Monday, February 03, 2003

Updates from the Interfaith Peace Builders

This is the group my father is travelling with...and these are the first update I've recieved (thanks, Augie!) I'll post more as I get them.

Report #1:

"Tell everyone we are human beings, we are human beings."

Those were the words we heard today from Hanan--a Palestinian mother from Shatilla refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon.

Orientation, ranging from goals of the delegation, guidelines of dialogue, and conversations on nonviolence could not have prepared us to receive that statement. We started this journey at the Fellowship of Reconciliation headquarters in Nyack, NY on Friday January 24. ( We are a Muslim, Christian, Jewish group of sixteen individuals from all over the United Statesóteachers, social workers, an attorney, priests, a rabbi, professors, public work director, journalist, playwright, environmental consultant, and social activists.

We left New York on Saturday evening minutes after learning that Israeli missiles had struck an Episcopal church and hospital in Gaza. We then also immediately learned that there had been a suicide attack in Jerusalem the day before.

We were met in Amsterdam by members of United Civilians for Peace--a European coalition working on nonviolent responses in the Middle East ( We were touched by their kindness in taking time to meet us. United Civilians is preparing to bring a delegation of leading Dutch government officials to the Middle East, and is lobbying the European Union for a just solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. We departed for Amman, Jordon and arrived at 1:00 A.M. Monday morning. Our guide for the next day, Mohamed Nablusi, met and thanked us for coming to the region during a pivotal and difficult time. He shared with us his perspective for a peaceful resolution. He said that if there is a war in Iraq, there will be a great impact on his people. Mohamed said that Jordon is suspect from the U.S. administrationís point of view because it has not closed its borders with Iraq. However, he explained that Jordon has no food or money to send to Iraq. Many of us realized that we had not previously given much thought to how this coming war, or the 1991 Gulf War, had affected Iraqís neighbors. Clearly Jordanians had.

While in Amman, we visited the King Abdallah mosque. It was built in 1989 and holds up to 5,000 men. For a number of people in the delegation, it was their first time inside a mosque. As we toured Amman, we prayed for peace at a range of religious and cultural settings. On a lighter note, our guide pointed out Embassy Row, which for millennia had been the home of Bedouin tribes and is now "home of the rich, wealthy, and thieve people." As we drove past the fortress-like U.S. Embassy, our guide warned us not to take pictures as our bus would be stopped and our cameras confiscated. Fortunately, a Bedouin tent or two can still be found in the neighborhood! At lunch, in the shadows of an ancient Roman theater, we spent specific time preparing for our journey to Lebanon and Israel/Palestine. Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, co-leader of our delegation, emphasized that we should be prepared to enter a place where, for Palestinians, "Death prowls the rooms of every house. Every single person has someone in their family that was tortured, beaten, shot, killed--everyone." She continued, "Jews are a people who are constantly in mourning. Every Jew has someone in their family that was killed." On Monday evening, after eating dinner (what many of you had expected to be our ëlast supperí) at Reem Al-Bawadi ( we continued on to Lebanon.

This morning, we were oriented to the situation of Palestinians in Lebanon with a visit to Norwegian Peoples Aid (NPA). NPA has been working in Lebanon since 1982, mainly with refugees. They provide vocational training, education scholarships, childcare, and advocacy for refugees. Director, Wafa Yassir shared with us a power point presentation prepared at the request of the U.S. Embassy.

There we learned that there are 3,874,738 refugees registered with the UN Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA). One-third of them are in refugee camps. Ten percent of the registered refugees live in Lebanon. In Lebanon, the refugees have no rights, social or civil, even though they comprise eleven percent of the population. The Lebanese will not allow the Palestinians to become citizens, since that will shift the balance of sectarian power that has ruled the country since the 1930s. Palestinians are not allowed to build permanent structures, to own property, or to do any work other than menial tasks, and are specifically excluded from 72 professions.

A reoccurring theme of the day was that the situation has gotten much worse in the camps. Access to education is extremely limited - Palestinians had once been known as the most highly educated people in the Arab world, and now illiteracy has grown to 13% of adult men and 26% of women. 60 percent of Palestinians live under the poverty line; 42% are unemployed; and one out of five suffer from a chronic health problem. The Lebanese government does not provide health care and refugees can not be licensed as physicians.

