Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Branding of Terrorism: Peace Groups under Suspicion

Over the course of many decades, peace groups have been branded terrorists by governments including my own. While I do not know of exact evidence, throughout my life, I have heard that government spies infiltrated groups like the American Friends Service Committee and other Quaker organizations in order to monitor their activities. Some of the stories even suggest that these government infiltrators have pushed peace groups to violence in order to validate later anti-activist governmental action.

While in Palestine in January, I heard a lot about the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Their website describes ISM as:

The International Solidarity Movement (ISM) is a Palestinian-led movement committed to resisting the Israeli apartheid in Palestine by using nonviolent, direct-action methods and principles. Founded by a small group of primarily Palestinian and Israeli activists in August, 2001, ISM aims to support and strengthen the Palestinian popular resistance by providing the Palestinian people with two resources, international solidarity and an international voice with which to nonviolently resist an overwhelming military occupation force.

I met a few ISM activists and learned a bit about their work. What surprised me was that the Israeli government had begun to brand ISM activists as terrorists. Many people were told in leaving the country that they could not return for upwards of 10 years.

In speaking to other groups, I found out that the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) faced similar problems. Several people, a few related to friends of mine, have been detained when entering Israel and deported back to the U.S. Surprising, when having lunch with Mark Regev, the Spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Regev told us that he couldn’t think of a single reason why Israel (or anyone else for that matter) would think poorly of CPT’s work. It was one of many stories that didn’t match up.

When I was in high school I attended peace protests with my father. My father would walk with me through the streets of Washington D.C. giving me history lessons on the legacy of the peace movement and correcting young activists who were acting “inappropriately.” I wore black armbands to school and participated in days of silence. Over time, being an activist became a bit “too cool” and wearing peace signs re-entered the mainstream. I started asking myself: Are protests cliché? Do protests work? Are protests more for the activists or more for the cause?

When I started traveling on my own in Palestine and Israel, I crossed several check points. At each of these check points I was treated as an activist, not as a tourist. I was detained for significant periods of time and asked strange seemingly disjoined questions. The military personal were rude to me and searched through my belongings. This was a stark difference than a few days or weeks before when I had traveled around the area with my class. We had been ushered through most places with no more than a glance at the fronts of our American passports.

While the recent Jasmine Revolution in Egypt demonstrates that protests of the people do work and create change, too often protests become antiquated and riddled with self-affirmation. Activists pride themselves at being at certain places at certain times: “I was there when so and so was killed” “Well, I’ve been gassed x-number of times” “Really? Well, I went in prison…” The conversation often results in a king of ‘one-upping’ the other and the actual reason for protesting is lost. Have we reached a point where it’s too cool to be an activist?

My friend Tory, whose studying in Palestine this semester writes in his blog:

The ISM (International Solidarity Movement) activists, a group of internationals who come here to participate in the Palestinian non-violent struggle, are usually on the spot. The protests around here, ranking from most well known, therefore the largest, with the most international and media attention, political showing from local PA members, and most peaceful: Bill’in, Nill’in, Sheik-Jara, Nab-i-Saleh. It’s weird to be ranking them like that, I suppose, I guess a little reminiscent of ranking concert venues or bars. Oh, Bill’in is cool I guess, I mean, if you’re into that sort of scene. Which is a sentiment I’ve vaguely heard out here, not verbatim of course, the Palestinian resistance hasn’t degenerated into a hipster contest to see who can find the most original place to get tear gassed and beaten by the IDF. Not yet anyway.

An then, as if to counter these questions, new activist groups get labeled terrorists and a very real struggle results which seems to enact that Beatitude verses “Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are the persecuted…” Then, as I see it, activism takes on a very new subversive appearance which is quite necessary in the world.

While I still struggle with the cliché, the boasting, and the “coolness factor” of being an activist, I’m learning more and more the challenges of living into my beliefs. I’m quite sure that the U.S. government has a file on me which I hope has the crayon letters of my Quaker first-day school class with images of red-buttons crossed out and rainbow peace signs. Proof of the pudding, I guess that I was brought up to live this way… raised to be an activist for a better world.

