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Encounter thoughts on Thanksgiving

On Thanksgiving, I realize just how much I have to give thanks for. And as I continue to think about my trip to the West Bank, my mind has been filled with thoughts of the trip and the experience. The rockets that flew out of Gaza into Israel just days after I left Israel only exacerbated my processing and I have found myself dreaming about the trip and its impact on me. So on Thanksgiving, I find myself thinking about those people living in refugee camps in the West Bank.

The Aida Refugee Camp and refugee camps in general impacted me greatly. Refugee camps are designed to be a temporary space. Having never been to one before, my expectation was that it would have the feel and look of a temporary space and that the problem was that people were living in temporary spaces for 70+ years. Boy was I wrong.

The Aida camp looked like a part of Bethlehem. It was hard to tell what was the camp, and what was the city. The buildings were concrete and appeared permanent. In comparison to the village in the Gush we had just been to, this was a big improvement. There were schools and opportunities for a full life. While people were moving out of the camp, the vast majority were staying in order to keep their refugee status, international funding, and to make a political statement.

Before going, I always wondered why these camps still existed. What was their purpose? Having seen them first hand and having listened to one of the camp leaders and having a chance to ask him questions, I can only come up with one answer. The camps exist only to serve a political purpose. They only exist to teach hate. The people who live in the camps are pawns of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, the PLO, and Europe. They exist to teach hatred of Jews and to provide talking points for why Israel should not exist.

One thing that really stood out to me about the Aida camp was the hate that was being taught. We heard it from the head of the community center who worked with children. It was not about hope and building a life, it was about hatred of Israel, of Jews, and maintaining the refugee status. The cuts in aid were beginning to have an impact as it was forcing a change to their victim reality. It was painful to hear of the personal suffering due to the decision to use these people as political pawns. As I walked through the camp, I noticed the children. Adorable 5 year olds who were playing, smiling, and laughing. They would wave to us with joy. I found myself wondering if it was already too late for them. Had the hate being taught already been too much to overcome?

The more I think about these camps, the more I think they need to be eliminated. European nations who fund these camps and the United States have a moral and ethical obligation to eliminate the camps and find new homes for those who live in the camps. Israel has an opportunity to allow new Palestinian communities to be built where there can be sustainable economic and social opportunities for growth. It’s time for the residents of these camps to begin new lives and to find hope. It’s time for them to have an opportunity to create lives with meaning and not to be political pawns against Israel. It’s time to give them dignity and a chance to show they can build a state that will live next door to their neighbor, the Jewish State of Israel. As long as these camps continue to exist, continue to breed hate, and continue to be used as pawns against Israel, it’s hard to see an opportunity for peace where two nations live side by side. So on Thanksgiving, I hope that these camps can be eliminated, giving an opportunity for those who live in them to have things to be thankful for that don’t involve killing Israelis and eliminating the State of Israel. And I hope that the elimination of these camps will give Israelis something to be thankful for – a chance to have neighbors who are more interested in building lives for themselves and their children than hating Jews. It’s time for 5 year old children to grow up with happiness and joy, not hatred and bitterness.

I’m coming home …

One last post before I return to America. After an exhausting experience like this, there is nothing better than getting to unwind with friends. I took a taxi to my friends Margot and Tamar’s house for dinner, conversation, friendship, to play with their kids and meet their new baby. We talked about it being 13 years since Margot made Aliyah (I took her on her first trip to Israel!) and how my oldest turns 20 in less than 3 months. It was an incredibly refreshing way to walk away from the challenges of the conflict and the deep thought of the past 4 days and talk about kids, food, family, and the wonders of daily life. Of course, they are Israeli and asked questions about the trip and we discussed things but the intensity was different. It was back on my home ground. I wasn’t challenged by what they said, in fact it was mostly what I believed before the trip and/or what I still believe today.

And the beauty of the Jewish community showed through as I got a text from a friend whose son is in our JCC preschool telling me that after such a tough week, I deserved to see this picture (it’s of her son and 3 of his friends in their classroom). All the pictures are below. It was amazing feeding the new baby – it made me understand what being a grandfather will be like sometime WAY in the future

Despite the sadness and anger and hope and joy that this week has brought me, I am feeling grateful and relaxed. I will miss Israel and all her beauty but I know I will be back in the near future to experience all her wonders again.

Part 15: Trip summary

We gathered together for the final time as a group to begin the processing of the entire experience. I learned so much from the others on the trip as well as those we heard from and what I saw throughout the West Bank. One of the things I said in that final gathering was how I knew I needed more time to process and unpack the entire experience. There is much that I have been thinking about that I haven’t written. As I figure stuff out, I’ll write about it.

Four days ago, I met these 35 or so people for the first time (well I did know two of them before and had met one a few years ago). We were strangers in a strange land. After 4 days I feel like I have new friends. We joked how the trip started weeks ago.

