Posts Tagged ‘american friends service committee’


Gaza and the West Bank of Palestine and Israel

Brit Quakers 3

2014-08-04BathYMGBigTop-The Big Top at Yearly Meeting Gathering in Bath. | Photo- Photo- Trish Carn.

Epilogue, Monday 4th August Photo- Fran Lane


The scarf lining the route between Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston and Burghfield | Photo: Photo: Luke Massey.

“Several hundred protesters [from Britain Yearly Meeting] were on hand Saturday, 9 August 2014, for the unfurling of an enormous pink scarf along the seven miles of road between the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) sites at Aldermaston and Burghfield. The protest was intended to show the scale of opposition to Trident replacement in the UK.”

Quaker queries

A letter to my Quaker monthly meeting (and beyond), Friends Meeting at Cambridge, dear Friends,

At this summer’s New England Yearly Meeting sessions with its theme of witness, during the height of violence in Gaza and Israel, numerous Friends expressed deep concern to me personally (who many of you know has been directly connected with that region thru the American Friends Service Committee and other agencies), and in plenaries and interest groups. Yet—a huge yet—not a word that I heard from business meetings. No minutes of concern, no suggested responses, no debate, not even discussion. One possible reason for this silence is the fear of taking sides, or offending people, or diverting attention from proper business, or stepping outside the mandate of “spirituality,” or fostering division. And in our own monthly meeting, Cambridge, speaking out often counters similar resistance.

Martin Luther King Jr stated that silence is betrayal, or, alternately, silence is complicity.

British Friends during their yearly meeting, 2000 people strong, raised its voice. are they not a model for us?

Here’s how they began their bold statement:

Amid faltering ceasefires and talks, Quakers in Britain are calling for urgent action on Gaza. They urge the UK Government to recognise Palestine as a nation state; they call for a comprehensive arms embargo on all sides in the conflict and for an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza and occupation of Palestine.

The calls for action come in a statement made by the decision making body of Quakers in Britain, the Yearly Meeting, attended by 2,000 Quakers in Bath.  As part of their commitment to peacemaking, Quakers continue to challenge anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

  • The Yearly Meeting heard essential steps towards full and fair negotiations:
  • Palestine to be recognised as a nation state
  • An end to indiscriminate fire by all sides
  • A comprehensive arms embargo
  • An end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and blockade of Gaza
  • Freeing elected Palestinian leaders now held as political prisoners
  • The use of international law to hold all parties to account for their actions….

For the full statement.

And for general information from a reliable Quaker source: Quaker Palestine Israel Network, and Quakers with a Concern for Palestine and Israel.

And from the American Friends Service Committee.

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Friends Meeting at Cambridge meeting house



Meeting for worship outside Textron Industries, manufacturer of war munitions like cluster bombs, held monthly for nearly 6 years by Friends Meeting at Cambridge

British Quakers [in 2012] call for end to use of force in Gaza

Hague court under western pressure not to open Gaza war crimes inquiry” by Julian Borger

Israel bars Amnesty, Human Rights Watch workers from Gaza” by Amira Hass

One Result of the Gaza Conflict: Iran and Hamas Are Back Together” by Kay Armin Serjoie

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Directed by Tom Jackson of Joe Public Films, the 60 minute movie strives to open eyes and hearts to the reality of life in occupied Palestine. We dedicate our movie to the youth of Gaza, infancy to young adulthood, in hopes that they will soon experience, freedom, peace with justice, and the reality of “All we want is to be ordinary,” in the words of Mahmoud Darwish.

Eyewitness Gaza is a recent documentary movie about Gaza thru the photography of Skip Schiel. Between 2004 and 2010 he visited Gaza five times, shortly before and after Operation Cast Lead, the vicious Israeli assault on a virtually defenseless people trapped in the Strip and under siege since 2006. Because Israel justifies its ongoing attacks by citing the rockets fired by Gazan militants into Israeli civilian areas (Schiel opposes any attacks on civilians, and generally any use of violence by any party for any reason, an element of his Quaker and Christian beliefs), Schiel visited one of those towns, Sderot. less than 1 mile from Gaza. During two recent trips he has gained first-hand experience of life among Israelis, assessed trauma, and supported Israelis who contest some Israeli policies.


