In the Light, Palestine-Israel: New directions for Quaker-related institutions

2013 may be the big year of transitions for Quaker and Quaker-related institutions in Palestine-Israel. First the Friends International Center in Ramallah (FICR) is currently evolving, having been initially an experiment in connecting better with the local community. Its founding coordinator, Kathy Bergen, has retired. FICR had become a significant source of transformation in the West Bank thru its cultural, educational, and political programs. The FICR board and the Ramallah Friends Meeting are currently working toward clearness on what will come next. I am exceedingly grateful to have been in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel during spring 2013 while some of this transition emerged.

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Ramallah Friends Meeting House, photo by Anarchopacifist

The American Friends Service Committee has ended its main project, Popular Achievement, after nearly 10 successful years and will turn over implementation of several new directions and funding to Palestinian organizations. While the Ramallah Friends Meeting continues to provide an invaluable spiritual base for residents of Palestine and international visitors, regularly hosting groups such as the Christian Peacemakers teams, when I attended, the majority of participants were internationals. The Ramallah Friends School and the main regional AFSC office continue, both as far as I can determine, with strength and stability.

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Kathy Bergen, retiring FICR coordinator

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Jean Zaru, presiding clerk of Ramallah Friends Meeting

A little more detail: FICR was affected from two directions. The bank that had been serving the Ramallah Friends Meeting and FICR was undergoing an international investigation for some possible irregularities. Because it was found that the Ramallah Friends Meeting account had been operating a sub account for FICR, the bank examiners determined that this presented a problem and closed the account.  At the same time, the Israeli authorities responsible for issuing long-term visas would not provide any response to questions about whether Kathy’s shortened visa was a sign of termination or if renewal might be a possibility. Such uncertainty made it impossible to plan for a future that required keeping a non-citizen as a Program Coordinator.

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Jean Zaru with Saida Khader, West Bank AFSC staff person, in front of the Ramallah Friends Meeting annex

The FICR Steering Committee is presently in a period of expectant waiting and looking forward to the planning meeting with members of Ramallah Friends Meeting in October. Possibilities that have been suggested by the community would be short-­term Friends in Residence, Muslim/Christian conversations around specific subjects of direct concern to Palestinians, ongoing conflict reduction/Alternatives to Violence programs, and spiritual foundations of peace-­making. In general, requests from the community have been for going deep in a few specific things rather than going broadly in many. Most agree that the Meeting and FICR are one entity so another outcome is likely to be a name that reflects the unity going forward.

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Deborah First, clerk of FICR’s board

At Kathy’s goodbye party in April 2013 (which I attended) when she was feted and lauded for her 7 years of devoted work, many of us felt that if the energy present at that party could be focused into leadership—preferably not an individual but some form of collective—FICR would continue. To further quote Deborah First in a recent email to me:

…We (the Meeting and FICR) have retained Hekmat [a local woman] …at least through the end of December [2013] and perhaps for much longer. Plans for ongoing spiritually connected workshops (that is a vital connection for the maintenance of our church status) will unfold this fall. Meanwhile, much repair work is happening on the Meetinghouse and the Annex ­roof tiles, leak, irrigation system, and so on ­ and the stream of visitors keeps coming. Hekmat has been arranging, and is present for, hospitality at the rise of Meeting each Sunday and is glad to do so. There is a sense of peace about the slow and steady work of the spirit….

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Omar Barghouti, founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel 

As for the AFSC: since 2004 the Quaker Palestine Youth Program in Gaza and the West Bank has concentrated on training youth, college age and high school. In an interactive and playful manner its Popular Achievement Program taught leadership and community building skills to volunteers. Once the graduates (now termed coaches) had successfully completed this training, the program required they recruit a group of high school youth to train in the same manner. The coaches then helped the younger youth design and implement a community service project such as a library, landscaping, first aid workshop, and conversion of an abandoned Israeli military base into a football (soccer) field. The AFSC joined with 11 strategic partners including NGO’s and universities to train more than 6000 young people.

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Gaza office of the Quaker Palestine Youth Program

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Popular Achievement programs in Gaza and the West Bank

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Photography workshop students (and friends) in Gaza taught by Skip Schiel

The new direction has 4 main goals, all in my view characterized by enhanced political content: challenging and transforming militarized societies in Israel, Palestine, and the US; fostering cohesion of disparate Palestinian groups (West Bank, Gaza, Israel, and the diaspora); supporting the boycott-divest-sanction (BDS) international campaign as called for in 2005 by Palestinian civil society; and supporting active nonviolence and social change movements to transform the occupation and inequality generally.

