“That This May Never Happen Again…(to us)” Day 2

March 8, 2009

Our second exposure event was a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. When we arrived we learned that Hilary Clinton had preceded us that morning and there was a lingering ‘buzz’ among the staff. eappiOur group was fortunate to be led by Tamar Avraham, an Orthodox Jewish woman, who led our synod group in Nov. 2007.

Flanking the entrance to the museum are the trees of the Righteous Among the Nations, planted in honor of those non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Tamar explained that the museum is built on levels and that as the narrative of the Holocaust unfolds we would be proceeding underground, a symbol of passing from life to death. The historical narrative ends in the Hall of Names, a repository for the pages of testimony of more than 3 million victims who perished. In the center of the Hall is a pit of water, a resting place for the names they will never know. From the Hall of Names, one exits onto a balcony with a panoramic view of Jerusalem symbolizing new hope. The tour takes about 2 hours and was as powerful for me the second time as it had been the first. I emerged, sickened and drained, but with a prayer that I will never become immune to the horror of it. For if I do, it will mean that I have crossed into a psychological space where I don’t ever want to be.

There were many tour groups that afternoon and I found myself particularly watching a group of young Israeli soldiers-in-training that were moving through alonside us. Some had removed their headphones and were paying no attention at all, laughing, joking and text-messaging; some were openly weeping, both the young men and young women; and others wore hard, angry expressions, whether real or feigned, that were disturbing. These are the young people that will be responsible for the checkpoints in not so many months and I wondered what message they were taking with them.

And once again there was the issue of the ‘parallel universe’ I mentioned earlier. The similarities between the early stages of the Holocaust narrative and the current occupation situation are inescapable…separating out a people as ‘other’, attempting to move them or forcing them to move elsewhere, decreasing economic viability, increasing denial of the most basic human rights, ghettos and walls…the list goes on and on. There is a national post-traumatic stress disorder in play here and it is being incorporated into the very DNA of succeeding generations. It has resulted in the establishment of a military society and the oppressed have now become the oppressors. During our meeting with Bishop Younan earlier that day he said “When I speak out against the occupation I am not only speaking for my own people, I am speaking for the Israelis too. They are destroying themselves from within.” There are no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ here…and no one is winning.


Israeli Exposure Week – Day 1

March 6, 2009

At about the midpoint of our term here, the entire group returns to Jerusalem from our placement sites for what is known as the Israeli Exposure Week. After 5 weeks of living and working in the West Bank, we are given the opportunity to hear a larger sampling of the Israeli viewpoint (some was included in the initial orientation). The 5-week interval is good as it enables us to ask more focused questions based on our experience on the ground. This week is also the traditional time for visits from family and friends from home. They are encouraged to take part in the program and there is time built in for sightseeing and recreation. It has been a delight to meet the significant others of those with whom we work.

Our first exposure event was a visit to the Efram Settlement which overlooks Bethlehem. Our guide was Bob Lang, formerly from the United States, who has lived in the community since 1975. This was a challenging presentation and one which I will continue to process. Mr. Lang has a wealth of experience in education, politics, and community service and is passionate and articulate about the right of Israelis to the land. However, there was a seeming oblivion and/or total disregard for what I am currently calling the ‘parallel (but unequal) universe’ that exits here.

When asked about the relationship between the settlement and the nearby Palestinian villages, he insisted that they were on good terms and shared water resources, electrical grids, etc. However, knowing that the allocation of water can approach 80% to the settlements and 20% to the villages (one of the refugee camps in the area gets water for 2 hours every Tuesday), as well as not uncommon electrical blackouts in the villages, I’m having trouble with the concept of sharing. Similarly, he spoke about the right of any Jewish person anywhere in the world to ‘return to their homeland’ with full citizenship whether or not they had ever lived here before. When questioned about right of return for the Palestinians who did live here and who are guaranteed such under international law, he replied that that would ‘have to be negotiated’. He categorically denied that there is an occupation and rationalized all restrictive policies as necessary because of the threat of terrorism.

This was a good beginning and generated lively conversation and debate during the return trip and the following debriefing. We are consistently reminded by the EAPPI staff that we are to keep an open mind and to learn as much as we can about the entire situation.

The following morning we were all to have meetings with our consulates. However, Scott and I were unable to get an appointment because Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was in Jerusalem following meetings in Egypt and even the lowest level aide was unavailable to meet with us. As it worked out, this allowed us to meet with ELCJHL Bishop Munib Younan before he left for meetings in Lebanon. In his inimitable way, he ministered to us over tea, apricots and figs as we exchanged stories and shared laughter and tears, joys and fears. We left his office with his blessing and thanks for our work, strengthened and restored in body and spirit.

