Alternatives to Violence Project facilitators are used to participants sharing personal experiences of violence and its effects on them. When agreeing to co-facilitate this workshop, however, we realised that the participants we would be working with in Hebron are living in an environment of ongoing structural violence, in that they are living under military occupation. Many have also either suffered from or witnessed settler violence. The effects of these experiences were not long in coming to the surface.
We are doing a concentric circles listening exercise when one of the participants comes to me and asks for the English meaning of a word he wants to use in Arabic. The word he uses is ‘jackhammer’, and I realise that what he means is a pneumatic drill. He describes how, after his brother was killed in the first Intifada, it felt as though there was a pneumatic drill in his head all the time. He completely withdrew into himself, left his parents’ house and refused to sleep there for a number of weeks. He still suffers from flash-backs. When doing an exercise where participants share pictures and say what they mean to them, many of them choose scenes from nature – a place which is open and free, and they can breathe and relax. ‘We have been put in a dark place by the occupation’ says one participant.
John and I express a wish to visit H2 and see the crux of the situation for ourselves. The majority of Hebron – areas known as H1 – are Area A, meaning that they are under both Palestinian civil and security control. A number of radical Jewish settlements have been established in H2, however, and the settlers make life very difficult for the indigenous Palestinian population. Accompanied by Najah and her boyfriend we visit the old city and the suq (Arabic market), where the majority of shops are now closed because of harassment from the settlers who have taken over the first floor of the houses there. Wire netting stretches across the alleyway, put in place to stop the detritus which the settlers throw down falling onto the stall-holders.
The following day I visit Shuhada Street with Hasham our translator. This street was also once lined with shops and we can see that many of the houses had beautiful facades. Almost all are now empty however and the doors bolted or soldered shut, some with the Star of David spray-painted on them. This street was closed to Palestinians by the Israeli government after the massacre in the Ibrahimi mosque in 1994, when Baruch Goldstein, an American-born Jewish settler, killed 29 Muslims at prayer and injured 125. Since then any remaining Palestinians living on this street have to exit their houses by a back entrance, some climbing over the roofs to do so. Shuhada Street and the old suq have in effect become a ghost town.
I walk with Hashem to his home in Tel Rumeida. To do this we have to climb some steep steps and take a deviation, following the route which Ecumenical Accompaniers take with Palestinian pupils who attend Cordoba school to protect them from being spat at or having stones thrown at them by settler children. To walk straight on would take us through one of the Jewish settlements, which is forbidden to us.
We reach the road on which Hashem’s house stands and are stopped by the soldier on duty. He asks where we are going, though he knows Hashem and where he lives. ‘I want to visit Hashem in his house’, I say. My passport is taken away and I am informed that the soldier must check with his commander before I can pass. A farce. We wait for a while, and are allowed to proceed.
To descend to Hashem’s house needs some careful manoeuvring. He is no longer able to enter by his main entrance, which has been closed by the settlers, but has to go via an unlit stony path which could be quite treacherous in the dark. As we approach his house, Hashem points out where the settlers have cut some of his fruit trees and poisoned others, also where they threw stones down on him when he was doing work in his garden. Outside his house is a row of furniture destroyed in a settler attack.
One may wonder what is Hashem’s crime. His first, perhaps, is that he refuses to move from his home, despite having been offered large sums of money to do so. His second – and perhaps even worse – crime is that he is a non-violent activist, and has done all he can to bring the injustice of his situation to the attention of the world. Amongst visitors to his house he mentions Noam Chomsky.
He and his family have paid the price. He shows me where he lost his bottom teeth after having been beaten up in a settler and army incursion. His wife has lost two babies when settler attacks happened whilst she was pregnant. The broken furniture outside his house stands as testament to further violence. If this weren’t Hashem one would be tempted to ask why he stays, but underneath the polite quietly spoken exterior, one senses a steely resilience and a determination to fight against injustice. I don’t even ask the question.
