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.

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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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Healing Hatred: Spiritual Challenges in a Context of Political Conflict

Jane Harris presents the questions and debates from the second annual conference of the International Association for Spiritual Care in the third installment of her blog series. 

One of the aims of our visit this time was to take part in a conference in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Beit Jala entitled ‘Healing Hatred: Spiritual Challenges in a Context of Political Conflict’.  This was the 2nd annual conference of the International Association for Spiritual Care (IASC).  This organisation describes its mission as enhancing ‘the capacities of scholars and practitioners worldwide in acquiring, disseminating and applying knowledge of theory and practice of spiritual care with an emphasis on interdisciplinary, interreligious and intercultural scholarly investigation.’ Given this description, one might have expected the conference to be quite dry and academic.  This was not, however, the case.  Yes, those who made presentations or engaged in panel discussions were highly qualified and backed up their points with research.  At the same time most presenters also spoke from their own experience and illustrated their talks with personal stories that had had a transforming effect on them.  As a result the conference was highly moving and potentially life-changing for those who attended.

This was a real attempt to address existential questions across political, religious and social divides.  Partners in the organisation of the conference included the Hebrew Union College (where the first sessions took place – in a synagogue) and the Holy Land Trust, a non-violent peace organisation based in Bethlehem on the West Bank, as well as the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue.  The audience during the first two days of the conference were mostly liberal Jews, whilst the last day took place in the Bethlehem Bible College in Bethlehem and was designed so that Palestinians could address issues on their own with international colleagues.  A final session including food and music brought everyone back together in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem.

Questions discussed went to the heart of the conflict, and included: ‘How should Palestinians Respond to Israeli Trauma?’, ‘Unlocking Israeli Indifference to Palestinian Trauma’, ‘Abuse of Religion in the Name of Politics’ and ‘What makes people change?’  There were also workshops which presented some more practical methodologies, including one from our AVP team.

Understanding the Trauma of the Other

As is so often the case, the presentations which were particularly moving were rooted in personal experience.  One of the first speakers was Professor Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi who, in 2014, was forced to resign from his post at al-Quds University after he took a group of 27 Palestinian students to visit the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.  We need to stop the reciprocity of victimhood, he said, and do things because they are the right things to do.  Both peoples – Israelis and Palestinians – are both victims and perpetrators.  Sami Awad, Director of the Holy Land Trust, had undergone a similar transformation.  After the 2nd Intifada his organisation concentrated largely on non-violent activism, but he then started to ask questions.  He noticed the levels of hatred which the Israelis had towards the Palestinians and wanted to understand where these strong feelings and behaviours came from.  He too visited Auschwitz, and discovered a story he had never been told, enabling him to understand an existential fear and need for security in Israeli society.

Stereotypes and the Power of Human Encounter

Addressing what makes people change, Professor Rafi Walden, past President of Physicians for Human Rights, told us a story of a young Palestinian who had been brought to his hospital, injured in the leg by an Israeli soldier.   Several times he and his colleagues asked him if he could move his leg, so as to ascertain whether they could perform surgery on him.  His only response, as he looked at his carers with seeming hatred was ‘jihad’.  At least one of the medical team was of the opinion that they should refuse to treat him, but they took him into the operating theatre and – after a long and difficult operation – his leg was saved.  As he lay recovering, his father arrived and thanked Professor Walden profusely for saving his son Jihad.  Only then did they realise that Jihad was the boy’s name.  We are reminded that the primary meaning of ‘jihad’ (al-harb in Arabic)  is ‘struggle’ or ‘striving’ – often an inner struggle to become a better believer.  Once we are able to see our ‘enemy’ face to face as a human being, prejudices and stereotypes are stripped away.  Professor Walden reminded us that ‘caring for others’ is mentioned in the Torah at least 36 times.

Religious Fundamentalism

Addressing religious fundamentalism, Dr. Tomer Persico argued that this is a modern phenomenon, and cited two examples – the radical settler movement ‘Hilltop Youth’ and the obsession amongst Zionists that Jews should be able to ascend the Temple Mount (a survey in 2014 showed that 75% of Zionists were in favour of this).  He argued that although revenge may be a natural reaction, it doesn’t come from the original Jewish tradition but is rather a legacy from European romanticism.  Likewise ascent to the Temple Mount was traditionally forbidden in Judaism, since that which is sacred was regarded as something set apart and to be respected.  The ‘right’ to ascend the Temple Mount has gone hand in hand with ideas of nationalism, ownership and sovereignty, making sole claims with total disregard for the Other.  Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur cited the example of a Catholic church burnt down by extremists in the Galilee and the quote that was left behind to ‘justify’ this act: “and the idols shall be cut down.”  This is a direct quote from a 15th century Jew, Isaac Abarbanel, who was expelled from Spain – and reflects the practice of quoting selectively from the Torah or from history.  He argued that the Jewish tradition across the centuries is a more humanitarian and loving one and gave quotes from a more contemporary Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Two of these suffice:

