Diane's Trip to the Middle East (May 25-June 3)
I am spending two weeks traveling in the Middle East, from May 25-June 3. As FCNL works to end the U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and to advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians, our staff and governors felt this trip would be an important part of my first few months at FCNL.
Friends' emphasis on speaking from our own experience is a powerful part of our practice. Strengthening not only our public advocacy but our communal identity, this practice allows us to draw out truth from our own lives and be influenced by the truths of others, especially from Friends around the world.
I hope you follow along with Jonathan's and my trip and offer your own comments below.
6/3/11: Promoting Peace, Using Non-Violence in Conflict
One of the most hopeful aspects of my trip to the Middle East has been to meet people and learn about organizations that actively work to promote peace and use non-violent responses to conflicts that simmer continuously and that have caused violence. We met just a handful of thousands of people from scores of faith and civic organizations working at a policy level and within communities to use a power greater than violence.
Even if you don't understand the nuances of the political strife in Iraq and Israel/Palestine, you know the sense of fear or insecurity that people live with because military or security forces carrying weapons are everywhere. We passed through perhaps 10 security checkpoints on the 3 hour drive from Erbil to Suleimaniyyah in Iraq where 2 or 3 armed men assessed our passage, and the UN and US led Regional Reconstruction Team compounds in Erbil/Ankawa were heavily fortified by security forces ready with automatic weapons.
But the presence of armed military was even more striking in Jerusalem. Dozens of Israeli military in groups of 2-3 soldiers standing together are positioned along the walkways of Jerusalem's Old City. On the day we visited, hundreds of young Israeli people were at the Western Wall in preparation for Jerusalem Days, and dozens of them were carrying weapons--18,19, 20 year olds with rifles as part of the uniform over their matching yellow t-shirts.
Of course, we didn't see the covert activity of groups or people bent on violence through terrorism or non-sanctioned violence, but their presence was felt and known by people we spoke with. The idea that violence or war could happen at any point is a very real awareness--both in Iraq and Israel/Palestine.
So it was particularly encouraging to meet many people who have dedicated their lives to peaceful prevention and response to conflict. The Mennonite Central Committee --a sister peace church to the Quakers--operates offices throughout the Middle East and the world (including in Washington DC, where we often find our find common cause on legislation and policy). Jim and Debbie Fine, Ann Ward and Joanna Hoover were the MCC staff based in Erbil/Ankawa who are making peace and building civilian life. They were invaluable guides to Jonathan Evans and me in our visit there.
The Friends International Center in Ramallah, directed by Kathy Bergen and located behind the lovely Friends Meeting of Ramallah, provides a central meeting spot for Quakers and their colleague organizations who are focused on solutions to war and conflict. It's clear that the small group of Friends have had an impact through AFSC's longstanding Middle East program, the Ramallah Play Center for young children and the Ramallah Friends School, governed by a local board in coordination with Friends United Meeting. Ramallah Friends School offers a highly regarded educational program that has produced an alumni network of strong leaders.
On an ecumenical level, Sabeel is a Jerusalem-based Palestinian liberation theology organization that provides a way of interpreting the story of Palestinian Christians, based on the teachings of Jesus. Related to Sabeel's work and that of other church bodies throughout the world is a Kairos document--published by the World Council of Churches and modeled after the South Africa Kairos Document. This declaration is meant for study, discussion and reflection.
The Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center, known as the Wi'am Center, is based in Bethlehem and offers reconciliation, mediation, and restorative justice programs to children, women's groups and others seeking to promote a culture of acceptance and understanding. They operate from an attractive building and garden just next to the security checkpoint and 25 foot concrete wall that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem. Wi'am provided us with tours of a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem, as well as the Old City and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and information on their efforts to sow seeds of peace.
Christian Peacemaker Teams in both Iraq and Palestine are constituted by non-Arab Christians who witness to provocations of violence and provide accompaniment to people at risk and in danger. The volunteers are people of deep faith whose long-term presence in communities with ongoing conflict is a visible sign of their witness for peace.
Rabbis for Human Rights and The Parents Circle - Families Forum: Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace are two peace organizations who create important dialogue within Israel for a just peace between Israel and Palestine. Rabbis for Human Rights also has connections with rabbis throughout the United States. The Parents Circle is an organization of Israeli and Palestinian families whose children and loved ones have died as a result of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. These family members speak throughout Israel and Palestine to give a human face to the tragedy of violence and conflict that cries for peace and justice.
