In the fourth blog in the series, Jane Harries provides a detailed account of the workshops delivered with the Alternative to Violence Project in the West Bank and Israel.
Apart from attending the ‘Healing Hate’ conference in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the main aim of our visit this time was to deliver Alternative to Violence Project (AVP) workshops with organisations in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. Despite our best efforts – working through churches and NGOs – this time we failed to gain permission from the Israeli authorities to enter Gaza, although we were delighted to hear that our partners there will continue to run workshops on their own, using facilitators we trained last year. They are also in the process of setting up their own NGO – i.e. AVP Palestine. All the same we were deeply saddened not to be able to see and support them again – particularly as we accessed reports during our visit about the crisis in Gaza, with the two million citizens living there having electricity cut to as little as two hours per day in the intense heat.
And so we had to develop a Plan B. For me, this meant being involved in running workshops for groups on the West Bank, based in Wtr, a centre for Culture and Media in the Bethlehem area. We firstly ran a ‘Training for Facilitators’ workshop with a group who had received the basic and advanced workshops last year. Secondly, we ran a six day course for another group, taking in basic, advanced and training for all facilitator levels. This was inevitably the group I got to know best, and the impressions and stories below come from the time I spent with them. We also hoped to run a taster workshop with students in Ramallah, but this sadly didn’t come to fruition. At the end of our stay the two Joes moved to Tel Aviv and ran a workshop with professionals there working with an anti-bullying programme in Israeli schools.
What is AVP?
AVP workshops take participants through a whole group process. Starting with exercises that break the ice and encourage participants to build a positive community, the workshops enable those attending to gain communication and cooperation skills, to reflect on how they react to conflict and violence in their lives and to practice attitudes, skills and behaviours which are more likely to lead to non-violent outcomes. The course is experiential and interactive and facilitators learn from participants as well as vice-versa. At the second level, participants identify themes or issues they are struggling with, and these are gone into at a deeper level. The final stage is for participants to be trained as facilitators, to gain insight into facilitation processes and to practice running exercises. By the end of the third level, participants are ready to start practising as apprentice facilitators themselves – and so the AVP community grows and adapts to more local circumstances.
At the beginning of AVP workshops, facilitators conduct a ‘Gathering’ which entails going around the circle and asking each participant to share a thought or experience whilst the others listen. This has the effect of ‘gathering’ the group and helping them to work as a community. At the beginning of the workshop we asked participants what they hoped to get from it. We knew that the group had to some extent been selected by Ali Abu Awad (see the second blog in this series) as prospective community leaders. The gathering, however, helped them to be more specific. Omar who is a teacher and who runs summer camps for children talked about how, in his experience, teachers can be involved in passing violence on to their charges: he wanted to help young people react differently and to be a role-model for non-violence. Alla’ was also involved with 15 – 25 year olds and wanted to use the training in his work. Maisa wanted to use techniques with her students at the university where she teaches English. Others wanted to use and spread the skills they gained in their families, villages and communities.
AVP in a conflict situation
AVP is in no way a political programme. It aims to support people, wherever they are, to deal with conflict in their lives in more positive ways. There is no denying, however, that working with groups from a society under Occupation has an added significance and poignancy. Testimonies of participants from workshops in Hebron show how skills learnt during AVP workshops have helped them to be more resilient and creative when faced with harassment by IDF soldiers at checkpoints. AVP can also help to alleviate ‘horizontal violence’ – violence in the home and in the wider community which partly comes from the fact that this is a society under enormous stress.
Despite everything the reality of the Occupation inevitably seeps in and colours the nature of the workshop. Firstly our very presence as US and UK citizens working alongside Palestinians, supporting them and showing empathy is enormously significant as evidence of international solidarity. In ‘normal’ circumstances facilitators would aim to enforce an understanding about timings and punctuality. This proves to be impossible. Every day the workshop starts late – by sometimes as much as an hour. This is potentially grating – until we hear why this is the case. The three ladies from the Hebron area in particular face long delays at checkpoints and harassment on their way to the centre in Bethlehem. Others arrive upset or shaken by events during the night: a military incursion into their home, the arrest or death of someone close to them. Every day during the workshop we hear of an arrest or killing somewhere – the ones that never reach the international news. I have never seen so many funeral processions in Bethlehem.
Early on in an AVP workshop we usually address participants’ perceptions of what violence means to them and where they think it comes from. This is then followed by a similar exercise looking at what non-violence would look like and what behaviours and circumstances can create a circle of non-violence. The first part of this exercise went as expected. When we got to the second part, however, participants were keen to address practically how they could move from violence to nonviolence – reflecting that this is a burning issue in their everyday lives. The resulting brainstorm brought out several things that participants already do – including creative writing and music. During an exercise which helps participants to make quick decisions as a group in potentially violent situations, the question came up of what they would do if they noticed a young boy about to throw a stone at the military. This raised the whole dilemma of the responsibility to protect their community – and therefore stop the stone-throwing – balanced against the question of legitimate self-defence. The consensus of the group was that they would aim to talk to children and advise them not to throw stones, and that they would also call for outside help. They are also aware, however, that the Occupation itself is unjust and illegal.
The topics chosen by the group for the Advanced / Level 2 workshop were also significant and reflected their everyday experience. They asked to address the following:
- How to avoid violence
- How to react when in violence
- How to come back from violence; and
- How to help someone in trauma.
Although the Occupation was, in a way, the elephant in the room this is not to say that there are not issues in Palestinian society itself which cause conflict. Omar talked about the tendency, when there is a conflict, for people from both ‘sides’ to get involved, so that the conflict gets bigger and more involved. During a Fishbowl exercise, where 3 participants start discussing a topic, and can then be joined by others from the larger group, the topic of sexism in Palestinian society was chosen. Younger women in the group in particular bemoaned the fact that it is not acceptable for a man and a woman who are not related to be seen together, also that it is commonplace – and to a certain extent acceptable – for a husband to hit his wife. The case of a young girl in Gaza who had obtained top marks in her Tawjihi (school leaving certificate) but who had been openly criticised for not covering her hair was raised as further evidence of an attitude towards women which is shaped by culture, custom and sexism. I wondered to what extent a younger generation who are well-informed by their mobile phones, well-educated and in touch with the external world might be slowly changing more traditional attitudes.
By the end of this workshop what had we achieved? We had trained a group of potential community leaders who now have the skills to facilitate others and pass skills on to them. Strong, resilient and creative they certainly are, despite all that life throws at them. “Life is full of stones,” said Omar at one point, “and we need to be very creative with the stones.” And then there was Maisa, who by the end of the Training for Facilitators’ workshop had already perfectly understood the difference between teaching and facilitating and was leading her group from behind, putting across a brilliant set of exercises. In a follow-up meeting with Ali we planned how he would first of all get the group back together to give them some further training in being non-violent leaders; and that they would then run 3 pilot workshops with a women’s organisation, a youth group and in At-tawani, a village in the South Hebron hills which has been the target of continual settler attacks. The final shorter-term aim is to run AVP workshops with 10 partner organisations. And so the ripples continue spreading outwards, and we go forward in faith, trusting to our processes.
This all sounds good but in a sense does not express the essence of our experience here. How to convey the warmth, generosity, creativity and humour we shared during these days together – conveyed in smiles, embraces and small acts of generosity? It is a connection that burrows deep into the soul and means that each time we leave here some of ourselves. A consolation is that the connection is not broken, but that precious memories and experiences live on until we return – inshalla’!