Sunday, April 26, 2015

With the Art Bus in Hebron

So many happy children! Busy selecting colorful beads from trays, scrambling on the floor of the bus for a few they dropped, stringing them on a plastic cord to make their bracelet, holding them up for the admiration of their teacher.

Many have ambitious visions. Not so many realize their vision. Khitam Edelbi is one, and Palestinian children are the beneficiary. It's taken years of work, but a combination of passion and perseverance, and the loyal support of friend Al Miller, have created the Art Bus.

The idea is simple. To bring joy and fun to young Palestinian children growing up in a time and a place made difficult by the Israeli occupation. To see how the Art Bus works, just click on the link. Pretty cool, huh?

Last Thursday, Khitam and Al picked me up in East Jerusalem and we headed for Hebron where the Bus was currently doing its magic. I assumed Khitam had to be there for the show to begin, but I learned on the way down that she has trained about 60 teachers and volunteers how to use the Art Bus for a range of children and circumstances. Brilliant!

When we arrived, the action had already begun, so we climbed on board to see how it works. The kids were eager but well-disciplined to wait their turn. Lots of happy faces.

Getting ready
Getting instructions
Getting to work

The Art Bus team

On the Other Hand ...

As suggested in my lament (Relentless), it feels like injustice is winning over here. Not just "feels like", it is winning. On the other hand, in the long run (I hope not too long) injustice doesn't stand a chance. For many reasons. The myriad of people here and around the world relentlessly acting for justice is one. What I consider the self-defeating nature of Israeli policy is another. Most of all, though, it is because of the remarkable steadfastness of the Palestinian people that this injustice will end.

I ask many Palestinian friends, merchants – anyone willing to talk: "where do you find hope". The answer from most goes something like this: Yes, it is terrible, and so long as the U.S. is in Israel's corner, we do not see it ending. But we are not leaving. It is as simple as that – we are not leaving. So we live our lives as best we can. We work; we feed our families; we educate our children. We are a generous, hospitable people who care for our elderly parents as they cared for us. This is how many of us resist this ghastly Occupation.

With John and Joyce Cassel and Ayed, our generous guide from DCI (Defense of Children International), we visited the old Israeli prison at Al-Fara (above Nablus, maybe 10 km. from Zababeh). The structure was built by the Brits during the Mandate as a stable for their horses, was transferred at some point to the Jordanians, and fell into the hands of the Israeli military after '67. From 1982 through Oslo Al-Fara became a secret Israeli military prison where thousands of Palestinians, were tortured. We were led through the prison by two men, Nidal and Raed, both of whom had been prisoners there, Raed five different times for a total of 2 1/2 years. Treatment of Palestinians, young and old, at Al-Fara was unspeakable. At every step the process was intended to break their spirit, to crush any and all resistance until they "cooperated". With 6 - 8 persons in a space built as a stall for a horse, what kept them sane at times was the call to prayer issued from the near-by refugee camp 5 times a day.

There is much more to say about Al-Fara, but what is most relevant here are the faces of these two men. Their humanity was not crushed by their experience. It shows in their faces. They do not hate Jews. They can and will live with them as neighbors when their human rights, civil rights are restored. When what has been taken from them is returned.

Nidal & Raed


At Oslo Al-Fara was designated within Area A which meant it was under Palestinian control. Yasser Arafat turned this prison and the area around it into a sports center for children and young people throughout Palestine. And so it is today. Raed is employed to manage the facilities. Nidal never went to college, but the day following our visit his oldest son, Furat, was graduating from college as a nurse. His other children, five I think, came to introduce themselves most politely as they served us Arabic coffee at his home. Nidal is a guide for international groups on walking tours of Palestine.

It's because of these – and so many others on "the other hand" that justice and peace will finally prevail.

Furat – BA, Nursing

Friday, April 24, 2015


There may be better words to describe Israel's campaign to rid Jerusalem of Palestinians, to colonize the West Bank, to establish a Jewish state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, from Lebanon to Egypt – but relentless will do for now. Throughout its history Jews and Jewish Israelis have challenged this policy, slowed it at times, but it has survived from before 1948 to the present day in one form or another. And today, it is robust as well as relentless.

