It has taken me a while to sit down and write this entry. I feel as though words will only take away from the experience I have had, and yet, I feel that it is necessary to articulate this reality in some way. Today, as we journeyed through the city of Hebron, a large city in the southern West Bank, I not only felt as though I was continuing on my journey of profound emotional transformation. I also felt as though I had entered a deeply significant area – an axis mundi of world conflict, a dim-lit stage for human failure, a clogged Heart of the World.
Hebron is divided into two areas, respectively controlled by Israeli and Palestinian authorities, and we entered through the Israeli territory in order to visit a deeply spiritual site for all three of the Abrahamic traditions, the Tomb of the Patriarchs. A mosque and a synagogue share the complex, and one must go through heavy security to access both sanctuaries. While the perimeter was dominated by security guards, metal detectors, and barbed wire, the interiors of both the synagogue and mosque were serene, vibrant, as if the deep conflict could permeate all else but these ancient stone walls.
Both sanctuaries look upon the same representational tombs (the actual proposed tombs are underground), and Muslims and Jews will often have the opportunity of a quick glance at the other past the bars and tombs. It is as if the Prophets still continue their work by inviting both Jews and Muslims to look upon the face of the “other” which has become demonized, a profound reality and forced schism in this conflict.
After our visit to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, our delegation took a tour of Hebron. We began by walking through the now desolate downtown Hebron, which used to be an area of heavy traffic and many businesses. However, after Israeli occupation, many Arabs were forced out of their homes and respective businesses, and the shops were closed. Now, when walking down the streets, one finds only one or two shops open. Downtown Hebron is now a wasteland, a dried artery, and homes that once belonged to Arab families was now in the possession of Israeli settlers or left empty.
Next, we continued on through the city and passed through streets and alleys that were now more populated, but scarred by a laced shadow from above. Peering up, I noticed a canopy. Our guide explained that the canopy catches the trash thrown out the windows by Israeli settlers above. There are stories of Palestinians being drenched in wastewater and settlers throwing dangerous objects such as glass and knifes that injure and sometimes kill pedestrians below.
We then made our way to the checkpoint that lead to the Israeli-controlled zone of the city, which was reached only after passing through an invasive checkpoint and a thorough questioning by Israeli forces. As the guard spent a few minutes checking over my passport and reaffirming my American identity a few times, I noticed his heavy armor and top-end rifle, one of the most menacing pieces of weaponry I had seen.
I also looked above, and noticed soldiers and snipers overlooking the Palestinians – young boys playing football and hustling mothers, mostly – below. The soldier waved me through with an indifferent glance, and yet, I did not feel that same indifference permeated the city.
We climbed up a narrow alley to reach our guide’s old house, a weathered edifice. The home was confiscated by Israelis and occupied for many years by an Israeli family but reclaimed after a long string of court cases. Making our way through the house and to the balcony, we looked beyond a long mire of barbed wire and fencing to the adjacent building – another home occupied by Israeli settlers. The settler looked at us, displaying his polished rifle. By his side was his young son, occupying himself with the warm summer day. This time, however, there was no indifference in his eyes.
There was hate.
Hebron is a city beyond division and segregation, but a city saturated with injustice and insecurity. Walking through the streets, seeing the closed shops, speaking to the residents, and witnessing Israeli existential anxiety manifested in hidden cameras, well-stocked soldiers, impenetrable walls and humiliating checkpoints, I felt as thought Hebron was the epicenter and microcosm of my entire journey.
And yet, I felt it went even beyond this. Here, where injustice was so deeply embedded in the daily reality of the Palestinians and insecurity so deeply ingrained into the Israelis, I felt as though I was at the center of our failure as human beings. Here, humanity has failed at every turn, and here, hatred and injustice thrives. I was at the Heart of the World, and it was this heart that has known the thousands of years of pain, suffering and injustice as we have attempted to understand, define, and empower, and transcend ourselves.
And while the heart beats from Sudan and Tibet and Colombia and from all corners of the world where humanity has failed to stop the dominance of injustice and hate, it was here, on this day, that I felt the pulse emanate from the littered streets, glinting hilts, and stone barriers of Hebron.
Wednesday, June 1, 2011 – Hebron
The rest of my Israel/Palestine blogs are on their way - right now I’m attending a one-week intensive training with the Interfaith Youth Core for Better Together Coach training and summer internship preparation. We’re working to make interfaith cooperation a social norm in the United States. More to come (from Israel/Palestine and from my Better Together training) soon!
I was in Bil’in a few days before it happened, and I spent a night at the home of a Bil’in family, which was mere meters from this site.
