FOR INTERFAITH PEACE-BUILDERS DELEGATION
Another update from my father's trip. As I read this, the main thing that keeps coming to mind, is why the hell aren't all of these nonviolent protest groups ever on the news in the U.S.? Why doesn't Little Green Footballs (which I will not link to here) ever talk about any of these groups? Are we so bloodthirsty as a people that we only want to hear about suicide bombings and the shootings? Wouldn't news of civil disobedience in Jerusalem make just as many people watch CNN?
I guess not. How sad.
Via Body and Soul I find that Muslim blogger veiled4allah (I like her cute little hijabbed-woman icons) has written about the possibility of Palestinian civil disobedinece. Go Read.
Friday January 31: Jerusalem
"We refuse to be enemies. The time has come to end it."
This was clearly the theme for the day, perhaps the theme for all people
tired of war and the suffering it brings. We started the day at St.
George's College, our home base in Jerusalem. Rimon, our guide, took us
on a walking tour of a portion of the Old City, which is located in East
Jerusalem. As we entered the gate through the Old City's massive walls,
numerous onlookers called out to friends and to us in amazement. As we
passed by, one man shouted, "First Group in Jerusalem -- UNBELIEVABLE!"
In the past couple years, this historic city that has been a magnet for
tourists of all faiths has seen very few visitors.
Nevertheless, the markets were teeming with merchants selling everything
from fruits and vegetables to stockings and belts. We passed by a home
recently purchased by a Christian family for one million dollars. As is
the case everywhere, the price of real estate is affected by location,
and, in this City, also by politics and religion. Rimon told us that it
is very hard to be a Christian in East Jerusalem: merchants in the
Palestinian areas of the market place will not sell to Christians. Our
walking tour took us to the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and
the historical site where Christ was crucified. Several of us took time
to pray at this ancient and holy place. Religious feelings run high in
this city: it is an incredible irony that the key that opens this
Christian church is in the possession of a Muslim family! Our brief
tour concluded at the historical site of the tomb owned by Joseph of
Arimathea in which Jesus is said to have been buried.
The delegation climbed into our familiar white van, our second home, to
go stand in solidarity with the Women in Black. Women in Black is a
group of Israeli women formed in 1988 who demonstrate every Friday at
midday at a busy intersection in Jerusalem with signs in Hebrew, English
and Arabic that say "Stop the Occupation." There were about thirty
demonstrators this day when we arrived. Our group spread out among them
so that we could also talk with them while demonstrating our support.
Some people driving by shouted words of encouragement while others
vented anger with less complimentary language. The group is part of
Coalition of Women for a Just Peace, an Israeli/Palestinian
collaborative effort. The several organizations in the Coalition engage
in a variety of activities, including monitoring the behavior of the
Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) at checkpoints, supporting men in the armed
forces who refuse to enforce the occupation, and engaging in non-violent
civil disobedience. As founder and long-time activist Gila Svirsky
spoke to us after the demonstration, four teenage girls demonstrating in
support of the occupation tried to disrupt her presentation by standing
directly behind her and singing a song in Hebrew. Gila turned to them
and politely informed them it was inappropriate to act in such a rude
manner, and they moved away in respect. All the while Israeli soldiers
stood watch over us, with armed men on the ground and on rooftops. Gila
ended her talk by saying this conflict is not between Palestinians and
Israelis; rather, it is between Palestinians and Israelis who want
peace, on the one hand, and Palestinians and Israelis who refuse to
compromise with one another, on the other hand.
Afterward, over lunch, we listened to Mike, originally from Washington
State, who has lived and worked for a non-governmental organization
(NGO) in the Occupied Territories for the past three years. He shared
his experiences in Ramallah during several incursions by the IDF in
March and April, 2002. Each incursion was different. While Mike was
there the level of military action and control ranged from curfews that
allowed people to go to work, to invasive but non-violent home to home
searches, to breaking down doors, firing bullets into homes and
destroying furniture. The area was without water for nine days and water
pipes were purposefully dug up. Mike said that during those two months
if someone broke curfew they would be shot: one of his neighbors went
out on his porch during curfew and was shot in the leg, and another who
went to pull the first one off the porch was shot in the stomach.
Essentially the incursions left no infrastructure available for the
Palestinian Authority to exercise any authority or civilian control.
After lunch we made a short stop to visit the Western Wall of the Temple
Mount in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City before heading to a meeting
with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, a member of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR).