Hasham also fills in some details about Hebron’s history and puts it in perspective. There has been violence here, undeniably. Stray into the streets near the Jewish settlements, and the visitor reads everywhere about the massacre that happened here in 1929. It’s true that over 60 Jews were murdered in Hebron in that year during what are called the ‘Arab riots’. What the notices don’t tell you, however, is that hundreds of Jews were hidden and saved from the rioters by Palestinian families. Nor is there any mention anywhere of the 1994 killings of Palestinian worshippers in the Ibrahimi mosque by the Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein, nor of the fact that Jews and Palestinians coexisted amicably in Hebron for generations before the 1929 riots. Hasham tells me that the current fanatical settlers have been condemned by Jews who are the direct descendants of those who lived in Hebron before 1929.
For now, however, these radical settlers are protected by the military and have seeming impunity before the law, leaving families such as Hasham’s vulnerable. I am struck by the blatant injustice of this situation as Hasham’s wife serves me with stuffed courgettes and tomato sauce – a local speciality – and shows me the paintings she does partly to relieve the stress. As we leave there are tears because their pet rabbit has cut himself on some glass in the garden. The upsets of a normal family trapped in a nightmare situation.
The main purpose of my visit to Israel and the West Bank this time is to support the facilitation of Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops in Hebron on the West Bank and, if possible, in Israel. After a number of e-mail exchanges the workshop in Israel doesn’t materialise, but the West Bank workshop goes ahead, made possible by the dedicated work of Maryam, Director of the Aman Counselling Centre in Hebron. During an intensive 5 days we run a basic then an advanced workshop with 27 social workers operating in Hebron schools. 18 of them then go on to complete a Training for Facilitators workshop.
So why AVP and why here? AVP workshops aim to support people to deal better with conflict in their lives by using behaviours and skills which are likely to lead to non-violent outcomes. The main aim of this workshop is to address the ‘horizontal violence’ in Hebron society and more specifically in schools. One of the first exercises we do is ‘the triangle of violence’, where participants name underlying values and culture and the resulting behaviours. Violent behaviours identified include swearing, selfish and insecure behaviours, hitting and bullying, isolation and stealing. These appear to be not very different from problematic behaviours experienced in any schools across the world. Other behaviours are mentioned, however, which suggest that these might be children who are experiencing particularly high levels of tension and violence themselves. ‘Deep anger’ is named, as well as ‘uprising’ and ‘flight’. Many of these social workers work in schools in H2, the area of Hebron which is under Israeli military occupation and where the most radical settlers live. The families they deal with are therefore likely to be suffering harassment and oppression on a daily basis. Other behaviours named such as ‘revenge actions’ suggest that some of the violence experienced by young people may also be cultural.
At the end of the first day we receive a visit from a group of young French students, and Hashem our translator, introduces them to the Centre and its work in helping people to deal with emotional and psychological problems. During this introduction another purpose of the workshops emerges – namely to help people resist the occupation non-violently and to develop a strong and resilient society. A good illustration of this is given by Hashem himself on the 5th day of the workshop. On that day he arrives late – very late. Hashem lives in Tel Rumeida, one of the most difficult areas of H2 in that his house is surrounded by extremely radical settlers who make life very difficult for him. On this particular day the soldier on duty decides to take his pass and make him wait. After a while, Hashem decides to call members of his family and ask them to come and join him. They sit down in the road and share tea. When asked to move, Hashem tells them quietly that it is his right while waiting to be able to sit down and have some refreshment. They are blocking the road for traffic. After some consultation with his commander on the phone, the soldier gives Hashem his pass, and he is allowed to proceed. For Hashem, this is living proof that creative non-violent resistance works.