These past three days have been more powerful than I could have ever imagined, and I feel as though any experience I had cannot be fully and justly conveyed in words. This weekend, my heart was both crushed and fortified, my spirit, drowned and revived.
After spending most of our nights at the Holy Land Hotel in East Jerusalem, we were excited to be able spend three nights in a different setting. We were to spend one night at the Deheisheh Refugee Camp, one night in a Nazareth Hostel, and another in homestays in the Palestinian village of Bil’in. We left uncertain of how the weekend would turn out, and it was this uncertainty that kept us united as a conscious community in pursuit of the facets of this conflict and as eager individuals ready to further immerse ourselves in Palestinian society. Friday morning, we toured Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in West Jerusalem, and in the afternoon we participated in a protest organized by Women in Black, an Israeli organization that works to end the Occupation. After spending the early morning in West Jerusalem, we made our way for Deheisheh Camp near Bethlehem.
As soon as we got to Deheisheh Camp, we were welcomed with great hospitality at the Phoenix Center, a community center and hub of cultural, civil, and education activities and opportunities for the refugees of Deheisheh Camp. After dropping off our bags at the guesthouse, we were given a tour of the camp. Stepping through piles of rubble and trash and seeking shade among the shadows of unfinished and damaged buildings, the warmth and smiles of the people contrasted with the starkness of the vast sea of crumbled concrete and the odor of sewage and trash. As we walked, children and families waved from above while others shyly ducked inside.
Our guide offered his insight into Israeli presence in Deheisheh. IDF soldiers come to the village at least two times a week, searching and often damaging houses and arresting young men with little or no explanation. Most of the young men in Deheisheh have been imprisoned by the IDF at least once (many, more than once), and there is little economic opportunity due to restricted travel within the West Bank. Many have never been to Jerusalem, a matter of minutes away, because of the Apartheid/Security Wall and the checkpoints. The guide offered another example of the effects of Israeli occupation that focused on water access. According to the guide, near Dheisheh, there is a sizeable aquifer, but the citizens are allowed access to water for only one week each month (while the Israeli settlements a few miles away are allowed unlimited access), and the water is stored in infamous large black basins on rooftops.
After finishing our tour, we met with the proprietors of the Phoenix Center, Suhair and Naji. Naji, a dedicated man, shared the great success of the community center as a place for cultural exchange and dissemination, learning, and the arts. Suhair, Naji’s wife, shared her anxiety as a mother, and constantly fears for the safety and future of her children in Deheisheh, where there are few opportunities for personal or professional growth. A few of us spent the night in the community, where we got to meet with local youth, who shared similar concerns – Due to the Occupation, people cannot travel to Jerusalem freely, cannot travel to other parts of the West Bank for work, and are stuck in detrimental economic situations. I spent several hours talking with a young man by the name of Mohammed who, after sharing a passionate plea to share his story back home, invited us into his house, where we were greeted warmly by a large family and endless cups of tea and coffee. Mohammed’s sudden change from frustration and hopelessness to life and hospitality, which seemed so natural and welcoming, was so very heartbreaking to me. Mohammed has asked that I share his story and the story of Deheisheh with all of you.
After our time in Deheisheh, we spent a day in Nazareth, a predominantly Arab town and the main stop for many Christian pilgrimage groups. We met with several NGOs, and the next morning, we made our way to Nabi Salih, a village of around 600 in the central West Bank, where the presenters opened their home to us and showed us several affects of IDF responses to protests both physically in the home and through home videos of clashes with protesters.
We left Nabi Salih and arrived in Bil’in, a small Palestinian village that has received media attention due to their legal cases against the Wall, the Israeli confiscation of farmers’ land, and regular protests. While I had the chance to review several articles on Bil’in before arrival, I was not prepared for witnessing the reality of the situation. Bil’in protesters are often met with tear gas and skunk water, pungent fluid sprayed on protesters which forces them to disperse. Meeting the rancid stench of the water, which had soaked into the grass and dirt, and seeing the hundreds upon hundreds of empty tear gas canisters made my stomach churn with anxiety, uncertainty, and anger.
One of the highlights of the Bil’in experience was the opportunity to stay with a family. I, along with four other delegates, were assigned to a large family that lived in an apartment above a convenience store – a middle-age couple and their four children. While the family spoke very little English and the first hour was consumed by an awkward silence and separation, this was slowly broken. The family’s balcony opens up to an incomplete building story, which, due to funding constraints, was transformed from a soon-to-be apartment to a field of crumbled concrete and trash. We decided to sleep here, embracing the cool night and the open space to play with the kids. While we had little verbal communication opportunities beyond an impromptu Arabic lesion from the kids, we soon connected over a near-universal element in our modern world – football. The boys brought out a weathered soccer ball, and the hours passed as we were entertained and sharing in this simple pleasure.
