Monday, November 14, 2011

What are you saying?

This weekend was awesome!

There's an American organization called the Center for Emerging Futures that holds bi-annual meetings between Israelis and Palestinians called GVS, Global Village Square. My friend Sammy told me about it, and after confirming that the registration was sliding scale, I decided to head to Beit Jala. This could be a great opportunity to network and get some new ideas...

I left Al Aqaba at 6:30...

The trip consisted of:
Service from Al Aqaba to Tubas
Waiting for the Ramallah Service to fill up on (on Friday morning)(no dice)
Service to Nablus
Service to Ramallah
Service to Bethlehem
Taxi to Beit Jala

I arrived at the Everest Hotel at 10:30, and it looked abandoned. Whattt the heck. Then I found the registration desk, and after trying to explain to the manager that I was a volunteer he just tsked and said, "no problem, you are here helping Palestine, we can make the arrangements later, here is the meeting room..."
I got there just as everyone was starting their introductions in a large circle. There were about an equal number of Palestinians and Israelis, and maybe 10 Americans/1 Brit, about 70 people in total. Many were first-timers and expressed their hesitation at coming to the West Bank, or talking to the other side...this guy from Cornwall had been working in Palestine for seven years and started his intro with "I'm from Cornwall and we've been occupied for thousands of years...." which prompted some laughter.

I teared up when the woman next to me introduced herself and said, "I came to overcome a tragedy in my life, the tragedy is that my father was murdered by an Israeli settler and I came....not to forget, but to make the feeling.....lighter."


Our first activity was to find someone new and talk about what inspired us to start taking action. I was with an Israeli girl named Ilil, who turns out is also 24. She talked about taking a trip to South America after her army service, and how she's hoping to find a job, I think in graphic design. I didn't know how to incorporate that into our theme, but we talked about music and movies and that was fun and meaningful in itself. I had a lot of moments to choose from, but I told her about the time I was having a house party in New Orleans, and I was talking to my friend Nick in my kitchen whilst pumping the keg, and something in the conversation led me to say, "you know, I just want to go to the West Bank. Makes some contacts, and around." I surprised myself. Nick responded, "...that's ambitious." And that's when I decided to come here.

We joined another group afterward, an Israeli names Boav and a Palestinian named Alla. They both spoke Hebrew, but I had to translate our English conversations into Arabic for Alla, which was choppy but I realized I have a bigger arsenal than I thought. Ilil doesn't speak a word of Arabic, but she told me I sounded good, and that was a high point in my day.

We all ate lunches and dinners together, and I was always sitting between an Arabic conversation and a Hebrew conversation. At one point a guy joked, "what, you come to our country and you don't learn Hebrew?" and I said something like, "what country are we in? I thought we were in Beit Jala..." and I realized how easy it was, since the hotel was next to the wall and annexed East Jerusalem, and we were pointed there by Hebrew signs, for them to believe this was Israel. I also realized that we were holding back. Many of the groups had had much deeper conversations than my group had had, but there was a still a hesitancy at the dinner table, an instinct telling you to keep it light, keep it friendly.
Before dinner we were entertained and "treated" by a playback improv troupe from Israel. I say treated because the purpose of the performance was to take our personal stories and blend them together and "play them back" to us. One guy from a village near Hebron was called on to tell his story about seeing the sea for the first time. He'd been on a trip to Tel Aviv that was put together at the last GVS meeting. It was the first time he'd ever felt a sea breeze, and the word breeze had a special connection with the word breathe, so it was the first time he'd felt the sea breathe. It was a beautiful and sad story. Everyone laughed together when the boy confessed they'd all jumped into the water with all their clothes on.

The troupe was talented, and adorable. There were three men and two woman, one a petite and very pretty woman with a black ponytail. They were being wacky and hilarious and intense and serious and therapeutic and I knew they were here in the same spirit as everyone else. I wish I'd gotten footage, really. But there was a feeling I got from the performance that makes me feel guilty, but I knew it would probably never go away. It was the same feeling I got when two girls in hijabs recounted their experience going to West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and marveling at how everyone was outside and laughing and smiling, and it was "really cool," and they felt that there was life there, but it was like they were in a movie. I felt the same way listening to them talking about their trip as I did when I looked at the boy from Hebron cracking up as the actors pretended they were fish swimming around his character. How could I look at something beautiful, or see a smiling face, or a new relationship, and have this sinking feeling inside?

