The struggle to hope
Palestinians face violence from Israel and at home,
but continue to work for harmony, freedom.

Paul Jeffrey

Every year, Sara Fawadleh and her husband spend weeks harvesting olives from the gnarled, centuries-old trees that line the rocky terraces stretching out from their West Bank village of Aboud. Like small farmers everywhere, they feel intimately close to their land; it has belonged to their families for generations. Ms. Fawadleh’s father-in-law once advised them that their land was more important than their own children. “He told us we could lose a son or daughter and we’d survive, but if we lost our land, we would perish,” Ms. Fawadleh said, gently plucking olives from a tree about to be bulldozed by the Israeli military.

The ancient trees and the land they grow on are being taken from Ms. Fawadleh and her neighbors in order to build the Israeli separation barrier, a string of fences and walls that Israeli officials claim are motivated by security concerns, but which the Christian and Muslim residents of Aboud claim are designed to steal their land and water, and ultimately to drive all Palestinians away.

While the world’s newspapers talk of a peace process between Israel and Palestine, and international diplomats shuttle about talking, on the ground in places like Aboud the words mean little, drowned out by the bulldozers and trucks that grind their gears all day long, uprooting trees and moving hillsides, changing the very character of Palestine–what observers call “the facts on the ground”–in such a way that ongoing efforts at peace negotiations seem like empty gestures.

Aboud is a classically quaint village that sits on a ridge looking west into Israel and on to the Mediterranean. Its Christian heritage dates to Jesus himself; the Holy Family reportedly passed through Aboud on its way from Galilee to Jerusalem, and legend has it that Jesus preached here. The oldest church in Aboud dates to Constantine’s reign.

Over the centuries Muslims began moving into Aboud, but Christians remained the majority until recently. Economic hardship resulting from Israeli-imposed restrictions on movement motivated better-off Christians to leave. One extended Christian family of 437 people moved to nearby Jordan, and during the second Intifada 34 Christian families moved from Aboud to Ramallah in order to work in the larger Palestinian city without having to pass through the onerous and often arbitrary military checkpoints that form the backbone of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

The Christian exodus from the Holy Land has led many to wring their hands about whether Christianity can maintain a foothold in the land of its birth. Israel blames Muslims for the Christians’ departure. Christian and Muslim leaders blame the Israeli occupation, and many Christian leaders here warn that Christians should first put their own house in order–specifically, denounce Christian Zionism–before complaining about any mistreatment by Muslims.

When problems arise, as they did last September when several Palestinian churches were attacked in apparent response to Pope Benedict’s untoward comments about Islam, leaders of radical Islamist groups, including Hamas, were quick to condemn the violence, protect churches from further attacks, and in some cases lend a hand in rebuilding.

“I have to give great credit to the Muslim clerics who went to the Christian leaders and nipped it in the bud before it led to any further violence. Our religious leaders on both sides are very wise and aware of these dangers,” said Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas, a Palestinian activist for women’s rights.

“The attacks on the churches was unprecedented. The Christian community and the Muslim community have lived in harmony for centuries. We grew up together. Jerusalem was a symbol of our religious coexistence,” said Ms. Abu-Dayyeh, the director general of the Jerusalem Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling.

Yet the occupation of Iraq, combined with unflinching U.S. government support for the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, has led many Arabs to confuse Christian institutions with western governments, according to Ms. Abu-Dayyeh.

“Muslims today see that the West is very against the Muslim world. So it’s becoming a Christian-Muslim thing, like another crusade coming to the region, and that’s negatively affecting the Christian community. Even though the Christian community here is an ancient community, much older than the Christian community in the West, by being Christian they are associated with the western world. It’s guilt by association,” she said.

Ms. Abu-Dayyeh, who was named a Woman of the Year by Ms. Magazine in 2002 because of her work for peace between Palestinian and Israeli women, suggested that the Israeli government is encouraging Muslim-Christian tensions. Many Palestinians agree, speculating that Israel is seeking to sow religious discord just as it nurtured political tension by nurturing the birth of the fundamentalist Hamas movement as an alternative to Yasser Arafat’s secular Fatah.

