Women to Women for Peace – Exchange between Cuba, the US and Wales‘, 1998-2001

Kathyrn Evans

Women to Women for Peace’ – The Mission

The mission statement of Women to Women for Peace (W2W4P) was “World Peace will come through the will of ordinary people like yourselves”. This encapsulates in a nutshell why the organisation – founded in 1984 – enjoyed thirty years of success.

“No young mother in this country or any other wants her son to go and kill the sons of other young mothers and I believe that if inter-visitations were arranged between parties of young mothers from Britain … and from other countries who chose to join in, bridges of understanding could be built … as a REAL contribution to world peace”

 

Lucy Behenna, founder of Mothers for Peace (later became W2W4P).

This was a powerfully motivated group of people who came together to build bridges between people from countries which have contrasting and conflicting political, philosophical, cultural and religious interests. The aim was to promote the message that war was not the answer to resolving conflict by supporting intercultural understanding on a transnational level. W2W4P had numerous highlights throughout their duration as a non-profit organisation that accentuate their success as an international solidarity movement. I will illuminate some highlights over the course of two articles about the South West and Wales group of W2W4P who achieved undoubtable success for peacekeeping from Wales to Cuba, America, Israel and Palestine, starting with their achievements in Cuba and America.

Why you need to know about Women to Women for Peace

It is my hope that when you read the articles I have written on the inspirational work of Women to Women for Peace, you will feel the same as I felt; that there are lessons to take away and how vital it is to have international solidarity movements. The work of W2W4P has left me feeling proud of Wales for being part of an amazing peacemaking organisation that strove for pacifism internationally as well as locally; they brought solidarity to our front doors. I feel positive that there is always something an individual or collective group can do to reach out and show support to other countries in distress. I am also questioning whether we are lacking this sense of solidarity and peacemaking now, which I evaluate further in a second article. I have had an uncomfortable realisation that many issues addressed over the course of these articles can be directly related to today’s struggles (inequality, discrimination, oppression, exploitation to name a few). Perhaps we are led to think about more conflicts going on around the world but we may be doing less to help now, than we were in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It is my pleasure to take you through some major turning points and highlights of W2W4P. I want to draw upon their links to Wales, explain what they stood for and to take some lessons from this organisation in the hope that you too are inspired to keep fighting to make a difference.

Women to Women for Peace visit Cuba, 1998

 

In 1998, four delegates of W2W4P (including a Welsh representative) were given the opportunity to travel to Cuba for the ‘International Independence, Sovereignty and Peace’ conference. There were roughly 3,000 women from 75 countries present and they were all women from dramatically diverse circumstances. This represents an amazing collaboration of peace organisations across the globe who were all striving for the same goal; peace. This was a chance to build bridges with other organisations worldwide and such links were made with peace workers from Brazil, Cyprus, US, Italy, Cuba, Ireland and many more. There were many positive far-reaching consequences from the experience; strong networks were built on cooperation and it showed that international solidarity can counteract powerful negative influences.

A highlight of the Cuba visit was a speech from Fidel Castro. In his speech he passionately explained his world view – that the world’s preoccupation with profit was at the cost of humanity … for the sake of the global economy. This statement rang alarm bells for me as it seems there are parallels with our situation in 2018, hence my view that we need a resurgence of a group such as W2W4P.

Women from Cuba and America visit Wales, 2001
The most successful outcome of the W2W4P visit to Cuba in ‘98 was the building of friendships with women from Cuba and America; this led to a reunion in Wales in 2001. W2W4P were eager to raise further, real awareness of the Cuban situation because they had witnessed first-hand the extent of the suffering that Cuba was enduring because of the blockade imposed by America; far more than had ever been published by the media. The ladies from the peacemaking organisations across the three countries all sought this opportunity to develop closer and stronger relations with each other, to deepen the understanding of the situations in each country and to bring awareness to Wales about the injustice of the American Blockade. It was the perfect opportunity for the ladies of Cuba and America, two conflicting countries, to tell their official and unofficial story of the US blockade as a method of spreading the message and fighting for peace. It was quite special to have women from Cuba and America over to Wales to enjoy and appreciate our city of Cardiff, vibrantly multicultural and home to fascinating buildings such as the Temple of Peace.

