Seeing, Imagining -- And Building a Sense of Hope
July 29 through August 3, 2010
Interfaith Peace-Builders 34th delegation concluded Friday, August 6th. The main group of delegation participants has safely returned home over the weekend. Below, and likely in another report to follow are reflections from the last few days of the delegation.
Imagine a Train
Imagine a train that runs from Beirut to Cairo. In between it passes through three bustling cities on the Mediterranean. Thriving cities surrounded by fertile fields and orchards. Ancient cities that have survived many conquerors. Cities where Christians, Muslims and Jews live together. These cities are called Haifa, Jaffa, and Gaza.
This isn't an imaginary train trip. During the British Mandate of Palestine you could take this trip on the Beirut-Cairo Railway.
Now Haifa has been ethnically cleansed. The city is still there but 90% of its indigenous population was forced out in 1948. Jaffa is crumbling, being swallowed up block by block by Tel Aviv's hideous sprawl, its residents scattered, its mosques turned into trendy restaurants and art galleries. Gaza is battered, besieged and starving. Beirut hasn't exactly gotten off easy either. The borders that cut through the route this train used to take are some of the hardest in the world.
Visiting Jaffa, the heart of historic Palestine, the strongest thing I feel is an incredible sense of loss. "People from all over the Middle East used to come to Jaffa to work," says our tour guide. "Now Palestinians have become cheap labor all over the Arab world." He describes how the Palestinians who refused to flee Jaffa after the Nakba were sealed into the Ajami neighborhood, surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers with dogs, while their land, sometimes only minutes away by foot, was confiscated by the new Israeli state.
It's not so easy to think of something edifying and inspiring to extract from such painful history. But this is why history is important: because if we can remember that rail line, we can imagine how it could be rebuilt, not by imperialists but by us, in a world with open borders. We can imagine how those cities could come alive again in a free Palestine.
The Erez checkpoint is eerily quiet. This is in contrast to the Qalandia checkpoint, where we stood in line for the better part of an hour, to walk through from Ramallah to Jerusalem. At Qalandia hundreds of people were around mostly waiting in lines on foot or in vehicles. It was noisy, crowded, and darkly claustrophobic as we stood in a steel cage waiting to pass through security.
Erez is the main crossing into the Gaza Strip from the north, along the coastal plain. The Erez crossing is far enough away from the cooling breezes of the Mediterranean Sea to be scorching hot, dry, and dusty.
The checkpoint crossing stands alone among towers of security devices and layers of electric fence, razor wire and concrete walls. This is not a big tourist spot. Ours was the only bus. One small Palestinian family was huddled in the shade of the checkpoint booth presumably waiting for someone to come out or for passage in. The only other people were about eight Arab cab drivers hopefully waiting for someone to come along needing a ride so they could have wages for the day. There was no one else.
Way, way back behind the barriers live the 1 ½ million Palestinian people of the Gaza Strip. They cannot be seen or heard from the outside. We cannot go in, they cannot come out. It appears to be a maximum security prison.
I write tonight as the lights in Gaza go out. There is no longer enough fuel to run the power plant which provided electricity for up to 2/3 of the Gaza Strip’s 1.5 million residents. The plant has been struggling for years. One of Israel’s favorite targets in its campaign of collective punishment, the plant is repeatedly bombed. Since 2006, an international blockade of the Strip has made it nearly impossible to bring in spare parts. As a result, even before the fuel ran out this weekend, there was not enough electricity to go around and many residents suffered prolonged black outs.
On Friday, we held a video conference with staff and youth leaders from the American Friends Service Committee in the Gaza Strip. Unable to reach Gaza, our group went there virtually. The two young women who work as volunteer youth coordinators in
Gaza shared aspects of their work and their hopes for the future.
The two of them, each in their early 20’s, were perhaps the most articulate people we met on the whole 2 weeks. They spoke plainly, with passion, and with an incredible strength. At last, when our delegation asked them what we could do, they had only one simple request.
They asked us to take their words back to our communities in the United States, and to let everybody know that the people in Gaza do not like violence. That instead they are peace-loving people who are asking to be treated just as everyone else and to have the same rights as everyone else, including the right to live free of the crippling blockade and the suffocating occupation.
