The Orlando Mass-Shootings: Homophobia or Terrorism

Megan Griffiths

On the morning of the 12th of June, the world woke up to the news of a mass shooting in a LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Another mass shooting. As the death toll in the Orlando shooting has increased to 49 people, debates on homophobia, terrorism and gun control have been stirred up. Mateen’s homophobic and religious motives are not mutually exclusive but entangled, and the events resonate painfully with both recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Ankara and Beirut but also, attacks on gay men and women in New Orleans and London.

In the next few days and weeks, as is the case with every act of violence, messages of solidarity, prayers and love will be sent from all over the world. Yet the range of different controversial issues will no doubt spark debate and will lead to an array of different perceptions of the deeper rooted issues in American society. It’s easy to point the finger towards terrorism, especially considering the inherent American fear of radical Islam. This crime cannot be simply ascribed to being an act of terrorism but as Obama pointed out, also an act of hate. According to Mateen’s father, Mateen became completely enraged when he and his young son saw two men kissing in Miami a few months back, and according to media speculation, it seems his sexuality may be more of a motivation for his actions than his religion. Statistics show that US Muslims are actually more likely to support same sex marriage (42%) than US evangelicals (28%) and are just as likely to support it as general US Christians, suggesting opposition to same sex relationships may not necessarily be a product of any particular religion but of their extremist factions.

T Lt. Governor Dan Patrick tweeted early on Sunday morning a bible verse from Galatians 6:7 ‘Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.’ The very fact that a prominent political figure can take such an anti-gay stance in such a public way illustrates perfectly the depth of homophobia amongst certain Americans, and how, in some ways, it is actually accepted. A pastor from California gave an impassioned sermon on the shootings, lamenting that “The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die. The tragedy is — I’m kind of upset that he didn’t finish the job!” He went on to add that “I wish the government would round them all up, put them up against a firing wall, put a firing squad in front of them, and blow their brains out.” If a member of the Muslim community used these words, they would likely be used as newspaper headlines to inspire shock amongst people. But due to his supposedly ‘Christian’ faith, the effect is not the same. What is more, Trump’s use of the attack to forward his ideas on banning Muslim immigrants shows the extent of his ignorance on the state of his own country. Mateen was born in America. Whilst he undoubtedly had outside influences on his ideology throughout his life, he was also brought up in an American society where there is often some form of negative stigma on being gay. Politicians such as Trump will use the attack to ignore the flaws in society and place the blame on anyone but straight white Americans.

Of course, America has made real progress in legalising same-sex marriage and equality for homosexual and transgender people, and indeed does not see this as a crime unlike some countries around the world. Still, the fact that this took place in a LGBT club, during the national pride month, needs to be observed and we should reflect on the homophobia and transphobia that evidently still exists. We should not become complacent in how far we have come. An attack directly on LGBT people has shattered the security that many people had come to accept and has revealed the deeper roots of hate, prejudice and insecurity that have evidently been bubbling under the surface of society. Through the juxtaposition and intertwining of terrorism and homophobia in this particular case, it is impossible to extract one from the other.

Indeed, to some, it is easier to simply place the blame for his homophobia on his radicalisation. It is easier to continue our debates on ISIS and terrorism strategies than also consider our attitudes to gays and lesbians, often a slightly taboo subject at the best of times. Owen Jones’ reaction live on air on Sky News shows just how sensitive the situation is and how people’s perceptions of the attack differ. But this totally ignores the fact that Mateen was brought up in America and was therefore exposed to home-grown ignorance and anti-LGBT rhetoric in American society and government which itself leads to marginalisation and violence against the community on a day-to-day basis. He may be Muslim, but is this actually relevant when we consider how anti-LGBT policies are a fundamental mainstream in many parts of America, regardless of faith.

