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.