Location,Location, Location!

Eid Suleiman is one of the quiet heroes of whom I became aware while I lived in South Hebron Hills these past months.  I have been thinking about him a great deal over recent weeks.  Eid is a poet, an artist, an educator, a shepherd, a Bedouin. He is Palestinian, although technically he has no state.  He lives in the region that the State of Israel is wanting to fully claim as part of Judea and Samaria. and has occupied since 1967, but he is not an Israeli.

He lives on the land that his parents re-located to in 1948 when they and their entire Bedouin community were made refugees because of the war out of which the State of Israel rose, and their land home in the Negev desert became part of that new state.

The Bedouin are one of the indigenous peoples of this territory, but their claim to land has always been disputed.  As in most indigenous communities the concept of land ownership is very different:  the land belongs to Allah, and is a trust that is held by the people to tend with care and to find their livelihood.  The families of Um Al Kher ‘bought land’ in 1948 from the Palestinian city of Yatta, and they have lived in their current location, rocky, hilly, arid land on the southern slopes of the South Hebron Hills, since that time.

Although they could no longer continue their nomadic ways, they still retain their traditional practices of herding sheep and goats as their primary source of livelihood. They have chickens running about everywhere; they have dove cotes and small plots of garden. When there is enough foliage, they take their sheep onto the land to forage among the rocks for grasses, and herbs.  It is a very simple life on the land.

In the aftermath of the war in 1967, Israel began its occupation of the territories of The West Bank, which had been under Jordanian control.  The control of these areas took many different forms; one of which was the transfer of Israeli citizens onto land in the region through settlements, an illegal action under The 4th Geneva Conventions.  Land right next to Um Al Kher was built up into the settlement of Karmel.  Over the years, this settlement has grown and grown, and now it comes right up against the land of the village of Um Ak Kher.


Eid Suleiman and his village neighbours have no dependable infrastructure for water access, as the water is controlled by the settlement next door, and its chicken barns, lawns and gardens seem to take precedence over the basic humanitarian needs for water in Um Al Kher.  The village has solar panels that supply meager electricity.  The children are often found to be studying or doing homework at night in the pools of light spewed over the fence from the settlement.  Eid Suleiman jokes that it is very gracious of the settlers to support the Bedouin students to do so well in their studies.

Many in the community have very big dreams.  Education is prized, and the children do study hard.  Many of Eid’s generation have gone on to universities. Eid has a degree in Fine Art.  One of his cousins is a lawyer; others have studied education and returned to teach others to prize education.

Eid uses his art to express hope and paradox.  He makes model vehicles from discarded objects;  a bulldozer from old tin cans, CDs and wood; a helicopter out of an old bucket.  Each of these vehicles could be used for destruction or for peaceful purposes.  A bulldozer can be seen destroying homes in a Palestinian village or it can be used to clear a site to build a hospital;  a helicopter can be a gun ship, or can carry a rescue team to a ship wreck site.  Eid reflects that humans can turn tools to peaceful uses or to dehumanize one another.

Currently,  the Israeli government is using the tools of law to relocate Bedouin communities to even less desirable locations.  The Israeli government is ignoring International Law and its many obligations under Humanitarian Law as an occupying power to move many Bedouin communities off what meager lands they have to a location very near to a major municipal garbage dump on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  Um Al Kher is not yet slated for this move, but their community has already faced the destruction of their gardens, several animal shelters, a toilet facility and several other dwellings.  Their bread oven has a demolition order on it.

Eid has said that land belongs to Allah; that there is plenty of land to be shared among neighbours.  In one encounter in early July of this year, he said that he feels pity for the Israelis who have so much fear that they must exert control over the land and the people there, and this fear eats away at their spirits.  Eid Suleiman feels that the location of his community does not need to be seen as a threat of any kind to neighbouring Carmel settlement.  The Bedouin long to live peaceably with their Israeli neighbours.  But when Carmel  located itself by Um Al Kher, it dislocated its own soul.

Amos Oz, an Israeli novelist and essayist (“How to cure a fanatic”) describes the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians as a fight between ‘right and right’.  Both communities have narratives, claims and location that speak to their rights and their belonging.

So how to resolve the issues which are so much more than the real estate question of ‘Location, location, location’?

To see the issues with a heart of openness to sharing the resource of the land, to make room for the other, to recognize that compromises will be required.  And to not, through use of force and disregard for the story of the other, dislocate the human heart in the process of working for peace.

  I hope  that the people of Um Al Kher and the other Bedouin communities will not be forced into the move that Israel seems bent on forcing.  As a Canadian, I long to point to the history of the reserve system historically forced upon first Nations peoples, and ask Israel to try to learn from the errors committed by other nations and choose a better way.  Israel chafes at comparisons to the situation of South African under Apartheid, but again the lessons of the Bantustans should be in their minds as they consider what they are planning to do to the Bedouins.

I really believe that history will judge Israel for the way it uses its power to treat the people under its control at this time.

Eid’s  use of paradox leads one to reflect on the value of things rejected.  I wonder about the gift of poetry, art and vision.  Perhaps in letting go of the fear that drives control Israel might find there is less to fear.  Land seen as limited and restricted might feel more expansive when not fenced, barricaded and subdivided.

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Extending the Olive Branch….

The term ‘extending the olive branch’ is often used to indicate a gesture of peace; a willingness to engage in face-to-face conversations about reconciliation.  The dove that Noah sent out from the ark to find some sign of hope that the flood was ending, returned (Genesis 8:11) with an olive leaf in her beak.  In Israel and Palestine, olive trees are deeply important to the culture and to the peoples’ connection to the land.

Olives are among the seven species (wheat, barley, figs, grapes, olives, pomegranates, honey) of food and fruit that are honoured in rituals of Thanksgiving in Jewish tradition, including in Sukkot, or The Feast of Tabernacles which is being marked this week by observant Jews around the world.

