This past Thursday and Friday, Daniel and I took part in a program through encounter, an organization that brings Diaspora Jewish leaders to meet with and learn from Palestinians. Amidst a group of about 40 rabbinical and cantorial students and students engaged in other forms of Jewish learning, we traveled to Bethlehem (which is located in the West Bank, about 15 minutes from Jerusalem) to listen to speakers, visit sites, and meet Palestinians. Our trip leaders emphasized that the purpose of the trip was not to provide a neutral perspective but to allow us to hear these perspectives, which may not be easy to access from within Israel, and to have this experience. They also emphasized that what we saw was just a small percentage of what there is to see in the West Bank – we went to no refugee camps and heard from no militants, for instance. Nevertheless, the trip was extremely educational. I have not yet had time to fully process everything we saw and experienced, and in fact we have a concluding meeting tomorrow night to help us think about how to process these things, but I wanted to share with you some of what we saw and heard. Please bear in mind that much of what I am writing will be from the notes of the presentations themselves, which were not meant to be neutral presentations and may contain opinions with which I or you disagree (though there will be much in this account that I think we can all agree on, too). I have not double-checked the facts that were presented to me yet, and I am presenting it all as it was told, to the best of my ability. Among the valuable experiences that I won’t have time to write about was the opportunity to meet students from many different areas of American Jewish leadership, an opportunity that would have been valuable even without the rest of the trip but which was made additionally powerful because of the circumstances.
The trip began as we drove past the Green line and into the West Bank, to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is a Palestinian city in the West Bank with a population of about 50,000 people. It is in the District of Bethlehem, which includes Beit Jallah, Beit Sachor, and surrounding villages (a population of 170,000). Since 1995 Bethlehem has been governed by the Palestinian National Authority. The main source of income is tourism, both because it is the birthplace of Jesus and because it is the location of Rachel’s tomb. The population is majority Muslim, but it also is home to one of the largest Palestinian Christian communities.
Our first stop was the Hope Flowers School, a private school devoted to the teaching of peace, democracy, and justice. Ghada Issa, the co-director of the school, spoke to us of the school’s history and it’s current situation. Daniel and I had med Ghada Issa before, on our IEA encounter, which we blogged about earlier this year. Ghada’s father, Hussein Issa, founded the school. He was born in 1947. In the 1948 war his family lost their land and property and were evacuated to a refugee camp where they lived in a tent. During this time, Hussein’s mother passed away and he became an orphan. Hussein eventually went to university and became a social worker, and in 1984 he started a small kindergarten because he believed in change through education with peace and democracy as its theme. This, according to Ghada, was quite new for Palestinians. Hussein adopted the notion that conflict cannot be stopped if the education focuses on retaliation, and he wanted to take the kids out of the circle of violence. He began with 22 children in a rented garage, but this expanded rapidly. In 1989 he turned the kindergarten into an elementary school. His project was unpopular among many, and in the early years fanatics burned the school’s busses and accused Hussein of being a collaborator with the Israelis, which was considered a terrible charge. Teaching with the aim of coexistence was seen as compromising the ideals of retaliation and return to the land of Palestine. Nowadays the school has gained acceptance in the community and the minister of education accepts and honors the school. The students are Muslim and Christian boys and girls aged 4-13 (grades K-7; they are adding a grade 8 next year). For every program they first train teachers and parents before they begin working with kids, so that the kids will have a home environment that supports the work they are doing in school. Some of their specialized programs deal with trauma and learning disabilities, as well as with interfaith exchange and Hebrew language learning. Students are from the city and greater area of Bethlehem. They follow the same curriculum and textbooks as other Palestinian schools, but at areas that emphasize retaliation teachers are encouraged to step out of the textbook and create other learning experiences. In addition to the regular curriculum, the school hosts extracurricular activities such as drama and theater, and exchanges with Israeli schools. Their interfaith programs are both Muslim-Christian and Palestinian-Jewish. They also sponsor two summer camps, one in the UK and one in the US, that bring Israeli, Palestinian and US/UK students together to build friendships in more neutral territory. They host international volunteers to work at the school and bring new perspectives.
