Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Deserving of a better future

We had gone to the Palestinian city of Ramallah to deliver chocolate. No, really. We had a bag of the finest Belgian chocolate that someone in our group wanted delivered to a Doctor friend.

Ramallah was more vibrant than most of the Palestinian towns we had visited. The streets were lined with shops and the sidewalks bustling with people. It had a very cosmopolitan and worldly feel to it. We stopped at a European-style café and ordered a delicious apple pastry. Next to us was a table of young women whose headscarves and knee-length coats couldn’t hide their sexiness—the designer jeans, makeup, and eye-catching smiles. Ramallah seemed different. More promising. More open to the world. Less like the rest of Palestine.

From Ramallah to Jerusalem it is a mere 15 kilometres. Actually, to be more precise it is 14.7 kilometres. I know this because of the small signs with the distance between the two cities placed throughout the city. A reminder how close, yet how so far away Jerusalem is for Palestinians. In fact, on several occasions it was said that it is easier for Palestinians to get to the rest of the world than it is to get to Jerusalem. For most Palestinians, a trip to Jerusalem involves an onerous approval process, which can be denied at the whim of an Israeli bureaucrat.

Crossing the Israeli checkpoint from Ramallah to Jerusalem was relatively easy—despite the world media erroneously reporting that Israel had closed all crossings into and out of the West Bank for a week during the Jewish Passover. Neighbours, yes, but it was like traveling to the far side of the world. In contrast to Ramallah, Jerusalem’s streets seemed more orderly. There was less honking of car horns, and pedestrians waited their turn at traffic lights. There was little trash on the sides of streets. And stately stone buildings stood next to manicured boulevards. On several occasions during our stay, we ambled along Emek Refaim Street in the city’s German Colony neighbourhood. A delightful thoroughfare lined with quaint restaurants, bookstores, shops, and cafes. It was comfortable. In fact, we could have been in Zurich or Munich, or Brussels. Here, the people seemed more prosperous, and full of life, even though unknown to me at the time, the Café that we fondly visited twice (they make a delicious tuna sandwich) was the site of a terrorist bombing seven years ago, in which 12 were killed and dozens injured. Yet, that seemed in the distant past. Forgotten, on the surface, anyway.

In Jerusalem, and maybe even more so in Tel Aviv, where Israelis filled beach side bars and restaurants, played volleyball and other games next to the Mediterranean, and where families (both Arab and Jewish) found a piece of green space in the many parks along the beach for a picnic, or to watch the sun set, the vivid contrast of life in Israel and Palestine, was never more clear.

As I saw people running leisurely next to the ocean in Tel Aviv, I realized that jogging is a luxury. A luxury, you wonder? Well, if you have the time to go for a jog, it means that you’re not toiling away somewhere, trying to eke out an existence, and your job (because you have one) isn’t backbreaking and arduous. In contrast, the feeling I got from spending two weeks in Palestine was one of despair, hopelessness, and a disheartened future. Throughout the country (okay, I know it’s not officially recognized as such, but I wish to give them some respect and hope), the stories are the same. While Jewish settlements in Palestine (deemed illegal by the United Nations) flourish with abundant supplies of water and electricity, Palestinians in neighbouring villages languish with inadequate and unreliable access to these very same life-sustaining necessities. In so many ways, Palestinians are at the mercy of Israel, an occupying force, which controls much of their lives. It’s not fair, are words I heard more than once.

I overhead one Palestinian say: “Are some Palestinians lazy? Yes. Do some Palestinians lack imagination? Yes. But what we need are more role models, so we can lead ourselves and be successful.” Isn’t this really what any self-respecting people would want?

While I’m not suggesting that there aren’t sounds of laughter in Palestine, surely there is, a future full of hope and prosperity is made more difficult with overcrowded refugee camps, staggering rates of unemployment, and masses of idle young people, who have lived their entire lives under occupation.
The history of this ancient land is complex, and seemingly so too is the solution to ending this conflict that has raged on for more than 60 years. An Israeli taxi driver put it this way: “we’re both living in a prison.” Indeed. Israelis live in a prison of fear. And Palestinians live in a prison surrounded by concrete walls and checkpoints. Both deserve a better future.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The 99.99% that you won't see on the news

The image many people have of Palestinians is one of violence. And who can blame them really, because that’s the overall impression they get through the lens of the media. It’s easy for the young, angry stone thrower, or suicide bomber to make the news. But as the Dutch free speech organization, Loesje says: 99.99% of what happens is not on the news. And so it’s likely that you have never heard of the Alrowwad Centre, an independent organization that provides artistic, cultural, and theatre training for children in Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp, one of three Camps in the city, and where Israel’s 26 foot high concrete security wall stares down at the 4,700 residents. The aim of the Centre is to provide a safe and healthy environment to help young people foster creativity and to express themselves amidst the difficult conditions in which they are forced to live.

It was the negative image that people had of Palestinians through the media that moved Abdelfattah Abu-srour, who has a PhD in Biology, and was a mechanical engineer by profession, to establish the Centre. “Peace and love are human values that we all share,” he says, sitting in his office. “Palestinians have every right to resist Israeli occupation, but it will be a beautiful resistance, with a focus on theatre, dance, and art. Our children deserve a better heritage.”