Sixteen hours ago, we set out to see these conditions for ourselves with a visit to the Shatilla refugee camp in Beirut. U.S. diplomats will not enter this camp or any of the other eleven refugee camps in Lebanon. We arrived in a light rain, but nevertheless the streets were flooded and pedestrians carefully moved their around massive puddles and heavy, plodding traffic. Our visit included time at the Gaza Displacement Center in the adjacent Sabra neighborhood with a group called Popular Aid for Relief & Development (PARD).

We stopped to visit the mass gravesite of the victims of the September 1982 massacre in Shatilla by Lebanese Christian Phalangists. It is acknowledged by the Israeli government that Ariel Sharon, who was in command of Israeli forces in that region that day, permitted the Phalangist forces to enter the camp for the slaughter that took place. 3,000 people were reported missing, but only 1,500 bodies were recovered. The small memorial site, which marks the mass grave of the victims, felt like a vacant lot in the middle of a big city - a thriving food market sat right in front of the gate. Our guide brought a bouquet of flowers, but we could not reach the memorial as the site was flooded. It was a powerful experience, and we found it especially moving to be there on the day of the Israeli national election, when Ariel Sharon, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, was running for re-election as prime minister (at the time of this report, exit polls show that Likud is expected to win by a large margin).

We entered the Beit Atfal Assamood Cultural Center and School, and walked up four flights of stairs, past dozens of bright classrooms with singing children. A woman named Hanan greeted us. After sharing her work at the center she appealed to us, "Iím a mother, not a monster. Tell people I am not a terrorist. We love our children; we would never push our children to die!" Then Hanan introduced us to two survivors of the Shatilla massacre. The first, Siham, told us how she saved her brother from being taken away by the Israeli military. "An Israeli brigadier said they were being taken to the Phalangists, who know how to get you how to say where the PLO is." She insisted on taking her brother off the military truck. When she came home, they discovered that her father had been murdered with an axe-blow to the head on the street. He was 65 years old. "Not only the fighters were killed, but anyone who got in their way."

(At this moment, the lights in the building went out. Two women went out and brought battery-operated lamps into the room so we could continue our meeting.) Im Mohammed, the second survivor, lost 16 members of her family that day. She had been taken with hundreds of others to the stadium. The men were taken away. A woman told her to go to Shatilla because men and boys were dead in the streets. She cried as she recounted, "I found two of my sons, my brother, my son-in-law, a cousin, and 12 other members of my family. I found them among the dead. I canít forget it. Even if you have a dozen children, you can not replace a lost child. Politicians can not understand the human feelings and human suffering." We cried with her. A Muslim woman, she ended with, "Donít forget that Jesus Christ is Palestinian. Christianity came from this area, and we are proud of that."

From there we visited Borj El-Barajneh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, where we:

ate a delicious homemade Arabic lunch on a rooftop
met with Abou Bader, the head of the Popular Committee of the camp (a position roughly equivalent to mayor, or a city manager in a "Class B" city!)
toured Haifa Hospital, which serves an area containing 50,000 people with 58 beds in 23 rooms, 24 doctors
National Association for Vocational Training & Social Services , which trains an average of 400 people a year in over 30 trades
We also heard from Olfat Mahmoud, director of the Womenís Humanitarian Organization (WHO) and former Red Crescent nurse . She reported to us a high incidence of cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, and domestic abuse. When asked what she believed was the greatest problem facing women in the camps, she cited depression, noting there are no mental health services available. We were stunned to learn that there are 700 cases of cancer in the camp, for which there are no treatment, not even painkillers. She talked of two young women with breast cancer, one who died just a few days ago.

Our day ended with a visit to the Al-Jana Center (Arab Resource Center for Popular Arts), where we first met with Jaber Suleiman. He represents AIDOUN, a worldwide coalition working on the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees to their homeland. "The Right of Return is deeply rooted in the ëbeingí of the Palestinian people," he said. The Right of Return is an internationally accepted principle, adopted by the UN in Resolution 194 and affirmed in more than 100 other General Assembly resolutions. He is also the co-chair of the committee to present the case against Ariel Sharon in the Belgian courts on behalf of 23 plaintiffs. We discussed this at length.