It would be interesting to ask ourselves if the dialogue surrounding the shootings would be different if Mateen was not a seemingly radicalised Muslim, but an anti-gay Christian acting in the name of God. Where does the fact that, completely aside from his faith, he is cited to be a violent and perhaps mentally unstable individual fit in? Would the event have taken on the shape of a less high-profile hate crime? Or merely another mass shooting? By solely labelling it as a ‘terrorist attack’ and linking it to ISIS, it inspires a specific response in us due to recent events attributed to ISIS. The fact that homophobia is not exclusive to a single religion or belief system means that we cannot allow ourselves to simply focus on this as an ISIS inspired terrorist attack. Much focus has been placed on the fact that the attack marks the deadliest domestic terror attack since 9/11 yet it is also the largest targeted attack on the LGBT community since the holocaust.

Increasing acts of terrorism around the globe, coupled with the European refugee crisis, have led to general negative shifts in attitudes towards immigrants and often, islamophobia, ordinary peaceful Muslims are tarred with the same brush as radicalised extremists, leading to ill-conceived fears of Islam itself. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the US and the rise of right wing movements in Europe have led to a general increase in ‘hatemongering’. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al- Hussein warned that ‘Hate is becoming mainstreamed’. We cannot afford to allow this latest attack to inspire yet more hatred and fear by using Mateen’s Muslim faith as a scapegoat and exploit his faith to forward political agendas on terrorism. To do so blatantly ignores the cracks in tolerance and acceptance within our society and towards the LGBT community. Homophobia, Transphobia and Islamophobia all come together under the same umbrella of hatred and it is not until we have dismantled them all that we can be completely peaceful.

The shows of humanity in Orlando as people go out of their way to help and the messages of solidarity and vigils for the victims and the LGBT community held all over the world show us that love can indeed win. But love will only win if we don’t allow tragedies like this to inspire yet more hatred towards other innocent people. We owe it to the 49 individuals who lost their lives and their families.

 

The EU Referendum – A Welsh Debate

Georgia Marks

The rapidly approaching  EU Referendum is a highly discussed topic in the UK, currently dividing our public. On 8th June the WCIA held an event in the old library to aid the understanding of what it would mean for Britain both if we choose to leave or remain in the European Union. The insightful event featured three panels which consisted of three speakers. Although I came to the event with the view that we should remain in the EU, it was overall, a well-informed debate that will prove helpful for those whose minds are still undecided.

The first panel of the evening discussed society and law. Dr Jo Hunt established the framework for EU laws, expressing that they could be seen as both a straitjacket in terms of the restrictions put in place, but also that there is value in these laws such as the communication that we have with other countries. She then established that EU law is made by EU treaties which set out the scope for those institutions that have been given competence to act. The member states work together to make the legislation. In my opinion, surely this legislation is fair to the EU member states if they all participate in the creation of these laws. The European Commission proposes the legislation and it must gain approval from elected members of European Parliament. There is also increased involvement of our national parliament which has been strengthened slightly by February agreements. In terms of how this affects Wales, Dr Hunt stated that the Welsh Assembly have some say in relation to these laws and can be involved in the enactment of indirect legislation if it is relevant to the devolved nation. EU law is supreme, so national laws must not run contrary to EU law. For Wales, Hunt expressed that EU law could be seen as holding restrictions, however the framework provides for expansion.

