Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Day of Contrasts

After breakfast this (Sunday) morning, I left Jenin with three Sabeel colleagues from Boston for Zababdeh and the liturgy at St. Matthew's Anglican Church. Following Fadi Diab at St. Matthew's, Abuna Rahmoun and his wife, Mira (now nine months pregnant), have been in Zababdeh about three years. As before, the pews are full and the number of young people impressive. Nael (Rahmoun) told me there were 50 in the Sunday School and 14 in the junior high group. The liturgy was lovely, and Abuna and the congregation welcomed us warmly. Following the liturgy, we joined them for an olive harvest festival of their own featuring fresh virgin olive oil from Zababdeh farms.

What continues to impress me here is the graciousness of the Palestinian people. They are generous, kind and steadfast in the face of systemic oppression. Given any kind of relief from this dreadful occupation, I am convinced they will create a flourishing and peaceful state.

So having enjoyed three days of Palestinian hospitality, we drove from Zababdeh to Tel Aviv, which is where the contrast between the two societies became apparent. From Zababdeh to Nablus to Tappuah Junction, where we turned east on Rt. 5 toward the Mediterranean. I realized we would be passing the Ariel settlement but was totally unprepared for what I saw there. It's enormous, much like a medium-sized town with an industrial park a few kilometers distant. Stretching for many kilometers along a ridge, on land confiscated from the Palestinians, Ariel is green with plantings made possible only by water drawn from West Bank aquifers which Israel claims as its own. As we drove along a major route into Ariel (with its center green strip irrigated the entire distance) we came upon a prominent building named in honor of John Hagee whose funds undoubtedly provided for its construction. And as we turned in for a closer look, we discovered the road to the Center was similarly named. John Hagee and his Christian Zionist followers have been most generous to their Israeli friends.

As the sheer size of Ariel and the thousands of Israelis who live there sank in, I realized again how futile these "peace" negotiations seem to me. A continuing Israeli Ariel smack in the middle of the West Bank makes a Palestinian state damn near impossible. And the political possibility of any Israeli Prime Minister removing those residents seems equally remote. For years Israel has been creating "facts on the ground" as the international community stood mutely by. Continuing talk of a two state solution - at least one which envisions a viable Palestinian state - seems based on a healthy quotient of denial.

Continuing on Rt. 5 from Ariel, we came to an Israeli checkpoint which turned out to be anything but routine. Although we were driving a car with a yellow Israeli license plate, the fact that we spoke no Hebrew, came from the West Bank and were driving a Palestinian rental car made us suspect. Passports now in the hands of the soldiers, we were told to drive "over there," open all the car doors, trunk and hood. "Now take all your luggage out of the car to the building where it will be examined." "Why were you in the West Bank?" "Because we have friends there." "There is a book and a plate in your bag; take it out and show it to me." "Take the lens off your camera." This was a very thorough security check. And of course my bionic hips made the screening machine sound repeatedly. My explanation would not do, nor would a wanding suffice. "Why did you have your hips replaced?" "Because I'm an old guy, and they gave out." "Both of them?" "Yes, both of them." "Show me." "Sure." So there I was displaying my scarred hips and butt to two Israeli soldiers. When we were finally cleared and told to repack our car (they declined our request to help with the bags), I asked if I could take their pictures. To no one's surprise, this request was denied as well.

On reflection, we realized we were not stopped entering or leaving Ariel. If we had meant harm to Israelis, Ariel would surely have been an easy target.

Based on the Israeli assumption that Palestinians in general are a threat, and those in the northern part of the West Bank particularly so, it's reasonable that those who travel among them and then want to enter Israel are given careful scrutiny. Fair enough. What is unreasonable is for Israel to confiscate the Palestinian's land, steal their water (and then sell it back to them an inflated prices), demolish their homes, limit their travel, restrict their economy and then label the entire Palestinian population terrorists and declare the occupation justified on the grounds of "security". The many forms of enforced separation which guarantee that Israelis will never get to know their neighbors feed a paranoia which, finally, will undermine the Israel they are so determined to defend.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Picking Olives with Nabil in Kufr Rai

