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Identities in Conflict Zones

May 27-30: Jerusalem, Sderot, & Deheisheh


Thursday, May 27: Identity

Today, the morning started with a call home…as it does most mornings. While I’m so thankful for this wonderful experience being in Palestine/Israel; I must confess that I miss home. I miss my wife, sons, and extended family members the most. There’s nothing in particular that I miss as it is the rhythm of life that I have become accustomed to which involves their presence. In so many ways, I know who I am because of them. Dr. Naim Akbar would describe this as a part of the African World View: There is no “me” without “we.” My family provides for me a sense of identity.

And if there was a theme to this past Thursday, “identity” would be it. We started the day with a tour of two very important sites for Jews and Muslims: the Wailing Wall (which is part of the remains of the Second Temple built by Herod the Great) and Haram al-Sharif (where the Dome of the Rock – a very holy place for Followers of Islam) can be found. These two very holy sites which mean so much to these two passionate people groups are almost side by side. It is amazing looking at the Wailing Wall which Jews are praying toward and then look up and see the golden dome where Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammad ascended to the heavens with the angel, Gabriel. Though I’m not Jewish or Muslim, I felt a deep and abiding spirit of reverence while at these locations. I decided to wear my Ghanaian garb and it brought with it a few questions from the Muslim elders. I greeted them in Arabic and with my brown skin and traditional attire it made them pause and either invite me into the mosque for prayer or ask where I was from.

I could not enter the mosque for prayer (only Muslims are allowed into the al-Aqsa mosque), but the two Palestinian women who are a part of our delegation did accept the offer to enter for prayer. Already being two very proud Palestinians, I’ve seen them be edified even more so by walking the ground of their ancestral homeland. Being “home” truly does make a difference.

Which is part of the reason that I wanted to come on this trip. I wanted to learn more about the land, the peoples, and the conflict here that involves approximately 4.5 million Palestinian refugees who just want to return home to their land and to their lives.

That’s a side of the “Middle East” conflict that Americans are not allowed to see by our media. When we see Palestinians in American news they are most times one-dimensional characters. They are stone-throwing, angry, irrational, terrorists who hate “our” way of life and don’t want peace. They are never portrayed as people living under the harsh boot of the Israeli Government’s occupation. They are never portrayed as people who at the end of the day just want to go back home. I’m going to continue hearing the un-filtered stories of Palestinians and Israelis while here and look forward to sharing my experiences in fuller detail with you when I get home…(I also look forward to throwing my television out of the window!)

- Heber Brown


Thursday, May 27: Circularity

This evening we met with four university students.  They began on a defensive note, saying that we simply were not listening enough to their side, and that our tour was stacked toward their opponents.  Then they said things that our well-read group knew were in error, and so they were challenged and things became quite heated.  At dinner, things cooled down, and I was able to spend a great deal of time with one of the more vocal students.  I see their thinking as a cult of fear, where once one falls into its circular path of connected dots, one cannot see outside to the reality that makes it false. The fear is too great, and the only way to defend against the fear is to stay within that little circular fortress of connections.  In that sense, it is like the cult of fear that led the U.S. to invade Iraq.  No amount of evidence could convince the believers that it did not make sense. Even after its failure they cannot climb out.

In the midst of asking the student a question, I said “it seems like a line has been drawn, and the policy is to get as many Palestinians onto the other side of that line before anything is finally decided” and he interrupted the question by interjecting “but of course”.  So I stopped the original question and asked “why of course”.  I don’t really remember how he backpedaled out of that, but it was clear that this was as completely sensible to him.  We must be rid of Palestinians, because we must be Jewish, only Jewish, because if we are not Jewish, the holocaust will come again.

A number of speakers have described how Israeli society is a Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome society, and that may be true.  But they don’t enter the world of reality saying “I am wounded, a patient, please heal me”.  Instead, they indulge their fears and trauma. But we do them no good by indulging.  How to heal them I don’t know, because I don’t know how to reach them in their circularity.

