Sderot and the Olive Harvest Festival in Jenin
Complicated, Simple, Difficult
One of the words we have heard most often, especially from Israelis, is “complicated.”
On November 13, we went to Sderot during what we believed would be a peaceful time. Little did we know that the cease fire that militants in the neighboring Gaza Strip had held for five months had been broken the night before we arrived. Rockets had fallen on Sderot in response to Israel’s killing four people in Gaza. No Israelis were injured.
Sderot is an Israeli city on the border with Gaza, and has been a target of rockets coming over the wall from Hamas and other Palestinian armed resistance organizations. Life under occupation in Gaza has been particularly difficult, and Israel often kills civilians in the attempt to kill armed fighters. In response, Hamas and others will fire poorly-made rockets at Sderot — usually during the middle of the night — which rarely hit their target. However over the past five years, 15 Israelis have been killed from these missiles according to the Foreign Ministry of Israel. According to the Israeli Human rights Organization, B’Tselem, a total of 1,062 Israelis (including 335 Israeli soldiers) and 4,876 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict since the second Intifada began in 2000.
We learned of the news as we were approaching the Erez checkpoint, the primary crossing into Israel for Palestinian workers before it was sealed off at the beginning of the second Intifada. It was a bit unnerving to be there knowing that the conflict might be heating up again, but we called ahead to our hosts and we determined that we would be safe to visit.
In Sderot, we met with residents who were clearly traumatized by years of living with the constant threat of missile attacks. Before June 2008, more than 200 missiles sometimes landed in a single month. We were told that many of the homes and all of the bus stations had bomb shelters and that generally, if there was any notice, they have 10 - 15 seconds to get to the safety of a shelter. And as we sat there, we suddenly heard screaming Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) jets above. Everyone, including the Sderot residents, tensed. We were told that this was the IDF flexing their military muscles over Gaza in response to Hamas’ own response to the Israeli attack. We felt better, knowing that we were not in danger, but then we realized that it probably meant that innocent people in Gaza would suffer. We tensed again. Complicated.
We heard from Eric Yellin, one Sderot resident who has made efforts to reach out to Palestinians in the West Bank and especially in Gaza; he explained that while the suffering in Gaza was worse, the symptoms of trauma were similar. Chen Abrahams of the Gvanim Association for Education and Community Involvement, explained that 60% of residents there would leave if they could afford to leave. She herself was torn between trying to provide a safe place for her nine-year-old son to grow up and not being able to afford taking care of her aging father.
While the situation in Israel and Palestine is indeed complicated, the answers are simple — but not easy. As Jeff Halper, of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, put it, Israel has only three options: a two-state solution (Palestine gets the West Bank and Gaza to the 1967 borders), a one-state solution with equal rights for all, or transfer of all the Palestinians to other Arab states. Transfer is not a real option, given international law and human rights concerns. Therefore, Israel must choose between a one-state and a two-state solution; for either to be viable, Israel will have to make significant and difficult concessions. Israelis must choose for themselves, and they must do it quickly. Whatever the choice, there is one simple principle that must be applied — uniform adherence to international law and universal human rights principles.
Most of the Israelis we have talked to believe that Israel will not make the significant concessions it knows it must. In fact, several compared Israel to a child and the U.S. to a father; both Israelis and Palestinians have high hopes that the new Obama administration will have the guts to do what needs to be done, to give Israel some tough love. Jeff Halper also said that the U.S. and international community must do three things to move negotiations forward: they must say that they love Israel, that we will be there to guarantee Israel’s security, and then they must FORCE Israel to come to a mutually agreed upon solution with the Palestinians.
They must also help the Palestinians build the necessary infrastructure to support a viable economy in a democratic society.
As I said; complicated, simple, painful, and not easy.
It’s My Mission
Sderot, November 13th, minutes from the Gaza border. It had been repeatedly bombed by Hamas and cleanup was still in process. Our first stop was the Erez checkpoint, which had been completely closed to all traffics for the last 6 days, nothing and no-one getting in or out. A BBC television crew, waiting for something to happen, taped our arrival! Breaking news!
