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Making Room in Your Heart for the Other
By Allie Perry

A majority of the residents of Sderot, an Israeli community within close rocket range of the northeastern border of the Gaza Strip, moved their families away during Israel's Operation Cast Lead attack against Gaza in the first weeks of 2009.  But not Nomika Zion.  She not only chose to stay.  She chose to speak her truth, denouncing Israel's attack and declaring publicly that this war was not in her name nor for her security.  Hers was not a popular opinion.  But as Nomika said to us, "I am ready to pay the price of social isolation.  I am not ready to pay the price of fear."

Nomika is not a fearful woman.  As we visited, guests in her home, I was deeply moved by her courage and commitment.  Nomika has lived in Sderot for 25 years.  Having grown up in a classic kibbutz, she helped to found Sderot as an urban kibbutz, a new model for social life.  The past ten years have been traumatizing for this "very special community.”   Qassam rockets fired from Gaza have become almost a daily diet.  She estimated that in ten years over 7,000 have besieged Sderot and the region.  People live on edge, not knowing when a next attack will come, living on high alert, scurrying to shelters when the sirens blare.   Every home has a safe room.  But for an inordinately thick and metal door, I might have thought that Nomika's was only a study.

Nomika described to us how over the ten years Sderot residents became more and more desperate, hopeless, and traumatized.  The cycle of revenge and violence, she decided, had to end.  Refusing to see the residents of Gaza as enemies, Nomika sought out other like-minded residents.  They began to meet and gave birth in January 2008 to the organization Other Voice.  Other Voice has reached out to residents in Gaza, to hear one other's pain, to share stories, and "to open channels of human communication."

When it became obvious in November 2008 that the cease-fire between Israel and Gaza was breaking down, Other Voice wrote Ehud Barak, minister of defense, begging him to find a nonviolent way and inviting him to come to Sderot.  A deputy of the minister of defense agreed to come, but cancelled at the last minute.  Four days later Israel launched the Gaza War.

This was, Nomika told us "the most difficult and traumatic time in my life."   She saw that war was a "disaster" for Israel and for the Israeli soldiers.  She was horrified at the ways that so many of her fellow Israelis were glorifying war, applauding the bombing of Gaza as "the best show in town."  She felt committed to the people of Gaza who she had been befriending, and she felt committed to Other Voice.  And so in an article, "War Diary From Sderot," Nomika went public and opposed the war, knowing that she would risk being seen as a traitor.  "I don't have another way."

"The greatest human challenge," Nomika said to us, "is to make room in your heart for the other." Nomika has been meeting that challenge, and through her work and witness she left me thinking a lot about how I in my life am or am not meeting that challenge.  Hers is a voice, an other voice of courage, empathy, and peace.

Olive Harvest Festival and Home Stay
By Melinda Tuhus

We drove to Jenin, in the northern West Bank, for an Olive Harvest Festival which is organized every year by the Canaan Fair Trade Company based there. We stopped on the outskirts of Nablus, the biggest city in the West Bank, for lunch. I wasn’t really hungry but decided to get a falafel with all the trimmings – it cost less than $1!  When we arrived an hour later at the Palestine Farmers’ Cooperative, there were a dozen tasting trays set out with all kinds of delicacies – three kinds of olive oil and pita, almonds, couscous, pasta and sun-dried tomatoes – unfortunately I was not hungry and couldn’t touch a bite. We got a fascinating tour of the olive press facility from the manager, Ahmed Al Fahra, including how they categorize their oil, and I learned that to be graded extra-virgin, the olives must be hand-picked (not with rakes), loaded into special containers (not big nylon bags) and brought in immediately (not two or three days later).  All the products in the co-op are certified organic and fair trade, and compete with the best of what other countries offer in the world marketplace.

Dinner was served at 4:30, and again I wasn’t hungry, but the food was so appealing – pita soaked in olive oil, sautéed onions, sumac (a local spice) and roasted almonds, with a big hunk of chicken in the middle – that I ate anyway (minus the chicken). There was live music consisting of a flute and drums and a singer (who was deafeningly loud), and a lot of men began dancing (joined by most of the men in our group). The women never had a chance to dance.

I interviewed a farmer, who, through a translator, told me  he was better off selling his olives to the co-op, and that he appreciated the scholarships (to ten students a year for four years at a Palestinian university) offered to farmers’ children. I also spoke to one young woman who told me she’s an administrative assistant at the co-op, and said proudly, “This is my company.”

Then we divided into three groups and were driven to our respective overnight stays with local families. Ours was with an olive farmer and his wife and seven children, mostly teenagers plus an adorable six-year-old. Three of the males smoked constantly – that was pretty awful. But we had some interesting conversation. Samar, the mother, asked each of us our religion. When Andy said he was Jewish, she laughed and said, “What are you doing in my home?” But I guess that was a joke, because she went on to emphasize how Jews and Muslims are cousins. We all gave them small gifts, and she gave each of us a bar of home-made olive oil soap. They told us how they experience the oppression of being confined in the West Bank – they can’t go to Jerusalem, have never seen the Mediterranean, and she was treated once in Jordan for kidney stones but they came back and she can’t afford to go there again for treatment and can’t get treatment where she lives.

