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Peace and Justice in Palestine

All people around the world and across time crave similar things. They want the chance to raise their families within a peaceful and fair environment. Also, one that affords a decent quality of life without fear of one’s fellow man. This was the main take away from our voyage into another world: Middle Eastern, Muslim, working class, rural and “occupied.” (If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" ~ Hillel)

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Kindergarten children celebrating an annual holiday. Over half these children have lost their fathers to prison or death., photos by Dina Heisler

Love and hospitality

We visited a family on the West Bank/Palestine through a connection with their oldest son who now lives in Jordan. Our goal was to learn Palestinian cooking. We also hoped to absorb as much as we could about Palestinian life within a small village near Tulkarem. Our impressions are just that. They were shaped through discussions with the family, neighbors, an American peace activist living in Palestine with her Palestinian husband and children, encounters with Israeli soldiers (IDF), displaced Palestinians living in Jordan, and Susan’s American niece who has relocated to Israel.

When we first crossed the border checkpoint from Israel, Ahmad, his wife, Salma, who was our translator, and their neighbor, Muhammad, bundled us into a Jeep that refused to start. They called upon another friend who picked us up in his car. By the time we had visited and exited the Tulkarem Archeological Museum, the Jeep had been fixed and we were once again reunited with our possessions. We continued on to their home where we received a loving welcome, and no one looked back on this incident. This experience provided a telling introduction to the hardships Palestinians face and their resilience in rising above them. It became a theme throughout our 5 day stay. The unexpected happens, friends and family are usually on hand to help, and people move forward without dwelling upon their misfortunes. 

The Al Zeebade’s are an extended family who occupy the same large house in separate apartments. They often cook together, help raise each other’s children, communally entertain neighboring relatives and friends, find solace in their religion and take great pride in their land. They were originally from an area near Netanya, a city now inside Israel, but their grandparents fled during the violence of 1948. They have a yearning for their homeland, which they cannot visit until they are older - age 50 for women and 55 for men. Even then, it’s not always possible. Ameena, the family matriarch, aged 66, attempted to go on a tour but her bus was turned away at the checkpoint. She told us that no explanation was given. She plans to try another time. Ahmad and Salma lovingly named their children after their places of joint family origin: Jaffa and Basan. They told us this expresses not only their deep sense of loss but also a hope to one day visit and/or repatriate with their homeland.

The first day we arrived, Ahmad demonstrated how he prepares chicken for the grill. In the years before he was arrested, he worked in a restaurant and learned to cook. Five years ago, he was caught up in the Intifada and sent to an Israeli prison. This happened three months after his wedding and Salma subsequently miscarried their first child. While a prisoner’s mother is given visitation rights, which are sometimes revoked, Ahmad’s wife was allowed to visit only once, and letters from the family were forbidden. The only way that the family could communicate was through announcements on the prison radio station. He told us that while there, they were fed largely carbohydrates with one piece of fruit and a vegetable every month. The family was finally able to have him released by paying a ten thousand shekel fine. During his two year incarceration he went on a hunger strike, spent 60 days in solitary confinement, locked in an unlit cell with no ventilation, alternating hot and cold temperatures, and no room to move. He couldn’t tell day from night. As a result, he now suffers from PTSD, chronic asthma and possible pulmonary disease. He is not allowed to travel outside the West Bank for the next 5 years and possibly longer. The travel restriction means that he has not been able to get a definitive diagnosis and treatment. We heard that 40% of Palestinian men have had some brush with the Israeli military court system and time in prison. Countless others have been shot and killed. Their pictures and names, along with countless images of Arafat, have been memorialized throughout the West Bank in public monuments as well as more spontaneous graffiti. Next to the family’s home, a cousin’s wife runs a kindergarten. She explained to us that over half of the 50 children in her care have lost a parent to prison or death by Israeli soldiers.

Public park memorial to Palestinian martyrs.

Mural honoring Yasir Arafat.

We cooked various dishes, e.g., Manakisch-large loaves of flat taboon bread with various toppings, Maqluba-basmati rice, fried chicken, potatoes, eggplant, and stuffed grape leaves, Alemassachan-another chicken dish served with a pizza like doughy Arab bread soaked in olive oil, and Musakhan-chicken with onions and pine nuts over taboon bread. We also made olive oil soap, a long and hand-intensive process.  We joked with our hosts, enjoyed the antics of two 2 year old cousins, and learned about our family’s lives. Our meals were served on a communal platter along with bowls of yogurt and arab bread, each meal, seated on a couch-like cushion around a low table or in plastic chairs on the terrace.  We ate with our hands, scooping food with the bread. We were continually exhorted to eat more. Azizah helped us along by giving us the choicest morsels from her own plate, often lovingly placed directly in our mouths.