Dr Hywel Ceri Jones put forward the case to remain in the European Union. He stated that the UK is safer and more through membership, particularly with the threats of terrorism currently plaguing society. He highlighted the importance of standing together to increase peace and reconciliation. Although our membership in the EU means that our sovereignty is to be sacrificed, Jones emphasised that this sacrifice was for the greater good. Those, like Jones, who want to remain in the EU, have an interest in being a full and active member in a strategic security membership. This a sound view, to be part of a group greater than just the United Kingdom will ensure higher levels of security, as we are part of a collective that are able to fight threats to our safety together by sharing strategy. Jones also discussed the unprecedented challenges to security, stating that the EU is a huge institution and it would be foolish to throw our membership away as we are not strong enough without it; British power has an added weight because of our membership in the EU. I completely agree with the statements made, as although the UK wields a lot of power, to stand alone would be detrimental, when we do not have enough influence to stand alone. Jones emphasised the point above by providing examples of how the EU affects Wales. Firstly, in terms of climate change, the global agreement last year was strongly led by the European Union and we need to be in the EU to implement these policies. This is a very strong example due to the increase in concern we have collectively as a society to the horror of climate change. Secondly, the EU provides protection for people of disabilities. To leave the EU, as Jones highlighted, will lead to higher debts and higher cuts in public spending. The leave vision was expressed as a “go it alone” vision, which may potentially ‘do away’ with the European Convention on Human Rights. This may create a Britain that would regard issues and rights for disabled people as unimportant. For example, the 2000 EU directive provides protection for disabled people in terms of employment. Jones concluded by stating that we are safer and more secure in the European Union, as we have a stronger voice and are better equipped to tackle global problems. In my opinion this is one of the most important reasons why we should stay in the EU.

David Rowlands for the leave campaign established that we have had basic rights and freedoms before our membership in the EU, most notably because of the frameworks laid by the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. In terms of our justice system, Rowlands stated that in the past thirty years there have been far-reaching changes. The Supreme Court is not its namesake at all, also European arrest warrants are not observed in all EU countries. Jones also emphasised that EU law sacrifices the supremacy of UK law, further reducing British sovereignty. As the EU is a higher power, surely this is an appropriate measure as it seeks to bring all member states in line with one another. Rowlands went on to express that Britain protects human rights and not the EU, so if we were to leave, there would be no question as to the preservation of our human rights. Rowlands concluded by stating that if our presence in the European Union means that we are losing sovereignty, to swap national law for EU law, simply put, would be foolish.

Within the Q&A session, Dr Jones questioned Rowlands regarding his stance on the Paris climate change deal. Rowlands responded by stating that he thought that climate change is cyclical and that the world was not warming. This of course shocked the audience and also the other leave campaigners on the other two panels as climate change ought not to be lightly dismissed.

The next panel looked at internal and international relationships. Dr Rachel Minto put forward the neutral argument in terms of the referendum. Firstly, she established that there are many different internal relationships that will be affected by the referendum. Additionally, she expressed that it may have an effect on the internal dynamics of the UK. Northern Ireland and Scotland are pro EU whereas Wales is split, so the nations may not vote in the same way, offering an uncertain narrative to the future of the UK.  Minto elaborated on this uncertain narrative, stating that if Scotland is pulled out of the EU against their will then this could constitute a second independence referendum. This could lead to Wales becoming the junior partner in the UK. Secondly, Dr Minto established that internationally there is both public and political discussion surrounding security and global issues in which Wales is under the “UK umbrella.” She concluded by saying that the referendum brings two big constitutional debates in which the EU and devolution are intertwined.

Baroness Julie Smith introduced her remain argument by stating that those who want to leave are under the illusion that the EU is undemocratic and that Westminster is the model we should look too. Understandably if we are to stay in the EU then there is room for improvement, it would be wrong to see Westminster as the ideal. Smith continued. saying that internal relations would be affected in the medium to long-term and that we should not exaggerate an immediate Scottish referendum. However, an immediate effect of Brexit would be a hard EU border for Northern Ireland, so free movement across the UK would likely end. Smith also highlighted that the potential for a second Scottish referendum could result in Wales also initiating an independence referendum. Although this is not guaranteed, I agree that it ought not to be lightly dismissed as it could drastically alter the continuation of the UK as we now know it. Baroness Smith expressed that it is better to be a part of the UK with the European Union. Internationally, Smith emphasised that the EU give the UK major influence, with issues concerning our importance if we are to leave. Smith noted Obama and Clinton have claimed that British influence in the world will diminish if we are to leave the EU and that we would have to re-establish relations for trading and for our place in the world. This is a very important reason as to why we should stay in the EU as losing our international influence will result in spending a lot of time and resources in order to regain our power in which we already have as a member of the EU. Could such time and resources not be better spent in initiating further reform within the EU itself?