Ghada told us that it is very hard to do this work: “We really suffer to implement the programs that we have, especially after the second intifada.” 60% of the kids in the school are from refugee camps surrounding Bethlehem, and do not have a comfortable home life. The school is located in “area C” in a buffer zone next to new expansions of the Jewish settlement of Efrat, the Israeli security/separation barrier (the infamous wall/fence), and next to a military guard tower. The Israeli government has threatened to demolish part of the school three times and the school had to summon international support – the demolition has been put on hold but not cancelled. Because they are in Area C, they don’t have a license to build and the land is controlled by Israelis, which explains the demolition threats. In 2000-2002 the road to the school was blockaded. Many people intervened to help with this including the US consulate, and the blockages were removed, though the road remains in poor shape. The Israeli military presence in Bethlehem continues to be disruptive to the lives and education of the kids in the school. Kids have been traumatized when their homes were searched at night by the Israeli military. Ghada also described an episode during which students were outside in the school’s yard and when a soldier in a sniper tower started shooting in their direction – presumably at a target nearby and not at the school itself. Although no one was injured during this incident, it took a long time for the school community to recover from it. Economic deterioration after the second intifada led to increased unemployment because parents who had previously worked in Israel could no longer cross the border between the West Bank and Israel. The parents stopped being able to pay tuition and the school suffered. Yet, during the second intifada 56% of the schools students suffered from malnutrition, so the school had to provide additional services and with the help of external grants they were able to provide hot meals for their students. Before the second intifada tuition was enough to pay the operational costs of the school but now the school needs additional funding in order to function. Also after the second intifada the number of exchanges went down due to travel restrictions – the best bet is to find a neutral location, such as in Britain, the US, or Germany, where students from Bethlehem and Israel can meet. The actual cost of each student is $880 a year, but students pay $250 a year in tuition, which includes textbooks, uniforms, and transportation. Public schools (those run by the PA and those run by the UN) are free, but the quality of education is poor and there can be as many as 60 kids in one classroom. The Hope Flowers School has a good relationship with other public schools – the ministry of education gave Hope Flowers a contract to implement a learning needs program in 90 public schools in the West Bank. Graduates of the school come back to the school for extracurricular activities, to use the computer lab and to go to summer camp. They can use any Hope Flowers facilities for free, and in this way the school stays connected to their alumni. There are currently 350 students enrolled in the school – before the second intifada they had 600 students and immediately after the intifada the enrollment was at 200.
After the presentation, we had an opportunity to meet some of the kids, and to color with them. Daniel and I sat with some chipper little girls (about 8 or 9 years old) who asked us to do their portraits (which we did rather unsuccessfully) and practiced their English on us. We didn’t have very long with them, but it was nice to have an opportunity to meet them regardless.
We then went back on the bus to go on a tour of Bethlehem, led by Sami Awad, the director of the Holy Land Trust, an organization devoted to nonviolent activism. Sami wove his personal narrative together with information about Bethlehem and the Separation Barrier. Sami’s father’s family became refugees in 1948 from Musrara, Jerusalem. His grandfather was killed while raising a white flag over homes to indicate that civilians were living on the site of the conflict, and although he was killed his raising the flag allowed his family to be saved. All families in Musrara were evicted during the war. Sami said that before 1948 there was peace between Jews and non-Jews living in that area – when his father was a child he had Jewish friends. Sami’s father and his family grew up in orphan homes and he was separated from his mother and siblings. Despite all this, Sami’s grandmother was devoted to the idea of reconciliation. Sami’s mother was from a Christian family in the Gaza strip. There are now 2,500 Christians living in Gaza. His mother’s family’s apartment building was bombed in the recent conflict and the family was able to escape five minutes before their apartment was shelled. Sami himself was born in the US in Kansas city, where his father was teaching. The family returned to Bethlehem when Sami was 6 months old because his father was offered a position as the principal of an orphan school in Bethlehem. Sami grew up in Beit Jala, where his daily experience included Israeli soldiers and settlers with guns. He was afraid of these people who mistreated Palestinians and he grew up in hatred and in fear, although he was also influenced by his grandmother, who continued to hold to her values of peace and reconciliation. He had to learn how to balance these conflicting feelings. Sami’s uncle, Mubarak Awad founded the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence after studying the work of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. During a time when the PLO leadership was located outside of Israel his work was accepted y some but rejected by many others. Through his uncle’s work, Sami began to learn how to deal with anger without resorting to violence. In 1987 during the first intifada, Sami’s uncle employed nonviolent strategies – boycotts, protests, civil unrest. In 1988 Sami’s uncle was arrested by Israel and was put on trial. He was deported from the country and is allowed to come back once a year to visit family. He is considered threatening because of the power of his nonviolent tactics. Sami began to study nonviolence in earnest after his uncle’s deportation. He went to Kansas University and majored in political science, and he earned a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies from American University. While in Washington, DC he worked with his uncle at his organization, Nonviolence International http://nonviolenceinternational.net/, located in DC. After Sami completed his education, he returned to Bethlehem to found the Holy Land Trust. The Holy Land Trust was founded during the Oslo Peace Process, which was a time of a lot of home for the end of the conflict, but Sami felt that the process wasn’t helping the Palestinian people, especially because of the nature of settlement. The premise of a two-state solution was undermined as the Israeli government built settlements and moved settlers in order to complicate negotiations. There were 200,000 settlers in the West Bank in 1993 and 420,000 in 1999, and there are now over 500,000 settlers in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Of these, only East Jerusalem is officially Israeli territory. Sami believes that Palestinians have been marginalized in the peace process.