Back to the ‘Real’ World

February 26, 2009

Following our holiday in the Galilee, I returned to another round of cold and rainy weather and an unfolding story in one of ‘our’ villages. khirbet_tanaKhirbet Tana is a village that lies 7 km to the east of Yanoun (we are separated by a mountain). Approximately 300 people live in 30 houses which are widely scattered in this fertile valley which has an excellent water source. The people are primarily shepherds and farmers and have lived there for generations. Large caves in the area also provided refuge for the residents of nearby Beit Furik in 1948 when they were driven out of their homes.

The residents of Khirbet Tana have been in an ongoing struggle to remain on their land since the Israeli occupation began in 1967. current_homesThere was constant harrassment by soldiers, raiding of homes (and remember that no matter how rudimentary these structures may look to us, they are neat and tidy inside and are peoples’ homes with all that that implies), destroying of crops, and a blind eye turned to settler attacks. During our most recent visit, an old man related that in 1983 the Israelis ‘arrested’ all the sheep and the people were told they had to either leave the land or pay a fine of 7 dinars/animal. The people refused to leave and some were able to regain at least a part of their herd.

In 2005, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) returned and placed papers under stones which said that the village would be destroyed. 2005_destruction Subsequently 25 homes and the school were demolished. Strangely enough, the only building spared was the mosque. People were arrested and animals again confiscated. But eventually the people returned and houses were rebuilt with the help of funding from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in France and Italy. The current homes are a mixture of concrete buildings, tents, and corrugated iron roofed dwellings that are attached to caves.

On January 26, 2009 the Israeli high court issued a final decision sanctioning the demolition of the village and expulsion of the entire population on the grounds that the area is needed for military training. Unfortunately, recent history shows that similar expulsions are quickly followed by appropriation of the land for more Israeli settlements. No provisions have been made for relocation of the residents as is supposedly required in this process.

We have been visiting Khirbet Tana every other week since the high court decision. However, on Sunday, Feb. 22nd, two families received orders to appear in court on Mar. 19 as they have been charged with building a house without a permit (one wonders about the logic of this since the entire village is to be demolished anyway!) eviction_noticesAt least five other families received eviction notices giving them 72 hours to move out (the orders were encased in plastic and left under rocks as it was raining heavily). We visited on Tues., spoke with those who had received notices and instructed them to be sure to have a lawyer familiar with Israeli law present when they go to court. In addition we volunteered to either go with them or arrange for another international presence. We also suggested that those that had received eviction notices should remove their belongings to the caves if necessary so that they don’t lose what possessions they have. We obtained copies of all the notices and will see that other agencies are notified. We expressed our sympathy for their situation and said that while we cannot stop what is going to happen, we can stand with them when the bulldozers come, and can tell their story.

These are the times that are so difficult, when we have to return to our house in Yanoun before we weep or throw something. elderly_womanWe can’t break down in front of them when they are so brave and so appreciative of the little we have to offer. One elderly woman held my hand while her husband related the most recent events, alternately stroking my face and my hair, giving thanks to Allah for our being there. This is so hard…but I will leave and return to the comfort of my home in three months while these people have no choice but to continue on as best they can in this madness.

A Brief Respite

February 26, 2009

Each of us gets one day per week off and we are permitted to use them singly or combine them, up to 6 each ‘half term’. Scott and I took advantage of this last week, removed our EA vests, and traveled up into the Galilee for a bit of a holiday. What a treat!

We took a morning bus from the Egged Station in West Jerusalem to Tiberias which is located on the Sea of Galilee. After checking into the fabulous Scots Hotel, we found an outdoor cafe where we ordered “St. Peter’s fish” for lunch. It was a delicious meal, but disconcerting to eat under the watchful eyes of the ubiquitous cats that inhabit this land. Two in particular (scruffy looking things…and I’m a ‘cat person’) literally made eye contact with me and held it while placing tentative paws on the table near my plate!

Tiberias is a tourist town and is presently in its off season with many of the shops closed, but we spent a pleasant afternoon walking along the sea and exploring the town. scots_hotelWe then returned to the hotel for dinner. The contrast between the hotel and our accommodations in Yanoun…real linen, crystal and silver, the variety and presentation of gourmet food in the dining room and every possible amenity in our rooms (including fresh flowers in the bathrooms for heaven’s sake!)…bordered on either the ridiculous or the sublime, and I felt as though I had somehow wandered onto a Hollywood set.