The boys went to bed late, having to wake up for school early the next day, and we were left to sleep on the concrete platform with the cacophony of the night and the silence of the stars. I now had time to reflect, to make sense of the flurry of thoughts and emotions running through me. This was the moment where I was faced with the deep human element of the conflict. The facts and opinions had been obliterated, the stories and headlines, gone in a wisp of smoke, leaving only the empty tear gas canisters, the confused labyrinths of barbed wire, the laughter of the young boys, and the half-deflated soccer ball to stand as beacons in the night. What had these boys done to deserve this kind of fear and threat? Do the attacks of others justify the lack of opportunities and life for these children? What will be the fate of this family, who can barely move around their own country while we Americans can skip through freely? Even below these concerns lay an even subtler realization – even in the face of the Occupation, before the grave and real threat of suffocated life, the life and love of these people and families has not been shattered. My experience with Sami Awad’s speech came to mind, and here too I realized that the Palestinians have not lost hope.
But what should my role be in ensuring that these sturdy flames of hope and life remain? As Americans, we play a profound role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as such, it is our duty to raise consciousness within our communities back home. When we read the headlines, do we consider the human element? Do we consider that beyond the dry ink and frail page there exists a deep, struggling humanity? After this experience, I felt not only humble and a sense of profound love, but also a duty to make others aware of the humanity at stake in this conflict. This is not a struggle for mere land, resources, and righteousness. This is a struggle for the soul of humanity, nestled in the womb of this land, fractured and worn like broken glass, and begging for acceptance and justice.
We left the homestay knowing that, more than likely, this would be a final goodbye. While we will each fade into the memory of the other, it will be hard to forget the experience I had here in Bil’in, where a welcoming father, a smiling mother, and four young, energetic boys revealed to me the soul of humanity. Exchanging goodbyes and gifts, we left once again for Jerusalem.
Sunday, May 29, 2011 – East Jerusalem
Normally, I walk away from meetings and presentations informed, not inspired, and I leave with facts, not a glow in my eyes. Our day in Bethlehem was not a normal day, and I was left enthralled.
After our meeting with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem, which offered insight into the humanitarian situations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and before our meeting with the Badil Center, which advocates for the legal rights of Palestinian refugees within and outside of the Israel/Palestinian territory, we met with the Holy Land Trust, a Bethlehem-based NGO that advocates and nurtures the Palestinian nonviolence movement.
As we arranged ourselves in a circle in a cozy room in the Trust’s office, Awad walked in, introduced himself, and began his story. He shared with us his childhood memories, his growth through adulthood, the family influences and life experiences that inspired him to pursue his work, and many other tidbits a speaker would often offer. Awad, however, left us with something the other presentations did not – hope. While the other meetings shared with us the facts and details of the occupation as it stands today and the development of the occupation over the past few decades, Awad focused only on the future – on the energy sweeping the world, the powerful yearning of the Palestinian people, and the projected victory of the nonviolent struggle for human rights in Palestine.
Nonviolent resistance is being pursued not only by Awad and the Holy Land Trust, but by Palestinians across the Territories and the world, and while mainstream media refuses to focus on the powerful efforts and strides of the organizations and individuals that stand peacefully in the face of the suffocating effects of the Occupation, this is the present reality and future arc of the destiny of the Palestinian people. And while I still believe this to be true, what Awad shared next transformed my understanding.
“The Palestinian people will not be free until the Israeli people are free.”
There will be no end to the current conflict until Israelis, facing deep existential fears, are assured their continued and mutual survival, and the Occupation will not end without Israeli cooperation. Nonviolent peacebuilding is not possible solely on the Palestinian front. Israelis cannot be absent from any societal and foundational, human accord (the only kind of agreement that while suffice in this conflict), and Israelis must willingly be a part of the transformative process, a deep, foundational understanding and acceptance that goes beyond the current fears and anxieties both Israelis and Palestinians face. It is a process that will not yield results today or tomorrow, but is an integral aspect of the long journey towards a just resolution to this conflict and towards Palestinian self-determination. Freedom is not exclusive, it is communal, and safety is not built by walls and isolation, but by healing and acceptance.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011 – Bethlehem
Today was a day to banish barriers; to dispel fears, calm nerves, and go beyond myself and embrace the larger journey and narrative that I can no longer avoid. Today was a day to remember how powerful hands – extended in love, mangled in prayer, or raised for vengeance – really can be. Today turned out to be such a day.