6/3/11: Questions for Political Leaders
Much like Americans who often express a lack of confidence in political leadership, many of the people we spoke with in the Middle East had serious concerns about their elected leaders ability to create a just peace for Palestine and Israel, or in Iraq, to develop a transparent and open government not reliant on corruption or cronyism. These concerns, however, did not diminish the intensity of peoples' commitment to achieve a governing structure based on the rule of law and an effective civil society structure, including protection of human rights.
Regarding the reconciliation agreement of Hamas and Fatah to form a coalition government, most Palestinians took a "wait and see" approach to what would happen with the interim government, which is soon to be named and then with municipal elections that are anticipated in the fall and the parliamentary elections projected for 2012. I didn't hear that there was a clear "front runner" as the most likely to head the interim government or even which party is most likely to gain broader support in elections.
Every Palestinian we spoke with expressed disappointment in President Obama for his May 19 speech; they had hoped for stronger statements pressing for clarity in Israeli/Palestine regarding the 1967 borders/land swaps, the refugees right of return, and human rights. There was also consternation at Congress' overwhelmingly enthusiastic approval of Israeli President Netanyahu's speech before the joint meeting on May 24, stating he received more support in the US Congress than he has in the Israeli Knesset.
Most recognized that the upcoming September vote in the United Nations General Assembly recognizing Palestine as a state when almost every member nation is likely to vote in favor except for Israel and the U.S. further aligns those two countries apart from the rest of the world. While we heard no affection for the Israeli or Palestinian political leadership, we did hear a realization that some resolution to a just peace is inevitable for the security of Israel, surrounded by Arab nations whose leadership is changing, as the demand for self-determination in the Arab world advances.
6/2/11: The Wall, The Settlements, The Land
The most striking visual display of the Israeli/Palestinian division is the 25 foot high concrete barrier wall in the Jerusalem area that separates people in Israel and Israelis living in settlements in the West Bank from Palestinians living in the West Bank. This wall will eventually be over 700 kilometers long at a cost of $2 billion. The wall looks like the walls surrounding a state penitentiary in the United States, except that it goes through residential neighborhoods and often separates communities.
Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions took us on a Jerusalem-area tour of the massive building of Jewish settlements on West Bank territory and of the encroaching use of power that Israel exerts on Palestinian life, what Halper calls the "matrix of control" in his book Obstacles to Peace. While Halper, President Jimmy Carter and many others call the separation barrier an apartheid system, many Israelis see the wall as an absolute deterrent to terrorism and the settlements as their right in the land promised to them by God. The settlements contain attractive apartment buildings and individual homes with surrounding amenities of parks, stores, recreation, and often a separate system of roads that allows the people living in the settlements, some of which have grown into small cities, to avoid contact with their Palestinian neighbors who live in villages and cities where the infrastructure is less developed and water resources are limited.
The wall, the check points and the requirement for West Bank Palestinians to obtain permission to travel into Palestinian East Jerusalem or into Israel is cumbersome, demoralizing and difficult. One Ramallah resident we met shared a personal story of a recent challenge she faced, seeking health care at a Jerusalem-based hospital. It took 10 days to obtain the one day permit that allowed her to cross the check point between 5 am and return to the checkpoint before 7 pm. The distance of about 10 miles is made much longer by the controls Israelis have created to limit movement of Palestinians.
6/1/11: Dignity in Gaza
"Tell them we're human. Tell them we long for dignity. Tell them we're human beings."
As we have met people throughout our trip, we've asked: "what shall we say to Congress about this situation of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?" Longtime friends of Jonathan Evans invited us to their lovely home during our brief time in Gaza, and shared their reflections on life under occupation, their hopes for their children who are emerging into adulthood and the sorrow of spending their own adult lives interrupted by war. These simple words: "tell them we're human" speaks volumes on how ordinary Palestinians have been treated and their recognition that many in the United States have negatively labeled Palestinians and Arabs as "the other," whose hopes, dreams and desire for human rights aren't recognized.
This craving for human dignity has been repeated by every Palestinian and Israeli we speak with, but the plaintive appeal took on a deeper significance for me in Gaza following a tour of the impoverished, deteriorating housing in the refugee neighborhoods, the demolished buildings and airport on the dusty, broken roads that hug the beautiful coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
This small strip of land is home to an estimated 1.6 million people, a population who, until last week when the Egyptians greatly eased restrictions for access, had almost no ability to leave under the heavy security and surveillance of Israeli military forces. Now, women, children and men over 40 can pass through the Rafah border crossing to Egypt without a visa although transit of goods and materials is still not allowed. Access to Israel or the West Bank to for better quality healthcare or for business or simply to visit family/friends or ancestral homes is virtually impossible for Gazans.
