I’m in Israel/Palestine this week immersing into the heart-breaking realities of people suffering and people making and becoming free.
Let’s dive right in. The hardest part for me to see the destroyed villages, knowing what happened there before and what their empty ruins represent today. The next hardest thing so far has been going to Balata refugee camp. We visited friends waging peace there, doing basic development work, hearing their stories, and walking among the refugees living there for 60 years in that over crowded camp. These were the people who were forced off of their land and homes (part of the 529 villages which were destroyed in 1947-49, creating nearly a million refugees). Now, these refugee camps that began as tented camps for 5000 people on .6 sq mi have become slum like towns for 30,000 people in the same space, people still holding the keys to their houses, and waiting to “go home”.
The rest of the 4 million Palestinians here are suffering the brutal realities of lives lived under military occupation. They live both in overcrowded refugee camps and in villages. In both places they have had so many basic rights taken away from them that if you ask people what they want here, they don’t even say the expected answer which would be “our land” they simply say we want to be treated with dignity, as humans, as equals with the Israelis here.
For example Palestinians are only given a ration of water one day per month – even if they own a business like Taybeh brewery which requires a flow of water – while the Israeli neighborhoods right next door have water 24-7, pools and irrigation. They’re not allowed to vote. They don’t get services like garbage removal. But they are required to pay the taxes like the Israelis. And numerous other kinds of disruptions to life and inequalities toward any attempt to make a normal economy. The most disturbing part is hearing from our many Orthodox Jewish friends here who are outraged by this because they’ve worked for the government or military and so they came to know that this is a strategy to make life so hard for the Palestinians that they all leave or die trying to stay. Our friend Yahouda said that the 50 year Occupation was designed to be permanent, and the stated goals if things like the “check points” isn’t as much for Israeli safety, like we’re told, as it is seeking to disrupt Palestinian life and make it impossible, which you can see by looking at the places check points are placed and the things they disrupt, like people getting to work or the hospital.
Or today we were in a neighborhood where the people had the locks taken off all their house doors by the military, not even able to provide their own children with security. While when we visited the Israeli civilian neighbor there he of course had locks but was also carrying a gun (no Palestinian is allowed to have any weapon).
Last night we heard from an Orthodox Jewish friend who used to be a sergeant in the IDF and got out, like a Conscientious Objector, because he realized he objected to what he calls the immoral and illegal military occupation. Realizing that many other men and women felt it was wrong too, he started the organization called “Breaking the Silence” where they support people through their decision to withdraw, document testimonies of unchecked brutality and killing, and try to talk to the press about what is happening. The Israeli equivalent of “60 Minutes” has covered their story and others continue to too, very slowly and cautiously. The US of course is not picking up these stories.
Yahouda talked about the problem of how this whole occupation is run by 18 – 19 year old kids who have such absolute power we can’t imagine, and they also have serious weapons, like grenade machine guns. They also have been taught their whole lives that Palestinians are all dangerous, only terrorists waiting to happen and so they must be pre-emptively stopped by any means or example necessary. He told of the story of when the Palestinian president was going to meet with the Israeli Prime Minister and how a 19 year old wouldn’t let him though the check point arbitrarily. How someone here just decided that one nationality is so superior to the other that a 19 year old kid in the military has all the power and a Palestinian President has none. Several times during his sharing Yahouda yelled, “Who the hell gave us the right to do this to people? Who?!”
I ask all of the Israelis I meet a simple question, “Do you have any Palestinian friends?” and most Israelis here – except for those working for peace and Palestinian justice – have not ever met or had a Palestinian friend. Not ONE! Even though they live side by side as neighbors in the same land.
They’ve been successfully kept separate by walls (the Separation Barrier, or Apartheid Wall), and separate roads, and fences and policies. So, many Israelis here seem to feel afraid of the thought of “the other”. And, given what they’re taught, given what many of their older relatives may have experienced in the world in terms of anti-semitism and given what they have seen of some people’s violent actions here, it is understandable that many people would still feel afraid. But oh the freedom and personal peace of the people we see who have somehow overcome the fear- they’ve chosen a different path, one that is not easy here. It’s radical, considered disloyal and invites rejection and biolence from one’s own people. Yet these true peacemakers we are meeting, they have successfully decided to live in peace and compassion. They are seeking understanding, seeking equal dignity and equal justice for all who share this land. Past violence, often by mis-guided youth on both sides, is not the whole story. I am finding it makes a big difference to one’s perspective and to their sense of personal security and peace, whether or not someone has made a friend on the other side. Surprise, surprise it makes a HUGE difference whether or not someone has “humanized” the other. The Palestinians here are not just a number on an id card that they live by, a number given to them by the Israeli government, but real people, trying to keep basic hopes alive, seeking to be treated with equal dignity and equal respect.
We have been meeting here in Israel/Palestine with local peacemakers, both orthodox jewish and muslim, who are risking their lives by building friendships with people on the ‘other’ side.
They are doing the radical thing here of humanizing the other, and building bridges of trust and friendship. By objecting to the military violence in neighborhoods here, by breaking down barriers of misconceptions, by breaking the silence of what really happens and seeking to end the 50 year occupation. These are true saints, living lives poured out, self-sacrificially for others.
I’m becoming nearly overwhelmed by what we’re seeing and experiencing and also thinking about how to begin to communicate this experience of getting to see one of our era’s dirtiest little secrets up close and personal, knowing most people back home won’t understand or even believe this. We have been so conditioned against it by our media and beliefs!!
We are taught not to see this reality on the ground, or to dismiss and justify its glaring injustices. Just ask the peacemakers here, those with the fortitude of mind and independence to ask questions beyond the prejudices that many of their parents and schools taught them. They’ve experienced how thinking deeply and with your heart can be a dangerous thing. Several of these peacemakers get death threats from their OWN communities and know that their lives may very well end not in old age, like many of us expect, but interrupted too soon, while waging peace on the ground.
The issues here regarding the immoral occupation are so simple — stop occupying them! And yet the issues of Land, sacred and sought after by so many competing people and ideas, remains a complicated issue. But peacemaking IS happening and i want to be a part of it. So I’m seeking wisdom about how to eventually communicate this to friends and family back home. That’s my prayer request, for wisdom about how to talk about this in a way that will make a positive difference in our world, and how to contribute to bringing peace back into the lives of these people, especially the children, and this land. No small request, but that’s what’s real this week from Israel/Palestine.