Sami began by talking about the refugee camps in the Bethlehem area. The camps were established after the 1948 war and they began as tent dwellings because the people assumed they would return to their homes inside of Israel. The refugees were from the southwest coast and middle areas of Israel, between the West Bank and Gaza. There are 3 refugee camps in the Bethlehem area – the largest holds about 15,000 people, and the smallest holds 1000, which is the smallest refugee camp in the PA. If residents can afford it, they are allowed to move out of the camps. The UN provides food and education. People stay in the caps for symbolic reasons –they don’t consider themselves residents of Bethlehem but wish to return inside of Israel and being on a refugee camp means that the issue remains on the table – this is especially true for the older generation who lived through the 1948 war. People also stay in the refugee camps because there is a lot of poverty there and with the poor education they receive it is hard for them to find jobs that will allow them to be in the financial position to leave the camps. Nevertheless, refugees in the Bethlehem area live a better life than those in Lebanon, where job restrictions include a list of 40 jobs they can’t have . Unless another solution is provided for them, residents of refugee camps feel that the only answer for them is to return to their pre-1948 homes. At one time there was a 20 meter fence around the camp with only three ways for pedestrians to go in and out because after the first intifada there was a lot of stone throwing and gunfire on the main road. In 1993 with the Oslo Peace process, the PA gained control of the area and the fence was taken down, in part to discourage Israeli traffic through Bethlehem. According to Sami, the borders of Bethlehem have been redrawn since the 1990’s and they now confine Palestinians to residential areas so that the Israelis can build more and so that the fewest number of non-Jews as possible are left within the Jerusalem district. He told us that in 1997 Israeli bulldozers started uprooting trees in a forest they had prior declared a nature reserve in order that Palestinians would not build there. Bethlehem is surrounded by Jewish settlements and confined by walls and fences that prevent farmers from going to their fields, and people from accessing their property. The barrier consists of concrete walls in residential areas and fences monitored by watch towers in open areas. In 2002 there was shelling and shooting between Bethlehem/Beit Jallah and Gilo. Militants (Christian and Muslim) came to Beit Jalah to participate in the fighting, and many buildings were shelled by the Israeli tanks and destroyed.
Sami assured us that the nonviolent movement is growing, albeit modestly, among Palestinians. Supporters of nonviolence confront militants aggressively, asking what violence has achieved for the Palestinians – ethics aside. Engaging in violence has not been for liberation or freedom but for retaliation and revenge. They are training militants in nonviolence so that they will begin to see its value as a strategy.
We went to see the separation barrier. In Bethlehem, the barrier takes the form of a tall concrete wall. We visited the part of the wall that separates Bethlehem from the religious site of Rachel’s tomb which has a mosque and a synagogue, but from which the Muslim community is now separated. Sami said that the separation wall means that for the first time in history Jerusalem and Bethlehem are separated from each other. This is a problem for the church, so a gat was built so that once a year, on Easter, the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church can make his annual pilgrimage on the historic route. The gage is also used for the Israeli military.
