By the third day, blisters were beginning to form on his feet. But Benjamin Ladraa continued his trip. He would keep walking for another 11 months.
In August 2017, the 25-year-old Swedish activist embarked on a 3,000-mile solo journey through 13 countries to raise awareness about the plight of the Palestinians. Beginning in Gothenburg, Sweden, Ladraa carried a Palestinian flag and walked through Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
It took him more than 300 days to complete the journey, landing him features in such international news outlets as Al Jazeera and The National. Over the course of the 11 months, Ladraa spoke on local radio stations and national television, met ambassadors, gave presentations, visited Palestinian refugee camps and shared stories.
Sometimes, Ladraa would go the whole day — from the moment he woke up to the moment he fell asleep in his sleeping bag — without talking to a single person. Some days, he even talked to himself. But to him, it was all worth it.
“You Start to Realize That Something Is Really Happening Over There”
As a child in Sweden, Ladraa hoped to become a pilot. As a teenager, he decided to become a musician. He studied music in high school and went on to continue studying it for three years in college until he found another calling: activism.
“I was doing my music career and realized I wanted to do something not just for myself, but for other people too. And that turned out to be activism,” Ladraa told Truthout.
It was in his early 20s, while studying in Japan, that Ladraa became curious about the Palestinian cause. He was sitting in a classroom when a fellow student said she was from Israel and that she thought her country was a bad country.
“And I’m just thinking to myself, ‘Why would she say this?’ Because I had no idea. I didn’t know anything about this at the time,” Ladraa said.
A year later, when he was about 22 years old, Ladraa started working at the Red Cross. There, he began talking to a Palestinian co-worker who told him about the humanitarian catastrophes occurring in his homeland.
Ladraa then began reading on his own to find out more. He was especially moved by the book Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000-2010, which contains first-hand accounts by more than 100 Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers. The stories were collected by Breaking the Silence, an Israeli nongovernmental organization established by IDF veterans in 2004.
Ladraa continued educating himself by listening to lectures by experts on the topic, including Norman Finkelstein, an American political scientist and professor, and Ilan Pappé, an expatriate Israeli historian.
Ladraa found that the stories got very overwhelming, very fast.
“You start to realize that something is really happening over there. There are so many people saying the same thing, from all walks of life — Palestinians and Israelis alike, professors, activists, the U.N.,” Ladraa said. “Everyone is just pointing towards the terrible human rights violations.”
In a report published in June 2015, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights stated its “deep concern about the human rights situation of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.” It specifically expressed concern regarding the use of excessive force by Israeli security forces, resulting in Palestinian deaths and injuries even in refugee camps; the use of “crowd-control” weapons such as tear gas, which have been used with fatal consequences at times; and the imprisonment of Palestinians.
Another U.N. report published in March 2017 stated that Israel has established an apartheid regime, which includes segregated roads and the West Bank separation barrier — which some have described as an apartheid wall. The report also found that Palestinians in East Jerusalem experience expulsions and home demolitions, as well as discrimination in education, health care, employment, residency and building rights.
In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinians are governed by military law, while Jewish settlers are governed by Israeli civil law.
In response, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Aviva Raz Shechter, has said that the U.N. Human Rights Council treats Israel unfairly and that her country has always stood up for human rights. On March 18, Shechter said the Commission of Inquiry, established by the Human Rights Council has falsely accused Israeli soldiers of crimes against humanity.
Making Connections on the Ground and Online
Wanting to raise awareness for these issues, as well as to test his own barriers and limits, Ladraa decided to embark on a walking journey from Sweden to Palestine.
For the next year, he saved money each month to be able to afford the necessary equipment, such as a tent and a sleeping bag. Without much remaining money or much of a detailed plan, Ladraa began his trip knowing only which countries and cities he wanted to visit.
“I know there is so much that I don’t know,” Ladraa said. “Planning too much isn’t really good because then you cage yourself in.”
Instead, Ladraa preferred to adjust his plans after talking to all the new people he met along his route, who then invited him to places or gave him recommendations. He said he would stay in a city for as long as he could find something to do there.
Social media, too, helped significantly: Ladraa announced his next destinations, and his thousands of followers — today more than 22,000 on Facebook and more than 18,000 on Instagram — often connected him with their friends in various cities.
But Ladraa wasn’t so lucky every day. His typical day began with waking up in his sleeping bag, packing his equipment and beginning his walk. He walked until he found something — but sometimes, he found nothing. So he just walked until nightfall and then slept again.
That overwhelming sense of solitude was the most difficult for him.
“Being alone, all the time, every day … it’s tough,” he said. “You have to stay sane, stay focused. Listening to music and audiobooks — that gets boring after seven hours.”
The challenges, though, proved to be rewarding for Ladraa, who said he grew a lot and learned how much he is capable of. Even when he felt like his body could not handle much more, the determined activist continued to push himself.
“Those feelings were hard in the beginning because your brain is screaming to stop, rest, lay down,” Ladraa said. “You just have to discipline your mind, tame the beast.”
