Palestine from inside

IssueMarch - May 2003
Feature by Franco Perna

Answering an appeal from Palestine/Israel to help pick olives, I joined a group of friends from Switzerland for a couple of weeks (28 Oct - 10 Nov 2002) under the auspices of the YMCA and ATG (Alternative Tourism Group, Beit Sahour/Bethlehem).

Jerusalem, November 2002. Israeli Women in Black protest against the occupation PHOTO: FRANCO PERNA

Entering Israel in Tel Aviv took a long time, but without major difficulties. We reached Bethlehem after a couple of hours, including a stop at the YMCA in East Jerusalem. Our attention was first directed to the many Israeli settlements (over 200 in the Palestinian territories), as well as the military and road-blocks everywhere we went. These cause daily delays and deep humiliation for local people. There are some places Palestinians cannot go at all without a special permit or at considerable risk. They are not even safe when working in their own fields, if these are close to a settlement. As such, our presence was reassuring and helped to empower them. We did not face any real problems, but a couple of olive pickers from another group, including a 75-year-old American, were beaten by settlers under the eyes of Israeli soldiers who did nothing to protect them. This incident was even published in the Jerusalem Post.

One day, however, we witnessed a sad scene. An olive grove owner had asked for our protection as he wanted to pick his olives (a few days earlier he had been chased off by settlers and soldiers), but on reaching his field we realised that no olives had been left for us to pick. It was apparent that the settlers had done the job. This time the soldiers observed us, but did not intervene. Our farmer friend held back his tears, the olives were his only yearly income. We heard similar stories from other volunteers.

Tent of Nations

As the olive picking season was coming to an end, it was suggested that we might help Daoud Nassar and his family in Bethlehem. They are trying to transform a large piece of land, traditionally their property, into an international/multi-ethnic meeting place in Palestine, similar to Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salaam. The project, known as the “Tent of Nations”, has already received support from in Switzerland and Germany. However, neighbouring settlers also have an eye on this land. Its location is on a beautiful hill, about 10 km west of Jerusalem near Nahalin, surrounded by settlements and military observation points, things which currently make it quite difficult to reach.

We worked for four days on this project with Daoud and his brothers, observed by settlers from a distance who had previously started tracing a road indicating their intention to take over the area. We managed to stop their plans, at least symbolically, by ploughing the land, planting olive trees and setting up fences along the perimeter of the property. At lot more, however, needs to be done.

One idea is to use volunteers from abroad, willing to stay for a few months at a time, working side by side with the locals, who would then feel encouraged and empowered to carry on with less fear. Daoud even expressed the hope that perhaps one day young Israelis could also join this venture. There is so much to do but funds for building materials are lacking. Most locals are unemployed (up to 60-70%). The lucky ones who work earn, on average, £200 a month. Furthermore, living costs are rapidly increasing, especially as the Israeli government, in general, does not enable Palestinians to trade directly with other countries, thus Palestine is flooded with more expensive Israeli goods.

We suggested that it might be good for the Tent of Nations project to gather more support, even if just symbolically, from local organisations. At a special gathering held on 7 November, representatives of several groups expressed interest in this project. For Daoud Nassar, this was a clear sign that his dream might one day come true.

Much to be done

During our stay we met with a few local Quakers in Ramallah. We held a meeting for worship with them and listened to their stories. The Friends school is facing serious financial problems, as many families can no longer afford to pay for school fees. Colin and Kathy South, who run the school, along with a board of trustees and resident Friends, are very appreciative of any kind of support that might come there way. It is considered extremely important that children are not turned away for lack of sufficient funds.

Local conditions are critical, but people refuse to give in to desperation and carry on living in hope. International groups, such as ours, can contribute considerably to keep hope alive. This support is particularly needed now while the world's attention is diverted towards Iraq.