The pope’s comments provoked no violence against Christians in Aboud. Indeed, the pope’s remarks went largely unnoticed. In the village’s Catholic school, where 94 of the 215 students are Christian, nothing happened. The only church to be attacked recently in Aboud was a shrine to Saint Barbara from the sixth century; Israeli soldiers blew it up in 2002.

According to Firas Aridah, the town’s Catholic priest, the outside world’s interreligious conflicts have never penetrated into this sleepy town of 2,200 people, where Christians make up almost half the population today. Muslims celebrate Christmas and Easter with their Christian neighbors, and Christians gather with Muslims to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Both go to the rebuilt Saint Barbara shrine to light candles.

“The village of Aboud is a positive model of peaceful coexistence,” Fr. Aridah told a U.S. Congress subcommittee hearing on religious persecution last June.

The priest says he was discouraged by the ignorance he found in the U.S. capital. “Many people there don’t understand anything about the situation here. Some Congressional representatives I talked with think the Palestinians are occupying Israel. Some were busy writing a letter condemning the Palestinian Authority for persecuting Christians, but they don’t know the real situation. Israeli propaganda claims that Christians are leaving the Holy Land because of Muslims. That’s simply not true. It’s because of the occupation. That’s the main problem in Palestine. It’s not the Muslims. It’s Israel. It’s the occupation,” the priest said.

“Muslims and Christians have lived together here for centuries, through the best and worst times. Why fight with each other when they have the same problems, the same checkpoints, the same occupation, the same siege? Why look for differences to fight over when they already suffer together?” Fr. Aridah asked.

“Israel is working to create problems between us, problems that will help get rid of the Christians. If all the Christians move away, then Israel can do whatever it wants with the Muslims who remain, and there won’t be much of a protest,” he said.

“How are we supposed to live?”

The priest said he went to Washington to testify before Congress because it’s ultimately the U.S. government that calls the shots in the Palestinian territories.

“Israel will do whatever Washington says. The U.S. government has the power to do anything it wants here. It can stop the construction of the wall if it wants,” he said.

Fr. Aridah’s testimony had no apparent effect, and in coming weeks Sara Fawadleh and her husband will lose some 500 olive trees, 200 grape plants, 100 fig and 200 almond trees, all either destroyed by the wall’s construction or separated from the village on the west side of the fence. Other Aboud farmers, many of them also Christians, will similarly lose land and trees.

It’s not the first time. When the nearby Jewish settlements of Bet Aryeh and Ofarim were constructed in the early eighties, it was on land confiscated from Aboud. Ms. Fawadleh’s husband, Abdalah Sharqawi, said they lost land then as well, an experience that leads him not to believe Israeli promises now that they’ll be able to access their land on the other side of the wall.

“When they took our land to build the settlements, they built a gate and told us we could use it. But after a year, they refused to open it any more,” he said. Once a Palestinian farmer quits caring for their fields, even if they’re physically prevented from getting there, Israeli authorities usually claim they’ve abandoned the land and confiscate it. Bit by bit, Ms. Fawadleh and Mr. Sharqawi have had taken from them what Mr. Sharqawi’s father warned them not to lose.

“They’re not taking the land for security reasons, but simply because they want to steal our land and our water, and enlarge the settlements. And once they’ve taken our land away, how are we supposed to live?” Mr. Sharqawi asked.

When finished, Israel’s separation barrier, at times an 8-meter high wall, at other times a series of ditches, roads, razor wire, electronic sensors and buffer zones, will wind in and out of the West bank for more than 700 kilometers, more than twice the length of the 1949 armistice line–the Green Line. While at places the wall adheres to the Green Line, most is being built well inside the West Bank, carving out 10 percent of the West Bank. If Jewish settlements and other Israeli infrastructure are included, Palestinians are losing about 46 percent of the West Bank to the Jewish state, leaving a series of disconnected and unviable enclaves for any future Palestinian state.

Some claim that’s the point. A two-state solution to the middle east conflict is only possible if each state possesses the territorial integrity and security necessary to function. By dividing the West Bank into a series of disjointed bantustans, a sort of gerrymandering on steroids, the future state will become at best a “Union of Palestinian Ghettoes,” according to Jad Issac, director general of the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem.

