This morning, we travelled a short distance from our hotel to the home of Claire and her family. You’ll see from the photo of her house that it is surrounded on all but one side by the separation wall, erected by the Israeli government in 2002. Claire, her husband and her 4 children have so far been allowed to stay in their home but it is not an easy existence. I sat, with 28 other visitors in her front room. He son served us coffee. She spoke to us like we were friends who had known each other a lifetime and was not ashamed to tell us how scared she is.
“My children, they say they were buried alive in one day. They went to school and by the time they came home, the wall was there.”
Claire’s children were deeply affected by the events that overtook their family. Israeli soldiers would come into the house and go to the upper floors to fire into Bethlehem. Then Palestinians began to fire back. This was a regular occurrence. Her children would go into deep physical and mental shock: “Their skin would go blue, their eyes roll into their heads so all you could see were the whites.” They would huddle in the corner of a room and beg the soldiers to get medical assistance. They refused.
Claire told us of what she called a miracle when one day they were in the crossfire and her husband was separated from them in another room. She asked her children to pray and worship and they did, but suddenly, without speaking they all stopped at exactly the same time and called out their father’s name. He said he turned and ducked at the sound of his name, and in doing so moved out of the way of a bullet that would have surely killed him in his own house.
“Everyone is angry,” Claire says. “People are powerful, and they have weapons. The next real wartime will be terrible. We need help from God. He is with us, He will help us. The Holy Land has to find peace to be an example to the world.”
Before we left her, we asked what we can possibly do to help. “Pray, pray for us. For peace and justice. Keep coming here and being with us. We believe the more people who belong to God who come, including Jewish people, they will come and bring the wall down. You are our hope for the light.”
Our next stop was our first formal trip to an Embrace partner. We’ve supported Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation (BASR) since the early 80s. Its motto is ‘health care for all’ but the Society provides so much more than healthcare.
Since it was adopted by Christian healthcare workers in the 70’s, it has expanded the services it offers and worked hard at breaking down barriers that stigmatise the vulnerable and disabled. They provide a range of healthcare under one roof, and a number of community-based groups and transport systems that put the NHS (or rather those systematically dismantling it) to shame. There are 88 beds, an ITU and an A&E. Comprehensive rehabilitation services, physio, OT, speech therapy, orthotics, orthopaedic surgery, psychology, psychotherapy, social workers and much more. They run 8 community centre for the disabled, who are picked up from their homes and then spend the day having fun with friends, being fed well, having various vocational classes and much more before being returned home. The centre has 350 employees, 20% of whom would be classed as having some sort of special needs.
Mary, BASR’s administration co-ordinator took us up on the roof to show us how the conflict is impacting their work.
Although it would be tragically oversimplifying to categorise the conflict here as a land dispute, the land, the relief and how people feel about it impacts everything. On the roof, Mary shows us where she understands the next part of the separation wall will be built.
“It could go in the middle of the valley, over there,” she says, indicating a valley a half kilometre away. “But no, they are building it right in our faces.” And it is, it is close and will be closer. “We depend on Jerusalem for so much, it’s a 10minute car ride, a 45minute walk, but we can’t get there. Many people die at checkpoints because they won’t be let through to get here.”
Additionally, they need to expand, but can’t because of the restrictions. The wall, land confiscations stop them building outwards, so they’re currently building up.
Embrace supports some projects including some of their outpatient work but this is a large, complex facility. Fundraising can be a problem, some 60% of their funding must come in from outside sources. They’ve even opened up the laundry and cafeteria to the public to bring in what they can.
I spoke to Rema, BASR project manager who we know well through our work. She was really pleased we had brought another group to the centre: “It is especially important that people keep visiting in such difficult times. We need your support so much. And we need to be connected to the outside world – your visits allow us to be connected.”
Our next visit was to another Embrace partner. We were met by Mohammed of the Joint Advocacy Initiative who run the Olive Tree project. If this land is rich in anything, it is olive trees. Mohammed, who incidentally lives in the Dheishah refugee camp we visited on Sunday, spoke of the project which is multi-functional.
Over a million olive trees have been uprooted as settlements spread and the wall has been built. Replanting these trees not only gives employment and an income to farmers, but it is non-violent resistance to the occupation. People come from all over the world to help plant and harvest the trees, giving protecting to the farmers who otherwise could be at risk, even on their own land. Farmers often require permits to reach the areas their trees are in. They may get a permit for 3-4 days which is enough time for a family to harvest 10 or so trees. But most fields will hold up to 100 trees so without outside help, the fruit would spoil which has far reaching consequences – not only a spoiled harvest and lost income but the land could be confiscated because it isn’t being ‘properly farmed.’
