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November 2006 Olive Harvest Delegation

Interfaith Peace-Builders & American Friends Service Committee



Report Seven: How Can We Tell the Story?

Friday, November 17

Aida Refugee Camp—The Interconnections of Hope

On Saturday, the18th, after seeing the group off to the airport at 2:00 A.M, I contacted a former student that my wife and I supported through her graduate program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Amal is a Palestinian from Bethlehem. She completed her doctorate a year or so ago and had promised to return to Palestine when she finished her studies to work toward peace. Amal lived up to her promise. I learned a few days before coming on the delegation that she had fulfilled that part of her dream, and has worked since the elections with the President of the Palestinian Authority on international negotiations. What follows is story which reveals surprising connections between Amal's family experience and an earlier excursion by the delegation to Bethlehem this past Friday, our final day on the West Bank.

On Friday, the 17th, we made our first trip to Bethlehem, having zipped past it on several visits to Hebron and villages further south. The day began with a stop at the Lajee Center in the Aida Refugee camp in the western part of the city. The street was lined on one side with a 10-ft high wall covered with unique murals, brightly colored and designed to represent the experience of the refugees from 27 neighboring villages who settled in the camp after fleeing Israel in 1948. The murals foreshadowed the story we would hear later from a child of the camp.

The Lajee Center was established in 1999 to address the needs of youth in the camp. There was also the hope that young people might hold on to the memories of their fathers and grandfathers, so that they might continue to remember "the right of return," part of the legal, moral, and human rights guaranteed by international law and various UN resolutions.

The Center has two buildings, one with a computer lab and library, and the other for festivities like dancing and art displays. While we were touring the Aida camp, several students followed along with us. Under the guidance of the center's director and local volunteers, the children are provided with social awareness activities through music, art and dance. Students are also taught skills in critical thinking which teachers feel will lead to the kind of an adult who seriously questions options, and acts on his/her convictions. This approach is predicated upon the belief that a future Palestinian state will require active participation by its citizens.

In the information session with a local volunteer, Iyad, who teaches at a nearby school and grew up in the camp himself, we learned that the center provides assistance with school work, extra curricular activities in the arts, and, when possible, field trips to the Mediterranean Sea. (Many of the residents of Aida Camp came from villages—now in Israel—near the coast). Most of the current generation of children in the camp, which numbers around 2000, had never seen either the Mediterranean or the Sea of Gallilee. We were stunned to learn that of the current generation, some 120 are in prison for various crimes against the state of Israel which range from rock throwing to the making of homemade firecrackers.

What I found most enlightening, was Iyad's story about his family's journey, first to the camp in 1948 and then through the many years that followed. We had visited several other refugee camps in the previous days, but nothing touched me as much as the story told by a refugee himself within the confines of the camp. Many of us began to feel more and more empathetic as we heard about the tremendous hardships of early inhabitants who at first had only what they brought with them from their homes in the villages. The winters were harsh as the early residents had only tents to shelter them. Later, the United Nations constructed concrete block structures which were fairly simple, with little room, but offered better protection against the weather.

After developing a clearer picture of what refugee life was like for camp residents, we moved around the neighborhood and saw with renewed understandings the brightly colored murals that kids had painted over the last two summers with international volunteer support.

Later, when I returned by myself, I learned from my visit to Amal's home just up the hill from Aida, that her parents had been refugees in the camp, and that she and her other four brothers and sisters were raised in the shadows of the concrete block homes that still make up the camp. I spent Monday traveling around the same neighborhood I had seen with the delegation a few days earlier, though somehow with what had seemed like a quantitative leap in my understanding. Now knowing that someone close to me had actually survived the camp, managed to build another home close by, and produce children who became a physician, a journalist, a banker, a nurse, and a Harvard-trained staff member working with the current President, astounded me. I also learned that Amal's mother was a mathematics teacher in the school we had seen, and that Amal herself was a current board member for the Lajee Center.

Amal's younger brother, Monjit, is a free lance journalist and works with The Arabic News Network. He too grew up in the camp. He now works on stories which describe life for people within the walls of the West Bank. I watched several of his taped stories and was impressed by the quality of the
tapes and intimacy of the stories he told through probing interviews. I wondered how they might be useful for us as delegates as we prepare for presentations at home. I wondered how many other Monjits and Amals rose out of the camps and how many were still there with the potential to do so. And like all of my other experiences these past two weeks in Israel and on the West Bank which changed my life forever, I wondered how we might tell their story.

