Heart of Palestine

2010/05/25, Day 01
2010/05/26, Day 02
2010/05/27, Day 03
2010/05/28, Day 04
2010/05/29, Day 05
2010/05/30, Day 06
2010/05/31, Day 07
2010/06/01, Day 08
2010/06/02, Day 09
2010/06/03, Day 10
2010/06/04, Day 11

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27 May 2010, Thursday

7:10 P.M.

Breakfast at a table with M.P., D.G., and D.F.

8:30 P.M.

We reached the Al Aqsa Mosque, but not before passing through a metal detector and submitting bags for inspection through an X-Ray machine.

Al Aqsa Mosque

Al Aqsa Mosque was built at about 691 A.D. Unlike in Christianity, in which there is the tradition of memorializing disciples or martyrs, Aqsa is not the name of a prophet attached to the mosque; instead, it is the name of the surrounding vicinity. It used to be filled with garbage, according to our guide, but I wondered if he meant debris. In any case, history has it that Al Aqsa Mosque was built on this site after it had been cleared of its garbage. I hadn’t taken detailed notes ’cos I had difficulty keeping up with our guide’s pace, so I had to settle for listening to the history lesson. Some sort of political competition with Mecca for prestige was also in the history of Al Aqsa.

The wall

1:30 P.M.

We got to see another stretch of the security wall on our way to meet Combatants for Peace in the West Bank. Movement restrictions placed on Palestinians traveling to Israel meant that it was easier for the organization’s Israelis and Palestinians to meet in the West Bank. Rami, an Israeli Jew, and Bassam, a Palestinian Arab living in the West Bank, are both ex-combatants that seek a just peace for the Israelis and Palestinians. Rami lost his daughter to a suicide bomber on the bus she was riding. When a Palestinian neighbor came to his house to pay condolences during the week of Shiva, Rami was very angry — he channeled his deep sorrow for the loss of his daughter into fury that lashed out at all Palestinians. Yet, this encounter would provide the impetus for Rami to push past the bubble that insulated him for 60+ years from meaningful contact with Palestinians. He came to understand that Palestinians have suffered so much that they would turn to blowing themselves up.

Bassam was jailed in Israeli prison for tossing a grenade left over from 68 that failed to detonate. During his sentence in prison, a prison guard displayed unusual candor by identifying himself as a settler to Bassam, and he would return each day to talk with Bassam, forming the most unlikely relationship.

3:00 P.M.

We returned to St. George’s College to meet Yakir Englander, director of Kids 4 Peace. As I could best recall, Yakir confessed that he was a new contact for our delegation, so he asked for self-introduction and 1 question from each individual, then answered each one with surprising honesty. Out of consideration for a smoother narrative, I have decided to move his answers to the end of his biography.

Yakir was a Yeshiva student, a disciple of the Jewish laws and texts. Those who studied at the Yeshiva were exempt from military conscription, and generally did not concern themselves with the affairs that affected other Israeli citizens. Yakir would not be concerned either if he did not find himself emotionally affected by a news broadcast of 2 IDF helicopters crashing into each other during the first Lebanon war, which killed all soldiers on board, and he explained it by saying that Israel is a small country: if you didn’t know any of the soldiers that perished in the crash, you knew somebody who knew the soldiers indirectly. When Yakir broached the news to a fellow Yeshiva student, “did you hear about what happened,” the reply was “eh,” a verbal shrug. He quit his studies when it became increasingly obvious that he wasn’t comfortable with this career path.

Those who elect not to study Yeshiva must then follow everyone else into military conscription. At the point that Yakir interrupted his studies, he was already significantly older than the normal age for military conscription, so he requested to be placed with the female brigades instead of with the males. While cited by the IDF for distinguished service in the female brigades, he suggested that his awkward disposition, the outcome of years of gender-segregated Yeshiva studies, triggered nurturing maternal instincts in his female comrades and thereby contributing significantly to his personal growth. (His comrades would confirm this when asked.)

Yakir Englander, the director of Kids 4 Peace

It’s unusual for a military to ask its soldiers for volunteers because there is a strict tradition of chain of command, and few would disobey a direct order from a superior. Yet, around the time of the 2nd Palestinian intifada, the IDF asked Yakir to volunteer for an undisclosed mission. (It was unclear whether the call for volunteers was extended to all branches of the military.) He would receive his first call to fulfill his undisclosed mission in the aftermath of a bus suicide bombing: retrieve every body part that was scattered by the explosion so that the complete vessel may receive proper burial. (“The religious Orthodox Jews,” explained my colleague, “that volunteer to collect the scattered body parts, considered a Mitzvah, are called Chevra Kadisha. Those in the order of Chevra Kadisha must volunteer willingly, and must be of religious Orthodoxy.”) Yakir identified this as a turning point in his education, because in his mission to return Jewish and Palestinian remains for burial, he came into his first encounter with Palestinians and realized that both peoples are the same, especially in their suffering.

Yakir started Kids 4 Peace to bridge understanding. He would accept 4 kids from each religion — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — then fly them to the United States, where they would build rapport and participate in leadership activities. Yakir maintained that the program is not political in its aim; however, by removing the prism through which Jews and Palestinians see the other side, he believed that truth has the capacity to engender change. And to illustrate his point, he shared a poignant story about a Palestinian girl that was subjected to complete scan of her effects — down to her underwears — and the Israeli Jewish girl who stayed with her throughout the whole ordeal. The female IDF border control agent watching this scene started crying, said Yakir. “Why are you crying? You do this security check all the time,” he pressed her repeatedly. “I’m crying because these 10-something girls know better than I do,” replied the agent. “That’s exactly it,” and Yakir gained an ally to volunteer in his “holy work,” as he had put it in language that was likely a carry over from his Yeshiva background. (It is my opinion, after reading about Israel’s intolerant policy toward NGO’s it considered to undermine the state of Israel, that Yakir and other Israeli activists have become increasingly apprehensive towards triggering the alarm that may bring about a repressive clampdown on their work.)

Since there were 28 delegates on our trip, I had lost track of the 28 questions, but Yakir’s answers that I considered most significant were as follows:

“Israel is a Jewish State.” By definition, Israel is not a democracy. It has one policy for Jews and another ad hoc policy for non-Jews, has no constitution to safeguard basic rights, and that has created entrenched discrimination.

“Israel is a country borne out of a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Each Israeli was born into this world with [figurative] numbers etched on their forearms. This reinforced the sentiment “Israel is under siege from all sides in perpetuity” that Maya told us about.

“Criticizing Israel is not anti-semitic.”

2 Hebrew University students to the right

6:15 P.M.

Meeting with 4 students of Hebrew University. The format may not have been conducive to discussions. One member of the 4 started to present the accepted Israeli narrative of 1948 and the voluntary exodus of Palestinian civilians, which was not sustained without interruptions that pointed out historical inaccuracies and Plan Dalet. The woman among the 4 brought to the discussion her understanding that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories and its discriminatory policy toward Palestinian Arabs has been very profitable. Israel’s politicians and past Prime Ministers, who all have invested interests in private contractors and security apparatuses, have greatly enriched themselves in ways that would be considered conflicts of interest in the States. Her assertion that cheap Palestinian labor for Israel has been one of the outcomes of the occupation was met with a defensive “that’s not true anymore” from one of the male Hebrew University students; evidently Israelis have varying levels of awareness when it comes to the subject of Israel’s occupation.

7:00 P.M.

Dinner at a table with K.C., E.H., R.F., J.B.

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