Former Combatants, Students, and Nonviolent Activists—Last Impressions from Israel/Palestine
The delegation ended last weekend and most participants have returned to North America. We’ve been getting final thoughts and reflections from the end of the trip that we wanted to pass on as a last report.
Finding Hope and Sharing Our Stories
Some people may think our trip was political. In my opinion, however, our visit focused on human rights, civil rights, and international law. We were observing for ourselves and we were listening to many organizations - Israeli, Palestinian, and a combination of the two. We represented no single political group or party or ideology. Each of us probably had different reactions to and interpretations of what we were seeing. Members represented a variety of churches and faiths. In my view our mission was simply a quest for learning and a strong commitment to justice and peace.
There is hope for the future in Palestine and Israel, I believe. After the first few days of our visit I was discouraged. We saw Israeli barbed wire fences, many checkpoints, observation blimps and cameras, guns and uniforms, walls and illegal settlements which run through Palestinian towns and separate farmers from their fields, water sources controlled almost entirely by the Israelis. But then we met with numerous Israeli, Palestinian, and international groups who are working day and night to bring the sides together, stop the abuses, end the occupation, and find a balanced peace process, all the while safeguarding Israeli security. They were inspiring. There are similar groups in the U.S. and Canada and other countries. Now we in this delegation must do whatever we can to inform and motivate people to demand change and insist on rights and security for both the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Bassam Aramin, Combatant for Peace
Bassam spent seven years, from the age of 17, in an Israeli prison for his participation in planning an attack against Israeli forces. While in prison, one of his jailors told him that Jews came to liberate the country, “so why do Palestinians hate us?” This led to their sharing personal stories and perspectives on the Israel-Palestine conflict with each other. (In the process Bassam learned to speak fluent Hebrew.)
In 2005, many years after his release, Bassam was invited by a friend to come to a meeting with some former members of the Israeli Defense Forces. Bassam agreed to come with considerable trepidation. When he got to the meeting of a few Israelis and a few Palestinians (all former combatants), Bassam wondered why he had let himself get into this situation. What if these guys were agents looking for an excuse to put him back in prison?
The Israelis began talking about things they had done to Palestinians who had been under their direct control. Bassam said to them “You are the terrorists! You are the torturers!” The Israelis said, “yes, that is true.” Bassam was stunned and uncertain how to respond.
This was how Combatants for Peace began, with a group of only four Palestinians and seven Israelis who had the courage and honesty to reach out and trust each other to work for reconciliation and a nonviolent solution to the conflict that is destroying both of their societies. It has now grown (in less than three years) to 300 members. The primary message is that the occupation is the enemy. Members understand that after 40 years of occupation and fighting “Israel is not safe and Palestine is not free.” They concentrate their outreach on youth. They go in pairs (an Israeli and a Palestinian) wherever they are invited to speak.
Aramin’s commitment to nonviolence has been deeply tested in recent months with the death of his daughter. In January 2007, Bassam’s ten-year-old daughter, Abir, was killed by an Israeli sniper as she left school. Bassam would like for the killer to be brought to justice. Thus far, the investigation has been a farce, even trying to blame the child by saying she was carrying a weapon that exploded in her hand. (Her hands were not injured.) He knows that the desire for revenge is a natural, but not an appropriate response. So he continues working through his grief and anger for a nonviolent solution to the continuing tragedy that is Israel-Palestine today. “I chose nonviolence before her death. I did not change… The violence has not worked,” Aramin said softly.
On the day we visited with Aramin, he was scheduled to speak at a peace gathering honoring Yitzhak Rabin, “another combatant,” Aramin noted, “who turned from war to peace.” He is also to receive an award at Colombia University for his writings after his daughter’s death. He is not certain he will be able to leave Israel or enter the US.
--Carlie Numi & Kathleen McQuillen
Hebrew University Students
One evening, the delegates met with several Israeli students and recent students from Hebrew University.
As we listened to the students’ stories about their country’s need for security and safety, I recognized that one of the questions that has lingered in my mind has to do with Israel’s self-image. So, I asked Paz Carmel about that, wondering if my perception that Israel has no real understanding of itself as a strong, military power that far outweighs that Palestinians. He agreed and said that there is a sad joke that underneath most mattresses in Jewish/Israeli homes are many socks filled with money – just ready and waiting for the Nazis to come.
-- Diane Nancekivell
I woke up this morning – early! – with the realization that my frustration last night with my exchanges with on of the students from Hebrew university was due, in least in part, to my having unwittingly replicated that Palestinian-Israeli conflict in my listening and speaking. I had a different perspective than he, and I wanted him to change his, see my viewpoint (even though my position was cleverly couched as a “challenging question”!) and instead we both got caught in the polemics of suicide bombers and checkpoints.