The movie is  downloadable (maybe not with the same quality as on PEG Media, noted below) on YouTube.

And on Vimeo.

To order DVD copies of the movie.

Three minute preview

Thru PEG Media Public Access TV stations and producers can download a full version of our movie, Eyewitness Gaza. First register as a user. Then find the fastest and most stable connection possible, though­­ otherwise it will take forever and if the connection is lost, one must begin again.


Eyewitness Gaza download

About the movie (with a preview).

In addition to this movie, Schiel has published a book by the same title. And maintains a website and this blog. He is also available to tour with his slide shows and photo exhibitions. You can usually reach him at skipschiel@gmail.com and 617-441-7756.

Photos from the movie:







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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.


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.


Kathy Bergen, retiring FICR coordinator


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.


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.


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….



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.


Gaza office of the Quaker Palestine Youth Program

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Popular Achievement programs in Gaza and the West Bank


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.


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


Patricia Sellick, Regional Director, AFSC


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


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


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


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).


Early 20th century


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

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Political power is controlled by the corporate elite, and the arts are the locale for a kind of guerilla warfare in the sense that guerillas look for apertures and opportunities where they can have an effect.

—Howard Zinn

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Young man in a park, Gaza City


Inbal Yahav, telling how she lost a close friend in a Gazan mortar attack, Netiv Ha’asara, an Israeli moshav (cooperative agricultural community) next to the Gaza Strip


During a trauma healing session in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip


Nader Abu Amsha, director of YMCA Rehabilitation Program & Beit Sahour Branch

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West Jerusalem

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Watching a performance of the Jenin Freedom Theater at a water rights demonstration in the Jordan River Valley

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Coaches at a training for the Quaker Palestine Youth Program, Gaza City


An interlude in my series of journal extracts about my recent trip. That series will continue.

Often while photographing in Palestine-Israel for 3 months this spring I despaired. For several reasons: in Gaza and the West Bank, the paucity of popular unarmed resistance to the occupation; by Israeli Jews, the absence of awareness about the occupation and siege; and my own sense of futility about my work. There are exceptions of course, Gush Shalom, Other Voice, and Emek Shaveh for instance in Israel, and some local popular resistance groups in Palestine, such as struggle in the villages of Bil’in, Budrus, Al Masara, Al Walaja, and Nabi Saleh in the West Bank and a few locations in Gaza. Yet, in my 8 trips there since 2004 I’ve never felt so crushed.


Beneficiary of the East Jerusalem YMCA’s rehabilitation program

However, I returned to my home in the USA to join with activists on campaigns such as BDS—Boycott-Divest-Sanction. I work with Jewish Voice for Peace, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights and other local and regional organizations struggling to bring justice with peace and security to all parties in Israel-Palestine. This work nourishes me, offers me ways to use my photography, provides hope. As a friend, Loretta Williams, signs her letters, “In Struggle is the Hope.”

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Watching the Holy Fire Eastern Christian Orthodox Holy Fire procession on Easter, Beit Sahour (Bethlehem)

To be precise about my itinerary: 1 week in Jerusalem to acclimate politically and historically to the region, 4 weeks in Gaza to photograph the activities of the Quaker Palestine Youth Program and to teach photography to young adults, 4 weeks in Bethlehem to work (nominally—I’ll explain this later) with the Palestine News Network, 2 weeks in Ramallah with the Quaker Palestine Youth Program in the West Bank to photograph their work and teach, and in Jerusalem with the American Friends Service Committee to photograph for their BDS campaign. During my final week of 12, I explored the northern Mediterranean coast, the Israeli borderlands with Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, and trace the Jordan River from headwaters on Mt Hermon where it dumps (theoretically) into the Dead Sea.


Watching a man being fitted for a suit, Gaza City

A friend asked, what surprised you, Skip? Some people I met such as Jen Sieu from the USA who volunteered with me as a photographer and reporter at the Palestine News Network. We gave each other leads such as the Battir terraces threatened by the planned Israeli separation wall and early morning at the Bethlehem checkpoint. And Ayman Nijim, a psychosocial worker in the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza. He introduced me to a young men’s debka touring group and brought me to photograph his trauma healing program in the camp. And an old friend, Fareed Tawallah in Ramallah, with whom I shared the farmers’ market he co-founded, Sharaka.


