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November 2006 Olive Harvest Delegation

Interfaith Peace-Builders & American Friends Service Committee



Report Four: Strengths of Spirit

Saturday, November 11

“Go Back And Tell:” A Checkpoint Story

The plan was to drive 80 miles from Jerusalem to Jenin in the northernmost part of the West Bank. Our plan was to meet with the Palestine Fair Trade Association in Jenin, pick olives and stay the night with local families. It didn’t turn out that way.

Jenin—the name is derived from the Arabic word for Paradise—is a West Bank city of more than 100,000 that in March 2002 was the scene of intense conflict between the Israeli army and Palestinians. Nearly 60 Palestinians and more than a dozen Israeli soldiers died and parts of the refugee camp in the city were leveled by Israeli bulldozers. The Israeli army said it acted in response to a large number of suicide bombers coming from the city and refugee camp of Jenin. Today Jenin is ringed by Israeli army checkpoints that control who enters and who leaves.

After a two hour drive from Jerusalem east towards the Dead Sea past Jericho and then up the Jordan River Valley, our bus headed west and then south towards Jenin. We arrived at an Israeli checkpoint late in the morning and were immediately turned away. “It’s the Sabbath,” we were told. “Checkpoint’s closed.” A 30-minute drive brought us to a second checkpoint where a young Israeli soldier ambled toward us. He talked briefly with Said, our guide, and turned us away. The soldier gave Said varying reasons we couldn’t enter Jenin: Because it was a military zone; because of the war; because there was fighting going on there (our contacts in Jenin said it was quiet.); because it was the Sabbath. In short, “No.”

The soldier suggested a third checkpoint, so we climbed back into the bus and set off for the checkpoint which we entered after passing through Barta’a, a Palestinian town located almost directly on the green line, the internationally recognized border separating Israel from the West Bank. It took most of an hour to thread our way through Barta’a’s busy streets, jammed with Saturday shoppers.

The sun was high and hot when we tumbled out of the bus at the third checkpoint. We carried our overnight bags down a long walkway, fenced with rigid wire mesh that arched overhead. A young Palestinian woman in a pink hijab and long, black coat exiting Jenin, came out of the checkpoint shed tucking her green identity card into her purse. “You are Americans?” she asked. We nodded. “You going to Jenin?” We nodded again. She looked at us fiercely. “You go back and tell,” she demanded, jerking her head toward the checkpoint.

Oh, we will, we promised enthusiastically, not knowing that her story would become ours.

In the shed we approached metal booths with thick plastic windows to present our identification and pass into Jenin. We were stopped by Israeli soldiers. They were good looking kids who could have been my undergraduate students—except that each was armed with an American-made automatic rifle. Chatting with one tall, blue eyed young man we learned he was doing his two-week reserve active duty; that he was from Tel Aviv; that he studied political science and would rather be at the beach. Meanwhile, Said was negotiating with another soldier who was making phone calls about us. About a dozen sullen and resigned-looking Palestinians from Jenin stood outside the shed, waiting their turns to present their papers to a soldier behind a bulletproof glass window. Other soldiers watched them warily, fingering their rifles. A man in a red shirt waved his papers impatiently at the soldier behind the glass. She examined them, talked on the phone, and motioned him to wait. He protested, but backed away. After about 30 minutes the man in the red shirt was allowed through.

Our group of a dozen or so mostly middle-aged North Americans waited. We were impatient, frustrated. Americans aren’t accustomed—as Palestinians are of necessity—to being given orders by rifle-toting kids. After about an hour we were told we could cross into Jenin but our guide Said could not. We said we would enter without Said. Then, the soldier disappeared behind closed doors to make another phone call and we were told no one could cross. We could not go to Jenin. The soldier bearing the news, a short young man with glasses and excellent English, smiled sympathetically and shrugged. “Orders,” he said, making it clear the decision was not his.

So it was back on the bus and good bye to Jenin, olive picking and our unseen Palestinian hosts. But we kept our promise to the woman in the pink hijab. We’re telling her story and ours, too. Because at the Jenin checkpoint, we’re all Palestinians.

– Mary Ann Weston

Sunday, November 12

Promised Lands

After being turned away in Jenin, we drove to Nazareth to spend the night in a hotel. Everyone was disappointed from the experience of being denied entry to Jenin at the three Israeli checkpoints surrounding the city. All of us had been looking forward to meeting the staff of the Palestinian Fair Trade Association, whose olive oil AFSC sells, to another afternoon of olive picking, and—most of all—to our home stays with families in Jenin.

After dinner in Nazareth, the group met to process the day. We talked of our disappointments, of the families who had been waiting for us and whether their time and food would now go to waste. In the end, we decided that we would drive north in the morning for our scheduled visit to Kiryat Shimona then make one more try at getting through the checkpoint on Monday. We went to bed tired and disappointed, but also a bit consoled and hopeful that at least we’d be trying again.

Nazareth is no longer the rural backwater that it is described as being in the New Testament. It is now the largest Palestinian town within Israel, and the largest Christian Palestinian town in the region. Both Greek and Latin Christians as well as Muslims live here in the town where Matthew and Luke tell us the story of Gabriel’s appearance to Mary and where Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.” Houses hug the hills in all directions from the Roman basilica and the Greek cathedral and there is a general feeling of ease and prosperity. However, even here within Israel there is the Jewish hilltop settlement of Upper Nazareth commanding the high ground above an Palestinian city. Bill Plitt, Ken Carlson, Al Espenscheid, and I got up early to go to the 7:00 a.m. Arabic Mass at the Basilica of the Annunciation. Afterwards, a local woman told Ken and Bill, “Pray for us.” How many armies have marched through this region? Persians, Greeks, Roman, Muslim and Crusader, and on to the present. What did the boy from Nazareth make of living in “contested territory”?

