Monday, April 30, 2012

Children in Palestine

The knocking on the door at 3AM was followed by the cries of a boy. Samira, the headmistress of the girl's school in Tu qu' thought it was the military as it is their habit to enter homes at night often to make an arrest or just to harass. Reluctantly she went to the door to discover 14 year old Mohammad Talek Alzeera standing before her terrified and with his hands bound in front of him. She took him into her home, found a sharp kitchen knife, and tried to cut the bindings, but they were too strong. She finally had to heat the knife over the fire to burn through. Once the child was freed he called his father to pick him up.

Six months ago his brother was imprisoned and earlier that evening--about 6PM--the military had told his parents that they just wanted to ask Mohammad a few questions. So Mohammad went with the soldiers. From the military jeep he was taken to a jail where he was put into a room with no light no window. He remained there for many hours during which time he was periodically questioned. He was then taken by car to the edge of Tekoa Settlement (Israeli settlement) just outside of the Palestinian village of Tu qu' where we do twice weekly school runs to provide protective presence between the children going to school and the military who often stand outside of their jeep fully armed to "protect the Israeli settlers from the children who throw rocks at their cars." Mohammad was left in a very dangerous situation as the settlers are afraid of the Palestinians and often are armed. Fortunately Mohammad chose to knock on the door of a headmistress and he was returned home.

Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident. Children are often taken into custody for questioning or worse. Many are detained for days or weeks without any formal charges against them. Some are beaten. Some cry. All are frightened. Almost all are male. This happens all over the West Bank and Gaza. It happens in Area A, B, or C. Even though Area A is designated to be governed exclusively by Palestinians and where Israelis are strongly advised not to go for their own safety, the military does anything it wants and goes anyplace it wants.

In the Village of Al Jaba the Israeli Military Base is just on the other side of the hill and across the border of the West Bank and Israel. Helicopters and fighter jets soar through the sky daily. The military jeeps roam their hillsides and set up checkpoints randomly. Many of the children wet their beds well beyond the normal age. Some still wet the bed at age 12. The parents know that the trauma of being under military surveillance is causing psychological problems but they have no resources to help the children through the trauma.

It's almost to the end of my stay here and I am feeling very ambivolent about leaving. I will carry these stories with me and I'll bring them home to share.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Circus School in Nablus, West Bank

I offer these photos as proof that the circus is alive and well in Nablus.
PictureEmotions run high in the West Bank. Anxiety, fear, joy, sadness, pride, delight, horror. The negative and positive justapose daily between the normal routine of living and the added stress of the military presence in everyting from school, work, and going from one place to another. Parents worry for their children, often clinging to them, not wishing to let go.
A circus is an appropriate way to escape from the fear and anxiety of daily living, which includes right now the annual exam period for all children in all levels of schooling. This is also a time when the Israeli military targets school aged boys for arrest, often coming to their home in the middle of the night. For added punishment, there is no studying, reading text books, or taking exams while being detained or under arrest.

The Circus School in Nablus has created a wonderful way for children to escape from the realities of life into a world of fantasy and physical discipline. Funded by the French, this school draws children in villages for four days of training ending in a performance for the entire village. The four days are spent learning the fine art of acrobatics, juggling, and clowning. Mustafa, the founder and director, says he can teach anyone to juggle in 20 minutes. He says that if you focus too much you cannot keep the balls in the air--that one must relax and forget about the balls. This is an important lesson for the children who face anxiety in their daily life and need to learn to let go of it.

Clowning is not about painting the face and making people laugh, but rather it is about using your emotions to make people laugh. What makes people laugh is the topic of discussion over the 4 days where children are taught how to use their own feelings to make expressions, gestures, poses, to delight their parents. There is little make-up and minimal costuming but lots of mime and body control.

