ICAHD Summer Rebuilding Camp 2008
The journal entries below were written by participants in the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions’ annual Summer Rebuilding Camp. The views expressed are not necessarily those of ICAHD
Day One – July 15h, 2008
Today, July 15, ICAHD opened its 2008 summer rebuilding camp in Anata. The past five annual work camps have been funded by private donors, both organizations and individuals. This year, too, we have received generous support from several Quaker meetings in the UK, our ICAHD support groups in the US and UK and a large number of individuals. The truly amazing part of this year’s story is that the Spanish government is paying for the construction of an entire Palestinian home, plus the expenses of 18 members of Spanish NGOs who will join the camp. This is the first time a government has supported the rebuilding of an “illegal” Palestinian home demolished by the Israeli authorities in the Occupied Territories.
The home being built is that of the Elyyan family of Anata — Nadir, Fidaa and their two young children. The Elyyan’s are a young family who has never enjoyed a home of its own – their first and only home was demolished four years ago during its construction, leaving them to continue living in cramped quarters with Nadir’s parents and other siblings. We hope that over the next two weeks, with the help of more than 60(!) volunteers (18 from Spain, 22 internationals from Europe, North America and Latin America, plus Israelis and Palestinians), we will manage to build a home for the Elyaans. The involvement of the Spanish government only increases the chances that this will be so.
Because of the need – dozens of demolition orders have been issued against Anata families by the Israeli Ministry of Interior, Jerusalem Municipality and Civil Administration – we have decided to build a second home as well. This is the home of a family with eight children, an urgent case because their home was demolished just two weeks ago.
The rebuilding of Palestinian homes has always been a strong civil society statement of solidarity with the Palestinians as well as an effective means of highlighting the on-going Occupation, despite statements by Israeli officials over “sincere” hopes of “peace.” The addition of government support – the pointed and courageous support, political, financial and material of the Spanish government – means that our resistance is “trickling up” from the people into their governments. This is truly a hopeful harbinger of change.
Day Two – July 16th, 2008
This morning our team of international workers- Spanish, British, American, Italian, Dutch and Finnish-walked through the outskirts of Anata to our worksite. We are building a temporary home for a lovely family with seven children whose home was demolished a week ago. It was on this walk that I realized we are truly in a war zone. The rubble of demolished homes along the way makes it look as if the city has been bombed. And though no official war has been declared, the results are the same.
Shortly after we got to the site, several Israeli soldiers arrived carrying semi-automatic weapons. One of the soldiers questioned us about why we were there and cautioned us that we were not in Israeli territory. He said we did not understand the danger we were in. It was ironic, almost amusing, because the presence of these soldiers was the first danger any of us had felt. The Palestinians have greeted us with heartfelt warmth and gratitude. The legendary Arab hospitality is no myth. The children shout, “Welcome!” and ask us our names. A little boy gave me half of his candy bar as a gift. As we passed one house on our walk home, a woman we did not know emerged with a tray of drinks for us.
Later in the day, we took a walking tour of Anata and got first-hand look at how the aparthied system affects the citizens here. The wall that encloses the city effectively imprisons them. Many want to work but aren’t allowed to enter Jerusalem where there are jobs. The economy of this region is as devastated as the homes and the families who live here.
Basima, the woman whose home we are rebuilding, is living in a tin shack with her husband and several of her seven children. Some of the children are living with friends and relatives. Not only have these children lost their home, but at this traumatic time for their family, they are separated from their parents and each other. As the mother of four children myself, I can only imagine the depth of Basima’s heartbreak.
Every morning around 4 am, the Muslim call to prayer resounds throughout the Anata valley from a mosque nearby Beit Arabeia. Though I tend to awaken upon hearing this call, what really gets me out of bed is Salim’s 6 am call, “Coffee, coffee” and plate of just-picked figs. It’s hard not to awaken physically after drinking a cup of the strong and dark Arabic brew, but I find that it’s Salim’s smile, warmth and gesture of hospitality that awakens my heart. This experience of human conviviality has been a constant experience during the ICHAD camp thus far. Despite all of the suffering of the Palestinian people we have met – and it is legion – we have been accepted with grace, treated with kindness and delighted by humor and joy. We have been taught, in short, just how it is to be human. And this experience of humanity now reverberates through the camp as friendships are fast forming and laughter uplifts the hard work of the construction site.