For John, my fellow AVP facilitator from the US, this is his first visit to the West Bank. He shares with me how struck he is by the resilience and strong cultural identity of the participants, compared to some indigenous cultures who are occupied and suppressed, and come to believe the stereotypes of the occupier. He sees no evidence of this here. What he is recognising is ‘sumud’ the resilience and perseverance of Palestinian society which strikes me every time. It is likely to break out in unexpected places in the workshop: any excuse and a participant will take out his home-made flute and strike up a tune. Before you know it there is singing, clapping and a group is engaged in traditional dabka dancing. In the singing and dancing we sense a deep joy and pride in a shared culture and a spirit that will not be broken.
Whilst the workshop will help these people to improve their skills and learn some new exercises and techniques they can use with their students, they already have an understanding of creative non-violence and how it can work in practice. As ever, I feel humility and a deep sense of admiration.
One thing it is impossible to avoid on the West Bank is Palestinian hospitality. John and I’s first taste of this is in Bethlehem, where we have to pass through to get to Hebron. We have some time to spare, and John would like to see the Church of the Nativity, the reputed birth-place of Jesus. I contact a couple of friends in Bethlehem, just in case they can help us to store our suitcases whilst do this.
My friend Ibrahim responds pretty quickly. Not only are we able to leave our suitcases in the Bethlehem Souvenir Centre where he works, but he offers to drive us in the mini-bus straight to Nativity Square, leaves us there and arranges with his friend in the St George’s restaurant on the square that we will phone him when we are ready, and he’ll come and pick us up.
Before we leave Bethlehem, we visit Ibrahim’s family. As we sip mint tea, Ibrahim’s wife Nisreen turns to us and says: ‘Why didn’t you come for lunch? Next time you must come for longer!’ This is typical of Palestinians. Everywhere we go we are plied with tea and coffee – Arabic coffee in beautiful tiny cups, often with a hint of cardamon or ginger; hot sweet tea flavoured with mint. Whilst we stay with Maryam she cooks Palestinian specialities every evening, even though she has just spent the whole of the day with us facilitating the AVP workshop. As we sit drinking coffee one evening, Ibrahim, Maryam’s husband, suddenly has the idea that we must taste kanafeh, a traditional Palestinian sweet made of soft cheese soaked in a sugar-based syrup. Within half and hour it is with us – presumably fresh from a local bakery.
Before I leave, Maryam appears with a number of packages – gifts for me to carry home. A traditional Palestinian dress for me with accompanying shoes and gifts for the family. I am overwhelmed and embarrassed, and also worried about the weight of my case – but it would be rude to refuse.
Maryam’s last gesture as we leave the house is to pick two roses from the garden – one yellow, one red – which she presents to me as a piece of Hebron. Although the roses will wilt, the memory of people’s kindness remains.
Wednesday 22nd April. After trundling my suitcase over the cobbled stones of the Old City I arrive in the Ecce Homo guest-house for breakfast. From the second floor terrace we have a panorama of the Jerusalem skyline, taking in the gilded dome of the Al Aqsa Mosque, several churches including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Russian Orthodox Church, with it’s cupolas glinting in the sunshine. We are reminded of the importance of this city for the world’s main religions.
I meet John, my fellow Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) facilitator from the US, and we take a stroll together through the Old City. John has never visited Jerusalem before and wants to visit the Dome of the Rock or Temple Mount, the site of the al-Aqsa mosque. Undertaking this operation reveals why this is one of the most sensitive and controversial places in the world. Access to the site of the
mosque is via the Western Wall plaza and controlled by the Israeli military. The Western Wall is one of the most sacred sites in Judaism. It is an exposed section of ancient wall, reputed to be the place where the Second Temple stood before being destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Jews come from all around the world to pray here. It is also, however, the third most sacred place in the world for Muslims, who believe that the prophet Muhammad was transported from the Sacred Mosque in Mecca to al-Aqsa during the Night Journey.
Access to the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock has been a bone of contention since at least the 1920s. More recently the 2nd Intifada was sparked off by a controversial visit by Ariel Sharon, the then prime minister of Israel to the site of the Dome of the Rock in September 2000. Presently Israeli archaeologists are undertaking excavations under the al-Aqsa mosque with the aim of uncovering remains of the Second Temple. This causes ongoing tensions, due to the fear that this work could de-stabilise the foundations of the mosque. And so an uneasy truce is maintained in this most religious of places.