PictureLearning to become an acrobat is serious business that includes stretching the mind, and body, balancing, teamwork, and trust. The acrobatic teacher spends a lot of time with the children getting them to work with their bodies in synchrony. In order to accomplish the poses and movements each child must trust the others whether catching or being caught, to move in sync with one another to use ones strengths to balance the other's weakness.
PictureA day in the life of the circus is not unlike a day living under occupation. The Israelis are skilled in keeping everyone off balance by changing tactics momentarily. Just when you think you have their system figures out things take a 180 degree turn. Being able to juggle ideas and things, being able to keep your balance in the midst of turmoil, having trust in your teammates, and being able to laugh at yourself and make others laugh are perhaps the most valuable skills to teach Palestinian children.

Keep the hope and end the occupation!!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Fractured Way of Living

A few weeks ago the Red Cross (ICRC) in Bethlehem asked us to visit two families who are living just outside of the wall on the Jerusalem side. What makes these families unique is that they exist between two jurisdictions in a very strange way. The families in these homes are physicially living in what the Israeli's now define as Jerusalem, but they are not allowed to possess Jerusalem ID. This means that they are unable to go to Jerusalem. When they leave their property they can only move towards Bethlehem for fear of arrest. No ID is required to enter Bethlehem, but when it comes time to go home they do not have a permit to enter Jerusalem. They cannot own vehicles because they do not have the proper ID to purchase an Israeli license plate, and cars with Palestinian license plates are not permitted on the Israeli side of the wall. Thus, this way of living is fractured in a way that is almost impossible to comprehend.

We first visited the family of Husein Zawahra who lives almost surrounded by the settlement of Har Homa with his uncle and extended family. The family cannot own a vehicle because they do not possess ID that would permit they to purchase an Israeli license plate for their vehicle. The only place they can go is into Bethlehem. As the children must attend school in Bethlehem, their mother takes them to school every Sunday morning (the first day of the week) and then they remain in Bethlehem living with her sister until Thursday when they can return home. They cannot travel to and from their home as it requires public transportation and it is expensive, and quite time consuming. Husein goes to work on the weekends when the children and his wife are home as a tile layer in Bethlehem. Working only two days a week has dramatically reduced their family's income. They must always have someone at home due to the settlers who live so close that we could almost read the label in the underwear that was being hung on the line on the balcony directly accross from their property. Ironically, the family runs a car wash business for the citizens of Har Homa settlement, a city of 50,000 people complete with schools, temples, shopping centers, theaters, and all services to be expected in a town that size. The settlement is also rapidly expanding.

The view of Har Homa from the Zawahra Property

Following our visit to Har Homa we visited Salama abu Tarbush in their family home just outside of the Bethlehem checkpoint. As with the Zawahra family, their ID is Palestinian. When they go into Bethlehem for work or school, they exit back into the Jerusalem side. As they do not have the proper ID, they are often detained while the soldiers look up their information, or they are sent back to Bethlehem. As an 11 year old child, the Tarbush's daughter was frequently denied access to go home from school. She would have to return to Bethlehem to stay with an aunt and try to get home the next day. This photo was taken from within the checkpoint and shows not only a flock of sheep grazing alongside the road, their house is in the background.

We also visited with George Khalilha in Beit Jala which is a predominately Christian village just next to Bethlehem. George and his family live in a very old home in Beit Jala and own another home that is located at the agricultural property owned by the family and from which George earns his living. He has fruit trees--apricot, apple, peach, pear of many varieties. The home on the property was over 60 years old, but they had the audacity to re-tile the patio area and build a toilet in an outside building as there was not adequate plumbing. Due to his "renovations" the house was demolished by the Israeli army two weeks ago. You can see George explaining to Esteban about the rocks that once held up this old stone home--rocks that were cut in half by the heavy equipment brought by the military for the demolition. Ironically, the only structure remaining is the new toilet and surrounding building. George talked about his feelings of being discriminated against as he is a Christian living in a predominately Moslem world and being governed by Israelis.

Life gets fractured in the Occupied Territories. We notice daily how difficult it is to navigate through the land due to the rocks, steep drops, and mud. It is tough to get from one place to another. It is also difficult for the Palestinian to get from one day to another with all of the roadblocks that are placed before them. (Not to mention that their roads are so far inferior to the wonderfully paved Israeli roads upon which they cannot ride.) Israel is a country that prides itself as the only democracy in the Middle East. Personally I prefer the democracy we have in the US, not that it's perfect, but the blatant discrimination that occurs daily could not happen in the US.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Happy Easter from Bethlehem

"Alleluia, Christ is risen." Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia."

