Bethlehem – Reconciliation & Return
Mad man, bruised heart
Runs from grave to grave
Slams into walls, checkpoints,
Refugee from Galilee:
An army, a lethal legion,
High-tech handcuffs, American guns,
Creatures of habit and fear
Occupying mad man’s soul.
“I am not afraid of this legion.”
Exorcist believes, risks, invites
Mad man out of the grave lands –
To touch, to feel, to see,
To eat, to care, to shake
Off the mad occupation!
Organize friends, break bread,
Gather popular committees,
Insist on boycotts, return to villages,
Respect everybody, respect all,
Love, love, love,
Sit when bulldozers roar to destroy,
Build now, build, build.
“You are shaking off the occupation!”
Mind clears, heart heals
So it can break right now
And grow strong,
Occupied no more.
June 1, 2008, Palestine
Birthday Reflections from Bethlehem
June 2, 2008
June 2, celebrating my birthday in Bethlehem! Like all of our days, full of contradictions and intensely powerful experiences. Started out in Jerusalem heading to Bethlehem – long way around – our tour guide says we can’t go through the checkpoint on the most direct route. Did I mention that Israel and Palestine are full of barriers – real tangible walls like the Separation Wall – and intangible walls – fear and prejudice. On the road, I ask our guide to explain the permit system again; seven days here, I still can’t keep it straight. Israeli Palestinians have Israeli citizenship; and like all Israelis, cannot travel in the West Bank, Zones A and B. (Except the 450,000 settlers who live in the West Bank, they travel around, but on settler only streets). So, Palestinians in Israel cannot visit their family members in the West Bank. East Jerusalem Palestinians need a permit to get into West Bank; but West Bank Palestinians cannot come into Jerusalem or Israel except with a permit, and authorities only rarely give permits. Still not sure I understand it; except the system seems designed to limit Palestinians in as many ways as possible. Maybe I am getting it?
Morning at the Wi’am Center. Once again, I am in awe, in a land that has been under Occupation for decades, we meet men and women who still talk about hope. The Center is an inspiration – we hear how the Center is working to teach conflict resolution skills, to offer classes and community support for children suffering from the trauma of living under Israeli occupation, to offer training to women. Our host talks about how mediation here is different than in other places. The occupation and the incredible barriers used to try to destroy Palestinian communities may stem from a political motivation –but the economic effects have devastating consequences for the family and community structures.
We head out to Manger Square for a tour of the Church of the Nativity and a visit to the Peace Center. Bethlehem isn’t the only town in the West Bank where Christian and Muslims live and work together – but certainly it’s the most well known. Again and again, we see Palestinian Christians and Muslims sharing community. The relatively peaceful co-existence in the Palestinian towns is a stark contrast to the settlements that have spread out over many mountain tops, in which Israeli settlers live in isolated communities. Time and time again, I hear Palestinians say “we can live together, and have been doing so for hundreds of years” and ask “why can’t they (Israelis)?”
Later, we are walking through Dheisheh Refugee camp. By now, the Nakba story is familiar – but hearing it from the Palestinians in the camp is heartbreaking. “We were forced out of our homes often by force. We thought we would go back in a few days, or weeks. Sixty years, and for us there is no right to return.” Suheir, our host’s wife, was born in the camp, and has lived there all her life, now her children also have grown up in the camp. Later, we meet her mother-in-law Fatma who was forced out of her home in 1948. She relays her story of Nakba: “We saw what was happening in a village close by and we took the keys to our homes and left. We thought it would only be for a short time until things returned to normal.” Suheir and Naji describe life in the camp, the horrific period in 2002 when the camp was under curfew for 45 days. Fatma tells us how important the right of return is to her, even now, she says she would live without anything if she was given the chance to go back to her village.
I keep asking myself, how can we have three generations of refugees – and no real solution in sight? How can you live at Dheisheh, in the shadows of a large (and illegal) settlement and just a short distance from the homes and villages you were forced to leave, and maintain hope?
Much of what I had learned about Israel and Palestine was distorted by a false view that Israel was right and that Palestinians were wrong. But, Israeli children were not told about the Nakba until recently; we heard somewhat conflicting stories, but even teaching about the Green Line is new. The US, and other members of the international community, have all said that the settlements are wrong, illegal. Still, while Israel was talking “peace” it was steadily building up the settlements in the West Bank. The Separation Wall seems to be more about taking land from the West Bank and less about security. Much of the nonviolent protests by Palestinians and the international community has been and is being met with brutal and unrelenting force. And, I have been overwhelmed by the hospitality and kindness I have received in Jerusalem and in the West Bank. “It is complicated,” is the refrain I hear from Palestinians, from Israelis.
