“We are resisting the occupation by insisting on life.”
Wednesday, October 31, Sderot
Today has been pretty intense, so it is hard to distill it at this point. This will be a collection of impressions from the day.
We traveled by bus from Jerusalem west toward the sea, then south towards Gaza and the Erez crossing into Gaza. This elaborate terminal was designed to process lots of people, and in fact, many Gazans used to wait in long lines here twice a day to reach their jobs in Israel. Today it was eerily quiet. Israel gradually cut down on this stream of Palestinian labor and today the Gaza Strip is completely closed and sealed off from the rest of the world. The workers who once passed through Erez now make up part of the 80% of Gaza’s population who are unemployed.
The security staff at Erez (which looked like private guards, not IDF) didn’t want us there, insisting it wasn’t safe, so we only stayed for a few moments. An Israeli dirigible (military drone) floated overhead filled with equipment to monitor activity in Gaza. The crossing was not a friendly place.
The next stop was Sderot, a large Israeli town (about 24,000) near the border with Gaza and the main recipient of the crude rockets launched daily from Gaza. We had time for a walk, during which some of us talked with shop keepers, before lunch in a local coffee shop. The coffee shop is a program for youth at risk, of which there are many. Sderot has had a huge influx of immigrants, many of them arriving with great needs. Add on seven years of rocket attacks, and kids are struggling. The program serves mostly teens who have dropped out of school, getting them back into school, teaching them to run the coffee shop, being a home away from home.
We then went to hear a presentation on the Gvanim Association for Education and Community Development. The day before had begun badly for the woman speaking, with a rocket landing near her home at a nearby kibbutz. While talking of their work, she frequently returned to her own story, speaking of her struggle to raise her young son to understand that there are children and families in Gaza who are suffering too, the challenge of going to work to help people who have so many needs when so worried, of the fact that this stress has gone on and on and on. “The immune system of the society is breaking down.” Children are quitting school. Adults are out of work. Crime, addictions and divorce have increased. The people with the most resources are leaving. When asked why she didn’t leave, she replied that this is her home and talked about being needed there. Yet still there was no demonization of the Palestinians. “I don’t know where good and bad is, there is just misfortune all around.”
The next speakers were from a nearby Kibbutz (click for photo). Again we heard of the impact of chronic stress. “There is no ‘post-’ to this traumatic stress syndrome.” The rockets, though frequent, are not very powerful. Some have died, some have been injured, but their biggest impact is the emotional injury. Yet again, out of that pain, came determined voices insisting on the humanity of the people of Gaza.
They spoke of efforts to stay in dialogue with people in Gaza and to bring people together whenever possible. “We are all tools in political interests.” While they seem to be overwhelmed by the larger political arguments, they strive to simply hold on to friendships, to recognize each other’s humanity. Again we heard the feelings of hopelessness mixed with determination to do what can be done, to not give in to hate.
From there we went to a hilltop on the edge of town to look at Gaza (click for photo). Our security guide again spoke of the people he knew from Gaza that he doesn’t see anymore, then spoke of the efforts to protect his community. It was near sunset and the view to Gaza City, with green fields and hills in the foreground, was very beautiful, very pastoral. Yet above us hung the dirigible watching Gaza and, thick in the air, the knowledge that a rocket could be launched at any time.
Our visit ended with a trip to the police station where there is a collection of some of the rockets that had landed – including the one that came today to a nearby kibbutz (click for photo).
It was a tired and overwhelmed group that climbed on the bus. We drove toward Hebron on the route that might one day be the “bridge” (i.e. some sort of limited access transport route) between Gaza and the West Bank, then went north to Bethlehem. Our sharing this evening was rich and thoughtful/thought provoking. And we go to bed very aware of our relative safety. \
Thursday and Friday, November 1-2, Jenin
Reflections from the Olive Harvest Festival in Jenin
Our experience of meeting and staying with Palestinian farmers who participate in the Palestine Fair Trade Association was very interesting. The PFTA promotes organic and fair trade olive oil and other locally grown products. We met with Nasser Abufarha (click for photo), who explained the extensive process necessary for organic certification and fair trade certification, and how the revenues from the olive oil enable to PFTA to promote small women’s co-ops, fund a tree planting program, and provide scholarships for local students to attend university.