The following morning we made arrangements for touring and rode up along the Sea of Galilee to Tabgha and Capernaum. At Tabgha is the Church of Loaves and Fishes where the feeding of the 5,000 is thought to have taken place. sea_of_galilee3But just a bit further along the coast is the Primacy of Peter Church, and this particular spot along the Sea is my very favorite. I can so clearly picture the calling of the disciples to “lay down [their] nets and become fishers of men”. There were several worship services taking place on the surrounding grounds, some formal and others informal and in many different languages. capernaumThe ruins of the town of Capernaum, home of several of the disciples and the synagogue where Jesus taught on the Sabbath and performed acts of healing, speak to me in the same compelling way. I could remain at either place and meditate for hours.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the Mount of the Beatitudes just as they were closing and had to move on. We then traveled across to Akko, an ancient Palestinian (Canaanite) village on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and spent some time there. On the way back to Tiberias we visited the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The upper church is decorated with mosaics of Mary donated by communities from around the world. The lower church centers on the cave where Mary is believed to have received the news from the angel Gabriel that she would give birth to Jesus.

The weather was perfect throughout and the following morning we returned to our duties, greatly refreshed…and there is now a small jar of fresh wild flowers in our bathroom here in the ‘Yanoun Hotel’!

Addendum to ‘Suffering’

February 19, 2009

As a follow up to the previous remarks on suffering, I realize that I would be remiss if I simply left it at that. People respond to suffering in a variety of ways and I have been privileged to meet a remarkable group of people who have risen above the excruciating pain of their personal losses and now actively promote reconciliation as an alternative to hatred and revenge. I am humbled by them…..and they give me hope.

The Parents Circle-Family Forum is a grassroots organization of bereaved Palestinians and Israelis formed in 1995. Its members (1/2 Palestinian and 1/2 Israeli) have all lost family members due to the violence in this region. They travel throughout the country in pairs, telling their personal stories and describing the point at which they each made the decision to channel their anger into something positive.

I first became acquainted with the group in 2007 during a synod visit to our sister congregations here in the ELCJHL (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land). I heard a second presentation during our training in Jerusalem last month. The Israeli man had lost his 14-year old daughter in a suicide bombing in 1997. As he described his own life which included the joy he and his wife felt upon the birth of this daughter and their delight in watching her grow, only to lose her in a random act of senseless violence, I realized again how much strength it takes for these people to relive their pain with each presentation. He further described the period of intense grief, anger and hatred for ‘the other’ that followed. He said that he is not a religious person and cannot explain the change that eventually took place after attending a meeting of the PCFF. But from that time on he has “again felt a purpose in life” and has dedicated his life to telling anyone who will listen that this vicious cycle of violence, murder, revenge and retaliation produces no winners, only losers. “We the bereaved parents, from the depth of our mutual pain, are saying to you today: Our blood is the same red color, our suffering is identical, and all of us have the exact same bitter tears. So if we, who have paid the highest price possible, can carry on a dialogue, then everyone can.”

The Palestinian man’s story was no less difficult to hear. He also described his family and his life growing up in Hebron. His elderly father was shot down one day, without warning or reason, while walking home from the market with a few items of food in a bag. He said “Each day when you wake up you have to decide what you will do with your anger and your hatred.”

These two men, and the other men and women of the PCFF have decided what they will do. In addition to these presentations, which are done both in this land and overseas, the PCFF has produced a TV drama series, an art exhibition, a weekly radio series, an Internet discussion forum, a telephone hotline (which is in danger of being discontinued because of lack of funding), and a wide range of youth programs. This past year there has been a special emphasis on presentations in Israeli and Palestinian high schools. And as a final note, during the recent devastation of Gaza, Israeli members of PCFF have also donated blood for wounded Palestinians.


February 14, 2009

I thought I knew something about suffering. After all, in my 66 years, I have certainly experienced both pain and suffering…..the death of my beloved father when I was 6 years old and the impact of that event on our little family; the end of a long-term marriage in divorce; watching my Mom’s intellect and personality disappear into the fog that is Alzheimer’s disease; and the usual assortment of injuries/health issues. But in retrospect I realize that though difficult at the time they were episodic. And during those times, as throughout my life, I have also been abundantly blessed with loving family and friends who were there to support me.

Observing life under occupation has added a new dimension to the concept of suffering. For the Palestinians it is the relentless, grinding battle against systemic and systematic attempts at dehumanization. It permeates every aspect of daily life. For the Israelis it is more subtle but I’m convinced that it is just as damaging. You simply can’t deny people their humanity without losing your own in the process.

Israelis have suffered losses of loved ones in the wars and in suicide bombings and their pain is every bit as real as that of the Palestinians in this respect and must be acknowledged. But I think of the young man from the group Breaking The Silence who spoke to us during our training in Jerusalem. (Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran Israeli soldiers founded in 2004 whose purpose is to enlighten ordinary Israelis as to what happens behind the scenes in the name of security.) This slightly built young man sat in a chair in a semi-fetal position, hunched over with his arms crossed in front of his chest, each hand clasping the opposite arm as though he was literally holding himself together. He spoke for an hour and a half, making little to no eye contact with anyone in our group. He told us “The soldiers don’t like you…you remind them of home and you disturb the mindset they have to have to keep doing what they do.”