Monday night, I joined two of my fellow delegates on a journey from Palestinian EastJerusalem into Israeli West Jerusalem. Walking the hushed and darkened streets of East Jerusalem, our home for the next few days, I did not expect to finds much variation among the limestone spires that suffocated these ancient avenues. However, as we crossedHaShalom Road, the old border between Israel and Jordan, we noticed a stark difference as we traversed roads that soon turned into a brightly lit network of roads that appeared to be the heart of the New City, West Jerusalem. The well-kempt roads, vibrating with the clatter and tunes from nearby pubs and nightclubs and wafting with the incense of falafel stands and burger stops, bore the birthmark of a Western capital, not a Middle Eastern metropolis.Western Jerusalem is as eclectic as it is energetic, with Orthodox communities blending into obviously secular Jewish communities without a blink. Far more obvious, however, was the blatant and sudden disparity between East and West Jerusalem, areas sectioned offer by a few meters of pavement. This disparity seemed to set the prelude for our journey, and hardened me for the day ahead.
Tuesday began with a morning tour of Jerusalem, a city that often begged my imagination over the years and served as foundational myth in my understanding of the world. Here was the city that inspired my interest in interfaith work. Here was the city that was the goal, grave, and gathering of the centuries, and here was the city that was seemingly offered to me as a three-hour stop on a tourist circuit. This was not how I wanted to be introduced to the city that had tantalized my thoughts for years, but ultimately, I accepted the fact. With the throngs of tour groups and queues, I feared that commercialism and desensitization had engulfed the city. I found welcoming nuances. The crowds and cameras are hard to miss, butJerusalem, the spiritual capital of the world, still whispers the primordial songs of the centuries. The resounding azan, the cacophony of the winding stone closes, the mutters of praying priests and prying boys, and the soft euphoria of offering a prayer at the Wailing Wall during the call for noon prayer offer a sensory window into this microcosm of the world.
And yet, I found obvious marks of conflict. Jewish settlements established in the Muslim and Christian quarters of the city seemed to have angered some residents. Security was necessary to enter major holy sites. The political conflict among Christians caused (and still causes) deep division among the various administrative denominations. Amongst the wafting incense and whispered prayers, conflict and uncertainty were as regular as the calls to prayer.
In the afternoon and evening, we had a presentation and tour with a representative from the Israeli Coalition Against House Demolitions (ICAHD – http://www.icahd.org/). The discussion itself offered mostly well-known information and offered several interesting visual aids, but the tour that followed was unsettling. We drove southeast of Jerusalem past East Telpiot and to a hill that overlooks the villages and settlements east of Jerusalem. We saw how East Jerusalem, the hopeful capitol of any potential Palestinian state, was slowly being cut off by the Apartheid/Security Wall and growing settlements that are expanded by encroaching into Palestinian villages. We then drove through the valley between the overlook and the Mount of Olives, passing through settlements and villages and noticing the stark contrast between the poverty and underdevelopment of the villages and the clean and well-established settlement communities. Most surprising, however, was the fact that these communities existed side-by-side, making a sudden and defined transition. These are not only physical barriers, but psychological and emotional barriers, established where none should naturally exist.
As we drove through the Palestinian communities, we passed a variety of people. We encountered a warm and humble Palestinian family that, while picking grapes, called us over to share (or buy) their harvest. A block later, we encountered a group of young boys who, though initially cheery, offered jeers as we passed. A few moments later, a stone hit the side of the bus. This was a powerful moment for many people in the group and realizing how out of place we were in the community forced us to reflect not only on our social locations, but our presence in the local community.
Our tour ended in a very well-established settlement, Ma’alae Admoin, which boasts thousands of residents, tamed foliage and lawns, and a high-end shopping mall that would rival anything back home. Ma’alae Admoin could not be distinguished from a gated community in Orange County. And yet, it existed at the edges of the disputed Palestinian territories and faced a Palestinian community that was just across the valley, slated to be sectioned off by the Apartheid/Security Wall.
During our group discussion at night, we talked about how to face such systems of oppression. Who are we to blame? Where does individual responsibility end and system condemnation begin? What will work to challenge such systems of oppression? This is an on-going conversation here, among our tiny delegation, and in communities back home and around the world. It is a conversation that is not only organic, but transformative.
This is a picture of a young boy sitting on a rooftop patio, offering a friendly and excited wave from behind the barred gate. This was not only one of the most beautiful pictures, but also one of the saddest. Here was a picture that summarized my day as we passed through warm and welcoming communities that were slowly being suffocated by social, physical, and psychological bars. Will we be able reach beyond the bars and embrace and fight for that common humanity, or will we connect only through these brief and fading pictures snatched in the moment. From my experience so far, the latter seems far from unimaginable. It is impossible in the face of this reality and in possession of these empty, trembling and outreached hands.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011 – East Jerusalem