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SodaStream (targeted by the BDS campaign) factory in an illegal settlement industrial park in the West Bank,

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Landfill illegally operated by Veolia (also targeted by the BDS campaign) in the Jordan Valley of the West Bank

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Sahar Vardi, AFSC staff, East Jerusalem, at a demonstration in Al Masara

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Al Masara, near Bethlehem

To implement this new direction AFSC will close down its West Bank and Gaza offices (West Bank immediately and Gaza in 3 years, altho the Gaza office may transition into an NGO with AFSC support), devolve direction to local partners (such as Baladna and Pal Vision), and continue funding. It will maintain its East Jerusalem office. The new program, “Palestinian Youth: Together for Change,” is slated to run until 2016. Quoting the regional director, Patricia Sellick, directly:

This is the context in which we are working:

20 years after Oslo the Israeli military occupation is entrenched and conditions of Palestinians are deteriorating Israel remains a highly militarized society and is attempting to extend a militarized civilian service to its Palestinian citizens US continues to support Israel with military aid The vulnerability of Palestinian refugees across the region has been highlighted by the predicament of the stateless Palestinians living in Syria

Within this context, AFSC reviewed its plans for Israel and Palestine programming in June 2012 and identified the following priorities (explained further in the attached document):

Demilitarization Economic Activism Non-violence and social change Palestinian cohesion

These strategic priorities have led to the redesign of our Israel, Palestine and US programs. These three programs are coordinated but separate.

…The new project started July 2013 and like the previous project has funding from Bread for the World. I would like to emphasize that our overall funding for the Palestine Program has increased. Staff cuts do not mean budget cuts, they reflect the fact that the Middle East region will now be spending a greater proportion on our partners and a smaller proportion on AFSC staff.

I raise the question: how can AFSC effectively end control and influence while it maintains funding? What if a partner wishes to advocate or at least allow a more militant approach to resistance, one that contradicts AFSC’s non-violence principles? Another question: if the direction is more political, ie, toward ending the occupation and siege, will Israel allow the AFSC the latitude it’s experienced over its more than 60 years in Palestine-Israel? To compile this report I’ve spoken with most staff, including Patricia Sellick, and the general secretary, Shan Cretin. I’m in touch with key people for constant updates. AFSC has produced an exciting new newsletter specific to the region.

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Shan Cretin, General Secretary, AFSC

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Patricia Sellick, Regional Director, AFSC

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Amal Sabawi, director of the Quaker Palestine Youth Program in Gaza

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Ibrahem Shatali, program officer, Quaker Palestine Youth Program in Gaza

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Islam Madhoun, Intelligence Technology office, Quaker Palestine Youth Program in Gaza

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Firas Ramlawi, business officer, Quaker Palestine Youth Program in Gaza

From most Palestinian staff I heard some hard feelings. Some claimed they’d not been consulted and of course they were not happy about losing their jobs (altho some may transition into new AFSC positions or be able to use their expertise with other organizations). To some it felt like a classic top down decision-making process. Ms. Sellick claimed all staff had been consulted and AFSC was responding to suggestions and requests made by Palestinian organizations. Furthermore she said the big picture is hard to view from a staff position. I am happy to wait and see, revise my thoughts as new programs unfold, and support them in any way possible with my photography. I am grateful to be a small part of a large process, one that dates back to 1869 when 2 Quakers from my region of New England, Eli and Sybil Jones, met a young Arab girl in Ramallah. They asked, what can we do? She answered, provide education for girls. From such a humble origin, great and worthy institutions formed. They will continue. Contact info for the AFSC: regional director Patricia Sellick (p.sellick@afsc.org) and her team in the Middle East Regional office. And for FICR, board clerk Deborah First, (deborahfirst@mac.com).

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Early 20th century

LINKS

AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) in Palestine-Israel

FICR (Friends International Center in Ramallah) Popular Achievement Program

AFSC position paper-2013 (also available in Arabic)

AFSC-BDS Campaign

Quakers in Israel & Palestine—Timeline by Skip Schiel

Notes on My Quaker Connections in Palestine 

Photos by Skip Schiel

7 thoughts on “In the Light, Palestine-Israel: New directions for Quaker-related institutions

  1. Thanks for the update Skip. I hope that the influence of the Friends and the AFSC remain strong, despite the staff cuts. I am sorry to see such talented and wonderful people cut.

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