We came here because we met Zoughbi Zoughbi in the US. He was in Austin for a Conflict Resolution conference and came to speak at my church. Zoughbi is a Christian and a Palestinian. He is very open-minded and will work for peace with any type of person and any faith. He and others began the Wi'am center when they recognized the huge need that people had for help with resolving conflicts peacefully.
I guess the first thing that impresses a person here in Bethlehem is the huge wall that is being constructed by the Israeli government. The government says it is for security reasons, but it is clear that it is not the only reason for the wall. The wall and roadblocks which will not allow Palestinians to travel easily have made their lives very difficult. The wall blocks Palestinians off from traveling to Jerusalem, so they need to get permission just to travel what used to take 10 minutes. The family we were staying with was invited to a wedding, but only the father could go. He had permission to travel back and forth to Jerusalem for 6 months, but no one else in the family could get the permission. They told me that when you ask for permission there doesn't seem to be any reasoning behind how long you get the permit for. Sometimes it is for a few hours and sometimes for months. It seems to depend upon the mood of the person giving the permit.
There are big things and small things that are really difficult for Palestinians.
- family land which has been taken away for Israeli settlements without any compensation to the original owners. I am putting in an illustration of the land mass that used to be under Palestinian control and how it has shrunk. It is from Google Images where there are more images which also lead to the website it was taken from.
- unfair water distribution-80% of water in the area goes to the Israeli settlements
- lack of work, causing poverty-many people who used to commute to work in Jerusalem no longer have that possibility and others who used to sell to tourists are losing livelyhood because tourists stay in Jerusalem and come to Bethlehem for only a short time to see the Church of the Nativity and then leave.
- the need to get approval to travel almost anywhere in the country. I heard Bethlehem called a prison because it is impossible for Palestinians to travel freely outside of the West Bank
- Palestinians have white license plates on their cars and Israelis have yellow. Israeli plates are allowed to travel anywhere, but Palestinian cars cannot go out of the West Bank. If they want to travel out of Bethlehem they must take public transportation or a taxi with an Israeli license. My friend, Zoughbi, has a car, but cannot use it because it has Israeli plates that have expired. They will not allow him to renew the plates OR to purchase Palestinian plates so that he could at least use the car in Bethlehem.
- People we knew reported regular hassling by Settlers in the West Bank who often are American Jews who have extremely zionist views. Sometimes people are arrested and held for no reason for a while and then let go.The Obama poster that was posted at all of the bus stops near settlements shows how strong the settlers feel.
After only a few days I understand how close families are and how land is part of your family. Zoughbi lives in a house above caves that his ancestors used to live in. His house has parts that were built on top of the caves in the 1850's and modern additions. Next to him lives his brother and their family. Issa Zoughbi, Zoughbi's brother has land where he is building a new house. He has three sons and so the plan is that there will be flats in that building for each of his sons and their families. They watch every day while land is taken away bit by bit from the Palestinian people.
It is really hard to put into words all that I have seen in these few days. If I were in the shoes of a Palestinian it would be really hard not to be angry and let hate take over. It would be difficult not to want to do something to revenge the unfairness. Unfortunately, that is how many Palestinians have reacted. I don't see a solution. There are illegal settlements that are taking over so much of the land. How do you return the land to the people who owned it for centuries? Even if you could remove the people who have moved into these places the farmland is gone forever.
One of the largest contrasts I saw was in the village of Tawani. This is a very poor farming village. The people used to live in caves and subsist on grazing animals and growning a few crops. Not too far away there is an Israeli settlement. It has a pool, running water for everyone, electricity all the time, rose gardens, and nice looking houses. In the picture to the right you can see the settlement off in the distance. It would be easy to see the differences between the two and think that the Israelis are improving things, but much of the reason that the Palestinians have struggled is because they have not been allowed to build to put in water systems or electricity. When some of them have built houses they have been torn down because they cannot get official authorization to build. Their fields have been burned and their animals poisoned. Now there are international organizations (Christian Peacemaker Teams is one. They also have a presense in Hebron.) living in the village as a way of protecting the people from the settlers.
I met several people at the Wi'am center who described moving from having the type of anger that I think I would feel, to working for peace. One Palestinian man said that he was a bully when he was younger. Another woman said that she was convinced that revenge was needed. All of them have decided that non-violent resistance is a better path. They know that not everyone can or should emigrate to another country. They also realize that they will never see Bethlehem returned to what it was. In the meantime they work toward peaceful mediation of injustice in the local level, at the level of their country and internationally. I am proud to know people who have taken this approach.