Seeking Dignity Under Occupation

Our Wednesday began with a visit with Reverend Naim Ateek (above), founder and head of Sabeel, a well-known institute that advocates Palestinian Chrisitian Liberation Theology. As readers of my blog might know, I’ve long been an admirer of Reverend Ateek’s theological writings. In particular, his work has informed and challenged my own thinking about the Jewish conception of the land and the dangers inherent in wedding religion to power. It was a great pleasure to finally meet Reverend Ateek personally and to introduce him to members of my congregation.

To my dismay, Ateek has been unfairly and relentlessly attacked by the American Jewish establishment – largely, I believe, because he does not shrink from illuminating the problems that come with the land-centric nature of Zionist ideology. For myself, I’ve learned much from Ateek’s suggestion that Zionism represents a kind of “Constantinian Judaism” – i.e., a fusing of Judaism with Empire.

Whether or members of the Jewish community agree with him or not, I believe it would greatly behoove us to enter in dialogue with Ateek and others in the Palestinian Christian community – and I told him as much during our meeting. At the very least, it is my sincere hope that there might be Jewish leaders actively participating rather than protesting during the next American Friends of Sabeel conference.

After our visit we were joined by Meirav Zonsztein, (above) an Israeli/American journalist/blogger/activist, who led us on a tour of East Jerusalem. We first stopped at Gilo, a prominent development located east of the Green Line southwest of Jerusalem. Gilo is emblematic of a settlement considered by most Israelis to be part of the Jerusalem municipality, but its ongoing expansion has been severely encroaching upon Palestinian neighborhoods in the area. Gilo is but one of Israel’s many settlement projects that renders a viable, contiguous Palestinian state that much more remote.

We also stopped at Silwan, an Arab neighborhood located alongside the City of David outside the Old City. Silwan is currently the focus of a bitter struggle between Palestinian residents and an Israeli government that seeks to create a greater Jewish presence in East Jerusalem. In this case, the attempt to drive Arabs from their home is occurring under the guise of Israel’s historical “claim” to Biblical Jerusalem.

What makes this situation particularly galling is Israel has handed over the management of the archeological excavations to Elad, a private Jewish organization that seeks to “reclaim” Biblical Jerusalem in order to pave the way for the rebuilding of the Third Temple. Most visitors to the City of David excavations have no idea that their entrance fees to this popular tourist site fund this religiously radical organization.

To make matters worse, the Jerusalem municipality now plans to create an archeological park that will further decimate the Arab population of Silwan. According to a recent article by Israeli academic/activist Alice Shalvi,

The plans call for the demolition of 22 houses in the area, which the city claims were built without the necessary permits. (Ironically, the illegally constructed multi-story Beit Yonatan which towers above the overcrowded hovels of the village has not yet been evacuated and sealed, in defiance of a court order.) Few people are aware that the residents of Silwan, at their own expense, sought professional experts to draw up a plan which would enable them to engage in the kind of urban renewal that has taken place in other hitherto neglected areas of the city…The Jerusalem municipal authorities arbitrarily rejected the plan without even bringing it before the relevant planning forums.

Our group will return to Silwan this Friday to attend a major protest organized by the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement.

We then traveled into the West Bank to visit Wadi Fukin, an Arab village just east of the Green Line in the Gush Etzion bloc. In recent years, Wadi Fukin has been threatened by Israel’s planned construction of the Separation Barrier, which would cut off the village’s water source from numerous natural springs that the villagers use to irrigate their fields and orchards.

In a particularly inspiring example of coexistence and solidarity, the residents of Wadi Fukin were joined by residents of the nearby Israeli village of Tzur Hadassah in fighting the planned construction. Through a massive petition drive signed by hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians, Israel has for now forgone its plans to construct the wall – one of the very few success stories of its kind.

In the meantime, however, Wadi Fukin’s future is also being threatened by the expansion of nearby settlement Betar Illit. Ongoing construction of this populous and rapidly growing ultra-orthodox development is literally encircling the village and would likewise dry up Wadi Fukin’s freshwater springs. To add insult to injury, Beitar Illit regularly dumps its sewage into the village’s water supply, despite the repeated protests of village residents.

Despite these horrid hardships, Wadi Fukin is forging on with the help of Friends of the Earth -Middle East, an environmental NGO that has included the village in its “Good Water Neighbors” project. That’s Iyad Aburdeineh below, project co-cordinator of FOE-Middle East Wadi Fukin initiative, who led us on a tour of the village.

While in Wadi Fukin, our group was treated to a delicious lunch cooked for us the staff of the village’s Women’s Center. In all, it was impossible for us to be unmoved by the story of the village, one inspiring success story amidst an increasing dire situation in the Occupied Territories.

