Ten insights into life in Gaza

by Kathy Bergen

Palestinian workers salvage building materials near Erez Crossing at the northern border between Gaza and Israel, Beit Hanoun, February 18, 2014. A remote-controlled sniper gun is mounted on a nearby Israeli military watchtower in the border wall. Human rights organizations have documented dozens of cases of Israeli army gunfire at persons who posed no threat and were well outside the 300-meter so-called "no-go zone" imposed by the Israeli military inside Gaza's borders. In many cases, no warning was given before soldiers opened fire. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Palestinian workers salvage building materials near Erez Crossing at the northern border between Gaza and Israel, Beit Hanoun, February 18, 2014. A remote-controlled sniper gun is mounted on a nearby Israeli military watchtower in the border wall. Human rights organizations have documented dozens of cases of Israeli army gunfire at persons who posed no threat and were well outside the 300-meter so-called “no-go zone” imposed by the Israeli military inside Gaza’s borders. In many cases, no warning was given before soldiers opened fire. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

We left the checkpoint at Erez after going through the Israeli and Palestinian checkpoints.  I was not sure what to expect.  I had not been to Gaza since 2002 and therefore not seen friends in Gaza or the situation there since then.  I followed the two wars on Gaza 24 hours a day on TV and on the internet – Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and Operation Pillar of Cloud in 2012.  I was horrified by the pain and suffering of the people in Gaza. But nothing can substitute for seeing what is happening on the ground.  On February 17 and 18, I had the opportunity to visit Gaza with MCC staff and see some of the work MCC partners.

I was struck by a number of things:

A donkey cart carries food aid provided by the UN. According to the UN, at least 80 percent of Gaza's 1.8 million people are classified as aid-dependent. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

A donkey cart carries food aid provided by the UN. According to the UN, at least 80 percent of Gaza’s 1.8 million people are classified as aid-dependent. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

1. The general poverty: I knew Gaza had been bombed into the stone-age by the two wars and is being kept that way by the continuing blockade—evidence is everywhere. To experience it first hand was extremely difficult.  However, despite the obvious poverty, lack of jobs, and lack of resources, the hospitality of the people was also striking.  They spare nothing for anyone who comes to visit.

A construction worker works along a highway in view of a pedestrian bridge destroyed by Israeli air strikes in 2012 in the Al Mughraqa area of the Gaza Strip, Feburary 18, 2014. The bridge crossed an area regularly flooded by Israeli wastewater. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

A construction worker works along a highway in view of a pedestrian bridge destroyed by Israeli air strikes in 2012 in the Al Mughraqa area of the Gaza Strip, Feburary 18, 2014. The bridge crossed an area regularly flooded by Israeli wastewater. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

2. The infrastructure in Gaza:  Infrastructure has suffered immensely from the two wars on Gaza and the ongoing blockade.   The roads are difficult to navigate.  Many were destroyed during the wars and due to the blockade there has not been adequate material to rebuild them.

3. The electricity:  Every eight hours the electricity goes on or off.  The friends I spent an evening with have batteries in their house instead of a generator.  A generator needs fuel and much of the time there is a fuel shortage.  So while the electricity is on, the batteries are charged and when the electricity goes off, the batteries kick in and provide electricity for the home.  When the electricity is off in a certain district, the streets are completely dark.  One can only see only what is in the headlights of the car.

Raw wastewater runs from overflowing sewer pipes and drains into the sea at Gaza City, February 17, 2014. Water access and pollution remains a severe crisis in Gaza. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Raw wastewater runs from overflowing sewer pipes and drains into the sea at Gaza City, February 17, 2014. Water access and pollution remains a severe crisis in Gaza. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

4. The water: The water in the pipes is not drinkable.  I brushed my teeth with the running water, but it tasted very salty.  People in Gaza buy all their drinking water.  The aquifers once had fresh water, however, those aquifers have been depleted, especially by the settlers who lived in Gaza until 2005 and had access to all the water they needed.  They aquifers began to fill up with salty water when the fresh water was depleted.  Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) has begun supplying some schools in the refugee camps with desalination plants.  Eventually all of Gaza will have to get its water supply this way.

Palestinian fishermen clean their nets on the beach at Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip, February 17, 2014. Israeli forces limit Palestinian fishermen to six nautical miles from shore, but frequenly fire upon and even arrest and confiscate the boats of those within this limit. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Palestinian fishermen clean their nets on the beach at Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip, February 17, 2014. Israeli forces limit Palestinian fishermen to six nautical miles from shore, but frequenly fire upon and even arrest and confiscate the boats of those within this limit. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

5. The fishermen:  We visited fishermen who were pulling their days’ catch from the net.  After all was done, they had about two kilos of small crabs.  The fishermen are allowed to fish six nautical miles from the shore, however, the Israeli soldiers begin shooting at them when they are ½ mile from the shore.  One young man we talked to had been shot in the leg and another had his boat confiscated.  Fishing is their livelihood.  Some said they may earn up to 600 NIS ($175 US) per month, not enough to feed one person, let alone a family.  One fisherman told us he would like to eat some of the fish he catches, but he has to sell everything so he can buy the basic food for his family.