Being able to deeply see the other and somehow accept them where they are while engaging in a discussion of differences seemed very important. It’s what the Bereaved Families Circle were able to experience through their common experience of loss. When this understanding happens, the inner walls, whose outward expansion is The Wall, begin to crumble.
Palestinian Resistance Has Many Faces
Mention Palestinian resistance in the US and the first image to come to mind is that of a suicide bomber -- for this is the only resistance acknowledged in US media and public discourse. Spending two weeks in Israel and Palestine revealed for me a wide array of resistance to the Israeli occupation. From helping children value themselves when the power structure around them demeans their person, to creating just economic structures, to putting one’s body on the line at roadblocks and separation walls – nonviolent active resistance is strong and growing in the Palestinian territories.
Amid the Israeli separation wall, barbed wire, road closures, deceptive permit demands, armed military, look out towers, house demolitions, and tree uprootings, Palestinians are working together and sometimes with Israelis, to create a new reality for themselves – one based on peace with justice.
I am truly blessed that so many resisters shared so generously their stories with this delegation from the US and Canada. The following are just a few of the many stories.
Wi’am Center (In Arabic “wi’am” means “ cordial relationship”)
Zoughbi Zoughbi explained the Wi’am Center, in Bethlehem, is an organization focused on counseling and citizen diplomacy. They respond to changing needs in the Palestinian community and promote nonviolent conflict resolution. Wi’am was one of several community centers we visited that provide social workers to help young people “cope” with the trauma in their lives. “We cannot heal at this time. The trauma is too present,” said Zoughbi.
Some of the programs offered to help children value themselves and learn that they have a role in their future include: Kids club, health screening, cultural celebrations and counseling.
Zoughbi noted that it is easy to despair in Palestine but Wi’am works to inject a message of hope and to help children and families understand that “peace is a collective responsibility” and there is a role for everyone.
Palestinian Fair Trade Association (PFTA)
This network of producing cooperatives includes 600 farms working to create a viable alternative economic structure in Palestine. An important principle of PFTA is environmental, social, and economic accountability throughout their processes.
Olive Oil production -- PFTA is the largest exporter of Palestinian olive oil to the US and Europe. Proceeds from the sale of such ensure a fair return to the farmers, processors, and distributors. A percentage of the profits are used to support new farmers with start up trees – priority is given to women and those who have lost trees to Israeli demolition practices.
Funds are also provided for college scholarships for children of PFTA members. Our delegation had the great privilege to be at the PFTA Olive Harvest Festival where the scholarships were presented. It was indeed a joyful experience.
Women’s Collective – provide an avenue for women to work and earn money, while avoiding the problems related to traditional cultural obstacles of working with men or working outside of the home. Women’s collectives make couscous (pasta) and olive oil soap.
Nader, one of the PFTA leaders, noted that sending “Palestinian products around the world is a political and economic statement. We are breaking the dependency created by the war and occupation.”
It’s hard to stop. There are so many stories to be told. It’s important to know too that there are great and courageous stories from Israelis who too are opposing the occupation and standing in solidarity with their brothers and sisters across the barriers. For more information on Israeli organizations, check out: Zochrot, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Bereaved Families Circle, to name just a few.
I have started and stopped at least three times, in my efforts to write about my reactions to and reflections on this trip. Most of this trip has felt like a roller coaster ride, in that we go to one meeting, where we engage with incredibly strong and courageous people who are deeply committed to nonviolence, and a viable, durable solution to this ongoing conflict which tears at the fabric of society. Then the next meeting fills some of us with despair.
I have not wanted to write about the despair. But to write only of the moments of triumph feels artificial, and untruthful in a way. And so my thoughts have been rambling, not providing me with anything I could write about in a coherent way, which would help those at home understand this experience.
And so I turn to analogies, which I hope most Americans, who have not seen what we have seen, can relate to. For many the scenario I paint will be unimaginable, but nevertheless, I ask you to try.
Think about the last serious weather threat or disaster which affected your community. Because I live in North Carolina, for me this would be a hurricane. So imagine that you are told that because of this (or some other emergency,) you must evacuate your home for a few days, perhaps a week, or a little more. When you return -- or try to -- someone else is living in your house. What would you do? How would you react? Can you even imagine how you would feel?
Most likely -- if you could restrain yourself from a violent reaction -- you would turn to the authorities, the police. But what if the police told you they could not help you? You would perhaps find a lawyer, and plan a lawsuit. After all, you have a deed, and most likely you have been paying a mortgage and taxes for a number of years. What if you went to court and the court said it did not recognize the documents you presented as proof of ownership?