Some of the trees that currently still grow and bear fruit in Israel and Palestine are thousands of years old.  There is one tree reputedly nearly 5000 years old that is currently threatened as it stands in the planned pathway of the nearby separation barrier in the community of Al Wallajah, near Bethlehem. In the Garden of Gethsemene, on the Mount of Olives, at the edge of Jerusalem, trees still grow that were there when Jesus wept.  The Quran states that the Prophet Mohammed used so much olive oil in his prayers and annointings that his shawl was often saturated with it.

Olives are preserved in various ways for eating throughout the year, or are pressed into oil for cooking, for flavouring food and for many uses in daily life.  Olives are central to many aspects of life among the people of Israel and Palestine, regardless of religion.

In many traditions, the process of pressing and preserving olives is seen as a metaphor for the spiritual maturing of the human heart.

With all this richness of symbolism, metaphor and practical use of olives and olive trees, it is horrifying to know that olive trees are wantonly destroyed, uprooted or burned as acts of war and aggression in the conflict in Palestine and Israel.  Israelis from the many illegal settlements in the West Bank 

come under cover of darkness, or even in broad daylight with the protection of the Israeli Army, and destroy trees on Palestinian lands.  In the village of Khirbet Shuweika recently 46 trees were damaged, just weeks before the potential harvest that would have been a major source of income for the community.  The damage will have both economic and emotional impact for years to come as the Palestinian villagers face  the loss of future income, and also see daily the manifestation of hatred and anger directed at them by the Israeli settlers.

Still in the face of this loss, chronic lack of water, and destruction of their homes, Palestinians remain dedicated to olive trees as their livelihood, their rootedness in the land and their legacy.  Issa Mohammed Ij’Bour of Um Nir carries water by hand to each of his trees; he knows each one’s age, and he awaits in great hope for the day in the next weeks when people will come to help him harvest his olives.

Many Israelis and Palestinians will work side by side to harvest olives all over the West Bank in the next weeks. This activity is one of the clear expressions of “extending the olive branch”  between members of these two communities who truly seek a way of peace and a non-violent way of resolving historic conflicts.  They will be joined by members of the international community who also seek to contribute to building bonds of friendship, compassion and kindness. Some come as tourists with alternative tour groups; some come with organizations like Christian Peacemaker Teams, International Solidarity Movement or perhaps  EAPPI.

As you use olives to garnish your sandwich, or with your next holiday meal, say a silent prayer for peace.  Offer the pressings of your heart as a commitment to work for reconciliation in your life, for non-violent communication, for hope for transformation and justice between peoples of faith, in the land where olives grow and where dreams for peace still take root.

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A visit to a sacred site.

This may sound quite irreverent but I have been living for three months in The Holy Land and have only just today felt the awesomeness of Sacred Space created by human hands.

I have certainly felt the sacredness of ‘the land’, in its beauty and its starkness:  the power of the sea in Tel Aviv and in Haifa; the rocky, terraced lands of Hebron and the South Hebron Hills; the lush fields growing fruit trees and grapes in the Tulkarm region.  I have also sensed the dedication to the land and the intense care of the soil and the gratitude for the plant life that grows from women who harvest medicinal plants like thyme, and mirami and sage and other desert plants.

In the early days of my time in Israel, when I first arrived in Jerusalem, I visited the Garden of Gethsemene.  It was moving to walk among olive trees that may have been saplings when Jesus prayed in that garden.

In my tours through the Old City, I was often struck by the sounds of many church bells, the muffled sounds of prayer from the synagogues, the ‘regular as clockwork’ calls to prayer emanating from minarets in every direction.  Down every street one sees the religious of each religion, Muslims, Jews, Christians of every imaginable shade and level of orthodoxy.  Nuns, monks, lay people carrying crosses or walking barefooted on the Via Dolorosa, The Way of Tears, tracing the path of Jesus on the road to crucifixion.  The prayers of millions of pilgrims infuse the stones with a sense of devotion which is inspirational.   But somehow, until today, I did not feel awe.

Today, I went to the Western Wall Plaza, and then up the wooden rampart to the Gardens and plaza around the Al Aqsa Mosque and The Dome of the Rock.  At the Western Wall, Jews (and others) from around the world come to the wall believed to date from the Second Temple.  Streams of humanity bring their hearts full of prayers and petitions and praise and walk to the wall, sometimes placing words on small strips of paper and inserting these into the cracks between the stones.

There is an air of deep reverence close to the wall.  The sense of connection to their history as a people of faith and prayer is palpable here among the Jewish pilgrims.

However, just beyond the ropes that separate the Holy site from the land of tourism, one can see soldiers with machine guns, and security personnel with ear pieces and walkie-talkies. To even enter the site of the Western Wall one has to go through intense security screening similar to entering an airport.    To me, this is profane, and heart-breaking.

Interestingly,  the degree of screening is less intense to enter the wooden rampart that leads to the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa.  But at the top of the walk is evidence of the security agenda.   Riot gear belonging to Israeli police and Army is stored at the ready, should any threat appear or crowd in the Al Aqsa area get out of hand. Just the presense of this so close to a sacred site underscores the level of distrust and suspicion that exists in the current climate of Jerusalem under occupation.

Once up on the plaza, I was struck silent and reduced to tears at the beauty of the open space and of the buildings, but mostly at the groups of men reading the Koran aloud and the groups of women sitting in the shade of the mosque and praying together.  I cried for the many, many Palestinian Muslims who will never have the freedom of movement to come to pray here, whereas I, a foreigner and a Christian could simply walk up the ramp and be in one of Islam’s holiest sites.

 Aaliya, from Wadi J’hesh (see previous posts) and her husband got permits last year for the first time in ten years to come to Jerusalem o pray on a Friday during Ramadan, but when they tried to travel, there were so many military checkpoints on the roads, that they were eventually turned back and could not go.  This happened again to tens of thousands of Muslims when Qalandia checkpoint was closed during a Friday of Ramadan.