A Palestinian farmer picks strawberries in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip, February 17, 2014. Gaza's agricultural exports are severely restricted due to the Israeli economic blockade. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

A Palestinian farmer picks strawberries in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip, February 17, 2014. Gaza’s agricultural exports are severely restricted due to the Israeli economic blockade. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

6. Strawberries: When we visited the farmers we were treated with hands full of ripe, sweet, tasty strawberries.  Gaza has some of the best strawberries in the region, yet the farmers are unable to export them.  The blockade is the biggest obstacle.  The farmers said they could export every day, but are not allowed to.  Rafah is closed to them for export and they can export only once every three months via the Israeli crossing of Kerem Shalom.  This means the produce has to be stored, which means the quality of the produce, and therefore the price, goes down.

7. Construction: I was surprised by the building that has gone on in Gaza, considering that no materials were allowed in for a long time and only limited materials after the blockade was partially lifted.  Most of the tunnels have been bombed so a very limited amount of supplies can enter Gaza.

8. Youth: The young people of Gaza want to be teenagers, like everywhere else, yet it is difficult for them growing up in this atmosphere.  The social restrictions on them are immense.

A Palestinian man sells peas gat Rafah Crossing on the Gaza Strip's southern border during its closure by Egyptian authorities, February 18, 2014. Egypt has frequently closed the crossing since the army ousted President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

A Palestinian man sells peas gat Rafah Crossing on the Gaza Strip’s southern border during its closure by Egyptian authorities, February 18, 2014. Egypt has frequently closed the crossing since the army ousted President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

9. Isolation: The years of separation of Gaza from the West Bank is taking its toll.  This separation has caused feelings of isolation for the people of Gaza from the rest of the oPt (occupied Palestinian territory).  People are looking more towards Egypt than the West Bank and Jordan, even though Egypt has not been very helpful either since the Egyptian military took over.

10. Resilience: The people of Gaza had suffered so much, yet I left Gaza having witnessed their resilience, creativity, and steadfastness.  How much longer will this be allowed to continue?  How much longer will the international community support this suffering?  When will the world stand up and say: Enough is enough!  When will the world support the liberation of Gaza and stop giving the people of Gaza band-aids?  They don’t need hand-outs—they need to have their freedom so they can develop their own society.

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‘Come and See’: Mennonite leaders visit Palestine and Israel

By Jenn Carreto

Participants in the Mennonite learning tour of Israel/Palestine visit the separation wall in the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. The wall cuts off the camp from an olive grove where residents used to work and play. (l. to r.) Isaac Villegas, Stanley Green, Ann Hershberger, Mohammad Al-Azzah (Palestinian tour guide), Joy Sutter, Joanna Hiebert Bergen (MCC Jerusalem staff), Ron Byler, Tanya Ortman, Chad Horning, Ed Diller and Duane Oswald. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Participants in the Mennonite learning tour of Israel/Palestine visit the separation wall in the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. The wall cuts off the camp from an olive grove where residents used to work and play. (l. to r.) Isaac Villegas, Stanley Green, Ann Hershberger, Mohammad Al-Azzah (Palestinian tour guide), Joy Sutter, Joanna Hiebert Bergen (MCC Jerusalem staff), Ron Byler, Tanya Ortman, Chad Horning, Ed Diller and Duane Oswald. (Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Mennonite Church USA—Fifteen board members and staff representing various Mennonite agencies and organizations traveled to Israel/Palestine Feb. 24–March 4 to take part in a “Come and See” learning tour. The tour marked the beginning of a denominational initiative to send 100 Mennonite leaders to the region on similar tours over the next five years.

While Mennonites have been involved in relief work, service, witness and peacemaking in the region for more than 65 years, the tour was organized in response to a 2009 appeal from Palestinian Christians called  “Kairos Palestine:  A Moment of Truth” (www.kairospalestine.ps).

A coalition representing a range of Christians in Palestine—including Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical—issued the open letter to the global body of Christ as “a word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.” They invited Christian organizations and faith groups to “come and see, in order to understand our reality.”

“The memories of our experiences keep intruding on my everyday thoughts some two weeks after our return,” reflected Chad Horning of Goshen, Ind., Chief Investment Officer of Everence and a member of the learning tour. “I am inspired by the steadfastness of Palestinians and Israelis alike in working for peace in the face of many years of disappointments.”

The learning tour followed the path of Jesus’ life by traveling to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee and finally, Jerusalem. Along the way, they visited Bethlehem Bible College, Nazareth Village, refugee camps, settlements and community organizations, meeting local activists and villagers in each setting and hearing their stories. In Jerusalem they spent time at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, and attended a Jewish Sabbath service. The group also connected with people serving with Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Mission Network and Christian Peacemaker Teams.

Participants were left with much to contemplate and share with their faith communities. Horning said he gained a better understanding of the terms often used to describe life in the region.

“Words like security, wall, border, military, settler, outpost, tear gas, demolition, rubber-coated bullet, and confiscation have more meaning when I tell the stories of people we met and who live in the context of these sterile terms,” he said.

Participants brought with them a range of experience and familiarity with the region. Some had visited or served there, but most were witnessing the realities for the first time.

Madeline Maldonado, associate pastor of Iglesia Evangélica Menonita Arca de Salvación, Fort Myers, Fla., and board chair for Mennonite Mission Network, was a first-time visitor to the region. Before leaving, she shared, “I hope to experience the culture and the conflict. I hope to feel the pain and frustration that are felt there. I pray that I can see God in what seems impossible for my Western and Latina mind to comprehend. I pray that God opens my eyes.”

Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship and Mennonite Church USA Executive Board member, shared reflections four days into the tour: “I’ve seen too much. Towering walls stretching for mile after mile, turning Palestinian cities into open-air prisons. Can I choose not to see … the used tear gas canisters I held in my hand—used against Palestinian youth, bought with my taxes, manufactured by a U.S. company in Pennsylvania?”

In addition to questions about the United States government’s involvement in the region, the group was encouraged the consider questions of faith in new light.

“Our experience gave us new insight into Jesus’ life and ministry, as well as the current situation,” said André Gingerich Stoner, director of holistic witness and interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA. “We return better prepared to pray and work for God’s peace and blessing for everyone in this land.”

In 2011, Mennonite Church USA Executive Director Ervin Stutzman—in consultation with the Executive Board (EB)—responded to the writers of the Kairos Palestine letter, committing to expand opportunities for Mennonite leaders and members to visit Palestine and learn firsthand about the suffering there. Stutzman and the EB also wrote a letter to members of Mennonite Church USA, asking them to read and discuss the Kairos document, to study Scriptures together on the matter and to consider how their financial lives may be enmeshed in the occupation of Palestine by Israel.

In 2013, the EB underscored its desire to help the church more fully understand both the Israeli and Palestinian experiences and the role of Christian Zionism in this conflict. A “Come and See” fund was established with initial contributions from Mennonite Central Committee U.S., Mennonite Mission Network and Everence to offer some scholarships for present and future learning tours. Individuals, agencies and local congregations covered the remainder, according to Stoner.

The next Israel/Palestine learning tour is scheduled for October 2014 and will include participants from Franconia Mennonite Conference, Eastern District Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference. The planning committee is open to proposals for future trips including regional or organizational networks of leaders.

Learning tour participants included:

  • Mennonite Central Committee U.S.: Ann Graber Hershberger, Harrisonburg, Va. (board); Ed Diller, Fort Thomas, Ky. (board); Ron Byler, Akron, Pa. (staff)
  • Mennonite Church USA Executive Board: Joy Sutter, East Norriton, Pa.; Isaac Villegas, Durham, N.C.; André Gingerich Stoner, Elkhart, Ind. (staff)
  • Everence: Duane Oswald, Fresno, Calif. (board); Larry Nikkel, Wichita, Kan. (board); Chad Horning, Goshen, Ind. (staff)
  • Mennonite Education Agency: Noel Santiago, Harleysville, Pa. (board); Carlos Romero, Elkhart, Ind. (staff)
  • Mennonite Mission Network: Madeline Maldonado, Fort Myers, Fla. (board); Tanya Ortman, Kansas City, Mo. (board); Stanley Green, Elkhart, Ind. (staff)
  • Iglesia Menonita Hispana: David Maldonado, Fort Myers, Fla. (board)

To invite tour participants to share their experiences, or for information about future learning tours, contact André Gingerich Stoner (AndreGS@MennoniteUSA.org; 574 523-3060; (toll free) 866 866-2872, ext. 23060).

For more reflections from learning tour participants, see:www.mennoniteusa.org/2014/02/26/israel-palestine-learning-tour-travelogue

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Lack of sight on Stephen Harper’s Middle East tour

Umar Ighbarieh of MCC partner Zochrot leads a tour of Canada Park, an Israeli national park created over the remains of several Palestinian villages demolished after the Six Day War in 1967. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Umar Ighbarieh of MCC partner Zochrot leads a tour of Canada Park, an Israeli national park created over the remains of several Palestinian villages demolished after the Six Day War in 1967. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, has wrapped up his Middle Eastern tour. He spent his days visiting holy sites, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials, and viewing a site where a bird sanctuary will named in his honour for his undying support of Israel. Harper was able to travel quite extensively in his short time here:  Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and the Galilee. Despite his travels, his speeches and statements reflect a contrary truth to what MCC Palestine experiences on the ground. Reflecting upon his schedule, it was not that he did not visit the sites of injustice, but rather the injustice was withheld from his view.

Then there eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. Luke 24:31

Arriving at Ben Gurion airport, Harper began his Middle Eastern tour. From there he made his way to Jerusalem. On the road to Jerusalem he passed by the demolished Palestinian village of Imwas, the biblical site of Emmaus. Before 1967 Imwas was a thriving Palestinian village that was able to fight off the Zionist militias in 1948, maintaining their ability to stay on their ancestral land. However, after the war of 1967 Israeli forces invaded the village along with two others, Yalu and Beit Nuba, and ordered all of its residents to leave. Although the war was over, the residents were expelled from the villages and became refugees in Ramallah, Jordan, and near Jericho. After the expulsion, the military demolished all three villages. Following the demolition, through the assistance of Canadian donations, the Jewish National Fund planted trees on the site. Today Canada Park sits on top the three demolished villages while the previous residents remain refugees.

A Palestinian resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan holds the key to the Pool of Siloam, which is under the custodianship of the Muslim Waqf. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

A Palestinian resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan holds the key to the Pool of Siloam, which is under the custodianship of the Muslim Waqf. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam”. Then he went and washed and came back able to see. John 9:7

After arriving in Jerusalem, Stephen and Laureen Harper went to the Mount of Olives in Occupied East Jerusalem over-looking the holy city. From this view they would have looked over the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan.