After dinner there was a concert put on by a group from Jaffa, but I didn't end up going in. I was hailed by a guy outside the entrance to the meeting room, "hey are you in Haj Sami's Al Aqaba?" I was surprised that someone knew about it. This guy, Sulaimon, had worked on a sports project in Al Aqaba and knew Haj Sami and Sadiq, and he gave me his business card. We were talking to a girl from the Czech Republic, who was studying at Hebrew University ("but I'm not much of a Zionist....") and living in an Orthodox Jewish community. I told them about Al Aqaba and what my plans were. Insh'allah, someday, I'll be able to go straight from Jordan to Palestine, without the Israeli border. Such a pain in the ass. From there our conversation morphed, and grew, and attracted more people, until there were a dozen or so, Israelis and Palestinians standing in a circle while Suleimon and Yovav negotiated their own peace deal. It was more like Yovav asking Suleimon questions, then telling him "how it was." I was really impressed with Suleimon's ability to carry on this conversation for an hour, but he managed to be informative, unabrasive, and crack jokes to ease the tension at the same time. All the while, I found myself interjecting with my own questions that Yovav had no interest in acknowledging. Then I realized how important it was for Yovav to keep going with Sulaimon, even though I had a feeling that Sulaimon was just speaking on the surface and there was a depth that wasn't going to get reached in this debate.

This was the gist of Yovav's argument:
The two state solution is the only way. Israel is the Jewish state with an Arab minority, and Palestine is an Arab state with a Jewish majority (he didn't seem to care for the settlers, they could stay in Palestine, or leave). We can end the occupation and support a Palestinian state, but the Israeli people need reassurance from the Palestinian leadership that the end goal is not to get 100%, and make all of historic Palestine an Arab state. You can have your state, I'll have mine, I just need to know that when we're finished negotiating, it's finished. No more demands, no more right of return. This is why the occupation is still going on, because Netanyahu doesn't trust that if he gives back the land, that the Arabs will be satisfied, that they won't want all of it back. We need to hear Abbas say that it's not just their methods that have changed, but the mentality as well.

(Why should the Palestinian leadership be responsible for giving Israelis reassurance? The Israeli leadership has been colonizing the West Bank since 1967...where's reassurance for the Palestinians?)

We want to give back the land, but if the violence keeps going, that would be a reason to bring the borders further in, and shrink the state, wouldn't it?

What violence?
There is violence.
No, no.
Yes, there is.
It's still in Itamar....

I kinda lost it...
"Itamar?! That's a settlement. An illegal settlement. Do you know how much violence they've inflicted on neighboring villages? The Fogels weren't civilians! They were part of an occupying force! I wouldn't never excuse the violence against them, never, but..."

And I stopped. My voice felt out of place. What I didn't say but wanted to say, was that using the death of the Fogels to sound the alarm for Israel and Jews everywhere was inciting, counterproductive, and offensive to Jews who are actually working for peace, unlike the Fogels. But I backed off, and the conversation continued.

Yovav pointed out an instance where he and a group went to Gaza, and somewhere in the process two Gazans learned that Jews had a connection to Jerusalem, and they were like, huh, I had no idea. And Yovav took that to mean that Arab ignorance about the Jewish connection to the land was one of the major barriers to peace. And yet, he was denying, along with the right of return, the idea that this denial was a cause of suffering, that refugees felt anything akin to how he felt about Jerusalem, which he was free to visit at any time.

It was unbearably patronizing. At one point I was prompted to say, "well, a lot of people didn't think it was right for Israel to expel three quarters of a million people and not let them come back!"
"Yes, there was a war!"
"Who cares, if there was a war or not, they should be allowed to return!"
Another Israeli, who had countered Yovav on a few points, chimed in about the Balkans, and Greece, and refugees that had been given compensation but not the right of return, and I responded, "so the States ethnically cleansed the Native Americans, does one wrong justify another?"
It went on a little bit longer, and at one point the other Israeli asked me,
"What are you saying?"
I laughed, and told him that I'd asked myself that a thousands times before.

What am I saying? I don't recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish State?

I'm saying if you're arguing about how many refugees are allowed to come back, you're saying that you're giving a certain number of people the right to return to their homes, up to the point when it interferes with the Jewishness of the state. You're drawing a line through someone else's rights, because you believe that preserving an ethnic majority, which was forced upon a region that was ethnically and religiously diverse for thousands of the key to Jewish security.