The Centre was founded in 1998 when it was learned that because of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, more and more children were found to have learning difficulties. It’s hard not to imagine how all of this wouldn’t have an impact on the children living in the Camp, as they witnessed death, injury, and the destruction of homes after incursions into the Camp by Israeli soldiers in jeeps, tanks, and attack helicopters. “The Camp suffered a lot during the second intifada, between 2000 and 2005,” remembers Abu-srour. “We noticed that children began exhibiting violent tendencies and were regressing in school.”

The roots of the Centre started in Abu-srour ‘s parent’s home, where little by little it grew until people started to notice. Alrowwad, which means pioneer in Arabic, is now housed in a multi story building and home to two theatre groups, one for children aged 8-16, and the other for those aged 16-22. The groups have performed in Europe and the United States. Young people also have the opportunity to learn skills in photography and video production.

In an environment devoid of green spaces and parks, where the unemployment rate is 70%, and two-thirds of the population are under the age of 18, the Alrowwad Centre is one positive in Aida Camp. “We can’t just say our situation is hopeless,” says Abu-srour, “because our children would ask us, what did you do?”

Why do I mention the Alrowwad Centre? Because it’s an example of something positive, and a source of optimism, and those two things rarely make the nightly news. I mention this also because during the two weeks that I spent in Palestine, I didn’t find a lot of optimism, but I did find Palestinians to be kind, gracious and hospitable, all of which is part of the 99.99% that you don't see on the news.

To learn more about the Alrowwad Centre, visit http://alrowwad.virtualactivism.net/index.html

A video produced by young people at the Centre, titled Bethlehem Checkpoint 4 am can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1FaWE1SIZk

Monday, April 12, 2010

Far from home

“I’m not proud to be a refugee, but I insist on it,” Nadal said, over a lunch of turkey shawarma, bread, humus, and bright pink turnip-like vegetables. Nadal was our guide for the first three days, and lives in the Far’a Refugee Camp, where we stayed one night.

When you think of a refugee camp, you probably think of some squalid place with people living in tents, something temporary, to be sure. In Palestine, this may have been the reality 60 years ago, but six decades on today’s Palestinian refugee camp looks much like any other village, at least to an outsider like me. While the Camps house small shops, schools, libraries, and community centres, overcrowding is a big issue, as is unemployment, and discrimination. And for those living in the camps, home is some place else.

So, why is it that millions of Palestinians are still living in these semi-permanent Camps, with the most basic of infrastructure? It’s shameful, really, but the answer is as complex as the forces that led to this situation.

The creation of Israel in 1948 has a complicated history, but essentially the United Nations agreed to partition Palestine, giving more than half of the territory to the creation of a Jewish State, and the rest would remain under Arab control. The Jews didn’t have a problem with this plan. Of course, they didn’t. The Arabs, on the other hand opposed partition, which led five Arab nations to attack Israel. Arab bravado quickly turned to ineptness, as the plucky Israelis defeated the Arab armies.

While Israel calls this the War of Independence (a bit of a misnomer considering they weren’t gaining independence from anyone, theirs is the only state that was created by the United Nations), Palestinians refer to this time as the Nakba, the Catastrophe, in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their land, or fled in fear. In an instant they became refugees. Some Jewish apologists will tell you that if the Arabs had just accepted the partition of their land, and integrated themselves into the newly created State of Israel, then there would have been no refugee issue. Of course they will. Would you mind if your Uncle lorded over your house, and then decided to allow some strangers to take up residence in more than half of the house?

In 1948, Nadal’s family lived in a small village near Jaffa, part of present day Tel Aviv. On the advice of a Jewish friend, his parents were encouraged to flee the area, when the conflict began. Others in the village that chose to stay were killed. When they left their village, for what they thought would be temporary, Nadal’s parents unknowingly became part of the 900,000 Palestinian refugees that resulted from the 1948 War. Today, the number of refugees in Palestine has swollen to more than four million, with more than a quarter living in Camps spread across the West Bank, Gaza, and in neighbouring countries of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

Nadal’s parents settled in the Far’a Camp, which was created in 1949. Sixty years later, the Camp is home to 7,600 people, with close to 45% of the population under the age of 14. In fact, only 5% of the population is over the age of 60; meaning most, like Nadal, were born in the Camp. Overcrowding, high unemployment and water shortages are the Camp’s main challenges.

What I found remarkable was that despite living his entire life in the Camp, Nadal talked as if his home was the village that his parents left more than 60 years ago. In fact, I heard this same strong and pervasive sentiment, from young and old, during my travels throughout Palestine.

Palestinian refugees want dignity, respect, but most of all they want the right of return. After six decades, most are under no illusions that they will ever return to their homes or villages, but at the very least, they want that right to return. Israel on the other hand is fearful of this given that if refugee status is hereditary, then potentially four million Palestinians would be able to settle in Israel, tipping the country from a Jewish majority, as it currently is, to one where Jews would be in the minority, and potentially erasing the entire raison d’etre for Israel’s creation.

