Report from Beit Jala: Corona and the Deal of the Century
(Part 1 of Report from 2020 Nonviolent Communication Training in Beit Jala)
One week ago today, which was Thursday March 5, 2020, I hastily threw all of my stuff into my suitcase and into the trunk of my Israeli friend’ s car.
More than 70 of us had just completed a nine day training program in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in Beit Jala, Palestine, a town in the Bethlehem district which was about to become one of the reported epicenters of the corona virus in the West Bank.
In what seemed like mere minutes after our closing circle, rumors about corona were spreading through the group like wildfire. I felt the fire of confusion, almost a panic, inside myself and all around us.
Less than an hour before, we were singing together at our closing circle, after being together in Beit Jala for nine days, on schedule, and planning how to continue regular NVC meetings between Israelis and Palestinians. We were celebrating that we had collectively created a 9 day residential learning community of Internationals, Israelis and Palestinians in the heart of Palestine. We had lived the principles of Nonviolent Communication together in an international community, together unpacking our judgments about each other, hearing each other’s feelings and needs behind the judgments, learning to communicate with honesty and effectiveness in ways that could better lead to understanding, connection and transforming the current situation in ourselves, between us and in each of our societies.
The energy changed in a flash. One of our Palestinian trainers, a Beit Jala resident, showed me a text she had just received from the Palestinian Ministry of Health about the situation. I don’t remember the words; the way I made meaning of the message was, get out [of the West Bank] now. That message was now being communicated throughout our group, from unsettled body to unsettled body, transferring fear, confusion and even panic.
In the midst of rushing up to my room to pack my belongings, I remember thinking, this is how confusion and fear open the wounds of collective trauma. Something happens, I feel sharp energy of stress in my own being and throughout the crowd, as confusion and uncertainty about how to meet basic needs for safety and security take over. The automatic response is freeze, fight or flight. Here, in our dispersing community, flight was the immediate strategy.
How quickly we lost access to the skills and consciousness we had been practicing. Where was our training to slow down, connect, and nourish each other. Where was the leadership or clarity to help us stop, seek soothing and co-regulate with each other by standing together, facing each other, human to human, mirroring our fears, our connection, our love, our humanness. The need to flee was urgent and took over. (For more about how trauma resiliency techniques could have been helpful, see Resmaa Menakem’s free online course, https://www.resmaa.com/home-1).
Most of the Israeli and International participants jumped into cars and shuttles and left within an hour. Many of the Palestinian participants were already jumping into cars and leaving for their homes, caught in complete unknowing of how their already precarious rights to travel even within the West Bank (Palestine) would be affected. (In fact, the next day Bethlehem, including Beit Jala, was completely quarantined, the public not allowed in or out, and that continues until today ( https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/israel/diplomacy-defense/1583479451-west-bank-bethlehem-under-quarantine-after-seven-coronavirus-cases-confirmed).
The message from the Ministry of Health sent me into “automatic pilot” reaction. My fear and confusion about protecting our health and safety fed into the rumor that the Israeli military would soon be closing the border between the West Bank and Israel. It was easy for me to get swept away in this rumor (and, according to the link above, the order to close the border was in fact made by the Israeli Minister of Defense the next day) not only because I felt scared and vulnerable.
My fear was also fed by the grief, mistrust and confusion (feelings and thoughts) I already had about whether the needs of the Palestinian people in the West Bank would be of any concern in Israeli governmental decisions about public health, security or economic needs. I already hold strong suspicions about how the current Israeli and US governments use any opportunity to punish Palestinians, to bring them to their knees, to remind them they are not free, so they will accept the Trump-Netanyahu “Deal of the Century, and to sabotage meaningful contact between the two peoples. These fears and suspicion had been living in my body for the entire training, and now that our community was dispersing, to separate borders and uncertain futures, it took over my being.
My fear also re-stimulated distress and confusion I felt about the Palestinian authorities in the weeks leading up to the training itself, having nothing to do with corona, when other Israeli-Palestinian gatherings in the West Bank were closed. The Palestinian authorities had held meetings with our Palestinian trainers to consider whether they would “allow” our training to take place. (“Allow” is in quotes because this area of Palestine, known as area “C” under the Oslo accords, is actually under Israeli military control, and it’s not clear to me how much authority or autonomy the Palestinian authorities or police actually have.)
Since the Trump-Netanyahu “Deal of the Century, ” as I heard people in Palestine refer to the so-called “peace plan” announced a few weeks ago , the Palestinian nonviolent resistance to Israeli Occupation had called for stronger boycotts of any meetings between Israelis and Palestinians. In the weeks leading up to the NVC training, several other gatherings between Israelis and Palestinians were cancelled. as a strategy to emphasize that the situation between Israel and Palestine is not “normal” enough to warrant such meetings. (This is called the “anti normalization campaign.) I hear this strategy as an assertion by the Palestinian people of their right to exist and to self determine, to make decisions about what affects them.
Even with the anti normalization upsurge, we received word just days before our training began that we could proceed because we were not an Israeli-Palestinian gathering; we were an International training, under the auspices of the International Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC), that was supporting the development of the Palestinian people by bringing an International community to study communication.
(Reports coming soon about the training itself.)
As of this writing, all of our Israeli and Palestinian participants appear to have chosen 14 days of self quarantine. Four participants who socialized in Bethlehem outside the training with someone who was exposed to corona have tested negative. No one has any symptoms.
Throughout all of this, there have been literally hundreds of on line messages shared among all of the participants. Messages of celebration of our time together and growing community. Messages of confusion, asking for clarity, about who needs to be tested or quarantined, what the responsible course of action is for those of us who have no reason to believe we were exposed to anyone with symptoms. Groups are forming for empathy and for supporting continuing Nonviolent Communication projects.
I flew home a few days ago. Through my flights from Tel Aviv to Boston to North Carolina, I did not hear one question or comment from any airport personnel about corona.
What is in my mind and heart is the Palestinian woman who served me food in the retreat center, now closed, who fed me, looked at me with distress when I turned down her maklouba, joy when I accepted it. What economic cushion does she have? What is her access to healthcare, in Palestine, where medical insurance is more expensive than in Israel, even though Palestinian workers earn a fraction of Israeli workers.
What is the future of organizations like Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, and all the hotels and tourist centers, and of our own retreat venue, the only venue ( as far as I know) that is now hosting such gatherings in the West Bank?
Where are we headed and what are we meant to learn?