--Bill Plitt

Reflections on Our Journey

Thursday evening before our departure, members of the delegation pondered whether we could return home with any semblance of hope … hope for resolution of the conflict, hope for justice for the Palestinians, hope for an end to the fear and despair we daily witnessed.

I couldn’t remove certain images from my mind, “facts on the ground” that had been phrased in innocuous terms that had lulled me into complacency for too many years. Now I understood them as sending clear messages of apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

Separation wall. Under the guise of security, it continually looms before us, cold concrete 25 feet high, snaking and encircling, confiscating Palestinian land, separating Palestinian villages, separating families and friends, separating farmers from their land and their precious olive trees.

Checkpoints. Their purpose to demean and humiliate, Palestinians wait interminable hours to pass through these barriers, the rate of entry determined by an automated turnstile, only to be followed by still another turnstile, and another and another. Ignominiously herded like cattle; presenting ID to await a soldier’s gesture – pass through or step aside. Mothers waiting with infants to seek medical care; sisters waiting to visit brothers in Israeli prisons; men waiting to get to work, if there is any work awaiting them – all awaiting the whim of the Israeli guards to let them through.

Settlements. Populated by thousands of Israelis, looming on the mountain crests over small Palestinian villages below, leviathans gradually engulfing them. Ideological settlers in At-Tuwani attacking innocent Palestinian children on their way to school while economic settlers drive on the settlers-only roads, inured to the violence about them.

What hope is there for the Palestinian people? How can a people without one military tank offset the might of Israel, backed by the US, the most powerful nation in the world? We heard over and over again about the Palestinian tradition of nonviolence, something we Americans never learn about from our media. What we normally hear about the Palestinians in the US media is couched in terms of militants and suicide bombers. Now, on this delegation, we have witnessed their oppression and marvel at their steadfastness. We were told that a Jewish tradition says it takes seven generations for healing to occur. The Palestinians don’t have that much time.

Yet what about the incredibly exceptional people we met – Palestinians and Israelis – working to end the occupation? Daily putting their lives on the line to bring justice to the Palestinians? How can we abandon these courageous men and women? How can we say to them, “Your work is meaningless … futile … ineffective against the Israeli machine.” Yes, it’s a snappy slogan, “Build bridges, not walls,” but who’s listening? How do you counter a climate of fear, on both sides, that’s been so intense for so many years?

So perhaps it was prophetic that on our last day we visited two oranizations: Wi’am and the Holy Land Trust. At Wi’am, Zoughbi Zoughbi interspersed his description of his organization’s activities with words of encouragement: “Your presence is a message to those who are oppressed, a message of solidarity. We cannot succeed without support from international civil society.” He spoke about the exhaustion on both sides, the need for “restorative justice – to address the wrongs, not avenge them,” and said of hope: “We cannot live without hope. This is a land of hope and hope has a price. Who thought the Berlin wall would fall? Who knew the apartheid regime in South Africa would fall? Hope is the prophetic voices that come here.”

Beautiful words, but all I could think about -- time is running out for the Palestinians.

We next visited The Holy Land Trust. I found Sami Awad’s commitment to nonviolence overwhelming. Just as Rabbi Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights moved me by his intensity, so Mr. Awad’s gentleness touched me. Focused on the future, Mr. Awad believes Palestinian nonviolence is a reactionary movement right now: against the wall, against home demolitions, against checkpoints. He sees the need to transform it into a pro-active movement. One couldn’t help but be swayed by his gentle, firm conviction that nonviolence exposes the violence, that if a nonviolent movement is built in Palestine, a parallel movement will arise in Israel and it will be Israeli society, not the Palestinians, that will bring down the wall, once their fears are addressed.

I left feeling … perhaps, just perhaps, there might be a possibility for hope. And who am I to deny the Palestinians their hope … I who have visited their land for only two weeks while they have lived under indescribable conditions their entire lives? If hope sustains them, then I too must sustain them and that hope. Now, in the comfort and safety of my home, I ponder my responsibility and what I must do.

--Lois Mastrangelo




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© 2006 Interfaith Peace-Builders