These words echoed throughout Jerusalem this Sunday, and they will echo again next Sunday as Orthodox Easter is celebrated. Spring has arrived after a very cold winter. Flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and the gloom of winter is fading away. The air is warm and the sun almost too hot as we make our way through throngs of pilgrims from all corners of the globe to worship in this, the Holy Land. It was difficult to celebrate the resurrection in a Good Friday world.

While suffering is happening all around, there is good news in the Holy Land. I have had the pleasure in recent months of meeting with strong, humanitarian leaders of NGOs in Israel. The common thread is the desire for Israel to end the occupation peacefully. Most are Jewish Israelis. One is a Christian Israeli. They all believe that continuing the occupation is bringing moral decay to Israel and could lead to its destruction. They all love their country but deplore the violence. They are speaking out.

Hanna Barag leads a group called Machsom Watch. The members are Israeli women, most over 50 years old, who come to the checkpoints to learn and document what they are seeing and hearing from the men who pass through. They have tremendous respect for the Palestinians and their strong faith. The women make our job easier by their presence.

Avihal Stollar from Breaking the Silence is a former Israeli soldier. His group was formed by soldiers to tell the truth about the military and the occupation. These young men are despised by current enlisted Israels (although one veteran of 15 years told us that they tell the truth), but they continue to spread the word.

Angela Godfrey is an Israeli activist who has taken on the plight of the Bedouins as they fight their move by the Israelis from their various encampments to be relcoated to a plot of land adjacent to the garbage dump. This is the most energetic senior citizen I have every met. She gave us the rich experience of having tea in a Bedouin tent, of crossing over barriers and across a siz-land highway, up a muddy hillside all in the sleet and rain. She was definitely my hero for the day.

We were greeted by Roni Keider of Sidot, Israel, located just over the border from Gaza City. Her organization, The Other Voice, is a grassroots organization that has no political agenda but helps Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip to get access to health ccare in Israel. Roni is a delightful woman with sparkling eyes and a strong message. While her village lives in constant fear of rockets being launched from Gaza, she still sees each person as a valuable human being.

"Any expression of racism or violence is in direct contradiction to the social-economic struggle"

Ruth Hiller grew up in San Jose, CA, suring the 70's Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. Somewhat of a hippy earth mother, she and her family moved to a Kibbutz in Israel in the 70's until the Kibbutz became a public corporation. She has remained in Israel, is married and has 5 children; 2 girls and 3 boys. Ruth is an anti-military activist. She talked about the incredibly potent images about war and security that permeate the Israeli media, classrooms, playgrounds and virtually any place children are found. She described playgrounds which include tanks for the littlest ones to climb on, commercials with moms making that special treat for her child coming home on leave, military uniform and all. In becoming an advocate for her son who wished to become a conscientious objector, she undertook the entire military comples where everyone, men and women, serve in the military, and where the only conscience objectors recognized are the ultra-orthodox Jews. In battling the system she has also become a voice of Israel's military complex and military culture. Her organization, New Profile, seeks the end of the military culture of Israel. And FYI, her two daughters served in the military, one is a career officer, while all of her sons became conscientious objectors.

Christian and Moslem citizens of Israel do not share the same rights as Jews. Mossawa is an organization located in Haife that struggles for equal education, equal rights, and works against other injustices in Israeli society. Rania Laham spoke to us about her organization and the differences in rights from separate schools, neighborhoods with entirely different amenities such as parks, roads, libraries, and shopping. (Of course, tell me I can't shop in a particular shop and you have one feisty woman on your hands.) It is dangerous to speak out in Israel, particularly when you are the minority and have no power. I commend Rania for her brave work.

