I was excited to first visit the Holy Land as a new Christian- aged just 24- back in 2015 and I have travelled there every year since.
But the excitement of entering the ‘holiest’ of places in Christendom back in 2015 soon wore off once I stepped foot in the West Bank.
I was staying in a Palestinian village that had been deprived of water, had only the most basic healthcare, and was subject to regular intervals of violence.
Life exists for two million Palestinians in the West Bank amid extreme circumstances, and the loss of hope.
Last year alone, Israeli security forces fatally shot dead 42 Palestinian adults and children wounding a further 3,279 in the West Bank.
I remember laying my head on the pillow, the first night I arrived at my host Palestinian family home, thinking ‘why God?’
The next morning, I went straight out onto the farms to pick olives with farmers who desperately need help harvesting their yield for the season.
We had to cross several military checkpoints, showing our passports at each, just to get to the first farm a mile away.
When we arrived, we began picking, olive after olive, in 30C (86F) heat, I couldn’t imagine I would be able to face ever eating an olive again.
In conservation with farmer Mohamad Abdah, he told me: “It’s a symbol of resistance.”
I ask why and his response is something that I was not prepared for.
Mohamad said that during the siege on the Church of Nativity, in 2002, when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came to a height, his mother and brother were staying in their house very close to the church, where Christians believe that Jesus was born.
Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldier were raiding neighbouring houses to ensure they weren’t harbouring Palestinian militants, they banged on the door at Mohamad’s mother’s home.
As she opened the door, IDF soldiers stormed the property shooting both his mother and brother dead, they were the only people in the house.
At this point, Mohamad’s voice starts to break and my eyes start filling-up, but I manage to ask him: “But why is picking olives here a sign of resistance?”
He tells me that following this, years later, Israeli authorities wanted to buy this land from him, it’s surrounded by illegal settlements and the barrier wall, which make it extremely difficult for him to even access, let alone farm on.
In many ways, it would have been ‘less hassle’ just to sell it to them.
He told me by keeping his land and farming his land, it is his way of (peacefully) resisting what he calls an illegal occupation.
No matter how hard the Israeli Government try and make it for him to live or farm there, he will not broken.
The next day we visited Dheisheh Refugee Camp, which has 15,000 inhabitants.
I have never seen anything like it- houses piled on top of each other, electricity wires crossing over open buildings and the smell of raw-sewage water.
There’s lots of graffiti on the walls, pictures of young boys’ faces.
I asked a passer-by why there were so many paintings of young boys.
They told me that this is how their mother’s remembered their children when they are killed.
It now made sense as to why there was an unexplainable pain in many of the mother’s eyes to whom I had spoken.
On the way out of the refugee camp, I heard sirens.
The tour guide was screaming at us to get back on the coach as quickly as we could.
We were all panicked as we ran back to the coach. On the way there I felt my eyes streaming and I began to cough heavily- then I felt my chest tightening as well.
I looked over and saw a demonstration of young Palestinian boys- they were throwing stones and the Israeli soldiers were responding with teargas and sewage. Yes sewage water, which was being sprayed at the boys.
We made it to the coach and I couldn’t shake off the effects of the teargas until later that night.
More importantly, I couldn’t understand how these young boys, who were no older than 12 or 13, could have coped with the effects of teargas.
Within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is violence which comes from both sides.
Israel must have the right to exist and defend itself whilst Palestinians have the right to co-exist- free from persecution and living without the fear of violence.
The tragedy is not just that these things happened but that, today, theres seems to be less hope of a peace process between Israel and Palestine than there has been for a long time.
The hope that came with the Oslo Peace process 20 years ago has long since faded and right now there seems to be no leadership or serious international pressure to get it going again for the good of the region.
And in the meantime Mohamad tries to live on with his olive farm- without his mother and his brother.
I asked one of the mothers whose son had been killed the previous year: “What can be done to work towards peace?”
She told me: “Go back to your country and share our stories…”