Monday, July 5, 2010

Week 29: The West Bank

The West Bank of the Jordan River is an area (along with the Gaza Strip) that has been militarily occupied by the government of Israel since 1967.

The photo above was taken in Bethlehem, a city included in the West Bank. It is a study in contrasts: Built by Zionists currently controlling state policy in Israel, the ``Security Fence`` (known as The Wall by Palestinian Christians and Muslims) is in the left background. Where it divides Jerusalem from Bethlehem here, it is 30 feet high and full of protest graffiti on the Bethlehem side. On the right in the picture is the building housing Wi`am (``cordial relationships`` in Arabic), a Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center devoted to nurturing a just peace among the peoples of the Holy Land. In the left foreground a playground for children has been built by Wi`am as one of many projects serving a refugee camp where oppressive circumstances are a normal presence. The Wall is a dramatic symbol of this oppression. The playground is a sign of hope that nonviolent action may overcome all that divides the human family.

``WE ARE IN A LARGE PRISON`` was the message of Syed, a Palestinian Muslim who I had randomly met at a tiny restaurant in Bethlehem after my exploration of a wonderful public marketplace. As a citizen of no state, Syed is at the mercy of the Israeli government as well as other governments who decide whether he is worthy of traveling abroad -- or even if he can walk into Jerusalem, less than 100 yards away. For years both he and his Christian friend (also named Syed) have been denied permission to leave the West Bank. Both Syeds have quite muscular bodies (they desire to be personal fitness trainers) and are visually perceived as dangerous persons by Israeli authorities. Both have family members in the U.S. who were allowed to relocate there prior to 9/11/2001. The Christian Syed is unable to see his father, mother, sister, and brother who are legal residents of New York since he has no right to travel beyond the West Bank, and if they come to see him they fear being denied exit again themselves....

The Muslim Syed is a trained sightseeing tour operator, but has been unable to find any steady employment. Most tours of the Holy Land hire no Muslims out of concern that the Israeli government might restrict their operations. So it is that most tours come to Bethlehem (for example) to see religious sites -- and avoid even the public markets, let alone accept invitations to visit one of the many refugee camps. Our 4 day stay at a favorite tour accommodation, Casa Nova, allowed Kris and I to confirm how carefully scripted most tours are -- as we talked with the tourists! So it is that I hired the Muslim Syed to show us around his city, including at least one refugee camp. He happily obliged, and by cell phone secured a taxi (as Syed cannot afford a car) and arranged for us to visit the home of one of many refugee families know to him.

The refugee family included Jamal who, together with his wife, six children, and two young nephews from Gaza, share a small three bedroom and one bath second story flat. As the breadwinner for 10 persons, Jamal has had no employment for 4 years. They are all dependent upon such charity as the underfunded Palestinian Authority and various U.N. agencies and NGOs provide. Their most basic physical need are met (though water pipes are turned on only two days a month) -- but what he most wants is the ability to freely walk back to Jerusalem where before he had ample employment. Like the Syed friends, Jamal is denied such freedom: he (and his entire family) ARE treated like prisoners. Still, he and his smiling wife served us tea and cookies and we also talked about his favorite world cup soccer team (whose flag he had flying from his roof): Brazil. No doubt he is today quite sad as that team lost its game to the Dutch yesterday. Trivial things like sports become more important when there is little else is none`s life to look forward to....

After some effort we made contact with Wi`am and its founder/director Zoughbi Zoughbi who is several full-time people rolled into one: A Christian member of the City Council of Bethlehem (a city which is 2% Christian and 98% Moslem), he also coordinates the staff and volunteers at Wi`am, a speaker expert on the Middle East, and a mediator with an M.A. in Conflict Resolution from Notre Dame (U.S.A.), and a part-time professor at Bethlehem University. For the better part of two days Kris and I observed activities at Wi`am ranging from children`s programs to seminars on Nonviolence, to selling crafts as a means of income for refugees, to simply greeting guests who randomly drop in. One such guest we all quickly suspected of being an Israeli undercover operator, though she might have been better coached in her response to the question: ``Are you from Gaza?`` ``No, I am not a terrorist`` was a little too obvious display of her bias.

One of the more interesting forays into the community occurred when I accompanied Zoughbi to a Muslim home, a child from which had been hit by an automobile driven by a Christian. About 10 Palestinian Christians came as witness to one side, matched by a similar number of Palestinian Muslim observers for the plaintiff. We were all cordially greeted at the door and offered coffee. My presence was accepted without any question and soon advocates from the two sides outlined their concerns. The child was brought in sitting in a wheelchair, his right leg in a cast. His parents wanted any decision on compensation to be postponed until September 1st so as to know in full measure what medical costs might amount to. After about 30 minutes of occasionally passionate verbal exchange, the September 1st date was accepted and the groundwork for reconciliation of the families had been laid. There would be no lawyers involved, no expensive court battles, just people working out their differences in a civil manner. Very impressive, yes? At one point someone had remarked that perhaps they could bring Barach Obama in to resolve their dispute (and the joke was met by chuckles from all sides).