We then attended a very warm and welcoming olive harvest festival, including a wonderful meal and lots of exuberant music and dancing celebrating the olive harvest. Only men danced and our Adam Horowitz participated (reluctantly, but with gusto, click for photo).
We then went in groups to nearby villages where we were guests of local families. There is no way to describe them except as extremely warm and giving, trying to anticipate our every need and offering food and warmth. With our non-existent Arabic and their limited English we did our best to communicate, and discussed difficulties of living here and the beauty of this country. All the women slept in one room (slumber party), the men in another (snoring party).
After a sumptuous home-baked breakfast, we walked to an olive grove to join with local families in picking olives. Once again, our hosts provided us with cool drinks and candy as we worked with them. It was distressing to see a huge fence with armored cars and soldiers patrolling just a few feet from the olive trees we were picking.
“If you are to tell our story—tell the truth. The Palestinian people are good people. We want peace but we want homes, and jobs, and our families together.”
That charge given to us by our host in our home stay in Jenin is easy to accept. The Palestinian people are indeed good and beautiful and generous people. My first real introduction to them was through the young boys at the Fair Trade Harvest Festival who were in wonderment and excitement about who were and why we came to their village. Even at their young adolescent age they demonstrated the famous Palestinian hospitality – seeking first water for us, then the Arabic qahwah (coffee), then the deserts being passed, finally bringing to our table an English language booklet on fair trade. They simply couldn’t do enough for us (click for photo).
Eventually the camera became a great attraction and we laughed, took pictures, and struggled through language differences to learn about each other and our families.
When the dancing, speeches and celebrating ended we traveled to the nearby village where in the morning we would help with the olive harvest. Our driver from the Palestinian Fair Trade Association stopped along the way to proudly show us the olive press in the village. There at 10:00 pm the press was in operation with several men and boys running it. It would run all night long. As word quickly spread that international visitors were at the press, the scene again became one of welcoming and hospitality and another round of Palestinian coffee and picture taking.
Several goodbyes and we were off to our home stay.
Here with an extended family of father, brother, sister, uncles, in laws and children there was more food and drink, story telling and laughter. While the story telling came easier to the men gathered, the wife and daughter were a bit more reticent. There was great curiosity about the American people’s feelings about President Bush, Fatah, Hamas, and the Palestinian people. When the conversation moved toward families, and we pulled out our family photos the young daughter eagerly brought forth some of her family photos and it was here that mother, daughter, and international visitors found an easy common ground.
Reluctantly we let go of the night and our time with our new friends. The olive harvest lay before us in the morning.
A good night’s sleep on Palestinian style beds, a morning welcome from more family and neighbors, and a Palestinian family style breakfast (sitting on the floor around a very large tray with eggs, pita bread, and olive oil), and we were off to the olive fields.
We’d been told that helping with the harvest was primarily symbolic—the few hours of work were more important for the statement of solidarity than for the results of our labor. The truth of that was immediately clear. As we picked the olives with the women we shared excitement about the children running all around, shared names and ages of children and grandchildren, and sat on the ground under the olive trees celebrating just being together (click here and here for photos).
Our time in the village was drawing to a close—but one more delight was yet to unfold. As I sat on the couch with my cup of tea a girl/young woman entered and sat next to me. “What is your name? Where do you live?”, and then “I am so happy that you come to our home – welcome.” She then shared her name and that she was studying for an English test tomorrow and that she is preparing for the university. Two other younger girls came in and also told about their education and their plans for the future.
Because it was hard to leave I asked them to write their names down for me. I put the paper in my pocket. Will I ever do anything with that piece of paper – with those names? I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that is one way I can carry them with me. I will remember them. I will remember all of them—and I will tell what a very special people are the people of the Palestinian Territories.