Alex Moscovici provided the audience with what he described as a “less conventional” leave argument; the EU pushes an austerity agenda. Although he believes that there are some benefits to stay in the EU, he feels that the benefits of leaving are greater. One of his main points was about accountability; if we leave the EU, we will be able to hold our politicians to account without them trying to blame the EU. In terms of the continuation of the UK, Moscovici expressed that the UK will never survive out of fear of what the Scottish believe, yet the SNP are losing influence so could this help the UK to thrive. In terms of the UK and Ireland, he thinks that we do not need the EU to stop the violence, but we may need them for the borders. In my opinion this a fair point of view as we do not need a great institution to stop violence if we are a collective within UK, but the issues of borders will increase if we leave. He concluded by stating that the EU should be about making our own laws while still being amicable with our neighbours and that to say that either result is perfect would be silly. Moscovi’s argument is the most convincing of the leave arguments, perhaps because it is not one that is regularly put forward, so is more insightful.

In the Q&A session, a member of the audience asked whether the result of the referendum will be damaging to relations between the UK and other countries. Dr Minto stated that the G7 summit established that relations will be something that Britain will need to look into. Moscovici expressed the view that relations have already been damaged due to dishonest information, also in terms of the comments of the USA. Smith appeared to be in agreement by highlighting that the referendum has been unenlightening in that there is insufficient trust and respect. She also expressed that if we are to remain then we need to work on these relations. I agree with the statement that the referendum has been damaging on an international scale, but I also think on an internal scale in terms of the public and politicians due to dishonest information being published. How is the public expected to be properly educated on the referendum if we do not have enough information to guide us?

The final panel reviewed the effect on jobs and the economy. Ed Poole provided the audience with a neutral context, stating that the 2014-2020 EU budget saw a reduction for the first time in its history. The UK have always contributed to the EU, with our contribution being the second largest, yet our share is one of the smallest, with the UK making £9.8 billion in 2014 in the EU. Poole stated that the position of Wales is divergent. Wales receives a net beneficiary of £245 million per year, but Brexit will have a significant impact on Welsh policy.

Lord Dafydd Wigley started off his remain argument by stating that if we pull down the building blocks of the EU then it will be detrimental. He supported his statement with the example that companies from the USA and Japan are in the UK to export to the EU and the benefits of this type of business would decrease if we leave. In terms of agriculture, 90% of our exports will go to the EU and if we leave the EU we would face a tariff barrier between 40% and 70%. According to Brexit, European funding will be made up by Westminster, but Wigley was told that was going to keep the money instead, so we cannot trust Westminster with these funds. Economically, some things have to be done on a European level, in which we should play a positive part according to Lord Wigley. Lord Wigley provides a sound and well-informed argument, particularly looking at how leaving will affect Wales. So I think to remain, will be healthier for our economy, particularly in terms of trade.

Berwyn Davies provided us with the leave argument. He started off by stating that there is no such thing as European money and that it is simply the taxpayer’s money. This is a fair statement to make, but we have to make some sort of contribution to be a part of such a large institution; however, that should mean that we get more back from the EU if we contribute so much. He went on to say that the EU takes a large proportion of our exports and that this trade will not go away if we leave as we will go via the world trade rules where there is no critical difference in rate. Davies highlighted a key issue that the EU and UK do not want the same things. Personally I find this hard to swallow as if we did not share common goals then why would we have joined the EU? Davies continued by stating that the UK has created more jobs than the rest of the EU combined over the years of its membership. This is a fair point however, as we could use this to help other countries as we provide an example of a prosperous European country, and if we help other countries to improve then this will no longer be an issue. Davies concluded that it is better to take control of ourselves.