Hunger Strikes to Protest Israeli Oppression
This wasn’t the first time Ladraa has tested his limits. In May 2017, after returning from a three-week trip to Palestine, he organized a hunger strike in solidarity with a separate hunger strike being held by about 1,500 Palestinian prisoners detained in Israel.
The strike was called to protest solitary confinement and detention without trial, an Israeli practice applied to thousands of prisoners since the 1980s, according to an article published by Al Jazeera in May 2017.
On April 7 of this year, Palestinian prisoners launched another hunger strike to protest conditions in Israeli jails — a move that came two days before Israel’s elections. For Palestinians, the election results were discouraging: Benjamin Netanyahu, who has cracked down on Palestinians, was elected for a record fifth term as prime minister — despite a pending criminal indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Amnesty International noted in its 2017-2018 report on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories that Israeli forces unlawfully detain thousands of Palestinians, holding them without charge or trial, and that torture and ill-treatment of detainees — including children — remains pervasive.
A recent case that made international news is that of Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian child activist who was arrested in December 2017 following an altercation with two heavily armed Israeli soldiers.
A video shows Tamimi slapping the armed soldiers in her home village, Nabi Saleh, on the same day that her 15-year-old cousin was left seriously injured after an Israeli soldier shot him in the head by a rubber bullet. Tamimi was detained for almost eight months — she was released last July. Hundreds of other Palestinian children remain in Israeli jails, according to Amnesty International.
According to Article 37 of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, the arrest, detainment or imprisonment of a child “shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”
In the U.S. Congress, Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota introduced legislation in 2017 intended to promote “human rights by ending Israeli military detention of Palestinian children.” The bill, which had 30 co-sponsors, sought to block U.S. assistance to Israel from being used to support military detention, interrogation or ill-treatment of Palestinian children in violation of international human rights law. Although the bill died in session, as it was ultimately not acted on after getting referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, McCollum introduced another bill with the same purpose on April 30. If it does not advance before the current session of Congress adjourns in January, H.R. 2407 — the Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act — will also die in committee.
During his journey, Ladraa met the very people directly affected by violence from Israeli forces. In Lebanon, he visited the Shatila refugee camp, where the Sabra and Shatila massacre — an Israeli-supported attack by a militia close to the Lebanese Kataeb Party, also known as Phalange — occurred in 1982, resulting in the deaths of up to 3,000 civilians, mostly Palestinians.
“The IDF soldiers would shoot flares into the night to light up the camps so the Phalangists, with their guns and machetes, could dismember Palestinians, torture, kill and rape them, under the support of the Israeli soldiers,” Ladraa said. “Talking about that with the people that lived through it — it’s just something else.”
“Our Liberation Is Tied Up in the Collective Liberation of All Oppressed People”
Although his journey to Palestine ended more than nine months ago, Ladraa is far from being finished with promoting the cause. Last September, he began touring the United States to share his experiences and encourage Americans to educate themselves about the situation in Palestine, especially considering the U.S. provides more military aid to Israel than to any other state.
Muhammad Sankari, a longtime member of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network, said people in the U.S. have a particular role to play.
“We’re in the U.S., which is the largest funder, financer and supporter of the state of Israel,” Sankari said. “We need to rebuild our community institutions to fight for Palestinian liberation from the U.S.”
Sankari pointed to ties between Black liberation in the U.S. and Palestinian solidarity.
“We understand that our liberation is tied up in collective liberation of all oppressed people — which, of course, includes the Black liberation movement, first and foremost, in the United States,” Sankari said.
Following the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the U.S. Palestinian Community Network took 30 Palestinian children and teenagers to Ferguson to meet the people there and march alongside them. Sankari said all chapters of the network have connections with local organizations working for Black liberation.
Ladraa also noted similarities between the two movements.
“It’s the same tear gas poisoning activists here fighting for Black lives and Palestinians fighting for their lives,” Ladraa said.
Similarly, in a New York Times commentary published on January 19, Michelle Alexander, a civil rights activist and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, likened some of Israel’s practices to apartheid in South Africa and racial segregation in the U.S.
“We ought to question the U.S. government funds that have supported multiple hostilities and thousands of civilian casualties in Gaza, as well as the $38 billion the U.S. government has pledged in military support to Israel,” Alexander wrote.
In a presentation in Charlottesville, Virginia, in October, Ladraa said it is no coincidence that he chose the U.S. as his first country to tour following his journey.
After finishing his speaking tour in the U.S., Ladraa returned home to Sweden in December. In January, he kicked off his speaking tour in the U.K., which lasted until February 16.
Currently, Ladraa is traveling abroad and will be spending the summer in Lebanon to work on preparations for his next big project, which he did not divulge details of at the time of writing.
“Activism is not … doing a project and then saying, ‘I finished my project. I’m done,’” Ladraa said. “It is more a lifestyle than a goal. It’s about living in a way that is conducive to producing the world that you want to live in and want everyone else to live in.”