Tory sums up another one of his entries pointedly:

As a Quaker, you have to believe peace is possible. You’ll go crazy otherwise, trying to work towards something which you don’t actually believe in or can imagine what that might look like. However, when our quest for peace involves quieting genuine conflict, in the name of saying, ‘Look, we made peace!’ then our efforts have been in vain. Refusing to criticize your friends as well as your foes won’t get you anywhere. Nothing is clear here. I don’t want to be the white kid who knows best about your country, but it’s hard not to call it like you see it. So you hunker down, drink tea, and watch the news.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Returning to Stay… Permanently.

While in Ramallah, Palestine, I spent some time with a friend of mine from Earlham College. She had grown up in Palestine, attended the Ramallah Friends School and graduated from Earlham the previous year.

My friend and I met each other through mutual friends while singing in the college gospel choir. When I came the West Bank we planned to meet up. At the time of our preliminary planning I didn’t realize what our visit would mean… to either of us.

She lives at home now with her other brothers, new born niece, sister-in-law, and her parents. After four years of relative freedom in the United States, she now has many eyes watching her movements. She must watch who she interacts with and where she goes. “Reputation,” she said, “is important in this part of the world.” Her family surrounds her, quite literary; they make up a city block!

My friend doesn’t expect to return to Earlham anytime soon. “Maybe one day” she dreamed. When her loans are repaid and she can afford the journey of traveling into Jordan and then to the U.S. “I’m not going to make the five year reunion.” She replied after my suggestion of a realistic goal for which to save. “What’s realistic here is limited.”

She took me around to see where her family lived. We walked into the church where her uncle and aunt work. Her brother was married in this church and she expects to be married here someday too. “It will probably happen… I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon, so yes… someday.” She smiled.

For the Christmas holidays, my friend and her family were granted travel documents to visit Jerusalem. During the rest of the year, she and her family cannot cross through the check points that guard entry into Israel. “My aunt remembers riding her bike to Jerusalem,” she relayed. “It is close enough even now to walk to, but these days… it’s impossible.”

My friend laughed as she told me about her holiday escapades. “All the internationals head to the old city to see the holy sites… and the Palestinians? We head to the mall.” “What about BDS (Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions—an international campaign to put economic pressure on Israel)?” I ask. “It’s all well intentioned,” she replied. “But in the end we want we can’t have in Palestine, whether it is pretty earrings or nice shoes. It doesn’t matter who made them at that point. We just feel a bit better about ourselves when we can live like we’re not under occupation.”

While my friend is safe and doing well, she had a good job working with a humanitarian organization, her story of place sits heavy on my heart. I know the privilege I carry that grants me freedom to travel this world; I exercise that privilege often. However, there is a part of me that assumes that people with similar educational and economic backgrounds as myself, also have that privilege of freedom. My naiveté was reduced a bit during our time together.

Even within America, we (Americans) have the freedom to travel and while that freedom is being challenged in some cases, such as in Arizona with the new racial profiling laws, we have a great expanse in which to move around. Our country is extremely large compared to the limited land of the Palestinian territories. My personal questions concerning where I want to live next year embody the wealth of choices I have before me.

Yet several of the friends with whom I have graduated are restricted to the borders of their countries. Prevented from the important things like specialized hospital services and consistent running water. Jobs are extremely limited in Palestine and life without a means of lively hood must feel even more constricting because you can’t just move somewhere else to try again. As I prepare to return to the Middle East, my heart goes out to those in the world trapped by economic, social and religious forces. I pray that their voices can be heard over the chaos and they can feel heard.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Hebron: The Ghost Town of Palestine

Imagine ghost town. Set in the old Western style with tumbleweeds spinning down the street, two men step out into the empty road. Pistols are drawn. The shadows hold their breaths.


Replace the western façade with stone; the windows are welded shut instead of boarded up. Tumbleweeds morph into black plastic bags and Coca Cola bottles. The two men hold machine guns and dress in military attire. They point their weapons, not at each other, but instead at the shadows.

Hebron is a sizable city in the West Bank of Palestine and is the only city in the Palestinian territories divided internally by Israeli settlements. The central road, once bustling with trade and commerce is not closed to all Palestinians. People are kept from stepping out their front door, stepping onto their roofs, or even securing a lock. Some houses must be accessed through systems of ladders that extend across roofs through other people’s courtyards.

The street that is closed (only to Palestinians) is patrolled by Israeli soldiers. A once simple skip across the street now takes over 30 minutes to loop around the restricted areas. Doors of the old market have been welded shut to prevent use and traditional alleyways have been bricked up to restrict local movement. The streets are empty except for the occasional Jewish family strolling on a visit to the synagogue.