The same waters of Siloam flow today in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan. Today in the Bhustan area of Silwan, 88 Palestinian houses have been given demolition orders by the Israeli Jerusalem Municipality. If these demolitions are enforced, it will displace over 1000 people. Already four houses have been demolished by the Israeli Military. The municipality claim that the houses have been built or renovated without permits, therefore despite Palestinian land ownership, their houses can be demolished not only without compensation but owners are often fined for the cost of demolition.

Although some of the houses have been built without permits, the process for Palestinians to apply for permits becomes a Kafka-esque maze which often ends in denial and around $25,000 spent.  Only 5% of Palestinians who apply for permits to build actually receive one. This is in contrast to Israeli settlers where 90% of applicants receive a permit.  Therefore many Palestinians face the challenge to build without a permit. Yet, in Silwan many of the homes were built before 1967 under Jordanian laws. One house in particular is said to be 120 years old.

Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? Mark 8:17-18

The next day Harper arrived in Bethlehem at the Church of Nativity. Just two kilometers away from the site sits Aida Refugee Camp. Its 5,000 inhabitants have been refugees since the war in 1948. For the last two weeks Aida Camp has been considered a military zone via an oral military order. Every day the Israeli Military have been entering the camp, firing tear gas, shooting rubber coated steel bullets and live ammunition, in addition to spraying the camp with dirty water. The day after Harper’s visit the activities’ coordinator for Lajee Center, an MCC partner, was shot in the head by a rubber coated steel bullet. Thankfully he only needed stitches.

Mohammad Al Azraq stands outside his home in Aida Refugee Camp after being shot in the head with plastic-coated steel bullets by Israeli forces on January 21, 2014. Al Azraq was hit  while standing near a window on an upper floor Lajee Center, an MCC partner that works with refugee camp youth. He was treated and released from a local hospital with four stitches. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Mohammad Al Azraq stands outside his home in Aida Refugee Camp after being shot in the head with plastic-coated steel bullets by Israeli forces on January 21, 2014. Al Azraq was hit while standing near a window on an upper floor Lajee Center, an MCC partner that works with refugee camp youth. He was treated and released from a local hospital with four stitches. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

After his Bethlehem visit he went to Ramallah. On the road to Ramallah Harper passed through two checkpoints. The first checkpoint he would have crossed through would be Bethlehem 300. If you visit the checkpoint at two in the morning, the long cage like ramp leading up to the entrance is full of men waiting. These are men that have permits to work in Jerusalem who arrive at the checkpoint early so that they can get to their work site on time. When the checkpoint finally opens, soldiers process people through. This process can involve questioning, a strip search, and one’s hand being scanned.  The short distance through the checkpoint can take up to two hours.

Palestinian men seeking access to Jerusalem pass through the steel cage of the pedestrian terminal at the Bethlehem checkpoint. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Palestinian men seeking access to Jerusalem pass through the steel cage of the pedestrian terminal at the Bethlehem checkpoint. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

On this route to Ramallah it is impossible to not see Israel’s wall. The internationally recognized green line is over 300 km long, yet when the wall is complete it will be over 810 km long. The Wall loops in and around the West Bank, enclosing entire villages, annexing water aquifers, and destroying agricultural land. Although Israel says the wall is for security, the majority of the wall actually separates Palestinian areas from Palestinian areas. In addition, the wall is not complete allowing for over 60,000 Palestinians to sneak in on a regular basis to work in Israel as undocumented workers.

Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn and be healed. Isaiah 6:10b

On day three of his Middle Eastern Tour, Harper visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. As he wandered through the memorial and looked out to forested hillside, did he know that the memorial is built within view of the Palestinian village of Deir Yassien? On April 9 1948 Zionist Militias entered the Palestinian village of Deir Yassein and killed over 100 of the inhabitants. The rest were forced to flee. Today its refugees still remain in camps, similar to the residents in Aida Camp.

Israeli soldiers touring the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum look out over the local landscape where Palestinian villages once stood. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Israeli soldiers touring the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum look out over the local landscape where Palestinian villages once stood. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

If you, even, you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Luke 19:42

Following his visit to Yad Vashem, Harper walked through the Old City of Jerusalem seeing the busy market place and the holy sites. Yet the Old City lives within daily tension.  In this holy city Israeli settlers have been taking over Palestinian houses. In the Muslim Quarter young Israeli men have occupied a Palestinian house. In total 78 properties have been appropriated in the Old City. The settlers are accompanied by armed security, making life for the Palestinians in the neighbourhood tense at best.  In some areas of the Old City the community spaces are divided so that there is settler and Palestinian segregated washrooms.

Daoud El Ghoul of MCC partner Stop the Wall stands near the door of a Palestinian home taken over by Israeli settlers in the Old City of Jerusalem. Though annexed by Israel in 1967, the international community considers East Jerusalem, including the Old City, to be occupied Palestinian territory. All Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory are illegal under international law. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Daoud El Ghoul of MCC partner Stop the Wall stands near the door of a Palestinian home taken over by Israeli settlers in the Old City of Jerusalem. Though annexed by Israel in 1967, the international community considers East Jerusalem, including the Old City, to be occupied Palestinian territory. All Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory are illegal under international law. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

 

Despite living in the same neighbourhood, laws are applied differently. The settlers are under Israeli civil law, while the Palestinians are subject to both Israeli civil and military law, depending on which law the Israeli authorities feel like applying. Despite many Palestinian families living in Jerusalem for hundreds of years, the Palestinian residents do not have citizenship in the city, rather they are considered temporary residents with a 10 year expiration date on their identity cards.  Palestinians living in Jerusalem are forced to reapply for their residency and prove that their center of life is in the city. If they cannot, their residency can be revoked. Since 1967, Israel has revoked over 250,000 residency permits expelling them from the holy city.