We experience some of the tension directly as we at last reach the front of the line, go through the scanner and have our bags checked by the soldiers on duty. John is stopped and informed he cannot proceed. The offending object? His recorder which he is carrying in his bag. No indication of where he can leave this – just an outright refusal to let him pass. In fact there are a couple of shelves where objects can be left, but we are left to discover this for ourselves. The item in my bag that attracts the soldier’s attention is an Arabic learner’s book. ‘What’s this?’ he asks. I am nonplussed. ‘Well, it’s an Arabic text book’, I think to myself. ‘What’s it for?’ (‘To learn Arabic?’ – again unspoken). I am allowed to pass.
Having at last reached the site, we admire the extent of the platform on which
the mosque stands and the beauty and majesty of the building, with it’s intricate blue and turquoise patterns and it’s gold cupola. The peace is only shattered by some women chanting ‘Allah wakbar’ – ‘God is great’. They are followed at a distance by a group of soldiers. Again, tension is never far away.
We return to the ‘suq’ – the underground labyrinth of shops that is the Old City. Here all sorts of spices and food are displayed alongside traditional pottery and jewellery as well as a full range of household and gaudy plastic goods. This is also the route of the Via Dolorosa, where Christian pilgrims can be seen following the Stations of the Cross. We enter a shop in the Armenian Quarter, and are reminded of a forgotten genocide – the deliberate deportation and starvation of the Armenian population under the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923. It is thought that 1.5 million Armenians perished – a tragedy that is little talked about, although we are presently marking its centenary.
As we finish our browse, we are tempted into a shop selling jewellery, and are soon drawn into a very persuasive sales talk. First we are offered Arabic coffee, then entertained by stories of the store-owner’s family, some of whom live in the UK. Finally, John is tempted by a beautiful piece of jewellery, which he is assured is unique and ‘when he presents it to his wife’ (fait accompli!) she will be delighted. Somehow John manages to remain assertive and extricate himself without having made a purchase.
We return to our guest-house exhausted by the myriad of impressions and emotions that have assaulted us during this the first day of our visit.
We live in a mobile society. Many of us – through circumstances or choice – have ‘settled’ in a different area or even a different country from the place where we were born. Seen from this perspective, the word ‘settlement’ seems innocuous, suggesting benign drifts of individuals and groups, settling on the countryside and melting into the environment, where they coexist peacefully alongside their neighbours.
In the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, however, the word ‘settlement’ has a much harder, bitterer edge. One way we can understand this is by referring to International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention states that an occupying power (in this case Israel) shall not transfer its own population (the ‘settlers’) to the areas it occupies (in this case the Palestinian Territories). Yet this is precisely what is happening here. There are now over 500,000 (half a million) Israeli settlers living on land belonging to Palestinians and designated for a future Palestinian state. In other words the settlements are illegal under IHL.
Taking the benign definition of ‘settlement’ outlined in our first paragraph, one might still be tempted to say: ‘So what? People of different ethnicity, faith and background live side by side in many parts of the world.’ True, but to understand the true significance and impact of what is going on here it’s not the lens of ethnicity and religion one needs to look through, but that of occupier and occupied. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories two populations live alongside one another, one (the settlers) with full Israeli citizenship and all the rights and privileges that brings; the other (the indigenous Palestinian population) living under military rule. The one enjoys full security, with both military and police protection, whilst the other is subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, including that of minors. The one is able to move around freely, whilst the other is subject to military checkpoints and roadblocks. The one is able to build and expand more or less as they like, whilst the other has to obtain building permits which are virtually impossible to come by, so that centres of population are concentrated into ever-decreasing and overcrowded areas. In horticultural terms the settlements are like a system of deliberately and strategically placed weeds, spreading their roots and squeezing the life out of the surrounding land, and the communities it supports. One can understand why people describe this situation as apartheid.
