<  Report One:  Long Days Of Travel And First Impressions Of Bethlehem >

Olive Harvest Delegation to Palestine/Israel
October 31, 2013

Report Overview

Because of weather problems in Europe, the delegation was delayed in beginning and the group had to split up and take several flights. Delegate John J. below talks about heavy questioning in Paris. Two other pieces from delegates who arrived early talk about first impressions of the occupation and reasons for hope.

The remainder of the pieces highlight the full group's first day in Bethlehem. The group was inadvertently tear-gassed on arrival in Aida Refugee Camp; Guillermo M.-S. and Ariel G. detail this experience. Carolyn Karcher provides a full overview of the day's meetings -- with emphasis on issues ranging from refugee rights to sustainable agriculture to child detainees. Finally, Jared R. finds the presence of God in an unexpected place.


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Paris Questioning
By John J.

Our flight to Tel Aviv was delayed by weather problems.  Rescheduled flights split our delegation between two airlines with one group flying on Israel’s El Al from the transfer point in Paris.  Security was extremely tight and we were closely questioned as to the nature of our group, how well we knew each other, where we were visiting, why we were going at this particular time, what we would be doing, etc. 

After intense questioning, most of us were taken a significant distance from the terminal to a security hut.  There our luggage was examined and scanned in detail.  My clothing was all taken out and each article unfolded and inspected.  Toiletries and other articles were also looked over. 

Finally, with only five minutes until takeoff, we were rushed back to the terminal. As we descended the jetway, we passed five heavily armed Israeli soldiers while an armored police vehicle sat below.  As we entered the aircraft we were greeted with “Shalom.”

Getting to Bethlehem - A Foretaste of the Occupation

By Carolyn K.

My husband, myself and one of our tour leaders landed prior to the main group of delegates.  Therefore, we had to get to our hotel in Bethlehem on our own.  No Israeli taxi could take us there.  We had to be dropped off at the Jaffa gate, where we picked up a Palestinian taxi.  When we got near Bethlehem, he had to make a detour through Beit Jala because he wouldn't have been allowed through the checkpoint on the most direct route to Bethlehem.

We met a Palestinian shopkeeper who had won a scholarship to George Mason University but was not allowed by the Israelis to leave - now he's a shopkeeper invoking god's justice.  We walked to the wall.  It turned a flourishing commercial street into a ghost town. The wall is unimaginably huge, towering over all buildings, topped by wire fencing, guarded with watch towers reminiscent of concentration camps.  Of the many graffiti, one stood out:  “THIS is the wailing wall.”

Reasons for Hope

By Carolyn C. and Will T.

Having arrived a day before the other delegates, IFPB participants Carolyn Cicciu, Gail Burnaford, and Will Thomas had the opportunity to connect with people they knew from previous visits in the Jerusalem area.

"Be the change you want to see in the world." This Gandhi quote certainly inspired Milad Vosgueritchian to pursue his life's work. He, with his wife, Manar, created the Palestinian non-profit and non-political NGO, the Vision Association for Culture and Arts (VACA). The Center provides tutoring and classes in choral and instrumental music, folklore, drama, handicrafts, arts, calligraphy, gardening, and all aspects of technology.

As a Palestinian-Armenian Christian living in Bethany, Milad traveled each day to the Old City of Jerusalem. He had to pass through an Israeli military checkpoint. In order to reach his job at a hotel on time each day, he had to leave his home by 4 am. His permit required that he return to Bethany by 10 pm. Milad experienced severe frustration and anxiety, not knowing if the checkpoint would be closed or if he would be held up by Israeli military. He commented as he was describing this daily challenge, "I was feeling out-of-control anger. I knew I needed to make a change in my life."

Knowing that other Palestinians, including children, were experiencing the same frustration with the occupation, Milad and Manar decided to offer inspiration through empowerment that their "House of Hope" provides. Through a generous grant from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan and other donor groups, VACA was born.  VACA employs local teachers, artisans, musicians, and other staff. This helps to address the high rate of unemployment among Palestinians. It raises the self-esteem of youth who are developing their talents. It helps preserve all aspects of Palestinian culture. One other important feature of Milad's philosophy is that many opportunities are offered to students with special needs.

Witnessing this young Palestinian couple's vision and energy gives one hope for the future as well as demonstrating that any person, no matter his or her hardships, can make a positive difference.

Another example is the Palestinian activist Mazin Qumsiyeh of Beit Sahour. Since returning from teaching at Yale and other universities in the US, Mazin has been a tireless activist for justice and for ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Mazin is the epitome of Palestinian hospitality. Quite serendipitously, we found him working on an article in his office at Bethlehem University. He invited us to his home for dinner and later to attend his talk with a group of activists from Massachusetts.

He spoke eloquently and poignantly about the daily humiliations and injustices Palestinians experience while living under occupation. One example is Israel's confiscation of the nearby aquifers and control of the water distribution; Palestinians can go as much as three weeks without water access. He challenges the Israeli narrative with historical truths.

Like Gandhi, and like Milad and Manar, Mazin too believes in using non-violent active civil resistance to overcome such oppression. 

Israeli Fruit

By Guillermo M.-S.