The architecture of this site is stunningly beautiful.  I wandered for nearly two hours looking at the gardens, listening to the Koran read aloud by so many voices.  I looked at the mosaics and tiles and the golden dome; I talked with several of the people here to pray.  The area is full of people praying all day long to ensure a Muslim presence and to never leave the site untended, as there is a fear that Israelis may once again try to bring even this sacred site under military control.  Serious offense was taken when Ariel Sharon came to this site with armed soldiers in September 2000; some believe that this event was part of the trigger for the second Intifada.

I also watched soldiers defy the rules of the sacred space by smoking and dropping their cigarettes nearby the ritual washing basins.

When I left the Dome of the Rock area, I ventured down into the Muslim Quarter and spoke at length with an elderly Muslim man who shared a series of stories about how Jews and Christians and Muslims had lived together in relative peace and harmony in the region of  “Palestine”  before the partitioning of the land under the colonial British mandate and then the subsequent Zionist movements and immigration back to “Palestine” of the diaspora Jews.   The issue of “who owns the land”  was scarcely an issue before this time, and people lived, mostly, respectfully as neighbours, he said.

Surely an oversimplification of the dynamics of human relationships in this complex land, but there is also some truth to it, I am sure.

Today, I was bathed in the sacredness that comes from people praying fervently in devotion to God/Allah/Yahweh.  If only prayer led directly to peace/Salaam/Shalom. If prayer could truly transform human hearts and bring people to see the image of the holy in one another, Jerusalem would be a beacon of hope: A city on a hill that could not be hidden!

But there are also acts of will, and power and politics, and the pains of mistrust, betrayal, violence and suspicion that must be overcome.

Today, I am steeped in the desire to ponder the role of the sacred.  Tomorrow, I will again get ‘political’.  But meanwhile…. In Shallah… may it be… that prayer can begin to transform my heart and turn my tears again into a desire for understanding and respect for all who share this land.

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Welcome to Wadi J’Hesh; road blocked, harassed, but firm!

The last two weekends, I have spent part of my time in the small Palestinian village of Wadi J’Hesh.  This village consists of one extended family, in two households:  one headed by Ibrihim and Aaliya, the other by Mohammed and Tamame.  Our EAPPI group tends to spend more time with Aaliya, but other internationals from the Italian group, Operation Dove, come and sleep on Friday or Saturday nights with Tameme and her family.

So it was that on Friday evening, September 10th, my team mate Jonas and I were in Wadi J’Hesh with the family.  We had taken a few trips up the hill behind the tents to oversee the valley and the illegal Israeli settlement of Suseya.  From this settlement, often a few times a week, some inhabitants come to intimidate the families of Wadi J’Hesh.  They have brought their ATV’s (traktaronas, they call them here) up onto the hill and crushed the few tender plants that the sheep need to nibble on.  They have driven their cars over the fields, spinning their tires and stirring up clouds of dust.  They have opened the cisterns and acted as if they were dropping something down.  They have shouted and yelled in the middle of the night, waking the families up and causing the young ones to be fearful, and the older ones to be fearful too, but to act angry.  But this evening,  things seemed quiet.  We could not see anybody out walking the land.  We stood enjoying the sunset, and then returned to the tent.  Tonight, Aaliya had prepared a chicken and rice dish, with a sauce made of dried yogurt reconstituted to soup, and of course, fresh bread from the taboun.

After dinner, we all sat drinking cups of Palestinian tea ( oh so sweet and flavoured with fresh mint) and eating a dessert called “kanafe”, made of angel hair type pasta, sugar syrup and sheep cheese! (Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!!)   As we watched the news and became a bit dozy, we could hear car engines.  And this was strange because last week, the Israeli Defense Force decided that Wadi J’Hesh was a huge security risk and blocked their road with a five foot high earthen berm!  

So clearly, this car was not from the village.  Ibrihim collected the powerful flashlight and the small children stayed in the tent with Yasmin, who is six-months pregnant.  11 year old Zaarah was already asleep, as was tiny Amara.  The rest of us quietly went up the hill.  Below in the dark, two cars without their light on were driving back and forth across the fields, where in two months, the family will plant barley for their sheep.  The flashlight was just enough to show the shape of the car; we could not see the number of occupants in the cars.  Ibrihim and his sons, Yod and Hamed, looked frightened, but firm.  Sadly, they each had in their hands, their shepherding sticks for protection as needed.  On other occasions, the people in the cars have moved off the fields to the road and then come up over the hill, into the village tents.  The cars moved out of sight.  We all stood quietly, and waited…. 5 minutes… 10 minutes…. nothing.   We went back to the tent, and in a nearly surreal scene, watched a Turkish soap opera and drank tea.  The men quietly discussed who will stay awake, how they will take turns to stand guard, in case the settlers decided to return.

The next morning, we all were awake by 6:30. The men had been awake all night.  Despite their plans to share the watch, none of them could sleep.  After a quick breakfast, they all headed off to their work: Ibrihim to drive his taxi and the three sons, Dir, Hamed and Yod to temporary day jobs repairing a road in At Tuwani.

The women must do the shepherding when the men are away.  When I headed out on the land with Kawsar, Thawle and Aaliya and 26 sheep and goats, the first thing we noticed was the trail of car tracks crisscrossing the field.  We followed the tracks far across the land toward the sheep well under the distant olive trees.  We looked for shoe prints as we approached the well.  None!  A sigh of relief.  It meant that the well was safe.  In other villages, wells have been poisoned and sheep have been killed.  The family fears that one day this may happen here.  Kawsar pulled water and poured it into the trough.  The sheep seemed to know to take turns; sheep first, then the goats.  Kawsar left her cell phone on the side of the well as she pulled the water.  Her mother scolds… “Kawsar, you are going to drop that thing!”, and Aaliya moved it down to a small niche in the side of the cistern.  A few moments later, it was nudged by the nose of a curious goat and fell into the dirt.  Kawsar rolled her eyes at her mother! “That wouldn’t have happened if you had just left it!”  I giggled at the oh-so-typical mother-daughter dynamic in this context so foreign to my eyes!