Part of a dinner menu served on a low table.

Entertaining visitors at home with the family.

Whenever we visited others or entertained with the family at home, beautiful bowls of fruit, trays of cookies or homemade cake, juice and mint tea instantly appeared. We sat in living rooms perched on heavily upholstered furniture with the curtained windows dramatically swathed in lace and satin. Plastic flowers along with precious keepsakes adorned the walls. In this desert landscape with water at a premium, fresh flowers are rare. However, during the winter’s rainy season, Ameena will plant her vegetable garden. She also harvests olives from her orchard to soak in brine as a condiment or for squeezing as olive oil.

Ameena pointed with pride to her well stocked larder and a refrigerator bursting with meat, fruits, vegetables and dairy. She told us that if the IDF suddenly announces a curfew, she and her family won’t starve. However, this won’t help if their water and electricity is turned off. This happens from time to time in Palestine as a way to enact a collective punishment.

The West Bank

Our hosts took us to visit various locales, e.g., a famous mosque in Hebron, the ancient Bethlehem church which sits atop the manger where Jesus was born, a trip to the Nablus Shouk with a chance to taste the celebrated, sweet Kunafa, visits with Ahmad’s married sisters in Tulkarem as well as the opportunity to meet and chat with an American-born peace activist married to a Palestinian.

She, her husband and children have established a Seeds of Peace and Hands of Peace educational center in Tulkarem. The classes they offer Palestinians are in English language acquisition, nutrition, CPR, cooking, a book club and other skill building workshops. These classes are all free. Both organizations seek to promote dialogue and, hopefully, trust between Israelis and Palestinians. The current debate within the Palestinian community is between normalization, (creating pathways towards mutual understanding as a vehicle for peace) vs. resistance (complete independence by any means necessary). She feels that while the current situation is a stalemate, extremist violence doesn’t solve anything. The only solution open is to educate the Israeli public. During our stay in Palestine, we didn’t get an opportunity to discuss other points of view on this issue. However, we did see the Newsweek article whose headline reads, ISRAEL DOESN'T WANT PEACE WITH PALESTINE, JOHN KERRY SAYS.

On our last day with the family, Ahmad and Salma, along with their 3 month old baby and family friend Abdel, took us on a day long journey through the West Bank. It was the first time that this couple had visited these landmark sites. Along the way, Salma pointed out various Israeli checkpoints, Israeli soldier stations, and illegal settlements. The settlements were well built structures with state of the art housing and all-inclusive community services to meet all their needs. She told us that not all settlers are messianic fundamentalist Zionists. Since many of the more recent settlements have been built by the Israeli government, housing, water and electricity are offered to Israeli Jews at low or no cost. They are also offered jobs. Clearly, this offer is very enticing.

All the soldiers carry Uzi rifles and some are dressed in full riot gear. Cars are randomly stopped. There are numerous roadblock/checkpoints to protect the settlers, and settlements keep expanding. One of her daughters was returning home by car and stopped at Zaatarah by the soldiers. She saw the soldiers shoot inside the car in front of her. Her other daughter was stopped near the settlement of Enav. Settlers attacked the people inside the cars and her daughter returned home with her face all scratched up. A Palestinian salesman friend of hers was stopped at a checkpoint by the IDF. They searched him and had him lie face down on the ground. Then they let him go. He had a feeling that something was wrong and stopped before the next checkpoint. Searching through his car, he found a knife in the glove compartment and threw it away. At the following checkpoint, soldiers stopped him and searched his car again. They were puzzled because they never found the planted knife.

On our trip, at one checkpoint we were stopped and soldiers peered into the car with great suspicion. However, when our driver Abdel explained that we were visiting from New York, their grimaces became a smile. They bade us, “Have a nice day.” Our hosts were overcome with surprise and delight. They’d never experienced this before. The stakes are very high for Ahmad since he’s been in prison and is always in danger of being rearrested for any infraction.

