At the UNRWA school in Aida refugee camp
Her eyes and the tattoo on her hands are Palestinian,
Her name, Palestinian,
Her dreams and sorrow, Palestinian,
Her kerchief, her feet and body, Palestinian,
Her words and her silence, Palestinian,
Her voice, Palestinian,
Her birth and her death, Palestinian.
Writing at 9:22 pm on November 22, 2007 in a smoky Internet café, not my best time for writing but doing what I can while with the Cambridge-Bethlehem delegation, I need to write to begin processing the Bethlehem tour.
The first full day included meetings with the Bethlehem municipality, Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, Peace Center on Manger Square, Husam Jubran who is a practitioner and workshop leader in nonviolence, and the Terra Santa school operated by the Franciscans. Along with a very long-feeling evening meeting trying to build our own delegation community, transcend inherent commutation problems, and make strategic decisions. I should add a full Arabic lunch with pita bread, varieties of salad, lamb and chicken kabobs, and baklava. Beer and wine included.
One highlight for several of us was the heartfelt plea by Fayrouz J. Khoury, the director of the Chamber of Commerce, for the Palestinians to be treated as human beings. His eloquence brought tears to the eyes of some of us. And reminded me of the truth that often the very best human achievement is treating others as fellow human beings—exhibiting loving kindness, compassion, agape love—and the very worst we can perpetrate is treating others as subhuman—demonstrating viciousness, hatred, demonization, dehumanization. An irony of oppression: those who mistreat others mistreat themselves, those who deny the humanity of others deny their own humanity.
Aida refugee camp, Annexation Wall in background
Case in point: the Separation Wall around and thru Bethlehem. I say “thru” because this 8 m high concrete monstrosity with watchtowers and checkpoints roves thru much of Bethlehem. Adding to the imprisonment are the illegal settlements ringing much of Bethlehem: on ridge tops, confiscated (sometimes legitimately purchased) Palestinian lands including the only forest of Bethlehem, bright and glaring, day and night. they suggest vultures waiting to pounce on the encircled and trapped victims.
Adding brilliantly to this picture were the words of the Chamber director. He outlined the complete control Israel imposes on Palestine. One story stood out: the Gazan strawberries. This is a harvest season, and, he claimed, Gaza is the only source of fresh strawberries at this time of year (early winter) anywhere in the world. Highly valuable and you’d expect a boon to the Gazan community. Yet: because of the impermeability of Gaza—Israel controls air, water, and land access (while claiming it’s disengaged)—transport of this crop out of Gaza is virtually impossible. The strawberries must be kept at a low temperature and even then can survive only a few days. Too bad, held up at the Karni Crossing, the only commercial crossing out of Gaza, they rot and are either dumped or sold at below profit making prices.
We are all aware of one response made by some Palestinians to this atrocity: armed struggle, otherwise known crudely as terrorism. And terrorism it is when targeting the innocents as armed militant groups like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad implement. I do not support this, nor I’m told, do most Palestinians. However, there is also a small nonviolence movement and this evening Husam Jubran outlined his view. First, the idea of nonviolence is not new to Palestine. During the British Mandate period it was part of the struggles against the British and the Jews, especially prevalent as a strike from 1936 to 1939. The first intifada, a grass roots movement from 1987 thru the early 1990s was 95% nonviolent, consisting of tax resistance, alternative education sites when Israel closed schools, boycotts, refusal to carry Israeli issued identification papers, etc. Led in large part spontaneously by local women, its leadership shifting as Israel arrested, imprisoned, exiled, and killed leaders, it was eclipsed when the Palestinian Liberation Organization returned from exile in Tunis.
In the UNRWA school in the Aida refugee camp
Sadly, nonviolence in Jubarn’s view, is not yet a movement. His workshops intend to sow the seeds of nonviolence for later fruition when the soil is more suitable—a pragmatic nonviolence rather than a principled one although he now includes the examples of Gandhi and King and others to suggest of how principled nonviolence might work.
