Toine van Teeffelen
20 January 2001

Two representatives of the Dutch peace movement IKV/Euro-Arab Dialogue from Below, Mient Jan Faber and Jan Jaap van Oosterzee, come over for a short visit organized by Karishma. In the morning we first meet Hannah Nassir, the mayor of Bethlehem, who tells the story of his father who used to live in Bethlehem but work in West-Jerusalem. There he had considerable real estate which he all lost during the 1948 war. Although he did not even leave the country – he simply could not travel between Bethlehem and West-Jerusalem anymore – his houses were confiscated by the Israeli “custodian for absentee property.” Immediately afterwards, his father tried to search for legal redress. In vain, because at the time there were no human rights watch dogs and the main powers did not intervene. So what can we do nowadays? We talk about the potential of city twinnings and friendship bonds, in particular the one between the cities of Bethlehem and The Hague. Bethlehem has many twinnings with towns abroad – who would not like to have a symbolic exchange with the place where Jesus was born? – but many of these exchanges have remained dormant. The visitors are going to explore whether The Hague municipality would be interested to encourage school exchanges with students in the Bethlehem environment.

With representatives of Fatah we discuss the movement’s history. A lively discussion follows. Why are so many young Palestinians willing to confront death in the clashes with soldiers? The Fatah representative says that when comparing an accidental death and a martyr’s death, Islam prefers a martyr’s death. Does that mean that (young) Palestinians are “happy” to die, as is sometimes said? No. But young people can be reckless, and living in a environment without much hope clearly affects one’s psychological make-up.

A spokesperson of the Tanzim, the Fatah-group involved in the shootings, joins the talks. He downplays the number and importance of attacks on Israeli settlers, and “anyway, all settlers bear arms.” This is however not true, although a great many do. Our hosts tell how Israeli soldiers in Hebron killed a Palestinian man and, with some of them laughing, dragged the corpse away from a Palestinian controlled area. Afterwards, settlers danced and distributed candies among the soldiers. We all saw the TV footage the days before. The Dutch visitors bring up that if uncontrolled and unrestrained violence starts to reign the area, it would be difficult to attract any constructive foreign involvement.

The issue of lawlessness is troubling throughout the week. The other day, the PNA executes a number of several collaborators. One of them betrayed Abayat, who was assassinated in a helicopter attack in Beit Sahour. It seems that the collaborator received from Israel a monthly salary of only 250$. A show-trial of a few hours followed by a death sentence, immediately implemented, is of course a bad sign for the future of the rule of law in Palestine. Without an agreement that satisfies the public, the PNA is in a weak position and reluctant to resist popular revenge instincts which emerge in situations of distress and powerlessness. Afterwards, we at the Institute hear continuous shooting by armed demonstrators in downtown Bethlehem. They demand the execution of more collaborators by the Palestinian Authority. Fortunately, the Churches do not allow any executions on Manger Square in front of the Nativity Church. Also, the European Union pressures the PNA not to execute collaborators. Yet other signs of lawlessness appear. The head of Palestinian TV in Gaza, known for a freewheeling life style, is killed by a Palestinian group who claims to fight corruption within the PNA. An Israeli boy is lured by a Palestinian girl into her Ramallah house, and killed.

We pass by bombarded houses in Beit Jala and watch the memorial stone laid at the place where the German doctor Harry Fischer was killed by Israeli shellings while trying to help wounded victims. The taxi driver, who works in Bethlehem as a volunteer in a conflict resolution center, tells that this is for him the first journey to Hebron since three months. In Hebron downtown we visit the project of the Christian Peacemakers, organized by the Mennonites. They recruit volunteers to work in the divided city. They even intervene during skirmishes between Palestinians and Israeli settlers and soldiers. The main two problems in Hebron are the curfew over some 40.000 Palestinians who live in the Israeli controlled part of the city – the curfew goes these days on and off - and the tense relations between settlers and Palestinians. One volunteer, who joins us in the car, wants to point out a Palestinian area to the north-east of the city that has been confiscated by settlers without any intervention of the army. Clearly, the Barak government still allows the expansion of settlements.

On the way back to Bethlehem we visit Al-Arroub refugee camp where Ishmail lives. We walk along an open sewage stream. About fifteen youth here are involved in the story-exchange project with Dutch schools. It is clear that they have time on their hands. A lot of the stonethrowing – the students’ “extracurricular” activity, as Karishma jokingly calls it - is related to the lack of clubs and meaningful social work. When we visit the parents of 16-year old Murad, who is still imprisoned in the north of Israel, we hear the last information. According to Murad’s lawyer, the student is expected to get 18 months on charges of stone-throwing and “participation in a funeral march.” His father, an inspector at United Nations Schools in the area, is desperate. The boy is in the 11th-grade, and may miss his matriculation exam next year. He is good at school and likely to go to the university. Usually Palestinian refugees put a high premium upon their childrens’ education. After the refugee families lost their land and peasanthood in 1948, they had to look for alternative ways of gaining financial security, education being the major one.

Afterwards, Ishmail tells a story from his youth. He, a kid from poor parents, could not pay the taxi to secondary school. He used to walk along the road to and from school with a book in his hands, telling curious passers by that he just liked to read while walking and that he therefore did not take a taxi. People blessed him for doing so. He still remembers how proud his father was when he received his teacher diploma. Although his father was completely paralyzed and therefore unable to make any facial expression, Ishmail could notice the pride in his twinkling eyes. Once a visiting American doctor told Ismail that he was unlike other refugees. He had this strong energy to improve himself and his community. While saying this, Ishmail shows himself emotional, and presses his fingers upon my breast.