Unfortunately after five days of traveling through the Middle East, Stephen Harper is left unaware of the injustice that persists here. However, his ignorance does not come from not visiting certain sites, but rather from not seeing what lies beneath those sites. His eyes have remained closed and this serves as thoughtful reminder to all of us. We too are not immune to blindness.  What truths are being hidden from our eyes that allow us to support policy makers that uphold oppression and injustice? I wonder in our own narratives and lives, what truths are being kept from us?

They said to him, “Lord let our eyes be opened.” Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him. Matthew 20: 32-33

Between normal and abnormal: A day in Aida Camp

By Kholoud Al-Ajarma

A youth from Aida Refugee Camp hides his face with a t-shirt near the entrance of MCC partner Lajee Center during a lull in confrontations with Israeli forces, November 16, 2013. This street is a frequent entry point for incursions by Israeli forces, and often a site of clashes with camp youth. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

A youth from Aida Refugee Camp hides his face with a t-shirt near the entrance of MCC partner Lajee Center during a lull in confrontations with Israeli forces, November 16, 2013. This street is a frequent entry point for incursions by Israeli forces, and often a site of clashes with camp youth. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

“This is normal, we got used to it!” Salah, the Director of Lajee Center responded to me when I comment that the center smells like tear gas even though the clashes had not started yet. I wonder if anything that I have seen in Aida over the past few weeks can be considered normal. Salah’s words rang in my ears as I thought that I heard these words before. In fact I have been hearing that what happens in Aida is normal on different occasions. Nevertheless why don’t I believe so? I decided to write about the events of one day in Aida to evaluate whether what happens in my camp is really normal.

The author, Kholoud Al Ajarma, speaks to a learning tour sponsored by MCC Ontario while on the roof of Lajee Center, overlooking the entrance to Aida Refugee Camp, April 4, 2011. (photo; Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

The author, Kholoud Al-Ajarma, speaks to a learning tour sponsored by MCC Ontario while on the roof of Lajee Center, overlooking the entrance to Aida Refugee Camp, April 4, 2011. (photo; Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

It was 11am when I left my house at the entrance of Aida camp and walked the 50 meters between my house and the center. The center is close to my house; I always felt lucky that I could go there whenever I wanted. During the years of volunteering and later working for Lajee, we sometimes had to start work early just after sunrise and stay discussing our work until after midnight. Nowadays, even a two minute walk from my house to the center is a challenge. The clashes start sometimes early in the morning, other times in the afternoon, and continue until after sunset. Reaching Lajee Center, which is located between the military base at Rachel’s tomb and the UN distribution center at the entrance of the camp, becomes a mission impossible. This street is normally the main site for the demonstrations between the youth and the Israeli soldiers.

A child watches Israeli forces approaching the entrance of Aida Refugee Camp, November 29, 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

A child watches Israeli forces approaching the entrance of Aida Refugee Camp, November 29, 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Walking from my house to Lajee Center I notice the bricks and stones covering every inch of the street that were left from yesterday’s demonstration. I can also see some rubber bullets and tear gas canisters on the side of the street. Closer to the center I see two small boys, who upon seeing me points his finger at the blue gate of the apartheid wall and says to me, “Look! They opened the gate and came out with a jeep. They will stand there until the kids come and see them, then the kids will throw stones at them.” The second child continues, “There are eight soldiers standing there now. More will come later.” I could notice that the soldiers are walking down towards Lajee Center. The older child continues in a proud tone of voice, “Now I do not run when they start shooting I got used to the sound. It is “aadi” (normal)…”

A little girl who looks seven or eight is near the center runs towards the camp when she sees the soldiers. When she approaches us she says, “I better go hide at home. The soldiers will start shooting soon. zay dayman (like always).” Another boy stands at the entrance of the center looking at the soldiers. At that minute, the group of soldiers breaks in two. Three soldiers go behind the garage and a few minutes later only their guns and green helmets are to be seen on the roof while four stand about ten meters away from the center looking at the camp and four more soldiers stand to the back near the jeep.

A mother and child cross the street during a break in clashes between Israeli soldiers and camp youth, November 29, 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

A mother and child cross the street during a break in clashes between Israeli soldiers and camp youth, November 29, 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

I walk towards the center and stand to speak to the boy standing there. When I ask if he will go up to the center, he says that he would rather stay out to see what the soldiers were up to. If more kids come, he will join them to throw stones at the soldiers. Then he runs towards the two other boys to discuss what the soldiers were doing.

I walk up the stairs to the center and see a mural of late Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish. Kefah, the librarian of Lajee Center, stands to greet me. She speaks to me about today’s activity with the children. The aim of today’s activity is to give the children the chance to express their feelings and talk about their experience of two days ago.