Today (November 25): a long visit with the—oh how good this feels, writing with relative ease, usually blocked from doing it by time and technologic constraints—the Al Rowwad Cultural and Theater Training Center in Aida camp. (Aida means return) Abdelfattah Abusrour is the director. Bread and Puppet theater had been there in March 2007, he knows Peter. Schumann, the director. They also have a media unit, video and photography. Abdel is a vibrant, charismatic, articulate, handsome spokesperson for the center, and presumably the founder. Their slogan: “With or without money we’re going to do it.”
After hearing statistics on the camp—8,000 residents, some 65% of them children, 70% unemployment, over half in poverty, not far from Rachel’s tomb, near the wall—he showed us a video about the program. Besides theater, video and photography, they tour plays and a dance troupe, offer classes in computers, Arabic, English, some sports, show movies, sponsor talks, etc. They have little funding. He has a PhD in biochemistry, studied in France, has some funding from France, taught for some years at Bethlehem University, left that a few years ago for fulltime volunteering with the Center. Now he’s a Oshaka fellow for a 3-year term, with 1.5 yrs remaining. He toured us around the camp and to the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) school. A rooftop nearby offered a spectacular view of the wall, the gates, Rachel’s tomb and the camp. I made a panoramic, suggested by Rick when he asked me to make a wide-angle photo.
Aida refugee camp
This morning unfortunately I suffered my first migraine of the trip. The usual loss of central vision, then peripheral, then a robust headache which continued for some 5 hours. Whether this was brought on by my circumstances—on the road, in Palestine/Israel, disappointing news from home, the delegation—I’m not sure. Others are suffering as well, all minor as far as I’m aware, colds and general fatigue mostly. Small in comparison to our neighbors’ suffering.
To list a few sites we visited: the Maher Center for children, offering support services for kids undergoing cancer treatment (meeting Yahia Abu Sharif, the father who founded the organization, not asking but wondering how he transformed grief into constructive energy; always a great gift), Dheisheh refugee camp (dheisheh meaning wild place, referring to the jungle-like vegetation growing on the site before it became a camp) and Ibdaa Cultural Center (ibdaa in Arabic means to create something out of nothing), the cultural center, with a dabka performance followed by dinner in Ibdaa’s restaurant; a women’s olive oil making cooperative (not profitable after 3 years, curious about how to market it outside Palestine); the Phineq Community Center (meaning phoenix, rising up after destroyed repeatedly by the Israeli Occupation Forces); the Museum of Bethlehem history, which is in a 19th or before century Ottoman house with furnishings and implements that we (only Omar, Grove and I toured) could touch; dining at the famous Tent where I’d been with the Steps of the Magi Pilgrimage in 2005, noticing all the extraordinarily beautiful young women, mostly with men, mostly with long straight blond or black hair (the style?); and various NGO’s, not including ARIJ, the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem which I’d hoped to meet because of their water work, but including organizations concerned with the right of refugee return, prisoner rights, etc.
In the Bethlehem American school
How’s this all feel to me? Maybe the migraine speaks for my reaction. Or maybe not. I do not feel good about all this, obviously. Sometimes I wonder why I persist. Some themes emerge: how sustain resistance, how build hope, how move from anger and outrage to constructive energy, how find colleagues both here and at home, how share the message for my various discoveries, and how to love and be loved in a world of such suffering? My experience suggests a title for an essay to be written: “The Politics of Hope.”
Van driver navigating a checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem
Quick Facts (2007):
Population of approximately 27,000.
65% Muslim and 35% Christian.
Located approximately 5 miles from Jerusalem.
Birthplace of Jesus Christ.
Location of Rachel’s Tomb.
Tourism industry employs 20% of population
Population of approximately 12,000.
Unemployment rate is 60%.
Highest percentage of university graduates in Palestine.
75% of residents are Christian.
Industries: chemicals, stone work, textiles, crafts, tourism.
Location of “Shepherd’s Field” where angels announced the birth of Jesus in the Biblical story.
Population of over 12,000 people.
Name, in Aramaic, means grass carpet.
Highest point located 900 meters above sea level.
Main agriculture: olives, grapes, apricots, apples and plums.
Land threatened by 3 settlements: Gilo, Har Gilo, Giv”at Hamatos.
Population by religious affiliation: 7,000 Greek Orthodox, 2,500 Roman Catholics, 2,000 Muslims and 500 Protestants.