A literary technique used by many shows is to open up with a shocker that keeps the viewer hooked. So, here is my shocker: 

I was descending from the larger-than-life-tour-bus-that-holds-55-photo snapping-tourists when I saw about 3 Palestinian boys aged 10 or so playing in the street. Life in the West Bank was unfolding before me as I saw the boys yell in Arabic and throw stones at each other. They quickly picked up their stones and ran uphill toward the soldiers that were standing at the top of the hill. I saw one boy pick a fruit off the nearby tree and he threw it at the soldiers. His companions then threw their rocks. The fruit and the rocks all fell short from their intended target by easily 75 feet. 

One soldier, dressed in full riot gear, lowered his safety shield and began walking down the hill toward us. The boys picked up more rocks and threw them at the soldier. The boys threw rocks and fruit at the soldier, the soldier returned the favor, but his fruit was decidedly not edible.

We first heard the pop of the gun and I stood still - slightly bewildered. Within seconds the tear gas became visible and began to spread.  “THEY SHOT AT US!” Someone said, and we began to run.

When I say, "us" I need to clarify: The boys were the target but we, the delegation, were just an inconvenience. 

In this give-and-take between the boys and the soldiers we got a taste of the Israeli fruit. Imagine sticking your face into a bonfire and inhaling deeply. Welcome to Bethlehem!  

Hours later, I was still processing what happened and I think it will never make sense. I don't know that I want it to. 

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Crimes Against Humanity

By Ariel G.

We were the unintended recipients of a tear gas attack today. The tear gas was fired at children, little children. I think they were around the age of 6 years old. We were walking into the Lajee Center, a center that focuses its work on the children of Aida Refugee Camp, near Bethlehem, providing them with playgrounds and educational programming.

There were Palestinian children in front of the center and Israeli soldiers in the distance in front of the Separation Wall. The children began to throw rocks – rubble, really. My impression was not that they were attempting to assault the soldiers. They were too far away to even try to reach the soldiers. It seemed a young one’s expression of resistance as a political statement; a kind of art.

Suddenly we heard a loud noise and a tear gas canister landed at our feet, smoke pouring from it. Our guide ushered us into the building. The tear gas burned our throats and eyes.

The gas hurt me far less than the comprehension that Israel commits crimes against humanity.  Our talk inside the refugee building included the information that Israel holds the bodies of Palestinian political prisons after their deaths so that their bones can complete their sentence. Wives, sisters, mothers wait 20 years until the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) finally gives them the bones of their loved one in a paper bag.

Day 1 Recap: Refugees, Sustainable Agriculture, and Child Detainees
By Carolyn K.

Today was overwhelming.  First an illuminating presentation by the Badil, Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, which partners with an Israeli group called Zochrot to combat the ongoing nakba (displacement and dispossession of Palestinians) and to work toward implementing the right of return. 

In speaking of the 1948 Nakba, the speaker said that Plan Dalet was the 13th plan of ethnic cleansing the Israeli leadership considered - illustrating that the methods used to evict and drive out the Palestinians had been planned and were not ad hoc.

Next, we visited Aida Refugee Camp.  Several Palestinian prisoners had just been released, and the camp was celebrating.  Israeli soldiers watched from a distance as little boys threw stones.  Our group was standing by and going into the building where our host, Mohammed, was to speak to us.  Suddenly the soldiers shot tear gas, and half of our group got gassed, though apparently the target was the little boys, or perhaps also the foreigners who sympathized with them. 

Inside Mohammed told us that when Palestinians died in prison the Israelis would bury their bodies until the end of their sentences, returning the dug up bones to the families as long as ten or twenty years later (or whenever the sentence had finished).

From there we went to visit an experimental farm, Bustan Qaraaqa, that works on sustainable management of land, water, and the environment.  Our host told us that 70% of Israel's water supply comes from the Golan Heights, 30 % from the West Bank. Israel's own aquifer has long been contaminated with sewage and salination.  That is why Israel takes water from the territories it occupies and sells it back to them at a high price.  Harvesting rain water is forbidden.

When we came home we heard a lecture by Defense of Children International, Save the Children, and the YMCA on child detainees.  Children as young as 12 are arrested in the street and often in their homes in the middle of the night, where they are torn shrieking from their parents.  They can be held in solitary confinement to frighten them into "confessing" as soon as possible.  Their parents are not allowed to be present at their interrogations, and the children are not informed of their rights. When they are sentenced, their parents are not allowed to visit for three months. Families must pay for the cost of imprisonment and for decent food, and the term of imprisonment is extended when parents can't pay.  The YMCA representative described the counseling programs the Y offers to help the children and their families cope with the trauma.  They have helped 900 children in three years for average imprisonment terms of five and a half months, often without charges.  This last is only one example of the commitment, dignity, and resourcefulness with which the Palestinians meet the dehumanizing conditions the Israelis impose on them.

The Presence of God

By Jared R.

Like most others in our group I went to the Church of The Nativity to feel the presence of God. The sounds, sights, and fragrances used were beautiful. I said a prayer of thanks and one for guidance. Still I did not feel anything special.

Later that day we went to lunch at a café right by the wall that separates Bethlehem and Jerusalem. We walked up towards the main military checkpoint into Bethlehem. It was not busy.  In fact I only saw three people use it: two women and a cute little girl with curly hair and a pink backpack. She could not have been any older than ten. The three of them stepped into those cold metal bars like livestock. It was so hard to see the little girl so dehumanized.

Back on the bus I sat thinking what if this was my niece?  How would I be able to live like this everyday if I was forced too?  I then saw on my right someone had placed on the wall a smiley face and the words smile and laugh.

It was here I felt the presence of God. Trapped in the concrete. Crying and bleeding.  The only way to free him is to dismantle the wall.


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