It may well be more burden than help for Palestinian farmers to welcome internationals to their olive harvest - particularly for short periods - but Nabil Nasser, president of the farmer's cooperative, met us this morning in his village of Kufr Ria to lead us to one of his farms for a morning of olive picking. As it was a weekend, sons and nephews were already at work when we got there. Large black tarps were spread under the tree to catch the olives as they fall. My group of about 8 stayed on the ground stripping olives from the branches we could reach while Nabil's sons climbed into the trees to get the upper branches. Nabil owns about 600 trees and it takes him nearly 50 days to harvest his crop. He explained that diminishing rains and a shorter winter are effecting their harvests. He projects this one to be about 40% of "normal" harvests.

Stripping the branches takes little skill - and is quite satisfying - but negotiating the rocky ground is another matter. The soil is rich, but the hillsides are strewn with rocks, making walking difficult. With six trees harvested by noon, I began feeling we had actually been some help, and Nabil's wife and sister-in-law had prepared a feast for us in the shade of several trees.

When I drove from Jerusalem to Jenin on Thursday, an Israeli soldier at a check point cautioned me to "be very careful" when he learned I was headed for Jenin, suggesting I was entering dangerous territory. Part of the tragedy in this land is the enormous misperception most Israelis carry of Palestinians. Due at least in part to the structured separation Israel has created between the populations, Israelis do not benefit from knowing their Palestinianl neighbors. Whenever we leave our Palestinian hosts, we ask them what they most want us to tell the world. "Tell them we are not terrorists" is their frequent response. Unless there is dramatic change here, it's not likely that poor Israeli soldier at the check point will ever enjoy the laughter, delicious food and good will we enjoyed sitting with Nabil Nasser and his family under those olive trees.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Canaan Fair Trade Company, Burqin, Jenin

"Insisting on Life" is the motto of the Canaan Fair Trade Company in a little village just a few kilometers from Jenin at the northern end of the West Bank. And the Canaan enterprise is an excellent example of that insistence. It is a modern plant where a variety of wonderful products are made from olives harvested from a large cooperative of Palestinian farmers. Canaan was the vision of Nasser Abufarha, a cultural anthropologist, author of the recently-published The Making of a Human Bomb: An Ethnography of Palestinian Resistance (The Culture and Practice of Violence), and brilliant entrepreneur, who launched the enterprise just five years ago. Canaan now ships its products to the US, England, Europe and Japan. Canaan olive oil is found on Whole Foods shelves and is sold through many parish churches. What sets Canaan apart from others is the quality of its products and its commitment to Fair Trade and organic farming practices. As Nasser has written, "Canaan Fair Trade has reinvigorated olive farming in our homeland of Palestine from a losing practice to a profitable economic activity, creating an opportunity for growers to earn a living, invest in their farms, and provide a future for their children."

Canaan throws a big party at its headquarters in Burqin the first Friday in November to celebrate the olive harvest, an event not to be missed if you're in the Middle East. So I rented a car from a Palestinian company (Middle East) and, after getting careful directions for getting out of Jerusalem, headed north yesterday. To say the least, signage on Palestinian roads is scant and maps are minimally helpful. But it's Route 60 all the way (if, at numerous intersections you can figure out which way Rt. 60 goes). A couple detours into Palestinian villages were "interesting" and only provided confirmation of the kindness of the Palestinian people - and I made it to Jenin by mid afternoon. As I drove north, I realized there were fewer and fewer Israeli yellow license plates (Palestinian plates are green) which is when I realized the thoughtfulness of my friend at Middle East car rental. He knew I was driving to Jenin so he pasted Middle East stickers all over my car which, at the time, i thought was just a marketing strategy. His intent was to let Palestinians in this part of the West Bank know that I was (at least potentially) a friend.