As I head off to bed – across the street from the refugee camp – I replay the anger and frustrations of the Palestinians we have heard in these past few days and am amazed that they find some way to hold on to hope – that the world will see what has happened to them and that they are not a forgotten people. I am in awe of the courage and resilience I see at every turn. I am no less in awe of the Israelis we have met who have spoken out about the human rights abuses we have seen with courage. It cannot be easy to speak out against the home demolitions, the Separation Wall, the military protection for the illegal settlements; but there are many who do. It takes courage to be on the front line – and be willing to speak out and perhaps be arrested for helping Palestinians secure access to their lands, but Rabbi Ascherman assures us he can and has. I hear the New Profile member’s challenge “There is more than one Israeli voice – one view. Don’t accept what’s happening in Israel without questioning it.”
What an incredible birthday; what an incredible new beginning in understanding the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
“Brief Moments of Entire Lifetimes”
June 2, 2008
Our final stop of today was the Dheisheh refugee camp. This was a truly powerful experience. We were met with a tight-knit community that receives what few services it does from the UN and provides the rest itself on a volunteer basis. The community leaders we met are secular, political, socialist, and can easily navigate between anger at their constant state of dispossession to humbling warmth and hospitality. We were given harrowing firsthand accounts of Israeli occupation, brutality and insensitivity. We even heard from a survivor of the Nakba.
In fact, we were talked to so much that I felt brief moments of panic, as though the Occupation had descended upon me as some sort of immaterial weight, and I felt something like claustrophobia. I needed to get up and leave, see a different room from the one in which we spent a total of some three hours being lectured about refugees' suffering. I needed a different message, any message. I resisted this feeling, and these moments passed quickly when I focused on the speaker's humanity and individuality even within this massive stream of experiences of the occupied. On some level, perhaps, I saw a glimpse of what life under the Occupation is like. I cannot imagine what it means for my brief moments to stretch out across entire lifetimes. On the other hand, I felt more like I was in a world where problems can be solved instead of normalized into constant fatalistic struggle when I was able to access the human behind the refugee. I do not think they would claim to be anything more than human, they just want to make sure we Americans know their stories since we never hear about them in the US.
The real tragedy of the Occupation is less the suffering alone and more that this suffering is imposed on human beings - who smile warmly, yell at their sons, tease their spouses and mothers, weep discreetly about the frustrations of the day. In other words, the Occupation and the Refugee crisis as political issues are something I can engage upon on an intellectual level and for which I can try to think of solutions and imagine my role in them. But when I see a human refugee, suffering in his or her own unique way from the Occupation, but also maintaining a humanity independent of the Occupation, then I can relate to and identify with the problem, and use this as my motivation for any role I might play in a solution.
We heard from no less than six speakers today, and to some degree it is difficult to differentiate between them. As I already mentioned, the constant and often repetitive discourse of suffering under the Occupation merged into a sometimes overwhelming stream but a few common themes emerged. First of all, every single person we talked to insisted that their vision for the region would be a single democratic state for all its people. All at some point or another emphasized that Jews would be welcome in this state, and some went on to say that the enemy was Zionism and colonialism, not Judaism. They all assured us that the resistance would end if the Occupation were to end and these other conditions met. Maybe this is true, or maybe, as I'm sure some might say, they were just telling us what we wanted to hear. But at some point, after hearing this from Palestinian after Palestinian, it becomes increasingly difficult to declare them all liars in order to justify a paranoid xenophobic conviction that everyone's out to kill us, to which we seem to have become all too attached.
It's hard for me to think of us in this delegation as a resource to these disenfranchised Palestinians, and I feel extremely self conscious about using any of their resources. But they host us so well. Our stay at the Phoenix Center in Dheisheh was evidence that they have accommodations specifically for this kind of delegation. Hopefully we can live up to the hospitality we receive from the destitute, and give back to them by giving them a voice in a world that is not listening.
A longer version of Yotam’s piece was originally posted here.
“Mother of God”
They beat my children, she cries,
Fire in her eyes, her voice throwing sparks.
I don’t see any moment in my life
I can’t breathe good.
She’s breathing fire.
I spend three hours, waiting in the sun,
At checkpoints; huge dogs, baring teeth,
Sniff me up and down, my children,
I am a human being, she says
And she says it again, I am a human being.
Can you imagine my children’s problems?
I am a refugee. All I think about.
It is no life.
She walks on shards of glass
Through unlit alleys –
And her children too.
I need a safe place for my children.
Why does Herod still rage
After Mary’s children
June 2, Dheisheh Refugee Camp, near Bethlehem in Palestine
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