Each year, the project oversees the planting of 11 thousand saplings.
We had hoped to see an olive tree plantation but we don’t have the right permits to get there. Mohammed has to jump off our bus in what seems like the middle of nowhere because we’re travelling on and he isn’t allowed to cross the border. Before he leaves us, knowing where we’re headed next he says:
“I’ve never been in a settlement. We can’t get to our own trees, on our own land to harvest them without international protection. People think jails have four walls. People think you are aware when you’re in jail. Neither of those things are true. We don’t want violence, we just want to plant olive trees.
Planting a tree means you have hope for the future.”
I was nervous and excited about our last visit today, a trip to an Israeli settlement to visit a settler. I almost feel I should use a capital and put Settler because like refugee it is a word that evokes reaction. I really can’t replicate here all of the nuanced discussion we had on the issue of settlers and settlements, it took two and half hours to be part of and will take, probably, years to digest and decipher. The film we were shown on arrival was a decades old, unsettlingly close to propaganda style piece that told the history of the particular settlement from its establishment in the 20s, through the world wars, 3 destructions, the influx of holocaust survivors, the 1967 6 day war, the results of the settlements with Egypt and the Oslo accords. It’s complex. It’s fascinating. It’s disturbing.
Importantly, Myron, our speaker, is by his own admission, not a typical settler. He says he is in the minority, a liberal, even in his own very kibbutz like settlement that appears to be somewhat progressive. Difficult words litter his educated answers to questions, like peasants, blood, triumph, returning in glory – but he is clear on his position. The absence of conflict doesn’t mean the presence of peace, and there is no absence of conflict. He wants to move away from the past, recognises he has very little power to change the symptoms of the conflict, the wall, the checkpoints, the lack of resources, but he wants to be part of a mind-set change.
He says: “Shalom is Hebrew for peace. Salaam is Arabic for peace – but really it is Arabic for wholeness. That’s what we need – wholeness. We can’t find peace if we all live in fear, in a ‘bunker’ mentality.”
I’m not reconciled to his view that there have been lovely times in the past where everyone got on, and that means it is possible again but he says: “Lots of bad things have been done by good people with good intentions.”
Yup. But if you’re on the end of the bad thing, someone’s intention means very little especially when you are the one living hand to mouth.
Myron is doing things that are good. He takes his more hard-line community members to see where Palestinian houses have been demolished. He exposes them to another view of history and scripture. He visits Palestinian families who have been bereaved and his community gives money to mosques.
I’m conflicted. It reminds me of what church can be back home where we have our own intractable problems (although, wow, perspective!). When we discuss the hot potato issues like homosexuality, equal marriage, the current buzz is to find unity. But unity doesn’t mean uniformity. We have to find ways to live with people who disagree with us and as much as there were things that Byron said that made me want to scream, shout and cry, I could see his goal is to get his people to remember that Palestinians are humans too and I respect him for that.
He jumped on our bus and took us off the settlement to a Palestinian village next door where a house had recently been demolished. Our Palestinian tour guide who had not set foot off the bus listened intently.
“There are right wing people and left wing people making all sorts of decisions, and have made decisions that have got us to where we are. What I know is this: I don’t think we have taken that first step, that first step of a journey that begins with one thousand steps.
But I do think, at least we are trying to put on the right shoes for the journey.”
I thought of the settlement I had seen and how it must good to be able to concentrate on a long term, incremental solution. How when you’ve got a comfortable home, a job, food, water you have the time to chip away and try to figure it all out. How probably that is the only thing that is going to work in the long term and if that’s true, how far we are away from a solution.
I thought that ‘putting on the right shoes for the journey’ is a good thing to do and I wish Myron the best with his endeavours. It is incredibly important that more people like him challenge the status quo in his own community.
But I also thought of Claire, her frightened children huddling in their home. I thought of the BASR centre who are trying to build a better facility to serve the community alongside a wall. I thought of the farmers who want to tend their crops on their land and provide for their families. I thought of the Dheisheh refugee camp.
A pithy last sentence is escaping me, I usually manage something that helps me put my turmoil in a box. I’m not sure I’ll sleep well tonight.
Find out more about Claire’s story, and the guest house and business she tries to run: www.anasta-bethlehem.com
You can find out about JAI, the Olive tree project and BASR on the Embrace website. www.embraceme.org