“On Friday,” she said, “we had a regular storytelling activity for the children. The kids started coming to the center around 10 am. Together we read a story, played some games and watched an animated film. Around 1 pm 30 children (7-14 years old) were at the center playing games and drawing. At 2 pm, the Lajee Senior Dabkeh Troupe (15-20 years old) had their regular dabkeh practice.

Painting by Lajee Center youth depicting clashes between camp youth and Israeli soldiers.

Painting by Lajee Center children depicting clashes between camp youth and Israeli soldiers.

When the children and the youth tried to leave the center to their houses around 4 pm, they were trapped in the center because the Israeli soldiers fired tear gas continuously into the camp. A few minutes later, ten heavily armed soldiers stormed the center. A member of the dance troupe was handcuffed while others had to show their identity cards. Together with the volunteers, the children were locked in the library. Our staff remained firm in the face of the soldiers to protect our children; about half an hour later, the soldiers left. Even though we were able to keep the children physically unharmed, they were deeply affected by this experience. Mothers rushed to the center to pick up their children and take them home. Once outside, they were again inflicted by the soldiers firing tear gas. We tried to go the camp, but we could not see. No it was not fog but a thick cloud of tear gas.”

Clouds of tear gas drift over the garden and playground of Lajee Center, February 25, 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Clouds of tear gas drift over the garden and playground of Lajee Center, February 25, 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

A day after these event only three children showed up for Kifah’s story telling activity. Kifah says that she is worried that fewer children will start coming to the center. Yet, when I go into the center today about 15 children attend the library activities. When asked to do freestyle painting, eight-year old Raghd says, “I will draw the soldiers, the kids throwing stones at them, and the big jeep with the tear gas machine that shoots nine gas canisters at once.” Responding the Raghd’s suggestion, 9-year-old Salma says, “I want to draw the library, the books and the library activities that took place while the soldiers were shooting at the camp. I will draw Rand and the other kids who were scared that the soldiers will go into the library.”

Rand Al Ajarma (right) helps out during renovations of the garden and playground at Lajee Center, November 13, 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Rand Al Ajarma (right) helps out during renovations of the garden and playground at Lajee Center, November 13, 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Salma and the some other kids teased Rand because she cried when she was locked with the other children in the library two days ago. Raghd, her older sister said that one should not be afraid of the soldiers. She says, “I am used to seeing the soldiers now. After all, they enter that camp every day, if not during the day then at night, sometimes both. They arrest people, and shoot. It is normal and I am not afraid of them anymore.” She continues, “The soldiers are cowards. Are they afraid of children? Yes. They hold big guns, wear heavy clothes and helmets, and have a big jeep. Yet, these soldiers attack kids and hide behind the garbage from which they shoot tear gas, rubber bullets and live bullets at children. The children only have stones but the soldiers fear them.” Feeling encouraged to speak by the words of her sister, Rand comments, “I saw the soldiers when they came to our house last week. It was at night, I woke up and the soldiers were in our house. I did not cry.” When I ask what the soldiers did at the house, Rand says, “They searched the kitchen, the rooms, and talked to my father. When they left my father was talking to my grandmother downstairs; eight soldiers went to their house. My mother looked out of the window and said there were more soldiers on the street, some at my uncle’s house across the street. My mother said that it was normal. The soldiers always come at night. But still I did not cry” she reassured me.

Footage on Lajee Center's security camera shows Israeli soldiers entering Aida Refugee Camp, just after midnight, December 11, 2013. According to residents, hundreds of Israeli soldiers entered the camp from several directions, searching many homes, and arresting six people. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Footage on Lajee Center’s security camera shows Israeli soldiers entering Aida Refugee Camp, just after midnight, December 11, 2013. According to residents, hundreds of Israeli soldiers entered the camp from several directions, searching many homes, and arresting six people. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Raghd commented, “Rawand, my baby sister cannot leave the house, my mother says. We keep all the windows and doors closed so that she would not smell tear gas. Yesterday, she smelled it and coughed all day. Her nose turned red.” When I asked the girls if they thought that tear gas is dangerous, Raghd said, “A few months ago, after similar clashes, we found a tear gas canister under the lemon tree that my father planted on the roof of our house. After a few days the tree turned completely dry, the fruits fell and in a week the tree was dead.” Although I am surprised to hear this from Raghd it was not my first time hearing about such news. A few weeks ago, a similar destiny was drawn to an old olive tree which our neighbors had. After finding a tear gas canister under the trunk of the tree, half of the tree died while the other half survived.

A spent tear gas grenade and shell casing lies on the ground near Lajee Center following clashes between Palestinian youth and Israeli forces, November 29, 2013. The grenades used by the Israeli army are made by the U.S. company Combined Systems Inc.

A spent tear gas grenade and shell casing lies on the ground near Lajee Center following clashes between Palestinian youth and Israeli forces, November 29, 2013. The grenades used by the Israeli army are made by the U.S. company Combined Systems Inc. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

While talking to the kids, nine-years-old Ehab, enters the library. He opens his hands to show his collection he has gathered from the on the way to the center. Between his hands he is holding three rubber bullets, two bottoms of live bullets, and three different types of tear gas canisters. He says, “Look! I collected these! They were on the street from yesterday’s shooting. The children collected more yesterday. And more is left.” Yumna, age 8, picks one of the bullets from Ehab’s hands and comments, “This is a rubber bullet, look from the inside it is steel. My cousin was shot by one of those while he was filming a demonstration. His cheek was smashed and his bone was replaced by metal.”