Let’s look through another lens for a moment – that of one map superimposed on another. Suppose that you want to visit the tiny Palestinian village of Yanoun near Nablus – or even the nearby town of Aqraba. Don’t expect to see a signpost to either of these from the main road, however. All you will see are signposts to Israeli settlements and some military look-out towers. Palestinians know where to turn for they have a different map in their hearts and minds – that of the original indigenous landscape, which is gradually being eaten – almost spirited away – by new settlements. One reality being superimposed upon another. One could forgive the local Palestinians for feeling that their land is slowly being made to disappear.
Whilst visiting our friend Nasser in Nablus he challenges our use of the word ‘settlement’. ‘They’re not settlers’, he says,‘but colonisers.’ The word in Arabic is not ‘mustawtaneen’ but ‘mustammareen’. This sounds a bit harsh, but we realise that it better reflects the reality we see around us and experience every day.
We recount this conversation to Yasser one of the farmers in Yanoun. He looks perplexed. ‘It’s the same thing’, he says. We realise that whilst we split semantic hairs and worry whether the words ‘colonisers’ and ‘colonies’ may be too harsh for some ears, what he experiences on the ground is undeniable. Because of the progressive appropriation of land by the settlers, he is unable to feed his sheep and is in debt for sheep feed. He struggles to afford a university education for his children. His house leaks in the winter, and he is unable to re-build as this is illegal. He is slowly but surely being squeezed off the land where he was born. ‘Mustawteen’ or ‘mustammareen’ – it’s all the same to him. Whatever we call them they spell a system of occupation and injustice which we in the West choose to condone.
It’s Sunday, the first day of the working week. Having left Yanoun, we stand at a busy Zatara junction, waiting for a bus or a service (yellow shared taxi) to take us on to Ramallah. Impossible. All the buses are jam-packed with people, and pass without stopping.
Eventually an elderly gentleman pulls up and offers us a lift, along with another Palestinian man who is waiting. We accept gratefully. We ask him how much we owe him, but he obviously doesn’t want payment. ‘I’m not a taxi’ he says. During the journey he engages us in conversation, asking what is the purpose of our visit. It turns out that he is a Doctor, having completed his PhD in India. By the end of the journey we have been invited to stay in his house in Jenin, and have exchanged e-mail addresses. He insists on dropping us directly outside the gate of the Meeting House in Ramallah, although we suspect this takes him considerably out of his way. Another example of Palestinian hospitality. From the little they have these people give so freely.
During Meeting for Worship Jean Zaru, the Clerk, stands to minister. She speaks about giving and receiving, and about being taught as a child that it is more blessed to give than to receive. She then recounts her experience, when ill in hospital in Amman, of being lovingly cared for by a Muslim lady – a stranger – which made her feel both grateful and humbled.
We came to Palestine to give – to provide protective presence for the people of Yanoun so that they can continue with their daily lives and feel safer despite the constant encroachment of the surrounding settlements. We came from a place of material abundance, and witnessed the hardship of their lives – their cold and leaking houses, and the precariousness of living hand-to-mouth. From that abundance we were able to alleviate some of their immediate needs.
And yet, we ponder, who is the giver here and who the receiver? From their material poverty, the people of Yanoun have given in abundance of their time, hospitality and graciousness of spirit. Plates of food would appear from nowhere: stuffed vine leaves, musachan ( a kind of Palestinian pizza, topped with onions, nuts and herbs), freshly-baked taboun bread. Over steaming cups of cinnamon tea and coffee, we shared anecdotes. They helped us with our Arabic, and pulled our leg about always bringing snow. There was a lot of laughter. We have experienced fellowship at a deep level, born of an ability to transcend ethnicity, religion and culture, and to connect on both a human and spiritual level, recognising that of God in one another.
And so we prepare to leave our beloved Palestine once again – enriched and humbled.