Several good conversations were had with staff and volunteers at Wi`am. Laura, a elementary school teacher from South Carolina, is spending here summer vacation working with the Wi`am summer program for children in Bethlehem. Ryan and Hope, a young couple from Birmingham, Alabama (and friends with our friends Jim and Shelley Douglass there), are working with Janet and other Wi`am volunteers relating to political education and action. Lucy, a staff person who translated for me to communicate well with a group of teenagers at Wi`am one afternoon, told me how her father had died as a result of being beaten by the butt of an Israeli soldier`s rifle, and other family members had been killed when her grandmother`s home had been bombed. Many intense sharing opportunities left Kris and I often in need of the quiet sanctuary provided by our inexpensive lodging at Casa Nova.

For the four days in Bethlehem Kris and I stayed at Casa Nova Pilgrim Guest House, located literally right next to the Church of the Nativity. Tradition says that this church was built on the site of the stable where the baby Jesus was born. Archeologists agree that its foundations date from the 3rd century (making it the oldest church still in existence). A narrow passage of stairs underneath the altar go down to a small room where a star on the floor marks the believed birthplace. It was in this small room that Kris and I were surprised the next day to find ourselves celebrating a morning mass at 6am. Only twelve were in attendance, including two priests and three sisters. That mass would have to count as one of the most beautiful (and simple) religious services I have been associated with… It was in stark contrast to the Sunday Mass the next day at St. Catherine`s (next door) where most pews were full and professional video cameras and sound equipment were apparently recording the event for broadcasting.

So it is that our time in Bethlehem was exceptionally eventful. Our visit to the Shepherd`s Field (where angels are said to have proclaimed the birth), multiple meals with Hatam at the Al Sufara Restaurant off Manger Square, many excellent conversations with staff and other people at Wi`am, as well as other experiences are here neglected. One thing, however, is in great need of mentioning: Tourist Groups. Most stay only a few hours, and few longer than one night in Bethlehem. Talking with these folks indicates what most Palestinians in Bethlehem confirm: Internationals almost always enjoy scripted tours with no significant free time, visit religious sites and a few sanctioned stores for gifts, and depart. Almost no contact with locals occurs – and normally none with refugees or human rights activists that might help them understand realities felt by most Christian and Muslim Palestinians. If ignorance contributes to bliss, most tour groups work well to promote a blissful experience.

From Bethlehem we traveled by minibus to Ramallah, traveling through West Bank (territory militarily occupied by Israel since the 1967 War) to Ramallah (now headquarters for the Palestinian Authority to which very limited autonomy has been granted in preparation for an anticipated future separate state of Palestine). Near the Ramallah bus station Kris and I were picked up by Issa Khouriya who, with his wife Rawda, established the first Palestinian Family Guest House on the West Bank just over a year ago in the small village of Jifna. There their guests enjoy the privacy of well-furnished rooms in their home, and are treated as family by this lovely couple and their daughter Ragat (age 14) and son Hannah (age 15). So it is we ate breakfast together, watched world cup soccer together, had many excellent conversations, and were given guided tours of surrounding areas in the family car (with our insisting upon at least paying for the gasoline). Together, our three days with this Christian Palestinian family taught us much about life under the Israeli occupation.

A most touching story involved an attempt by a local Catholic family to celebrate Mass at a church in Jerusalem on Easter of 2008. This family had all been given papers granting them permission to enter Israeli controlled Jerusalem (special permission being necessary for stateless persons from Israeli occupied territories). They were very excited as they had been given no such permission for many years. After waiting two hours in line with others at the military checkpoint , the grandfather was allowed to pass, along with the wife, husband, and daughter – but the son (aged 13) was refused entry. In spite of attempts by the parents to convince the female soldier that their son was only 13 (showing the birth certificate) and no danger to anyone, the young soldier (arbitrarily, on her own authority) categorically refused to change her mind and threatened to call the police and have them arrested. Under the State of Emergency declared in 1948 (and continuously in effect since then) any person here can be arrested and jailed (without charge or trial) indefinitely. So it was that the entire family returned to their home together, unable to worship in Jerusalem. They are still bitter about this humiliating experience and have no plans to be enticed by permission papers to travel anywhere in Israel in the future. Like so many others, they feel like prisoners in their own land. Unlike refugees displaced when Israel seized lands now within Israel (in 1948 and thereafter), the Khouriya family have had homes in various locations near to Ramallah for many generations. They own their own home now. Yet in the occupied West Bank they, like millions of others, have citizenship in no country, and have few rights nor equality under Israeli law.

