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Prisoners and the wounded, crossing borders

By Steven Martin - Posted on 29 June 2012

This week I had the opportunity for a rare insight into the problems of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A group I'm leading in the Holy Land was hosted for an overnight stay in the village of Beit Ummar in the West Bank.

Fourteen of us slept in homes that had received demolition orders by the Israeli government, meaning that sometime in the near future they are likely to receive a knock at the door and be met by soldiers giving them minutes to pack their belongings, leave, and then watch as bulldozers level their home. Their crime? Their homes rest on land designated by the Oslo Accords as "H3," belonging to the Palestinians, yet under Israeli control. The Israeli settlement nearby wants their Muslim neighbors to leave, and because Israel honors only parts of the Oslo agreement, but not all, 36 demolition orders were issued for the homes on this piece of land.

Most surprising in this desperate scenario is that Jamal Moqbel, the man who hosted us in his home, is part of a group consisting of both Palestinians and Israelis, all direct victims of violence, who meet regularly to find peace with each other and healing for the past. Recently Jamal wrote this blog post, which I would like to share with you. It is powerful and revealing. It tells of the high price many in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, are willing to pay for peace.

About four years ago, a friend of mine told me about a meeting between Israelis and Palestinians near the Dead Sea. I really did not want to get involved at all, but my friend said to me, "Just come with me and you do not have to talk or participate."

I consulted my wife. She also rejected the idea out of hand. "How can you meet with the Israelis and still be the nationalist you are?" she said. "This is not right for you!" But I convinced her I was going only out of curiosity.

The meeting was held in March 2008. It was brief, and a chance to share personal stories between the participants. I remember that my 11-year-old son Yazen asked me, "Baba, were you with the Jews that imprisoned you long ago? Are these the same Jews that shot you in the head?" I told him, "Yes."

He then asked, "Aren't you afraid to sit with them? Were they carrying weapons?" First, I should explain that we have often welcomed internationals into our home and it makes no difference to us what religion they are. But he meant something else. He was asking if these were our occupiers. Frankly, it was difficult and moving for me to answer my son. I tried to answer diplomatically, but he was not convinced.

After that I decided to attend another event, a two-week dialogue in Bosnia. In my heart I could not shake the feeling that I was dealing with the enemy of the Palestinian people. The whole time I felt remorse. It was an incredible experience for me--like venturing into a jungle when I did not know the path and its destination. When I returned from Bosnia and talked about the activity, I was surprised to find how extensively the very act of meeting with Israelis met with objections. I found that I was being "boycotted" and, as a result, I lost many social relationships and clients. Just last week, there was another slap in the face when I lost the chance to be considered as a representative of the Beit Umar municipal council. My nomination was rejected because of my relationship with Israelis.

I have tried many times to convince those around me of the usefulness of dialogue with the enemy and the importance of listening to the other. I also decided that I would open the door of my home to Israelis and Palestinians, members of the group, and invite them here. I wanted them to see how we live and how my children and wife feel, living here next to an Israeli settlement and experiencing the clashes that go on here.

We discussed many topics of interest to both sides. For example, I visited the city of Sderot in the south, which sometimes comes under rocket fire from Gaza. I visited the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Frankly, I did so, not so much out of sympathy, but to really understand the issues and what is going on, because, at the same time, I was having difficulty convincing the Israelis in the group the truth about what Israel's occupation soldiers and the settlers are doing in the West Bank.

In the group, we were constantly at odds. It took us three years of meetings just to agree on a general memorandum of understanding. I was engaged and optimistic and I was ready to lose more than I already had in order to plant successful ideas and expand the group and then pass our ideas on to every home through the media and by visiting schools and other places. I also was encouraged that we managed to create a film about our group and its meetings. Still, after all this effort and exhaustion, we have not been able to agree with each other on very basic ideas. I feel that, unfortunately, the Israelis in the group do not see the reality that exists before their very eyes and are not coming to the table with their hearts open.

In the meantime, I am told constantly that these meetings promote normalization. I have been asked by many people, "What have you done for peace? Have you stopped the construction of settlements? Are you knocking down checkpoints? Has the group expanded? Are governments listening to you and supporting you?" And, more than once, I have been asked, "Does the Israeli side recognize an independent Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem?" I can only say, "No."

Over time, I have come to feel that the Israeli peace activists in the group are engaged in meetings and want to learn to know Palestinians and are willing to attend conferences and travel together and play and have fun and be entertained, to smile and embrace. But when it comes down to our political relationship and discussions of the core issues at hand-- refugees, borders, etc.--I sense that they conceal themselves. They flee from the hard issues. (Some members of the group still haven't accepted that there is an occupation in the West Bank.)

Ultimately, how can we succeed as long as the formal negotiations have been stalled--after the Madrid conference and Oslo accords and the yet-incessant deterioration of our lives? Anyone who sees the wall and the settlements and the checkpoints and military crossing points would say it is impossible that a solution satisfactory to Palestinians is in the offing.

-Published 14/5/2012 ©

The more times one visits this region, the fewer answers one seems to find. But we always find courageous people who are determined to live and thrive in a land that is dear to them. May God inspire and strengthen the hearts of those willing to persevere for peace, justice, and reconciliation.

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