Finally, we met with Moaítaz Dajani, director of the Al-Jana Center. The Center provides resources in the arts for Palestinians to express themselves through creative writing, film, painting, photography, and other art forms. They have published two films, one about childrenís dreams and the other about their nightmares, the latter being closest to their reality. He read to us the concerns of the children, expressed in a book, "I Wish I Were a Bird." They included, "In time I will be free," "To love or not to love," and "To be a suicide bomber or not."

Friends and family, we started writing this report at 10 pm, Tuesday night. It is now 2:15 am. We have already had a powerful trip, and it has just begun. We look forward to sending our next report, which will inshaíallah be shorter! Keep us in your prayers, and pray for a just peace in the Middle East.


Here's Update 2


January 29, 2003: Beirut and South Lebanon

Our first visit of the day was to the Institute of Palestine Studies which was founded in Beirut in 1963, is an independent
nonprofit research and publication center that works to support
scholarly work that strives to preserve Palestinian culture, articulate
a Palestinian identity in exile, and to struggle for the freedom of the
Palestinian people. It is not affiliated with any political
organization. Two of their researchers offered us an extensive
political analysis of the laws and civil rights of the Palestinian
diaspora, and we ended our visit with a short tour of their library.

After our meeting at IPS, we drove approximately an hour and a half
south along the beautiful Lebanese coastline to the Bourj al-Shamali
refugee camp outside the
historic biblical city of Tyre, which is very close to the border with
Israel. Along the way we passed groves of oranges and lemons and fields
of dates that lined the Mediterranean coast. Like our first day in
Lebanon, this was another cool, rainy day.

Because of the camp's proximity to the Israeli border, the people there
live under constant surveillance by the Lebanese military and are only
allowed to enter and exit the camp through one gate. There are
Palestinians in the camp who have literally spent their entire lives
within the camp's small confines. Furthermore, the Palestinians are not
allowed to bring inside the camp's walls articles such as building
materials, furniture, or anything else that would be used to create a
sense of permanence. Apparently, even the light fixtures and light
bulbs have to be smuggled in. The reality of this isolation was a
stark contrast with the refreshing air we smelled coming from the nearby
sea and countryside.

Once inside the camp, we were met by a nurse in the health clinic who
explained to us the minimal level of dental and health care available to
refugees. In the last fifty years, Bourj al-Shamali's population has
dramatically tripled from 6,000 to 19,000 refugees - a terrible burden
for the small geographic area. As a result, health care workers are
limited to managing injuries and chronic illnesses, and don't have the
resources to educate and work towards prevention.

We were then met by Abu Assim, the director of the Beit Atfal Assmoud
Center, who offered some introductory remarks about the needs and
obstacles of the community inside the camp. His center is trying to
address these problems by providing alternatives for the children and
youth in the camps, such as: computer skills, music classes, exercise
programs, and summer outings. Young men who had once participated in
these programs as children are now the leaders. The center's activities
are extremely limited by lack of funds. Prior to the current intifada,
the PLO was the primary donor; however, now these financial resources
are no longer available. The center's social services are healthy and
important, but some of our group had the sense of being in a prison,
where programming is offered to entertain prisoners rather than top
provide the tools and teaching that are essential to live independent

We were then divided into two groups to tour the camp. One of the
highlights of Group One was entering a room full of musical instruments,
where two of our delegates and a young Palestinian man performed
together a stirring traditional Palestinian song on drums and bagpipe!
While walking through the camps treacherous narrow alleys, Group Two
came upon a wailing young woman who had just learned of her
grandfather's death. Overcome with grief, she was carried away by
community members. Soon afterward, Group One saw the casket being
carried away by two young men in preparation for an immediate burial,
which follows Islamic tradition. Moments later the announcement of the
death to the entire camp could be heard over loudspeakers.

We drove back to Beirut quietly filled with the contrast of the horrific
stories of occupation and the living people of all ages asking us again
why they have been forgotten by the world.

