The basement of the New Paltz United Methodist Church was filled to standing room only last Friday night as people gathered to hear two Palestinian human rights activists explain the on-the-ground reality of life in the West Bank and Gaza, places familiar to most Americans as parenthetical mentions on the evening news.
Yet a recent poll of Middle Eastern folks from several countries identified the tensions between Israel and Palestine as a most pressing concern; without resolution there, say the locals, there is unlikely to be true peace anywhere. And the issue is an emotionally charged one for many- witness the reaction to former president Jimmy Carter's book in which he dared to assert that Israel might not be blameless.
"Good turnout," I remark to Sheila Finan, coordinator for a local group entitled Middle East Crisis Response that has sponsored the visit from Mohammed Khatib and Feryal Abu Haikal. "I think a lot of them are among the unconverted," she says under her breath. There is a sense of the forbidden here. Conservatives ask publicly where the Muslims are who condemn violence and endorse peace, yet in this packed hall, the New Paltz Times seems to be the lone media presence.
Pastor Dorothy Caldwell notes in her introduction that the congregation agreed to attempt to truly understand the situation in Bethlehem during Advent. "We realized we needed to grow, and then Sheila called offering this- how providential," she says wryly.
Finan explains that the Middle East Crisis Response group formed during last summer's bombing of Lebanon. "We decided we were in it for the long haul. People need information they are not getting, because peace needs to be based on real negotiation, respect for both sides, and for justice."
Haikal speaks first. She is recently retired from her post as headmistress of the Kortuba School for grades 1-10 in Hebron, one of the communities where the conflict between Israeli settlers and Palestinians is most intense. The old city, she explains, existed before 3500 BC. During the 1980s, six Israeli settlements were established there- angular white apartment buildings, built atop what had been schools and markets. Those areas, now under Israeli control, are festering sores in the city's daily life- a street, for example, restricted to all-Israeli car traffic while Palestinian families who live there must walk some 300 meters to reach their homes. Citizens are challenged at checkpoints and stopped and frisked at whim.
Haikal illustrates her narrative with slides and video footage, and some of it is extremely hard to watch. Tensions between settlers and prior residents can and do boil over at the sites of ancient wonders; the biblical King David and Abraham both resided in Hebron. Stones are thrown and people bleed, often, including Haikal's own daughter. Life has become horribly difficult; the comparison that comes to mind is the world Anne Frank described under Nazi occupation, or perhaps life in a maximum security prison. At least some of the settlers and those who come to visit the settlements are amped up and ready to make trouble; clashes and arrests, shouts and screams and blood, are the stuff of daily life.
Haikal's work with children lends her anecdotes a poignant flavor. "I asked a visitor (to the settlements) what if her child were to play with Arabic children. The answer was, 'I'd kill her.'" Yet after the ugliness, after the clashes, the children are set as free as possible, to pick flowers and decorate walls with their brightly colored handprints. "We learn our kids to love, not hate," she says. "Here is a painting of my son's- see, the darkness goes away. It's a hope. We hope to be better than now." The video ends dramatically, with an unidentified human palm covering the lens. "Many things happen when they attack us," says Haikal calmly, accustomed to tourists who shout, "There is no Palestine- Israel is our land- Kill Arabs!" as casually as Americans might cheer on a football team.
Khatib is a leading member of the Popular Council of Bil'in, another West Bank community that's been under the gun. Israel has been building a wall there, with American dollars; Khatib compares it to a snake. "It's about taking land, but they say it is about security," he says. The wall is currently 600 kilometers long, incorporating barbed wire and electric fencing; in many places it is five or six meters from Palestinian homes. "We asked that they build the wall at the Green Line (the 1967-established border) if they had to build it, but it is 11 kilometers farther in," he explains. "It is planned for even farther in. The map of the West Bank will look like Swiss Cheese after that. We will be in ghettos." The settlers, Khatib says, control the lives of every Palestinian in Hebron, and have been promised by the Israeli Housing Ministry that they will be 150,000 strong by the year 2020. The eight-story high rise buildings pockmark the landscape like a NIMBY's worst nightmare.
Faced with these realities, some of the citizens of Hebron have opted for Ghandian tactics. "We find symbolic ways to show this," says Khatib, showing slides of figures in winding sheets hanging from the ŒApartheid Wall,' Moslems praying in the sand at the feet of an armed soldier, marchers with their mouths symbolically taped shut. Such zoning codes and civilian law as had been agreed upon have long since been overrun; hundred-year-old olive trees have been uprooted despite activists chaining themselves to the trees and reading poetry. "Had you come as guests, we would show you the trees our forefathers planted," notes one. Encounters between Israeli soldiers and members of the Popular Committee Against the Wall, as captured in Khatib's video, have a strange tone of blended familiarity and contempt. The soldiers don't seem to be enjoying their duty, especially when it includes firing on a demonstration being carried out by the wheelchair-bound citizens. "You don't look good here and it's all on film," observes someone.
"We are not against anyone because they're black, white, Jewish, or anything else," says Khatib. "We are against the occupation. We are trying to convince them what they are doing there is wrong. International law gives us the right to forcefully resist. But we want to break the cycle of violence. People think this is a war between two armies, and that is completely untrue. It is between military and civilians, occupiers and occupied. We want to show it as it is. Our demonstrations get infiltrated by undercover agents who start throwing stones, giving the soldiers an excuse to shoot. Stones are indeed a traditional method in Palestinian culture, but we don't use them because nobody wants to be hurt or beaten or injured. And if we use force, we are Œterrorists'."
A break is taken before the question and answer period, and some of the crowd disperses. Thirty or so stay to talk, and they have very specific questions. What, asks someone, does Hamas have to say about the nonviolent resistance? Well, Hamas leaders have joined in some demonstrations. Is it true that in some places, Palestinians are being impressed as virtual slave labor? Not exactly, Khatib explains- it's more like the age-old company town setup, where people are given a paycheck with no place to spend it except the company store, as a true local economy is verboten. The boundaries agreed to in 1967 would be just fine, and the brand-new alliance governing Palestine has been acknowledged by several countries. "We hope that the American government will also respect Palestinian democracy and this agreement," says Khatib. He and Haikal will be visiting twenty-three US towns, spreading the word wherever they are welcome, hoping to make some friends and spread some understanding.
"Where do you get your courage?" Pastor Caldwell wanted to know. "It's in my heart, from God," said Haikal. "I was born under the occupation," said Khatib. "I want peace for my children- it is for them, not for me."
It's oft said that every story has at least three sides: her side, his side, and the truth, to borrow an old line from family court. More information on the nitty-gritty of what is perhaps the key to resolving the Gordian knot of world peace may be had at www.mideastcrisis.org or www.bilin-village.org.