“We must not regard any human institution or object as being an end in itself.   Man’s achievements in this world are but attempts, and a temple that comes to mean more than a reminder of the living God is an abomination.” (1955)

“The tree of hatred is the tree of death…. People hate those who make them feel their own inferiority.  The prophets of Israel taught us that those who cherish the use of force are themselves consumed by force….” (1972)

Moral giants

This conference addressed deep-seated and wide-ranging issues.  Many significant things were said and very personal experiences shared.  As the memories fade, however, one speaker stands out above the rest.  This was neither an Israeli nor a Palestinian but Father Michael Lapsley, whose experience of overcoming hatred is rooted in apartheid South Africa.  Expelled from South Africa because he used his role as National University Chaplain to speak out about the shootings, detentions and torture of his black students after the Soweto riots in 1976, he spent 16 years in exile as a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and chaplain to the liberation movement in exile.  In April 1990, 3 months after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, he was sent a letter bomb from South Africa, disguised as religious literature.  He lost both hands and the sight of one eye in the blast, and was seriously burned.  Supported by love and prayers from around the world, he began a journey from victim to survivor to victor.  He returned to South Africa in 1993 and became Chaplain of the Trauma Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture in Cape Town.

Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust talking to Father Michael Lapsley

Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust talking to Father Michael Lapsley

Father Lapsley’s words rang true because they came from his own experience of being a victim of and overcoming hatred.  He reminded us of Nelson Mandela’s words: 

“No-one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, his background or his religion.  They need to be taught to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can also learn to love.” 

The Israelis and Palestinians need to set up spaces for talking and listening, he said, and to be creative in bringing people together, since separation keeps hatred alive.  At the same time, healing is not a substitute for the struggle for justice, and both processes need to happen at the same time.  He reminded us that the Old Testament prophets understood the relationship between justice and conflict. “And what does the Lord require of you?” asked Micah: ”To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6.8).  Injustice, he said, endangers the safety and security of the future of the Israeli state.  Another way would be to engage in restorative justice, which seeks to restore the balance.  He also reminded us that there were many Nelson Mandelas in South Africa, and that healing had to come from the people themselves.

Pushing the Limits….

The subject matter of this conference was controversial and there were times when wounds opened and gaping hurts were exposed.  The last speaker of the first two days in Jerusalem was a clinician working to heal trauma in Gaza.  He talked about asking a patient to think of a safe space, and the patient not being able to think of one, since in Gaza a whole population is living in trauma.  Towards the end of his talk he referred to Israeli soldiers during the First Intifada breaking the arms of children in Gaza so that they couldn’t throw stones.  Was this truth or myth?  Hard to tell, but in any case it was shocking – and too much for one participant who stormed out shouting something about ‘body parts’.  And so the cycle of hatred continues, fed by stories, truths and myths which keep images of the Other alive and prevent healing.  The speaker suggested that children in Gaza should be put in touch with children in Israel so that they could connect with one another and create a new identity. It is initiatives like these, if only they could be implemented, that may sow new seeds of hope.

The other side of the coin emerged as we listened to Sami Awad from the Holy Land Trust and Michael Lapsley in conversation in the Bethlehem Bible College on the third day.  Sami told us that a statement against the conference had been issued by the Boycott Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement in Palestine, since it was seen as a ‘normalisation’ event.  In the Israel-Palestine conflict ‘normalisation’ refers to any way in which Palestinians are led to see the present status quo (i.e. Occupation) as normal, and has been extended to include any collaboration or rapprochement with the occupiers (See recent +972 blog for more details).   Referring to the history of the South African struggle, Michael Lapsley said that those struggling for justice supported BDS because it was seen as a way of shortening the struggle.  However, at the same time Nelson Mandela was talking to the South African government.  It was not a case of either or, but both and.  The Israel-Palestine conflict is not the same as the South African struggle, of course, but it is worth asking what we as internationals can do to promote peace in the region and above all what is effective.  Bringing people from both sides together is of course a good thing to do and necessary to foster empathy, but the conflict won’t be solved unless we also help to remove the root cause of injustice and inequality – i.e. the Occupation.

