Long walk to occupation: Swedish activist's 5,000km #WalkToPalestine highlights Israel's apartheid
Now eight months in to a journey many people would deem impossible, his aim has been to draw attention to the occupation of Palestine and inspire more people to campaign for change.
The group of flag-waving supporters and television crews gathered to see him off in the Turkish city would suggest his mission is set to be a successful one.
Since leaving Gothenburg at the beginning of August for his #WalkToPalestine journey, Benjamin has travelled through Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria. He has amassed a combined Facebook and Instagram following of 22.5k people across the globe, been welcomed into the homes of strangers and regularly camped under the stars. He has, however, also had guns pointed at him by police, battled rain for days on end and been accused of being a terrorist or affiliated with terrorist organisations on several occasions.
I first meet Benjamin in Taksim Square a few days before his departure. It was early evening – a time when the streets are usually filled with hundreds of people. We jostled our way through the crowds in Istanbul’s main high street until we managed to duck down a side street and find refuge in a quiet café.
"Wow, that was crazy," Benjamin says. "My life is either one extreme or the other at the moment.
"Either I’m on the road in total solitude, trying to keep my mood up and not let my thoughts spin out of control, or I’m in a busy city, meeting lots of new people each day, racing between appointments and feeling pretty overwhelmed."
In fact, when we meet again a few days later, in between his meeting with the Palestinian Solidarity Association and the Istanbul Young Bosnian Association, we have to sit down on a park bench so that he can answer questions from a student in the US via Skype.
But this is exactly what Benjamin’s journey is all about – spreading information and inspiring people to make a stand.
|Benjamin crosses Istanbul’s 15 July Martyrs Bridge, formerly known as the Bosphorus Bridge [Hamza Misirli]|
The Swedish national first became interested in the occupation after meeting and speaking to a group of Palestinians. He then began doing his own research into Israel's human rights violations.
"The stories I was reading were totally absurd. Everything you discover you just can’t believe it so I wanted to see it for myself," says Benjamin.
A three-week trip to Palestine in 2017 spurred him into the decision to embark on the walk to Palestine.
"During my visit I learned about Palestinian’s restricted water supply – now controlled by Israel, the fact Nablus’s once thriving soap industry has been reduced from more than 30 factories down to two as a result of bombardment from Israeli forces, and I saw for myself the level of destruction everywhere," says Benjamin.
|During my visit I learned about Palestinian’s restricted water supply – now controlled by Israel, the fact Nablus’s once thriving soap industry has been reduced from more than 30 factories down to two as a result of bombardment from Israeli forces, and I saw for myself the level of destruction everywhere|
An earthquake in 1927 damaged many of the factories in Nablus’s Old City, however it was the Israeli offensive and closures imposed by the occupation that did the greatest damage to the industry.
"It was story after story like this," says Benjamin. "Every Palestinian I’ve ever spoken to has been arrested and every one of them knows someone who was either tortured or murdered by occupation forces. Last month Israeli police briefly detained a three-year-old boy in Hebron – this is just ludicrous."
In response to this incident, the police claimed the boy had been sent to "throw stones at Border Police officers," also claiming he "had a screwdriver in his hand to attempt stabbing" the officers.
Benjamin said on returning home he felt compelled to take action.
|Benjamin was surrounded by friends and supporters on Sunday [Charlie Faulkner]|
|Historically, change has only happened by mounting pressure on the individual or system that is discriminating against groups of people|
"I realised I needed to something, however little, rather nothing," he says.
Having sold all of his possessions, Benjamin set off pushing a supermarket trolley carrying his backpack with everything he needed to deliver talks about the occupation along the way. During the last eight months he has been invited to speak in universities, hostels, as a guest on radio shows and even in bars.
"I give the talks as often as I can," says Benjamin. "Once, I linked my laptop up to a flat screen TV in a bar in Croatia and held a talk there. Everyone listened and we had interesting conversations about Palestine afterwards.
"Another time I gave a very intimate talk to five people in a hostel. And then here in Turkey I was invited to speak at the Marmara University in front of 200 people."
Benjamin tells me his talks address the current situation in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as informing people of the history including Nakba or "catastrophe," when Israel forcibly displaced more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, during the 1948 Palestine war.
"I tell them about the fishing restrictions faced by Palestinians, the jailing of children, the house demolitions, the check points, the settlements," he says.
Benjamin says he believes raising awareness is crucial to achieving change.
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"Historically, change has only happened by mounting pressure on the individual or system that is discriminating against groups of people," he says.
"Organising a mass movement is difficult and I think you do it through education and awareness-raising. So, this is the core of my journey because I believe you need a movement to mount pressure and the only way to build a movement is by talking about why we need one. And then it creates itself."
Palestine has been at the forefront of international media coverage following Israeli massacre at two mass border protests, part of the Great Return March action planned until mid-May.
A total of 31 people have been killed in violence since the first peaceful protest on March 30. During the second protest, which took place on Friday, a journalist was shot and killed despite wearing a jacket that said "PRESS", while thousands more were injured.
Israel has faced mounting criticism over its use of live fire and many Palestinians have said that protesters were shot while posing no threat to soldiers, who claimed that only those initiating violence were targeted. The International Criminal Court announced on Sunday it planned to launch a preliminary inquiry to determine if a full-scale investigation into alleged crimes in Palestinian territories since 2014 was deemed necessary.
The journey has been incredibly gruelling at times for Benjamin, who had been studying Global Studies and working part time at the Red Cross prior to his trip. He has been screamed and sworn at, received hate-filled messages in response to what he is doing and he has had to fight to keep hold of his Palestinian flag on a number of occasions.
But, he says, the overall support and kindness he has received has blown him away.
"The response from everyone has been way more than I ever expected. People are just walking up to me and saying ‘thank you’. I’m meeting great people," he says.
Surrounded by supporters on Sunday as he took to the tarmac once again, with the aid of his fourth baby stroller and his new friend Motasem Ilaiwi keeping him company, Benjamin said: "Look at all these people here, it’s amazing. When I started it was just me and my flag and now we’re all these people.
"You see the solidarity in everyone’s hearts and it’s really inspiring. We’re not doing it alone, we’re in it together."
Charlie Faulkner is a British journalist based in Istanbul whose work focuses on migration and women's rights. Follow her on Twitter: @Charlie_Faulk