I wish I could say otherwise. But in this my ninth trip to Israel/Palestine, no one I talk with denies it. Most agree that Israel is succeeding ... perhaps to its own demise, but by any measure, its multiple strategies/tactics are working.

Let me give you small examples.

Making life uncomfortable/impossible enough that Palestinians give up and leave is a strategy with multiple tactics.

  • Rulla, a senior staff member at the National YWCA of Palestine is Palestinian as is her husband. But he is an Israeli citizen (his family lived within the 1948 borders) as are her two children. Rulla may never travel with her husband and children.
  • With his brother Naser, Hussama is the owner of the National Hotel where I stay. The hotel is profitable and Hussama gives generously to many humanitarian projects, among them is one in Gaza. Some time ago the Israeli police asrrested Hussama citing a long list of "suspicious" charities for which he is a benefactor. Ironically, he said, they failed to include the Israeli hospital to which he gives for the care of children, Israeli and Palestinian. Husamma protested his arrest, citing American citizenship and showing his American passport. The police, who obviously had not done their homework, took the passport, threw it on the floor with the words, "Go back to America".
  •  Hussama mentioned to me on Tuesday that his cousin had just received a demolition order for the home he built in 1994. It will be demolished because he built it without a building permit, a permit that is rarely, if ever, granted a Palestinian in Jerusalem. 
  • Many of you know of Daoud Nassar, a Palestinian Christian farmer and creator of Tent of Nations, an international demonstration of non-violent struggle on land owned by his family for generations and registered as such during the Ottoman Empire. Israel has sought every means possible to confiscate his land for over 30 years. Israeli territorial authorities have now demanded that Daoud (and other area farmers) re-register their farms. The next step will be for aerial surveys to be examined to determine if any of the ancestral holdings should be classified as "State/Public Land" instead of personal property.  
For any who care to look or listen (clearly not members of the US Congress), there are sooooooo many more examples of harassment that can have only one purpose. To rid this land of an indigenous people.

At the end of the day there are always examples that contain at least a shred of humor.

A block from my hotel is the most wonderful bookstore in the world – with surely the most wonderful cakes, sandwiches and caffe latte in the world. It's called the Educational Bookshop. It's on Salah al-Din Street in East Jerusalem.

Educational Bookshop

First, you have to know Mordechai Vanunu. He's the former Israeli nuclear technician who, citing opposition to WMD, revealed Israel's nuclear weapons program to British press in 1986 for which, when Mossad caught him, he spent 18 years in prison, 11 in solitary. Released in 2004, he was subject to an array of restrictions on speech and movement. He's been rearrested several times, but when he's not in detention, he is often sited at a table outside the bookshop. Yesterday, Mordechai was at his usual table when a tall Norwegian came out of the bookshop, and chatted for a few minutes with him. Suddenly "many" Israeli police converged on the bookshop, would let no one enter or leave, and took Vanunu and tall Norwegian away for interrogation. The Norwegian tried in vain to give the bookshop manager the keys to his car which would soon be parked illegally across the street. No deal; police took his keys. The Bookshop owner called the Norwegian consulate and the tall Norwegian returned for his car fours later.

Mordechai is a quite affable man, hardly much of a threat to Israel. But then it is still a secret – so don't tell anyone. Israel ... has ... a ... stockpile ... of ... nuclear ... weapons. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

It Just Takes One

It just takes one to save the world. Well, more than one actually; but it takes one to get it started. Nasser Hamamreh is a school counselor at a poor boys school (Husne al Ashab) in a poor Palestinian town (Al-Ram) just outside the "security wall" built sometime after 2006 to remove it from Jerusalem and devastate its economy.

And he's one.

Khitam Edelbi, a Palestinian expressive art therapist and teacher, noticed Nasser's ambition to save poor Palestinian kids from destroying themselves a long time ago and was helping when she could. She introduced her pal, Al Miller, once a teacher in the Middle East, now theatre founder, director and professional clown in Brunswick, ME, to Nasser. Team Nasser taking shape.