Filled with Arabeia’s delectable breakfast of falafel, hummus, eggs and tomatoes, camp members first set off for a walking tour of Jerusalem’s Old City led by ICAHD’s Jeff Halper. It was hard not to cringe at the sight of an elderly Palestinian woman who was being detained by two young folk of the Israeli military as she tried to make her way into Jerusalem. We made it through the checkpoint with relative ease; what happened to her and of what she had wanted to accomplish that day? I kept thinking about her as we made our winding way from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. What emerged was the rich and varied history of Jerusalem, lived in, as it was, by many peoples over the course of thousands of years. This is a cosmopolitan city built upon the talents, insights and gifts of countless individuals and communities. There are none within the mix of this humanity, however, who may make an absolute claim upon the City itself. It is evident, however, from the dispute between the Greek Orthodox Catholics and the Roman Catholics as to whom will be responsible for sweeping the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to the take-over of certain sections Old City by Jewish settler communities at the expense of former Palestinian inhabitants, the plague of the “absolute claim no matter who gets crushed” remains a steadfast human trait. Never before has the art of living together humanely seemed so urgent to me.
Prior to leaving for our work sites in the afternoon, we spoke of Abu Mussa, a Bedouin man who lives in a nearby shack and who has been active in the resistance effort against home demolition. Two years ago, sadly, Mussa was afflicted by diabetes. The end result is that both of his legs have been amputated and he cannot afford to have his legs replaced by prostheses. We are soon to visit with him and I look forward to it. At the “small house” site, we engaged in an effort to clear the inside floors of construction debris and pass can after can of gravel, via human chain, from one another and onto the floors of the house. This gravel will be leveled and will form the base for the home’s floor tiles. Led by our Palestinian comrades, we worked hard during the afternoon. To borrow a biblical image from the story of Genesis, I recall looking back to our Palestinian friends and at our work as we were leaving and saying to myself, “It is all good.”
The evening took a rather sobering turn during the presentations offered by Offir Feurstein of B’Tselem and Yehuda Shaul of Break the Silence. The work of B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, is to document human rights abuses committed by the Israeli military, police, settlers, etc. in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Break the Silence, whose members served in the Israeli Defense Forces, gives an accounting of the atrocities of the IDF against Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories. Our ICJAD community was both riveted and sobered by what these two remarkable men had to say to us. Both Yehuda’s story and person, for example, were quite striking. Here was a young Orthodox Jew who had once relished to opportunity to serve in the IDF but was now speaking truth about specific acts of IDF abuse and horror. Contained within the stories that he told us were accounts of the use of the Palestinian people as human shields, random killings and the desecr
ation of Palestinian corpses and the rampant destruction of Palestinian homes for “security reasons.” Yehuda, in an astonishing act of courage, now speaks publicly about the military atrocities of the Occupation, organizes photo exhibitions, publishes testimony of former members of the IDF, and leads young people through tours of “IDF-afflicted” Hebron. His claim is that he is simply holding a mirror up to Israeli society – to all of us – so that we may see what’s clearly what’s going on. Yehuda ended his talk by suggesting that our stance may not be “pro-Palestine” or “pro-Israeli” but more “for/against violence,” and that if we truly loved humanity, we would make the choice against the use of violence. Under the light of a full moon, on a hillside in Anata, and well into the night, the gifts of insight, witness and courage was, once again, offered. I am so deeply grateful both to our Palestinian and Israeli friends.
A new day…we start the day working on the reconstruction of the houses demolished by the Israeli Army. During the morning we work and after, the Spanish delegation guided by Meir, are shown the settlements that are part of the Israeli Matrix of Control. These colonies are very modern, fully equipped with all types of facilities to make them attractive. Protected by the army with checkpoints, we drive pass the municipal swimming pools and the green grass fields – it is important to consider that this settlement has arisen from the desert, and there is no water for miles. They bring it from far, far away. The control of the major water sources is an important aspect of Zionist politics. The surroundings change radically as we enter a Bedouin village outside the settlement. On one side there are Bedouin shacks and miles and miles of desert, and on the other, huge modern settlement blocks rise with their green fields.
We continue to drive to Al Quad, and in minutes a huge wall of concrete appears; nine meters of shame, graffitied with messages of hope and Palestinian flags. The Palestinian parliament is just another empty building in this city, waiting for someday to become a true symbol of Palestinian sovereignty. Kids are curious about us, and ride on their bicycles behind us smiling and waving. It is unusual to see Westerners over here, so we become the main attraction. The trip continues and we stop at several points to take photos of the wall.
The bus carries us up into the Mount of Olives, right on the edge of Jerusalem. Here we rest and enjoy the views of the Old City. The city is preparing for the holy day of Sabbath, and twenty Israeli soldiers sit next to us in this incredible site listening to three Jews playing the violin. Jerusalem is a city of contrasts.