Hebron has been divided in to several zones whose borders are maintained by Israeli military forces. These soldiers are young, seventeen and eighteen year olds who are under strict training and orders. The security check-points divide large Palestinian residential areas so that many children must pass through the check-points on their way to and from school. Every day, several times a day, their backpacks are searched and often they must lift their shirts to show that they do not have explosives attached to their bodies. Harassment and humiliation are common byproducts of these daily rituals.

With the recent events of the Middle East papering the background of Palestinian lives with images of non-violent resistance and large scale liberation, the Palestinians of Hebron are beginning to react to their own oppressed situation. A few days after I left the country at the beginning of February, tension between the Palestinians and the Israelis was growing. Weekly gatherings of Muslims around the Abraham Mosque appeared to make the Israeli soldiers nervous. The soldiers practiced crowd dispersal techniques and detained several young men who were trying to help elderly family members.

However, it has only been over the past few days that actual protests have been planned, executed and are drawing crowds in the hundreds. Deliberate non-violent action (as opposed to gatherings for religious services or cultural events) has been taken to the streets as groups of Palestinians, Israelis and internationals demand the reopening of Shuhada street, the ghost market of the recent past. Sam Nichols, a Christian Peacemaker Team Member writes about the protest:

An estimated one thousand Palestinians, joined by Israeli and international activists, took to the streets on Friday (February 25) to demand the opening of Shuhada (Martyrs) Street, a former thoroughfare in the West Bank city of Hebron. Israeli occupying forces fired foam-tipped bullets, tear gas, and sound grenades resulting in the serious injury of nine protestors, in addition to the many who suffered the adverse effects of tear gas inhalation.

Protestors attempted to reach Shuhada Street but were intercepted by Israeli forces who formed human walls to prevent Palestinians from reaching the street that formerly hosted the city’s main market. The protestors marched towards the line of soldiers, holding signs and chanting, “We don’t want the settlers nor the occupation,” and, “the people want Shuhada Street.”

Friday’s protest marked the 17th anniversary of Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of 29 Palestinians who were praying in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque. Following the 1994 massacre, Shuhada Street – a main artery serving the Old City of Hebron as well as the Ibrahimi Mosque – was closed to Palestinian traffic. No Palestinian cars, nor Palestinian themselves are permitted on Shuhada Street; whereas, Israeli settlers are permitted to travel freely while under the protection of the Israeli military. Many Palestinians whose homes are located on Shuhada Street are not able to use their front doors. Some residents of Shuhada Street are forced to use ladders connected to neighboring roofs in order to leave their homes. (for the whole article see link)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Liberation, Alice and this Strange World of Ours

Traveling by myself (in comparison to traveling with my seminary class) birthed miniature experiences of racial profiling and unnecessary harassment at the check points. On the day of the theatre première, I navigated myself through the Arab and Jewish towns along the road to the West Bank to the check point at the edge of the city of Janin. The border guard detained me for about half an hour, asking me questions about my family, my life back in the United States and why in the world I would want to visit the West Bank. Finally satisfied by my ramblings (I had been warned of the normal questions and rehearsed the names of my grandparents… apparently not knowing your grandparents real names isn’t quite acceptable.) the border guards let me go. Ten quick minutes in a taxi landed me in the center of the city. A young German guy picked me out of the crowd and guided me to the guest house.

I had come back to Janin after my class had visited a theatre which was located in the refugee camp. The people and history of the theatre had grabbed my attention and an invitation to the world première of Alice and Wonderland (Palestinian style) had sealed the deal of my return. Now, almost two weeks later, I was back. I was alone and I had no idea how to find the theatre.

I walked for a good twenty minutes out of the city of Janin and through a wasteland of destroyed houses and refuse piles. Goats were grazing in the abandoned lots and the sun sparkled off the metallic litter that blew in the wind around the animal’s feet. I wondered if I had taken a wrong turn. Was I even going in the right direction? Arabic continues to evade my pattern recognition skills but I had faith in the small scrap of a mat that I clutched tightly between my fingers. “Just keep walking…” I murmured.

Especially in this part of the world, where women all wear Hijab and hardly ever walk the streets alone, I stand out. People turn their heads when I walk by and street boys line up behind me, a constant stream of giggles while they rummage up enough courage to practice their English. Sadly, I didn’t have the patience for their banter during that walk. My uncertainty of place, my vulnerability of singularity and my awareness of my differentness made me walk faster as the children closed in. I’m sure they could smell the fear emanating from my pores.