Veronica Alvarez, of the Cuban peacemaking organisation that visited was warmed by the kindness and concern of W2W4P because it showed a humbling sign of solidarity, that other countries and people care for peace in societies other than their own. One of the American visitors Robin Melavalin had some encouraging words about W2W4P; that they were impressive and showed an excellent model for peacemaking. Robin was able to meet people from Cuba in a neutral country and have time to get to know them. It really helped build bridges, relations and gain a key understanding of an array of perspectives on international issues confronting them.

Lessons we should take away from Women to Women for Peace movements
The W2W4P delegates who attended the conference in Cuba witnessed a multiracial society with no visible signs of prejudice or discrimination. This ought to be a lesson that many countries and communities today could take away with them. Cuban citizens also held a political and economic view about the blockade which was very reasoned and factual; the people showed no signs of aggression or bitterness towards their political oppressor America; another lesson that some nations could learn.

The ladies from W2W4P who spent time in Cuba noticed that partly because of the blockade Cuban streets were visibly deteriorating and crumbling due to lack of resources and materials, yet the atmosphere was still vibrant with a huge amount of culture that was itching to be shared. It was moving to experience a country who was suffering terribly but who still stood strong, where people were passionate and proud to be who they were. Isn’t this the kind of lens through which we need to look at Palestine, Iraq, Yemen or Afghanistan, for example? Each have their own cultural and political background yet are under immense pressure to conform to a particular version of democracy. The work of W2W4P brings me to the daunting conclusion that we still don’t seem to be capable or accepting a multi-faceted world.

One thing that is apparent here is that media has a powerful influence over international conflicts and issues, by promoting often superficial views. W2W4P’s visit to Cuba, and the return visit to Wales made it possible to witness and understand the true impact of the American blockade – aspects that weren’t seen in the media. What Cuba and America’s differences came down to and what we still witness today is that they have different political systems, a different ideology and different priorities which is part and parcel of a multipolar world. The government and organisations in Cuba were able to create solidarity with organisations across the globe, and it is in my belief that every country still needs to fight for this. Today, we are still witnessing vicious cycles of exploitation and suffering and although peace may be unattainable to many, the situation could still be improved. The first step is perhaps to create awareness, as is shown in the story of W2W4P.

For more information and stories from the Women to Women for Peace successes, please read my other article about the time when women from Israel and Palestine came to visit Wales!

Sources:
Mothers for Peace report on International Encounter of Solidarity among Women: Havana, Cuba – April 1998.
Jane Harries, ‘Pesar de todo…’, The Friend, 31 July 1998.
Emma James, ‘Mothers rise above the arguments of nations’, The Western Mail. 22 August 2001.
Sheila Ward, ‘A Most Remarkable Old Lady: Mother For Peace: Lucy Behenna’, Quaker Home Service, London, 1989

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Women to Women for Peace – Building Bridges between Israelis and Palestinians in Wales, 2004

Kathyrn Evans

‘Women to Women for Peace’ – The Mission

The mission statement of Women to Women for Peace (W2W4P): “World Peace will come through the will of ordinary people like yourselves” encapsulates the vision behind the founding of the organisation in 1984:

“No young mother in this country or any other wants her son to go and kill the sons of other young mothers and I believe that if inter-visitations were arranged between parties of young mothers from Britain … and from other countries who chose to join in, bridges of understanding could be built … as a REAL contribution to world peace”

Lucy Behenna, founder of Mothers for Peace (later became W2W4P).

The organisation consisted of a group of likeminded people who came together to build bridges between people from countries which have contrasting and conflicting political, philosophical, cultural and religious interests. W2W4P had numerous highlights during their thirty-year history as a non-profit organisation working for international solidarity.

Why you need to know about Women to Women for Peace

I hope that once you’ve read my articles you feel the same as I felt; that there are lessons to take away and how vital it is to have international solidarity movements. The work of W2W4P has left me feeling proud of Wales for being part of an amazing peacemaking organisation dedicated towards pacifism internationally as well as locally, bringing solidarity to our front doors. I feel positive that there is always something an individual or collective group can do to reach out and show support to other countries in distress.

Jane Harries, who was a member of W2W4P for over 20 years, said:

“It is difficult to gauge the impact that W2W4P had on my life and that of my family for many years.  When our children were small we opened our home to a variety of extraordinary peace women.  There was Marina, who traipsed all the way from Moscow to Bridgend on the train, bearing traditional Russian ornaments which still grace our living room.  Then there were the women from the former East Germany who were part of the street protests in Dresden which started the decline of the DDR and led to German unification. 

