< Report Two: Willing Ourselves to See New Realities >
Reports from IFPB's 36th Delegation (May 21 - June 3,2011):
Delegation 36 Announcement
Report 1: The Journey Begins
Report 2: Willing Ourselves to See
Report 3: Continuing Struggle
Report 4: Like No Other Place
Summer 2011 Delegates in Action
We invite delegation participants to comment on and react to the experiences they have during our Israel/Palestine delegations in written Trip Reports.
Individual delegates contribute pieces to these reports. As such, reports are not comprehensive accounts of every meeting or experience, but impressions of those things that most impact individuals. Trip reports to not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Peace-Builders, trip leaders, or delegation partner organizations. We hope you enjoy reading and we encourage you to share these reports with others.
Coming late to the group from my semester abroad, I was a bit behind on the plans and itinerary of the delegation. When I left the hotel on Tuesday, I had no idea that we would be walking through the old city of Jerusalem, down the long the path of the Via Dolorosa, and seeing women from around the world touching the slab of marble on which Jesus’ body was prepared for the tomb. I am a religion major and was churched until I was sixteen, but now am atheist. Still the reverence that resonates in the old city—whether echoing off the stonewalls of the Christian and Muslim quarters surrounding the Holy Sepulcher, folded and stuffed between the gaps on the Wailing Wall, or glistening off of the golden dome of al-Aqsa Mosque sitting atop of the Dome of the Rock—is something that surprisingly held me in awe. I constantly felt like a privileged guest at the sites, observing some of the greatest displays of religious conviction in the world beneath the camouflage of my makeshift headscarf. At the same time, I constantly felt welcomed and embraced by the Old City, my limited Arabic and dark complexion getting me through in the Muslim quarter and (frankly) my western appearance and privilege and ethnically ambiguous looks helping me feel at-ease in the more developed Jewish quarter.
Amidst the stops to the different religious sites in the Old City—considered to be private properties of the religious communities who maintain them—our guide, Said, pointed out the Israeli settlements folded into the landscape. In the Old City, they are fairly well integrated into the cityscape—mind the fences and barbed wire that exist to “protect” them. If you were a general tourist in the region, it would be easy to miss them. In fact as we stopped to take pictures of the settlements and the large Israeli flags waving from their roofs, and to talk about the amount of resources that settlements take (both in raw resources like water and institutional resources like 24-hour security forces), several tour groups shuffled past us, this particular site clearly not on their tour route.
It reminded me that people will themselves to see particular things. Opposing sides in serious conflict often choose to operate from a selective narrative of the past, which then frames a selective vision of the present and future. But I think that often, we as activists also choose to view the conflict from a particular standpoint and refuse to budge. Yes, I am for the equal rights of the Palestinian people. I have heard countless of stories about things like brutal police harassment, displaced peoples living in squalor, and some of the utter feelings of hopelessness in foreign refugee camps. And yes, I did come here to try to see those things for myself. But as a “pro-Palestinian activist,” those should not be the things that grab my attention or surprise me; those should not be the only sites on my tour. In the last couple of days, the things that have fascinated me, confused me, or even made my stomach churn have not been explicit examples of (what I view as) the obvious plight of the Palestinian people. Rather, they have been new pieces of information about the complexity of ethnic identity within the region and the conflict; about the amazingly successful strategy of the Israeli regime not only in terms of its dismantling of Palestinian communities but its heavy handed ideological control of its own citizens; about the suburban peacefulness of life inside of Israeli settlements; about the use of religion and religious spaces as bartering chips in geopolitical games; about gendered dialogue regarding the conflict and its players. Though my reflections can’t possibly hope to cover the tremendous scope of the things I will see and learn here, I hope that my eyes and my mind can be open, inquisitive, and critical in regards to all of them. I came here to actively learn about the conflict—how can I do that if I am not being constantly surprised by it and surprised by myself in the midst of it?
This is a picture of a young boy sitting on a rooftop patio, offering a friendly and excited wave from behind the barred gate. This was not only one of the most beautiful pictures, but also one of the saddest. Here was a picture that summarized my day as we passed through warm and welcoming communities that were slowly being suffocated by social, physical, and psychological bars. Will we be able reach beyond the bars and embrace and fight for that common humanity, or will we connect only through these brief and fading pictures snatched in the moment? From my experience so far, the latter seems far from unimaginable. It is impossible in the face of this reality and in possession of these empty, trembling and outreached hands.
We were welcomed at the Holy Land Hotel in East Jerusalem where the food is tasty and healthy. Authentic and simple. True Palestinian hospitality, despite their limited resources, compared to the touristy hotels in Jerusalem where most Americans stay.
