Original German text see, e.g. St-Michaelsbund
Photos can be enlarged by mouse click.
pax christi - meeting in Palestine
Oct. 17 - Oct. 28, 2006
The report written during the journey by Rosemarie Wechsler
Additions are written in italics
Our journey went without problems up to the arrival in Tel Aviv: There a participant was picked out by the immigration authority, frisked and interrogated for approximately two hours and then released. It was a problem for the rest of us, because we did not know what was going on and how long it would take!
Wednesday, 18th October
We were immediately confronted with the current reality, when the guide not only showed us the Nativity Church, but also reported how he had experienced the occupation of the Nativity Church in the year 2002: hunger, threat by Israeli snipers, dead people, injured people…
This was continued with the presentation of the current political situation through Fuad Giacoman, the director of our partner organization AEI (Arab Education Institute). His conclusion: Hamas was selected in a democratic and peaceful process, let it finally govern. It will change, otherwise it will be voted out of office. A wish for the European Union: it is time to lift the blockade of the money transfer (the public employees have not had any salary for the last 7 months, teachers are on strike). His request to the USA and the European Union: start peace negotiations!
Refugee camp Deheisha: At the entrance graffitti with scenes from old Palestine - women at the well, a shepherd, farmers working their land, a peaceful landscape - and the inscription “Do not forget”. There are 12,000 people in the camp, among them about 7,000 children, about 64% unemployed persons. The camp has been in existence since 1948 and is one of 59 refugee camps.
In the Ibdaa center they try to make the situation somewhat more bearable, e.g. by giving the women the possibility to obtain a small income; through manual work and by organizing sports and creative projects with children and young people. A goal of this work is also to prevent “victims from becoming perpetrators”, as Kaled Saifi, a coworker of the center described.
A sobering representation of the situation on the one hand and large visions on the other hand were given in the Protestant Christmas Church by Mitri Raheb: he is disappointed by the European churches, which do not have the courage to make clear statements.
In his meeting center he is educating young people, in hopes that a generation of artists will grow up that will shape the new Palestine. “We must create free spaces, so that people can breathe” is his intention.
Thursday, 19th October
The trip to Ramallah, our first destination, normally (i.e. through Jerusalem) takes only about 30 minutes. Since, however, the direct road was closed for our Palestinian bus, we needed three times longer, even though we had only short stops at the Israeli checkpoints.
After a short visit at the grave of Yassir Arafat we continued to Taibeh, the only Christian village in Palestine. Here the church undertakes large efforts to prevent a further emigration of the population by creating jobs: an oil press, which produces high-quality olive oil, a pottery, which among other things manufactures oil lamps in the form of peace pigeons, and the brewery for the well-known Taibeh beer. Fifteen people work in the pottery alone and thus 15 families find support for their existence.
The home for the elderly is completely new. Sixteen elderly people from the area live there. The minister, Fr. Raed Abu Sahlie, explained to us why he works for the economic development in such a way:
The Christians in the holy land do not want to be beggars forever in relation to the other Christian churches
At the Iftar meal (the Lent-breaking in the evening) we met instructors of church schools in Ramallah and environment. They do not take part in the strike of the national schools. They are nevertheless affected by the situation, because the parents of many pupils are in the public service and – since they have not obtained any salaries for 7 months - they frequently cannot pay the school fees.
From some of our hosts we also learned the fact that they actually used to be wealthy people. Now however, the economic situation threatens their existence, if it has not already destroyed it.
Friday, 20th October
Today was a day full of contrasts:
On the way to the wall, where we intended to do "wallpainting” with the children's group of the AEI, i.e. graffitti painted or sprayed on the wall, we saw hundreds of Palestinians on the way to the checkpoint. They wanted to participate in the Friday prayer in the Al-Aksa mosque in Jerusalem, but they could only get through very slowly (if at all). The queue of the waiting people became longer and longer, and from time to time sound bombs were thrown into it. Some of us remained there and observed the scene: we saw that some could get through the checkpoint, others did not manage and some were sent back from the checkpoint, for no reason evident to us. A young man was beaten and considerably injured. Later tear gas cartridges were also used.
Volunteers of the ecumenical accompanying service AEPPI were observing and photographing. Perhaps they were able to prevent worse things from happening.