As our children grew I was able to travel further afield and play an active role in visits that helped to break down prejudices and stereotypes between women from countries in conflict: Cuba and America; Israel and Palestine.  Thus W2W4P was able to contribute to building bridges of understanding and to help create networks focused on creating peaceful relationships. 

Even today when in Israel and Palestine I visit my dear friends Hanna (Israeli) and Violette (Palestinian).  They are both still working for peace – for a solution based on justice and mutual respect for both peoples.  I admire them greatly, and am grateful to W2W4P for the opportunity to get to know them and to support them in their vision.”

A successful example of W2W4P’s success in building bridges between people with contrasting values and beliefs happened in 2004 when 8 women from peace organisations from Israel and Palestine came on a joint visit to the UK, including Cardiff, Wales (where they spoke at The Temple of Peace). I would like to invite readers to explore the motives and outcomes of such an important visit, and to learn more about international solidarity in action.

Israeli and Palestinian women from peace organisations visit Wales, 2004

Aims of Visit

I have summarised below the aims of the Israel Palestine visit to show how these aims are relevant for today’s world which is characterised by ongoing international conflicts.  The story of the visit shows how a small group of dedicated individuals can make a positive difference:

  • To help build up a network of support for women and families in Israel and Palestine (two conflicting countries).
  • To raise public awareness:
    • Promote a more accurate international awareness regarding identity and presence.
    • The need to keep getting the message out so people will feel galvanised into activity out of conviction, not sympathy.
  • To engage in a mix of formal and informal meetings with the public, politicians, influential audiences and the media to promote awareness of the subject.
  • To help change how the conflict is framed:
    • For it not to be seen as solely a security problem .
    • Strong emphasis on occupation, inequalities, values and human rights.
    • Positive international intervention!
  • To break down international barriers and break through stereotypes, which are so often a big factor in conflict and crisis.
  • To promote a vision of peace and solidarity, and how it is possible through the will of ordinary people.
  • The opportunity for all members to meet in a neutral safe place:
    • To establish a real nucleus of friendship.
    • To work on existence and existing identities.
  • To develop a spirituality based on justice, peace, nonviolence, liberation and reconciliation for different national and faith communities.
  • To give the women a public platform, so their voice can be heard by the media, politicians and many other influential members of public.

Outcomes

Overall the visit was extremely successful. It was noted that the women from Israel and Palestine were brave, committed and shared the same hopes and concerns as women and families in Wales. Although they came from countries experiencing bitter conflict, the ability to meet and share their realities in a neutral safe space, enabled the women to develop a warm and affectionate relationship.  They fed back to members of W2W4P that they found the visit to the United Kingdom a positive experience and wished to continue their cooperation in the future. The visit encouraged a more informed understanding of the ways people were working for peace in the region. It was endearing that the women felt heartened and impressed by the level of support they were greeted with in Wales and England; they felt people’s concern for their respective communities, and for their work for peace under difficult circumstances.

The Israeli and Palestinian women returned home with a vision for the future.  They had gained inspiration from their visit and were able to formulate new ideas about how to move forward in their fight for peace and how people in the UK could support them in this. On returning home, they were able to organise joint initiatives and to meet in Jerusalem – building on the positive relationship that was made possible through the work of W2W4P.

The all important lessons of solidarity from Women to Women for Peace

Over its 30 year existence, the work and experience of W2W4P was tremendously valuable and rewarding. A lot can be achieved if we allow it to happen. The results from international solidarity movements can only be positive.  There is so much to learn beyond our borders and re-creating an organisation like Women to Women for Peace could allow us to make a positive contribution to peace in conflicting countries.

The motivation and dedication of members of W2W4P represents a desire for peace and friendship that can expand over oceans and cross national boundaries. It’s difficult to actually put into words how W2W4P held such inspirational and influential links to Wales in their fight for peace for thirty years. As an individual I am certainly proud of their achievements and want their successes to be heard.

What W2W4P has shown is how barriers and walls only perpetuate stereotypes, myths and fears; it is what the root of conflicts come down to. W2W4P’s motivation and passion have helped me to recognise what we have in common; Lucy Behenna, the co-founder of W2W4P in 1984 (originally called Mothers for Peace) states:

“Mother love is one of the greatest powers and it’s universal. Mothers of all creeds and colours, religions and no religions, whatever government they are under, desire the best for their children and I thought that great link between mothers we might use to help break down a little of the fear and mistrust.”