Their strength inspires me and, more importantly, lets me know that no matter what they face, the people of Gaza will always survive. It was a proper end to our journey. These voices from Gaza, so clear and so potent, remind us that the human spirit can overcome any oppression.
|Amal Nasser at the Tent of Nations/ Daher's Vineyard leads song in one of her family's caves. See post below, "The Human Spirit Will Triumph" for more on her family and their farm.|
|A brief clip from a Kuffieyeh factory in Hebron.|
The Human Spirit Will Triumph
We were on the road for 4 days and nights, but we packed so much in that short time, it feels like I’ve been here for 3-4 weeks!
On Friday the 30th, we started out with a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum,
after which we traveled to West Jerusalem, where we attended a “Women in Black” vigil. There I had the chance to interview a young, religious Zionist who attended to counter-demonstrate (I’ll post the video on my blog.). That night I had the chance to stay with an Orthodox Jewish family, attended Shabbat services, and had an incredible Shabbat meal with their family. Their daughter had just finished her service in the military and was on a vacation with a friend.
On Saturday the 31st, we traveled north into the West Bank, staying in Nablus. We met with several individuals, and the one which made the strongest impression was a visit with Defense for Children International.
On Sunday August 1st, we spent time in Balata refugee camp, the largest refugee camp in the West Bank with some 25,000 people located in 1 square kilometer. We then traveled south to Bethlehem where I had a total documentary filmmaker’s fantasy of meeting with an incredible individual in an incredibly beautiful place with an incredibly inspiring story. The individual was David (Daoud) Nassar, a Christian Palestinian, whose family has owned Daher’s Vineyard for generations. That night we stayed with a Christian Palestinian family just outside Bethlehem in the village of Beit Sahour.
The next day we traveled to Hebron where we met with a representative of a Jewish settlement in Beit Hadassa. We toured the old city of Hebron, visited the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs, then stayed the night with a Palestinian family where we watched F-16′s doing some interesting maneuvers, saw a rocket launched, though we’re not sure at what or by whom. It was a little bizarre as we couldn’t tell exactly what was happening, it was disconcerting to see. As the family had grape vines and fruit trees, the next morning I ventured out and picked some fresh figs and plums for breakfast – so delicious!! We returned to Jerusalem, stopping at a couple of places where I bought some gifts for family and friends. Spent a little down time in the old city when we got back, and ate some delicious dates and amazing baklava.
Today, we spent time in Tel Aviv/Jaffa, and I was able to get a few interviews with some women who are doing some inspired work.
Given everything we saw over the last few days, I think the one major thing that constantly reveals itself is the effect on everyday people of the ongoing conflict. Rich and poor, Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, adults and children, women and men, soldiers and civilians. I think since 1948, there have been 12 wars. It’s impossible for me to get my head around that. In Israel, the individuals with whom we’ve met are courageous but living with a lot of anxiety. In the West Bank, daily conflicts between Palestinians, Jewish settlers, and soldiers bring out a lot of really terrible stuff. I found it amazing that the representative from the settlement with whom we met seemed to be in a state of terrible agitation and anxiety. He spoke of feeling secure and strong, with “nerves of platinum,” wearing a handgun and having more than 1000 soldiers in the area to provide security for the settlers. However, he came across as everything but confident in the security of the situation. I was surprised that the Palestinians with whom we spent a couple of nights spoke of how difficult life was – curfews, hours spent in check points, being detained, arrested, and so forth – but they came across as confident and secure in both the possibility of positive change and their ability to be a part of that change.
I spoke of this before – none of the Palestinians with whom we’ve met have had any issues with the existence of the state of Israel or its right to protect itself. They have no problem with Jews or the Jewish faith – the problem is with the continued military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the terrible consequences it continues to have in so many facets of everyday life. And to repeat another point from before, my heart also goes out to the Israeli soldiers and police who live daily with this conflict, and the stress, fear, and violence in which they’re constantly involved.
I’ll end with this last thought – the other thing I have seen from everyday people here is the triumph of the human spirit. It is a flame that cannot be extinguished. Throughout history, it has prevailed, overcome. It continues to burn brightly here, and that gives me much hope.
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