Saturday, June 21, 2008

My Friend in Palestine

Greetings fellow Network of Love Lovers!

I have a good friend, Lydia, who is courageous enough to be doing non-violent training in Palestine over the course of the next few weeks. Periodically, she has sent e-mails detailing some of the extraordinary (and ordinary) things she has encountered during her stay in the middle east. She has met some lovely people, but has run up against some ugly patterns of violence and aggression that seem to continue to torment the peace so many in Palestine and in the world are calling for. Enjoy this "guest columnist," if you will. She is an amazing person who I am blessed to know, and she has a lot more time to continue to bring peace into this world (she just graduated from Loyola in May!).

"He is my best friend. Sometimes he dances with me, other times he cries with me." The delicious meal has ended, and now Mustaffa plays the string instrument for us. "We need to teach more music and less war," he says. Meal, music, hospitality, and laughter seemed the only way to maintain our sanity after the experiences of the afternoon.
We were in the small village of Bil'in which is a community that is working hard to survive amidst the building of the wall, economic pressures, the destruction of their olive trees, and continual military violence. Yet, it also seems to be the place to watch for creative experiments in nonviolence. This community is committed to working for an end to the wall and occupation through nonviolent means.
Every Friday they hold a nonviolent demonstration at the wall. In this case the wall is actually a series of fences that divides them from the illegal Israeli settlement cutting them off from their land and roads. So, for the past three years, they hold vigils with different creative themes. Once there was even a wedding held at the wall in protest! However, the military response has become increasingly violent and usually leaves multiple people injured weekly. For more information about Bil'in visit
The village has called for international support at these demonstrations in hopes that it will decrease the military violence. By law, Israeli soldiers are not allowed to use live ammunition when internationals are present. However, they do use sound bombs, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Rubber bullets are actually rubber coated steal bullets which can still injure and even kill you.
So, we went as international support to help decrease the violence and to witness the reality in Bil'in. After the Muslim noontime prayer, the protest began with a march down the street. By my guess there were about 200 people including many international and Israeli supporters. We walked down the winding road, past homes and shops, through the orchard of olive trees that dead ended into the wall. We carried signs with pictures of people who had been injured including a young man the week before who had been shot in the leg three times and has been in the hospital in bad condition having lost so much blood. When we arrived at the wall, we quickly saw the soldiers who were standing behind concrete rocks across the road. Beyond them in the distance, the settlement was clearly visible.
In many ways, it was such a simple protest. We walked through the streets and stood at the wall. It was even tamer than a lot of protests I've been to in the U.S. Almost immediately when we arrived, we began to hear this screeching noise. Apparently the soldiers use this sometimes. It is a constant, high pitch screech used to try to disorient protestors and force them to leave. The loud noise continued. People covered their ears. If you don't think noise can be violent, just listen to this. The Palestinians began to shout chants trying to be heard over the noise, though it was nearly impossible. "la, la al-jidar" or "no, no to the wall." Erinn and I stood a little distance from the wall taking in everything that we saw.
Suddenly, the real violence broke out. We began to hear shots coming from the soldiers as they started shooting tear gas canisters. And they shot a lot. They have new machines that can shoot as many as thirty at a time. We had no choice but to retreat and as fast as we could. It was one of the scariest moments I've had as I moved between olive trees. There were so many tear gas shots, it was almost impossible to know where they were falling. You just had to hope for that it wouldn't hit you and burn. The tear gas entered my lungs and gave me the feeling that I couldn't breathe. My eyes watered until I could barely keep my eyes open. It was terrifying. It seems that there are no words that could possibly describe this experience. I had a bandana to cover my nose and mouth and a piece of onion below my nose which would hopefully keep me from panicking reminding me that I could continue breathing. I have a new appreciation for onions (yay for Onion Day). I tried to remain calm as we all scattered avoiding the tear gas (always keeping Erinn and Loretta in sight of me). Eventually I got what I thought was far enough away until I realized that I had just approached another fence on the other side and the soldiers had driven to that side and began shooting more tear gas. They could not see where they were shooting, but they just kept shooting. We would watch as tear gas canisters would land just feet away from us.
We had to get up the road again. It was noisy with the shots, stank from the tear gas, and hard to see with all the smoke from the tear gas. As we ran up along the road, you could see where tear gas had fallen and from the hear had started fires. Palestinians and some internationals went back down to try to put out the fires. One young international from England that we had stayed with the previous night, told us about working to put out the fires. The fires were spreading so quickly and at one point it jumped under an olive tree. The two Palestinian men said there was nothing to be done and put their arms around each other. This was their livelihood. They stood and grieved for these old trees.