Back in Beirut, we entered the front gates of the American University of
Beirut It was like entering a portal into an entirely
different world. In contrast to the very limited choices the young men
we had met with in the refugee camp that morning, AUB was filled with
young people and professors talking and laughing, couples walking hand
in hand, and Starbuck's coffee. Third year sociology student Dima and
two other students led us on a very pleasant stroll around the campus on
the banks of the Mediterranean, but some of our group were deeply
troubled by the contrast in cultures that coexist in such close

Our day ended with a guided bus tour of downtown Beirut led by Ghassan,
who works for an independent election monitoring committee. He
explained the demarcation of the Green Line - a street that marked the
border during the 1975-90 civil war between the Christian ("East") and
Muslim ("West") Beirut. The 15 year war was fought in a densely
populated urban area and devastated a city once known as the "Paris of
the Middle East." Ghassan indicated that Beirut had never been a
segregated city before the war, and a sign of new life is that Muslims
and Christians are no longer afraid to live on either side of the Green
Line. The massive devastation of the war is still plainly visible:
mortar and bullet holes, scarred facades, and crumbling mortar and stone
stood in stark contrast to the newly renovated luxury residences and
shops. Again, the relative prosperity of the city was a shocking
contrast to the constant policing of and resources denied to the camps,
much like the contrast of poverty and wealth experienced in U.S. cities
(which very few of us experience in the course of one day).

January 30: From Beirut to Jerusalem

The day began for most of us at 4:00 a.m. as we arose to prepare for a
5:00 a.m. bus ride to the Beirut airport. Our flight left at 7:30 a.m.
but it was necessary to arrive early to get through the security checks
at the airport. We arrived in Amman, Jordan around 8:30 a.m., tired and
hungry. Our guide from Guiding Star Travel met us at the airport and
escorted us through customs. We were off to the West Bank and Israel by
bus across the Allenby Bridge which spans the Jordan River. Although it
was a quick bus trip to the Jordanian border control we waited quite
some time there as our passports were checked. This wait was nothing
compared to the wait we encountered at the entrance to Israel. We
waited for more than an hour in the bus outside the entrance building
before they signaled that we could enter.

Once inside we went through security checks of our luggage and persons
which took a considerable amount of time. One of our group noted that
almost all the Israelis working at the border entry were very young.
One of our Jewish delegates who speaks Hebrew led the way, establishing
a rapport with the Israeli officials. Except for the long wait, our
entry was non-eventful. The entire process took about three and a half
to four hours.

We left the entry control center and headed east for Jerusalem. Our
guide told us that today was the first day in two years that Jericho was
open. That meant that outsiders, other than those who live in Gaza and
Israeli citizens, were able to travel into Jericho and those who live
inside were able to leave. Our guide told us that, "It is easier for me
to go to the United States than it is to go to Jericho." We immediately
asked to go to Jericho, even if it was only for a short drive through.
Jericho is on the way to Jerusalem and since we had not eaten lunch, or
much of a breakfast other than airline food, we were eager to find a
place to get food. We stopped for a short time to order lunch which we
took on the bus and headed toward Jerusalem. Although we asked to see
the famed biblical wall that once surrounded Jericho, it no longer

On the way to Jerusalem our guide informed us how the Palestinians are
controlled in their travel from one area of the West Bank to another.
Israel is building miles and miles of bypass roads that can be used only
by Israeli settlers in the West Bank. If a Palestinian jumps a wall to
shorten his or her trip, they are taking the risk of being caught. Last
week a Palestinian man whom he knew was caught doing just this and was
beaten and urinated upon by three Israeli soldiers. A tunnel is being
built for settlers that will make it easier for them to get from the
settlements into Jerusalem without going through the countryside and
being subjected to checkpoints as all the Palestinians must do. We
traveled through the portion of the tunnel that was complete, a tunnel
Palestinians cannot use. We also observed first-hand the armed check
points that are situated outside each of the towns we passed through.
Concrete blocks narrow the road or highway to a single lane and vehicles
are required to stop.