Aaliya is strong!  Kawsar has her mother’s strength, and this is often a source of conflict between the two!

The next Saturday evening, I was again in Wadi J’Hesh with the family.  12 young Israeli men and 4 women came up and over the hill suddenly.  They walked boldly across the family’s land and went to the cistern and opeed it. I stood taking pictures, Jonas shots video and Narjle, Aaliya’s daughter-in-law also shots video with the B’Tselem camera.  The settlers mimiced the women and sneer at all of us.  Kawsar, strong outspoken Kawsar, stoods up on the cistern, hands on hips and stared at them.

After a few moments, her older brother Yod came up from the tent with his baby in his arms.  Settlers said to one another, “Oh, there is a man here.  Let’s go!”  And they moved slowly off down the hill, walking through the fields, back to the road on their way to synagogue in the closing hours of their Sabbath.

I try to understand what the motivation is for them to be so bold and so intimidating.  How can it be an expression of their faith to create such fear in fellow human beings?

Aaliya has said before, “They (the Israelis) want us to leave this land.  But it is my home and I will make my grave here.”

This small community of about 35 people has now had its road blockaded.  This adds more than two hours to their trips to get water, and the big tank truck won’t even make the trip anymore because it is too hard on their truck.  There is no way to have the tanker drive to the end of the road and them to meet it with their small tank and tractor because the road is patrolled by the Israeli Army who have declared it illegal for any vehicle to stop on the highway for any longer than to unload passengers.

The life is being slowly choked out of many villages along this highway.  We counted at least four villages with road closures just this week.

When villagers work to remove the earth berms themselves, there have been threats of arrests, or the erection of brick and mortar blockades.  When international have helped, they have been arrested and removed from the West Bank.

There is a need for water, for fodder for the sheep, for access to emergency vehicles. all of these lifelines are threatened by the road blocks.

There is also a need for awareness among the wider world and for pressure to be brought against the Israeli government and its policies.  If they choose to continue to act as a occupying power, they have obligations to care for the citizens under occupation, according to International Humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions.

The world needs to know that Israel is NOT living up to these obligation and in fact continue to practice intimidation, and harassment.  Israel has also decided to ARM the settlers, to protect them from any possible Palestinian violence.  What I have observed, is that the villagers are trying to peacefully go about their lives.  But they are becoming frustrated and angry at the constant (and increasing) control, humiliation and intimidation of living under occupation.  If there is reaction, it will be in part because the seeds of discontent and anger have been sown over 44 years of occupation.

No one wants violence.  No one wants a third Intifada.  And surely if it begins, in the wake of the anticipated failed bid for Statehood recognition at the UN this month, we will hear a great deal about how the Palestinians are obviously ‘not ready for Statehood’.   Please, read with care between the lines, and try to understand the conditions that lead a people to stand up to tyranny.

Remember Wadi J’Hesh, and Shib Al Butum, and Qawawis.  Their roads may be blocked with dirt and stones, but they are committed to creating a road to freedom, dignity and self-determination.

Posted in EAPPI, peace in the West Bank, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Who owns it all, anyway?

Settler Bob Lng from the Efrat Settlement near Bethlehem

Greetings from Yatta, situated in a hilly region of the land that lies between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.  This land is known as ‘Palestine’ by the people among whom I am living, but in a tourist map I was recently given, the same land is just subsumed into the land called ‘Israel’.  It is known by the rest of the world mostly as ‘The West Bank’, but it is far larger than just the narrow strip of land along the western edge of The Jordan River.  I was shown a map by one of the residents of a Jewish settlement near Bethlehem  that named the area as a portion of what is called by Zionists, either religious or political, as ‘Judea and Samaria’.

The question of ‘whose land this is’ is such a thorny one; it is at the heart of the conflict that continues to take lives and livelihoods. Who owns the land depends on so many factors of historical interpretation.  Where does land ownership “start”?  If we start with the founding of the Jewish people under a promise from God, in the Biblical record, you will reach one conclusion.  If you begin with archaeological records to explore cultures that predate the Jewish nation, you come out somewhere else.  If you consider the many times the land changed hands under empires and under colonial division and under traditional usage, things get even more confused and complicated.  Depending on who you are, and what cultural affiliation, sometime overlaid with religious justification you use, arguments can spin on for a considerable time about the nature of ‘ownership’ of land.

What is clear is that both Israelis and Palestinians claim the land, for very persuasive reasons.  If one believes that both peoples need a homeland and need security and peace, with recognition of human rights and within the bounds of International Law, we begin to get some parameters for judging potential solutions, but this doesn’t relieve the complexity of the situation.

Israel has built and continues to build large settlements in the West Bank and encourages hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens, both new immigrants and others, to live in these areas; approximately 300,000 in the West Bank and another 200,00 in areas of Jerusalem illegally annexed to the Municipality of Jerusalem.  This is illegal under International law:  Article 49 of the  4th Geneva Convention states that an occupying power may not transfer its population into territory belonging to the people under occupation. This was further endorsed in 2004 at the International Court of Justice which declared “Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and an obstacle to peace and to economic and social development.”  And yet, settlements continue  to expand.

Meanwhile, Palestinian people have their homes destroyed, because the State of Israel, as the occupation force in this territory, refuses to grant building permits for the Palestinians on their land, in their villages in areas under Israeli control (Area C-Oslo Accords).  Sheep pens, outdoor toilets, even an addition to a room to allow for an expanding family may not be granted a permit, and if constructed without one, are subject to demolition orders.

One such village in the area of South Hebron Hills called Khirbet Zanuta.  This is a village of about 36 households, living in small stone houses and some in tents.  There is no electricity and no running water.  The Canadian Government helped build cisterns to store water for the sheep, which are the only source of income for the 250 people who live in Zanuta.  Even though Zanuta has been on this patch of Palestinian soil since before the state of Israel was established,  every single building, including the cistern, has been deemed illegal and is under a demolition order.  So far, the Israeli lawyer who has helped the community fight these orders has managed to get reprieves, but Haj Sleman Dartel is worried about December 2011 when the current reprieve ends.  “If they come, how shall we live?  Where will we go with our sheep?  This Israel has been playing with our hearts for more than 20 years.”