Our next destination was Claire's house, which is enclosed on three sides by the 8 meter high wall. That means, among other things,
loss of their economical existence, since they had to shut down their souvenir shop (before the construction of the wall the house was located at the main street) for lack of customers,
threat by shootings between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers,
isolation, since hardly anybody dares to come near the house, and uncertainty, because the Palestinian police may not drive into this area.
The situation is a particular burden for the children, who can no longer play outside.
We received an overview of the entire situation by Dr. Jad Issac in the Center for Applied Research (ARIJ). With several maps he showed us the different partition plans, which all come to a solution where Palestine may retain at best 22% (as it looks, more likely 12%) of its original territory and that this would still be carved up by settlements, settler roads and checkpoints. “The Palestinian state will consist of a united Ghetto”, Dr. Issac stated.
Explanation of map: two states living side by side, but one inside the other. Indicated in green are the cantons that may possibly make up a future Palestinian state, including Gaza and parts of the Westbank. In the areas indicated in dark blue within the Westbank about 400,000 Israeli settlers are living already. The highways drawn in heavy red are or will be for settlers only.
After so much oppressive information and experience, we all enjoyed the afternoon: we helped Anton Murra, a coworker of the AEI, with the olive harvest. It is not light work, but Anton encouraged us with traditional olive picker songs and we remembered and sang old folk and journeymen songs. At sunset we had harvested enough olives to press about 20 l of oil. And we got an idea of the fact that the olive trees have a high symbolic value for the Palestinians.
Saturday, 21 October
My report from Saturday begins with a picture and a story. The picture: at the Crib Square in Bethlehem stands an olive tree in a plant trough with the inscription “I am 500 years old. I was uprooted against my will from my location in Beit Jala, together with thousands of olive trees in all of Palestine, in order to create space for the apartheid wall. I am still alive.”
A story: in the Middle Ages a city was besieged. When the food supplies came to an end, the people slaughtered the last ox, filled it with their last grain and threw it down to the besiegers. These thought that the besieged must still have had plenty of food, if they still allowed themselves that kind of joke – and withdrew.
We experienced this will for survival in a threatened situation also in the afternoon: with a large event of the Arab Education of Institute the new website www.palestine-family.net was presented in the Peace Center at the Crib Square. This is an interactive web presentation, with which Palestinians from here and in the diaspora can deposit pictures, texts, stories, interviews, recipes etc. The goal is to keep alive the identity and culture of Palestine, to strengthen the contact of the Palestinians among themselves and to their old homeland and to use the enthusiasm of the youth for the Internet, in order to pass on the knowledge and the experience of the older generation. The inauguration of the website was accompanied by the performance of a group of dancers and by a poet, as well as by a photo exhibition which shows above all the more joyful side of life in this country. The website is an important location for discovery of the history and the everyday life in Palestine.
In the morning we had visited the Bethlehem museum which mainly shows how people in Palestine lived in former times.
We see both the website and the museum as efforts to remember their own identity, culture and history, especially in view of the occupation and the daily humiliations,.
Sunday, 22 October
We had quite a relaxed day. Together with our host families we visited Jericho and swam in the Dead Sea. For our host families it was the first time for many years that they could visit the Dead Sea. Without our company they would have had to leave Jericho by way of another checkpoint, from which one cannot reach the Dead Sea. But the political situation caught up with us here too: Wiltrud and I used a short break in order to visit the prison in Jericho, which was stormed by the Israeli military in March of this year in order to take out five political prisoners. The prison was to a large extent destroyed. During the action three people were killed and and a dozen were hurt. This action contributed to Olmert's victory in the election.
Monday, 23 October
Today Reuven Moskovitz, whom many know from his visits in Germany, guided us through Jerusalem. Anybody who knows Reuven can imagine that the guided tour was a most stimulating mixture of politics, history and culture, mixed with stories and anecdotes.
His harmonica solo performance in St. Anne church will remain unforgettable for us, three meditations on the psalm verses “search for peace and pursue it”.
We visited a Catholic human right organization, the Society of Saint Yves, as a representative for other peace and human right organizations. It is supported by Misereor and Missio, among others. Under the slogan “I am my brother's keeper” the Society of Saint Yves supports Palestinians from East Jerusalem and the Westbank in achieving their rights.