We finally arrived at St. George College in Jerusalem where we are
staying for most of our time in Israel/Palestine. After a short break
(our delegation leaders drive us without much rest!) we met with Jeff
Halper, coordinator of Israeli Coalition Against House Demolitions, who gave us a briefing on what he calls the "Matrix
of Control." Jeff presented an overview to orientate us to what we
would be hearing and seeing. He told us, "In a conflict situation no
one talks with you, everyone is trying to convince you."

What follows is a short synopsis of what Jeff said: Before the 1993 Oslo
peace process, Palestinians had free access to entire country. Only
with the peace process did country close in and become a prison. Today
Palestinians are locked into West Bank and Gaza. They need a permit to
go anywhere. Israel however denies it has an occupation and is the only
country in world that takes this position. Israel position is that
occupation occurs only when a sovereign state governs another sovereign
state and that the West Bank and Gaza are not a sovereign state. Since
March/April of 2002, Israel is in process of reoccupying West Bank. All
towns and cities are blockaded and under curfew. Curfew varies in
severity and length.

Jeff said that Israel's response to the intifada is "not a matter of
defeating Palestinians but putting them into their place." The Israeli
government takes the position that Palestinians live their by
sufferance, not by right. This is key to the way Israel relates to
Palestinians. The occupation is very abstract to the average Israeli
citizen who is concerned with security. Jeff advocates a solution that
involves a regional federation, much like what is occurring in Europe.
He believes that the underlying problems are regional not local. He
envisions a "two stage solution" (compared to the "two state solution"
that is often discussed). In the first stage, a viable Palestinian
state must be created. In the second stage, people in Israel,
Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt would remain citizens of their own
countries but could live and work wherever they wanted to in the region.
Under such a system, Jeff argues that a Palestinian citizen who lived
and worked in Israel would not be threat to Israel. Jeff finds no one
discussing such a two stage solution although as a delegation we heard
similar comments in meeting with Palestinians in Beirut. He has written
about this intriguing "two stage" proposal, and it should be available
on their web site.

At the close of yesterday, we met for over an hour with Bishop Riah, the
Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem. Bishop Riah thanked us for coming to the
city during a time when many do not consider making the journey and
expressed appreciation for our willingness to listen to him.

On Saturday, January 24th at 2:15am - less than one week ago - St.
Philip's Church in Gaza was struck by an Israeli "guided" missile. This
is the incident we had heard about the morning of the day we departed
for our trip. This type of weapon is laser guided, has cameras on board
and can be guided while in-flight, and yet it struck directly on the
roof of the church and formed a crater only feet from the altar. The
explosion destroyed 40% of the roof, all of the glass in the entire
campus (including stained glass over 100 years old), and cracked several
of the church's walls. In addition, the explosion caused over $500,000
damage to the hospital that is operated by the Diocese. The hospital's
x-ray machine was one of several pieces of equipment lost. Clearly
marking the church and hospital were the Anglican flag and the Red Cross
flag. It was reported by witnesses that immediately after the explosion
two helicopters flew by to survey and film the damage. These facts,
combined the fact that no official apology has been issued by the
Israeli government, has prompted some here to say that the strike was
meant as a message to the outspoken Anglican Church.

The Bishop spoke about how it is these incidents that do nothing to
prepare the way for peace and healing. He expressed his frustration
with Israel's continued support for President Bush's call for war
against Iraq, which he says will undoubtedly prove to be detrimental to
both Israel and the U.S. He noted that when bombings occur in Israel,
the U.S. is quick to issue condolences, however when Israel lashes out
against Palestinians, there is rarely a comment.

The Bishop called for an end to violence on both sides of the conflict.
He expressed his opinion that the root cause of the violence is Israel's
occupation of Palestinian land. He urged the U.S. to put pressure on
Israel to follow UN resolutions just as the U.S. has lead the
international community in putting pressure on Iraq - otherwise the
government can be labeled as hypocritical. He also called on President
Bush to reserve himself "a page in history" by showing credibility and
leadership in pressuring Israel to come to the table and comply with all
U.N. resolutions. The Bishop says that he keeps the President in his
prayers that he will "wake-up one day refreshed with humanity." When
asked about the forgiveness of one's enemies, the Bishop responded that
it was the role of Christians to forgive, but to act in a way that will
bring our enemies to justice so that they may become one in Christ.

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