Palestinian children display handfuls of rubber- and plastic-coated steel bullets fired by Israeli forces during clashes in Aida Refugee Camp, November 29, 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Palestinian children display handfuls of rubber- and plastic-coated steel bullets fired by Israeli forces during clashes in Aida Refugee Camp, November 29, 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

While the children continued their paintings, we hear some shooting outside the center. Living through these circumstances on a daily basis, the children do not need to reach to the window to know what is happening outside. Otherwise, all would know by Rand’s immediate reaction that upon hearing the shooting crawls under the table and hides her face between her hands. I can tell from the movement of her head, hand, and shoulders, Rand is crying.

When I look out of the window, I can see about 20 children under the big key that marks the physical entrance to the camp. Some are throwing stones others collecting. About 30 meters from the children four soldiers are shooting from behind the garbage, four sneak to a neighboring house, while some more are in the jeep about 50 meters away. Four more soldiers are walking down from the jeep towards the center. They kick the gate of Lajee’s garden and try to enter.

After failing to kick open the gate the soldiers give up and move towards the door of the center. Salah, hearing hard knocking on the center’s door, runs down the stairs to confront the soldiers and prevent them from storming into the center. Salah opens the door and refuses to allow the soldiers in. He tells them that there are only children in the center and that they cannot use the center as a shooting point. Again, for Salah and the people at the center this has become a normal encounter.

Salah Ajarma, director of MCC partner Lajee Center, looks out of the center's doorway surrounded by Israeli soldiers, September 27, 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Salah Ajarma, director of MCC partner Lajee Center, looks out of the center’s doorway surrounded by Israeli soldiers, September 27, 2013. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Is any of this normal? I wonder. NO! None of this can be normal. One needs to look at Rands crying face to realize that it is not normal for children to see an army invading their place of residence on a daily basis. One knows that life in Aida camp is not normal when six-year-old Rand wishes that her pregnant mother will not have a boy. “He will be arrested like uncle Saed” she says, “the soldiers came at night, took him from home, and I never saw him again”. Rand’s wish comes true, yet her baby sister, Rawand, also has to suffer from the teargas that reaches her bedroom. It is not normal to know that one of the first words Raghd said when she was a few months old baby was jaish (soldiers) at the same time with mama and papa. It is not normal to wake up and see soldiers in Salma’s living room, searching in her closet and walking on top of her toys. It is abnormal when 5000 children, women, men, and elderly have to endure tear gas and shooting on a daily basis.

Normal would be when the children sit at Lajee’s library to draw flowers, happy faces and colorful images. In a normal situation Salah should be working on a new project to develop the lives of the children instead of trying to keep soldiers from invading the center. In a normal situation instead of the children standing at the window to look at soldiers shooting other children they should be in the garden playing games.

Hala Qaraqa, age 9, displays artwork created in a Lajee Center summer camp supported by MCC, July 13, 2012. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Hala Qaraqa, age 9, displays artwork created in a Lajee Center summer camp supported by MCC, July 13, 2012. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

The life of a Palestinian refugee is not normal. We can never be satisfied if the life under occupation is called normal. People should be born free and live with dignity. We cannot be satisfied if it is normal to live in a refugee camp when our lands sit mere kilometers away. Normal would be for the children to be playing on their original lands in Ajur, Beit Jibrin, Al Walajah, Ras Abu Amar, Al Kabu, etc. Yet more and more of the abnormal are turning into normal experiences for the people of Aida. Yet normal can never be the violation of our rights nor the daily injustice. Normal is freedom and a life of dignity, nothing less.

Painting by Lajee Center children.

Painting by Lajee Center children.

Kholoud Al Ajarma is a former volunteer and staff member at MCC partner Lajee Center. Since this article was written, a 12 year-old child was shot in Al Azza camp with a live bullet with a silencer on the gun (a violation of international law). Six youth arrested. One child was shot in the face with a rubber-coated steel bullet; another was shot in the foot. In addition, the Activities Coordinator of Lajee Center was struck with a rubber coated steel bullet in his head requiring stitches. On the same day the soldiers sprayed Lajee Center and the camp with filthy water that caused a nauseating smell that lasted for hours.

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PHOTOS: A learning tour witnesses the demolition of a Palestinian home

by Kevin Malamma

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On Tuesday, October 29, 2013, our group was intending to spend the day working through the modern, Palestinian “Contemporary Way of the Cross” (by Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center) and was coming to the site of a previously demolished Palestinian home (Station 7). Instead, as we turned the corner, we were greeted with the Israeli military escorting the Caterpillar tractors that had just finished the demolition of a 4-story, 4-family home of stone and concrete.  I am not sure if one could ever imagine the emotions you would feel if you were to witness such an event, much less have to live through this event as a Palestinian family so brutally tossed to the streets.  Anger, outrage, unfathomable sadness welled up as tears in my eyes as I witnessed the aftermath of this senseless destruction.  “How could anyone participate in such an action towards another human being?”  I am still working to understand this.  All I can tell you is that this is not about religion, but rather about greed and Godlessness.

Kevin Malamma was a participant in a learning tour sponsored by MCC West Coast.

