Peacemaking in Israel and Palestine

Eleven of us easily moved through passport control at the Tel Aviv airport.

One did not. Although born in Chicago, Miryam is Muslim and has a Palestinian name.

So we waited while Miryam was questioned by Israeli authorities.

For about two hours we waited.

Miryam wrote, "The waiting and uncertainty, along with the security agents' dismissiveness to my requests, exhaust me emotionally and physically....though the waiting was dragged out and exhausting, my questioning during the interrogation lasted no more than twenty minutes. There were many personal questions. Demands for home and cell phone numbers. When will I get out of here? Need to get some sleep. Waiting."

Our group was co-sponsored by the Interfaith PeaceBuilders (formerly part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation) and the American Friends Service Committee. We traveled to both Israel and Palestine's West Bank. The purpose of this trip was to listen to the people, to learn some of the complicated issues and ideals, and to educate ourselves and others about conditions in the region. Coming home from more than two weeks in Israel and Palestine, my first thought was that I know far less than I did before I left!

Violence is deeply ingrained in the fabric of life in both Israel and Palestine. Many Palestinian children grow up responding to the Israeli military by throwing stones. Most Israeli young men and women must serve in the military. During this military service, these young people must live with their guns at all times. We commented to each other on how young many of the Israeli military soldiers staffing the checkpoints seemed to be. We wondered how the rest of their lives would be affected by this. When the M-16s were pointed at us at some of the checkpoints, we became even more anxious, realizing they were being held by young men and women who were little more than children. We saw the 25foot concrete Israeli "security" wall, festooned with barbed or razor wire wall cutting through the center of a Palestinian city, dividing it in half. We visited Kiryat Shemona, an Israeli town that had been shelled from Lebanon during the Israel/Hezbollah conflict last summer, and heard what it was like for an entire town to either flee or live in bunkers for a month.

HebronIn Hebron, a Palestinian city, we looked up from the narrow streets to see wire fencing overhead (put in place by the Palestinian residents in Hebron) which was littered with bottles, brick and stones which the Jewish settlers had thrown down on the Palestinians.

Hebron (photo by Al Espenschied)

Daher's Vineyard

We easily traveled the main road (for Israeli only) to the turn-off to the Daher's vineyard near Bethlehem. www.tentofnations.org/main/index.php?option=com

Dahers1Bus, parked at rubble barrier placed by Israeli authorities to prevent Palestinian vehicles from passing to/from the area. The Jewish settlement of Neve Daniyyel is on the hilltop to the left. (Photo by John Treat)

Immediately the paved road ended, and a minute or so later we came to an abrupt stop where a huge boulder had been set by Israelis in the center of the road, effectively blocking all vehicular traffic. In the noon-day sun, we walked, carrying our overnight bags to the place called Tent of Nations.

Olive tree

Olive Tree at Daher's Vineyard (Photo by John Treat)

Daoud Nassar and his family, Daoud's sister Amal and their brother, have had to defend their rights to their own land, because it is in the path of the Israeli settlement expansion. They are Palestinian Christians and have lived on a land bought by their grandfather, dating back to the end of the Ottoman Empire. We walked their vineyard. We picked olives. We savored the bread they made as it was lifted off the hot stones.

The Nassar family responds with nonviolence.

They respond to the violence around them by using their land to promote peace and understanding, providing summer camps for poor Palestinian children. At their Tent of Nations the children find a loving and accepting place. The Nassar family invite people from around the world to visit, learn and help tend their crops. Amal told me her mother and brother were alone the night the Jewish settlers came and uprooted 250 olive trees. They immediately called the Rabbis For Human Rights who came and replanted 300 olive trees.

Bethlehem

Bethlehem CheckpointHeavily fortified Israeli check point and entrance through the "separation barrier/security barrier" or "Apartheid Wall" into the Palestinian town of Bethlehem in the West Bank. (Photo by John Treat)

We entered the town of Bethlehem through a checkpoint in the wall and, visited the refugee camp at Aida. www.lajee.org

I thought of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem and finding no suitable place to stay. Since 1948, when the people of Aida fled their villages, they have lived in Bethlehem at this refugee camp. Many still hold the keys to their homes and hope one day to return.

Bethlehem

Bethlehem, Aida Camp, Lajee Center (photo by Bill Mims)

We went to the church that is reputed to be the birthplace of Jesus. One other Presbyterian in our group asked me if I had any overwhelming "religious experience" being in that place. "Heavens No," I replied. In fact, I felt like crying, as I looked at all the glitter, gold, silver, and beauty of the church that was built over the simple little cave where Jesus was born, a church now divided among three different "branches" of Christianity.

Mural on the wall by the Lajee Center in the Aida Palestinian Refugee Camp (photo by Bill Mims)

Bethlehem Mural

After the organized trip was over, I traveled back to Bethlehem.

I was the only guest in the International Center in Bethlehem. www.annadwa.org

My friend, Fadi, whom I met at the Presbyterian Peace Conference in Tacoma two years ago, drove me from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. We went for lunch in a nearly empty restaurant and then met both Douglas Dicks and Matt Middleton. It was wonderful hearing of their work. Doug is the coordinator for the Presbyterian Church in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Matt is teaching music at the International Center of Bethlehem. Both Doug and Matt have Visas that require them to leave the country every three months.