As I stated at the beginning, this is beyond what most of us can comprehend, it is unimaginable. But this is what many Palestinians are living, and have been living for nearly 60 years.
Here is just one illustration of the impact: Towards the end of our journey, we met a Palestinian man named Daoud Nassar who owns a farm called Daher’s Vineyard in the West Bank. His grandfather bought the land in 1916, and has deeds and tax records going back nearly 100 years now, to prove ownership. The grandfather lived in a cave on the property while he worked to build a home, a life, and a farm. After Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, the burden was shifted to the Palestinians to prove that the land they owned was indeed theirs. The Nassars were one of the few families with sufficient paperwork to even establish a claim. They had registered their deed with the crumbling Ottoman Empire, and with the Israeli government not long after it was created.
By 1981, the Nassars’ farm was surrounded by Israeli settlements on all sides, which are considered illegal under international law; some are considered illegal even under Israeli law. That same year, the Israeli government declared the Nassars’ farm to be state property, and gave them 45 days during which they could go to court in Israel and prove ownership. This was a military court, not the kind of civil court most of us would expect to use to settle a land dispute.
The judge immediately decided that since 50% of the land was uncultivated -- and much of the earth in this part of the world cannot be cultivated because of the steepness and rockiness of it -- the Nassars’ would lose this 50% of the land which they had purchased legitimately, and on which they had paid taxes for 65 years. In the U.S., this would be considered a “taking” under our Constitution, and the state would be obligated to pay some compensation. Not so, in Israel.
The judge also prohibited the Nassars from making any improvements – they were not permitted to make repairs to existing buildings, to build new buildings, to add or improve on water supplies or electricity. An order was issued calling for the demolition of all the structures already there, including shelters for their farm animals. Finally, the judge ordered them to have a survey done, and to pay for the survey themselves.
Daoud continued to tell his family’s story for more than an hour. More than 25 years after it was begun, the case is STILL pending. More surveys have been ordered. The case went to Israel’s High Court, where only Israeli lawyers are allowed to represent clients, not any Palestinian lawyers. The legal actions have cost the Nassar family many thousands of dollars – one of the three required surveys alone cost $70,000. He expects the case to take at least several more years, and to cost at least another $15,000.
For a stretch of time, the settlers tried to get rid of the Nassar family, by shooting at them, uprooting their grape vines, bulldozing their olive trees, etc. The government has dumped large loads of rubble on the road so that our bus had to stop quite a long distance from the farm, and we had to hike in—a small inconvenience for us, but something the Nassar’s must live with every day. There have been attempts to buy them out. But Daoud says, “The land is like your mother -- you cannot sell your mother.” The Nassars’ were able to get most of the violence against them stopped, and they now live, surrounded by settlements, in a state of uneasy truce.
Meanwhile, the Jewish-only/Israeli settlements surrounding the Nassers continue to grow. They are not required to get building permits, or to “jump through the hoops” which the Nassars have faced. These illegal settlements protrude like fingers into the territory internationally recognized as belonging to the Palestinians. The Israeli government not only supports but encourages them -- it has built special roads which only Jewish settlers, with their yellow license plates, are allowed to use. Palestinians, who have green and white license plates on their cars, are prohibited from using those roads. These roads slice up what little is left of Palestine, into small disconnected areas. One woman told us it takes a 10-hour journey to visit her next-door-neighbor because of these roads, barriers, check-points, and other obstructions. Family members are disconnected from one another. Often, farmers live in a village on one side of the road, but the land they cultivate, and depend on for food and income, is on the other side and the road is edged on both sides with wire fencing and manned by Israeli soldiers. Palestinians play an endless game of “Mother-May-I” to access and use their own land.
The obstructions, for the most part, are not on the internationally-recognized border between Israel and the territory which was supposed to be Palestine. Of the more than 600 barriers, obstacles, check-points, etc., more than 550 are within the Occupied Territories of Palestine, not on the border. The Israelis claim they need these obstacles and checkpoints for security, but when you see where they are placed, you very quickly realize that it has little, if anything, to do with security.
Israel now controls (and controls access to) much of the West Bank, under what one of our speakers called a “regime of apartheid and colonization.” She also said that, “it is not far-fetched that the Israeli goal is to eliminate the Palestinians -- to make their lives so miserable they will leave ‘voluntarily.’” Had someone said that to me before I went on this trip, I would not have believed it. Having seen the “facts on the ground,” I no longer have any doubt that this is the goal.
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