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.
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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 

Political Tourist: The Final Chapter

Jane Harries

IMG_0524

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Harries

 

Violette

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

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

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

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

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

nasijona

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

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

 

embroidery2

Political Tourist part 5: Checkpoint Duty

Jane Harries

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Tourist part 4: AVP – Gazan Style

Jane Harries

The main purpose of our visit to Gaza is to deliver a basic and advanced Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop to students at Gaza university.  Our hope is that – through the workshop – the students will gain skills which will help them to build resilience to the stressful and violent siege situation they find themselves in, with the hope of enabling them to respond non-violently and then spread those skills to others.  A further aim is to make the programme sustainable, so that it can run and develop without our direct input.  The programme is part of a wider initiative in Israel, the Occupied Territories  and Gaza to address horizontal violence in the two societies.  AVP isn’t in itself political, but it’s hard to discuss anything in the region without touching on the political situation, as we soon find out.

Quite early on in the workshop we look at the question: ‘What is Violence?’  Some of  participants’ comments are:’Everything in Gaza is suffering from violence – the environment, the houses, the people’; ‘Violence generates violence’; and ‘Anything that the Occupation does is violence.’  At the end of this brainstorm participants are asked to come up and circle anything that they have either committed or been a victim of.  One person commented: ‘Since I live in Gaza, I would just put a big circle round the lot.’

When discussing the opposite of these statements – i.e. ‘What is Non-violence?’ some of the comments were: ‘Islam is not Daesh’; and ‘Being religious means being good to people.’  This reflected a strong feeling in the group that all Muslims are being painted with the same brush as being terrorists, but that this is contrary to their own experiences and beliefs.  One participant then claimed: ‘Gaza’s problem is not the siege; it’s having manners.’  This led to some quite heated discussion as others in the group felt that people in Gaza had ‘good morals’.  Sharif wrapped up the discussion by reminding people that: ‘We have one mouth and two ears, but we talk more than we listen.  If we listened more than  talked, then we would be less violent.’

A key element of AVP is the idea of Transforming Power (TP) – that we can all access a force for good that enables us to solve conflict non-violently.  Certain vital behaviours make up the TP Mandala, enabling us to experience this shift from violence to non-violence in our lives – respect for self, caring for others, thinking before reacting, expecting the best and asking for a non-violent path.  After introducing the concept of TP, Joe asks participants to go and stand by a component of the Mandala that they feel they are doing at the moment, then one that they feel is most challenging for them – and to say why.  By far the largest group goes and stands by ‘Expect the Best’.  How difficult it is in Gaza to have hope for the future!  Many of them are sure that another war will come, and aren’t hopeful that their dreams of travel and self-fulfilment will ever materialise.  For others not expecting the best is a protective mechanism – for if they don’t expect anything then they won’t be disappointed.

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And so we come face to face once again with the reality of the situation in Gaza.  Hemmed in on all sides it so difficult for them to feel hopeful.  We remind them that expecting the best also means expecting the best from yourself.  Joe also introduces the concept of the Circle of Influence and the Circle of Concern: there are many things that we may be concerned about but which are out of our control, so it’s best to concentrate our energies on the things that we can influence – such as our relationships with family and friends.  I feel uncomfortable as we distribute our Western wisdom to people who live in circumstances we can hardly imagine.  Our words feel dry and brittle, and yet they are accepted graciously and with smiles.

Part of the advanced workshop aims to help participants deal with traumatic experiences in positive ways.  One exercise involves them thinking about and drawing a safe place which they can retreat to in times of stress.  One participant draws a picture of the sea with boats and the slogan ‘Free Gaza’ at the top.  Adel draws a picture of a country landscape with trees: for quite a few participants nature is a source of solace.  Hisham who is studying German and who dreams of being a famous actor tells us that his safe space is his dream of the opening night of a play in which he plays a main part.  The opening is introduced by a Beethoven overture.

As is always the case with the West Bank, we leave Gaza with a bit of ourselves left behind.

Political Tourist part 3: First Impressions of Gaza

Jane Harries 

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

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

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

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

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

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