Lucy had “instinctively tapped into the most powerful peacemaking power in the world” and we need it back again!

For more information and stories from the Women to Women for Peace successes, please read my other article on their visit to Cuba and the time when women from Cuba and America came to Wales

Sources:

  • Sheila Ward, ‘A Most Remarkable Old Lady: Mother For Peace: Lucy Behenna’, Quaker Home Service, London, 1989
  • Women to Women for Peace Newsletter, October 2004
  • Women to Women for Peace Evaluation Forms
  • Women to Women for Peace Itineraries
  • Women to Women for Peace Meeting Agendas
  • Plaid Cymru press release October 2004, Jill Evans MEP.
  • Women to Women for Peace report and background statement, September 2004
  • Jane Harries, ‘Report of a Visit by Palestinian and Israeli Women to the UK – October 2004’. October 2004.

Volunteers run successful Human Library Festival

By project volunteer Anna Ratkai

On 25 November over 250 people attended the Human Library Festival at the Temple of Peace, Cardiff organised by young volunteers from the Welsh Centre for International Affairs and refugee volunteers from Oasis Cardiff.

Eritrean coffee

Volunteer Osman’s Eritrean coffee draws a crowd

Attendees had the chance to explore all the interesting activities provided by organisations such as Stand up to Racism and The Welsh Refugee Council; listen to all the great musicians performing throughout the event; and try traditional dishes and sweets from around the world. So what is a Human Library Festival?

A Human Library is just like an ordinary library, however, in this case the books are replaced with people, who are happy to share their life stories with anyone interested. Our Human Library Festival featured books who had stories to tell about immigration and asylum-seeking in Wales, human rights issues and integration. For instance Amanda Morris talked about being a feminist who wears an Islamic headscarf; Paul Battenbbough chatted about what it is like to teach music in Oasis Refugee Center and Gareth Bonello explained how he has been campaigning for Human Rights through music.

The vibrant Library featured 12 Human Books who couldn’t have been any busier talking to the curious and engaged audiences

Engaging stories from human books

who left very positive feedback. A politics student from Cardiff University said he has learnt a lot about Human Rights and immigration related issues though these conversations, another attendee wrote this on the Library’s white board: “It was great to hear some inspirational stories. I must do more to support migrants and learn from them!”. It wasn’t only the audience that benefited from the event. The event was organised by young volunteers and asylum-seekers themselves, who enjoyed working together, building skills and becoming friends in the process.

The Human Library Festival also set up a Market Place in the stunning Marble Hall of the Temple of Peace. This Market Place hosted organizations who came along to represent their work as well as to engage the attendees in activities

Fantastic music at the event

related to integration and Human Rights. For instance, one such organization, People & Planet called the attention to the unjust distribution of economic benefits and their environmental costs in the world.

 

Food played a central role during the event – people had the chance to try different nations’ traditional dishes and sweets, while the Eritrean stall also gave the chance to explore coffee-making traditions and have a nice hot and refreshing traditionally prepared Eritrean cup of coffee! Sudanese curry, Turkish sweets, Omani dessert, Lebanese finger food and much more was served some of which was kindly donated by local City Road restaurants Deli Fuego, Al Wali, Saray and Mezze Luna.

BBC Radio Wales interviewed two volunteers of the project, listen to the interview here:

Celebrating Sudan at with Sudanese volunteers from Oasis

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09g655c (time code: 2:13:13 – 2:18:15).

Also, Journalism student Sagnik came along to the event and and was inspired to make this video.

Check out our Flickr account as well to see pictures of the event.

Many of the Human Books said they’d be more than happy to share their stories in the future, and many attendees inquired about the next Human Library event.

Thank you to People’s Postcode Trust, entirely funded by players of People’s Postcode Lottery for funding the event.

The Centenary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration: Britain, Palestine and Israel

By Jane Harries, Cymdeithas y Cymod peace activist, human rights observer and Wales for Peace Learning Coordinator.

Balfour Declaration WCIA Debate Leaflet Oct 2017

The Marble Hall of the Temple of Peace and Health in Cardiff was packed to overflowing on the evening of 18th October 2017, the air thick with expectation. The Cardiff Branch of the United Nations Association (UNA) had brought together two eminent speakers to talk about the historical context and present consequences of the Balfour Declaration – a document whose centenary is marked today, 2nd November.  It was clear we were in for an interesting evening.