Before we left the holy city, we were taken to listen to one Palestinian family who resist abandoning their neighborhood. These people are being pressured by settlers. The house was legally theirs and the settlers had offered them money to leave. If they didn’t, the settlers would do it by force without any problems. The situation was tense as settlers had already kicked out some of the Palestinian neighbors and were living next to these people, without any shame, supported by the authorities. “We were kicked out from one house and we are going to be kicked out for the second time,” said the mother of the family. We could see pain in their gestures. We might return to help these people resist during the following days as the eviction is going to be soon. It is hard not to be affected by all the hate and tension as the provocative settlers impose their symbols in the area; Israeli flags billow in the old Palestinian area.
One hour later we have dinner in one of the few places where the Sabbath is not followed. Here we drink beer as we listen to 3 Israelis who boycott their government. Inside Israel the fight is also alive; the Palestinian cause is growing with the Boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign. Two Palestinians talk about the right of return.
Then after a hard and intense day we swam into the crowd of the Jerusalem night life.
Today started off a little slow as a large contingent of the camp, led by our Spanish delegation, danced the night away after last night’s presentation in Jerusalem. Once everyone woke, some only after Salim’s Turkish coffee, we were treated to another of Arabia’s GREAT breakfasts, which consisted, as usual, of a delicious fritada-like egg dish, along with falafel, olives, pita, hummus, goat’s cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers.
My group went off to the small building site where the house is nearly completed. At this point in the process, the professional Palestinian builders like to do every aspect of their jobs and the campers can only do the moving-of-stuff-around tasks. I learned the Arabic name for gravel (sim-sim), cement (sina) and bucket (dala). We heard a lot of “yalla” (Let’s go!) and “come on, come on, come on.” We all got very sweaty as usual.
When we came back to Beit Arabyia for lunch, there were 22 internationals from a program studying the Israel/Palestine conflict at Galilee University. After lunch, the small house group (also small) walked back to the site. We mostly passed sim-sim along human chains in dalas, which the builders used to level the floor before tiling it. The home is almost complete. All the walls are up and finished inside and out, the plumbing is going in, and the floors are almost finished. We all got very sweaty as usual.
After dinner, (the main dish was Shak Shuka a tomato and egg dish), we went to the Bedouin camp and heard a presentation from Abu Musa, the head of the Jahaleen Bedouin for the Anata area. The Jahaleen people are about 7,000 in the West Bank and 5,000 in Jordan. Abu Musa suffers from diabetes and after his leg was cut while being taken from his home during a demolition, he developed severe complications. A British woman, visiting his camp, saw how bad his leg was and brought an Israeli doctor to examine him. The doctor insisted that Abu Musa be taken immediately to Hadassah Hospital. After being held up at the hospital entrance because he didn’t have a permit to come from the West Bank, he was finally admitted due to his British friend’s insistence. The blood circulation had completely shut down and his leg needed to be amputated. A month later his other leg had to be amputated, and he spent three months in the hospital. His hospitalizations have cost many thousands of shekels, and he is looking at a combined cost of 70,000 Shekels for prosthetic legs, a virtual impossibility for Abu Musa, given his situation. Addressing us from his wheelchair, Abu Musa proudly told us about the plight of his people. He said Bedouins are the “light of the desert”. They are a people who do not stay in one place, but for centuries have traveled from place to place grazing their herds. Because of Israeli policies, they are now confined and their herds are diminishing. He also told us the Bedouins speak the “true” Arabic.
The last thing we did after stumbling down the hill in the dark was to celebrate Daniella’s birthday. “Happy birthday” was sung in English and Portuguese. We all went to bed eventually. The majority after the 11:00 “lights out,” including me writing this.
As activism is often a balance between theory and praxis – today we explored the latter with a tour of Ramle and Lod, two towns just outside of Tel Aviv that are mixed communities of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis. We first visited Shatil, a non-profit advocacy group that works on behalf of the Palestinian population and talked to Buthaina Habit about the “Mixed Cities Project” which documents the discrimination of the Arab population in these poor development towns.
Ramle was established in the 8th Century at the beginning of Islamic control of the region. For centuries these towns remained mainly Arab. In 1948, the Israeli military forced the local Palestinian population out and replaced it with displaced Bedouins from the Negev region. With the influx of Mizrachi Jews in the 1950’s (from Morocco, Yemen, and other Arab countries) and the subsequent immigrations of Russian and Ethiopian Jews in the 1980’s and 90’s, the town became a mixed city of both Jews and Arabs like other cities such as Haifa, Jaffa and Acre.