Family unification: if one partner lives in East Jerusalem and the other in the Westbank, they will often be separated for years and the children grow up without a father.
Protection from house demolition: an outdated law from the mandate time makes it almost impossible for Palestinians to receive a building permit in East Jerusalem. If they then build "illegally", they risk the destruction of their house and property.
Protection against expropriation of land: For the construction of settlements and the wall land is expropriated without compensation, which is against international law (The Palestinians probably would not accept a compensation because of the illegality of the expropriation).
The use of fertile land is hampered because of the restricted distribution of water. Palestinians have only about only one tenth of the water that Israelis have at their disposal.
Support in obtaining their rights to social benefits, e.g. social security, for which they have paid for many years.
The situation of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem is made more difficult by the fact that they are not considered citizens of Israel (even though Israel has annexed all of Jerusalem), but as “permanent residents” and thus do not have the full rights of a citizen.
The Society of Saint Yves represents individual cases before court; thus it has a good insight into the living situation of people. In the future the Society wants to get involved beyond that in fundamental questions and in addition in informing the affected more intensively about their rights.
A sentence from a flyer shows how important this work is: “Palestinians have no freedom of movement and assembly. They are considered guilty
until they prove that they are innocent. But as Palestinians they can never be innocent. Palestinians have their fingerprints taken as a routine, they are cross-examined, imprisoned, taxed illegally and robbed of their legal benefits for which they have paid for years.”
Tuesday, 24 October
During the morning meeting in the Chapel of the White Sisters, we were already confronted with problems: The White Sisters had a guesthouse up to the year 2000 and then had to give it up, because hardly any pilgrims were coming to Bethlehem any more. They regret this in particular, because this meant the loss of jobs for Palestinians.
Particularly because of the high unemployment rate and of the associated financial emergency, violence within the families is on the rise. One of the sisters who works as a family consultant, reported the example of a young man who confessed with tears in his eyes that he struck his children because they begged for food and he could not give them anything.
Until a few days ago the sisters had some projects in which they employed Palestinians. Now they had to dismiss them, because they have no more money. A further difficulty are the small apartments: fairly often six or more people live in an area. This leads not only to tensions and further violence, but also to sexual abuse among brothers and sisters.
We experienced problems of another kind in Hebron: here up into the twenties of the last century Jews and Muslims lived in peaceful neighborliness until it came to tensions and massacres. Today about 500 settlers live in the city, protected by 3,000 soldiers. In order to avoid confrontations, certain roads are closed for Muslims. Nevertheless again and again encroachments caused by the settlers occur. For example, a family can reach their house only by means of small paths. Even on these the children are attacked by settlers on their way to school. In order to prevent the worst, a team called the "Christian Peacemakers" lives in the city and, among other things, accompanies the children of this family to school. The Peacemakers also had stones thrown at their windows and they even received murder threats.
In reply to our question, how they themselves can cope with a situation like this, Jane and Abigail, who accompanied us, mentioned above all their faith and their consciousness that God had called them to this service. Occasionally they also develop a kind of black humor, which helps them to bear things better.
We received an insight into the culture and the tradition of Palestine at the cultural center in Artas, which is located in one of the caves in which people here lived in former times. With a traditional meal and music on old instruments we had a sample of Arab hospitality.
Wednesday, 25 October
One can overwrite the conclusion of this day: “We live in a open air prison.” In the morning we met with the group of women of the AEI, about 20 women aged between 20 and 60 years, (mostly) Christian and Muslimas. After an introductory round during which we learned much about the living situation of the women, we asked them: “What do you want us to report about you in Germany?”
As if a dam had broken, the answers poured out, e.g.
“I work in a hospital and we have no medication for the poor."
“Due to the school strike our children have been hanging around at home or on the road already for weeks.”
“Animals have their food, our compatriots don't.”
“We are locked up, even have difficulties to travel to another Arab country. ”
“Even when we travel in Palestine we never know whether we will get through the checkpoints.”
“My husband died in a hospital in Jerusalem: I was not allowed to bury him in Bethlehem, and if I want to visit his grave, I need a permit.”