- anonymous


Friday May 28: Nothing Stays the Same

- Marsha Carlton


Friday, May 28: Refusing Hatred

Sderot feels like Europe…  clean, calm, beautiful…. Nomika Zion is a very empathic speaker.  She talked about how lonely it is to be a voice for compassion and justice in Sderot today.  She says it used to be friendly towards Gaza:  people visiting friends there, farmers bringing their produce to market here, etc.  But with the fence around Gaza came increasing extremism and hate against Gazans. Other Voice started as a response to these extremist voices, as a refusal toward hatred.  Because of the wall, they would hold “meetings” by phone between the voices for peace and justice in Sderot and those in Gaza.  Even this was a risk as they were each seen as “traitors” on their side of the wall…. In a town of perhaps 20,000 people, Other Voice only has about 15-20 core members.  But, when they organize a peaceful event (such as a creative and colorful demonstration by the Gaza fence), they can get up to 100 people to turn out.  And their petition to renew the cease-fire and find a peaceful solution to the conflict drew 2,000 signatures.

- Jason Bechtel


Saturday, May 29: Sorting Things Out

These past few days I have had so many thoughts and views in my mind it was overwhelmed with information. Now that I’m starting to sort things out, I feel more able to write down my thoughts.

We’ve been talking to Israelis and Palestinians alike but the most powerful and striking meeting to me was speaking to a woman named Suheir in Deheisheh refugee camp. Even though I am of Palestinian descent and I have family in Palestine, I can’t really identify with the refugee problem in Palestine. I can’t imagine living my life trying to survive as a refugee in my own country. Suheir talked about how they live day-to-day waiting for their right to return to their villages that still exist but aren’t occupied because the Israelis forced them out in 1948.

Suheir told us the people in Deheisheh wait and wait, generation after generation to go back to the fertile villages they came from.

 What she was saying made me wonder a lot about the Israelis who took over their land until I found out that the settlement that took over Suheir’s village was empty and no Israelis occupied it. It made me so angry to think that these people had to leave their homes and livelihood just so a vacant settlement could be built. It’s heartbreaking.

The most touching part of the meeting was when Suheir’s mother-in-law spoke to us about the Nakba during 1948 and how when she was a teenager she and her family were thrown out of their homes without knowing where they are going or coming back. She told us she thought they would return to their homes after two weeks and now she’s in her 80s and still waiting for her right to return.

- Danya Mustafa


Sunday, May 30: Opportunity

I am continually struck by the stark contrast between the reality on the ground here and the narrative we hear in the United States (and mainstream Israeli society) about the conflict.  This delegation is a behind-the-scenes tour of what Israel does not want us to see or hear because we learn about history directly from the Palestinians who have lived it.  Their voices have effectively been silenced by Israel’s erasure of Palestinian land and identity, the overwhelming influence of media coverage, and dismissal of Palestinian resistance to occupation and deportation as “terrorism.”

We have an opportunity here to ensure that history does not repeat itself, and we are failing to seize it.  Time and again I am reminded of the US policies toward Native Americans in the 19th century of deportation, massacre, destruction of villages, and negation of identity.  Almost everywhere we go in Israel we see the remains of destroyed Palestinian villages.  It’s like a ghost town, or a ghost culture that is sometimes gradually and sometimes quickly being usurped by the settlements and by Israel’s denial of the deportations and massacres of 1948, which I have heard about directly from survivors themselves.   

In Jerusalem, we saw a kind of municipal takeover of Palestinian land and systematic regime of house demolition, followed by the erection of Israeli settlements and denial that there ever were Palestinians living there to begin with.  There is a pervasive air of contempt behind Israel’s segregation policies toward the Palestinians, which is ironic, since most Israelis are immigrants from Europe and other continents whereas Palestinians have been here for generations and in some instances even have paperwork from the Ottoman Empire documenting their rightful ownership of the land.

- Diana Galbraith



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