Within the Q&A session, a member of the audience questioned the uncertainty that either result will bring. Davies expressed the view that there will be a risk of increasing strangulation of the economy and that if we want a free trade agreement then we should not be under the weight of European regulations. However, Lord Wigley rebutted these points by stating that the term ‘strangulation of regulations’ is false as some regulations ensure that unscrupulous employers do not undercut employees and that these regulations are creating the emergence of a social Europe. These regulations are improving other countries more than the UK in some cases, but we should not be so quick to criticise the fact that we live in a society with fair employment law. Another member of the audience questioned how remaining will benefit entrepreneurs. Lord Wigley stated that entrepreneurs already have the opportunity to export to other countries and that the frustration due to the regulations is understandable. He stated that he is aware of the challenges but it is better to trade in a level playing field provided by the EU. Poole shared agreement with Wigley and stated that there is a reason for a level playing field so that trading can compete, but also expressed that it is burdensome.  Davies stated that he thought that leaving the EU will provide entrepreneurs with the opportunity to pay the living wage as well as being able to trade freely.

The debates were, overall well-informed throughout the event, however, it is the belief of the author that we should remain in the EU for safety within society and in order to uphold our international influence. Although the EU is not all rainbows and sunshine, the referendum should push the UK into becoming an active player in its reform. To leave the EU would be foolish when it provides us with a level playing field in terms of trade. Regardless of my opinion, I urge you to vote. The referendum on Brexit is likely to be a once in a generation opportunity. Take control. Let your voice be heard. On Thursday June 23rd, vote.

Political Tourist: The Final Chapter

Jane Harries

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It is Hanna who first introduces me to the concept of political tourism – a concept she has been looking at in her PhD thesis, an ethnography of the journeys of Machsom Watch members from their homes in Israel to the checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank in order to monitor the treatment of Palestinians crossing these checkpoints by IDF soldiers.  Political tourism involves a journey in space and time but also between two different cultures, with an aim to witness and create sociopolitical change.

Towards the end of my visit I experience periods of self-doubt.  Why do I repeatedly come to the area?  To scratch at the wounds of the other?  To confirm a particular political standpoint?  Is what I am doing really voyeurism, and do my visits do any good?  Could I, in fact, do more good by being active at home?  All these questions are valid, and worth looking at in some detail.

One reason for visiting the region on a fairly regular basis is to come as a witness and to stand alongside those who are suffering.  This largely means Palestinian communities because of the effects of the military occupation and harassment by radical settlers. During my visit I receive the latest EAPPI update from the teams in the field.  Their reports show that abuses of human rights have dramatically increased in 2016, including an increase in displacements and house demolitions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.  Coming to the area and witnessing the effects of these policies on ordinary people is very powerful, especially as this truth is rarely conveyed in the Western media.  Although I haven’t been directly involved with EAPPI this time, I have heard how the Occupation affects the lives of ordinary people in Hebron and Gaza.  It is very important for people affected by violence to feel that they are heard, validated and taken seriously in a world that has largely ignored them.

For political tourism to be authentic, there should also be a desire on the part of the ‘tourist’ to be open to learning and change.  Meeting Rachel and Jenna this time helped me to realise that there are Jewish settlers living on the West Bank who wish to work for peace and understanding with their Arab neighbours.  I may not agree with their decision to live where they are, but I cannot doubt their sincerity in wishing to work towards a more peaceful society.  To address structural injustice, it is government policies that need to change and individuals like Rachel and Jenna may just help to create the social pressure which is necessary to trigger political change.

There are a number of factors which need to be taken into account by those campaigning for a more just and peaceful society.  As a political tourist I am hugely privileged in that I am able to return to a relatively peaceful stable society.   The people I am standing alongside largely don’t have that privilege.  I am also aware that I am relatively empowered, whereas the people we are working with are to a large extent dependent on the rules and whims of military authorities which control their movements.  To be authentic and sincere we need to recognise these inequalities, and to approach the work we are called to do with humility and respect.   For women like Hanna these challenges are to be felt even more keenly as it’s her government that is the oppressor.  She works for political change, knowing that change could mean radical change for her own society.