I went and got a drink of water. This isn't peace. That deal they're trying to make out there, that isn't peace. The secure Jewish State is a fantasy, I thought in my head. Could I say that outloud? What were the Palestinians standing quietly in the circle thinking? What was Sulaimon really thinking? Was it too important that we preserve the atmosphere?

What am I saying? I'm saying this is what I think, but it doesn't matter what I think. There won't be peace if the conversation continues this way, and if there's no peace, then 100 times more Palestinian will continue to die, and their deaths will be reported x number of Israeli cases of stress.

It's all good to come to a place and say, "I'm tired of the violence, I just want peace," but the conversation will go nowhere if you don't recognize how imbalanced the power structure is.

So I wanted to be confrontational, but then you have Sulaimon, who served ten years in prison for attacking a soldier with a knife when he was 14, and traveled with Combatants for Peace and obviously had this conversation a thousand times...and he wasn't reacting emotionally, just calmly explaining his side, like a friend, "no, no, habibi, when you get kicked out of your home, it's very difficult, yanni..." and giving criticism where it's due..."Abbas, we don't find him charming, or charismatic, but he says what he thinks, and he doesn't play games...Arafat, he played games with people, everyone knows that..."

The whole experience left me wondering where my place was, and if I could have any voice in this conversation.

I formally introduced myself to Yovav and his friend, and we talked about the second trip they were planning for Israelis and Palestinians-this time in the West Bank. Yovav was wary about letting this one girl into the last trip, because she was "such an activist" and he didn't want the atmosphere to get political-"like you, when we were talking, and I kept thinking, "this international is always chiming in, when I just want to hear from the Palestinian, and she's asking questions that we're not even talking about..."

I could've asked him what he considered the role of internationals to be in this conversation, but at that point I just wanted to end on a good note. Me and Sulaimon and two Israelis ended up walking down to a restaurant called Barbara, which was open til midnight and looked out over Bethlehem. We drank local (Taybeh Golden Ale) and talked about traveling in South America and the ridiculousness of theft in la Boca and Rio, and the image of Israeli travelers abroad. One of the guys met a group of Israelis in Chile, and they were saying, "and this is so-and-so, she's a pilot, and he's our intelligence officer, and that's is our commander there..." and he joked that he found it scary that in any given country, there must be a full Israeli battalion, ready to assemble...

We headed back and passed out in our hotel rooms. Breakfast was at 7:30.

The next day I realized the real purpose of the conference. There were four projects that had been funded and supported after the last meeting (marketing crafts from the refugee camps, a cookbook for peace...)and they reported on their progress, but the floor was also open for new projects. Anyone who had a project could sign up as a project host, and present their ideas at revolving tables. Whoever was interested in participating could sign up with them, and the coordinators of the GVS meeting would pledge their support, whether financial or logistical.

I presented my project for Al Aqaba, and sat at an outside table for an hour, explaining it to people who came in waves. It was a first for me, and it was humbling, getting all of this great advice from the older folks, both Israeli and Palestinian (and British)(and American), but I felt like I had a solid idea. After I'd drawn a plan on my big sheet of paper and we'd discussed it for a while, one of the men put his hand on mine and said something like, "know that we're here and we're supporting you because of your clarity on this project..." and it was the nicest thing he could've said. When everyone got together again, I got to present my big paper, and people clapped when I was finished, and the organizer said, "send us a summary, and we'll be sure to support you as best we can." I passed my notebook around and got 50 e-mail addresses.

We all said goodbye and started trickling out. Sulaimon and I walked most of the way to Bethlehem to get a Service taxi, and on the way he told me about the sports project he did in Al Aqaba, and offered to connect me with the same people. Most of the time I was confused (wait, what do you do?) but I felt like it was going to become clearer with time. Accepting someone's help here means you're in it for the long haul, and I could tell that Sulaimon was going to be a great ally.

I'm trying to imagine being 24 and just getting out of a 10-year prison sentence. Think about that for a minute.

Ten years ago I was in 9th grade, carpooling to swim practice and listening to Ashanti.

I'm back in Al Aqaba now, thinking about the possibility of being able to stay here a little longer. I'm going to write my project summary tomorrow. :)