When planting trees and building parks are Occupation
Like thousands of Jewish children growing up in America in the 50’s and 60’s, my grandmother regularly informed us that she had planted a tree with our name on it in Israel. I remember having a sense of pride that in a distant land that meant so much to my family, there were trees with my name on it. In Brooklyn, New York, where I lived, trees didn’t have children’s names on them.
Last week, a group of us drove from Ein Karem (ancient village on the southwest of Jerusalem) to Bethlehem, curving on narrow roads between hills and through valleys. Lisa, our guide and driver, pointed to the top of one of the hills, to a line of pine trees, and explained how planting those trees disrupted the centuries old agricultural life of the Palestinians by acidifying the soil. I looked again and saw the pines on the hilltops as signs of conquest.
She drove us past the Ein Hanya spring where I had picnicked a few years ago, a place where Jews and Palestinians had seemed to share a bit of nature together, and said, this is being taken over by annexing it into the Jerusalem Municipal Park system. Palestinian families will be fenced off from their agricultural lands, and this pool where we bring students from our school in East Jerusalem to learn to swim, where shepherds have watered their flock and families picnicked for centuries, will be fenced off. I looked again and saw a park as Occupation.
From Israeli newspaper Haaretz a year ago:
We drove on to Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem for a gathering of the Palestinian Nonviolent Communication community. See my earlier blog.
From Beit Jala to Hebron
After the day in Bethlehem, my friend and colleague Amal hosted me in her family home in Beit Jala.
The next morning, after touring Amal’s lovely garden, we walked down her street, passed lovely multi storied houses surrounded by gardens, into a commercial part of Beit Jala. Up ahead, I saw a crowd outside the bank where we were heading. What’s going on, I asked?
Occupation as Housing Crisis
They are protesting- yesterday, Israel destroyed two houses in Bet Jala.
From Israeli civil rights organization B’tselem ( made in God’s image):
On Monday, 29 January 2018, at around 9:00 A.M., three bulldozers accompanied by Border Police personnel arrived at the Beit Jala neighborhood of Bir ‘Ona, which had been annexed to East Jerusalem. The forces destroyed two buildings under construction containing a total of nine housing units. The Israeli Ministry of Interior had issued demolition orders against these structures. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0_AlKRjQQ4
This was exactly when we had crossed the Beit Jala checkpoint on our way to Holy Land Trust in next door Bethlehem, to found the Palestinian Nonviolent Communication organization…
We walked through the crowd, into the bank. Amal took a number, and we sat to wait. A man came up to her and they embraced. I noticed he had a black eye. Roberta, I want you to meet, Mr. Nicola Khamis, the Mayor of Beit Jala. He was part of the protest, which by now had spilled over inside the bank.
The Mayor moved on, and I asked what happened to his eye? Just then we could hear a woman addressing the protest. Amal signaled toward her, and said, she is speaking in support of the mayor- he was punched yesterday by people angry about the home demolitions, and she was speaking out against that.
From the official Palestinian WAFA news:
RAMALLAH, January 30, 2018 (WAFA) – The Ministry of Local Government denounced on Tuesday an attack on the mayor of Beit Jala, Nicola Khamis, when he went to inspect homes the Israeli army has the day before demolished in Bir Una area of the West Bank city.
The ministry denounced as well in a statement the Israeli demolition of two houses in Bir Una, which the army claimed were built without permission in an area of the occupied West Bank under Israeli military control.
A least a quarter of the Palestinian buildings in Bir Una are under threat of demolition by Israel, which plans to annex the area to Jerusalem after emptying it from its Palestinian residents.
Owners of the demolished homes attacked the mayor and other staff from the Local Government when they visited Bir Una to inspect the homes. The owners blamed the municipality for not facilitating construction in Bir Una even though authority over that part of Beit Jala is in Israeli military hands and not the municipality.
The Ministry of Local Government, which described the people who attacked the mayor and staff as a group of outlaws, expressed its utter rejection of such acts against officials and state employees and called for their arrest and persecution.
Amal and I made our way to the public mini buses that carry people on the winding roads from village to village in the West Bank.
I had decided to spend this day, Tu b’ shvat, the Jewish new year of the trees, in the Hebron area with my Palestinian friends. Abraham, the patriarch of all three religions present in our car- Jewish, Moslem and Christian- is buried in Hebron, with many of the other patriarchs and matriarchs. The houses of worship built into the burial cave are stained with blood, the earth is stained with blood, and my visits to Hebron, this my fourth, are powerful reminders of the ongoing struggle to share the land.
Abu Azzam ( Azzam’s father Abed )picked us up on a busy corner in Hebron at where the mini bus from Beit Jala dropped us. Abed had participated in the meeting the day before in Bethlehem and we had arranged to meet him then. He had asked me what I liked to eat, and I already knew we were in store for a feast. First, I wanted to see about buying some of the famous Hebron glassware, so we went to a glass blowing factory.
From there, we were on our way to the Palestinian town of Dura.
First we picked up Umm Azzam ( Azzam’s mom), at the local elementary school where she teaches. I hadn’t seen her since her trip to California for her son’s wedding to a lovely American Jewish women whom he met while he was studying in San Francisco to become a Nonviolent Communication trainer. Among other things, Azzam and Anna are giving workshops in the US on Islamophobia.
Most of their children and grandchildren were waiting for us at the house.
I especially enjoyed talking to one of Azzam’s sisters who was home visiting from Turkey where she is studying the ancient Ottoman language and culture. While we chatted, her older sister, a local pharmacist who owns her own pharmacy, was preparing a feast for 15 people, with two fish main courses, and chicken, because Abu Azzam had told her I don’t eat meat or poultry.