We made our way slowly around the wall, looking at graffiti – some of it quite artistic, and some of it more sloppy. I noticed several crossed-out stars of David, but much of the graffiti was not anti-Semitic in nature. Many of the slogans were written in English and they read “when oppression is law resistance is duty” “darkness cannot drive out darkness hate cannot drive out hate” “justice is a collective effort not a gift” “might is not right” “Is it nothing to you all you who pass by?” “Israeli idiots I do not want to feel hate what are you doing to me?” “warning: our dreams blast through this apartheid wall” “Where is the USA’s professed democracy now?” as well as pictures of cats, camels, faces, and even menus of nearby restaurants. One particularly clever quote read “I want my ball back. Thanks” (I suppose someone was playing a particularly impressive game of baseball and hit the ball way out of the court…)
One of the most striking things about the wall is that it cuts very closely to the residential areas – perhaps this is for security, or perhaps it is to take land, depending on who you ask. The wall weaves around the homes. One home we passed is surrounded by the wall on three sides. The residents are not allowed to open the shades on their upper floor windows and may not go on their own roof without special permission from the Israeli government. The house is located on what was once a main street with markets, restaurants, commerce, and tourism. There are stores and homes on the other side of the wall and the Palestinians who own them cannot access them. Sami told us about the economic impact of the wall – it has resulted in the loss of agricultural land that is now being taken by settlements, a loss of tourism, and a loss of movement of people and products between Gaza and the West Bank.
Sami told us that many Palestinains continue to believe that they way to end the conflict is through violent resistence, and they honor peple who were killed by celebrating them as martyrs. Sami feels that “It is up to us to do the things that do not allow the Israeli government to justify why they need to build the wall [ie. stop violence so that security won’t be a concern] Nonviolence is not just an answer for me, it is the answer.” Sami feels that the Israeli community will be able to defeat the extremist views in their own society if the Palestinians do the same. Thus, Sami’s nonviolent resistance is not only for the Palestinian community but for the sake of Israelis as well. He wants Palestinians to remove themselves from a pattern of blaming and complaining and victimization and to get our of their homes and emngage in actions with the intention of healing. He acknowledges that trauma also exists s within the Israeli Jewish community. The Palestinians feel that they are the victims and want pity from the world for it, but Sami feels that Israelis have a rhetoric of fear because of the Holocaust and that both groups are victims and should stop seeking pity and start seeking healing for themselves and for each other.
After lunch and mincha services, we heard from George Saadah, Deputy Mayor of Bethlehem, principal of the Greek Shepherd’s School and member of the Bereaved Families Forum and from Salah Ajarma, the Directorof the Lajee Center in Aida Refugee Camp.
Salah Ajarma is a Palestinian refugee from the village of Ajur and has lived his entire life in Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem. When he was 14 years old, Salah was arrested by the Israeli authorities for the first time and spent two years in Israeli jail. Afterwards, Salah helped establish the Palestinian Students Union in the Bethlehem area and across the West Bank. He graduated from the Future College in Ramallah in 1992 with advanced degrees in journalism and media, and has extensive media and journalism experience with organizations throughout the West Bank. From 1995 to 1998, Salah was the Manager of the Palestinian Prisoners Society for the West Bank. He was also in the Fateh Youth Organization, and represented it internationally on several occasions. While working as a freelance journalist in 2002, Sallah sought refuge with other civilians in the Church of the Nativity and for the following 40 days he was one of the 220 people inside the Church during the “Seige of the Nativity.” He is now the Director of the Lajee Center in Aida Refugee Camp.