I stood on top of the hill overlooking a shocking spectacle. Smoke rose from everywhere and shots continued. As I stood there watching, I thought to myself, "this is nothing but evil." How could people do this to one another? For a nonviolent protest against a wall that had divided them from their land? Could this really be claimed in the name of security?
I always thought I was far enough away until the soldiers would drive closer and suddenly what looked like fireworks would appear and more tear gas would fall. There was a time when so much had gotten into my eyes I could not open them for five minutes.
Back down the hill, there were teenage boys who remained. Once the violence had started, they started to throw rocks toward the military vehicles. I struggle with this so much in that it is violence to me and I cannot and will not support or defend this. However, I can understand their anger. And certainly, the levels of violence were not even close to equal. They were brave to stay in their knowing that the soldiers were shooting rubber bullets aimed at them as they hid behind the olive trees they had grown up under.
After a while, a Palestinian leader gathered support from Palestinians and internationals to go back down. I couldn't do it. I needed rest. I couldn't center myself enough to imagine going back in there. I stayed and watched as Erinn and Loretta and many others went back down and sat under an olive tree and chanted. After five minutes or so, they returned by their own choice, not the soldiers. They had decided it was time for the protest to be complete. It was a beautiful site watching them all come up the hill.
The protest was really shocking. People kept telling me what was going to happen. I was told about tear gas, rubber bullets, and sound bombs. But I was certainly not ready for what I saw. I don't think any of us should be ready for that. I cannot imagine coming back to do this every week.
We just heard that yesterday evening after the protest, some members of the community (including the man whose house we stayed at) had gone to an outpost to watch and make sure that more of their land was not taken. In the night, they were taken and beaten by the soldiers. I don't know more details than that. All I know is that I cannot imagine living this every day. I keep thinking about how I have these extraordinary things to report back to you all, only to remember that there is nothing extraordinary about them. This is the ordinary life for these people.
There is however another sort of extraordinary that is ordinary and is perhaps just as unbelievable. It is the incredible hospitality of the people here. When we stop to ask for directions, it is rare that we wouldn't have seven men surrounding us all offering to help. If we are walking down the road, the families come outside and without even knowing our names invite us in for coffee and a meal. When invited into a house, we are immediately told that their house is ours, and they truly make it feel that way. For dinner, we are offered the best food they have. If we drop into a house, they alter their day by giving hospitality with pure joy. The people I have met here, from the family in Bil'in to the taxi driver in Ramallah, to the man who offered us directions in Beit Ommar, are the kindest, most generous people I've encountered. It is the greatest lesson I have ever had in hospitality. This love and generosity, in the midst of occupation, continues to boggle my mind. It is nothing but extraordinary and yet, with every hour, I realize that it is nothing but ordinary.
Back at the family's home after the demonstration, we took the time to enjoy the fullness of life. The father of the family shared with us his hopes for peace in Palestine. He told us that Palestinians must choose between peace and war. If war, they will pay a price. If peace, they will pay a price. But he said, the price of peace is good for everyone. He shared with us his sadness about the children throwing rocks and told that everyday he teaches his children not to throw rocks. Every day. But it is very hard. He ended by telling us that this land is not his, it is not ours, or anyone else's. He lives here, but the land is God's land. How much we have to learn.
Erinn and Loretta sit and learn Arabic from the father while I practice English with the daughters. We play with the children, we drink tea, we eat delicious food, we share hope for peace, and we let the afternoon be carried away.
On our Service (collective taxi) ride back to Beit Sahour, we are stopped at a checkpoint. The soldier opens the door and shines the flashlight in our faces. He picks one woman out of the back and asks for her documents. She responds something in Arabic and the soldier gets angry and suddenly she is getting out of the van and going inside the checkpoint. A woman in front us translated, telling us that the woman in the back had asked the soldier to wait because she was on the phone. Everyone in the Service was quite upset with her. (I thought it was kinda gutsy myself). Then the soldier told the driver that the whole van would be punished for her mistake. The woman thought that they would have to wait for two hours. We were getting prepared to take a trip in and ask if there were any problems, however after a few minutes she came back. I do wonder though if it would have been longer if there hadn't been internationals in the van.
As we drove on, I thought over the events of the day. I thought about tear gas and what it is called. Gas that forces us to cry. Forced grief. It is not the Palestinians who need to weep anymore for this conflict. It is me. It is the soldiers on the other side of the wall. It is my country. Bush and Obama. It is Israel. And AIPAC. It is each of us who hold responsibility through our money, our political voice, or our own ignorance. We are the ones who must learn to grieve. We must stop shooting tear gas and instead cry our own tears. In freedom, we weep.

Peace and love,

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