For our actions to be sincere and authentic, we also need to act on what we have witnessed on our return home – by telling others what we had witnessed and campaigning for change. Nor should the fact that we are active in seeking solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict mean that we are inactive elsewhere.  We should speak out against human rights abuses and social discrimination wherever they occur – at home and abroad.

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On my last morning Hanna and I visit her local park and shopping mall.  Here we seem a million miles away from the noisy, dusty litter-strewn streets of Gaza. Even here, however, there are factors which indicate the nature of Israeli society.  Hanna points out the fact that nearly all those serving in the shopping Mall are Palestinian Israeli.  On observing more closely I see that she is right.  Socio-economic discrimination seems to operate in Israel itself for the Palestinian minority (around 20% of the population).

Just before I leave Hanna is keen to show me a couple of YouTube clips which give her hope.  These are of the singer Ziv Yehezkel, born into a traditional Orthodox Jewish family, but who has learnt about traditional Palestinian oud-playing and singing, and taken the tradition to his heart. He now performs traditional songs and melodies alongside a Palestinian Israeli soprano Nisreen Qadri, backed by the Jerusalem-Andalou orchestra.  As with Violette’s Nasijona project, Hanna dreams of an intergrated society  where Israelis and Palestinians can live, work and be creative alongside one another, respecting one another’s culture and heritage.  Like Violette, Hanna seeks for hope through the creative arts.

Political Tourist part 6: Discovering and Sharing Heritage for Truth and Peace

Jane Harries

 

Violette

Wednesday, 13th April.  I travel to Nazareth to reconnect with my friend Violette.  We first
met in 2004 when Violette was part of a visit of Israeli and Palestinian peace women to the UK organised by ‘Women to Women for Peace’, and have kept in touch ever since.  A Christian Palestinian Israeli and active within ‘Sabeel’, Violette remembers 1948 and how Galilee was before the formation of the Israeli state – a place where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived side by side and cooperated.  She used to run a pharmacy in the centre of Nazareth, and has degrees from both French and Italian universities.

Over a delicious breakfast of pizza-type bread topped with zata’ar, parmesan cheese and labane, we talk about the work that Violette is involved in at the moment.  She is concerned that Palestinian culture is being lost and wants to find creative ways of keeping her heritage alive.  She shows me a YouTube clip of a drama created by her daughter Faten called ‘Living Stones’ in which the stones of significant buildings come to life and reveal the history and culture of the place.  We also talk about ‘Nasijona’, a project that Violette is creating in Nazareth, which aims to bring women together to revive handicrafts which are in danger of dying out, but also to recreate the harmonious Nazareth community that Violette remembers.  When I visited last year, the project was just an empty building and an idea.  Violette describes how the idea has now taken off and inspired women of different ages, backgrounds and faiths to come together.

We talk about barriers and the actions necessary to remove them.  Violette tells me a story of one of the founder members of Machsom Watch – the Israeli organisation that monitors the checkpoints (Machsom means ‘barrier’ in Hebrew).  Despite the fact that this woman had set up an organisation to monitor the abuse of human rights and the harassment of Palestinians at checkpoints, she had still been wary of visiting Violette in Nazareth, a predominantly Arab city.  This demonstrates that barriers are not only physical, but accumulate in the minds of those who never meet – creating myths and monsters.  She explains that ‘Nasijona’ is a combination of the two words ‘barrier’ and ‘way’ – translating as something like ‘the Way to Remove Barriers’.

We visit the Silesian School, which overlooks the city.  From here it is plain to see how the original Arab city is squeezed into a confined area, whereas Nazareth Ilit, the newer Jewish area of the city, expands across the hilltops.  Violette remembers how, after 1948, Palestinian families fled to the Silesian monastery after their villages were destroyed and they were forbidden to return.  Some were tricked into signing papers which they thought gave them the deeds to a new apartment in Nazareth, but were in fact an agreement to give up any claim to their land.  The current residents of Nazareth are the descendants of these displaced people.