Towards evening, on our way towards Ramallah, Ahmad had a severe asthma attack. He was moaning, gasping for air and couldn’t talk. Ahmad had forgotten to take his pump. Abdel immediately exited the highway and frantically asked at various shops and with passersby for directions to the nearest hospital. No one could help us. Finally, in a panic, he drove up to an Israeli IDF station. Abdel and Salma explained the situation to the group of soldiers and pleaded for help. Initially, the soldiers appeared sympathetic but asked that Abdel and Salma speak with the commander. When the commander came down to the car to check for himself, he attempted to interrogate Ahmad. Dina explained that Ahmad was having an attack and couldn’t answer. The commander then announced to us and his men in English, “I don’t believe him! Do you think that I’m a donkey? Do you think that I’m stupid?” He began writing out an exorbitant fine for Abdel, waving his rifle and said he was going to arrest “them”. It was clear that the commander was becoming more and more nervous and hostile. Susan assured the commander that we knew he wasn’t “stupid”, and begged him to help us. Dina joined in. Finally, the commander angrily told us to go, but never directed us to the emergency medical clinic which, as it turned out, was only 15 minutes away. We were left with the clear impression that if we Americans hadn’t been in the car, the outcome might have been devastating.

This incident was an explicit illustration of a talk Dina had with a neighboring cousin, Saeed, who holds an important position as chairman of a department within Tulkarem’s Department of Education. He explained how the occupation’s checkpoints affect employment and the West Bank educational system. In Tulkarem alone there are currently 4,000 unemployed, fully licensed teachers. They can’t travel for work outside their home area because of the checkpoints. If stopped, they could easily be harassed, delayed on their way to work or, even worse, arrested or killed. Another challenge Saeed personally faces is his artificially depressed wage. He told me that while he earns 1,000 shekels a month, someone doing an equivalent job in Israel earns 6,000. In general, he explained, all prices for goods and services are much higher in the West Bank than in Israel, while wages are lower.  

Shuhada Street used to be the central wholesale market of the Hebron region. After riots following the February 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre, Israel closed the street for Palestinians.

Despite these difficulties, Saeed proudly described the place education holds in Palestine. “We import ideas from everywhere,” he said. Teachers have traveled to Germany and the United States to learn new methods. A Dubai organization held a competition for best teacher in the Middle East. The contest was won by a female Palestinian teacher. Saeed concluded, “We don’t have land, water or petrol. Education is our only road towards self-realization.” 

In a visit to an amusement park, zoo and picnic area sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Salma carted in an elaborate rice dish with chicken, yogurt and vegetables. Wandering through a dilapidated zoo, we came across an exhibition on Palestinian history. One installation was of a water well. The accompanying sign explained that Palestinian water is now being siphoned off from aquifers by the Israelis settlers. The predictable result is that crops and orchards dry up and then the land is claimed by settlers along with the water. Salma said that this happened three weeks ago to Ameena’s brother Ibrahim, a farmer. His olive trees have all dried up. Ibrahim is now trying to protest, but with little success. Israelis also control all water rights in the landlocked West Bank. Another exhibit held a 15 foot stuffed mother giraffe and its baby. The sign read that Israeli soldiers at one point came into the zoo, chased the pregnant mother giraffe and the baby was born while she was dying. Shortly afterwards, the baby died too.  

Museum installation depicting traditional Palestinian farmers’ water source. The sign explains that Israeli settlements have stolen the water and many of these wells have run dry.  

Giraffe killed by the Israeli Defense Force  (IDF) along with her baby.  

Woman with children in the plaza of the Qalqlia Municipality Zoo.

Final thoughts

Everywhere we went, people shared their love of all people and hope for peace. When they learned that we were Jewish, they were amazed and heartened. In the church crypt at Bethlehem, when asked, Salma proudly announced, as she and Dina stood arm in arm, that she and Dina were both Muslim and Jewish.

At the same time, the Palestinians are understandably angered by the occupation’s injustice. As American peace activist now living in Israel said, “You can’t have one country inside another.” One of her daughters, a university student, wrote a paper comparing the Palestinian situation to Olympic medals. The gold is Israel, the silver is the wealthy Palestinian businessmen who have VIP permits to enter Israel and control the laws in the West Bank, the bronze is the Palestinian Authority which is corrupt, inept and seen as a puppet government and at the bottom are the Palestinian people. However, the moral is that they are the strongest and most resilient. The hope is that they will eventually overcome all these hardships.

[Dina Heisler was the founding principal of Pablo Neruda Academy in the Bronx. Susan Nobel is a psychotherapist in private practice. Both believe that homestay travel offers unique opportunities for dialogue and friendship across boundaries.]