So what was the Balfour Declaration, and why should we remember it today?  Does it have any significance for us in Wales?

The Balfour Declaration is in fact in the form of a letter written by Arthur James Balfour, Foreign Secretary in David Lloyd George’s wartime coalition government, to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the Jewish community in Britain.  The key words are as follows:

‘His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’

Balfour_portrait_and_declaration

The first speaker, Avi Shlaim – Jewish historian, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford and married to the grand-daughter of Lloyd George – started off the evening with a historical analysis.  He defined the Declaration as a typical colonialist act. The British had no moral or legal right to give a ‘national home’ to Jewish people in Palestine, having consulted neither with the Arab leaders, nor the Jews nor the British population. Nor was Palestine theirs to give.

Behind the scenes there were political motives. David Lloyd George wanted Palestine for the British in order to gain influence over the French and because of access to the Suez Canal.  He also wanted to dismember the Ottoman Empire and was willing to engage in double dealing to do so. Overtures were made both to Arab leaders and also to the Zionists, whom Lloyd George regarded as powerful and influential.

Jews had lived scattered across the globe before the First World war but at the end of the 19th century a nationalist Jewish campaign grew up in the form of Zionism, whose aim was to establish a national home for the Jews. Zionism particularly appealed to Lloyd George, steeped as he was in the Biblical passages and hymns of his chapel upbringing. This deep emotional connection may have been one reason why he became influenced by Dr Chaim Weizmann, Zionist Leader in the UK and later first President of Israel. And so Lloyd George’s government bowed to Zionist pressure and issued the Declaration, ignoring other Anglo-Jewish voices at the time, including Edwin Montagu, the only Jew in the cabinet.

Balfour_Declaration_War_Cabinet_minutes_appendix_17_October_1917

The second part of the Declaration is often forgotten – that is that the civil and religious rights of ‘existing non-Jewish communities’ in Palestine (over 90% of the population at the time) should be respected.  The British Mandate in Palestine, issued by the League of Nations in 1923, included a responsibility to implement the Balfour Declaration.  The Mandate was, however, essentially pro-Zionist and led inevitably to the series of events we are familiar with today: the Arab revolt of 1936 – 39, the rise of Zionist terrorist activity against the British and Palestinians, British withdrawal from the region, and the foundation of the State of Israel mirrored by the Palestinian Nakba (= catastrophe, mass migration) in 1948.  The Israeli- Palestinian conflict is one of the most entrenched in the world and continues to blight lives today.  This is particularly true for the Palestinians, who have seen their homeland shrink and their human rights whittled away under a now 50-year military occupation.  Even the area which the British government recognises as a future state for the Palestinian people is now occupied by 700,000 Israeli settlers.

The second speaker, Professor Kamel Hawwash of Birmingham University, Palestinian commentator on the Middle East, explained the consequences of Balfour today.  He outlined the effects of the Israeli Occupation for those living on the West Bank, including loss of land, freedom of movement and livelihood, difficult access to education and health care, and subjugation to continuous harassment and violence.  In the Gaza Strip the population essentially lives in an open prison, deprived of many resources we take for granted, including clean water and proper sewage systems.  He then turned his talk to address an unusual question.  The state of Israel is more or less exactly the same size as Wales.  What would be the situation today if the Balfour Declaration had promised a homeland for the Jewish people in Wales, not in Palestine?  Using parallel maps, he brought this supposition to life, with swathes of Welsh land having been taken up into the State of Israel and Cardiff a divided city.  This helped us to see the Declaration from a different perspective.

As the evening wore on, there was strong feeling from one young member of the audience that the speakers were one-sided; she pleaded to hear the other side.  A student of Atlantic College, it appeared that she had spent a lot of time listening to the arguments of Palestinian and Israeli students living in her house. So what can we say about the Balfour Declaration that is more balanced and even positive?

The Balfour Declaration was of its time – as Avi Shlaim said essentially a colonialist document – so perhaps it should be judged as such.  It feels obvious from the wording of the document that the author was trying to balance what was felt to be a justified case for the Jewish people to have a homeland with the rights of the indigenous population. The problem is that this double-dealing didn’t work out in practice, with both sides seeing the British as compromising their cause.  And are we really justified in thinking that such a declaration or deal couldn’t be made today – for oil, or influence, or post-Brexit trade deals?