At Sderot’s Kibbutz Migvan, Nomika Zion, a 21 year veteran of this urban kibbutz, welcomed us, and gave instructions, “we have 15 seconds if a rocket is launched, to walk, not run, to the safe room.” And she pointed. Days ago, Hamas ,after a 5 month quiet period had started lobbing rockets again. But don’t worry, she said, they generally are lobbed at night. Israeli F-16’s buzzed overhead. A few of us winced every-time they buzzed the kibbutz.
Since Hamas took over Gaza, Israel and the US have led a siege and embargo on the Strip and the conditions have deteriorated. Thousands of people, including many refugees, are jobless; 98% of industry has shut down; medicine can’t get in and the sick can’t get out; 56% of the population is food insecure. There is no movement by air, sea or land. In 1948 Gaza was wealthy, the Riveria of Palestine. Today it is in shambles.
Meet Chen Abrahams, Resource Development Director of Gvanim, an association for education and community involvement. Gvanim provides networks and opportunities for residents of the kibbutz to reach their full potential. Chen is lucky she says, she has fridge full of food, a car to take her to a job she loves and a community.
But her 9 year old is afraid to go to the bathroom alone. Still she says, “This is my mission. The fighting between us, Israeli and Palestinian - we are both wrong. Remember if you have kids how you had to pull them apart when they fought? We’re still (here) like kids!”
I asked her what her mission is. She responded with tears in her eyes, “ To show you my life. To tell you of my son. To share we are both wrong and that together we can make it work, and that’s why I do what I do”. Resilience, compassion, the need for human dignity, to put one foot in front of the other and do the right thing. To have a mission and live it. To connect in spite of the Qassam rockets that have taken a friend, a loved one. To reach out even if you are behind a cement fence and trapped and this is your enemy. Nomika and Chen and their neighbors, and thousands of others here, do their work and connect over a blockade and chip away at the conflict. After all, they have a mission.
Over the last few days I have received more information from the many people we have met than is humanly possible to take in. It is hard for me to describe to you the many stories which have influenced and inspired us during this time, and there are so many more which I can’t put into words, yet - or maybe ever - but which have been equally important for me to hear.
One of the reasons why I have been so enthusiastic to take part in the delegation has been the variety of people, places and experiences which it introduces us to. As each day progresses I realize that everyone connected to Israel and Palestine has their own story to tell and view of the situation. I have had to reframe my thinking from a conflict of two sides, to a conflict of many sides and stories - more than I could have possibly imagined. And it feels like quite a responsibility to record them and think about how I can convey them once I get home to everyone who is interested in our work and supported me during this journey.
On Thursday we visited an urban Kibbutz in Sderot, just north of the Gaza Strip. You will probably recognize the name as Sderot is an area which often receives Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip. This week, in response to the rocket attacks, Israel sent in troops and killed four Palestinian combatants.
During our visit we met Eric Yellin, a member of the Kibbutz and a founding member of a local group called ‘Other Voice’ which tries to bring out another voice in their community through trust building processes and building relationships with people on the other side of the Erez check-point, in the Gaza Strip. Part of the work, as Eric described it, is creating a place where people don’t feel alone – both in Sderot and Gaza and creating what he described as “small peaces” (which I assume was a deliberate play on words by Eric).
On Friday we drove up to Jenin and stayed with local olive tree farmers for the night. Our host family were welcoming and keen to talk to us about why we were here and what we were doing. Our hosts had 12 children – 9 daughters and 3 sons, and their oldest son, his wife and 10-month old son also lived in the family home. This family live 800 meters from the wall, which has not only carved up their village but also their land. They described how before the wall they used to visit friends in the nearest Israeli village – a 5 minute drive away. But since the wall they would have to drive via Jerusalem – which would take about 5 hours. They no longer have any contact with their friends in this village.
On Saturday morning the father and son walked us down to their fields – two of which are on their side of the wall, and eight of which are on the other side, and no longer accessible to them. In broken English we heard from the son how for the last four or five years he does not come to their field (which is next to the wall) alone, as he is too afraid. If he goes near the wall Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers will come to talk - or to kill - him. I was starkly aware of how uncomfortable he was being there, and how he took us there, despite this.
I am aware that the more information I have and more people I meet, the harder this conflict is to understand. People’s generosity in sharing their homes, lives and stories with us has been truly awe inspiring, and I just hope can encapsulate some of their passion once I return home.
An extended version of this report appeared on the FoR-UK blog.