Issa and Rawda drove us to visit several places within a few kilometers of their home: to the refugee camp of Al Jalazun (where 14,000 people reside in poor conditions that include no comprehensive sewer system and platooned classrooms to allow some time in school for most children), to Taybeh (where a relative operates Taybeh Brewing Co. , the first microbrew operation in Palestine – with non-alcoholic as well as several varieties of alcoholic beer), thru Bir Zeit where crusader ruins are being renovated in hopes of future tourism, and to pay a social call to Issa`s aging mother and other family members. Time was also spent in nearby Ramallah, seeing the tomb of Yasir Arafat (founding leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its political party Fatah) as well as various other parts of the city including the Quaker Meeting House (home to the Friends International Center in Ramallah: FICR with its Director, Kathy Bergen).

On Thursday evening, July 1st, Kathy Bergen organized an evening event at the Quaker Meeting House featuring me speaking about ``Understanding some Misunderstandings of Gandhi``. Responding to my presentation were Thuqan Qishawi (American Friends Service Committee Middle East Regional Coordinator for Youth Programs) and Zoughbi Zoughbi, travelling over an hour from Bethlehem with Janet, Ryan, and Hope who we had met there. 40-50 people were in attendance (maybe to hear Thuqan & Zoughbi?) and all went quite well. Several people seemed to enjoy my more animated style of speaking and I was especially happy that Kathy Bergen seemed pleased. A well-known Palestinian businessman, Sam Bahour, was impressed enough to ask if I might be able to come back to Ramallah in October to speak again – but it seems silly to me to have any group pay my airfare for such an event, when the money spent could be so much better used to help people in need here.

One of many indications of need, I am embarrassed to say, was quite unknown to me before this week. Since 1997 (by law) and 1967 (by conquest) all water relating to the West Bank (including the Jordan River and underground sources) have been declared the property of Israel. While a new well may be drilled for individual family use, no organization can do so without the expressed permission of the Israeli Government. So it is that 9 million Palestinians (Christian and Muslim) receive only 15% of the water (and the pipes are turned on for purchase only once per week in Ramallah, only twice a month in some other areas), while 500,000 Settlers (Israeli citizens) use 85% of the water allocated (and never have their pipes turned off). Most Palestinian homes and businesses can easily be distinguished by the multiple water storage tanks clearly visible on their rooftops: these store water for daily use when the pipes are turned off. A little reflection concludes the obvious: the poorer you are, the fewer water tanks you have, the less water you can buy, the more difficult is your life. Even our host family, the Khouriyas, ran out of water on the last day of our stay with them. They, like so many others, are not really in control of their lives. The Israelis are. Palestinians are subject not only to the military occupation, but to water dependency…. It would seem that water is to them what the issue of salt was to Gandhi and the people of India under British colonial rule….

On the last day of this week in the West Bank, we accepted transportation to Bin`In, a small town with a checkpoint at The Wall separating Israel from some of its occupied territories. Regular Friday afternoon protest marches occur here. Kris and I visited with some of the 40 internationals and others (Palestinian Christians as well as some Jewish Israeli citizens who came this day). We learned that while Israeli`s are ``not allowed`` to travel to the West Bank (unless they are settlers), no soldiers prevent them from doing so. Those who drive their cars are aware that auto insurance coverage ends at the checkpoint and that they could we subject to arrest if caught demonstrating – and these factors among others deter most from such travel. Still, there are some who attend these events in solidarity with civil rights concerns and a vision of harmony that transcends religious and political divisions. With the completion of Friday prayers at the nearby mosque, those who are assembled swell to over 200 in number. Sadly, Kris and I could not stay to the end of the demonstration as the Jewish Sabbath will end all public bus transportation from Jerusalem to Tiberias after 4pm and this timing requires us to depart for Jerusalem.

We catch a ride to another, less protested checkpoint and from there take an unmarked taxi (a private car, which, it turns out, is driven by a Christian Israeli settler from Ramallah)! Our conversation with this driver is cordial on the superficial side until I raise the issue of water. After confirming that he and his family receive fresh water from the tap every day, I asked him what he thought about Issa and his family (who the driver knows) running out of water the day before. After a tense moment, the driver just shrugged and said nothing. While it was then possible to return to less controversial subjects, his silence about the water issue told me much. Perhaps such silence is more the enemy than even the discriminatory policies themselves, or even the military presence. It is the silence of many that allows injustice to flourish.

Next week we will be more religious than political pilgrims. Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee should be a good base from which to visit Nazareth, Capernum, and other areas where Jesus lived, developed, and delivered his message of love…

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