Balfour Palestine Mandate

It is true that Jews have been persecuted over centuries, including in pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th century. In a humanitarian global society, we surely would applaud the attempt to offer a safe haven for the persecuted, and the Balfour Declaration can be seen as such. What wasn’t foreseen, however, was that those persecuted may turn persecutors in their turn and deprive the indigenous population of their rights. What would the authors of the Declaration today say to the descendants of the 750,000 Palestinians forced to flee their homes in 1948 – and some again in 1967 –  many still living in refugee camps across the Middle East?

Balfour - West_Bank_&_Gaza_Map_2007_(Settlements)

Theresa May has talked about her ‘pride’ in the Balfour Declaration and in the creation of the State of Israel, a key ally for Britain in the Middle East.  Whilst rejoicing that persecuted Jews, including Holocaust survivors, found a homeland in Palestine, what do we feel about the plight of the dispossessed? Theresa May’s current government supports a 2-state solution in principle. What does the perpetuation of a military occupation do to the soul and psyche of the Occupier? Surely a conflict that is allowed to go on for so long cannot bring good for either side.

The Balfour Declaration is not a document that people know much about in the UK.  In Palestine it is part of everyone’s awareness – generally recognised as the starting point from which everything began to unravel, leading to a continuous process of dispossession which continues today.  To illustrate this point let me take you back to an August evening in East Jerusalem in 2012. At the time I was serving as a human rights observer on the West Bank and that evening we were called to an incident in Silwan. When we arrived we realised that the cause of the problem was seemingly small: an Israeli settler had parked his car in the middle of the road, preventing people from moving up or down. It was however Ramadan, and just before the breaking of the fast, and tempers get frayed. As we started talking to local residents and the Israeli armed police who had inevitably arrived, the expected question came: “Where are you from?” “Britain”, we said. “Ah, Balfour!” the local resident retorted – and went off into a tirade. The good thing was that once this had blown over he started joking with us, and the tension was released. The settler moved the car, and the incident passed off without any repercussions. This was not a lone incident, however. I have lost count how many times I have had to apologise for Balfour on the West Bank.

Bearing everything in mind how do we, the present generation, view the Balfour Declaration?  On the positive side, we can see it as an attempt to be balanced and to provide safety and security for persecuted Jews. It certainly was instrumental in the events leading to the creation of the modern State of Israel.  It can also be seen as an essentially political deal – an attempt to favour those who were believed to have influence whilst paying lip-service to the Arab leaders. It is hard to avoid the reality however, that the Declaration set off a string of events in the region which still have repercussions today, resulting in one of the world’s most intransigent conflicts and spelling death, dispossession and poverty for thousands.

Balfour-Israel-Palestine_peace.svg

The Israeli Palestinian Peace Process

Some sources:

The Balfour Declaration – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balfour_Declaration

The Balfour Declaration – New Statesman, a more critical view: https://www.newstatesman.com/books/2010/08/arab-palestine-jewish-rights

The Balfour Project  – Lloyd George –  critical view of Lloyd George’s part in the Declaration: http://www.balfourproject.org/lloyd-george/

Avi Schlaim: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avi_Shlaim

What is Wales had been offered as a Jewish Homeland – Middle East eye> http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/what-if-wales-had-been-offered-jews-homeland-palestine-zionist-israel-526573400

Article on Theresa May’s stance – Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/balfour-declaration-israel-palestine-theresa-may-government-centenary-arabs-jewish-settlements-a7607491.html

Chaim Weizmann: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaim_Weizmann

Palestine – Israel: Effects of Occupation – an educational pack (from the US): http://www.palestineinformation.org/dig_deep

Jane Harries’ blog from Palestine: https://janeharries.wordpress.com 

A Simple Journey

The final installment of Jane Harries’ blog series concerning her recent visit to  Israel and Palestine. 

Beitar Illit the largest city in Gush Etzion

Beitar Illit: the largest city in Gush Etzion

Friday 14th July.  On the face of it we had a very easy journey to make.  Firstly we would visit R., an Israeli (originally from the US) living in the Gush Etzion settlement and an Alternatives to Violence Project(AVP) facilitator to discuss how she might like to develop AVP workshops in the future.  We would then cross over the Israeli-controlled Route 60 to visit the Palestinian grassroots leader Ali Abu Awad in his compound before returning to Bethlehem.  All these places are within a few kilometres of one another.  The difficulties we had getting from one place to another highlights the complexities of negotiating human encounters in a land characterised by segregation and military occupation.