Rebuilding following "the war" is happening. ("The war" refers to the three-week Israeli military incursion into Gaza launched December 27, 2008 and referred to by Israelis as Operation Cast Lead.) We saw two schools under construction that have received funding from the United Nations and the United States. We heard about home repair programs--a small one run by the local AFSC office and larger operations of the USAID; these programs are not only returning properties to use, they are also addressing design and sustainability of the structures that meet the family needs. We also saw agricultural development, although water resources are problematic with salination of fresh water and depletion and contamination of underground water.
With almost 50% of the population under 14 years old, the demographics of a younger population who within a few short years will be seeking work and longing for self-determination and opportunity will undoubtedly continue to grow. The AFSC program in Gaza provides an excellent opportunity for over 200 young people in a youth development program that engages university students as role models working with groups of adolescents from 14-17 years. Amal Sabawi, AFSC Program Director, shared her enthusiasm of the positive leadership she sees emerging from the self-awareness, community-building and problem-solving. She affirmed what many others said--that these young people understand that non-violence is the way conflict must be resolved and are using what they've learned in local organizing.
Our FCNL vision of equity and justice for all and a community where every person's potential may be fulfilled has far to go in Gaza, but the faith and hope of Amal and her AFSC colleagues as well as many others we talked to encouraged me that our Quaker witness of non-violence for peace and justice is the way forward.
6/1/11: For the Peace of Jerusalem
I think I just saw a glimpse of it on a street in East Jerusalem where a young Israeli and an older Palestinian woman were waving their respective flags as music blared to drown the chants of peace marchers, calling out against Jewish house by house settlers who had moved to Palestinian East Jerusalem. Jonathan Evans, my traveling companion and our foreign policy representative who lived in Jerusalem during the 1990s, was stunned by the sight. The security forces, Hasidic Jews, Israeli peace protestors. Palestinian neighbors and internationals watched in amazement as a group began to circle dance around the flag-waving unlikely couple. It was a great moment.
Just before I left the U.S. for Iraq, Israel and Palestine, I attended the Churches for Middle East Peace annual conference aptly titled "For the Peace of Jerusalem" held in Washington. On the opening evening of the conference, and before Ray Suarez introduced the wonderful Archbishop Elias Chacour who delivered the keynote, I read Psalm 122 to the assembly:
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem
May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.
These words have greater meaning for me now that I have walked within the citadels of Old Jerusalem and have visited the holy sites of Muslims, Jews, and Christians that share walls, steps, ancestors, stories. The psalmist who wrote that "Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together" probably didn't imagine that the stones that built the city and the holy sites would survive for hundreds of years and bear the pilgrimages and tourism of millions of visitors, to say nothing of the generations of people who have called this city "home."
Jerusalem remains one of the key areas of disagreement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My journey through the West Bank and Israel have given me a vivid picture of the steps the Israeli government has taken to claim Jerusalem for Jews and continuously squeeze Palestinians from access to the city that is both sacred and historically connected to them. The violation of Palestinian human rights in this and other ways has been a recurring theme.
5/31/11 and 6/1/11 (Ramallah, Palestine and Jerusalem, Israel)
5/31/11, 1:45pm (Aikawa, Iraq)
"The Call to Prayer"
One of the lovely aspects of being in the Middle East is hearing the call to prayer broadcast over from the minaret five times a day. It is usually in song, although I've also heard some lecturing as well. It sounds ancient and holy.
On a more modern note, the Erbil airport provides prayer rooms--one for men and one for women. JFK Airport had no such amenities, and one of the passengers on our flight put down his rug and prayed briefly, followed by his wife. On the airplane, the image on the screens that showed our flight pattern also flashed an image of the ka'aba---indicating the direction toward Mecca to face for prayer. I find this continuous reminder of communication with God comforting.
5/30/11, 7:50pm (Aikawa, Iraq)
All of the people that Jonathan and I have met in the Kurdish area of Iraq have told us that life is different for them than in the Central part of Iraq (around Baghdad) or in the south. People feel relatively secure and are working, going to school. Although some areas of Iraq are considered a security risk to travel in and dangerous for some populations, we experienced no sense of danger, or disrespect. Quite the contrary, people were friendly and often curious about seeing us; some wanted to practice speaking English with us.
