The main purpose of our visit to Gaza is to deliver a basic and advanced Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop to students at Gaza university. Our hope is that – through the workshop – the students will gain skills which will help them to build resilience to the stressful and violent siege situation they find themselves in, with the hope of enabling them to respond non-violently and then spread those skills to others. A further aim is to make the programme sustainable, so that it can run and develop without our direct input. The programme is part of a wider initiative in Israel, the Occupied Territories and Gaza to address horizontal violence in the two societies. AVP isn’t in itself political, but it’s hard to discuss anything in the region without touching on the political situation, as we soon find out.
Quite early on in the workshop we look at the question: ‘What is Violence?’ Some of participants’ comments are:’Everything in Gaza is suffering from violence – the environment, the houses, the people’; ‘Violence generates violence’; and ‘Anything that the Occupation does is violence.’ At the end of this brainstorm participants are asked to come up and circle anything that they have either committed or been a victim of. One person commented: ‘Since I live in Gaza, I would just put a big circle round the lot.’
When discussing the opposite of these statements – i.e. ‘What is Non-violence?’ some of the comments were: ‘Islam is not Daesh’; and ‘Being religious means being good to people.’ This reflected a strong feeling in the group that all Muslims are being painted with the same brush as being terrorists, but that this is contrary to their own experiences and beliefs. One participant then claimed: ‘Gaza’s problem is not the siege; it’s having manners.’ This led to some quite heated discussion as others in the group felt that people in Gaza had ‘good morals’. Sharif wrapped up the discussion by reminding people that: ‘We have one mouth and two ears, but we talk more than we listen. If we listened more than talked, then we would be less violent.’
A key element of AVP is the idea of Transforming Power (TP) – that we can all access a force for good that enables us to solve conflict non-violently. Certain vital behaviours make up the TP Mandala, enabling us to experience this shift from violence to non-violence in our lives – respect for self, caring for others, thinking before reacting, expecting the best and asking for a non-violent path. After introducing the concept of TP, Joe asks participants to go and stand by a component of the Mandala that they feel they are doing at the moment, then one that they feel is most challenging for them – and to say why. By far the largest group goes and stands by ‘Expect the Best’. How difficult it is in Gaza to have hope for the future! Many of them are sure that another war will come, and aren’t hopeful that their dreams of travel and self-fulfilment will ever materialise. For others not expecting the best is a protective mechanism – for if they don’t expect anything then they won’t be disappointed.
And so we come face to face once again with the reality of the situation in Gaza. Hemmed in on all sides it so difficult for them to feel hopeful. We remind them that expecting the best also means expecting the best from yourself. Joe also introduces the concept of the Circle of Influence and the Circle of Concern: there are many things that we may be concerned about but which are out of our control, so it’s best to concentrate our energies on the things that we can influence – such as our relationships with family and friends. I feel uncomfortable as we distribute our Western wisdom to people who live in circumstances we can hardly imagine. Our words feel dry and brittle, and yet they are accepted graciously and with smiles.
Part of the advanced workshop aims to help participants deal with traumatic experiences in positive ways. One exercise involves them thinking about and drawing a safe place which they can retreat to in times of stress. One participant draws a picture of the sea with boats and the slogan ‘Free Gaza’ at the top. Adel draws a picture of a country landscape with trees: for quite a few participants nature is a source of solace. Hisham who is studying German and who dreams of being a famous actor tells us that his safe space is his dream of the opening night of a play in which he plays a main part. The opening is introduced by a Beethoven overture.
As is always the case with the West Bank, we leave Gaza with a bit of ourselves left behind.