During Ramadan, which has just ended, the government of Israel declared a halt from home demolitions.  As things intensify in this land, as September approaches and the Palestinian Authority proceeds toward a request for acknowledgement of statehood for Palestine, many people anticipate a stepped up process of demolitions.

In an interesting twist, the Israeli Defense Force has been giving training to residents of the illegal settlements for them to defend themselves against any protests or approaches by Palestinians.  Settlements are being equipped with weapons, and tear gas and trained in crowd dispersal techniques.  http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/idf-training-israeli-settlers-ahead-of-mass-disorder-expected-in-september-1.381421

They are fearful that Palestinians may become angered if, as is most likely, the US uses its veto to quash this bid for Statehood, and if angered, will turn on the settlements with violence.

The irony is that these settlers are already entitled to carry arms, under Israeli law, and Palestinians are forbidden from owning weapons.  The Settlers are on the land illegally, yet they are being equipped to defend their illegal homes against the people who have grazed their sheep, planted their crops and raised their families peacefully in the shadow of the growing settlements for over 25 years.

Above the tiny seam zone village of La Seefer towers the settlement of Mezidot Yehuda. Its huge electricity producing wind turbine overshadows the sheep pens and the stone houses of the Palestinians, which are lit only by kerosene lamp and battery power.  The water tower stands further away, and as we sit with the Abu Qbeta family we can hear the water gurgling, on its way directly to the houses in the settlement.  Today, the cistern in La Seefer is nearly empty.  Someone will have to risk the long journey by tractor to go to get water.

“They shall beat swords into ploughshares…. and neither shall they study for war anymore.  And everyone beneath his (sic) own vine and fig tree will live in peace and shall not be afraid ….”  Micah 4 (paraphrased).  This vision of peace is held up by many Israeli activists who call their own country to cease the occupation and to find a way to live in peace and justice with Palestinian neighbours.  The organization ‘Other Voice’ keeps contact with their Gaza neighbours however they can, to remember that they are humans with hopes and wishes and aspirations for their children, and are not to be caricatured as terrorists even though some Gazans do fire rockets into the south of Israel.  Romi Keidar has scurried to her bomb shelter many times in the past months, but she still is committed to forging bonds of peace and friendship with the Palestinian people.  www.othervoice.org

I keep praying that the voice of prophets will rise again to drown out the drums of war and anger and terror.  And I keep writing, in those hopes that others may see the need to advocate internationally for true peace, for the end of the Occupation and for real negotiations towards a just solution to take place.

EAs like myself keep watching, witnessing, accompanying both Palestinians and Israelis on this journey to hope.

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A Tale of Two Tailors

I received a beautiful gift from one of my neighbours in Yatta.  Hajji Shehah gave me a traditionally embroidered Palestinian dress. Hajji Shehah is very ill.  She has leukemia and receives blood transfusions a couple of times a week at the local hospital in Yatta.  It is difficult to get clear answers from her about how she is feeling and about how her treatment is going, because every query is answered with a wise and gentle shrug: “Hamdilla, hamdilla”. “It is up to Allah.  It is in God’s hands.”  I accepted her gift with grace and humility; undeserving of this generous welcome, but I also realize that this gift comes with her faith commitment to being generous and charitable during Ramadan. And that perhaps she wants to give away some of her belongings, while the choice is still hers.

I want to honour Hajji by wearing the dress during Eid al Fitr… and this meant I had to do some tailoring to it so that it fit my more ample girth (Hajji is very short and has become very thin.  I am short, but not… well, you understand.)

So, as I went to get the dress adjusted, I met two tailors.  Their small, dusty workshops are in East Jerusalem, just outside the walls of the Old City, above the many shops of streets and alleys between the Damascus Gate and the Herod’s Gate.  The sounds of impatient taxi and bus horns and the voices of hawkers selling all manner of goods drift up the three stories and through the open windows of the shop belonging to Jaby Maroud.  I am waiting in his shop for his neighbour Maurice Geodeon to arrive, so I may have the final fitting for the dress, and wait for the last adjustments before I return to Yatta.

At first glance, there is so very much in common between these two charming, dignified Arab men.  I chat with Maroud as he invites me to sit in the breeze of the fan while I wait for his neighbor and friend to open his shop.  Maroud is originally from Bethlehem, a scant 20 kilometers from where we sit together today.  He is a Christian, and he has worked in this shop as a tailor for 46 years.  He has seen a lot of change in these years, both in his business and in the community around him.  Manoud and his wife have been married for nearly 50 years!  “Mabrouk! Congratulations”, I offer, as he shows me his wedding photo, which he finds in a safe corner of his wallet.

 “Yes!  My marriage changed my life!”, he says.  Now, any one of us may say that, but in Maroud’s case, this act of love changed his life, his destiny and his fortunes.  His wife was an Israeli citizen, and back in the day of their marriage, this meant that he became eligible for Israeli citizenship, and since she resided in Jerusalem, Maroud could reside in Jerusalem.  The family has made their home here and raised their children here.  One son has gone on to live in Canada and owns a jewelry store in Montreal.  Manoud and his wife are free to visit him and their grandchildren there and plan a trip next summer.

Money is tight.  Ready-made clothes from around the world, particularly from China, flood the Israeli market.  The costs for the  skilled labor of a tailor, even though the quality is far superior, cannot compete with the price of a factory made suit from China.  Maroud charges 200 NIS (you supply the fabric) for a made-to-measure suit.  Down on Sala al Dien Street, one can buy a suit from China for 199 NIS.  Still… Manoud goes to work everyday but Sunday, sometimes for five hours, sometimes for ten, depending on the amount of work he has.  “It is better than sitting and drinking tea and gossiping at home… Although somedays, I only drink coffee with other shopkeepers.  Business is hard.”.