And Israel’s matrix of control over the occupied West Bank is only growing worse. The number of Jews living in settlements, which are illegal under international law, has more than doubled since Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization recognized Israel–thus endorsing the two-state solution–in 1988. The wall, the military checkpoints, and exclusive roads for Israeli citizens–paid for largely with U.S. government assistance–crisscross the West Bank and allow settlers easy travel, but dissect the territory and prevent Palestinians any freedom of movement.

According to Abdul Rahman Tamimi, director of the Palestinian Hydrology Group, much of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict–and the conflict of Israel with other neighbors such as Syria–boils down to a resource war. Just as the three religions of the area share the same patriarchs and matriarchs, so do Jews, Muslims and Christians share the same hydrological basin. And it’s all under control of the Israeli military.

“The only reason for the wall is water,” said Mr. Rahman, pointing on a map to the seam between the Green Line and the Israeli separation barrier where he said 52 wells are located, producing about 6 million cubic meters of water a year, almost a third of Israel’s consumption. “Their wells are in our pocket,” he said, claiming Palestinian families are paying the price for Israel’s mismanagement of water. (The withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005 was largely motivated by the increasing salinization of ground water there, which made Israeli agriculture too expensive, more than by any commitment to any eventual peace deal.)

Mr. Isaac says any two-state solution that fails to address the critical issue of water will just end up producing “a dry peace.”

And that obviously won’t work. Such an economically crippled creation, with its otherwise enterprising people dependent on the international community for handouts, will inevitably be a bubbling cauldron of discontent where frustrated citizens will resort to violence, which in turn provides a convenient excuse for continued military control by Israeli forces.

“Put our people under this pressure, and more and more of them move toward fundamentalism, toward supporting extremist groups,” said Ms. Abu-Dayyeh. “When people are hopeless, that’s what they lean towards. You see that all over the world. Fundamentalism thrives in desperate situations.”

Frustrated men at home

The tight Israeli control over movement, of which the wall is but one symbol, has particularly impacted the life of girls and women. “Women are sexually harassed at checkpoints and on the roads. As a result, many families took their girls out of school. The Palestinian Authority responded by opening more girls schools in the villages. They’ve really invested in the education of girls in the countryside. But college students continue to be sexually harassed,” said Ms. Abu-Dayyeh.

By several accounts, violence against women is rising in Palestinian homes, and Ms. Abu-Dayyeh blames the Israeli occupation for much of it.

“Women have a constant fear for the security of their husbands and children, and the security of their homes. Women are often taken hostage by Israeli soldiers in order to produce their husbands when they’re wanted. And there’s the increased poverty that results from the restrictions on movement, so that the men can’t get to their work. That forces women to seek work in places where they are exploited economically and sexually. And having their frustrated men staying at home isn’t the most pleasant experience. The home is the woman’s realm, and for them to have the house all day to themselves is a great relief. To have that space invaded and encroached upon by their menfolk is violent for them. It’s taking their space away and they don’t like it. The increased tension within the household often results in violence,” she said.

The rise of Hamas, the Islamist group that won elections for the Palestinian legislature last year, has both helped and hindered the task of stopping domestic violence, according to Ms. Abu-Dayyeh. “Their Islamic agenda has the family is at its core, and they’re very hard on violence within the family and will do anything to stop it. The traditional leaders are our best allies at intervening on behalf of women where there is obvious violence. They’ll take women into their homes for protection. At that level we know that they have the right policies. Yet they’re a political party that perpetuates patriarchy, and it’s that patriarchy and discriminaiton that is the root cause of violence,” she said.
Israeli women are experiencing a similar rise in domestic violence, reports Ms. Abu-Dayyeh. “In any militarized society, women always experience increased violence. Both for the victims and the victimizers, violence becomes the language for dealing with conflict. They use it on the victim, but they also use it on their own when they get back home,” she said.

“To get in the way of violence”

Abigail Ozanne is working to stop that violence. A 23-year old United Methodist from St. Paul, Minnesota, Ms. Ozanne is a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams. She is based in Hebron, the West Bank city where a few hundred Israeli settlers–backed by even more Israeli soldiers–have chased Palestinian families out of the old city that surrounds the tomb of Abraham and Sarah. Ms. Ozanne and other CPT members remain living in the old city, surrounded by boarded up shops–roughly 90 percent of the residents have been forced to leave–and a handful of remaining neighbors more than weary of the constant harassment and violence.