 

Our journey began when we picked up a taxi from Manger Square in Bethlehem in the occupied Palestinian territories.   When we told our driver that we wanted to go to the Gush Etzion settlement, he was already nervous, and explained to us that he could only take us to the Junction, but wasn’t allowed into the settlement itself.  We explained that we knew this, and that we would be met by a friend from the settlement.  As we set off our driver told us that there had been army incursions into Deheishe refugee camp in Bethlehem that night, and that a resident had been killed.  This was causing a lot of delays at checkpoints.  Armed with this knowledge, he did what Palestinians are used to doing all the time: he found a way round that avoided the checkpoints.  So much for security, we mused…..

We were dropped off near to the Gush Etzion Junction on Route 60, not far from a settler-only bus stop.  Here there was a group of armed soldiers, who were initially wary of our group: five Westerners – strangers – all with ruck-sacks.  (The Gush Etzion Junction has seen a number of violent incidents over the years, including as recently as November 2015).  We soon got into conversation, however, even if this was at quite a superficial level, and one of them showed interest in what we were doing on the West Bank and Israel, supporting people to deal with conflict better.

We were picked up by R. and taken to her house.  Gush Etzion has an interesting if controversial history.   It is in truth a cluster of settlements comprising at least 70,000 people.  The core of the settlement block is the site of what were four agricultural villages, established between 1940 and 1947 on land purchased in the 1920s and 30s.  These villages were destroyed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and then left outside of Israel at the 1949 Armistice.  After the 1967 Six-day War and the occupation of the West Bank, the villages were rebuilt and reclaimed by Israeli settlers.  The extent of the present settlement, however, far exceeds the original site, taking in swathes of privately-owned Palestinian land.  Israeli settlements on the West Bank are regarded as illegal under International Humanitarian Law (Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention) and by most of the international community.

I was surprised by how small R’s house is, and found myself wondering how it must feel to live in this gated community, constantly guarded by soldiers and with the knowledge that the legality of one’s existence in this place is disputed by international law.  How could one feel comfortable in one’s skin?  We didn’t go into this, although the elephant in the room remained (for me) during the whole of our conversation.  We sat at the table in their small kitchen drinking coffee whilst preparations were taking place for Shabbat – a lot of chopping and putting things into large cooking pots and the preparation of dough, which R’s small son delighted in and tried to share with us in small balls.  R. shared with us that she had been involved in the organisation Kids4Peace which aims to promote integration and understanding between Palestinian and Israeli children through summer camps, but that she had left because she didn’t feel that the interests and concerns of Israeli Jews and Palestinians were treated equally.  She also expressed interest in developing AVP work in hospitals.

I have no doubt that R. is sincere and really wants to use her knowledge and experience of AVP in some way that will be beneficial to society.  At the same time, this visit raised many dilemmas for me. How can we resolve conflict without looking honestly at its root causes?  R. and her small family – like many others in Gush Etzion I presume – have now put down roots in this place and feel that they belong, but at what cost to others?  If injustice and inequality aren’t addressed, what hope is there for a real and lasting peace?  How can this happen if the two communities never come together, ready to really hear one another’s experiences, deepest feelings and aspirations?  How can it happen without a political solution?  As we re-crossed the busy Route 60 and headed towards Ali Abu Awad’s compound on the other side, all these questions were rankling in my head.

I assure him that it’s perfectly safe, but how can I convince him?  The whole of his upbringing and training as a soldier tells him differently.

Ali isn’t at home.  After a phone call we find that he has gone to a family wedding, so we now face the journey back to Bethlehem in the midday heat. Back out on Route 60 we come across another settler bus stop on the other side of the road.  We know there is no point waiting there to get back to Bethlehem – so close and yet on the other side of the political divide.  A soldier approaches us and asks where we want to get to.  We explain that we want to return to our hotel in Bethlehem.  ‘I wouldn’t go there’, he says ironically, his gun poised ready for potential use: ‘it’s not safe’.  I assure him that it’s perfectly safe, but how can I convince him?  The whole of his upbringing and training as a soldier tells him differently.

Route 60, with Gush Etzion in the background

Route 60, with Gush Etzion in the background

We trudge on a little up the slope and start hitch-hiking, looking out for the cars with green Palestinian number plates.  We have only been there a short time when a rather rickety car pulls up.  When we explain where we want to go, we are immediately invited in.  We pile in and – squashed up together – feel relieved to be in a welcoming space.  During the journey the driver tells us of some of his experiences – familiar stories of hardship and injustice.  He drops us not just anywhere, but right on Manger Square, yards from our hotel.  True, it may not be safe on the West Bank: one might just suffer from too much generosity.