Messages of Hope and Empowerment

It was good that the conference ended with contributions from two strong women.  The first was Huda Abu Arqoub, Regional Director for the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), an organisation with over a 100 members.  Huda started her talk by telling us a story of her father and grandfather going on a journey from Hebron to Haifa and Beirut and back via Damascus – a journey that could only be dreamt of today!  She also shared memories of her childhood in Palestine, characterised by the importance of education and creativity.   The second speaker was Sarah Snyder, who is Advisor for Reconciliation to the Archbishop of Canterbury and has a wide-ranging international experience of peace-building and dialogue.  Asked why there are not more peace women in Palestine, Huda replied that there are, but they are not seen, recognised and acknowledged!  She also referred to the Israeli movement ‘ Women Wage Peace’, formed from the need for women not to send their sons to war.  Only the week-end before women from this movement had stood in 150 places in Israel and demonstrated.

And so we ended on a note of hope.  Looking at the list of members of ALLMEP  – including Combatants for Peace, Kids4Peace, Neve Shalom, Parents’ Circle, the Holy Land Trust – one could be forgiven for asking why peace has not already broken out.  At the moment political forces, fear and inaction on behalf of the international community hold the perpetuation of injustice and hatred in the region in place.  There are however stirrings amongst ordinary people who thirst for a different reality and are willing to stand up for change.  If this were to become a mass popular movement political leaders would be forced to take note, and the tide of change would be irresistible.  Sarah Snyder gave a quote from Northern Ireland, that “Peace is a mystery – a walking into the unknown.”  Well then, let’s walk bravely into the unknown and do what we can for peace.

Taghyeer – a Movement for Non-violent Change

In the second installment in this series, Jane Harries recounts her encounter with Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian peace activist.  

I had heard Joe talk often and excitedly of Ali Abu Awwad, so when the opportunity to meet him and colleagues arose soon after my arrival in Bethlehem, I was glad to accept.

Talking to Ali, it didn’t take long to understand the enormity of his vision.  Ali currently lives on his family’s land just south of Bethlehem, on the other side of the main road from the large Jewish settlement of Gush Etzion.  (For different perspectives on this settlement’s history and expansion see Wikipedia and +972 Magazine).  There is nothing extraordinary in this: many Palestinians live in the shadow of settlements.  The story of Ali’s youth and upbringing are not so uncommon either.  He was brought up in a politically active refugee family which was under constant pressure from the Israeli military, this eventually culminating in the imprisonment of himself and his mother.  Following the dashed hopes of the Oslo agreement, Ali was injured by a settler and his brother murdered by a soldier from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

What was remarkable was Ali’s reaction to these events.  Slowly, he realised that what was often seen by Palestinians as justifiable violence to throw off military occupation would not lead to freedom – but only raise the level of reactive fear among the militarily dominant Israelis. He saw this Israeli fear as the real enemy of both Palestinians and of a secure future for Israel.  Since his imprisonment and release, his life’s work has been to overcome his own blindness of the humanity in his enemy and to enhance himself and his people in transcending oppression by using the ‘best of humanity’ as expressed in nonviolence.  How has he gone about doing this?  He has been involved in the Bereaved Families Forum, where he has met Israelis who are united with Palestinians in the loss of a loved one due to the conflict.  He is also leading an initiative on his family land – to welcome and encounter those settlers willing to step up and overcome their blindness to the existence and truth of the Palestinians.  This is a truly brave thing to do – one that flies against all norms, rules and boundaries and which is potentially dangerous, seen by some sections of Palestinian society as consorting with the enemy – an attempt to bring about ‘normalisation’.

Ali has another parallel though partly conflicting vision: that of Taghyeer (‘Change’: see website and video).  His aim is to overcome the victim mentality of Palestinian society and to build a grass-roots nonviolent social reform and resistance movement, empowering people to take responsibility and develop their own freedom.   He argues that peace movements, in which he has played a role, have failed to halt the persistent loss of Palestinian land to the settlements.  The government of Israel has been the creator of Israeli fear so as to maintain power and domination; whilst the Palestinian Authority is largely corrupted and weak. Palestinian political factions are divided and fail to achieve their goal of freedom, and Palestinian communities despair and have no confidence in their ability to come together to achieve social goals.  With Taghyeer, he feels, there is a real opportunity to create a change.  That this is possible has already been demonstrated by mass demonstrations and the ‘Sumud’ Freedom Camp.