Jeff Halper founded ICAHD (Israeli Committee against Home Demolitions. Jeff founded this organization for the pusposes of stopping the occupation. He selected an issue that can be documented, statistics gathered, and reports created. The organization attempts to be present after each home demolition and his organization rebuilds homes without building permits, which they could never obtain, in defiance of the demolition policy. Some homes have been demolished three times and recently one was demolished for a fifth time. Go Jeff!

Alleluia. There is good news. There are Israeli citizens who care about the human rights violations taking place in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Alleluia, Christ has risen indeed!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


A Palestinian living in the West Bank is stuck behind walls, not unlike the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland in 1942. At the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem is a photo of people climbing a building in the Warsaw Ghetto in order to see outside of the ghetto. Palestinians cannot even go on their roof to see over the 30' wall that separates them from freedom of movement. I am not trying to compare the holocaust to the occupation. But there are some parallels that seem to have been lost. The death camps were unspeakable as they were fully able to euthanize hundreds of unsuspecting men, women, and children in a few minutes. Fellow Jews then lifted the bodies out, cut off their hair and removed gold teeth before placing the body into one of the many ovens for quick cremation. Another team of Jews would shovel out the ashes in preparation for the next set of bodies.

While on our mid-term "break" we visited an Israeli village located a couple of hundred yards from the wall separating it from Gaza. Every home, school, business, bus shelter either has or has been built as a "safe room" that children learn early on to run to when they hear the sirens which indicate the launch of a Palestinian rocket. They have 15 seconds to make it into the safe room before the rocket lands. They have about an additional 45 seconds before it is safe to exit the safe room. Over the previous weekend one hundred rockets were launched. They are incredibly unsophisticated and not very accurate, so there is not a huge chance of harm. However the villager cited two deaths from the village: one a young girl who had not made it to th
e safe room, and the other an agricultural worker who took cover, counted to 45, and then attempted to resume work when he was cut down by a rocket that was slower than normal. Every time a village is sent to safe rooms each wonders if this is the day they will die. What we did not hear was that many Palestinians living in Gaza were killed by the sophisticated system owned by the Israeli military. The numbers of deaths are significantly higher in Gaza than in Israel.

Yesterday we visited Naser Al-Din in his village of Al Ja'ba. Naser's home has been demolished three times by the Israeli military. His "sin" was not having building permits for his home which is in Area C. There are no building permits issued for Area C, so his only way to provide shelter for his growing family was to build a home anyway. This last demolition occurred just as the home was being finished, but they had yet to move in. As the 50-year old father of 10 talked to us about his experiences we lounged under an 80-year old olive tree, drinking coca cola and eating cookies. He talked about his years living in New York, and his return to this village where his father owned much land. He returned because while he experienced freedom he had
never known prior to his journey, wealth beyond his dreams, and a life of security and peace, his family was missing. Now he lives the traditional Moslem Palestinian life in the Occupied Territory and is very content to be living with his two wives (a maximum of 4 are allowed by law) and ten children and his Mother. The village of 1000 is essentially the melding of two families and has not grown over the last 50 years, not due to the low birth-rate of children, but due to the fact that the children are leaving. Naser's first wife is also a first cousin and as a result all of their children are moderately to severely handicapped. Naser showed us the land that has been taken by the Israeli's, for the pretense of security. Much of the land is on the other side of the separation barrier and he has no access to it. Some of it is so close to the checkpoint which is on the border between the occupied territory and Israel, that the military sees it as a threat and refuses to allow him to cultivate the land. If the land remains uncultivated for a period of time it will become automatically State land, and he will no longer own it.

So, let's measure the pain. Who has more? Less? The one truth that a settler told us is that none of the pain is acceptable. None. Life itself is painful. We experience many disappointments in life, many deaths, some tragedies, and a lot of pain without any influence from the outside. Add to the pain of daily living the deliberate causing of pain on one human being from another human being and what happens? Needless suffering and pain.

There can be no viable solution while both parties are in pain. And understand that the West Bank and Gaza are occupied territories and the power of that occupation is held by the Israelis. So while there is pain, there is also a huge disparity in power. The pain needs to stop. The power of one people over another needs to stop. Only then can justice begin. Without justice there will be no peace.