Rabbi Ascherman grew up in the U.S., and told us that as a part of his
upbringing it was assumed that being Jewish meant being concerned about
international human rights and social justice. When he moved to Israel
he was shocked by two things. "First, there were no bagels!" Second,
and obviously more important, what he considered to be core Jewish
values were not shared by most Israelis, particularly Orthodox Jews. He
spoke of the RHR's work in resisting the demolition of Palestinian
homes. The rabbis literally stand in front of Palestinian homes to
prevent bulldozers from destroying them. He said that Jewish tradition
teaches that in time of war there is a red line we dare not cross.
Israel, in his opinion, appears to be crossing that line. Rabbis for
Human Rights now considers the occupation to be a human rights issue.
Within the context of the occupation, Israel's policy will always be
endangering Palestinian babies to provide security for Israelis in their
cities. Rabbi Ascherman reflected that the "greatest challenge today is
how to restore hope" (a reoccurring theme in our meetings with both
Israelis and Palestinians). He believes a majority on both sides want a
negotiated compromise, but a larger majority on both sides believe there
is no one to talk to on the other side. Jewish tradition, he said,
teaches us to look at the work as perfectly balanced scales. He
encouraged us to do whatever we can to tip the scales in the right
direction, to bring balance back to this troubled region.
We then attended a Shabbot (Sabbath) ceremony at the Kol Hanishma
Synagogue. It was Friday evening at sundown and observant Jews were
preparing to observe the Sabbath. The beautiful chanting of the service
brought our minds into a different space. Following the ceremony we
were met by Israeli families who had volunteered to host us for Shabbot
dinner and an overnight in their homes. Each of us had a different
experience, but all of us were welcomed and embraced by our hosts. Our
discussions ranged from politics and religion to family and hobbies and
even jokes that could be understood across cultures. We fell asleep
tired yet inspired by the examples of courage we had seen displayed
throughout the day.
Saturday February 1: Bethlehem
The drive between Jerusalem and Bethlehem should only be fifteen
minutes, but it took our group well over an hour. We first tried to
approach Bethlehem from the main road, but a long line of cars at the
Tantur checkpoint made us choose an alternate route. The newspapers
stated yesterday that the curfew in Bethlehem had indefinitely been
lifted, but that was obviously not the case. When Rimon spoke to the
soldiers at the checkpoint, he was told that our group of Americans
could pass by on foot. Our driver and our guide, however (both Israeli
citizens, but Palestinians), would not be allowed to enter. Rimon
commented to us in frustration, "Checkpoints are not about security.
Checkpoints are meant to humiliate Palestinians." We then took a
circuitous journey over Israeli bypass roads, through the hills of
neighboring Palestinian villages, cutting through a convent/winery - to
get to the other side of the checkpoint, just five minutes from where
we'd begun. At one point our large van and a semi truck faced off on a
one-lane mountainside dirt road, and with other cars and trucks behind
each of us, it took twenty minutes for the right-of-way to get handled.
A treacherous slope on our left, belied by lovely olive orchards planted
on picturesque terraces, kept some of our minds occupied. Finally we
made it into Bethlehem, and once inside the city, we continued this game
of "Tom and Jerry" by avoiding military jeeps via back streets. Nasser,
our driver, received an enthusiastic round of applause when we finally
made it to our meeting.
Our day was primarily spent in meetings with three nonviolent conflict
resolution programs in Bethlehem and the neighboring village of Beit
Sahour. The leadership of all of these organizations have spent time in
Israeli jails for their activism. Their stories of imprisonment and
family separations were heartbreaking, but their commitment to
nonviolence is relentless. We heard repeatedly that their
inspiration/hope is that they have to live, they and their families have
a right to live.
Our first dialogue was with Sami Awad of Holy Land Trust
www.holylandtrust.org, whose uncle, Mubarak Awad, is well-known for his
leadership in the nonviolent resistance movement during the 1980s. The
organization emphasizes making internationals aware of the level of
oppression experienced by Palestinians through programs like "Journey of
the Magi," an interfaith walk form Baghdad to Bethlehem, and the
Remember the Innocents campaign that marks King Herod's directive to
slaughter of newborn babies in Jerusalem. In these programs they
emphasize the "holiness" of this land and the peace and justice
traditions within the religions of the book. One of their latest
projects has been providing nonviolence training to former members of
the Tanzeem - the military faction of Fatah, the political organization
affiliated with Yasser Arafat.
After lunch we met with Zoughbi Zoughbi of Wi'am - the Palestinian
Conflict Resolution Center www.planet.edu/~alaslah. Wi'am facilitates
nonviolent conflict resolution practice and conflict "mediation" in the
absence of a civil authority. An example of their work is sending teams
into conflict zones to effectively resolve conflicts between
Palestinians and Israelis as well as within the Palestinian community.