I think of the young Israeli female soldiers I see at the checkpoints, screaming and cursing at Palestinian men old enough to be their fathers and grandfathers. I think of all of the soldiers at the checkpoints, both male and female, most of whom are so very young and many of whom are clearly frightened because they have been told all of their lives that Palestinians are animals and that every single one is a potential terrorist. They carry automatic weapons and I wonder about the Rules of Engagement and how closely they are adhered to when one is frightened.

I think about our ‘visitors’ in Yanoun yesterday morning. We were preparing for our day trip into Khirbet Tana when the mayor called to say there were a group of settlers in the village. We immediately went out to investigate and discovered what appeared to be a school field trip consisting of a a group of 10 boys and girls in their early teens led by a single armed male adult. The leader did say hello to Peter, then ignored us as he pointed out “how they (the Palestinians) live”. ‘Our’ children were huddled in small groups in doorways, terrified. at_the_wellThe group walked around the house of the artist and his family just below us, peering into their windows, and then moved down to the well which they examined for several minutes. They then moved off, tramping diagonally across the fields, with their fragile first shoots just appearing, to the road leading out of the village. in_the_fieldsTwo of the young people started to walk along the edge of the field to the road but were called quite sharply by the leader and joined in trampling the plants. There was an arrogance to the group that was disturbing and I recalled the song from the musical “South Pacific” which is called “You Have To Be Carefully Taught”. These young people would likely be amused to know that I think they are suffering…but I do.

Being vs Doing

February 10, 2009

Time and time again we have been told that one of the most important aspects of our work here is simply being with the Palestinian people, accompanying them in their daily lives and thus experiencing life under occupation. Each of the six EAPPI placements has its own distinct flavor with varying ratios of ‘being’ and ‘doing’. Here in Yanoun, ‘being’ is clearly our major focus and this has required some adjustments in our Western habits of “to do” lists and in how we measure our accomplishments.

Yanoun is a small Palestinian village consisting of Upper Yanoun with 11 families and Lower Yanoun with 2 families, a total of approximately 40 adults and 60 children. The villagers are interrelated in intricate ways and can mostly be traced back to the same clan. Most are farmers harvesting wheat, chickpeas and hay, and most families have at least a few sheep and goats, as well as olive trees that are harvested every season. There are also almonds and figs, and many villagers have small vegetable plots. There is a school in Upper Yanoun, with 15 pupils in grades 1-6. After grade 6 they go to school in Aqraba, less than a mile away.

Itamar, a large Israeli settlement established in 1984, lies about 6 miles NW of Yanoun on the way to Nablus. Since 1996, Itamar has been building outposts, now numbering seven, that are scattered on the hills around Yanoun. The nearest one, called Gvaot Olam (“Hills of the Universe”), is just behind and slightly above us.

This village has suffered severely from the settler presence in the outposts. A many year period of harassment, came to a head in 2002 when a Palestinian gunman, not related to Yanoun, killed five settlers in Itamar. The settlers then came down to Yanoun, shooting into the air; they burst into homes and beat the men with fists and rifles, and stole, killed or mutilated the sheep. They also burned the generator, polluted the well, and destroyed the water tanks.

Following that attack, all but two elderly men fled to Aqraba. This incident received international attention since it was the first time since 1967 that an entire Palestinian village had been forcibly displaced. In the next few days, Israeli peace groups and foreigners came to Yanoun to establish an international presence so that the villagers would feel secure enough to return. Approximately 100 of the original 300 did return. However, the villagers cannot move freely anymore and most of their land has become inaccessible because of the settlers (sheep are confined to a narrow strip at the bottoms of the hills for grazing for example). They are harassed or shot at when they try to prune their olive trees on the hillsides. They are permitted only a few days in which to harvest their olives and the remainder are taken by the settlers or destroyed. In addition, they cannot build new structures or repair any of the deteriorating infrastructure.

The EAPPI has had contact with Yanoun since 2003, when EAs started to provide occasional cover for the international organizations and to help with the olive harvest. In 2004, the EAPPI took over the formal responsibility of maintaining a constant international presence here.

And so here we are…simply being. While we do have responsibilities for checkpoint monitoring, checking on other villages, much of our time is spent taking part in the daily chores of a
farming community alongside our neighbors. Each EA is required to make a two-day visit to two other placement sites during our three-month stay here and we have already noticed that after one day with us, the ‘city mice’ begin to moan that “there is nothing to do in Yanoun”. We wish them well as we send them back to their bright lights, noise, congestion and pollution (no judgment intended!) and settle back in our chairs outside the International House with a fresh pot of tea.