Next door, Maurice Geodeon keeps his shop: three sewing machines, one small cubicle for trying on the clothes.  Mostly he works alone, but sometimes, when there is more work, he employs one or two other tailors.  Maurice is dapper and gentlemanly.  He asks my name and uses it frequently in our discourse.  Unlike a Muslim man, he confidently wraps the tape measure around my form to be exact with his plans to make this dress fit well.

Maurice also is a Christian, born in Bethlehem.  He too has had his shop in East Jerusalem since 1964.  However, he continued to live in Bethlehem with his wife and to raise his children there.  In 1967, following the Six-Day war, as a resident of the West Bank, Maurice lost all of his privilege of travel and work.  Every six months, he must reapply for a permit to travel to his shop.  To commute the short distance between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, he must now go through Checkpoint 300 every day (Read previous blog “Your morning commute is easy”). Some days, he waits for 30 minutes; somedays, like Fridays during Ramadan, he waits for nearly three hours.  Somedays, knowing the transit time and the lack of business waiting for him on the other side,  he gives up and goes home.

Both men in the same profession, of the same faith, same ethnicity and the same birthplace.  Two very different sets of ‘rights’  and degrees of freedom of movement and rights to work.  They are both, of course, affected by the same economic challenges in their business:  same cost of cloth, of rent, of electricity, of hired labor.  But their fates will be entirely different based on decisions within the state of Israel.  Tomorrow, Maurice could lose his work permit, and the travel permit to enter Jerusalem.  Then more than 4 decades of shared business, shared cups of tea and conversation may come to end, with a Separation Wall between them.

The poster below was on the wall in Maroud’s shop.  Though he has far more freedom, he feels the pain and suffering of his friends with West Bank identity cards.  Many West Bank residents do not have health coverage, access to Holy Sites, freedom of travel within the region.  Many feel trapped… imprisoned by the ‘in-betweeness’ of their lives.

The hope for change in this area persists, but as Maurice said “the situation is very, very complex.  And what can we do?  It is the right of the state of Israel to make decisions that affect our lives.  What can one person do?”  When I asked him if the Christian community might have any particular role to play in creating dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, he said “Blessed are the peacemakers.  But no one listens to them.”

These two tailors represent only a small portion of the fabric in this region.  Maurice sewed for me a lovely dress of the fabric stitched and decorated by a gracious Muslim woman.  When I wear this garment, I will reflect on their stories, and the story of the women of Yatta.  I will pray that the work of all who weave the threads of peace may one day create a tapestry that all can enjoy, in equality, freedom and respect.

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Introducing another EA writing about a different context in The West Bank.

Mauread Collins in posted in Yanoun, on the edge of the Jordan Valley.  Yanoun is a tiny village that survives now partly due the the long term accompaniment and protective presence of internationals.  In this post, Mauread writes about a nearby community of Burin, and the fight to protect olive treesz from settlers who come down to deliberately burn the groves which are the primary income source for the people.    http://rightsni.org/2011/08/fanning-the-flames-the-burning-of-olive-trees-in-burin-and-settler-impunity/

If you go to EAPPI’s website at http://www.eappi.org    you can read about the other EAs who are on this journey of solidarity with me.  Many write blogs or articles,  but most are in languages other than English.  Read the profiles of the various different people who are serving.  Please consider yourself, whatever country you are from (Canada, US, England, EU nations)  if God is calling you to serve for three months in this region.  There are national coordinators and recruitments in most countires.  Although affiliated with the World council of Chuches, EAs can be from any faith background.

I encourage you to consider how you might enter the peace building process where ever you may be.

















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Your morning commute is easy!!!

Three times a week, here in Palestine, my team in the south Hebron Hills is responsible for monitoring a checkpoint in the area called Meitar: a crossing point for Palestinians who have work permits to travel to Israel for short term employment.  What this means, is that two of us in the EAPPI team get up at about 3:00, pack our brochures, cell phones and ‘people counters’ and travel with Abed, our driver and interpreter, for 35 minutes, to the checkpoint.  Once there,  we walk to an area just below the guard tower, a huge, grey, imposing cylindrical pillbox with hydraulic windows.  We make sure to be noticed by the guards, and then begin counting the people, overwhelmingly men, as they pass through the ‘cattle runs’ and then the turnstiles.  We are gathering data on how many workers use this checkpoint daily and how long it takes them to pass through the process.

At first glance, one might think that this is like any ‘border-crossing’ with necessary procedures in place to ensure that only people who have the right travel documents get entry to a neighbouring country.  You might think that it is important for Israel’s security, given past instances of bombings or violence by Palestinians, that they put screening measures in place.  It is important however to put this measure in context and to examine both the purposes and the results of this kind of screening action.

At Meitar, approximately 2200 workers pass during the 3 hour period that we are monitoring.  As workers enter the terminal building, they are funneled into metal stalls that weave back and forth to control the flow of people toward a magnetic turnstile.  Once through this turnstile, the people line up to go through a first screening of their travel documents.  An Israeli employee sits in a booth with a switch that opens and closes the turnstiles.  This person does a first cursory glance at the Palestinian person’s ID and permit, then allows them through to the next screening level.  There are three metal detectors and x-ray machines at this point.  Workers must empty their pockets, take off their belts, remove their outer jackets and put all their belongings on a conveyor belt that puts these items through a scanner, then the worker passes through the metal detector him (or her) self.  The work permits and documents are then given a more thorough examination.  If everything is in order, the worker then proceeds to the next level of screening.

If under 35, this almost always includes a full body x-ray scan, using those 3D scanners that have become de rigeur at many International airports. If over 35, we have been told by “Morden” the manager of the facility, workers are assigned to the x-ray procedure on a random 1 in 5 pattern.  All workers have to undergo ‘fingerprint’ scanning on a daily basis.