Intensive immersive experience is a commonly used term. I’ve used it many times. This was by far the most intensive immersive experience I have ever had. My head is still spinning with all I have seen and experienced. The beliefs I held at the start of the trip, the beliefs that were challenged, the contradictions not only from speaker to speaker but also within the session of a speaker.

As I sit at Ben Gurion airport waiting for my 5:20 am flight (it sounded bad when I booked it and it’s even worse now in actuality), the only thing I am certain of is that this is a very complicated situation and there are no easy answers. Israel has an existential security threat they must address. The Palestinians are suffering and struggling. I’m not into blame and don’t want to go there. I do believe the current situation is untenable and something must change but what, how, who starts, how long it takes, I have no idea.

In the end, just as the Encounter staff told us at the beginning, it’s not my job to solve the conflict. That’s for the Israelis and the Palestinians. I’m not even a citizen so I don’t vote there and have no say in the government. I do believe it’s my job to facilitate conversations. To help people in both my local community as well as in my sphere of influence gain a better understanding of the complexities and challenges that exist. So, as we discussed what our ‘intentionality’ was after the trip, I said mine was to bring this to my community and sphere of influence to do just that.

Now I’m really looking forward to plane taking off so I can go to sleep. The flight home will give me time to rest and maybe begin the processing. Or I may just watch a movie to numb my mind.

Part 14: One who dared

Our final speaker of the day and of the trip came with some pre-advertising. One of our facilitators had met him before and heard him before and raved about him. They had become friends.

Osama began his talk by asking for a moment of silence for all the souls lost as a result of the violence.
After our moment of silence, he began by stating that there are two different narratives and both are true. In addition, neither side wants to accept the other’s. It was an interesting beginning as he was the first speaker we had who began by acknowledging Israel’s right to exist and historic ties to the land. He didn’t criticize Israel.

He told some of his family history. They left in 1967 for Jordan and couldn’t get back. His grandfather was passionate about Jerusalem and found a way to Jericho and then Jerusalem. The rest of the family stayed in Jordan.

His earliest memories were being taught ‘fear the black hat Jews’. In 1989 at age 12 he was harassed by soldiers for the first time and when he asked his mom she told him “We don’t call them solders. We call them “Yehud”. Yehud was meant as a racial slur. His hatred was stoked by his family and in 1990 when Saddam Hussain was bombing Tel Aviv, he and his friends would go to the roof of their building to celebrate. He thought that Tel Aviv was an army base, filled with soldiers, not where families lived. As he grew up, everything bad that happened was blamed on the “Yehud”.

His fear of the “Yehud” turned to hate when he was arrested for hanging a Palestinian Flag on a post and he was given a 6-month jail sentence. He ended up serving 9 months. HIs time in jail was where he learned all bad things about the Jews. He said jail is where they “learn the lies to breed hate of Jews.” At one point he was put in solitary confinement. Sitting in the dark, he had reached his lowest point of despair when he began hearing somebody singing a song. He couldn’t make out the words and didn’t know the tune but hearing that singing pulled him out of his darkest place.

Soon after he was released from jail, his best friend was killed by the army. Osama decided to join the Palestinian Police to fight and hurt the ‘Yehud’. He was given orders to protect the Alysha settlement where another of his friends was killed in the skirmish and he left. He left the Palestinian Police because he wanted to ‘do something big to get revenge.’

Doing something big meant he got very involved with the 2nd intifada. In his own words, during those 6 years he lost everything. He lost his “heart and soul and was filled with hate.” One day he needed a ride back to Jericho and asked a friend if he would take him. His friend said yes but he had to stop in Beit Jolla to talk to friends about peace and eat and then he could go home. When he walked into the room with his friend, he saw people with Yarmulkes on. He was confused and said to his friend, “they look like Jews.” His friend told him they are all Jews and they want to talk about peace. Osama couldn’t believe his friend and walked out of the room. While outside the room he began talking to one of the Jews who explained that they wanted peace and weren’t ok with Jews or Palestinians being killed. It was the first time that Osama thought there could be a good Jewish person. He thought perhaps there could be more than just the one. He gave her a hug and walked back into the meeting of Combatants for Peace with his friend, Ahmed, who we had met the day before!

Osama continued going to Combatants for Peace meetings and began to make some Jewish friends. In his own words, he ‘got to see the beauty of Judaism and that the army isn’t Judaism.’

He doesn’t reject his Palestinian narrative but understands there are other narratives and that all can be true. His work with Combatants for Peace, where former fighters from Palestine and Israel, has taught him that both people have a right to the land. He chooses not to look at States but at people. He does believe that the occupation needs to end.

He was asked the same question as his friend Ahmed about naming streets for terrorists. He was passionate that there should not be any streets, plazas or building named for terrorists. He pointed out that Israel has a few of these which I didn’t know. I’ll have to do further research on this to verify what he said and learn more, however there were others in the room who knew exactly what he was talking about.