Fatma M. Khateib, Project Coordinator at the psychosocial service agency, Afaq Jadeeda Association (New Horizons), in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip

Some places surprised me. For instance Netiv Ha’asara, an Israeli moshav hugging the Gaza wall, often targeted by Gaza mortars and militants. There I met Roni Keider and her daughter, Inbal Yahav. Inbal lost a close friend in a mortar attack. And the border zones mentioned earlier, actually viewing fences and army patrols, while I was able to look into neighboring countries, including Syria where violence rages. And the Battir terraces, ancient agricultural terraces that utilize natural water flows and could be partially destroyed if Israeli’s plans for extension of the separation wall succeed.

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Men’s-only pre-wedding party, Gaza City

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Taher Mhanna and his son Hesham

In Bethlehem I was chagrined to learn that the Palestine News Network made little use of my photos, offered virtually no support, and exhibited what I feel is a self-destructive policy of eschewing connections with Israeli organizations—the normalization policy—that persuaded them against using my and Jen’s photos about the Battir terraces. The reason? The project involved Friends of the Earth Middle East, a joint Palestinian-Israeli-Jordanian environmental effort to foster justice and peace thru concentration on the environment.

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Hamas security officers, Gaza City

Three final surprises: the major direction and staff changes in the American Friends Service Committee and Quaker programs which I will report on separately. And my friendship with a woman with whom I wrote and Skyped regularly, a very personal connection to home that warmed my heart. My daughter Katy as well, who cared so lovingly for my home and business.

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Participants in a water rights march in the Jordan River Valley

I’ve made many photos, written some blog entries, made some friends, and raised within myself many questions. For a few: what is the strategy of Palestinian unarmed resistance? Are Israeli occupation and settlement policies suicidal? Why is Gaza so often the center of resistance and the target of Israeli attacks? How does the terrain reflect the politics, especially the control of water? How much should I concentrate my photography on conflict vs ordinary life?

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Drinking water from a school pure water installation provided by the Middle East Children’s Alliance, Nuseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip 

Photography is one of my primary lifelines, for my own psychic survival at least. I must believe it has some value, even tho I am often disappointed with reactions to it—and my own self evaluations. I am nourished by the awareness that I am not alone in photography and activism. I photograph shoulder to shoulder with some of my mythical photographic mentors—Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, and W. Eugene Smith for 3 who are long dead, and Sebastião Salgado very much alive. And in politics I walk with Martin Luther King Jr and Jesus Christ, partners as teachers and martyrs.

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Participants in a Quaker Palestine Youth Program in occupied Palestine, West Bank

My next steps? Exhibit portraits at a regional Quaker gathering in August 2013, produce new slide shows and supplement old ones for upcoming national tours, perhaps publish a second book (the first is Eyewitness Gaza, available at blurb.com), post more blog and website entries, and develop new print exhibitions. The usual.

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Avi, proprietor of Abraham’s Tent, housing for travelers in the Golan, near Mt Hermon

I’ll end with some insights from James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without either dissection into science or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of the consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.

That is why the camera seems to me, next to unassisted and weaponless consciousness, the central instrument of our time; and is why in turn I feel such rage at its misuse: which has spread so nearly universal a corruption of sight that I know of less than a dozen alive whose eyes I can trust even so much as my own.

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The photographer resting in a field of aloes, West Jerusalem

I can imagine how tough it was to be over there. It’s reached a state of stasis, maybe. All the power held by Israel. All the Palestinian strategies of the past have failed in the face of that really evil state-power/religious-zealot-power/dysfunctional state/helped by holocaust drums and US Jews and Christian Zionists. And the Palestinians, too, in their government apparently tribal (legacy of the Tripoli-Arafat approach–non democratic really). Yikes.