Their commitment and language were theological and centered on just
relationships. A repeated theme during Zoughbi's talk was identity.
"We all have multiple identities. We could all be the oppressors and
the oppressed. We don't want to justify our negative behavior by
claiming victimhood." He emphasized how stereotyping is prevalent on
all sides of the conflict and his mission is to educate people to stop
the stereotyping. "It leads to demonization of others and becomes a
legitimate reason to annihilate."
After a day of encouraging talks by leaders of the Palestinian
nonviolent resistance, Ghassan Andoni at the Palestinian Center for
Rapprochement www.rapprochement.org captivated us with a careful
analysis of what had worked and failed in the past Palestinian struggles
for independence and a powerful vision of what might work now and in the
future. Acknowledging his own one-time role as a violent fighter who
spent years in prison, he now envisions an empowered Palestinian people
coming together with limited help from internationals to claim their
rights as a people. His vision includes a cohesiveness that has yet to
exist within the movement and which has been intentionally sabotaged in
the past. Andoni was clear that any such movement is years and years
away but begins with an international presence and comes to fulfillment
in the Palestinian people understanding the power and necessity of a
unified and strategic resistance. He does not believe that time has
come yet, but as a seasoned veteran of many campaigns now believes that
nonviolence is the only way.
Other activities for the day included a visit to the Ibdaa Cultural
Center in Dheisheh refugee camp and homestays with Palestinian Christian
families in Beit Sahour.
Sunday February 2: Escape from Curfew and Hebron
We awoke the following morning to news that the Israeli Army had imposed
a curfew on Bethlehem/Beit Sahour. Their mechanism for announcing this
curfew was via loudspeaker on a military jeep driving through the
streets of Bethlehem at 4:30 a.m. Some of us heard gunshots during the
early morning hours too. When our hosts dropped us off at 8:30am, we
were urgently pushed onto our van with news that we only had minutes to
leave Bethlehem. Our van had once again been denied entry into
Bethlehem, but he had pleaded the soldiers to give him just ten more
minutes to enter and pick us up. It was a great relief when we all got
on the van and zoomed out of the city. Of course we are not the only
travelers to have left Bethlehem in a rush, but the irony of the
situation was not observed over the tension of the situation imposed by
Unable to worship in the Church of the Nativity as planned, we instead
drove back to Jerusalem and members of the delegation chose from among
three Christian congregations for Sunday worship (Roman Catholic and
Lutheran churches in the Old City, and St. George's Cathedral in East
Jerusalem). We then decided to roll the dice and travel to Hebron
despite a curfew on the city. Rimon said that if we were denied entry
at two regular checkpoints, this time he would not attempt a back
route. The situation in Hebron is too tense and he did not want to
place us in any jeopardy during a curfew.
Rimon's persuasive way with words gained us a successful entry at the
first checkpoint we encountered. In our three hours in Hebron we
observed no tanks, many soldiers, armed settlers, and most of all, a
devastated and abandoned city. As we passed through the northern part
of the city, we were impressed with the emptiness of the streets. Only
a few persons ventured out of their homes to do essential business and a
few children were outside playing-all ready to run back inside their
homes at the first sighting of the IDF. Many of the homes were large
and attractive, inhabited by highly skilled Palestinian construction
workers and craftspeople who, over many years, had constructed their own
houses. The aging parents of the family usually live on the ground
floor and their adult children and grandchildren occupy family
apartments on the upper levels. In spite of the IDF incursions on the
population, regular skirmishes with Hamas or other factions and the IDF,
as well as curfews which last for days and often weeks at a time, this
ancient town of about over 100,000 somehow sustains itself. It is not a
"third world" city.
However, as we drove further into the heart of the old city, the streets
became even more deserted and we encountered trenches, concrete blocks
or large mounds of dirt which blocked the major streets. It was
necessary to weave through back streets until we reached our host: Art
Gish, a volunteer member of an organization called Christian Peace Teams
(CPT) www.prairienet.org/cpt. Wearing a bright red CPT hat, Art
welcomed us warmly and escorted us to the CPT apartment in the center of
the old city. Along the way he shared with us some of his story and
experiences. Art is from Athens, Ohio and since 1995 has spent two
months every year acting as an international observer and "getting in
the way" of violence (the CPT mandate). For instance, CPT volunteers
will stand in the middle of clashes to prevent violence from
escalating. Art has, on more than one occasion, told a soldier to stop
abusing a civilian and usually they listen to him and stop. He
described this as the "Grandmother Effect": there are certain things he
explained that no one, including a soldier, will do in front of their
grandmother. Art made it clear that CPT is on the side of whoever the
gun is pointed at. He would protect a Palestinian from an Israeli
soldier and a Hebron settler from a Palestinian. On one occasion CPT
members rode on a bus route in Jerusalem after two consecutive suicide
bombings within a one week period. CPT has also provided counseling
to Israeli soldiers in Hebron who are sometimes ambivalent about the
role of the IDF in this region and are struggling with the consciences.