As some of the pictures illustrate, the festival was wonderful. It was packed with Palestinians and internationals and lots of children. After sampling delicious products in the sales room and dipping just-baked breads in olive oil, Nasser took a group of us on a tour of the facility. As I sell Canaan's products in my parish, it's a treat to see the olive oil I will be selling this spring in the process of being made. Food, music and conversations followed the tour as several hundred of us sat on bales of hay on the hillside above Canaan's factory. A wonderful day. We rise early tomorrow to drive to the two farms of the president of the farmer's cooperative to pick olives. We'll worship at St. Mathew's in nearby Zababdeh on Sunday.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Kufor Ni'Ameh, a Model Community

I've no doubt Kufor Ni'Ameh has the usual assortment of conflicts and unsolved problems every community has, but it is also a village that is doing a lot right. We came to visit the recently established Seraj Library Project, presently housed in an existing facility, and found it bursting with energy. There were at least 30 children reading at tables when we arrived. Two volunteers oversaw the happy confusion, moving from child to child, helping with words, answering questions, praising the work of each. From another volunteer, a teacher himself and textbook author, we learned that the community began a Children's Club in 1995, including summer camps, reading, tutoring and physical education. And lots of fun. Two volunteers, both highly skilled and delightfully animated, were Club alumni, returning now to give back what they received. The Club had recently instituted a program called "My Father Reads to Me", and this week was the mayor's turn (himself a father of five). We watched as kids gathered around him and he began reading from a book they all seemed to be enjoying. Later, one of the volunteers who had university training but who was also a "natural" teacher led the children through another book, calling individual children up to read one at a time. Since it was all in Arabic, we understood nothing but that these children were loved and having a splendid time learning to read. This was a master teacher at work/play.

Just across the street from the older facility, temporarily housing the library, a new community center is under construction. The library will be located on the first floor in a room bathed in light. There is a large room upstairs for community gatherings, film nights, and other activities. A passageway has been built under the road from the new building to a garden and playground which would be the envy of any American city. I have no idea how the mayor and community leaders found the vision to make this such a child-friendly community, but from the many happy faces we saw, they are clearly succeeding.

The proposal for a Seraj library in Kufor Ni'Ameh came from someone in the PA's Ministry of Planning office where Estephan also works. Because it is centrally located, Kufor Ni'Ameh draws children from ten neighboring villages. And because so much community development has preceded it, the library has taken off like a rocket. What it shows us, though, is that the 3,000 books we have already delivered is nowhere near enough, nor will the 5,000 we plan to deliver be enough either. This library will put all the books we can deliver to good use - as well as a computer, a large screen and the equipment for good quality projection. They have the space, the interest and the organization. All they need is the equipment.

The Seraj Library Project's goal is to create children's libraries in five villages clustered in the Ramallah area. We may well reach that goal within just a few years. Then our task will be to help develop each of these libraries with more books, equipment and, most importantly, the programs which make reading fun. The talented people of Kufor Ni'Ameh have already offered to become consultants for the other libraries.

More Miscellany

More images, stories, experiences - reflecting both hope and despair - that make up the strange collage that is this holy land:

A RESURGENT RAMALLAH As we drove with Estephan from Ramallah to Kufor Ni'Ameh, we talked about development in the northern West Bank. Fellow passengers who had seen Ramallah in 2002 remember seeing cars squashed by Israeli tanks lining the streets. A new auditorium at the Friends School in Ramallah, built with money from the Pilgrims of Ibillin and totally destroyed by an Apache Israeli helicopter gunship during the Intifada, had been rebuilt by 2006. A sign next to the auditorium read, "Built with US Aid." Joan Deming, a friend working with the Pilgrims of Ibillin, commented, "It was destroyed with US Aid and rebuilt with US Aid."

Due apparently to a new approach by the Palestinian Authority, there is measurable improvement in the Palestinian society. Corruption is drastically reduced; drivers stop at stop lights and citizens actually queue up. The windows of new buildings are no longer covered with bars; streets are repaved and garbage is collected. Yet when we drove back to Kalandia, we entered an area designated C by the Israelis, where traffic is congested and chaotic, and where the Israelis will not allow repairs to the roads or Palestinian policeman to manage the traffic. As we crept along beside huge semis, Palestinian children ran alongside, marketing their wares. Estephan knew one and asked if he was going to school. Another child persistently banged on the window as he ran backwards with our car. One slip and he would have been under the wheels of the truck that was no more than a couple feet away.

