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Waiting for the Promised Land

Waiting is something Palestinians live with — they wait in refugee camps established as temporary solutions in 1948, they wait in political limbo, they wait to learn what the disengagement plan will mean for their lives, and they wait in lines. (We ourselves found ourselves waiting in an hour long line to get into Ramallah yesterday for a meeting with our partner, the Rural Womens’ Development Society.)

Many in the West Bank do not have to wait, however, to see how the geographic lines will be drawn in the peace plan blueprints because construction has already been completed in several areas. In the north, the Wall now completely encircles the city of Qalqiliya and encloses Tulkarm in a dead zone between the Wall and the invisible Green Line established in 1967 separating Israel from the Occupied Territories.

The Wall deviates from the Green Line to carve out settlements and ensure contiguity with the rest of Israel. In many cases, this requires cutting off Palestinian farmers from the land, children and teachers from their schools and communities from each other. Individuals have to apply for permit cards to reach their lands. Permits are not always granted and when they are, they are only for a limited time. As a result of limited access to both land and the water aquifers underneath, agricultural production has fallen.

In the meantime, Palestinians continue to wait at both established checkpoints and at “flying checkpoints” that can pop up anywhere. Many we talked to expect magnetic cards to be issued in the not so distant future that will mark Palestinians by their place of residence and ensure, with a swipe of the card, that people are allowed to be wherever they are as well as track wherever they have been.

Our partners are not waiting for the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli government or the United Nations. They are building community capacity through their economic development and humn rights work. Some are running programs in the refugee camps that address both immediate needs and help build resiliency. Today, for example, we visited the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem. The Ibdaa Cultural Center (literally meaning “to create something out of nothing”) offers over 1500 youth and their families the opportunity to participate in everything from a world renowned dance troupe to a women’s basketball team.

Ibdaa is in the process of constructing a new building in the heart of the 1 sq. km camp which will house their new Radio 194 station, among other things. The media training program recently brought experts from Berkeley to Dheisheh to train 22 youth between the ages of 13 and 17 in filmmaking, digital video editing and radio production and broadcast.

Our partner, the Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP) works to alleviate some of the collective trauma through community based therapy. For example, GCMHP runs the Women’s Empowerment Project which invites 96 women a year to participate in a vocational training programs to learn skills such as hair cutting and styling, sewing and video production. Women develop confidence as well as a network of supportive peers. Trained mental health workers meet with the women at least twice a week in this non-clinical environment and are slowly able to break through the barriers of talking about domestic violence, gender issues and dealing with stresses of life in the Beach refugee camp.

Through their work, both GCMHP and Ibdaa help communities realize they don’t have to wait for their dignity.