Hebron has been under curfew for 80 days - an unbelievable situation.
Walking through the rubble-filled streets, we saw gunshot holes
everywhere and inflammatory graffiti. Art noted that new barriers have
gone up in the last few days, extending the reach of the IDF. We stepped
over a dead dog on an eerily quiet street. Hebron is a ghost town.
From the roof of CPT's apartment we viewed the section of the city that,
by diplomatic agreement, was entrusted to the protection and oversight
of the Israeli army. These 1200-1500 Israeli troops are stationed in
Hebron to protect the settler population that is estimated, at present
time, to be 200-400 persons. From our vantage point we witnessed the
empty and battle ravaged remains of many ancient buildings (some over
800 years old). The devastation of this area (about 20 percent of the
city) was profound with shells of buildings, some burned out, others
marked heavily by shrapnel. Amidst these ruins and debris we could see
the pockets of newly constructed Jewish settlements-all illegal and in
violation of negotiated agreements between Israel and Palestine and key
While a few Palestinian families appeared at the windows and doors
within this desolate area, Jewish setters, carrying M-16s and other
weapons walked quite freely or drove their cars along the streets. At
the ancient mosque/temple which is surrounded by a wall build by Herod
the Great in the first century a.d. we prayed for peace in a circle in
front of Jacob's tomb. We prayed that the steel wall which was erected
between the Muslim and Jewish section of this ancient center of worship
might some day be safely removed. We prayed for peace. One person of
our group used the words from a Bruce Springsteen song in prayer: "May
our faith bring you faith; May our hope bring you hope; May our love
bring you love."
As we walked out of Hebron we came across a well maintained street, with
a red brick sidewalk similar to what you would find in the U.S. Art
tells us the U.S. government paid to rebuild the street on the condition
that the area be reopened. The street is completed but the area has not
been reopened. On our way out of Hebron we returned to the checkpoint
where a soldier boarded the bus. He was amazed to find anyone coming to
Hebron. He exclaimed in disbelief as he left the bus: "Tourists to
From Hebron we traveled to the Israeli Ephrata Settlement. Again our
van was boarded by an armed guard as we entered the settlement, although
this individual did not appear to be a soldier. We were met by Ari and
Hashi, members of the settlement, which was founded in the late 1970's.
Ari and Hashi showed us a video prepared by Palestinian Media Watch.
Their purpose was to inform us what is broadcast on the Arab television
media that does not reach CNN or other major U.S. media networks. The
video concentrated on T.V. programming that the producer claims urges
Palestinians children to take part in violence and become martyrs. At
least one member of our group could not watch the video and left. Our
dialogue with them following the video was different from the dialogue
we have had with all the other groups with whom we have met. Our
questions arose out of all that we have seen and heard on this trip, and
it was a difficult conversation. Hashi told us that he is thirsting for
peace and can accept a Palestinian state as long as it is not a threat
to Israelis. Both of them wanted the Palestinians to recognize that
Israelis are here to stay and that Israel has the military power to get
rid of the Palestinians and has not done so.
Ari and Hashi described several incidents that shapes their view of the
conflict. In March 2001 two suicide bombers attacked the settlement.
One was killed before the bomb exploded, the other was killed by their
own bomb. Last week the settlement was attacked by use of a bomb
strapped to a donkey. The bomb was detonated by remote control. A
friend of Ari was injured but fortunately no one was killed. We left
unsatisfied with our dialogue with them. Several members of the
delegation approached them individually as we re leaving, expressing
their own thoughts and concerns.
The van brought us back to St. George's for dinner. However much to our
surprise, Henry Carse, the Director of Special Programs at St. George,
invited us all to his home on the campus for drinks and snacks (even
popcorn!). The 45 minutes of pure social time was greatly appreciated.
These were the words of Gila Svirsky, an organizer of the Women in
Art did not tell us his age, but he must be at least 65. The only
display of authority he carried with him is his red CPT baseball cap.