Stephen (Friends of Taghyeer), Mary and Ali in Bethlehem

Stephen (Friends of Taghyeer), Mary and Ali in Bethlehem

Also present at the meeting was Mary Abu Khudair (Planning and Communications Manager for Tagyheer).  Mary has lived part of her life in the US, where she raised two sons, but she then returned to Shufat, Jerusalem.  The grim reality of the conflict hit her family and community in the Summer of 2014 with the brutal murder of her young cousin Mohammad Abu Khdeir.  Like Ali, Mary responded by starting on the tough path of connecting with the humanity of the other, firstly through volunteering with Combatants for Peace and then through working for Taghyeer in building Palestinian strength through nonviolent action.

Inspiring though this meeting was, we were to see part of the vision in practice the following evening, when we were invited to Ali Abu Awwad’s compound for supper.  Having not seen the farm before, it looked fairly familiar to me.  Approaching it along a busy dual carriageway, we then veered off onto an unsigned untarmacked track which came to a halt in front of a group of buildings, including a house, a covered area which could be used for meetings or training events, a fenced-off area with some sheep and turkeys, and a garden area ready to be planted. There was even a small building with a few items hanging in it – obviously destined to become a shop.  The two Joes, however, who had been there last year, marvelled at all the new developments.  For Ali this is the beginning of a dream – a Nonviolence Centre for Palestine.

What was immediately apparent and remarkable to me on arrival was the presence of two Israeli women.  No-one else, however, seemed to remark on their presence, or notice anything out of the ordinary in it.  They totally blended in with what was going on around them and joined us in the meal, which was soon served.  This also is part of the new reality that Ali strives to achieve: a society where all can live and work together no matter what their religion or background.

The star turn of the evening, however, had to be the serving of the meal.  We were summoned to witness the unearthing of the chickens.  Perplexed, we followed to where there was an area of ashes.  These were scraped away, revealing a lid.  Once this was lifted we could see that there was an underground oven with a metal stand above a fire where the meat had been slowly cooking.  The next part of this operation was to lift the three-tiered stand out of the hole: lamb chops in rows on the top tier, then roast chickens and underneath all the juices that had come from the roasting meat.  The whole contraption was carried to the table, already groaning under mountains of rice, salad and pitta bread.  This was Palestinian hospitality, done in grand style!  Perhaps if one wants to forge a peace community, it’s good to start with filling its stomach!

For more information see Ali Abu Awwad’s Ted Talk given in Jerusalem in 2015.

 

Arrival in Bethlehem

Jane Harris is a self-professed Quaker, educationalist, linguist, mum, cook, swimmer and human rights activist. This is the first installment in a series detailing her most recent visit to Israel and Palestine.

The driver of the ‘sherut’ (shared taxi) drops me opposite the Damsacus Gate in Jerusalem and motions towards where I can catch the bus to Bethlehem.  Early in the morning as it is, the heat is already rising.  Tired from the overnight journey, I’m still relieved to have escaped the gleaming angular airport of Ben Gurion and the long queues at the passport booths.

To enter the Bethlehem bus is to enter another, parallel world.  Perhaps not meticulously clean and a bit ramshackle around the edges but warm and welcoming, like a well-worn blanket.  People greet one another and exchange news.  A young girl comes to sit beside me and gives me a broad smile. As we drive out of the city an elderly gentleman opposite with deep lines in his face where he has smiled often looks out of the bus window where an elderly Jewish gentleman is being helped along the pavement by his wife.  I wonder what he is thinking.

As we drop down into Beit Jala and into Area A we pass the inevitable large red sign: ‘It is illegal for Israeli citizens to enter this area ….. danger to life, etc’.  I reflect how different this warning is to what I have experienced on the West Bank, mostly summed up in the two words generosity and hospitality – often expressed in offers of food and friendship.  And here is Bethlehem – much of it familiar but with some new buildings, many half-finished.  There is the inevitable traffic, the sounding of horns, the dust, the litter…..

As the bus comes to a halt I realise I’m in the wrong part of town and quite far from Manger Square, my destination.  As I contemplate whether to try to get there on foot, I am approached by a taxi driver.  He can take me, he says, for 35 Shekels.  As I get into the taxi, he removes a covering from the front windscreen, and I realise I must be his first customer of the day.  I ask him how tourism is in Bethlehem.  It’s bad, he says.  Surprising, since this should be the height of the tourist season.  I learn that he has 5 children and is struggling.  I give him a bit more than the 35 Shekels he had asked for.