DAILY TRAUMAS Joan Deming is staying in Bethlehem with Usama from the Wi'am Center. Usama's wife reported an incident that had just occurred. Her sister and husband were taking their four children through the Bethlehem checkpoint for a day in Jerusalem when they were detained in a room for two hours with the weapons of Israeli soldiers in full riot gear pointed at them. When released, they were given no explanation for their detention. Beside the trauma of the experience itself, Palestinians have no way to file a formal complaint for this type of mistreatment. And there are few who do not have a similar story. The tragedy is compounded by the fact that few Israelis have any awareness of what is being done in their name. Or if they do, they do not speak of it. And that may be even worse.

A SOURCE OF ENDURING HOPE Ahmad Al'azzeh is the nonviolence program director at the Holy Land Trust. Ahmad grew up a student leader and activist, organizing fellow high school and university students to resist the occupation. In 2003 he met and began working with the famous Peacemaker, Sis Levin from Birmingham, Alabama. As he learned the philosophy of nonviolence from Dr. Levin, he soon realized they were the principles by which he had always acted. He has now trained thousands of children, young people, activists and teachers in living non-violently and becoming Peace Builders.

Ahmed has paid a price for his activism. He was imprisoned for three months for leading this year's Palm Sunday march through Israeli security into Jerusalem. Israel has made it impossible for him to honor recent requests from Poland and the U.S. to travel for speaking engagements.

Asked by one of our group how to respond at home when Jewish Americans explain the wall as needed for security, Ahmed responded, "Security will not bring peace; peace will bring security."

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Miscellany

It's impossible to traipse around Jerusalem, through check points into nearby Palestinian communities without collecting a miscellany of people, images and experiences that gradually become a collage of impressions of the "Holy Land".

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION I was wandering around hopelessly in Bethlehem this morning trying to find the entrance to the Christmas Lutheran Church of Mitri Raheb and passing it at least once when an attractive Palestinian woman said, "Looking for the church? Follow me." Mitri's sermon exceeded the endurance of this Episcopalian, but the sound of his voice and the Arabic words I find so melodic provided a most satisfying contemplative half hour. During the coffee hour, my just-in-time Palestinian guide identified herself as Amal Nassr, Daoud's sister, at the Tent of Nations. "I recognized you on the street from your visit last March. Good to see you again." I went to Bethlehem to meet Joan Deming, the development director for the Pilgrims of Ibillin who had just met and then introduced me to Dorothy Jean Weaver, a New Testament scholar from Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Virginia who shared her delight at the prospect of having Don Wagner and Mark Braverman as colleagues at EMS. We cemented our friendship over a falafel sandwich and mint lemonade at a nearby restaurant she regularly patronizes.

THE TEDIUM OF CHECKPOINTS I've gone through a lot of checkpoints in my five trips here. Beside their being barbaric, dehumanizing and of questionable use as a security measure, I find them tedious. And, as an American with special privileges, I find them embarrassing. For the second time this week I experienced the Bethlehem checkpoint to get back into Jerusalem. As I moved through the long corridors and the repetitive turnstiles, I got to the place people wait in line, watching for the green light which means a few more may pass through the next-to-last turnstile to x-ray your belongings. Palestinians begin taking off their belts and shoes, emptying their pockets, getting ready to put everything through the machine and they signal to me, "Don't bother. You're American" These are often people who put up with this rigamarole twice a day. And, though my bionic hips set off the alarms, Israeli guards just waved me through. Some security. I am ashamed that the 3+ billion dollars the U.S. ships Israel every year help maintain this system of harassment.

RAYS OF HOPE? So I called my Israeli friend, Gila, to ask her take on things. She and her partner, Judy, had just returned from a week in Cairo where Judy was working. "So, what do you think, Gila? Any chance of a break-through?" Gila is one of those intensely loyal Israelis who is as deeply committed to justice and peace and an end to the occupation as she is to her country. The essence of what Gila said is that because Netanyahu is from the right, because there is an environment favoring peace, he could, if he played his cards right, make a difference. But he's too afraid of losing support, he hasn't the confidence a Sharon had (who pulled out of Gaza - for good or ill - against strong opposition, lost a vote and started a new party), and he's afraid of disappointing his "daddy". If Tzipi Livni were prime minister, could she do it? Sadly, Gila said, in Israel, probably not. Before I leave, I hope to meet with with several young Israelis, not of Gila's persuasion, in Tel Aviv. I'll be interested to hear their take.