—a friend (in a recent email to me)


Courtesy of Islam Madhoun & AFSC Gaza

A Long, Slow, Soft Landing in Boston



To learn more about Palestinian unarmed resistance to occupation (American Friends Service Committee):

“A brief overview of the situation in Palestine-Israel” by Skip Schiel

Playground Tour of Palestine” by Ilse Cohen

“Life Is A Catastrophe Now” by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, May 2013

“Israel is Outgassing its Unhealed Trauma,” by Paul Levy

“Why Land Day still matters,” by Sam Bahour and Fida Jiryis, March 30, 2012

“In Their Shoes (Obama in Israel & Palestine)” by Uri Avnery April 2013

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Gaza, mortar fired by Israeli army into a farming area, 2009


In a Gaza hospital recovering from an Israeli sniper attack, 2004


Boston Marathon bomb explodes, April 2013 (Courtesy Boston.com)


Boston Marathon bombing, April 2013 (AP Photo/The Daily Free Press, Kenshin Okubo)

Excerpts from my journal and letters as I explore the situation in Palestine and Israel (originally written on April 18, 2013)


Residing in Gaza, 7 times zones from Boston, I first learned about the Marathon bombings from my friend, S in Boston, whose friend was caught between both explosions. Her friend was certain she would die. I heard more from other friends in Boston and then when I arrived at the American Friends Service Committee office where I volunteer as a photographer and teacher of photography on Tuesday, April 16, 2013, one day after the bombing, I discovered most staff had heard about it, usually from news feeds on their smart phones. Apparently it is worldwide news.



American Friends Service Committee office, Gaza, April 2013


Gaza, March 2013

The AFSC staff here has been supportive of me—asking how I am, what I know, how I feel, etc. Never comparing it to violence here. But saying in effect, an injury to one is an injury to all. I do believe that suffering can enable compassion. The bombing reminds me of the Haymarket bombing in Chicago in the late 1800s. As some may recall, it led to a wave of arrests and several executions despite the lack of evidence. Yesterday’s anarchists, today’s terrorists.


I remain deeply troubled. I weep and feel anger at the same moment. Especially troubling is the cruel irony of so many legs lost at a marathon. Imagine: one moment, as you stand in the crowd marveling at how human beings can use their legs, perhaps feeling fatigued from standing so long waiting for friends to cross the finish line, thinking, how can I stand for one more moment—and then boom, no legs. Or feet or ankles.


(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)


(Courtesy dailymail.co.uk)

Now we might expect another round of fear-base hysteria with its consequent tightening of security.

Already a report in The Jewish Press, “Gaza Arabs Celebrate Boston Marathon Attack with Dance, Candies:” Shortly after the bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon, the Arabs of Gaza danced in the streets, handing out candies to passersby, Israel News Agency reported….

Perhaps, but I witnessed or heard nothing like this. And among my friends and colleagues the precise opposite.

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Gaza, the aftermath of various Israeli attacks, including white phosphorus (photos from the Internet)

From the director of the AFSC program in Gaza, Amal Sabawi:

Dear friends and colleagues in US,  

We think of you and feel your pain , and think about the innocents people who are the victims of violence and unlawfully murder . We hope that you, your families ,  your children and friends be safe and secured , we pray that peace would prevail in this world and end the suffering of millions of innocents on this earth

You are in our hearts and  thoughts

Love and peace is stronger than wars , on this earth what makes life worth living

Gaza with love


Amal Sabawai

Teaching photography in Gaza, May 2003

Skip Schiel teaching photography in Gaza, 2005 c (photo by Ibrahem Khadra)


Gaza, 2010



Haymarket Affair

Roseann Sdoia, Boston Marathon Bombing Amputee, Strides Forward” (PHOTOS) By Bridget Murphy, June 6, 2013

“Boston Marathon Terror Attack Fast Facts,” By CNN Library, June 9, 2013

Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli assault on Gaza, December 2008-January 2009 (Institute for Middle East Understanding)

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Hear the prayer of our soul. There speaks our truth and faith: To fulfill our task on earth we need Powers great from lands where spirits dwell, Strength that comes from friends who have died. —The House of Peace

Excerpts from my journal as I explore the situation in Palestine and Israel


March 25, 2013, Monday, Gaza City, Ramal neighborhood, El Shawwa Building, my home

Everything the same, everything different. That’s how I’d describe my current feeling upon arrival in Gaza yesterday [March 24, 2013]. Familiar surroundings and people in Gaza (this is my 6th visit), entirely different from the way I usually live and with whom I live and interact back home. From Jerusalem to the Erez crossing from Israel in about 90 minutes, paid for by the American Friends Service Committee with whom I work in Gaza, very smooth. The road narrowed and became more potholed the nearer as we approached Gaza. The driver was friendly but not communicative, probably the language differences. He has one young daughter, I told him about my family. He’d like to visit Gaza, but can’t because of Israeli restrictions. So much for that conversation.