Sunday morning I went to church at the Christmas Lutheran Church; when the sermon began (it was in Arabic), I went downstairs to attend Matt's children's choir. They were preparing for Christmas Eve, so I heard "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" in Arabic.

When I left Bethlehem, a taxi took me to the checkpoint. I walked a long way on a fenced, barbed-wired pathway and waited for the light above the first turnstile to turn green (each person was required to wait several minutes). Then another. Then I showed my passport to the first guard. Coming out, I looked for the bus to take me back to Jerusalem. Instead I realized I was in an enormous, fenced enclosure which I had to cross. Then more turnstiles. More waiting. A caring woman ahead of me kept telling me where I should go. Finally I arrived at the luggage x-ray and another security line. The man behind me told the woman ahead of me to let me go first because I had a US passport. I declined, saying it was a matter of honor that I wait just as they had to do. His face erupted with a smile. Looking at the very young Israeli military women and men behind those glass walls at checkpoints made me wonder how their lives would ever be normal after being given such unmitigated power.

We met many People of Peace – those who dedicate themselves to peaceful solutions in this troubled land.

women in blackPeacemaking is a slow process. The Women In Black (www.womeninblack.org) asked that we join their weekly demonstration.

Jerusalem Women in Black and Judith Lee (photo by Lois Mastrangelo)

They carry signs in English and Hebrew and Arabic "END THE OCCUPATION". These Israeli women have been demonstrating every week for 19 years at Hagar Square in Jerusalem. The eldest woman is 97 years old; the younger woman next to her, with whom I spoke, is 'only' 84.

Parent's Circle www.theparentscircle.com

Everyone in the Parent's Circle has lost family members through the violence.

Parents circleJerusalem. Delegation co-leader Scott Kennedy of the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz, California, with Rami Elhanan of the Parents Circle/Israeli and Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace (photo by Bill Mims)

Rami el Hanan's story:

I am a Jew

I am an Israeli

I am a Zionist

I am the son of a holocaust survivor

I am the grandson of Auschwitz

I believe in the heritage of "a land without people for a people without land."

In 1997 my 14 year-old daughter was killed by a suicide bomber. I spent the day searching all the hospitals until finally that night at the morgue I was staring at the impossible.

I was filled with hatred.

I was invited to come to a Parent's Circle meeting.

I hung back; then I met famous people I admired. Slowly I realized this hatred will only fuel more violence.

Ghazi Brigieth's story:

I am a Palestinian.

I have long lived in my country.

I believe I have a right to live here.

I lost two brothers. One was killed from afar; no one know who did it.

My other brother was driving a car filled with passengers. The Israeli military stopped the car, had everyone get in and out of the car many times, each time requiring him to show all his papers. Finally my little brother was told to get out again. He said, "I'm just trying to get home. I've produced all my required papers. What else can I do? Why don't you just shoot me." So the Israeli soldiers shot him.

Rami el Hanan and Ghazi Brigieth's story is one story. They call each other brother. They both belong to the Parent's Circle. They both say that Israel and Palestine are going through a divorce – a very painful and ugly one. Until they separate into two countries, each with its own government and land, they can't begin to work together and build peaceful nations. They both say that Israel has 78% of the land and half of the people. Palestine has 22% of the land and half of the people. Israel should be satisfied with their 78%. They must both learn to live in peace with each other. Violence doesn't work.

Parent's circle members went to 1000 schools last year, telling their stories of loss, brotherhood and hope.

Combatants For Peace www.combatantsforpeace.org

CombatantsDelegation Co-leader Miryam Rashid and Palestinian and Israel members of Combatants for Peace - Bassam Aramin, Suleiman Al Himli, Wa'all Salamah, Elik Elhanon. Jerusalem. (Photo by Hilary Krivchenia)

We met with "Combatants for Peace." These are Israeli and Palestinian people who have served in the Israeli military or been part of the Palestinian "resistance." Together they tell their stories and tell how violence isn't solving the problems of either the Israeli or Palestinian people. They are also active peacemakers. They organized a meeting of 30 Israelis and 30 Palestinians to cross the barrier into Palestine and pick olives on confiscated lands. They have offered support as "human shields" to peace groups.

One of the Combatants for Peace, Bassam Aramin, told us how he and his Israeli "brothers" (yes, they do call each other brother), speak out against the violence on both sides.

Bassam's daughter, Abir, was killed by the Israeli military on January 16, 2007. She was shot, possibly by a rubber bullet, in the back of the head as she, and some of her friends, were returning home from school.

Abir was 10.

Abir is dead.

Bassam writes, "Many people came to support and comfort us as Abir lay dying, her small face chalk white, her eyes forever closed. Among those who never left my side were a number of men I have recently come to love as brothers, men who know my past, and who share it. Men who, like me, were trained to hate and to kill, but who now also believe that we must find a way to live with our former enemies. Israeli men. Every one of them, a former combat soldier.

Bassam then spoke to the world.

"I want Abir to be the last victim."

Judith C. Lee is a member of the National Committee of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. She writes of her trip with Interfaith PeaceBuilders (www.interfaithpeacebuilders.org) during November, 2006.