Conversations in the Middle East: of lemon trees and family.
I was often asked before my first trip to the West Bank and Israel in March, 2010 if I was worried about my personal safety. I usually dismissed those fears. When I came home, I was also asked if I ever felt threatened or afraid. Only once was I afraid, when I went from Bethlehem to East Jerusalem to see Hannan Awaad, the coordinator of WILPF in Palestine. Hannan sent her favorite taxi driver to pick me up at a bed and breakfast in Bethlehem that was surrounded by the wall on three sides. Returning, we had to go through a checkpoint and the taxi driver seemed very nervous. I asked him if I should have my passport ready, and he said, "No. Don't say anything. Don't reach for anything. Be completely still and silent." There was some talk in Hebrew and Arabic at the checkpoint, but we did get through. The first week of my trip I was with the Tree of Life Conference Journey and we went through many checkpoints, some of which took considerable time. However, I was with 36 other people in a big tourist bus and I felt very safe.
Hannan took me to Sheikh Jarah, a traditional Palestinian neighborhood where houses have been taken over by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Israeli families have moved in, and Palestinian families have been evicted. We drove up in her "good luck" rental car and were stopped by a refined, elderly gentleman. Like the ancient mariner in Coleridge's poem, he needed to tell his story. Hannan said she knew him and she translated his Arabic into English for me. His name is Khmis Al-Ghawi.
Look at this lemon tree, he said. I planted this tree in front of my house. It has flourished and brought so many lemons. How can I be away from this lemon tree? I visit it every day and I visit my house. Two years ago my family of four generations was evicted from this house. For a year we lived in tents across the street. Finally, the other family members found other places to live. Now, only I come back every day to be here. I will never take compensation. No woman can know that the house that the man builds is a part of him. I built many rooms in this house. It is my life's work.
While I was taking Mr. Al-Ghawi's picture, an Israeli woman with a stroller and baby came out of the house and walked down the road. Then, Hannan took me to meet the WILPF women of the neighborhood: Suzanne Abdal-Latif, the coordinator, and Ilham Zallum and Maysoun Al-ghawi. They spoke of the houses that have been confiscated. One house had seven families. Most houses have four generations in them. These women spoke of what the house means to women: it is like her womb, the place she keeps her children safe. Suzanne said that all her children were born in this house and now her grandchildren live here with their parents. As she spoke, children came in and sat with us and then ran outside. "This house contains my memories and my love," Suzanne said. She started speaking in English, eloquently I thought, but then stopped, saying when she gets emotional she must speak in Arabic. "No man can understand what a house means to a woman," she said, "It is safety; it is the family history; it is the family love."
Suzanne and Ilham said that when the soldiers first came with their tanks, face masks, and guns, they used to take the children and everyone would hide in the basement. But now they are full of moral confidence and so are not afraid. They come out of their houses and surround the soldiers and tanks, challenging them. They ask them, "Why are you here? Why are you doing this?" They use their cell phones and call all their WILPF friends from all over the city to come and help them. And their campaign may be working. The house confiscations have slowed.
I left with great admiration for these women and their work. I met their daughters, who were all going to the universities. They are members of Young WILPF, which is flourishing in East Jerusalem.
A few days later, I went to Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, to meet with Aliyah Strauss, a member of Israeli WILPF. She told me about the work of WILPF Women in Black and Machsom (checkpoint) Watch. The work Aliyah does cannot be separated into different organizations. It is all for justice and peace. Just one week before I arrived, she and another checkpoint monitor, Ester, heard of a Palestinian village that had been inhabited by the army and closed for five days. They travelled with their driver deep into the West Bank, to the small village of Awarta. It was open, but like a dead place. There were almost no men. Aliyah came with her tags in Arabic and finally won the trust of the villagers. They shared their stories.
Unfortunately, theirs was the nearest Palestinian village to a much larger Israeli settlement. A Jewish family had been murdered in the settlement of Itamar. (I had heard of this the week before and Hannan said a disgruntled Thai worker was suspected). At first, however, the closest Palestinian village (Awarta) was under suspicion. Awarta was blocked from the world for five days--no one could enter or leave. In a village of 300 people, 100 men were arrested and taken away. The IDF took over several houses and, using dogs, ransacked almost every house. The pharmacy was completely destroyed. The day Aliyah and Ester arrived was the first day the village was open. Some of the arrested men were freed and returned while Aliyah was there. Aliyah returned to her home in Jaffa and sent a report to Haaretz, the liberal Jewish newspaper. This was the first report the newspaper had heard. I was in awe of the courage and importance of Aliyah's work.
The work of Palestinian and Israeli sections must be some of the most difficult and dangerous work of any country. They are leaders in the fight for justice.
Dianne W. Ashley is a member of The Western Asia Study and Action Group of Cape Cod WILPF.