I also had lunch with E and Z, two Palestinians who, because of their position and experience, know more of what is going on than most I talk to. After an extended discussion, I concluded they were as cynical as I about the present "negotiations". Within the last couple days they said there had been a giant rally in Gaza featuring the "exterminate Israel" rhetoric. "When hope wanes for justice and peace, the extremists are strengthened; when rays of real hope appear, the extremists are weakened." I suspect some elements of the Israeli right rejoice at such rhetoric; it buttresses their position. What was clear from the conversation, however, is that there is a lot going on that we in the U.S. don't hear about. E commented that a recent statement by the World Bank to the effect that, from their perspective, Palestine is ready - or will soon be - to assume statehood provides significant support for the Palestinian cause. Both observed that the PNA (Palestinian National Authority) has made significant progress in eliminating corruption, strengthening security and building a reliable justice system. AND, they said, with obvious pleasure, that their negotiators were finally becoming as good as the Israelis!

Because this "peace" process, if that is what it is, is so complicated; because there are so many self-defeating human impediments to achieving the justice and peace that will serve both people, we all probably need to dig very deep to discover the hope that will make it possible.

The Khaders of Al-Ram

Fadwa and Suheil Khader are the parents of a bright and talented young Palestinian woman, Mai Khader Kakish, living in the Chicago area and a recent addition to the board of the Seraj Library Project. They live in Al-Ram, a village of about 60,000, which lies just outside the wall beyond the Kalandia checkpoint. With an introduction from Mai, Fadwa and Suheil welcomed me warmly Saturday morning and introduced me to their family (now mostly launched) and the remarkable work they do on behalf of their community. Like so many Palestinians we meet, their story is characterized by a courage and steadfastness (sumoud) that inspires.

Suheil is an official with the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions and the Deputy Mayor of Al-Ram. Before the wall and checkpoints made travel so difficult on the West Bank, Fadwa and Suheil created a string of 12 kindergartens providing quality care for the young children of working mothers. They are now reduced to 2, one of which Suheil took us to visit near their home. It's a well-equipped facility staffed by six women caring for about 35 young children. Suheil is justifiably proud of the Farah Nursery, but must work continuously to find the resources to keep it open.

Just up the street from the nursery Fadwa is the manager of the Sunflower Association for Human and Environment Protection. With her staff she is lobbying for healthier foods for children (who, like many American children, start their day with fast foods), cleaner air, better waste management services and a greener environment.

The Khaders are the kind of Palestinians few Americans know about. And they are not the exception. We continue to meet so many who are helping build a healthy Palestinian society under the most trying conditions of occupation.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Miqbels of Beit Ummar

On Thursday I made my way from Jerusalem south on Route 60 to the Palestinian village of Beit Ummar, just 20 minutes north of Hebron. My dear friend Jamal Miqbel met me warmly and drove me to his home where I was introduced to Jamal and Saddiya's new baby, Ameer, now 1 1/2 months old. Ameer rewarded the multiple sounds we all made (language didn't seem to matter) with lovely smiles and miniature sounds of his own. Friends and admirers of the Miqbels from Chicago and Boston had sent money, a laptop, an I phone and gifts for all the children which it was my privilege to help deliver. No one deserves this kind of support more than this lovely and courageous family.

Jamal and Saddiya's family continues to flourish in a tense and frequently dangerous context. The Israeli settlement next to Beit Ummar is expanding - construction never stopped there during the recent "freeze" - and now Palestinian farmers are prevented from entering their fields by threats and attacks from settler residents. Palestinian land is consistently being appropriated by settlement expansion. Residents in Beit Ummar have responded with weekly demonstrations protesting these violations of their land and their rights. Inevitably, rocks are thrown and the IDF quickly declared the village a military zone, meaning anyone can be arrested at any time. Jamal told us the story of his 15 year old nephew, Ibrahim, who was recently awakened in his bed at home at 2 AM by Israeli soldiers and taken for questioning. While in prison he was severely beaten and had electrodes attached to his genitals with the threat he would "become like his sister" and never marry. Jamal and his brother finally gained Ibrahim's release with a fine of 500 shekels and their signature on an agreement that Ibrahim would be returned for questioning within an hour of notification by the IDF.