“We’re here to get in the way of violence. If there are internationalists watching, then sometimes violence is less likely. So we just watch, take pictures, take notes, write reports, and as much as we can we try to get in the way of violence. If there’s a home invasion, we try to stop it, we try to get the soldiers to think about what they’re doing. If there are soldiers who are harassing Palestinians, we also try to get in the way of that. Sometimes we get in between them if they’re trying to hit people. Sometimes the violence is from the settlers, and we spend a lot of time escorting children to and from school, trying to keep them safe from the settlers,” she said.

Ms. Ozanne has been stoned, spit on, arrested, tear-gassed, and hit by a rifle-launched Israeli grenade, but she and her colleagues persist in their nonviolent activism. “Things are so much worse than they used to be here. There’s not shooting in the streets every day, but it’s the slow strangulation that is so terrible,” she said. “The economic conditions are horrible. Almost all the shops are closed. The remaining shopkeepers don’t get much business. Tourism has pretty much stopped because people consider it dangerous to come here. And you never know when a soldier is going to knock on your door and demand to come in your house, take away your sons, ransack your home.”

Ms. Ozanne said it’s “the little humiliations” enforced by the occupation that make it particularly onerous. “One of the biggest symbols for me are the young men walking with their belts around their necks as they leave checkpoints. Sometimes they don’t even bother to put it back on right away. They have to show their identification cards, they have to take off their belts, they have to be patted down and searched. And then a few feet later they go through it all again. You see these young men standing there for hours. They’re often made to wait forever, every day.”

Part of Ms. Ozanne’s job is to report back to churches and other groups in the U.S. about what she witnesses. That’s not always easy. “It’s hard for middle class Americans to believe the kinds of injustices that are happening here, when they constantly hear other things from the media,” she said, “And it’s hard for me to see how much U.S. foreign policy is entwined with what happens here daily. And although a lot of the time people are very angry at the U.S., they don’t try to take it out on us. They know we’re doing our best to help them, and they’re very capable of distinguishing between citizens of a country and their government’s policies.”

Perhaps not everywhere. Ghaida Rahil, a Catholic Relief Services educator in the West Bank who works to establish links between Palestinian youth and young people in the United States, asked a group of children in Bethlehem to draw pictures of what they knew about people in the United States. “They drew pictures of U.S. airplanes killing Palestinians. The drew pictures of American money coming to Israel to kill Palestinians. Yet I told them that there are a lot of people in the United States who like the Palestinians and want to help us, and that not all Americans agree with their government’s policies,” she said.

Oprah in Gaza

In the densely populated Gaza strip, fighting between the two main Palestinian political movements–Fatah and Hamas–has made life extremely difficult, and many residents are afraid to venture out of their cramped homes. When there’s electricity, their favorite diversions are watching U.S. television shows, including Oprah, Dr. Phil, and American Idol. Many Palestinians appreciate U.S. popular culture, though fail to understand U.S. policies that unquestionably back Israel.

Haifa Mohamad El Rekhawi, an 18-year old Gaza resident, spends hours each week on the internet trying to help friends she has made in the United States to understand the middle east. She gets frustrated. “They think that the Israeli people are the victims, and we are the killers and terrorists. That makes me so upset. They don’t know the truth. They just watch TV, but Israel controls the media and is manipulating the truth, lying to people outside, so when they get the news they get it wrong,” she says.

Ms. Mohamad attends university, but some days has trouble getting to class because of violence in the streets. “Fatah and Hamas spend all their energy fighting each other, forgetting that the main reason for the resistance is to get Jerusalem back, to get Palestine back, to get back our rights. Instead they fight each other over money, and Israel gives them the space and sits back, happy to watch them kill each other,” she said.

“I’m scared to go outside, even to cross the street. You don’t see many tanks or bulldozers today, but you see Palestinians killing each other. This place has become like hell,” she said.

Despite a temptation to despair, Ms. Mohamad studies business administration and makes plans for the future. “I want to establish my own company in the future, if Allah wishes,” she said. “I want to improve our economy. It will be hard, but I’ll do my best, because this is my country, and I am big dreamer. I dream all the time.”