The Aida Refugee camp holds people from 27 villages, more than 2000 children and more than six million Palestinians live in refugee camps. The Lajee Center is devoted to changing life in refugee camps and focuses on what is needed for the next generation. The camp is crowded and there are two schools with 900 students in the girl school and 700 students in the boy school and not enough room for all of them. The community center organizes art and music activities, picnics, libraries, computers, dance ,etc. Many children otherwise wouldn’t have opportunities for organized recreation. The organization was begun in 2000 and more than a hundred international volunteers have come to work in the center since them, some of whom have been American Jews. Last year the center hosted four American Jews and it was the first time that kids in the camp had met Jews who weren’t soldiers, “They taught the kids that there were good people who are Jewish.” After the second intifada, people in the camps felt less safe because soldiers come into the camp and the camp is surrounded by a wall. The soldiers search the camps from house to house. 27 people were killed by soldiers in the camp. The camp is a closed military area. Salah feels that he wants to empower young people in the camp to decide about their own future. They believe in Palestinian rights, International rights, and human rights: “Justice is for everyone and there is no peace without justice.” Salah described an incident during which there was a shooting in the camp. For two hours the kids were hiding, and two children were injured in the street. He also told of a time when a woman knew that her house was going to be searched and as she went to open the door to her home the soldiers bombed the door down and she was injured. Her children asked the soldier to help the mother because she is not a terrorist and they told the children that because she had five children who could grow up to be a terrorist, the woman was a threat. So, the children want to have a good future but under the occupation it is difficult. It’s been quiet since 2002, and no Israeli soldier has been injured n the camp, but more than 2000 Palestinians have been in Israeli jail since 2002 and many have been killed. Salah said, “We don’t feel that the Israeli government wants peace between us, but when you build people it is between the people and not the governments.” And so he continues to believe that peace is possible.
Salah also spoke a bit about his experiences in an Israeli jail. He said it is hard to be active and develop communities when so many young people are sent to jail. Someetimes when they stay in jail they develop relationships with soldiers and talk about peace, and sometimes the jail can be like a university and people learn a lot there. Nevertheless jail is a big problem and the number of young people who are sent to jail is an indicator that Israelis aren’t serious about peace.
Salah criticized Israel saying that all funding in Israel is for security for the Israelis without caring about the Palestinians. The PA are like guards for the Israelis and also don’t care about the Palestinians. People are frustrated with both governments.
Salah said that he would accept a one state solution because he does not beliee that a two state solution is the answer any longer. He said that he knows that people can live together – for instance there are people of many different backgrounds living in New York City and they do so peacefully. The problem has to do with land and settlement. In Haifa people of different backgrounds live together. According to Salah the people who make the problems are the Israeli leadership. A one state solution could solve all of the problems – the Palestinians could return to their original homes if they want to, the settlers can stay where they are, and everyone can learn to live together. He gave an example of the kind of social injustice that is commonplace in his life – water restrictions are severe in Bethlehem – people get water once a week in the summer and it is expensive. It is much less expensive for the settlers, who have constant access to water.
Salah addressed the question of the media, saying that the Israelis are very rich and can play with the media so that it supports their views. Palestinians are afraid to talk to the media because they might be put on an Israeli security list and be forbidden from visiting Jerusalem. This seemed an interesting perspective as many Israelis feel that the media is slanted in the opposite direction.
George Saadah, the Deputy Mayor of Bethelehem, began by telling us about his responsibilities as Deputy Mayor – he manages city infrastructure, buildings, roads, and is currently preparing for the Pope’s visit in May. He was born in Bethlehem as were generations of his family before him. Because Bethlehem is the Christian capital of the world, 60 cities have adopted t as a twin city. Its economic income si from tourism, industry (esp textiles) and limestone (“Jerusalem stone”). George told us that since 2000 the political improvements that began with the Oslo accords stopped. George has also been the principal of the Greek Shepherd’s School for ten years and encourages students to talk about achieving justice through democracy, human rights, and dialogue with others.
George was born during the Jordanian occupation in Bethlehem and grew up there. He graduated from USC-LA as an aerospace engineed and came back to Bethlehem in 1984 but couldn’t find work in his field of study although he had experience working for the USAF and NASA. He worked with heating and air conditioning before becoming a computer teacher, and then a principal. He was married in 1996 and had two daughters. In 2003 he was driving with his wife and two daughters, when he saw three army vehicles parked by the road, but didn’t see any soldiers, so he kept driving. As he was driving, the soldiers shot more than 300 bullets at his car. He was shot with nine bullets, one of his daughters, Marianne, was shot in the knee, and the other, Christine, was killed. She was the 404th child that was killed that year. The army blocked the area and prevented the Palestinain ambulance from coming. Magen David Adom came ten minutes later. He later learned that the Israeli forces had been ambushing three suspects and George’s family had simply been caught in the fire. Shortly after the event, the Bereaved Families Forum called George and asked him to meet with them. Eventually he agreed and met them at a restaurant. They were a group of Israeli Jews and Palestinians who had lost their children in the conflict. They shared their stories and they continue to share their grief together and come to terms with it and work to live together under justice. George described the Bereaved Families Forum as a group of people who support one another because they feel grief together, “We know what’s ruined our lives…we reach a point where we are forgiving.”