At Murad’s home, Mient-Jan and Jan-Jaap ask what they can do for the boy. The father is willing to give all kinds of promises to the Israeli authorities to get the boy free. He even wants to guarantee that the boy would not leave home except for school. We debate whether an intervention in favour of Murad would not break solidarity with the other dozens of youngsters from the camp who are in prison too, and whether a compromise with the Israeli authorities would not imply an implicit acknowledgement of the boy’s “crimes.” The father writes letters in which he authorizes the Dutch visitors to visit his son on his behalf. Next day, Mient-Jan and Jan-Jaap have a meeting with a representative of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs who writes down all information. The visit to the “high security” prison turns out to be impossible.

Back in Bethlehem, we meet students from St Joseph as well as members of the institute’s youth group. Fuad, Suzy, and Sawsan also join. We hear stories, some of them quite distressful (about a nurse in Al-Khader village who, like Harry Fischer, was subject to Israeli shootings while trying to rescue injured people). A discussion emerges. We suggest an action plan in which foreigners buy a piece of land in Palestine in an area targeted for the expansion of a settlement. When Israel would expropriate a piece of land owned by foreign people, the foreigners could start a legal procedure against the Israeli state who would have to defend itself according to international law. The Palestinian students protest. What happens when more foreigners are going to buy pieces of land? That is how the Palestinians lost their land in the first place. Later on, we hear from a Palestinian human rights organization that the students’ concern can be dealt with by a “power of attorney” measure which would make it possible for the Palestinians to reclaim, under special circumstances, the land that is sold. At the institute we brainstorm that such a piece of land could be used for designing a students’ garden with plants from the Bible and the Koran. That would be an attractive extracurricular activity. Moreover, it would make foreign involvement visible and direct.

Jan Jaap says that it is now difficult to find ways of having real influence on the situation on the ground apart from the writing of protest letters and declarations. People abroad tend to feel powerless and are even bored when they keep hearing stories of suffering. That does not always mean that they are prejudiced against the Palestinian cause. When one of the students says that the West always thinks that the Palestinians are terrorists, Mient-Jan intervenes and asks: “Is that true?” He makes the case that it is indeed progress that now, after 52 years, the international community discusses the right of return without any inhibition. The youth are uncertain what to say. They have of course heard about the discussions abroad, but the situation on the ground only deteriorates. At bottom, we agree that it is easier for foreigners to relate to Palestinian youth when the youth are able to show ways how to get out of the situation rather than when they only tell about their suffering.

I think about my own experiences with foreigners, as a guide. Apart from visiting the holy places, visitors are always interested to hear about the political problems. Yet they also want to know more about Palestinian or Arab culture, and what Palestinians cherish and like in life. I visit Edy, the photographer and filmer, and his wife. He shows a video clip of the popular Iraqi singer Qazem al-Saher singing a swinging Arab love song (“Tell me I love you”). In fact, Mary, Jara and I are used at home to jointly sing the refrain of this song. The artist is surrounded by women in wedding dress – some of them Arab, some Italian, Edy knows. While listening, all problems are forgotten. Next day, we proceed at the Freres School with a project in which Moslem and Christian students from Hebron and Bethlehem create stories and music based on Palestinian and Arab folklore. We discuss how to include those traditional occasions in which people used to genuinely enjoy themselves: the mystically loaded moments when children listen to the storyteller in the guest house (“diwan” or “madhafe”), the pleasant picnics in the fields during harvest time, the relaxed afternoon talks on an open veranda.

The next day, Mary tells that she heard from a cousin in Beit Hanina a strange story. The cousin’s daughter, traveling in a taxi from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, was stopped at the checkpoint. The soldier told the seven passengers that they could only proceed to Bethlehem if a girl in the taxi (happily not her daughter, said the cousin) would kiss one of the men there. She first refused. So then you all remain here, the soldier said. The girl appointed to deliver the kiss had an exam at Bethlehem University which she did not want to miss. “I’ll consider you a brother,” she said to one of the men in the taxi and kissed him quickly. Then they were allowed to pass. The soldiers of course very well know how sensitive public intimacies are within Arab society, especially between men and women who are unrelated.

Jara goes to school - luckily without any problem. She plays Snow White, lays down on the couch and closes her eyes in order to be woken up by the kiss of the prince (me). She receives a drawing from Jan Jaap’s daughter, and in response wants to make her own very best drawing. The other day, when we play outside in the garden, she discovers that the ball who used to be there had disappeared. In my innocence, I say that perhaps the boy of the neighbours took the ball, and that it was anyway old and without air. She becomes very angry, and loudly shouts at the “jiraan” (neighbours) that they should go into the forest, into the prison, and that they are like the Israelis. I become very shy and hope that the neighbours upstairs still sleep. We go to buy a new ball. The one who helps us in the shop is another neighbour who tells Jara that she should not direct her anger to neighbours in general, but to this little boy who took her ball. On the way back, I’ll have Jara on my shoulders, and an old man in traditional headdress (“kefiyah”) sees us and utters a blessing. Back home, I’ll tell the story to Mary, who says: “Poor Nader” (the name of the neighbour’s boy), “I am sure he didn’t do anything.”