From there we traveled to Deheishe, a refugee camp near Bethlehem. Deheishe (below) was established as a refuge for 3,400 Palestinians who were expelled from 45 villages west of Jerusalem and Hebron in 1948. Originally simply a collection of tents, Deheishe is now a densely packed urban labyrinth of over 9,000 residents.

Adminstered by UNRWA, the camp is bordered to the north by the Jewish settlement of Efrat and to the south by Bethlehem. Like many Palestinian refugee camps, Deheishe has nowhere to grow but up – most of the homes have three stories and the camp seems to be in a constant state of vertical expansion.

Upon our arrival we were greeted by Deheishe resident Mazen Faraj, who coordinated our visit and introduced us to our host families. My group of seven was hosted by Nidal and Newarah and their three children, Haya, 18, Moad 17, and Tariq, 12, who opened their recently built home to us and were utterly gracious hosts to our intrepid little crew. They treated us to a delicious – actually sumptuous – dinner and we enjoyed each others’ company talking, sharing and laughing until the wee hours of the morning.

I spoke at length with Moad, who at one point took me out for a long night stroll through the winding alleyways of the camp, introducing me to friend after friend until it felt like I had met virtually the entire teenage population of Deheishe. After coming home, we continued to talk together as neighbors came and went through their home at a dizzying pace.

For right now, I don’t really know how else to describe our visit other than a genuinely delightful evening with wonderful new friends. I’ll share many more thoughts about our Deheishe soujourn in my next post. For now, suffice to say it today was an incredible journey for us all – and it has only been our second full day.

Much more to follow…

4 thoughts on “Seeking Dignity Under Occupation

  1. In November of 2008 I had the privilege of accompanying Naim to his boyhood village of Beisan (now called Beit She’an), just south of the Sea of Galilee, where, when he was 11, Jewish militia occupied the village and deported all its citizens. Later that day I wrote of my experience:

    “The final stop of the day was in Beisan where Naim Ateek grew up. Naim’s father was a successful jeweler who built three houses on property filled with every sort of fruit tree. Naim described Beisan as blessed with many springs and a stream which flowed through their property. As a child he played often with Muslim classmates and loved climbing to the top of the local minnaret from which the daily calls to prayer were sung (without benefit of electronic amplification). Naim was 11 in 1948 when Jewish forces entered Beisan. Citizens were worried, but did not resist. Shortly after Israel declared independence, the Haganah commander ordered all citizens to bring what they could carry and gather in the city square – where we were standing listening to Naim. When Naim and his family got there they found the square encircled by soldiers. Muslims were ordered to one side, Christians to the other. Muslims were loaded on trucks, carried to the Jordan and told to find their way east. Christians were loaded on other trucks headed for Nazareth, a city at that time outside the UN partition. Naim’s sisters had just baked bread in their oven (few citizens had their own) so they carried a basket of fresh bread they shared with others. As they were driven out of town, they passed their home which soldiers had already entered and were playing one of Naim’s brother’s accordian. As they left Beisan, Naim’s sister heard her father, a very pious Orthodox, utter, “Naked I came into this world, naked I shall return, blessed be the name of the Lord”.”

    “From the square we walked to the location of Naim’s home where a bank and parking lot now exist. Naim explained that there is an Arabic saying, the one who owns the land (his family still has the deed to this land) owns all that stands on it. With a wonderful smile, he said he hopes that when he comes to claim ownership of the bank, it will not be bankrupt.”

    You’re right, Brant. Spending time with Naim is a treat. He possesses a wonderful sense of humor and a generous hospitality. But the implication of your other reports is not to be missed. That generosity and hospitality seems to be a characteristic of the Palestinian people. I am always careful when in their homes not to admire some object too much lest I have difficulty leaving without my host insisting I take it with me. I often wonder if Israeli citizens grasp what wonderful neighbors they could have if they gave them half a chance. Some certainly do, but alas, I don’t think most get it.

    • There is a song about Bissan by the famous and wonderful Lebanese singer Fairuz. The composition and performance are so good I don’t think you need to understand Arabic to feel its poignancy or to understand in a general way what the song says, but if anyone would like me to I will try to translate it for you.

      Fairuz is probably the second most revered Arabic singer of modern times, after Um Kalthoum. The song is from the excellent 1972 collection “Jerusalem in my Heart”, which is available on CD for those who find Fairuz appealing.

  2. Just caught up on the recent posts. I am torn between your descriptions of reality, especially of the people, and the decades of information I have received about the Jewish role(s). Maybe one of the products of your efforts will be to cause our long held assumptions to be shaken. If this becomes the case, it will be evidence of your success.

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