The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) staff travels easily by walking or taking a taxi to wherever they need to get to, and that's how we moved around the city. This ability to move freely is not available to the United Nations staff or the Regional Reconstruction Team (RRT is State Dept of the USA) who live and work within compounds that are guarded with security officers, x-ray scans and registration. We were able to visit officials in both the UN and the RRT compounds in meeting set up by Jim Fine and appreciated the informative conversations about the political situation in the Kurdish region and throughout the country.
Everyone we met with is working in some ways to build civil society--an engaged citizenry that will actively make the country a better place to live through organizations that promote human rights, youth engagement, women's support, legal rights, reduction of corruption in the political system. They realize this could take years, and for that reason, many of the Iraqi people we spoke with believe the US needs to retain a presence, including military, in Iraq to assure stability and security.
We saw only one U.S. military vehicle and soldier on the road to Sulimaneyah, although we saw plenty of other security/military forces at the checkpoints when we traveled the 3 hour distance. In most cases we were waved through the checkpoints, our Iraqi driver explaining the presence of 5 North Americans traveling. A couple of times we were asked to show our passports.
5/28/11, 8:30pm (Erbil, Iraq)
Here in the Kurdistan area of Iraq, resiliency and hopefulness are seen in both the massive building development occurring throughout Erbil and Sulaymaniyah and in the discussions we've had with people working to build civil society thought non-governmental organizations (NGO). Today we met with Ala Ali, a board member of Al-Amal, an NGO that operates throughout Iraq. She and her colleagues shared with us the operations of their clinic that primarily serves women and children for health care as well as their policy and advocacy work with elected officials in the Iraqi parliament and in local communities. Al-Amal is a non-sectarian organization that employs people across the sectarian divides of Iraq, serving in a fashion, as a practical role model for the dialogue that promotes tolerance and peace across religious and ethnic differences. As a partner organization of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), Ala described the Al-Amal/MCC joint initiative of three community- based dialogues in the Ninenvah Valley that include Kurds, Sunnis, Shiia, Christians and Yezidhis that they anticipate will result in a sustainable project in each community. We have heard of the significant efforts to build a civil society based on non-violent principles with peaceful dialogue.
This effort is not all smooth. One of the topics of discussion in our meetings has been the recent shootings in Sulaymaniyah of non-violent protestors who were demonstrating in solidarity with others in the Mideast's Arab Spring, calling for self-determination, elimination of government corruption and transparency of decision-making by political officials. At the office of the Christian Peacemakers Team in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdish protestors described their immediate concerns for justice in the deaths of 10 protestors that occurred a few weeks ago. While it is significant that people feel the liberty to protest and to call for criminal prosecution in the aftermath of a non-violent protest turned brutal, the fact that deaths, injuries and questionable detainment occurred by security forces leaves citizens unsettled. And yet, this demand for accountability by citizens is yet another remarkable sign of movement toward justice and freedom.
5/26/11, 9:31pm (Erbil, Iraq)
Participating in the Churches for Middle East Peace conference in Washington DC and then traveling, for the first time, to this part of the world has been a great introduction to FCNL's belief that peace is possible--even in an area that is fraught with conflict. I'm convinced that as much as we work with those in political power now, we have to always think about how we teach peace and non-violence to the rising generation.
In Jordan, many families with young children were celebrating Jordan's Independence Day. In Ankawa, Iraq, only young men and boys are most visible. This trip is a vivid reminder of what we know about the demographics of the Middle East and North Africa. The numbers alone portend change and opportunity that we've witnessed in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya; whether that change is peaceful or violent will be influenced by how the USA and non-governmental organizations can promote peaceful prevention to conflict.
Visiting for a few days provides only a snapshot of life in a country. My first impressions here in the Kurdish region of Irag is that people are friendly and welcoming, wanting to learn English and encourage foreign visitors.
5/26/11, 4:40pm (Erbil, Iraq)
Just a short message to let you know that we had a smooth journey from New York City to Amman, got a taxi into the city, and then had a very nice dinner and visit with friends. Amman was in the midst of Jordanian Independence Day celebrations, which provided us a great unplanned fireworks display as well as some unexpected travel delays due to very heavy traffic.
We arrived safely in Erbil around 3:00 am this morning, with FCNL's former staff person Jim Fine having gone above and beyond to meet us at the airport. We are staying in a hotel just a short walk down the street from Jim and Deb's home/office. Jim works for the Mennonite Central Committee in Iraq.
We've had a chance to begin our conversations with Jim, Deb and a Mennonite volunteer and to eat falafel for lunch with them. Our first official meeting is about to begin, so I'll sign off.
Where are they, and where are they going?
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