The fear of children five to nine years of age is partially irrational. In a large group they could do me some harm, especially if they had weapons, but in reality I had a lot more power during that walk than I realized. Instead, tight inside my head, the street children became projections of my own myths of torture and violence. Their laughing smiles were lost to the prejudices of my own narrative.

The refugee camp appeared before me without mistake. Isolated from the other structures the tightly formed unit of twisting streets, raw sewage and graffiti stood with a fierce grimace towards the Wall. Palestinian refugees are prohibited from building outwards and expanding the land usage of the refugee camps so instead they build up. Towers of generations now stand together, sometimes with only inches of space between one complex and the next. “You did this to me” the camp seemed to say to the Wall. “What did you expected when you locked the door? That we would stand by and die?”

The city of Janin is the primary source of suicide bombers during the first and second Intifadas. The refugee camp, located on the exterior edges of the city is second only to the camp outside of Nablus. Situated adjacent to the Israeli occupying wall, the Janin refugee camp served as the training ground for terrorists attempting to cross the border out of the West Bank.

The refugee camp is not made up of a homogenous community of Muslims. Rather, Christian and Muslim Arabs reside in the camp and suffer the brutality of its poverty. In 1967, a young Jewish women witnessed the development of the refugee camp and out of compassion for the youth she saw there, started a community center. Through this community center, Arna Mer Khamis taught the refugee children how to express their frustrations constructively through theatre, visual arts and music. As the years went by Arna married, had children and moved away from Janin to build a life with her family in Israel.

In 2000, when the second intifada took place, many years had passed and Arna’s children had grown. She turned to the news one day and listened to the result of one of the suicide bombings. Moved to tears by the extreme violence, she found herself horrified when the reporter displayed a picture of the bomber. The young man had been one of the children she had worked with in the Janin refugee camp! In the years of her absence the community center had shut down, thus ceasing any constructive outlet for personal expression. Over the course of the second intifada, Arna witnessed many of her students implicated in the violence. When the air settled, she decided that something had to be done.

Now at this point, Arna was an elder women and moving back to Janin poised many challenges. Her son, Juliano Mer Khamis was a prominent Israeli actor working in Tel Aviv. After hearing of his mother’s dream of re-establishing the community center, he joined his mother in Janin. They worked with the community leaders of the refugee camp and opened the Freedom Theatre in 2008. Arna passed away soon after its opening but her dream and legacy lives on through her son and the people of Janin. The documentary that Juliano directed about Arna’s life can be seen

So on a sunny day in January, 2011, I found myself amidst over three hundred Palestinians and international visitors. We were crammed inside a tiny theatre, set with stadium style bleachers extending from the floor to the second story ceiling. Children sat on laps, in the aisles, and stood in the doorways. The lights dimmed and the show began.

The performance was mainly in Arabic, with an English song thrown in and a few English words tossed around for added emphasis. The performers consisted of Muslims, Christians and Jews. Some of the women wore Hijab while others did not. The costumes were all constructed from available resources and the entire stage revolved for the production.

However, Alice was not the small child in the Lewis Carroll books or the Disney movie. She did not fall asleep during a pretty picnic and follow a rabbit down a hole in a cottonwood tree. No, Alice was a young Palestinian woman subjected to an arranged marriage. In her resistance to the engagements she began to see a white rabbit and followed it down into Wonderland. Still wearing the engagement ring, the creatures of Wonderland think that Alice (and in particular her ring) will liberate them from the wrath of the Red Queen. Throughout the course of the production, Alice teaches the creatures that only they have the power to liberate themselves from the Red Queen’s oppression. Then, by teaching others about self liberation, when Alice returns to her normal life, she too understands her power to liberate herself from the arranged marriage.

So what does this production have to do with Janin? The Freedom Theatre attempts to provide a place where the refugee community can critically examine its own participation in the occupation as well as seek creative solutions for the wider problem. The play depicted many social problems including apathy, laziness, violence, and religious fundamentalism. The actors played characters who tried out several solutions before finding something that worked. Humanity was present in the writing. The audience could concretely take pieces of the play and use it to analyze life in the refugee camp. Perhaps there was even a chance of re-writing cultural narratives.

The play was a huge success and continued to receive similar turnout during its run in the camp (which was free of charge to all). More information about the Theatre can be found at