With poor and crowded living conditions, staggering rates of unemployment, and a sense of despair, the future looks bleak as more and more young people are born into and grow up in these Camps. While I wouldn’t want to conclude that one person can speak for an entire population, one young guy put it this way, “all there is to do here [in the Camp] is smoke, have sex, and play video games.” Not the most optimistic future.

A good site to learn more about Palestinian refugees can be found at: www.unrwa.org

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

More photos from the Holy Land

Church of Mary Magdalene

A view of Jerusalem's Old City from Dominus Flevit

Jerusalem's iconic Dome of the Rock

The Edicule, housing the tomb of Jesus, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Angelic light in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Walking the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem

Good Friday in Jerusalem


Some people get serious about Good Friday in Jerusalem

Big sellers on Good Friday

Waiting around

The cross I bear

Tel Aviv sunset

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday in Jerusalem

A bloodied man dressed as Jesus was led along the Via Delarosa by a Roman soldier carrying a cross. Tagging along was a woman barking into a microphone, imploring “Jesus” to continue walking. Earlier, I had seen a man with shoulder length hair, wearing a white toga, and walking barefoot. And so begins Good Friday in Jerusalem.

Throughout the day, throngs of pilgrims retraced the 14 Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa, Way of Suffering, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the spot where it is believed Jesus was crucified.

We decided to walk with the Franciscans around noon, and given the anticipated crowds, a kind lady in the Christian Information Centre suggested we enter the Old City by way of the Lion’s Gate, which is close to the First Station.

Since we were a couple of hours early, we decided to not heed the advice and instead walked through the Old City. Soon, we were swept along with a sea of people. There was no choice but to follow along. After some time we were able to break from the group. We turned down a narrow street, then down another, and yet another. Then we stopped, realizing we had no idea where we were. Navigating the Old City can be like that. Then we found ourselves in the middle of another group of pilgrims. Only problem was we were going against the tide, trying to squeeze our way up the Via Dolorosa, while hundreds were stopped with nowhere to go.

One guy shook his head and said it would be impossible to make our way up. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, I thought to myself. Besides, some might say that Jesus often went against the grain. At one point the crowd was so tight that I was pushed on an angle, and I feared falling over. Two others were also trying to make their way against the crowd, and from behind me I could hear, “In the name of the Holy Spirit...God please make a path for us.” Maybe someone was listening, because soon after the crowd thinned, and we scrambled past.

It was amazing to see thousands of people from all over the world chanting hymns in different languages. I met Yousef and George, two Palestinians who live near Bethlehem. As one group began the procession, Yousef turned to me and said, “God created many languages.”

He then asked me if I was a Christian. I always find this question uncomfortable, because of the requisite lecture that usually comes. Sometimes I think it would be easier to just say, yes. Instead, I’m honest.

“Well, not really,” I stammer. “I was baptized as a child, but I don’t believe in God.”

“You mean you don’t feel anything in your heart,” he pushed.

“Oh, I feel lots of things in my heart, just not God,” I replied, hoping the topic would change.

“You know, if you believe you will live for eternity, but if you don’t, you won’t. Well, it’s good that you were baptized, but you need to work much harder,” he concluded.

I just smiled, and left the conversation at that. This is what I dislike about the overly pious. The insinuation that if you don’t believe somehow there’s something wrong and you need to “work harder”. It reminded me of a sermon I once heard at church in which the priest asked the question, are there Saints outside the Church? I wanted to yell out, you bet there is!

By 12:15 PM hundreds of people had gathered at the First Station. Once underway, the procession squeezed through a narrow doorway and started down the Via Dolorosa, stopping at each Station along the way to recite prayers and hymns. It took an hour for us to walk the 500 metres.

Near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a scuffle broke out as soldiers and police tried to stop the procession, in an effort to control the crowd. In front of me, a group carrying a seven foot wooden cross surged past the police, and through an archway that led into the church courtyard. Feeling victorious about pushing past the authorities, they pumped their fists in the air and chanted. In the ensuing fracas, I found myself standing at the entrance of the courtyard. Behind me the throng wanted to push forward, while inside I saw people pushing and shoving with police and soldiers. To gain a semblance of control, the soldiers started to push the big steel door in front of me closed. I didn’t resist, but others tried to force the door back open, but to no avail. Within a few minutes, the big door swung open and we continued to spill into the Church.

Inside, hundreds of pilgrims roamed through the cavernous Church, in search of the last five Stations. Near the entrance was a long piece of stone, which was placed here just 200 years ago, at the spot where people believe that Jesus’ body was prepared for burial. A large group surrounded the stone. Some poured water on it, while others wiped it with a cloth. Others still knelt down and kissed it.

We walked to a large rotunda, where in the centre sits what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus. A large mob of people jostled with one another to gain entry to the tomb. John and I felt safe standing behind a makeshift barrier, but knew these kinds of situations could turn ugly at any moment. Security struggled to keep people orderly.

Wanting to leave this circus-like atmosphere, we vowed to return the next day when we hoped the feverish atmosphere would subside.

Good Friday in Jerusalem...a remarkable experience to be sure.