I don't know how people like Jamal continue their work creating bridges of awareness and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians while living under such oppression. The T shirt the Miqbel's son, Zain, wore spoke volumes about his and his family's commitment to non-violent resistance: End the Occupation; Stop the Abuse of Detainees; Free the Peacemakers. Their oldest son, Yazan, is studying English and Hebrew in Hebron with the intent of teaching these to his younger sibs. Speaking Hebrew may help save any one of them from abusive treatment by Israeli soldiers.

Finally, a remarkable story about Jamal. Israeli friends who participate in his project invited him to spend a day in Jerusalem. They would take him wherever he wanted to go. To the amazement of his host family, he asked to go to Yad Vashem. He wanted to understand better, he said, the terrible history his friends had experienced.

We should all have such willingness to understand those who mistreat us.

Muhannad's and Ilone's Cuisine

Muhannad's little restaurant sits on a corner behind St. George's Cathedral compound. He and his Russian wife, Ilone, serve delicious and inexpensive food and have become one of my favorite hangouts in Jerusalem. "Moe" welcomed me warmly back to Jerusalem and over the course of several visits told me his story, one common to many Palestinians. Moe's father had sent his younger brother, Rami, to the U.S. after a late night break-in to their home in which IDF soldiers snatched Rami from his bed, beat him in front of his parents and took him for "detainment" until he revealed the names of friends suspected of rock-throwing incidents.

In 1991, when Moe was 17 and schools had been suspended for six months, his father sent him as well to the U.S. to protect him from similar treatment during the Second Intifada. Moe continued his education in the U.S. and remained there until 2008. In 2000 Israel revoked Moe's citizenship on the basis of remaining too long in America. When he applied to the Israeli consulate to have his citizenship reinstated, they took his passport, promised him reinstatement and never contacted him again. Because he had a green card by then, Moe applied for and was granted U.S. citizenship.

Moe's return to Jerusalem, where he was born, was prompted by the need to care for his elderly parents. Moe's other brothers are in the tourist business and not available to provide the daily care his parents now need. (While I was confirming the details of this story, Moe said "I'll be back in 5". He returned about a half hour later explaining he had to get some medicine to his father.) Moe had married in the U.S. and he and his wife have a son, now 7 years old. He is petitioning the courts to have his Identification as a Jerusalem resident reinstated and has engaged an attorney to represent him for a fee of $15,000. He has been told it will likely take 3 years as his petition must be appealed all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court.

Moe told me later he has many Jewish customers who are his friends. All he wants, he says, is a chance to live like a human being, with the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else in this land. He wants to live "side by side" in freedom with his Jewish neighbors. He rejects violence. "The only way we can fight them is with peace."

A footnote to this story: On the morning Moe and his wife first told me this story, he had been driving his wife's parents to catch a 9 AM bus. An Israeli policeman who spoke neither Arabic nor English stopped him for "crossing a line" directly outside his restaurant. He was held for two hours (making it impossible for his parents-in-law to catch their bus) and fined 500 shekels).

Jerusalem via Istanbul and Tel Aviv

This relatively brief visit to Israel/Palestine (October 24 through November 10) will focus on visits to Palestinian and Israeli friends, training centers for non-violent resistance to the occupation and conflict transformation, two of the Seraj children's libraries in Jifna and Kufor Ni'Ameh and will wind up at the Olive Harvest Festival in Jenin. Good advice from fellow travelers directed me to Turkish Airlines which not only delivers more than a skootch of leg room between the rows but great cuisine and the option of a one day stopover in Istanbul. One day in Istanbul is but a teaser for more. I caught a bus from my hotel into the center of the city to visit the magnificent Blue Mosque, enjoy a delicious meal and be invited to purchase any number of elegant carpets.