After a quick walking tour of Nazareth, we headed north to Kiryat Shimona, the northernmost major town in Israel, just two miles from the Lebanese border. The Golan Heights and Mount Hermon were to our right as we drove. The land was lush with olive trees giving way to vegetables and fruit. It is from this valley that the Sea of Galilee is fed. It is land worth having by anyone’s estimation.

The Israeli town of Kiryat Shimona was founded in 1949 and has grown through successive waves of Southern European, Ethiopian, and Russian Immigrants. It is not a wealthy town. High rise apartment buildings and modest shops line the main street, but it is amazing to think that the Israeli town was no more than a cluster of World War II surplus tents less than 60 years ago. Before 1948, the Palestinian village of Al-Khalisa—on the site of today’s Kiryat Shimona—was home to over 1800 Palestinians.

Since 1967, the city has withstood more than 4,000 katyusha rockets, including heavy bombardment during the recent Lebanon War. The pride in what had been accomplished here, the love of the land, and the determination to carry on were clear in the talks we had with the city manager, the town’s spokesperson, and the mayor. In concluding his time with us, the mayor said, “If Kiryat Shimona were gone, so would be Nazareth and Tel Aviv. We will never be overcome by force; our spirit is stronger.”

I was disappointed that there home stays weren’t possible here as had been planned. It seems that there were too few people who spoke English in the city to be able to accommodate us. I could see the mayor’s pride in living in such a beautiful place and his determination that his city would not be intimidated out of existence by rockets lobbed over the border but, at the same time, I still have trouble conceptualizing Zionism. I want more time to talk with people in the cafes and see how they understand the idea of a Jewish state. I want to hear how they think there can be peace when one ethnic group is privileged in law and a hundred less formal ways. I keep trying to remember that Israel is a state born from the Holocaust, a safe haven from 2,000 years of oppression, but I cannot believe that legislating inequality and building walls can ever make anyone safe.

One of my own ancestors, Robert Treat, was a settler. He fled the state church in England in the Seventeenth Century to the Bay Colony in Massachusetts and from there, with his father and family, moved to the new outpost on in the Connecticut River Valley and then to New Haven to establish a colony based strict interpretation of Levitical Law. He was an ideologue out to create a safe haven, a city on a hill. He made his name in King Phillip's War, the decisive conflict between colonists and Native Americans for control of Southern New England. He confined some Native Americans to poor land and helped push others west. From his successes as a war hero, he launched himself into colonial politics. He presided over a colony where whipping Quakers at the cart was good public policy, a necessity for keeping order. When the Commonwealth fell in England, he helped hide the judges who passed the death sentence on King Charles. Yet he is remembered today, if at all, for saving Connecticut’s charter from being seized by the British at the time of the Restoration. As with other founders, the less pleasant facts are lost in the accepted narrative of the nation’s beginnings.

I see in him the dangers and complexities of a man who wed his own experience of discrimination to an ideal of a safe place, a perfect place. I'm sure old Robert would have a certain sympathy for the things I see here--protecting the land, keeping the ideal alive, building the city on a hill. No one can question his results or those I see in Kiryat Shimona. But neither can one look back and really understand or empathize when he or she looks behind the national myths through analyzing the facts on the ground and listening to the competing narratives that have been suppressed by those who had the privilege of writing the accepted history.

What would old Robert make of me 300 years later? Catholic, part Native, and consorting with those troublesome Quakers. What questions will the children of Kiryat Shimona ask when rockets no longer come down and they want to know the story of their city, their country?

– John Treat


Olives in Jenin

After being turned away from Jenin at three separate checkpoints on Saturday, the delegates juggled their schedule and made one last attempt to get into Jenin on Sunday. This time they had no problems at the checkpoint and breezed right through. Below is a report on the limited time they had to visit a functioning olive press.

Ahmed Ghanem and his brother and son brought 54 sacks of olives to the press at Jenin last week. It was the time reserved for the organic olives they grow and sell through the Palestine Fair Trade Association (PFTA). Although it was after 7 p.m. the press was crowded with men smoking and talking and lounging against the piles of 60 kilogram bags they were waiting to press.

The PFTA is a thriving local organization that aims to pay farmers a fair price for their olives, then sell the oil abroad. The co-op, headed by Nasser Abufarha, who recently received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also sells olive oil soap, locally produced couscous, sun-dried tomatoes, almonds and za’atar, a Mideastern herb mix.

To Abufarha, the PFTA not only provides economic help to the hard-pressed farmers, it is a political and social program linking the farmers, their land and the larger world.

At the press, the farmers waited while several workers carefully cleaned the machinery so it would be suitable for processing organic olives into oil. Finally the loud engines revved up and Ghanem dumped his bags of olives into a floor-level hopper. The green and brown and black olives moved up a conveyer belt to be washed, then pressed. At the end of the production line a stream of greenish yellow fresh olive oil poured into a stainless steel tank.

With the look of a proud father, Abufarha caught some of the oil in a bowl, produced some bread, and offered it around. It was delicious.

--Mary Ann Weston

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