It was really sweet that, while the two oldest daughters quickly departed, all four boys hung out with us for a couple of hours, and one of them, Khalid, served us tea, then coffee, then sparkling water. They took us upstairs to sleep on cushions, three women in one room and three men in an adjoining room. The bathroom had a tub and a pit toilet (which you squat over, then pour water down the hole), which was different but fine – kind of like peeing in the woods.


Guests of a Palestinian Farming Family

By Wayne Arnason

Last night we and another couple stayed together in the home of a Palestinian family in the village of ‘Anin, just outside the Palestinian town of Jenin, in the northern West Bank. This is a unique opportunity that traveling with an IFPB delegation offers, one that not many people from the West ever have and that almost no Israelis have experienced recently because, since 2000,  they have been forbidden from traveling in the Occupied Territories.

The family we stayed with was headed by an olive farmer named Hawer. He and his wife, whose name was hard to get, but we think was Khadina, have ten children. We saw eight of them in the house, and interacted with all but the oldest girl who was not introduced to us. The oldest two were away at school.

As a younger man, Hawer had served in the Palestinian Security Forces and was on Yassar Arafat's personal security detail. Our impression was that he had returned to his village and was farming and raising his family since the end of the 90's, before the second intifada began in 2000.

One of the results of the security matrix of control that Israel has implemented since then has been that the security fence built with the road to a nearby Israeli settlement has cut off Hawer's access to his family's olive trees. The Israelis won't give him a permit to cross the fence to care for and harvest his trees, because of his military history. He is able to continue to farm olives because the Canaan Fair Trade Cooperative's Tree of Life Program has purchased and planted new trees for him to cultivate outside the security zone.

Hawer's family has been in ‘Anin in this house since 1972 when his father began to build it - we weren't certain how much time prior to that. The legendary hospitality of the Palestinians did not surprise us. We were warmly welcomed, and the living and dining rooms on the main floor of the house were converted into private bedrooms for us. The family slept on the upper floors. We had translation from a friend in the neighborhood, an engineer who had studied in Paris and spoke both English and French. In the morning, when no translation was available, we got by with typed conversation on Google's translation program on the iPad. (The kids were fascinated by the Photo Booth program on the iPad, by the way.)

When we talked politics, we found that Hawer and his wife didn't always express the same opinions. They are not fans of the current Palestinian Authority President Abbas, but support the two-state solution.

The most powerful thing about our visit was our encounter with the children, and particularly the sixteen year old boy who hung in for all the conversation and was proficient with the iPad. We wondered about his future, and whether his obvious potential will be locked into his village and culture or whether he will have any other choices available to him. Palestine's average age is young, and there are young men in the streets everywhere, we presume with limited employment prospects. It doesn't surprise us that their frustration is something that the Israelis are very worried about.


A Destroyed Palestinian Village

By Kathleen Rolenz

Our travels today inside Israel included first a visit to an "unrecognized village" which contained some 1,000 Palestinians in the shadow of a large Israeli Jewish town.  Then we visited to Al-Birwa, the ancestral home of the great Palestinian poet Mamoud Darwish which is now nothing but ruins, stones and graves. In the field beyond the ruins was a cattle lot belonging to an Israeli kibbutz, the stench of dung and cattle permeating the air. The Palestinian village of about 300 homes was completely destroyed in 1948.  Now much of the former village land is the site of an Israeli industrial park. Never before have I been in such a desolate place. To make matters worse, we walked amidst the graves of the Palestinian people who had been buried there, and came across bones that may have been disturbed when Israeli bulldozers cleared the village.   

It reminded me of the famous passage from Ezekiel, called "in the Valley of Dry Bones."  In that passage, the prophet Ezekiel is brought to a valley where there is nothing but rubble, ruin and bones.  "Can these bones live?" he asks. "Prophesy to the bones," he is commanded.  He does, and the bones reassemble themselves and then are enfleshed and made whole.

The irony of this scene is that the Valley of Dry Bones is a metaphor for the restoration of Israel. It's a scene and a story that gives hope to a people who have been oppressed, had their homes and lands destroyed, and driven from their home land.  In this desolate place, a place that once held a mosque and a church, where perhaps the bones of the great Palestinian poet Darwish's ancestors may have been laid to rest, there was nothing but dirt, stones, dung, and bones.

Perhaps it is best to close with Darwish's own words:

My friends are always preparing a farewell feast for me
A soothing grave in the shade of oak trees
A marble epitaph of time
And I always anticipate them at the funeral
Who then has died...who?


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