Entering the border crossing or checkpoint, a massive one, buildings expanded significantly since I was last here in winter 2010, a young woman (behind glass and placed higher than me) interrogated me for about 5 minutes. Her first question was are you a journalist? I slipped and said, sort of, well no, not really. (I might have been barred had I identified as a journalist.) Doing what, with whom, who is the American Friends Service Committee, what do they do, why photography, photography for what and whom, etc ? I was puzzled by these questions since I had a permit. Is honoring such a permit conditioned on giving proper answers?

As I wrote my Levant list, with photos: One might ask: by what right does Israel control entrance into Gaza? The entrance hall is much larger than is probably needed. I’ve never seen more than a handful of people using it. Like a facility built for the Olympics and then the Olympics are cancelled, rendering the facility useless. I observed a family of Palestinians, 2 women, both obese, one very elderly, with a small child, going thru the turnstile—with wheeled luggage. All had problems. Had I not been under surveillance by the ubiquitous cameras I would have made photos. First the luggage, jammed thru, stuck, pushed, ejected, then the woman. The older woman held onto the turnstile as she painfully inched thru. And she could walk. What about those who can’t? A motorized cart awaited her and drove the small family the 2 or so km to the exit point.


Once past the prying cameras I pulled out my own and photographed fences, corridors, more motorized carts, walkers, etc. No rubble collectors like I had spotted 2 years ago, but I observed one tent with about 4 young men and boys in it, which I photographed, and another ramshackle structure that might have been a temporary dwelling. Do people risk their lives out here or has Israel relented slightly and does not fire on them?





I learned later that after the so-called Pillar of Cloud operation last November,  when Israel again assaulted Gaza, 8 days of unrelenting destruction, in a ceasefire agreement, Israel expanded the fishing area from 3 to 6 nautical miles. And then shrunk it again when militants fired rockets into southern Israel during Obama’s visit 2 weeks ago. After the group of Salafists (fundamentalist Muslims) admitted responsibility, Hamas arrested several men.


Going thru Palestinian security I photographed (with permission) an exploded Qassam rocket near a Koranic inscription, proudly displayed on top of a cabinet in the inspection office. As if to state, our religion sanctions violent resistance. The luggage check was cursory. Had I brought with me some booze and stuck it near the bottom of the luggage I doubt the inspector would have found it (unlike the last time I tried that). Luckily he did not find my medicinal pill cache. How would I explain this? Not drugs sir, simply meds. Here, try one. No questions by these officials. And of course the architectural differences between Israel and Palestine are dramatic, indicating power and wealth disparities very clearly.


First stop, the AFSC office where the director, Amal, greeted me and accepted a hug with cheek kisses (Only for Skip, she told a colleague). Islam greeted me with a bear hug, Mosab greeted me with hugs and cheek kisses, and I met some new staff, the taciturn Hamed, and a grim fellow stuck at his computer. My good friend Ibrahim was on his way to Tunisia with Firas for a World Social Forum, and Rana is out for 1 month after she slipped on oil and broke her leg. No sign of the ever-present cleaning woman with her insistent and incessant smile. They asked if I was glad to be back. Oh yes, very glad. When I enter the region, Palestine-Israel, I feel happy, mabsut. However, when I enter Gaza I am super happy, very mubsut. Wandering around while staff met to hire new personnel for a documentation project (that I might help with) I discovered a poster in Amal’s office showing 3 Chicago AFSC staff, Jennifer Bing, Miriam somebody, and a man I didn’t recognize. They smiled at the camera as Jennifer stood beside the photo I’d made of Amal at a Popular Achievement Program festival in Gaza in 2009. This pleases me, as I told Mosab, often much more than money.