Jenin, Jenin is the name of a documentary film that depicts one of the most notorious massacres of the Israeli Defense Forces in 2002 during the second intifada (uprising). They raided the Jenin Refugee camp and reduced it to rubble, killing many citizens, including children. This attack was roundly condemned around the world at the time.
On Friday, we went to Jenin, which is up at the northern end of the West Bank. Our drive in a taxi took us through very stony country and some Palestinian villages. When we arrived at a village near Jenin for our first stop of the day, we found ourselves at the Palestine Fair Trade Association, in a building still under construction, which is a cooperative of at least 800 olive tree farmers, who collectively produce some of the finest and purest olive oil in the world, which now, thanks to this organization, is available in quite a few countries.
The coordinator of this organization, Nasser Abu Farha, gave an inspiring speech and took us on a tour of this facility. We were treated to the workings of an extremely sophisticated olive press - it's much more complicated than you would think. All in all, this was a very impressive example of the way Palestinians work together to create economic opportunities for their people.
Following the tour, we wound up outside on a rocky hill where, along with many others, who had assembled for the Olive Harvest Festival that evening, we were served lunch -- great bread, which we had seen made in an outdoor hearth earlier, chicken and veggies, which was delicious.
Eventually, during the course of our meal, some young Palestinian men gathered and started to dance -- male dancing is big here -- and eventually many of us joined them in a large circle and danced like crazy. It was great fun. This is a young country -- 56% of the people are 18 or younger -- and there is a lot of élan here.
Once we left the festival, four of us were taken to another village to stay with a Palestinian family. The family consisted of the father - a very handsome man in his forties, who is a builder and who had built his large and attractive home -- his wife, and his five boys, ranging in age from about 10 to 19 or 20. These are the children who live at home, but they also have a married daughter and a son in college in Algeria, studying to be a doctor. Unfortunately no one is this family had any English, but after about an hour we were rescued by a nephew of the father, a young very handsome man in his late twenties named Mohammed.
Mohammed, who is not married and lives with his own family, teaches at a nearby boy's school. He has not received a salary for the past three years! This is not unusual. The economy for Palestinians is a ruin. Would you like to know the unemployment rate in the area around Jenin? Guess....
It's about 75%! There are no jobs because of the Israeli occupation, which does everything it can to squeeze the Palestinians and force them to leave the country, so the economy is a Israeli-created disaster for these long-suffering people. The father, for example, has had no work at all for the last two years.
Yet, they don't complain. They are cheerful and good humored, and they share everything they have. They will not be defeated. Still, it was shocking to hear this news and to learn how they have to cope.
Their village is very close to the Israel border. Of course, you know there is an apartheid wall that separates Israel from the West Bank, and a portion of this wall also divides this family from its fields of olive trees, some of which are no longer accessible to them except for very limited and arbitrary periods. But this is not the worst thing.
Mohammed has a very large extended family. Many members of this family live a mere ten minute walk from his nearby house. But it may take him a day to reach them.. The wall is now in between him and the rest of his family.
So if he wants to see them, he has to travel down to Jerusalem to the south, and then make an almost complete loop back up north. But because Palestinians are often delayed at the various check points and road blocks along the way (that we could pass through easily, for the most part), he never knows how long this visit will take. It may take a full day, and then he has to return, of course. When you consider that he has had no income for the last three years, even the expense, much less the time involved, has made these trips almost impossible. So Mohammed can no longer see this segment of his family, who live only ten minutes from his house.
Because of the wall, there are many Mohammeds in Palestine. Mohammed, opening up his hands, looked at me and said plaintively: "Why do they do this to us? We are a peaceful people, we only want to live, harvest our crops and raise our families." We both knew the answer, however -- they Israelis want their land and want them to leave.
The next morning, we walked with Mohammed and his uncle down through the olive grove fields they own, which are on their still accessible land on the way to the school where Mohammed teaches. The trees in the field were planted in the years not long after their family's expulsion from their traditional village in 1948 (some olive trees are hundreds of years old, however.) It was a very poignant experience for me walking through these fields with these men.
When we reached the school, we could see the electrified fence not far away - the barrier that separates Mohammed from his family. There is a nearby road on this side of the fence, perhaps 20 yards from where we were standing. We could not go on this road. If we did, we could be shot by an Israeli sentry. If a child at the school, during play, should forget and run onto this road, he similarly would be in danger.