George feels adamantly that the wall won’t bring security for Israel or stop any action against Israel. The solution is to have peace, which means ending the occupation in order to build a secure future for everyone. It’s no good to build a wall and be surrounded by enemies – better to build bridges and be surrounded by friends because walls won’t bring security, peace will. Building a wall means that Palestinians are all in a prison – an open prison from which they can’t leave without a permit. George feels that the solution is in the hands of the Israeli government. They have the power to make a secure state for Jews by making friends instead of enemies. They are strong and have an army and planes and Palestine doesn’t have this. The Palestinians will recognize Israel if Israel will give them a state. The Palestinians would agree on many things but Israel keeps putting up obstacles because they want the whole area – a two stat solution is the only solution and not following it only hurts Israelis too. When asked if he would agree with a one state solution, George said, “We don’t mind to have one state. We don’t mind to have two states. We want a solution.”
George agreed with Salah with regard to the media – “The media outside is controlled by Israel and biased toward Israel because it is Western.” When an Israeli is killed it is all over the news, but not so for the Palestinians. Lately the media, with internet technologies, ahs begun receiving these materials and it is getting better. Many people are learning what is happening here and changing heir ideas. Bt before it as impossible to criticize Israel in the Western media.
After we heard from George and Salah, we went into small groups to process together what we had heard. Many people were struck by the conflicting narratives and oppositeness and similarity of the Israeli and Palestinian narratives of victimization and a sense that everyone is against them. Many of us were also struck by the wall and its effect on the society.
In our small groups we were joined by some Palestinians for a poetry workshop where we wrote in our respective languages poems that were about our homes and wove them together. This activity was a bit too much like middle school for me, but I think some groups felt more positively about it.
We went to dinner with all of the host families at a restaurant decorated like a tent. We sat with our host family, whose names were something like Rudaya, Jerais, and Yusra, as well as Rudaya’s sister and her husband, and a few other students. The family was warm and eager to talk with us. The dinner ended with dancing and drumming, all together. Two two-year old Palestinian kids were dancing together and it was adorable.
Then we left the group to go with our host family for the night – our host family is Palestinian Christian and stems from Beit Sachor (next to Bethlehem) where they still live. Daniel and I climbed in to the back of their beat-up old car while they sat in the front with Yusra on their lap. There were no seatbelts. We drove a short distance to Rudaya’s family’s home in Beit Sachor so that we could spend the evening with her parents. When we arrived we were greeted by Rudaya’s youngest sister, who is 22, and invited into the beautiful home. The kitchen was huge and the living room expansive with two sets of couches for greeting guests. Rudaya gave us a tour of some of the pictures on the wall – the walls were covered with beautiful portraits of family weddings, baptisms, and other events. On one wall there was a picture of Rudaya’s grandfather, father, and a cousin who fell in the 1967 war, fighting on the Jordanian side. In addition to the beautiful portraits, there were many pieces of artwork, including carpentry work that Rudaya’s father did himself, a beautiful chandelier, and a giant metal picture of Jesus which lit up when switched on. Jerais also works with wood – he makes olive wood handicrafts which are sold to tourists – so it is a little funny that we met two carpenters in Bethlehem of all places. Rudaya is a primary school English teacher. As we were in the home, we met first Rudaya’s father, who was already dressed in his silk patterned pajamas, her sister and brother, another brother and his wife and three children, and her mother – it was a family reunion involving a lot of hugging and affection, tea, coffee, and sunflower seeds, and conversation. One family member spoke Hebrew and several others knew English, so Nessa, Shelley, (the girls from our group who were staying with Rudaya’s sister) Daniel and I, spoke in some mixture of Hebrew and English as jokes in Arabic flew over our heads and danced around the room. They asked us about life in America as a Jew, and we talked about American movies, and about living in Bethlehem. They talked about travel restrictions and how difficult it is to get into Jerusalem from here, about a Syrian-Jewish friend who lives in Jerusalem that they seem very proud to be close to, as well as about their work and everyday lives. When we asked Rudaya’s father about the oud that was sitting next to the couch, he took it out for us and played exquisitely. Finally, late at night, we left Rudaya’s parents’ home and went to her home, which was also spacious and beautiful, and covered with portraits on the walls. It was immaculately clean, too. We sat and talked for a short while before going to bed. In the morning we woke up to eggs, pita, spreads, and date-filled cake for breakfast, and Jerais drove us back to the hotel where we were to meet our group, with many encouragements that we should come back again to visit and that we were welcome in their home.