Then, the workers who have met every level of screening, hurriedly reassemble their belongings and their clothing, belts etc. and hustle to walk the remaining distance to the exit and ultimately, to the taxis that carry them to their work in Israel.

Part of our monitoring has us pass through the crossing so that we can meet workers at the exit and get an accurate estimate of their transit time through the process.  We have devised a card system, written in Arabic that the workers are given at the entry point with their entry time marked.  Once they pass through, they hand the card to the EA standing on the Israeli side who records the time at exit.  We note the average times.  We note the demographic differences between those who take long and those who go through quickly.  In South Hebron Hills, we are the first group of EAs to do this checkpoint duty.  Over time we will see how we might contribute to the smoothness of this process, as dehumanizing and potentially unhealthy (x-ray exposure) as it is.

In many other parts of the country, EAs monitor worker checkpoints and agricultural gates.  We gather information about why workers are denied entry, or when argicultural gates do not open as scheduled, or when farmers are disallowed from carrying their tools across the checkpoint to their land. We feed this data to a human rights group in Israel  (B’Tselem) and also communicate with Machsom Watch, an Israeli women’s group who also monitor the checkpoints.  As needed, we communicate with The Humanitarian Hotline of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to ask why the process is slowed or delayed.

Every morning, workers must queue up for the privilege of travelling to work in Israel.  These workers build houses, roads, and industrial buildings.  They are sanitation workers, gardeners, meat packers, and in some cases doctors and nurses.  The infrastructure and civic functioning of Israel depends on these people, yet Israel treats them as ‘criminals in waiting’.  The daily humiliation and inconvenience and stress tells on many of the faces I see pass by on checkpoint mornings.

And yet, there is also, at least at Meitar, a kind of resigned patience.  Some of the workers are funny,and bubbly as they pass.  “Sabah Ilkhair”  Sabah Noor”  “Kif halek, Hajji?”  “Sabah Walid!”…. “Il Hamdillallah!”   “Good morning!  Morning light!  How are you today, my good woman?  (Hajji is a respectful term for a woman of a certain age!) “Good morning with a flower!”  “Praise God, for good health!”  Some greet us with their few English words:  “Good Morning!”  “Where are you from?”

Others look barely awake…. not surprising when they must get up daily at 3:00 to go through this process.  Some look dejected and sad.

A sight that never fails to stir me is as I come around the corner from my walk through the checkpoint is row upon row of men, standing, facing Mecca, being lead in the prayers of the morning by one of their peers, and kneeling in successive prostrations, touching forehead to the earth in reverence to Allah.  After their prayers, the men walk through the early morning dark to go to the taxis that will take them another 40 minute journey to the city of Beersheva, or to other places of their work.

For me…. my path to the checkpoint is through the side designated for International visitors or Israeli citizens.  My passport is checked and then I am escorted to the metal detector.  I wait maybe three minutes for my passport to be checked, then I am on my way.  I walk through, but if I were in a car with an Israeli plate, the process would be even smoother.  No check at all for me or my vehicle.  In the great democracy of Israel, it would seem that some are more equal than others.

If it is really true that the separation barrier is about security only,  this arduos process for Palestinians is still an example of ‘killing a fly with a sledge hammer’.

In so many ways, the occupation is designed to wear down the spirit of the Palestinian people.  To create conditions that are unlivable, to the point that people give up and emigrate… leave to a neighbouring Arab country or to some other place.  and this is having some impact.  Daily, several times daily, people quietly ask me if I can help them get a visa out of Palestine (I can’t… and I won’t… and I am not allowed to!).

There is also another effect of the Occupation though, and that is to strengthen the spirit of resistance, and determination.  There is much laughter and teasing among the workers and often, there is laughter and humour among the villagers I visit.  Many people realize that the Occupation itself is, in so many way,s ludicrous.  International law gives people under occupation the right to resist.  Many Palestinians still approach this with a spirit that despite the humilation, is able to smile and say “Good morning with a flower…. Praise God, for good health.”

I believe they also say…. “In Shallah, (God willing) freedom will come.”

NB.  (Please note, the checkpoint photos here are from Taybeh checkpoint, not Meitar. We are forbidden from taking photos at the installation of Meitar and I do not want to jeopardize our standing there by trying!)

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Tear gas on the road to peace

Imagine if Henderson Highway were blocked to EK residents, and anyone with an address  between  Talbot and Bonner were no longer allowed to cross into downtown via Disraeli, Redwood Bridge, Chief Peguis Trail, nor any street going  East toward Transcona.  Imagine that you were issued a special  license plate that meant the only roads you could go on took you north to Lockport, then west to Main Street, then down Main back into Winnipeg.

This is akin to what the Palestinian residents of Kafr Qaddum in the West Bank have been living with every day for the past seven years.

In 2004, when the Israeli settlement of Qadumim began to expand, the Israeli settlers were concerned about Palestinians being able to drive past this area on their way to the next Palestinian village of Jit, or to the large urban centres of Nablus or Ramallah.  The Israeli Army, in response to the pressures of the settlers, put up a road block that barricaded the villagers of Kafr Qaddum from using this road.

The Palestinians lived with this inconvenience for seven years, tolerating a nearly 2 hour detour .  The cost in time and petrol of this closure has been huge for the community, so in July 2011 village leaders said, “enough is enough”.  They decided to protest this action by the Israeli Army, and demand that the road be re-opened.

Every Friday, after midday prayers at the Mosque, men and boys gather at the intersection near a small grocery store and walk to the road block, carrying flags and chanting.  For the past three Fridays, the Israeli Army has responded with forceful deterrence, shooting large quantities of tear gas into the small demonstration, sometimes without warning.

