Lessons In Humility – A Guest Post From Palestine

Photo by Mike Okrent

Here’s a guest post by Lynn Pollack, another participant from our JRC trip to Israel/Palestine:

I was one of the people on the recent JRC trip to the West Bank and Israel, but having visited three times before in the last few years I didn’t think I had that much to learn.  After all, I had devoted much of the last decade to advocating for a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians – a peace that includes an end to occupation and a beginning of real equality.  What could possibly move me on another visit?   Arrogant, huh?  Well, yes, and on this trip I was humbled many times.

I was humbled by the Palestinian men who wear sports coats and shiny dress shoes, covered in dust by day’s end, as a way of showing that they can live a life of dignity, even under occupation.  Meanwhile our group trooped around in T-shirts, hiking shoes and trainers, often oblivious of our freedom to come and go as we please

I was astonished that nearly six years since I first heard him speak, Israeli Rami Elhanan of the Bereaved Families Circle is still speaking anywhere to anyone who will listen to him.  He talks softly of his daughter Smadar, killed at age 14 during the Second Intifada.  Our Palestinian guide Aziz Abu Sarah is also a member of the Bereaved Families Circle. He lost a 15 year-old brother to the occupation, among other relatives.  The group’s message: fear is a by-product of the occupation and it is the occupation which must end.  Where we go from there, who knows, as long it is a just peace for everyone.

I was humbled by the young mother of four in the Deheisha refugee camp who fed us like royalty, with pride and has vowed not to go anywhere near a checkpoint  because, she says, “It’s not worth the risk.” She creates for herself a rich life filled with friends and family visiting daily.  Her link to the world at large is through a TV, tuned at low volume to either a Syrian soap opera or to the Mecca cam, continuous coverage of goings on at the Kaaba.

Her mother-in-law is a haji and she hopes to become one herself, someday.  We asked her why she still lives in a refugee camp and she told us that for now, this was where her family and friends were, although several members of her extended family now live in Bethlehem or nearby villages. She is the third generation living in Deheisha.   At 43 years, the occupation of the West Bank is the longest military occupation in modern history.

At Qualandiya checkpoint outside of Ramallah,  I was brought to my senses by another walk through the feather-pluckers, as Palestinians call them, the narrow turnstyles that stop and start mercurially, controlled by unseen soldiers  Though I’d walked this gangplank before, its chilling quality remains.

Just imagine Palestinians who must wait for hours to walk through this checkpoint several times a day to get to a job or school or a health visit, not knowing if the wait will be minutes, or hours, or for naught.  As Americans, we were expedited through our own lane, not subjected to the same indignities or arbitrary procedures.  I was humbled again, by our privilege.

I was impressed once again at the way that Naim Ateek has taken Christian theology and turned it into a message of hope for all Palestinians.  I have seen and heard Naim speak several times, and he seems to get younger and more hopeful each time I’ve seen him.  Perhaps it’s the power of his message – that occupation is the culprit here – and liberation is the answer.  An entire wing of the pro-Israel group Stand With Us is devoted to discrediting Naim Ateek and Sabeel.

I was confounded once again by the ghostly walk through Shuhada Street in Hebron, once the bustling epicenter of Hebron life.  Today, only Jews and foreigners can walk freely on this street, shops all closed.  A small illegal community of religious Jews embedded themselves in Hebron more than 40 years ago, and now are guarded by 2,000 Israeli police and military.  The Palestinians who lived and worked on this street have been removed, ethnically cleansed you might say.

I was inspired by the sumoud – the steadfastness – of a people who turn the hideous concrete wall into an ever-changing mural. This time, we visited a portion of the wall that stops the people of Bethlehem from visiting the site venerated as Rachel’s Tomb.  Jews can visit it.  Even Christians and Muslims who are not Palestinians can go. But Palestinians living in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the West Bank cannot.  This year, one wall panel ironically featured a line from H’nei Ma Tov – “How good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together.”

We did not visit Sderot, although I was there in 2008 three days after the truce broke down between Hamas and Israel.  This was the five-month “quiet” that preceded Operation Cast Lead.  Israeli war planes were already whizzing over head, and few people were out on the street, even though nearly every block had a combination bus shelter/bomb shelter. The people I spoke with were sad – sad that their children would not be able to play outside without care as they had for the last few months and sad that Israel was clearly planning a military attack on Gaza.  There is no military answer, they said.  We must end the occupation and come to an agreement.

Sadly, we did not visit on the JRC trip because once again mostly ineffectual rockets were being launched towards Sderot from the open-air prison of Gaza.  And once again the planes of war were whizzing over Gaza, terrifying not just those who lived within its confines but the peace-minded people who lived in nearby Israel, and who wanted quiet for their families, quiet for their brothers in Gaza and nothing more than to live pleasantly together.

Most of all, I was humbled by our two tour guides, one a Palestinian Muslim, the other an Israeli Jew, both risking much in sharing their life stories with us.  I will be forever grateful for their willingness to bring us to places few tourists – especially Jewish tourists – go.  Their belief in non-violent conflict resolution was absolute and inspiring. It was a mighty privilege to get to know them.  And they also kept us laughing through the tears.

After the fog of jet lag cleared, it was apparent to me that I had, of course, learned much. I confirmed my sense that only equality will suffice as a resolution.  And that I want no more for Palestinians than I do for Israelis, but no less either. And that I will visit again.

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