“Is this the price which we must pay for democracy?”
“How we can prevent our children from emigrating?”
“They (the Israeli soldiers) come into our houses and accuse us of being terrorists.”
The question whether we can have a feeling at all, what it is like for people at the checkpoints caused special embarrassment. We recalled among other things the blockade of Berlin and the problems at the demarcation line. However, we had to admit that even though we can imagine what people feel, we do not know it, because we are not in their situation.
Just like at this meeting we were emotionally affected at the dinner in the house of Faten Mukarker, who grew up in Germany and lives now in Beit Jala, a neighboring town of Bethlehem, and usually reports to visitors before and after the meal about her life situation.
Since Faten is at present in Germany, her sister Khadra received us, and Faten's husband Nikola was responsible for the delicious traditional meal as always.
Impressively Khadra told us about the limited space in which they have to live due to the apartheid wall and due to the travel restrictions, about the difficulty to get a permit for Jerusalem even for a medical treatment, about Nikola's problems, if he wants to cross a road closed for Palestinians in order to work in his garden and about their fight against the wall, which is to be built through his garden, about their effort to stop their children from throwing stones, about the distrust which they as Palestinians face everywhere in the world and the lack of knowledge of most people about the situation in Palestine, about her astonishment that her poor Muslim neighbour suddenly has enough money that he can buy their house at a price above the market value, about her lack of understanding of why Jews, Christians and Muslims cannot live in peace with one another, as they did for more than thousand years. Despite all of that, we did not hear any expression of hate in Khadra's words, but rather the deep desire for a life in liberty and dignity, together with Jewish and Muslim neighbors.
Thursday, 26 October
We actually wanted to visit one of the Israeli settlements in Palestine; however this was called off at short notice. As replacement – which it really was not - Wiltrud and our partners of the AEI organized three discussions, one with the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, with a representative of Hamas and with the Rabbis for Human Rights.
B'Tselem was founded by Israeli Knesset delegates, attorneys and intellectuals who are committed to the rights of the Palestinians. Violations of human rights are documented and handed over to the responsible authorities, so that the cases are examined and if necessary the perpetrators are called to account.
At present the emphasis is on:
The deadly violence of the Israeli army. Over the last 6 years the army killed about 3,000 Palestinians, half of them not in the context of armed clashes. Less than 10% of the cases of the killing of civilians are pursued.
The restriction of the freedom of movement. Due to the separation wall and the checkpoints five areas separated from each other resulted in Palestine, and it is difficult or even impossible to move from one area to another.
The situation of the political prisoners in custody in Israel. About 10,000 Palestinians are held in Israeli prisons. Visiting them has become substantially more difficult due to the wall. Military courts, which do not reveal the evidence are responsible for political prisoners.
The Palestinian lawyers are often not able to handle the workload and often negotiate with the court for settlements without ever seeing their clients; 700 to 800 prisoners were arrested preventively, and this measure can be extended in each case for six months, so that these prisoners never know how long they will remain in prison. Torture is officially forbidden, but again and again there are individual cases of abuse.
In answer to our question, what causes this hard attitude among the Israelis, Jessica Montell, the directress of B'Tselem explained to us that there is a consensus in Israel of “never again”. That, however, can have very different meanings: “Never again violence” or, more often “We will never be defeated again”.
We had frequently spoken about Hamas. Today we could talk with a representative of this party. Khaled Safi spent altogether 10 years in prison, eight times in Israeli prisons, once in a Palestinian one, always because of his membership in Hamas.
His view of the situation: Hamas has the trust of the people, because it is not corrupt like the Fatah and because it really helps the poor. After it had won the elections, it offered to Fatah to form a government of national unity. Fatah, however, hesitated so long with the acceptance of this offer until the period for formation of a government had elapsed.
The USA is also responsible for the current situation. They would agree to a government of national unity, if Hamas recognized the UN resolutions, recognized the state of Israel and swore off the use of violence. The two first points, so Khaled Safi, are accepted by Hamas (the second in the form of a long-lasting armistice); it cannot swear off violence, because violence originates first of all from Israel.