In the afternoon we have lunch in a café in Nazareth.  Violette remarks positively on the fact that the menu is in Arabic.  Although Arabic is an official language in Israel, it is in places disappearing from public places, and is in danger of being supplanted by Russian.  We meet with Jonathan Cook, a British journalist and commentator and share our understanding of the present political reality of what is going on in the region.  I comment on the fact that I have just received the February update from EAPPI (the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel), which documents a dramatic increase in demolitions and displacements in Area C of the West Bankso far in 2016.  We conjecture as to whether the ultimate aim of the Israeli government is to annex Area C – 60% of the West Bank.  Jonathan thinks that this is what is happening, as does Jeff Halper (Director of ICAHD – the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions).  Once this happens we are into an end game – the creation of Bantustans which will be barricaded in and controlled like Gaza.  We talk about how good the Israeli government is at controlling the media, and agree that it’s important to keep on telling the truth about the reality we see.  This has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, but is about speaking out for respect for human rights and international humanitarian law, based on values of true democracy and humanity.

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We finish the day by visiting ‘Nasijona’ in action.  Women sit around in groups and there is an air of contented industry.  Older expert needlewomen show younger women how to create traditional articles of beauty.  Under their deft fingers and patient smiles works of art slowly emerge.  Muslim and Christian, old and young, veiled and unveiled are joined in this enterprise – recreating heritage and community.  Violette points to one striking fact: they are all smiling.

This may not change the political map, but it defies a narrative of division, distrust and incompatibility.  Alongside traditional handicrafts, these women are recreating a culture of trust and hope for the future.

 

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Political Tourist part 5: Checkpoint Duty

Jane Harries

Today Hanna and I get up at 5a.m. to go to Hableh Checkpoint, where she will do her regular Machsom Watch shift.  Machsom Watch is a group of Israeli women who visit checkpoints controlled by the Israeli Defence Force to monitor and document the treatment of Palestinians by the military and to report any abuses.  Hanna has recently completed her PhD thesis which is an ethnography of the women’s experiences as they travel from one society to the other, and the effect this has on them mentally, emotionally and socially as they seek to identify with ‘the other’ and bring the injustices of Occupation to the attention of their own society.

How near yet how far away from one another these societies are!  Geographically close, of course – but in terms of awareness and lived reality, light years apart.  We drive along a modern motorway that could belong to any Western society and suddenly turn off onto a potholed dusty side-road.  We were so deep in conversation that Hanna almost misses the turning.  Small wonder, for there are no signs, just as there are no signs to the Palestinian villages which border the road. This is part of the invisible map of Occupation – one civilisation grafted onto another which is practically airbrushed out.

We reach the checkpoint gate by 6a.m. (the designated opening time) – but there is no movement.  By 6.05 the soldiers have arrived and leisurely prepare to open up.  Between that time and 7.30a.m. there is a steady stream of people crossing – mostly workers with permits to access their land or places of work in the Seam zone.  They are allowed through in groups of 5. Some work in garden centres, others in construction.  A variety of vehicles pass through – horses or donkeys and carts, cars, trucks and two school buses. (The primary school is in the Seam zone, whilst the secondary school is in the village itself, necessitating a movement of teachers and pupils.)  We are greeted by ‘Good Mornings’ in Arabic, Hebrew and English – and with smiles.

On the surface all is calm.  This is what Hanna calls ‘the routine of Occupation’.  It is clear, however, who is in control.  From the uniforms and guns, of course, but also from the manner of the soldiers. At one point someone doesn’t quite obey the rules, or maybe doesn’t have the correct permit: ‘Get back, get out of here!’ one of the soldiers shouts.  It can hardly be imagined what it must feel like to be subjected to this humiliation day by day just to get to one’s own land or to one’s place of work or education.  What must go through people’s minds?  And yet those who pass through appear calm and gracious, as if resigned.

