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Notes from a Program Visit to Palestine

The following are some notes and stories from some of the places we saw and the people we met. These are just a few of the many scenes I go back to over and over again when I reflect on this trip.

The Passion

We were walking through the narrow streets of old city in Bethlehem with Fatima. She wanted to show us the cultural center that her uncle had opened just outside of Manger Square so we ducked into the building. Our friend pointed out the gardens, the galleries, the classrooms and finally the theater. The theater was offering nightly showings of The Passion of the Christ, the new, controversial film by Mel Gibson that details Jesus’ final days. Although I have yet to see this film, I’ve heard from those that have seen it that it is incredibly bloody and gruesome, certainly not for the squeamish. Fatima, who had seen the film twice, confirmed this.

There were only 2 people in the theater when we walked in — a mother and her young daughter. The girl couldn’t have been more than 7 years old. Fatima recognized the woman and we went over to say hello. Fatima’s friend and her daughter were waiting to see the next showing of the film. Fatima looked questioningly at her friend and glancing over at the young girl asked her mother whether she though the daughter could handle the film. The mother assured Fatima that the girl would be fine — « remember, she’s a Palestinian child. This is her life. She’s seen much worse, » the woman half-joked. We all laughed even though it wasn’t funny.

An Afternoon with the Women from Jamaeen and Qira

The villages of Jamaeen and Qira, located in the West Bank just south of Nablus, have always been known for their olive oil and their zataar – a delectable mixture of dried herbs, sumac, salt and sesame seeds that is often used to season bread. Now the villages are also known for their strong women. With the help of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee’s Rural Women’s Development Society Program (PARC/RWDS), women from Jamaeen and Qira have established and are running women’s clubs in their villages. These are just 2 of the 68 clubs that have been set up in the West Bank and Gaza. The clubs provide women with a space of their own where they can meet with other women and share experiences and ideas. Through the clubs, the women also receive trainings, workshops and run small, income generating projects. The clubs elect members of the administrative committee and set their own plans and agendas according to their needs together with an extension worker from PARC.

Samia, a member of the Qira women’s club and mother of five described how about once a week she goes to demonstrate against the wall together with Palestinians, Israelis and other internationals. Qira is just one of the many villages that are being affected by the construction of the separation wall. She is also a member of the administrative committee of the Qira women’s club. She explained her activism by saying that it is a result of and is strengthened by the trust and confidence that the women from the club and the community are putting in her.

Over lunch we had an interesting conversation with the women about their work in the clubs, the war in Iraq, and the meaning of women’s rights. What does the term women’s right mean to these women? The answers were varied — the right to education; the right to go outside the house; the right to express our views; the right to state our needs; the right to marry whenever and whomever they want; the right to employment; the right to stand side by side with men; the right to live in freedom. One woman added that these rights should not interfere with the rights of others — I saw several nods of agreement. Samia stood up and stated that as long as there is Israeli occupation, women will not be able to achieve their rights. The room became quiet for a moment until Rana jumped up to offer everyone more dessert.

Hitting a Concrete Wall

Jamal Juma, the coordinator of the Palestinian Environmental NGO Network (PENGON) and the network’s STOP THE WALL campaign drove us to see the separation wall that is being constructed around Jerusalem. Driving down the main road that leads from East Jerusalem to Abu Dis, a village east of Jerusalem, we suddenly, we found ourselves staring up at this 25 foot concrete barrier bisecting the road. Now, I’ve seen thousands of photos of the wall and heard so many people talking about it, but none of this prepared me for seeing it in person. It is truly devastating.

Standing in the shadow of the separation wall, we spoke with Musa Abu Mohammed. He told us that he has 7 dunums (1 dunum is about 1/4 of a hectare) of land on one side of the wall and 3 on the other. His life is tied to Jerusalem but once the wall is completed he will no longer have access to his land, his job and the rest of his family. Jamal himself is in a similar position. He lives in East Jerusalem near the El Ram checkpoint. The wall will run between his home and the PENGON office. He will be physically unable to reach his workplace. He is not yet sure what he will do.

Hoping to get a better sense of the wall’s impact, one afternoon we drove to Qalqilya, a town in the northern West Bank that is completely surrounded by the wall. We were stopped on the road leading to the entrance of Qalqilya by several Israeli soldiers. They politely informed us that if we entered Qalqilya we would be breaking the law. The IDF has passed a law barring any non-Palestinian from entering Qalqilya without a permit. It seems that in order to enter we would have had to apply for permission at least a week in advance. Had we entered the town, we would have each faced a fine of $5,000 shekels and would have had to go to trial where there was a good chance that Daniel and I would be deported and our consultant would lose his work visa. We all decided we couldn’t take the risk. Thwarted, we returned back to Jerusalem.

A Mother’s Tears

Sitting around the breakfast table, Amal recounted a conversation she had had recently with her teenaged son. They were watching the evening news together — the day before there had been a suicide bombing inside Israel. One of the reporters was interviewing a woman whose young child had been injured in the blast. The woman was describing the panic and the fear that overtook her as she searched the debris for her child. Hearing this, Amal began to cry. Her son looked over at her incredulously. « You are crazy. How can you cry for them after all they have done? Don’t you remember what they did to our friend and our community, » he asked, remembering how the IDF, during one of its invasions of Ramallah had shot and killed their 7 year old neighbor. Amal turned to her son and reminded him that in this cycle of violence everyone is hurting – « The important thing is not to lose our humanity…mothers’ tears are salty everywhere. »