Update from the 2016 Mosaic of Peace Conference
(These blog entries provide brief reports and insights from our conference in Israel and Palestine. They are written by our participants Anne French and Emily Oshinskie and are neither comprehensive nor in depth reports, but simply glimpses into the amazing experiences we had together.)
Our group spent about an hour walking in a neighborhood of Bethlehem where the separation wall isolates residents and shop owners in what used to be a thriving commercial district and tightly knit community. We met the Anastas family, owners of Holy Star Gifts, whose home and shop are surrounded on three sides by the wall. The road in front of their shop was once a busy thoroughfare, the main route from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, but now it is impassable. Their isolation has had a devastating impact on them economically, socially and emotionally.
In the shadow of the wall, we met with representatives of Wi’am, a grass-roots organization that promotes conflict transformation, restorative justice and mediation. The word Wi’am means agape – unconditional love. Their director, Mr. Zoughbi Zoughbi, explained that the center’s focus is on peace-building, sustainable development, empowerment and hope. They do so by engaging in non-violent action including direct action, noncooperation, building institutions that support women’s rights, student movements, boycotts, divestment, sanctions, political dialogue and negotiations. He told us that they believe it is critical to distinguish between systems and people. “Palestinians feel marginalized and isolated,” Zoughbi stated. “The occupation is evil. It demoralizes both Palestinians and Israelis.” When asked what we can do to help, Zoughbi replied: “We need people to come here. Visit the land. Stay. Make it clear to others that the real issue is power. It isn’t religion. We all know that power corrupts, but the lack of power also corrupts. Too many Palestinians are leaving because of our lack of power. Help create the conditions for Palestinians to stay and thrive in their land.”
After our visit to Wi’am, we travelled a short distance to meet with Mr. Salah Ajarameh, the director of The Lajee Center, a Palestinian creative cultural children’s center in Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. He and other residents of the camp established the program in 2001 to help their community’s children through self-expression in the arts and other creative outlets. The center also offers projects and courses in human rights and democracy, photography, Palestinian folk dancing, music, English language, Palestinian culture and history, and refugee rights.
Aida is one of three refugee camps in Bethlehem. It was established several years after what Palestinians refer to us the “Nakba” or “catastrophe” of 1948, when 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled from their homes. Initially, most Palestinians sought refuge with family members in cities and towns that were not confiscated in the war, but when the UN established 57 official refugee camps in the early 1950’s, the majority of displaced Palestinians made the choice to assert their rights as refugees under international law, with the hope that this status would protect them and offer them a secure future. The land where Aida is located was leased by the United Nations for 99 years.
Life in the camps was always difficult, according to Mr. Ajarameh, but since the building of wall, which seals the camp in one side, the situation in Aida has become desperate and dangerous. There are guard towers, military exercises, bullet holes in the schoolyard walls and the constant threat of raids and arrests. Today, many of the families in the camp have given up on the idea of a secure future, but they cannot leave, as the cost of living in areas that are still available to Palestinians has skyrocketed. He gave the example that 100 square meters of land in Bethlehem would have cost $10,000 before 1993, (when the Oslo Accords were signed) but would now be valued at $500,000.
The wall has effectively sealed the community in. Whereas once families from the camps could walk to nearby areas to swim or picnic, they must now pay to travel by bus and pass through checkpoints. Many parks and recreational areas outside of Bethlehem are now designated as area C, under complete Israeli control, and so are off-limits to all Palestinians. Mr. Ajarameh accompanied our group as we walked through the camp, seeing first-hand the bullet holes in the wall of the school yard, as children hurried past us with their teacher. We looked up and saw the guard tower from which the shots were fired only a few hundred yards away. In the small courtyard of the kindergarten, there is a faded mural with the picture of a butterfly and the words: “Here, only butterflies and birds are free”. As we walked down increasingly narrow streets, Mr. Ajarameh pointed out additional bullet holes in the walls and doors of homes. He explained that the Israeli military had recently designed a new “mini” machine gun specifically for use in refugee camps with narrow passages.
Near the exit of the camp, we walked alongside a wall with a detailed mural depicting the tragic story of lost villages, flight and fear. Directly ahead of us loomed the industrial grey separation barrier, 25 feet high, with its own graphic illustrations and pleas for justice. Among them, in black spray-paint, the words “Presbyterians, Please Divest.” We turned the corner and walked out of the camp, passing underneath an archway which supports a giant key, symbolizing the dream of all Palestinian refugees to one day return home.