After too short a visit, and me declining to spend the night with them because I was settled into Amal’s home, we drove 5 minutes to the neighboring El Faawar Refugee Camp where Ameen and his family were waiting to meet us and offer coffee and dessert.
El Faawar Refugee Camp
I have visited Palestinian refugee camps before, but this is the first time I was going to visit a dear friend. Ameen has been studying Nonviolent Communication with me for 6 years now. I think he has “liked” every facebook post of mine for all six years ( including todays posts)! A few years ago, NVC trainer Ellen Eisenberg and I were offering a weekly Nonviolent Communication course at Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem. Ameen came back the second week and reported that he had gone home and listened, really listened, to his wife and son for the first time in his life. He reported that his home life was completely transformed.
At the next class session, Ameen had described how he already was using Nonviolent Communication in his work. His job for the Palestinian Authority involves negotiation with the Israeli military for the return of the bodies of Palestinians who have died in Israeli custody. A Palestine family was anxiously waiting for the return of a son’s body. The military commander was stalling. Ameen found out that the commander’s father was dying. He gave empathy to the commander, connecting with his feelings and needs around his father’s care, and asked how he could make things easier for him. The commander had concerns about some of the complications involved in the Palestinian man’s funeral, and they worked them out.
Ameen has attended all of the 9 day Nonviolent Communication trainings in the West Bank ( I think we’ve had 6) and he also was one of the Palestinian Nonviolent Communication trainers-in-training with whom I had spent a week in Ohio at an NVC training a few years ago.
Now after all these years I was visiting Ameen and meeting the rest of his family. We drove around the outskirts of Hebron onto rocky dirt roads. A sharp right turn at a big sign posted by the Israeli military, warning Israelis to keep out marked the entrance. The school was on the right and houses and alleys leading to more houses on both sides, along with rubble and kids playing everywhere.
Ameen was standing just past the school, waiting for us with a big smile. His warm greeting and evident excitement to host us was infectious, and we made our way into back alleys, past more kids playing, and up the stairs into his house.
Ameen was born in the Camp in 1963 and now he is raising his family there. I asked him where the people came from who lived there. He said, 50 villages, and began to name every one of them. His parents or grandparents fled there in ’48. For two years they lived in the caves he pointed to just outside the present camp buildings, then the UN supplied canvass tents, then corrugated metal houses, the remains of which are evident everywhere. Then over time people began to build houses, and Ameen pointed proudly to the land behind his house that he owns and farms.
Ameen’s wife came to the door and welcomed us in. I noticed that like me and Amal, she wasn’t wearing a head covering. She then disappeared, and returned later with a long white shawl covering her head, and two plates piled with pastries- one savory and one sweet.
Two of Ameen’s sons joined us and we all sat, enjoying coffee and pastries and conversation. Ameen showed me a scar on his face and told a story of walking some youngsters on the old road from the Camp into Hebron. The Israeli military had closed the road to cars, but he didn’t realize it also was closed to walkers. This is the age old road the villagers in that area have walked into Hebron. He was assaulted by the soldiers in front of the youngsters and has a permanent scar. He said the road was said to be closed to protect Hagai, a Jewish settlement in the hills-
Hebron. 7th Feb, 2017. A picture shows a view of the Hagai Jewish settlement on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Hebron on Feb. 7, 2017. Israel’s parliament passed Monday a controversial law to retroactively legalize wildcat Jewish outposts built on private Palestinian lands, despite international condemnations and warnings that the law is unconstitutional. Credit: Mamoun Wazwaz/Xinhua/Alamy Live News
As we drove out of the camp, I noticed 5 or 6 uniformed Israeli men, soldiers, guarding the camp entrance, with rifles and weaponry- full regalia. I was stunned- not surprised- at the contrast between families and these young men, outside the society, surrounded by Palestinians, a hostile armed force, unwanted, feared, isolated. How could anyone see this and not wonder, why are they there, it can’t possibly be that this is a way to peace and security for Israel, or a healthy start in life for these young Jewish men. I cried most of the way home.
Watching The Evening News with the Family
Abed drove us all the way to Amal’s home in Beit Jala that evening. I was so moved by the welcome she received from her teenage son and twenty something daughter- hugs, cuddles on the couch, connecting around the day. We all gathered together in the living room to watch the evening news.
I soon learned I wasn’t the only American in Bethlehem. On the news we saw dramatic footage of a protest in Bethlehem:
From the Jerusalem Post:
A group of Palestinians protesting US President Donald Trump’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict broke up a digital marketing workshop at the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday that the American Consulate in Jerusalem helped to organize. <a href="http://Protest in Bethlehem“> Protest in Bethlehem
In the morning, before Amal walked me down the road again to the “Arab bus” back to Jerusalem, I sat at the kitchen table, talking with her, her husband and their younger daughter. Their son was already at high school and the older daughter had dropped the grandchildren off with us, and was already at work, as a lawyer in the offie she shares with her husband and father, all lawyers. The day before Amal had walked with me to the Orthodox church where she was married and all her family occasions are celebrated. Not too far off is the Catholic church where her husband’s family belong. They told me that before ’67, 35 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank were Christian. Now, in Beit Jala, there are less than 2 1/2 % Christians; and in Santiago Chile there are over 300,000 Beit Jala Palestinian Christians.
I leave reflecting on faces of Occupation and of Love.
Dedicated to my teacher, Marshall Rosenberg, with hopefulness that all of us are nurturing seeds he planted here.