The spirit of the struggle against apartheid lives on!

from Stop the Wall

Mahmoud Al'aa Elddin of the West Bank village of Al Ma'sara wears a Mandela shirt while planting olive trees on land near the Israeli settlement El'azar. All Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are illegal under international law. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Mahmoud Al’aa Elddin of the West Bank village of Al Ma’sara wears a Mandela shirt while planting olive trees on land near the Israeli settlement El’azar. All Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are illegal under international law. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

With the passing away of Nelson Mandela, South Africa has lost a truly inspirational leader of their struggle against apartheid. The world has lost a symbol of the human quest for justice and equality. Palestine has lost a comrade in the struggle that never forgot the natural bond between two people fighting apartheid.

The Palestinian people will not forget the solidarity Nelson Mandela has shown to our struggle when apartheid in his country was ended. We will continue to remember his commitment to the Palestinian cause when he stated at the United Nations ceremony of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People that ‘we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians’.

Now that we are mourning the passing away of Mandela, we are remembering not only his personal achievements and vision but follow his will ‘to be remembered as part of that collective.’ Mandela truly was a leader of one of the most powerful liberation movements.

We want to remember the achievements of the movement, the strength, determination and suffering of the South African people and their courage to continue to work for overcoming the legacy of apartheid. The millions of people that day after day resisted oppression and with this struggle inspired millions more around the world to stand up against apartheid in South Africa and against racism and colonial oppression everywhere. We want to remember how the global anti-apartheid movement, based on the South African call for the boycott of apartheid, has mobilized people, organizations and finally governments across the globe.

While a unique hero of justice is gone now, the spirit of the collective struggle to fight apartheid is re-forming slowly but incessantly to finally defeat as well Israeli apartheid. In the streets of Palestine the flame of resistance against apartheid is continuing to deny Israeli apartheid the status of ‘normality’. Once again picket lines against products of apartheid appear in front of supermarkets, shareholder meetings are interrupted by those that denounce the dirty business with apartheid and even in the corridors of government the calls to end complicity are gaining voice.

The United Nations has declared 2014 the Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Twenty years from the end of apartheid in South Africa, it is up to us all to let the spirit of unbreakable resistance to apartheid live on.

We will continue the struggle against apartheid until one day – just like Nelson Mandela – we can announce “Free at last”!

Let the new anti-apartheid movement grow! Amandla!

Stop the Wall is an MCC partner organization. This statement originally appeared on their web site.

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Sabeel’s Christmas message: Love welcomed both shepherds and wise ones

by Rev. Naim Ateek

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A Palestinian shepherd passes near Israeli soldiers in the West Bank village of Al Ma’sara, south of Bethlehem. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke2:8).

“…after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem…” (Matthew 2:1).

The fact that the Christmas story mentions only two groups of visitors to the Christ child in Bethlehem, has, I believe, a theological significance. The shepherds in first century Palestine represented one of the lowest social strata in society. Religious tradition of Jesus’ day labeled them as unclean. They were marginalized, poor, and considered as the scum of society; while the wise men represented the well to do, the educated, and the scholars of their day. The theological implication is clear: God’s love for all people was expressed in and through the coming of Jesus Christ. This love welcomed both the shepherds and the wise men. True love does not differentiate between God’s children. In Christ, the evil of discrimination and bigotry is obliterated.

Moreover, the shepherds were presumably Jewish, while the wise men were foreigners. Since the wise men came from “the East,” a number of New Testament scholars have suggested that they came from Arabia. There is a further theological significance here. Both Jews and Arabs came to offer their homage to the Christ child. When we stand before God, not only do our social differences lose their importance, our racial differences are also eradicated. God’s love for all people was being communicated regardless of social and financial status in society and regardless of racial background. Not only do rich and poor, Jew and Gentile stand before God as equals, there are also no political boundaries. All are welcomed and accepted. In other words, when we stand before the holy, our racism and bigotry should melt away and we should become authentically human recognizing the other as a brother and a sister.

One of our most disturbing issues during this Christmas season is the situation of the shepherds and farmers of today, namely, the Bedouins of the Negev who are citizens of Israel. The Israeli government plans to Judaize the Negev by forcibly relocating tens of thousands of Bedouins from their ancestral lands on which most of them have lived for hundreds of years, long before the state of Israel came into being. Israel wants to force them away from their lands and traditional way of life for the benefit of Israeli Jewish citizens. It is essentially a land grab. Many local and international human rights organizations have condemned Israel’s actions and policies as discriminatory and in violation of international law.

During this Christmas season, Sabeel calls attention to the plight of the Bedouin community of the Negev that numbers between 160 to 200 thousand, and where thousands of them are living in villages that the government of Israel does not recognize. Consequently, Israel deprives them of basic services like education, electricity, running water, and sanitation.

This year’s Christmas message emphasizes the fact that our faith demands of us to champion today’s shepherds and farmers—the Bedouins—and advocate for their rights. The appalling irony is that what the Jewish people longed for over the centuries when they were weak, they are unwilling to give to others now that they have become strong. For hundreds of years, Jews wished and longed for human dignity, equality, and respect for their human rights, but tragically, the Israeli government today is unwilling to grant the same to its own citizens, the Bedouins of the Negev.

Christmas affirms God’s love and concern for all human beings and especially to the most vulnerable, today’s shepherds and farmers, the Bedouin community of the Negev.

On behalf of Sabeel’s board and staff, I extend our best Christmas and New Year wishes to all our friends.

Rev. Naim Ateek is the director of Sabeel, an MCC partner.