When asked if there were Israeli citizens, he said yes. He went a step further and said that even soldiers shouldn’t be a target and that nobody deserves to die. He said he understands the soldier’s fear of Palestinians and that “I don’t think blood is justified. Killing people is not the answer.’

When asked about BDS, he said that BDS is done by the elite and wealthy who can have what they want. It’s not for him on the ground dealing with his life challenges. It doesn’t help him in what he wants to achieve. He said that boycotting products is an acceptable form of nonviolence but boycotting people is not ok. When I asked him about boycotting academics, artists and musicians, his reply was that ‘they are people’.

Osama finished his talk by telling us about the first Shabbat dinner he attended with his Jewish friends. They poured the Kiddush wine and gathered around the table where they sang Shalom Aleichem. He began to cry openly. This was the song that he heard in jail that touched him at his darkest time. He was proud to tell us that he now knows it by heart.

As we wrapped up with announcements, one of the staff told him he could go while they prayed Mincha (the afternoon service). He laughed and asked, “What? I can’t stay for Mincha?” He took a yarmulke out of his pocket, put it on and stayed for the service.

I was profoundly moved by Osama. He wasn’t afraid to admit that he was raised with hate and that he acted on that hate. He also wasn’t afraid to admit he was vulnerable and found a way to let go of that hate and find love. He joked with us that if he took a DNA test, he’d probably find out he was part Jewish. He keeps a yarmulke in his pocket in case he is asked to a Shabbat dinner or to join his Jewish friends for a meal.

Osama left me with hope. If somebody raised in uneducated hatred and had that validated around him for 2 decades can learn he was wrong and find a way beyond hate and into respect and dare I say love, then perhaps anybody can. Here is a picture of me with Osama – we exchanged contact information and I look forward to building a friendship with him.

Part 13: “The new Apartheid road’

Our second speaker was an advisor to the Negotiation Affairs Department. I was immediately concerned when in her opening remarks she dropped the following line, “We will be driving on the new apartheid road”. No explanation. Just dropping a word bomb on us and moving on.

So as she talked, I began to research the ‘Apartheid Road’. Route 4370 was built to connect Geva Binyamin to Route 1 (the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway). It was designed to serve Pisgat Ze’ev and French Hill and will also serve Arabs and those in the Shoafat Refugee camp.

So, what makes it ‘the apartheid road?’ It is because there are two roads, separated by a wall. One road is for Israeli cars and takes you into Jerusalem. The road for Palestinian cars takes you around Jerusalem since they can’t enter without a permit and can only use certain checkpoints. While visually it is terrible, there is a logic behind it. This is another one of those things that doesn’t feel quite right but I need more time to process it.

She talked about how the settlements are being built and creating transportation problems for Palestinians. The settlers are getting new roads and easier access while the Palestinian villages and towns are not. She also made the claim that the new roads, checkpoints and tunnels are being built with a strategic intention to hide Palestinian cities. There was a documentary made about this that highlights how Israelis know how where and how to get to the settlements in the area but no the Palestinian towns that are right next to the settlements. I didn’t agree with her on this point as it felt too much like a conspiracy theory.

Citing a very common theme throughout the trip, she talked about building permits in Area C. She said that since 1993, only 1% of home building permits by Palestinians have been approved. As a result, they build without permits and then face demolition when found out.

She also told us that her status is Jordanian Resident of East Jerusalem. She is not a citizen, which again is a common theme. As such, if she works/lives abroad for 5-7 years, she loses her status.

One of the more powerful things she said was that she believes settlers are complicit in a war crime. As a result, she refuses to talk to any settler. Other Jews/Israelis she holds accountable but will talk to them. That’s why she would address us as a group.

One of the participants asked her if the new Palestinian state she imagines would be ‘Jew free’. She looked like a deer in headlights at this question, understanding the power of saying it would be Jew free (Juden Frei as the Germans called it). She danced around the question without giving an answer before moving on. She wouldn’t say that Jews would be welcome to live in the new state of Palestine.

Listening to her had me struggling to see a future where Palestinian leadership and intellectually elite would respect Israel’s existence. While she wants to be a citizen of Palestine and live in East Jerusalem in the State of Palestine, she also wants to retire in Jaffa. This didn’t wash with me.

She was the scariest of all the speakers so far for me. She is smart, well spoken, and media savvy. Words have power and she uses hers very carefully with targeted effect. It was the ‘Annexation Wall’ and the “Apartheid Road’. It was also scary to listen to those in our group who appeared to buy into her propaganda.
The pictures below are of ‘The Apartheid Road’ (2 lanes each way, not a 4-lane divided highway) and a sign on one road we passed that takes you into a Palestinian area that has been determined to not be safe for Israelis/Jews.