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'Activism works; we can make an impact if we make the effort'

Swedish activist Benjamin Ladraa has arrived in Lebanon as he edges closer to completing his #WalkToPalestine campaign [Benjamin Ladraa/Facebook]

Almost a year since he set out walking to Palestine, Swedish #WalkToPalestine activist Benjamin Ladraa reflects on his journey.

On 6 July, after spending 11 months walking from his native Sweden to Palestine, Benjamin Ladraa made it to the Allenby Bridge crossing, situated on the border between Jordan and the West Bank. Attempting to cross, he came face to face with Israeli border security, which administers entry and exit into the West Bank as part of its now 51-year-old occupation of the territory. Despite walking for almost a year to reach his destination, he was denied entry.

Ladraa found himself detained and interrogated for six hours. At the time, Ladraa said in a video: "On this day it has been 11 months of walking and speaking about the human rights violations under the [Israeli] occupation. Now ask yourself why the Israeli state fears one Swedish man so much that they didn't allow him to enter the country they are occupying. This is the power of activism."

Reflecting on this, Ladraa says he "had a suspicion" that he would be denied entry into Palestine, not least because of the huge media attention that his walk had generated. Yet what surprised Ladraa most were the reasons cited by Israeli border security for denying his entry: that he was planning to organise a protest in Nabi Saleh, a village situated near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. Nabi Saleh is home to prominent Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi, who is currently serving an eight-month sentence in an Israeli occupation prison after she was arrested for slapping an Israeli occupation soldier who trespassed on her family's land.

READ: Israel rejects Ahed Tamimi's request for early release

Ladraa explains that "I never had that intention, but even if I had, the Israeli soldier spoke of it as though it were a crime." He adds: "For a country that portrays itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, and given that the right to protest is a sign of a healthy democracy, this shouldn't be the case."

Ladraa told his Israeli interrogator that he intended to speak about human rights, to which the Israeli soldier asked "for who?" As Ladraa says: "How can you even ask that question? Human rights are for everyone, for you and me and everyone else."

The need to talk about human rights and the role that activists can play in fostering change is something that Ladraa feels very strongly about. Asked what he learned from his journey, he was keen to emphasise that:

This walk has proved to myself and everyone following me that activism works, and that we can make an impact if we make the effort.

"The fact that this idea has been executed is a huge feeling and I feel spiritually and emotionally satisfied that my idea of how to be part of positive change was correct." He adds:

Now I know that activism is an efficient way of engendering social change, and that the extent of our capabilities is only determined by how far we are willing to go to overcome our fears and make sacrifices.

READ: Swedish activist granted Palestinian citizenship

This is a momentum that Ladraa wants to maintain in the coming months, and he has big plans for how to achieve this. Having just arrived back in Sweden, Ladraa plans to spend the next few weeks giving lectures and talks to raise awareness of what he has learned. From there, he plans to do a speaking tour of the USA, where he plans to hold 100 talks in 90 days. Asked why he chose the US as the destination for his next project, he explains "the USA is the main ally of Israel, and we need to pressure the US to hold Israel accountable for its human rights violations".

"The US has the leverage to make a change, but as long as it continues to send billions of dollars to the IDF [Israeli army] and listen to the efforts of lobby groups like AIPAC, nothing will change." Believing that people "need to feel it deep enough in their hearts to take action," Ladraa hopes that by reaching out to the US public he can foster change.

Ladraa's faith that if enough people care they will take action stems from his belief that people are "inherently kind". Aside from the value of activism, Ladraa emphasises that "one of the most important things I've learned on this journey is that people are generous, hospitable and kind, which is something most people don't realise because they fear the other." He asks: "Why are we scared of visiting a country and meeting the people living there when they're just like us?"

Having travelled through many European and Middle Eastern countries, including the Czech Republic, Turkey and Lebanon, Ladraa says he experienced overwhelming support for Palestinians and their cause. He explains: "I was really taken aback by how strong support for Palestine was in Turkey. I knew that they were supportive, but the fact that Turks talk about the Palestinian issue all the time, in their daily conversations, surprised me – the level of support was amazing."

Ladraa hopes that the friends and supporters he met along the way will be able to collaborate with him on future projects. As yet his plan for life after the US tour is a secret, but 5,000 kilometres, four strollers, two flags and one pair of shoes later, there is little doubt that he sees walking to Palestine as only the first step in his activism journey.

READ: Turkey NGO carries out 543 aid projects in Palestine

Interview by Hanaa Hassan

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