Nasser knows personally what living under occupation can do to a kid. He was convinced theatre could grab these guys interest, give them a voice, increase their confidence, quicken their creativity, develop their talent. So with few or no resources he got started. I first met Nasser in the fall of 2013 when Al was training school counselors Nasser gathered to learn how to use theatre exercises with kids in their schools. It was enormous fun and the women took to it with abandon.

Nasser Hamamreh
Nasser with Al Miller
Getting started
Palestinian school counselors being trees ... or something
Al makes it all great fun
Training day in Al-Ram, fall 2013
Nasser telling his story

By sheer luck and various Palestinians kindly looking out for me, I found my way on Monday to Al-Ram and Husne al Shab school. Bus to Qalandia check point (Israelis let you leave Israel with no sweat; it's when you come back in that a hassle is probable), taxi from the West Bank side of Qalandia to the school. A very cool driver who spoke perfect English, gently corrected my miserable attempt at Arabic and, in discussion about "conditions" here pointed out that the Israeli Congress now only meets in Washington, DC.

When I got to the school and walked though the soccer "field" 10 high school students surrounded and escorted me to the correct entrance. "What's your name? Where are you from? My name is ......"

Nasser greeted me warmly and introduced me to Hussam abu Esheh, an actor, director, teacher, Palestinian TV personality (Hussam is a whole other story!). Al appeared shortly thereafter. So we got started. Since 2013 Nasser had scraped together financial support from various sources to create a surprisingly well outfitted theatre. Hussam had been working with the boys and this was to be another rehearsal. What a treat! The kids could not have been more eager, engaged, confident, creative. Hussam was a demanding director and the kids performed like pros.

Hussam abu Esheh

Getting directions

Looks like they just got hit with tear gas ... a not unusal occurrence
Time to ham it up
When Hussam's rehearsal was finished, Al did some more work with the kids, and they loved it all. I rode back on the bus to Jerusalem with Hussam and then, with Al and Khitam attended the Palestinian National Theatre where Hussam and others were performing a French play. A busy man.

Like I said, it just take one to save the world. Then, of course, the rest of us have to pay attention, to "get" it and to do "it". But we have to look for that "one" in out-of-the-way, unlikely places. Like Al-Ram. Like Nazareth. Like lots of other places.

Good reason to hope.

Monday, April 20, 2015

An Afternoon with Jeff Halper

Jeff Halper

Jeff Halper, Director of ICAHD, the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions, probably understands better than anyone in the resistance movement Israel's strategy to remove Palestinians from their homeland and to claim it for their own. No one ever said Israelis weren't smart.

To spend an afternoon with Jeff with a group of colleagues from the Episcopal Peace Fellowship's Palestine Israeli Network (PIN), is, to say the least, informative. Jeff reminded us

We viewed Jerusalem from multiple vantage points. Several provided panoramic views of this remarkable city which reminded us of its inherent beauty and fascinating history.

In the middle you see the Old City with the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque just to its right. Until the early part of the 18th century it was primarily this walled city that constituted Jerusalem. The high rise buildings in the background represent the growth of Jewish West Jerusalem. The land falls off to the right of the walled city into the Kidron Valley, Gethsemanae and (not in this picture) up the Mount of Olives. Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood, occupies the land in the foreground.

No sharper contrast exists than back to back visits to Silwan and the massive Ma'ale Adumim settlement (referred to now only as a pleasant Israeli suburb of 40,000) built on confiscated Palestinian land. Silwan lies in the path of an Israeli project called The City of David and thus the focus of a variety of strategies to remove Palestinian homes. In the picture below, look to the upper right quadrant for a new four story building with parallel vertical windows – the result of an eviction, a demolition and the sale of the land to a Jewish Israeli contractor.

Ma'ale Adumim is an entirely different story. In contrast to many Palestinian neighborhoods where sidewalks don't exist, streets are in disrepair, playgrounds are non-existent, water is often rationed during summer months, garbage is not collected, Ma'ale Adumim is where I would like to live. It is beautifully landscaped, features 1,000 year old olive trees dug up from Palestinian lands and replanted here, water is plentiful; has playgrounds, two olympic size swimming pools, bus stops, well cared for roads, handsome homes.