I attended the demonstration on Friday, August 5th, along with two other Ecumenical Accompaniers, Ida (Sweden) and Lucy (Brazil).  We stood at some distance on a rooftop, with our video and stillshot cameras.  We could see on the hillside, among the olive trees, about 10 Israeli soldiers equipped with riot gear and tear gas.  We had a good vantage to see the nearly 200 Palestinians on the road.  About eight minutes after the chanting began, we saw the men and boys came running down the road.  Less than 30 seconds later, the first canister of tear gas came spiraling in the air.  Shockingly, four canisters landed within 15 meters of our position, as we stood in full view more than 100 meters from the nearest protester!  Either the soldiers have very poor aim, or they were given orders to target the international observers to prevent us from documenting this aggressive action.

I can tell you, tear gas hurts!  It is not a gentle way of dispersing a crowd.  The gas chokes the throat, stings the eyes and burns on the skin.  We were grateful for the onions we had earlier stashed in our pockets, to make our eyes water enough to flush the gas residue.

As you EK residents wait in line this summer and into 2012 for the Disraeli Bridge work to be completed, think about your fortunate freedom of movement!  This is a right that is not granted to the Palestinian residents of Kafr Qaddum, although this is their own land.  They are under occupation by Israel and their cars licenses and Palestinian IDs mark them as subject to special controls.  If peace is to come in this land between Israelis and Palestinians,  equality must be developed first.  There should be no more detours on the road to justice.

Dianne Baker is a Winnipeg resident living in The West Bank for three month with The Ecumenical Accompaniment Program for Palestine and Israel.  The aims of the program are to work with Israeli and Palestinian groups using non-violent means to  establish a just peace and to end the Occupation through application of International Law, International Humanitarian Law, UN resolutions and respect for Human rights.  EAPPI is a program of The World Council of Churches.

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Where are the Women?

One of the tasks given to our team here in the South Hebron Hills is to find ways to develop connections with informal networks of women, in Yatta and in the villages we visit regularly.  This is something of a challenge since in this somewhat traditional town, in a more conservative part of Palestine, women do not generally gather outside of their families or immediate neighbourhoods.  One suggestion was that we offer to teach some basic English conversational classes for young women students at the Al Quds Open University in Yatta.  a good suggestion, except that for the timing of our EAPPI group, the University is closed for the month of July for holidays, then is closed for Ramadan which happens this year to be the entire month of August.  So… we need to rethink our strategy.

Where are the women?  Sometimes they are quite hard to find in the villages.  They are so very occupied with child care, food preparation, tending animals and carrying water.  They may appear to serve tea or food when our group is meeting with the men and older boys, or they may be the ones who know a little more English, so are called on to translate, but not to offer their own ideas.  We are still trying to find a formal way to hear the voices of the women in south Hebron Hills.  One challenge is that our primary interpreter is male and the women would not speak openly in his presence. when the women are present, we have to specifically direct questions at them, or they will not generally answer.  Sometimes they even sit behind the men.

Maybe in the fall, we will have a couple of weeks to establish connections with girls’ schools that the next group of EA’s in South Hebron Hills can build on. We do have a plan to meet the headmaster of Yatta’s Open University next week to talk about plans for September.

Meanwhile, one thing I often do is slip out of the ‘meetings’ and find the children, and engage them in play or conversation and let them lead me to the women.
Bubbles, balloons and face paints have all been fabulous tools for enticing the children to help me meet their older sisters, mothers or aunties!  (my clowning past has served me well!)  In one isolated community, I started blowing soap bubbles with children and with a few moments, began to see the scarf covered heads of teen age girls and young women poke out of the kitchen building.  Several (5 or 6) young women came out and took turns with the bubble wand, laughing shyly at one another and with delight as the bubbles drifted on the breeze.  Soon, they were showing me their kitchen building and their chickens, the sheep pen with the attached room where they can watch when lambing occurs without distressing the sheep.  They showed me their taboun (earthen oven heated with burning sheep manure) and discussed the various skills needed to bake good bread.  They showed me the sleeping platform where they can enjoy the breeze at night and see the stars. They talked about the fears they experience when the nearby settlers come down to the village and harass them as they graze their sheep, even threatening them with guns or hitting the small children on their way to school. None of them would let me take their pictures; they need the permission of their fathers or husbands for that, but they shared a lot of themselves and their lives. Through their meager school acquire English and my poor Arabic, with the aid of gestures and a dictionary, we laughed our way through understanding one another for a good 40 minute visit.

In the village of Wadi J’Hesh, things seem a little bit different.  The young women here are influenced by a gentle but firm woman named Aliya Nawajah.  She and her husband, Abu Foad, have five sons and three daughters (still living).  Aliya keeps a beautiful compound with flowers as well as functional plants.  She takes pride in her family and encourages them to learn English.  The girls have taken this to heart and are somewhat better at it than are the boys.  When we visit, we exchange words and greetings.  Using drawing and gestures we get a much better idea of life and its obstacles here.  Aliya has stated with such clarity here commitment to the land and her determination to continue to resist the ongoing pressures from the settlers, who harass with words, ATVs crushing their crops, and even interfering with the water cistern. Aliya says “The settlers say  ‘Go away! This land is for us’.  But I say, we have been here for since before they came, since before 1948.  I will martyr for my land. I will make my grave here.”  Aliya wants to assert her rights in a non-violent way, and to teach her family to use the tools of photography, video and calling lawyers to prevent harassment.  But sometimes, she has had no resort but to lift a stick.  The young women want to be brave, like Aliya, but they confess to us, “We are afraid.  Sometimes we cry.  We don’t know when settlers might come and none of our men are here.”

These strong voices of resistance and determination need to be heard, and there are surely stories all over the West Bank like this.

Meanwhile, I reach out and join in quiet accompaniment with those women I can reach.  I admire and hold their babies,  I sit and knit while they spin and we admire one another’s handiwork.  I join them at the taboun, squatting awkwardly on my heels as they lean effortlessly over hot rocks.  I will feed the chickens, and carry water to the donkey if it offers a moment of leisure to a woman who works hard in the sun.  And whenever I can, I will affirm their dignity and the work they do to nurture hope in their children for a future of peace.

Where are the women?  They are everywhere;  not silent, but sometimes not heard.  In a small way, I hope our accompaniment work can change that a little.

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