Neither the USA nor Israel is willing to accept the Palestinian side as interlocutors “face to face”, but insist on the unconditional acceptance of their demands. Khaled Safi reminded us of many peace offers on the part of the Palestinians, which were ignored by Israel or answered by renewed violence.
Regarding the European situation, he criticized that the Europeans have taken over the attitude of the USA, are not looking for the truth themselves and take no balanced position.
He concludes: “They did not give us a chance to govern, but have condemned us from the very beginning.”
Our last interlocutors on this day were the Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), an organization, to which Rabbis of all religious currents belong with the exception of the ultra orthodox. They are involved in three areas:
At present they are on the roads with many volunteers, to protect Palestinians against the violence of settlers during the olive harvest. Even the director of the RHR, Arik Ascherman, was absent on this day for this reason and was late in returning, so that we could not meet him as originally planned.
Friday, 27 October
This Friday many of us participated in a demonstration in Bil'in. Since February 2005, after each Friday prayer, a demonstration has taken place against the wall(/fence) under construction here, north of Ramallah. At the meeting place in the village a hustle and bustle similar to that at our own demonstrations prevailed, perhaps somewhat more colorful: many young people, Israelis, Palestinians, people from the whole world, even a Buddhist monk with his tambourine.
Television cameras, Palestinian flags, posters, whistles, cordial greetings. In the middle of it is a slender white haired gentleman: Uri Avnery, a joint founder of the Israeli peace movement Gush Shalom, and Arik Aschermann, president of the Rabbis for Human Rights. At the construction site (which was pretty much finished) Israeli military vehicles with cameras already stood waiting. In Arab and in Hebrew the slogan was shouted: „No, no, down with the wall “. Some demonstrators climbed with a ladder over the barbed wire rolls; the soldiers shot with tear gas and forced the demonstrators to retreat. Some time later the tear gas bombs also flew towards those of us who stood close to the fence, and so I made my first acquaintance with tear gas. For those who don't know it: it burns your eyes and you think that you can not breathe any more. Fortunately I got a piece of onion from a "demonstration professional", the smell of which alleviates the effect of the tear gas.
When the military vehicles moved to our side of the fence, stones were thrown. Whether by demonstrators or by troublemakers (Israeli agents) -
Uri Avnery had witnessed this at an earlier demonstraton - we naturally could not determine. Despite this unpleasant scene I felt that the demonstrators were indeed loud, but to a large extent non-violent.
For our goodbye party in the evening the members of the AEI women's group had thought up something special: they performed a traditional Palestinian wedding, with negotiation between the parents, delivery of the gifts, shaving of the bridegroom, painting the palms of the bride with henna and the wedding procession. Everything was accompanied with singing, clapping, drums and the dancing of the women in their beautiful embroidered gowns.
Saturday, 28 October
A good conclusion to the trip was the visit to the peace village „Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam“, which is located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Rayek Rizak, the mayor, who described the village to us, where Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived together for more than twenty years. At present 54 families live there and about 90 more families have expressed interest in a membership if the planned extension can be realized. The village was founded by Bruno Hussar, who had more of a vision rather than a concept, i.e. "come and live together; with time we will find a solution“.
Rayek Rizak described frankly the conflicts that exist in the village; determining is nevertheless the will to show that two peoples and three religions can live together. Today already many decisions are made according to personal conviction and not according to group affiliation and it is the hope of the mayor that this will be even more natural for the next generation.
For us this visit was a good conclusion to our trip: Neve Shalom/ Wahat al-Salam shows that peace is possible in this country.
Seventeen of the nineteen participants flew back to Germany on this day via Vienna. We reached the airport two and a half hours before takeoff. That, however, almost turned out to be too late, because all participants were thoroughly frisked by the border police.
The participants will be glad to report about the trip to groups, parishes and to other interested people. As we concluded from an evaluation: in our country the reports about the Israel-Palestine conflict are often very one sided. Few of us are conscious of the fact that the Palestinians are also victims of the Holocaust.
What we also want to report about is the "spirit of sumud“, the readiness to stand fast, the spirit of "more than ever“, which we encountered and which surprised and inspired us.
additions: Peter Voss
photos: Peter Voss, Annette Klepzig
translation: Peter and Marie Voss
The dove is taken from a button manufactured by the oil lamp factory in Taibeh.