At the hotel some participants had already gathered earlier to pray shacharit. We joined them in a conference room where we took a little time to share our experiences from our home stay. Daniel and I said a few words about the fun we had at Rudaya’s parents’ house, and others told similar stories. It seems that the general sense of these stories was that the families we stayed with were nice, they were open and modern and well-off, but they also faced hardships in living in the West Bank – restriction of movement, confiscation of property, military presence, etc. One family told a story of a teenage boy who was shot in the leg by a soldier who thought his car was suspicious. The ambulance took a long time to come, and the boy told a participant of our program that he believes it took such a long time because the soldiers wanted him to die. Whether that was the case or not, I think it is pretty remarkable that someone who believes the Israelis want him to die is willing to open his home to Jewish Americans. Though one Encounter participant heard from her host family, “I don’t hate Jews, I hate Israelis.” It seemed to me though that most of the host families, who host Encounter students several times a year, do it because they have a desire to tell their stories, because they think meeting us is a step toward peace, and because they believe in encountering people who have access to institutions that can implement change. Having met with them, perhaps our responsibility to work toward change is made more concrete.
Our next presentation was of a political nature. We heard from Hamed Qawasmeh from the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Before I begin relating the information we heard from him, I would like to note that his was the presentation with which most participants felt most uncomfortable, and the views I am about to relate do not represent my own views on the situation. His presentation focused on the situation in the West Bank. In 2007, the Palestinian Territories had a poverty rate of 57.2% (45% in the West Bank and 79.4% in Gaza) In 2001 the rate was 35.5%. In 2008 22.6% of people in the Palestinian Territories were unemployed (19% in the West Bank and 29.8% in Gaza. The West Bank has a population of 2,444,500, while the 149 Israeli settlers bring the Israeli population of the West Bank to 450,000. The West Bank is 5,600 square kilometers. (for more statistics you can go here, here, or here or from a Palestinian perspective look here)
There are many impediments to movement for residents of the West Bank. They include checkpoints, trenches dug into road (especially around Jericho), road gates and road blocks, earth mounds (sand and rocks in the road, mostly near Hebron), and road barriers. Today there are 630 total closures, in 2005 there were 376. There has been a 59% increase in closures since the Access Monitoring Agreement was signed, and a massive increase in settlement since the Annapolis Conference . With regard to the barrier, Hamed believes that Palestinians oppose the route of the barrier more than the barrier itself. About 35,000 Palestinians will be caught on the “wrong side” of the barrier – the barrier goes into the West Bank to capture Israeli settlements on the Israeli side of the barrier and in so leaves many West Bank residents on the Israel side of the barrier. Hamed projects that soon a series of tunnels will separate Palestinian movement from Israeli movement, further entrenching and institutionalizing the limited movement of Palestinians. He believes that the fragmentation for the West Bank due to closures, nature reserves, settlements, Israeli military areas, and the separation barrier are decreasing the tenability of a viable two state solution. All of these measures are becoming institutionalized and as time goes by and things continue to change toward more settlement and restrictions, Hamed believes that these measures are getting close to being irreversible. Nevertheless, there is a sense that pulling out settlements could cause the same security problems that it did a few years ago with Gaza.
One point Hamed emphasized was that any two-state solution would have to give the Jordan Valley to the Palestinians. It is the bread basket of the West Bank and a central part of a viable Palestinian state, but much of it is currently a military closed area.
