outside world. The nets symbolized restriction and violence and the normalization of it all. Normalization in the way that the restriction and violence is recursive and unchanging and not attended by outside scrutiny (or as frequently as would be hoped). The market was just one instance in Hebron that touched me. 

Another was when I entered the Ibrahimi Mosque and looked through the bulletproof glass separating the Muslim worship space from the Jewish space on the other side. The Ibrahimi Mosque is the supposed burial site of the prophet Abraham and is therefore religiously significant to both Muslims and Jews, who split the space for their respective worship. In 1994, a far-right American-Israeli settler opened fire on Muslim worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque, killing 29 and injuring 125, and this violent memory bears a physical legacy: bulletproof glass. Like the market nets, this glass was a physical reminder of the persistent separation between Israelis and Palestinians. An outsider like me was struck by the glass and its seemingly ironic placement beside the prophet Abraham, yet this sort of barrier was not atypical to the Palestinian experience. It was yet another physical mark of a harrowing past.

Checkpoints like the one pictured restrict freedom of movement within the Old City of Hebron, closing off sometimes entire streets to Palestinian access. Photograph by Kendra La Fave, June 17, 2019.

[1] “Hebron City Center,” B’tselem, May 26, 2019,
[2] Rafael Reuveny, “The Last Colonialist: Israel in the Occupied Territories since 1967,” The Independent Review 12, no. 3 (2008): 332.

To Aida and Jenin
The Key

I visited two Palestinian refugee camps within the West Bank after Hebron. On the 14th of June, I entered the Aida camp near Bethlehem. There to greet me was a looming structure high above the main gate, which was, upon further inspection, a massive key. In fact, the gate itself was a keyhole! Proceeding into the camp, I met with Alrowwad, an organization with the mission to “beautifully resist” the occupation through art. I asked the Alrowaad representative about the significance of the key.

I learned that the Key of Return is a common symbol in Palestinian political life, though it is especially prevalent among refugee populations who were barred from reclaiming their ancestral homes within the 1948 Green Line. Considered “one of the longest-standing unresolved cases of displacement in the world today,” Palestinian refugees total about seven million worldwide, with about one and a half million residing in refugee camps run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), of which Aida is one.[3] To these millions of refugees, the Key represents their stolen homes and their hope to one day reclaim them. Tradition even says that Palestinian residents pass down keys from generation to generation as a reminder of this history.[4] Exiting through the Key of Return, I reflected on what I had learned in Aida: the longing for and hope of return surpassed time. It is eternal, ever-present.

The Key of Return greets residences and visitors into Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem, West Bank. Photograph by Dr. Manal A. Jamal, June 14, 2019.

From Aida, I ventured to Jenin in the northern West Bank. In my early discussion with the camp representative, it was clear that this camp had an especially harrowing past. During the height of the Second Intifada, the Israeli Defense Forces launched an assault on the camp from which the ensuing Battle of Jenin (2002) destroyed 53 houses and killed 45 Palestinian civilians.[5] While in this historical camp, I met with a representative of Jenin’s Freedom Theatre, an organization culturally resisting Israeli oppression through plays, film, and festivals. By using artistic expression, the people of the Freedom Theatre raise their voices to illuminate their experiences as Palestinians, to challenge their present realities and build a better future. “We can deconstruct an oppressive reality and make it comprehensible, which is the first step towards changing it,” the representative explained.[6]

I was inspired after my visit to Aida and Jenin. Here were communities ravaged by a violent past, yet they met that violence not with more violence, but with art and hope. They were finding creative ways to assert their rights as Palestinians on a global stage, and they were displaying their hope in the form of a key.

[3] “Palestinian Refugees and the Right of Return,” American Friends Service Committee, accessed December 2, 2021,; Terry Rempel, “UN General Assembly Resolution 194(III) and the Framework for Durable Solutions for 1948 Palestinian Refugees,” Badil Expert Forum, 2003; UNRWA was created in 1949 following the 1948 war which displaced about 750,000 Palestinians. Because this exodus was so massive and sudden, the UN created an agency for Palestinian refugees separate from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
[4] “A Visit to Aida Refugee Camp,” The Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions, 2016,
[5] Human Rights Watch World Report, 2003 (The Human Rights Watch, 2003),
[6] “Who We Are,” The Freedom Theatre, accessed November 10, 2021,

To Conversations with NGOs
The Souvenir

On the 20th of June, I met with the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (UPWC) in Ramallah. It was during this meeting that I came across a particularly memorable “souvenir” symbolizing grassroots advocacy within Palestine: an embroidered keychain. The handcrafted keychain itself was a product of the UPWC’s many educational, economic, and social support programs, which sought to empower Palestinian women and give them a voice in society. I purchased the keychain (and an embroidered bookmark) originally as a memento of my time with UPWC and as a testament to their mission, but it eventually took on a broader meaning. After attaching it to my backpack for months, the keychain became a daily, physical reminder of the grassroots advocacy occurring within Palestine for Palestine. 

