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."