According to the UN, all settlements are illegal, as they constitute the transfer of a population by an occupier into an occupied land, which is illegal according to the Genevas convention – what’s debatable here is the status of “occupation” and whether it applies in this case. Hamed made it very clear that the UN does not seek to be a neutral force in this issue. They consider Israel to be an occupier during an occupation that is becoming increasingly permanent, and the UN is here to protect the rights of the occupied. Hamed cited UN Resolutions 338, 242, and 194 to support this statement.
Hamed’s presentation involved a lot of maps layering different statistics with regard to barriers to movement and to population and settlements. You can get a taste of it here.
After we heard this presentation, we took a bus to the Tent of Nations, an organization that hopes to be a meeting ground for people of different backgrounds and perspectives. It is located in Area C, near the Palestinian Village of Nahaleen and surrounded by three Israeli settlements. Daher Nassar purchased the land in 1924 and he planted, cultivated and produced olives, grapes, and figs. His family lived in caves. Daher had ten children. 30 years ago Daher passed away and the family continued living here and opened the place for anyone to come, meet, and be in nature. In 1991 the land was under the threat of confiscation and even now it is being considered by the Supreme Court. They have documents from the Ottoman, English, and Jordanian periods illustrating their ownership of the land. They have experienced some difficulties from road blocks which make it hard to transport goods, and they also don’t have permits to allow them to have electricity or running water – instead they collect rainwater in cisterns and have electricity for two hours a day from a generator. They don’t have permits for new buildings, and if they do not cultivate the land it will become state property. Ten years ago they established the Tent of Nations to build bridges between people. International and local visitors come to the Tent of Nations and they include long term and short term volunteers, groups of students who stay on camp grounds, summer camps for Muslims and Christians, and local and international exchange programs. There is a women’s program that serves the Nahaleen community – women can come for free education. Nahaleen is very conservative and women are taken out of school at a young age, so the Tent of Nations opened the center for women to take English, computers, and health education as well as to socialize and to make and sell handicrafts. The family that owns the Tent of Nations is Christian and their relationship to women is more western/liberal than that of the residents of Nahaleen. The women’s program began four years ago and in the beginning men in Nahaleen were very opposed to this but after a year the community began to support it and now even the men are calling to register their wives to come to classes – which is bittersweet because the program has more support from the community but the men aren’t allowing women to take the initiative to choose to come to the classes or not on their own will. As we were taking a tour of the Tent of Nations, we were told that a long time ago settlers from the Israeli settlement of Newe Daniel came to the Tent of Nations and uprooted trees and destroyed water cisterns. A British Jewish organization sent volunteers to replant the trees. More recently, the Tent of Nations has had good relations with Newe Daniel and have developed a friendship with a couple who lives there and hope that the couple will be their advocates in Newe Daniel. In addition to the peace work that happens at the Tent of Nations it is also an organic self-sufficient, environmentally conscious working farm that gets revenue from selling is agricultural products. After the separation barrier is complete the Tent of Nations will be cut off from Bethlehem (which is 10 minutes away) and it would take more than three hours to get there. This will make it hard to bring goods, machines, etc. and to find markets for the produce of the farm. They are trying to find international markets for their products, and next year some friends in Germany are donating windmills and solar panels to help the farm with more electricity. In the meantime, the settlements that surround the farm are growing and seem to be aimed at connecting together and perhaps eventually taking over the land where the Tent of Nations is now located.
After lunch at the Tent of Nations, we went home to Jerusalem via check point 300, the check point specifically designated for Palestinians. Palestinians may not drive their own vehicles through the checkpoint, so they take taxis to the check point, walk through, and take taxis on the other side. The check point feels like a international border crossing – it is a large structure with metal fixtures outlining where we should stand in line, put our bags through x-rays, etc. We came at a time when it wasn’t very busy but we’ve heard that there can be tremendously long lines to get through. As we were going through security the soldiers gave us a hard time, telling us that we shouldn’t have gone to Bethlehem because it is dangerous.
We returned to Jerusalem and debriefed a little – we also had a Sunday night closing session in which we took some time to process what we’d seen and heard and talked about possible next steps. What’s striking to me about all of this is that it is really around the corner from where I live – it took almost no time to get back from the check point to Independence Park in Jerusalem. There’s a lot I don’t know about all of this and I definitely need to learn more (and will accept book recommendations!), and I recognize that what we saw was only a very small part of all that there is to see, but I am very glad to have gone on the trip.
Pictures to follow