Our first full day included a talk and tour with one of the premier Israeli Peace Groups, the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions (www.icahd.org). I saw that the Separation Wall, snaking in zig-zag fashion across Palestinian lands, had been extended from my visit last year and now stopped commerce and travel on the highway to Jericho. Our guide was a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces. He told me that the long-standing Israeli policy of planned destruction of Palestinian homes – usually without compensation – is continuing unabated as part of a master plan to claim as much land as possible while discussing a “peaceful” solution. I felt uncomfortable when he pointed out that other countries are part of this injustice, including the US, since we fund over 3 billion dollars of aid yearly.
We met with a representative from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions who told our delegation about the "separation barrier" (the 30 foot-high walls that Israel began building in 2003 to prohibit Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel). And yet the ICAHD representative, himself a former Israeli Defense Force soldier, told us that only 65% of the Wall had been constructed so far.
While no suicide bombers have struck Israel since 2004, our guide commented that each day between 10,000 and 40,000 Palestinians go from the West Bank to Israel (crossing the Wall) to find work, as there are precious few jobs available. So does the Wall prevent or stop suicide bombers? Based on what the ICAHD staffer told us apparently not, as any of these "undocumented" Palestinian workers could in theory be a so-called "terrorist" demonstrating the vulnerabilities of the Wall. I would suggest that readers who desire more information check out the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions’ website.
Reflections on occupation in Palestine
Scattered debris, dirt, trash in piles . . .
Sacred water in rooftop tanks -
(Can it last for a month?)
Shabby roads and pocked sidewalks -
winding and narrow . . .
Stones - crumbling - deserted Palestinian homes in ruins . . .
Settler house situated atop Arab
markets in Old Jerusalem - barbed
wire, Israeli flags flown from
balconies . . .
An offer of grape leaves . . .
A stone hurled at our bus . . .
But still I sense HOPE!
Sami Awad, Director of Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, is a sensitive, loving and wise young man. We met with him today in his Bethlehem office, with the large and growing Israeli settlement, Har Homa, as a back drop. Sami described his personal journey to the realization that nonviolent resistance is the only means to achieve mutual respect, understanding, equity, and coexistence among the victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and this includes every Palestinian and Israeli). He described the need for Palestinians to truly acknowledge the enormous wounding and pain that the Holocaust has inflicted upon the Jewish people, and the healing that needs to occur to allow them to move beyond fear to reconciliation.
I was suddenly struck by the beauty of nonviolent resistance. It seeks to draw attention to the oppression and violence of the occupation through peaceful actions that do not inflict pain, threaten, or in any manner open the wounds of the past. It simply calls for justice, and the same time, reminds Israelis that the Palestinians remain steadfast - rooted in their land.
We have now had two full days, mostly spent in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. These days included things that a typical tourist in this area might experience, like seeing various holy sites, sampling fresh orange juice on the side of the street (amazing by the way!), buying souvenirs at a local shop. But it also included many things most tourists would not experience. We had meetings with several organizations, including The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and the +972 Bloggers, to name a few. We saw an Israeli settlement, a Palestinian slum, and went through the necessary checkpoint to enter Bethlehem (an occupied city in the West Bank surrounded by the wall). Of course I knew going into this trip that I would experience a huge range of feelings, but there was no way to prepare for or predict exactly how overwhelmed I have felt at times. I guess that's why it's been so hard to find the right words for this blog.
Where can I possibly start? The first time I felt truly sad on this trip was when we first drove through a Palestinian area in East Jerusalem, which was very clearly struggling. This place was, by the way, almost right next to an Israeli settlement, which had all the appearances of a wealthy suburb in California. When we drove through the impoverished area, a smiling family picking grapes held out their hands and offered us some, a child threw a rock at our bus, and another child gave us what we learned is the Palestinian equivalent of giving the finger. Well, that didn't really make me feel too good. I already feel extremely uncomfortable and guilty viewing these things from the comfort and safety of a bus, and I'm sure to all those viewing us from the outside we appear as wealthy white American tourists, who are just passing through. Anger from children who do not understand our intentions is much more understandable to me than the family smiling and offering grapes.
*I must note that this incident was the only time I ever felt any anger towards me from a Palestinian person. The people I have met here (restaurant owners, guides, storekeepers) have been overwhelmingly welcoming, generous, and friendly. A friend of mine from New York commented that these people are in many ways so much friendlier and hospitable than your typical New Yorker. I full heartedly agree.
Shortly after this experience I had my first sighting of the wall. I knew this would be a sad moment. I had seen pictures of the wall before. It is rare that I call anything ugly, but that wall is the most hideous creation I have ever laid eyes on. All I can really say is that as we drove past I felt sadness coming from the core of myself. That's the only way I can describe it. And that was still experienced within comfortable shell of the bus. I have no idea how it will be to stand next to the wall and touch it, which I am sure we will do at some point.
All that being said, I have also experienced feelings of incomprehension, shock, awe (both at beautiful things and at horrifying things), inner peace, joy, and hope. These feelings, when experienced in rapid succession all in one day, have caused me to feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and confused.
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