Jane’s own blog can be accessed here.

The News that Everyone Ignores

In the penultimate installment of her series, Jane Harries offers first hand account to counter the media’s association of East Jerusalem with violent mass movement.   

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s Old City

Tensions around the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) in Jerusalem had already reached a critical point whilst we were in the area.  On 14th July two Israeli police officers were killed at the holy site by three Israeli Arab gunmen, who later died in a shootout.  But it was the reaction of the Israeli authorities to this event which really sparked off mass protests, in particular the installation of metal detectors around the entrance to the site.  Palestinian worshippers refused to go through the detectors, and instead chose to pray en masse in the streets around the compound.

Although this was reported on the news here in the UK, there was little if no attempt to explain the significance of these events or the sensibilities surrounding them.  In fact the snippets of news I heard on my return were astounding in their shallowness and by the fact that they were misleading – be this unwitting or otherwise.  There was talk about ‘violent protests by Palestinians’ and ‘security’.  UK citizens, well acquainted with the language and dialogue used around terrorist attacks, could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that Palestinians are largely violent, whilst the Israelis have legitimate security concerns.  Whilst not wishing to deny either that individual acts of violence happen on both sides and need to be condemned or that there are some security concerns in the area, I would like to offer a more in-depth analysis, backed up by reports of what really happened.

The old city of Jerusalem is of importance to all three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam because of the religious sites which stand within its walls, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,the Western Wall and the Al-Aqsa mosque.   The Dome of the Rock or the Temple Mount on which the Al-Aqsa mosque stands is particularly sensitive: tradition has it that it is from this place that Mohammed ascended into heaven.  At the same time Jews believe that this is the place where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac.  The site is also sacred for Jews as this is the presumed location of both the first and the second Temples, the Western Wall being all that remains of the latter.  Some Jews believe that more remains of the two Temples are to be found under the Dome of the Rock and archaeological excavations are ongoing, provoking fears among Muslims that the very foundations of the Al-Aqsa mosque could be threatened.  This site is therefore in a way a microcosm of the larger Israeli- Palestinian conflict, in that it is in essence about ownership and the importance of the same piece of land to different religions and populations.  Sensitivities around the Temple Mount also need to be understood as part of the wider political context.  East Jerusalem, previously under the jurisdiction of Jordan, was occupied by Israel in 1967.  Palestinians regard it as occupied territory (as do the UN) and the potential capital of a future Palestinian state, whereas for Zionists Jerusalem is the potential capital of a future Jewish-only state.

In practical terms an uneasy status quo is held in place between the Israeli authorities, who control security around the site and the Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem Waqf who control what happens at the site itself.  (In Islamic law, a person may decide to donate a property and its revenues to the public for charitable or religious purposes. This property then becomes a waqf, or holding, in perpetuity). In a region where religion is of the utmost importance and where rival claims to land are so bound up with identity, it is of vital importance that the delicate balance between the Israeli authorities and the Waqf remains undisturbed.  Evidence of what can ensue if this happens can be seen from recent history: the Second Intifada was sparked off by a visit by Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in September 2000.

The main element that the media missed, however, was the overwhelming non-violent nature of the mass protests in East Jerusalem.  Despite calls from the Palestinian leadership for a ‘day of rage’ worshippers gathered each day for mass prayers at the security cordons around the Old City, and maintained calm and dignity.  There was very little violence.  Another element that was barely commented on was the fact that Palestinian Christians joined in the mass protests, showing solidarity across religious divides.  This is a reality that belies a narrative that would have us believe that the conflict in the region is in essence a religious one, between Jews and Muslims.  Although religion plays an important role in the region, the crux of the conflict is in fact about the dominance of one society over another, about sovereignty, identity and human rights.

East Jerusalem has once again fallen out of the world news, and no doubt an uneasy status quo has been re-established since the removal of the metal detectors leading to the al-Aqsa mosque.  However, the central imbalance and injustice between Palestinian and Israeli society remains, meaning that peace is at best precarious.

Worshippers gathered at the Lions Gate, at the entrance to the Old City- overseen by security forces.

The devout gather at the Lions Gate- whilst overseen by security forces.

Working towards Non-Violence

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.

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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.

Why AVP?

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’!

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