“Tunisia hosts World Social Forum, and reflects challenges to Arab Spring”  by  on April 2, 2013

Popular Achievement Program of the American Friends Service Committee

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Those who have nothing they’re willing to die for are not fit to live.

—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

To give you a flavor of the life of one innocent abroad, a close call—for me and more vitally the Palestinians who experience this regularly.

The hour was late, the staff from the American Friends Service Committee and I were all tired, night was coming, we’d eaten very little all day. We’d passed 5 checkpoints on our way to Jenin and did not look forward to returning by that same route. We’d observed in the morning long lines of cars on their way south, which would have been our direction when returning. So we decided to drive thru Nablus, visit someone, have dinner, and return to Ramallah by an alternative route that would have minimum checkpoints. Part way there–a roadblock. Taxis waiting on the northern, Jenin side. We saw a few people walking over the earth mounds out of Nablus. We decided that Fida, Tahija and I would walk in while Thuqan drove around to meet us on the southern edge of Nablus. This would make possible a leisurely visit for at least 3 of us in Nablus.


Vehicles blocked by earth mounds

We soon discovered that this mound was only one of many, a series, stretching for at least 1 km, some 6 of them, dirt and stones heaped up, the road ditched. Fida had trouble walking up and down the mounds because she was recovering from a recent car accident and limped shakily. After 3 ascents we heard a gunshot, it echoed thru the canyon. The wadi scene was beautiful, the shot perplexing, we had no idea where it originated, where it was directed, and what it meant. Maybe hunters. We continued walking.

Then we heard shouting from high up in the hills, spotted 2 people, perhaps soldiers. Fida wasn’t sure what their message was. But she shouted in return, surprising Tahija and myself, in English, “I have a broken leg, I was in a car accident”–as if this might persuade soldiers to show some mercy. Instead: another shot. We ducked behind dirt mounds. We inched our way back and retreated, not sure the shot was fired at us or to warn us. Later Fida suggested they had shouted, “Go back or we will shoot you.” We chuckled about her choice of response–a broken leg, please have mercy.


Tahija & Fida

Later, discussing this with Neta Golan, co-founder of the International Solitary Movement, she confirmed a suspicion I had: “You are lucky, some soldiers would simply shoot and not shout. No one in the whole world would notice.”

Discussing why the blocks and why the firing later with Thuqan whom we’d phoned to meet us–it was now nearly dark and I suggested in jest that maybe if we waited another 30 minutes we could walk under the noses of the soldiers, forgetting they might have had night vision equipment–we came to the following interpretation: the Israelis had created the blocks after a martyrdom bombing  in Tel Aviv, stationed the soldiers, and sealed Nablus completely. Why Nablus when the bomber came from Jenin? Short-term punishment, recognized universally as collective punishment and illegal under international law. And long-term strategy to decimate the industrial and commercial center of Nablus. The 3 of us were mere blips on the radar screen. Nothing personal, you understand, just caught by circumstance.


While riding back to Ramallah I asked Tahija more about her years in Sarajevo–born and raised there, a Muslim, living thru the 3 year siege of the war. “For years after the siege had ended,” she told us, “I’d hit the ground when hearing loud and sharp sounds. Duck and cover. I’m over that now, and perhaps stronger for the experience. I can travel as I’m doing now (she just returned from 2 days in Gaza visiting AFSC programs), my husband worries about me, but I’m not afraid. Perhaps facing death does this to a person, makes me more able to take the big risk.”

I mentioned my pilgrimage experience in Cambodia in 1995 during the last days of the Khmer Rouge, hearing artillery fire each morning and evening, walking a narrow path thru the minefields. With an outcome similar to hers: I was strengthened by the experience of surviving fear, not immobilized by it. But I wondered aloud, what would I do now if coming under direct fire again? How might I have responded if in Jenin camp during the Israeli invasion of 2002? Will I be willing to enter Gaza next spring (2013) with the Israelis constantly attacking? As Art Gish from the Christian Peacemakers Teams said to me, free to die, free to live.


AFSC in Palestine


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