Joe Di Garbo, Majdi and Joe Moore in Majdi's store, Bethlehem

Joe Di Garbo, Majdi and Joe Moore in Majdi’s store, Bethlehem

The impression that Bethlehem is quiet has been borne out by our own observations and by going to see our friend Majdi, who has a ‘Bedouin Store’ just down from the Paradise Hotel not far from the checkpoint where my own journeying in Israel and Palestine first started in 2005.  As we enter the store there is the familiar ritual: we are greeted like long-lost friends, a circle of plastic chairs is pulled up and we are offered tea and coffee.  Sitting amongst his piles of beautiful scarves, West Bank pottery, clothes and cosmetics, he laments that tourists don’t pass this way but are bused straight to the Nativity Church, by-passing many of the local businesses.  Others may be dissuaded from visiting Bethlehem because it is ‘dangerous’.

Poor Bethlehem.  Far from our Christmas-card fantasy, here is a town under Occupation, isolated, surrounded by an eight metre wall.  Linger awhile, however, and there are treasures to be found far beyond the rows of carved nativity scenes and mother of pearl jewellery and ornaments: a rich and resilient community that will take you to its heart.

More of Jane Harries’ writing can be found on her blog.

The Children of Syria: Dealing with the Impact of War

By Georgia Marks

On 21 March, Gareth Owen, the Humanitarian Director for Save the Children, came to the Temple of Peace to give a presentation on the impact of the war on the children of Syria. The Chief Executive of the WCIA, Martin Pollard, introduced the event by expressing that the war in Syria is a pressing issue. He then went on to establish Owen’s background in civil engineering and his pivotal role in Save the Children and has been awarded an OBE in 2013 for his work in emergency crisis.

Owen started his presentation by showing us a video about the children of Syria, with statistics of the injuries they have suffered and the effect that the war has had on their mental health. The information in the video was horrifying. Last week marked the sixth anniversary of the Syria conflict, however Owen reiterated that the theme for the presentation was hope. I think this is a really refreshing stance to have because with the all of the horrific news that we hear about the conflict, it is easy to fall into a state of negativity. Also, a sense of positivity will create a more open space for change within Syria.

Owen then described Save the Children’s newest report, ‘Invisible Wounds’, which depicted the impacts that the war in Syria has had on four hundred and fifty Syrian children interviewed and showed the devastating psychological effects of the six year conflict. The study found that the majority of the children interviewed were suffering from toxic stress which can result in the increase of heart disease, drug abuse and mental health issues. The speaker stressed that the most concerning element of this is that the issues in childhood manifest in adulthood, so the effects of the war will resonate forever.

The report found that 71% of the children interviewed suffered from bedwetting, which is a sign of toxic stress. Also, 80% have noticed that they are more aggressive than before the war, and 50% of the older children interviewed have turned to drugs. The children interviewed emphasized that they will never feel safe at school. The statistics given in the presentation have made it clear that the war in Syria is affecting the children in a detrimental way, and I share the opinion of many when I say that we cannot let it continue. This brings me back to the main theme of Owen’s presentation: although the situation in Syria is horrific, there is still time to act, many children can heal, there is still hope.

Sendai Tsunami

The next section of Owen’s presentation asked how Syria got to into this situation. He established a brief history of the situation in Syria; the 15 March 2011 marked the start of the Arab Spring which began in Syria, and the world was terrified that it would spread. Last year marked the record amount of deaths for children. Before the Arab Spring, the population of Syria was around two million, but now half of that number have fled to neighbouring countries and Europe. The speaker went on to establish that those who have stayed behind, including children, are forced to fight work and into young marriage. The situation in Syria was described as a medieval siege like position, using starvation as a way to control the population. There have been 4000 recorded attack on schools, there is a critical need for water and healthcare, and many are living in poverty. This once again reinforces the need to intervene. A member of the audience asked what action was being taken to help children who have been forced to be in the army. The speaker responded by saying that Save the Children will soon be 100 years old. He expressed that the organisation works with factions to stop using children, but Syria is a nation of impunity, with inability to protect the children. Owen emphasized the problem of people forgetting that the United Nations was created to eradicate war. Therefore, Save the Children have taken it upon themselves, as they reach 100, to try and mobilise and change the picture. Another member of the audience questioned how Save the Children prioritises their aid given their scarce resources. The speaker responded by stating that the organisation makes practical choices but they are difficult choices to make. Save the Children always seek to help those who are hardest to reach but that is not always possible; the organisation tries to be impartial and ethical but they cannot always succeed.