We all stood in silence looking at this fence. I was seeing it here for the first time. Mohammed has had to look at it virtually every day for the last five years.
You can imagine my feelings while standing there.
But could anyone imagine Mohammed's?
An extended version of this report appeared on Ken Ring's blog.
Of Culture and the Olives
Our stay in Jenin was wonderful. We attended the Olive Harvest Festival on Friday night. It was loud! And it was an incredible snapshot of Palestinian culture. There must have been 200 people there. We were treated as guests and given front row seats with other dignitaries.
The festival is organized by the Palestine Fair Trade Association and their marketing cooperative, Canaan Fair Trade. They have helped the olive producers of Jenin develop and market their olive oil. They also offer scholarships to the young people of the Jenin area so they can go to university.
Culturally, this festival was such an eye-opening experience. When the music began, men took the floor to dance. Soon almost all of the men at the festival were dancing. They held hands dancing in a circle and moving their feet in complex steps and kicks. It was that way all evening. They danced with incredible energy and whoops of joy. When they were not dancing they sat in each other's laps close to the dance floor. It was absolutely amazing! The women sat with their children and did not participate. Later, in our Palestinian home, we asked the mother if she ever had the chance to dance. She said, "Oh yes, we dance. I danced at my son's wedding and sometimes we dance at home."
Our home stay with a Palestinian family was wonderful. I will admit that I was anxious about it. We were already so tired when we got there and they wanted to offer us coffee and tea. They clearly wanted to talk.
The home was on two levels. The son and his wife and baby lived on the ground floor and his mother, father and 2 (maybe three) children lived upstairs. The oldest woman (the mother of the son on the first floor where we stayed) had 12 children! She was lovely. The room we stayed in had mats (like futons) on the floor and we slept there.
The next morning we walked with the father out to his olive trees. The wall of division between Israel and Palestine was prominent with a large tower and cameras directed up and down the wall. The son said we cannot even touch the wall or the Israelis will come. I asked what they would do if they came. He said, "They will either talk to you or kill you." Whether it was true or not the perception was real in his mind. The olive grove was split by the wall and the father said that he could only get to his land on the other side occasionally.
This is the way it is in Palestine. Land, homes and personal belongings are subject to Israeli possession at all times. In Jenin the Israeli soldiers come into the city at night and go to a house and call the residents out of the house. The kind of fear that this random harassment breeds is a dark force in the Palestinian people.
While at Sulieman's house one of the teenage sons asked if he could henna our hands. Henna is a brown/orange pigment that stains skin for about 10 days. Brides are adorned by henna on their hands and arms in beautiful designs.
It is more orange today as the pigment has soaked into my skin. I love looking at it and being reminded of my Palestinian friends.
This piece originally appeared on Martha Honaker's blog.
Resistance – Persistence – Resilience
The Palestinian people of the Jenin region are a strong and resilient people. They have suffered a massacre in 2002 and the current high-tech Israeli occupation, which is destroying the inner structure of their society. We were told that until a year ago, Israeli tanks were entering Jenin on a regular basis in the middle of the night, cruising through the streets, blaring horns and sirens, and creating a generation of children suffering from trauma. Yet through all this, the people are slowly rebuilding their community, step by step. As our host's daughter Maha said, " We have gone back to our land, "ardna"; we are "fellah", peasants now. We produced and grow everything at home, to be independent."
Canaan Fair Trade and the Palestinian Fair Trade Association have put teeth into the concept of economic development. Over 1000 farmers are part of the cooperative and bring their harvest to be pressed by a state of the art processing system. Canaan Fair Trade is only three years old, but under the leadership of Dr. Nasser Abu Farha , it has had a major effect of the farmers of the Jenin and Ramallah regions.
The olive harvest and festival, which we witnessed during the past two days, is a testament to the resistance and persistence of a much persecuted, but hopeful people. After the hard work of the harvest, a thousand or more farmers and their families came together to celebrate with songs and traditional dances. The excitement of the evening touched us all as the men of the community danced the traditional debke dance and invited members of the delegation to join in. Midway through the evening, scholarships were awarded to ten high school graduates, seven of whom were women. The night was electric with joy!
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