There were at least 1,000 men, women and children celebrating the olive harvest at the festival in Jenin. When I asked what one poignant song was about – it sounded like a love song – I was told is was an improvisation about the olive tree. Olive trees are more than an economic base to Palestinians. They are a powerful symbol of endurance and steadfastness, since they live and produce for centuries.
My thoughts, as I watched the celebration, were that these are not angry people. Of course they have anger at the occupation; because of barriers and checkpoints, an adjoining Christian village that used to be 5 minutes journey for them – we could see it easily – now is a 10-hour drive. But these people have meaningful work, and that makes all the difference. Many of them were part of the Palestine Fair Trade Association. Last year, their total income form the sale of olive oil was $250,000 higher than it would have been on the local market.
In addition, the structure of the cooperative empowers the weak (it supports women’s cooperatives and gives priority to those who aren’t landowners, or have had their groves destroyed by the Israeli military) and provides a process for expressing and resolving grievances in all aspects of their lives. More young people are now staying on the land here because of the difficulties traveling with Israeli closure policies. They say “We are resisting the occupation by insisting on life.”
In contrast, adjoining Jenin is a huge refuge camp, which we toured (click for photo). The people have been here since 1948, when they were displaced by the war. No one here owns property or olive trees. In 2002 the Israeli army bulldozed 60% of the camp as part of “Operation Defensive Shield” when they re-occupied the main Palestinian cities in the West Bank. 62 people were killed in the refugee camp during the Israeli invasion. There are nightly army attacks and killings now; most buildings are riddled with bullet holes. These people have little reason to hope for a better future. Economic justice seems to first path towards peace.
I will remember our home stays after the Olive Harvest Festival for a long time. We were taken in by a very welcoming, friendly extended Palestinian family of three generations. The men were open, while the wife and daughter were shy at first, not allowing us to take pictures of them.
We were invited into their beautiful living room and into, for me, a very interesting conversation. Right after a brief introduction, the 22 year old nephew let us know that there might be some differences of opinion as his uncle was the Fateh leader in the community, and he himself, a fourth year student of economy and law, sympathized with Hamas. I expected sparks to fly; the conversation for the next two hours was generated by mutual respect and interest. The nephew was interested in our opinion of Hamas and Fateh, which we expressed with honesty.
I was struck however by the intense curiosity in our reasons for coming to Palestine. “You are Americans, have money to travel anywhere you want to go and you come to Palestine. Why?” Why? They were baffled! All our answers were insufficient. Finally the uncle and Fateh leader expressed his suspicion that we might be spies from the US government. I almost felt like laughing and told him that of course we were not. Our conversation continued and their warm hospitality permeated the whole evening. We closed our time before retiring for the night with several group pictures.
That night I could not go to sleep and continued to dwell on the assertion that we could be spies. By morning I reopened the subject again: “You know most of us on this delegation are Christians, believers in a universal God. We have come here to bring you love.” Our farewell was warm; we left as friends with smiles and many hands waving us on our way.
As I walked up the path to the Olive Festival and saw the brightly colored lights on the Ferris wheel turning and I heard the happy screams of the children circling above, I knew I was in a land that still had hope. This was one night for all Palestinian families: fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, and friends, to come together to forget their pain and suffering and celebrate their land and their beloved olive trees and their olive harvest.
After the dinner prepared for me by our hosts, we looked at the display of farmer’s products and women’s crafts. Then we watched performances by a male singer, a band and a troop of male dancers. I was fortunate to sit with five young women from the same family and town. We talked (with the help of the teenager translating) and they were so happy to see their photos on my digital camera. They laughed and giggled. The smaller children took great delight in seeing themselves too. They ran to get their father and so there were more family photos. What fun! All cares seemed, at least for this one night be pushed away. They were happy and I was overjoyed just to be with them.
When it was time to leave the grandmother kissed me first on both cheeks, then on the lips. My memory of the night spent with such loving, friendly people will stay with me forever. The night reminded me a poem I read from Maya Angelou,
”We are more alike, my friends,
then we are unalike
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.”
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