The day after my meeting with the UPWC, I met with Sahar Francis of Addameer: Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, an NGO focused on providing free legal aid to wrongfully imprisoned Palestinians and on ending violations of prisoners’ rights (e.g. torture). Speaking with Francis, I learned that Israel tries Palestinian political prisoners in military courts rather than civilian courts (in which they try Israeli settlers in the West Bank), and that this difference in jurisdiction allows gross legal violations such as indefinite administrative detention against Palestinian detainees.

It is apartheid. 

Francis elaborated that Israel violates many international laws, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Fourth Geneva Convention, especially in perpetuating administrative detention. She also described the issue of language accessibility in military courts, which forces Palestinian prisoners to sign confessions written and read in Hebrew. As if these facts were not tragic enough, Francis shared disturbing details about the abuse and torture Palestinian prisoners face while detained. I will spare the grim details that encompass evident physical and psychological torture.

I have recently been reminded of these two meetings with the UPWC and Addameer given their headlining in recent news. On the 21st of October 2021, Israel’s Ministry of Defense announced that Addameer and the UPWC, along with four other NGOs fighting for Palestinian human rights, were considered terrorist entities–a shock indeed, as this designation could not be further from the truth. The international community, too, has recognized this label as outlandish. On the 25th of October, the UN Special Rapporteurs condemned Israel’s designation, citing the label as a “frontal attack on the Palestinian human rights movement, and on human rights everywhere.”[7] That same day, Sahar Francis with whom I had personally spoke in 2019, described how this designation was not a new policy, as “Israel has always said that Palestinian organizations… are terrorists. Everyone who opposes the occupation is one.”[8]

This news speaks to numerous things, I believe. First, Palestinian NGOs like the UPWC and Addameer are successful in providing humanitarian services; second, Israel feels threatened by this success and level of international awareness; and third, one ought to continue evaluating Israel’s actions and policies towards Palestinian civil society. 

That “souvenir” from 2019 now takes on an even greater meaning to me. I carry the keychain not just because it is beautifully crafted, but because I believe in Palestinian human rights, from women’s empowerment to political prisoner legal aid and more. It is a physical reminder of the continued struggle against Israeli intransigence.

The Palestinian flag raised in Ramallah, West Bank. Photograph by Kendra La Fave, June 22, 2019.

To Beyond: Here Lie Symbols of the Land

The symbols I encountered during my trip to Israel and Palestine in 2019 were not isolated. They were accompanied by other images: graffitied cement walls, distant smoke, rooted olive trees. Like theatre, these images make comprehensible “an oppressive reality” that is an everyday existence for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.[9] An existence that is rife with not just oppressive nets and glass, but also hopeful keys and souvenirs.

[7] “UN Special Rapporteurs Condemn Israel’s Designation of Palestinian Human Rights Defenders as Terrorist Organisations” (Geneva, October 25, 2021),
[8] “Sahar Francis, Director of Addameer: ‘Israel Accuses Us of Being Terrorists Because We Are Succeeding in Exposing Its Crimes,’” Ara, October 31, 2021,
[9] “Who We Are,” The Freedom Theatre.

Works Cited

American Friends Service Committee. “Palestinian Refugees and the Right of Return.” Accessed December 2, 2021.

B’tselem. “Hebron City Center,” May 26, 2019.

Human Rights Watch World Report, 2003. The Human Rights Watch, 2003.

Rempel, Terry. “UN General Assembly Resolution 194(III) and the Framework for Durable Solutions for 1948 Palestinian Refugees.” Badil Expert Forum, 2003.

Reuveny, Rafael. “The Last Colonialist: Israel in the Occupied Territories since 1967.” The Independent Review 12, no. 3 (2008): 325–74.

 “Sahar Francis, Director of Addameer: ‘Israel Accuses Us of Being Terrorists Because We Are Succeeding in Exposing Its Crimes.’” Ara, October 31, 2021.

The Freedom Theatre. “Who We Are.” Accessed November 10, 2021.

The Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions. “A Visit to Aida Refugee Camp,” 2016.

“UN Special Rapporteurs Condemn Israel’s Designation of Palestinian Human Rights Defenders as Terrorist Organisations.” Geneva, October 25, 2021.