Owen then talked about one of his visits to Syria in March 2013. He expressed that he had to have an alias when he visited, which shows how dangerous the country is. The speaker stated that Syria is the most frightening war that he has ever experienced. He then went on to say that the world does not care enough because otherwise we would not allow this to happen. I think that in a sense this is true; there is a feeling of complacency in society right now, if the crisis has not majorly reached our country then we do not feel the urge to act. This is a major problem because we will only make an impact once it is too late. A member of the audience asked how Owen thinks Britain have handled the situation. The speaker replied that we have utterly failed and that the United Nations are not acting to its potential. However, Owen stressed that it is always going to be difficult, but it doesn’t mean that the United Nations isn’t trying.

Owen then went on to provide examples of the positive progress that has been made in Syria, schools have been built and aid had been given, along with psycho-social support. The speaker emphasized that the conflict has meant that the Syrian civil society has to fend for itself to create organisations and work with other countries. This is one of the only positive aspects of the war, and reiterates the theme of the talk of the hopeful attitudes that we should have towards the conflict.

The speaker then went on to discuss the countries that are taking in millions of refugees such as Lebanon and Jordan, and questioned whether Britain is pulling their weight. I think this is a valid question, in comparison with other countries Britain is not taking in that many refugees. This reinforces the point established above that we appear to not care too much unless we are directly affected. In this sense Britain most definitely could make more effort in contributing to help the people of Syria. A member of the audience expressed their concerns with the plight of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and asked whether they are able to take in so many. Owen expressed that politicians respond to the electorate, so in that sense it is in the public’s hands. The speaker then appealed to the young generation, asking how we want our future to be. We need to do something; we need political activism that doesn’t necessarily exist today. We need passion. There are no humanitarian solutions, only political.

The situation in Syria is so horrific, that the way Save the Children tell the children’s stories is so important. A member of the audience asked about the misleading information surrounding Syria and what information can we trust? Owen replied by saying that we live in a culture where facts are disputable, and there is a problem with propaganda and verifying information as a lot of information is propaganda. There is also the issue that the narrative of war is always written by the victor. However, the testimonies of the children cannot be disputed as that is their reality, and it reminds the world that we need to find a solution. The key element to the children’s stories is that of hope. Owen established that the power of hope lives in the refugees, so it is their job at Save the Children to keep the hope alive and help Syrians on a practical level as well.

Owen then showed us the example of Ahmed and the Exodus film and how Britain helped to get his family over to the UK. I found this story refreshing as it shows Britain’s potential to help the people of Syria, and how our aid can have a positive impact. Another video was then shown, a ‘Don’t Bomb Children’ advert which has been televised quite frequently recently, and depicted a British school child being under attack from terrorist forces and having to flee her country. The main message of the video was that just because it isn’t happening here, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about what is going on in Syria. This video in particular was very powerful in conveying that message. It appears that the shock factor is one of the only ways to get us to respond to the crisis in Syria. This is really disappointing, but at the same time at least we are starting to respond more to the war. The war has spurred responses among well-known figures, Owen exemplified Stephen Hawking’s contribution to Save the Children. Hawking fronted an appeal, giving voices to the children of Syria. I think this is really positive, because if influential figures advocate a more active stance in regards to Syria then hopefully it will encourage others to protest to help Syrian people. The last example Owen depicted was the search and rescue in the Mediterranean, where thousands of refugees drowned attempting to cross the border. The speaker explained that 4700 died in the Mediterranean and 800 of those were children. From all of the examples given, it is clear that we need to take more action to help the people of Syria, as we cannot continue to sit back and let this happen to innocent people.

Owen concluded by talking about the future. There have been talks of safe zones and peace talks which can only be viewed as progress. He went on to express that the price of humanity is whatever it takes to keep the people of Syria alive. According to the speaker, we will be judged harshly in history in terms of how we have helped Syrian people. He ended by asking which side we wanted to be on.

Overall, I found the presentation really insightful and I think it was really effective in motivating the audience. I think we are in a really important period right now which will hopefully influence change in attitudes towards Syria. We need to think positively, but in order for there to be results, we need to take action. There is no doubt that more can be done to help the situation in Syria, and we need to get out of the mind-set that it is someone else’s problem.