And no one seems to notice.

And here's the kicker. Palestinian Israelis amount to 37% of Jerusalem's population; they pay 50% of the taxes; and they receive 8% of the services.

And no one seems to notice.

Ma'ale Adumim

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Welcome to East Jerusalem

What always impresses me when I return to East Jerusalem (this must be my 9th visit) is the welcome I receive from so many of the merchants and shopkeepers along Salah-ah-Eddin, the major street that leads from the back of St. George's Cathedral down to the Old City. When I checked in at my hotel, the National, on A-Zahra Street, it's "Welcome, Mr. Robert, to your second home". And it does indeed feel that way. The owner of the Educational Bookststore greeted me with "Ah, good to see you back – it's been a long time" – and at the little grocery where I buy bottles of water, it was the same. And when I asked about the sandwich shop where Mo and his family scratch out a living, closed now and under reconstruction, he said "Oh, don't worry, he's just redecorating; his chef is just outside the door" – from whom I got Mo's cell # to call. Mo and his wife were expecting another child when I saw them last.

The Palestinian people are an unusually generous, kind and hospitable people – from whom we could all learn a great deal.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Tragedy at Beit Ommar

Beit Ommar is a small Palestinian village on the road from Bethlehem to Hebron. Through faithful friends I have come to know a lovely family there who, when I'm in Palestine, always welcomes me warmly (and feeds me richly). This past Friday, as villagers processed to their cemetery to bury a Beit Ommar citizen who died while in Israeli custody, they were confronted by the Israeli military. The conflict which ensued included the use of tear gas, skunk water, rubber coated bullets and live ammunition by the IDF. Rocks were undoubtedly thrown by Palestinian young people. I will learn more of the circumstances when I visit there next week. The tragedy is that numbers of Palestinians were seriously wounded and 27 year old Ziad Awad was killed, shot in the chest. And it need never have happened. My friends' son (late teens) wrote this:

I just keep losing the good people, 2011, 2014, 2015. Month after month, day after a day we just count our deaths and hold our breath, waiting for our turn. It might be a live bullet, rubber bullet, tear gas grenade or it just can be your bad luck. A bullet that costs 3 shekels will finish your live (sic), suddenly go away and never come back ....
The price of occupation is so expensive, and we as poor people, we have to pay all the expenses, not using money, but using our blood, souls, friends, houses, memories, families and land ....
However ... WE TEACH LIFE SIR, we sing in the funerals of our people, we call the funeral "the wedding", we sing, clap, cry and laugh ..... From our sadness we make happiness, from our tears we grow roses, from our blood we make miracles, for our past we make a brighter future ... we teach life sir.


Saturday, April 4, 2015

Another Pilgrimage

I leave for Israel/Palestine April 15 aboard Turkish Airlines. It’s been two years since I’ve been there, and in spite of the hassle by the IDF at multiple checkpoints, I’ve missed many friends, the warmth and hospitality of Palestinians, the courage and faithfulness of all who resist this oppressive occupation. 

As usual I have an ambitious agenda, but mainly I want to listen … to both Israeli Jews and Palestinians, to West Bank Palestinians. Where do they find hope in ending this Occupation so destructive to both people, what is the fallout from this recent election, what about this potential deal with Iran? Then there are Seraj libraries to visit – a special visit to the seventh, opened just this month, serving Burham and Jibya, two small villages near Birzeit – a potential new site to consider near Hebron, a visit accompanying Gerard Horton and Salwa Duaibis to an Israeli military court trying Palestinian children. At one of our libraries Estephan and Laurie (Salameh) and I are hoping to arrange a mini art therapy and theatre exercise workshop courtesy of our friends Al Miller and Khitam Edelbi.

I hope to meet up with an Episcopal delegation traveling at about the same time who will be taking a gift of financial support to the courageous staff at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza. Toward the end of my visit I’ll connect with a long time friend and attorney, Steve Fatum, and his adult son John who are sufficiently crazy to let me introduce them to all the paradoxes of this Holy Land.