Two incidents emerge during the shift – two reasons why it was good we were there.  One man stops and tells Hanna that he has applied for and been given permission to have feed for his sheep delivered to where they are in the Seam zone – but nothing has happened.  The second incident happens right at the end of the shift – at around 7.27a.m.  A man drives up from the Israeli side asking to go through to the village.  But the soldier has already closed the gate on the Hableh side, and refuses to allow him to do so, in spite of the fact that a group of 5 men is still coming through.  We later learn that this is the mayor of Hableh.  What does the soldier care?  He is told that he can go to the next checkpoint and cross there.  People’s status in their own society is as nothing compared to military authority.

And so Hanna returns home and writes up her report.  She too is part of the routine, but an important part –  a presence which stands for humanity and which aims to hold people to account for their behaviour.  The logo of Machsom Watch is an ever-open eye.  The watchful, critical gaze of witnesses is necessary in the invisible zone where most people pass by.

Political Tourist part 4: AVP – Gazan Style

Jane Harries

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.

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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.

Political Tourist part 3: First Impressions of Gaza

Jane Harries 

One of the first things that strikes us as we make our way from Erez crossing on the Gaza side towards Gaza city is the variety of modes of transport that are in use.  Carts driven by horses or donkeys are not uncommon, also small motorised vehicles that are often brightly decorated, motorbikes, scooters, old cars, new cars, battered cars…. in the city cars and animals mingle freely, sometimes frighteningly close to one another.  At a roundabout, some planks of wood fall off a cart: the owner calmly descends in the middle of the traffic and a cacophony of horns follow him – the traffic continues.  The roads too vary in quality. The main road is asphalted, however side roads are often little more than sandy dirt tracks puckered by potholes.

It is also quickly apparent that there is great poverty here.  We pass dwellings that are ramshackle and crumbling.  From the hotel dining room we watch local fishermen venture out in precariously small boats to catch what they can in the designated 10-mile zone set by the Israelis.  Others wade into the sea with hand-held nets.  The scars of war are also plain to see.  What was a smart shopping centre now stands in ruins like a jagged tooth.  The worst scars are, however, in people’s hearts and minds.  People refer to being under siege, to not being able to travel, access education or visit relatives.  Many have stories of suffering and loss.  Responding to an exercise we facilitated where participants talk of their safe place, Hekmet says that he now doesn’t feel comfortable anywhere, because he lost his home in the last war.

We visit Wala, an 8-year old little girl who has brain damage.  She lies limp and unresponsive in her mother’s arms, wriggling from time to time and making baby noises.  Wala was born during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 – 9, and her parents believe that she was affected by the phosphorous bombs used by the Israelis.  They show Joe the medication she takes to try to calm her down, but it is obvious that she needs a brain scan to assess the damage and make a proper diagnosis.  Joe promises to do what he can.

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Despite or perhaps because of their difficult circumstances, Gazans know how to have a good time. On Thursday afternoon a large proportion of the population of the Strip seems to have spilled out onto the beach, including busloads of children.  People enjoy picnics, buy balloons, sit in family groups.  Music is never far away.  Wedding parties are announced by drums, music and the loud honking of car horns.

Above all we are welcomed with warmth and humour.  The workshop participants are genuinely overjoyed to see us and respond to us with smiles and cameras at the ready.  By the end of the four days we feel a bit like celebrities, having been included in scores of photos and selfies.  On the final afternoon we are presented with some gifts from the group – a keffiyeh, a metal map of Palestine, an olive wood pencil – symbolic gifts which express at once gratitude and pride.  On the final evening we are treated to a meal at Murad’s house – mountains of stuffed vine leaves, a beef dish with pumpkin and couscous, platefuls of fruit, then sticky honeyed pastries with coffee – typical Palestinian hospitality.

The Gazans take us to their hearts.  The place embraces us in all its noisy, dusty complexity, heart-rending sadness, and raw joy.  It isn’t easy to get into Gaza.  Nor is it easy to leave.