As with the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank, it is very difficult for Palestinians to obtain building permits, despite their Israeli citizenship. As a result, many Palestinians build illegally and eventually receive demolition orders. The living conditions for Palestinians, who live in segregated neighborhoods, are much worse than the already destitute lives of their lower class Jewish counterparts. They receive very few municipal services and up until recently there was no trash pick up in Arab neighborhoods. There is also no bus service and a stream of open sewage winds its way through the outskirts of town near the train tracks.
After a few free hours in Jerusalem, we arrived back in Beit Arabiya, our base, for a screening of Jerusalem: the East Side Story, a documentary by Mohammed Alatar. Beautifully crafted and meticulous in its research, it concisely describes the difficulties of Palestinians in Jerusalem from 1947 until today. Despite the seeming hopelessness of Israelis and Palestinians in relation to the peace process, Alatar was sincerely heartened to see that we were here, ready to learn and work and break the isolation of a community that still lives in a city with air that the poet Yehudah Amichai describes as so filled with history that it is hard to breathe.
Today, after seven days of building, the Taher family were handed the keys to their new house. Due to the effort and commitment of all the volunteers of the Summer Camp and the local workers, it was possible to construct this house in just a week.
The “Happy House”, as the family calls it, is a temporary house for its nine inhabitants. They will live in this house while they are waiting for the construction of a bigger house. The family played a big role in the process of rebuilding. Basyna, the mother and heart of the family, was present at the building site and looked after the workers’ wellbeing.
Today, on the 21st of July, after facing many challenges and due to a great team effort, the Taher family has a roof over their heads again. If the demolition of a house is the demolition of a family, the rebuilding of a house is the rebirth of a family. Today the Taher family was reborn. They have a house of their own again, something which every human being has a right to.
Now that the Taher family has moved into their new house, there is still plenty of work to be done on the other house we are rebuilding. The family who will move into the house next week, the Elyan family, came to the building site with manaqeesh (similar to a pancake) for the hard-working builders.
After lunch the participants left for a tour of Bethlehem and Hebron. In the Aida Refugee Camp one of the Summer Camp participants, who is a famous graffiti artist from Portugal (her artist name is MARIA IMAGINARIO), painted a piece on the Wall. The graffiti shows a bulldozer that hits a heart, just like house demolitions hit right into the heart of the Palestinian people. But the heart is strong and the bulldozer is slowly breaking down.
Aida Refugee Camp is a refugee camp near Bethlehem, which houses approximately 5000 people. Most of the inhabitants of the Aida Camp are refugees who fled from villages in Israel in 1948.
The Lajee Center organizes activities for over 2000 children in the camp. With only streets to play in, the Center offers a welcome distraction from the hardships the children face on a daily basis. Volunteers from Palestine and from abroad give workshops in photography, art, singing and dabkeh dancing.This has resulted in many beautiful projects, such as a photobook with pictures taken by children from the camp. International volunteers took the children across the checkpoint into Israel to visit the villages from which their grandparents had fled in 1948. The pictures that were taken by the children were published in a book, together with the stories that were told by their grandparents.
Walking through the camp we clearly saw the impact of the Wall and the occupation on the everyday lives of these children. The local school doesn’t have any windows on one side of the building, because of the risk of bullets flying in. Because of the Wall the camp is closed off, which means that it is difficult for inhabitants to get out of the camp to find work.
In Hebron the group met with John Lyons and Dianne Roe from the Christian Peacemakers Team. They told us about their work there, for instance walking Palestinian children and teachers to school, to prevent them from being attacked by settlers. Talking to John and Dianne and walking through the deserted streets of the Old City of Hebron it became clear just how deep the presence of the army and the settlers cuts into the everyday life of the Palestinians living there.
To learn more about the work of MARIA IMAGINARIO go to: www.myspace.com/maria_imaginario or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Inside the Bedouin community, problems are increased by the internal conflicts on social, cultural, economic or political grounds. One of the major issues concerns women because being in a patriarchal society their roles are not valued as much as men’s. Nevertheless, there has been a change in the last two decades. What makes this change even more interesting is the fact that it began inside the community. The Bedouin women have created projects for and by the women in the community. They are starting to learn more about family planning and how to be more independent.
Today was overflowing with activity. The work on the big house continued at a steady pace, and I have learned that chains of volunteers are critical to efficiency when there are few labor-saving machines. We passed unending buckets of gravel, water, sand, cement and floor tiles into the house so that the professional workers could continue their tasks without having to stop to fetch the raw materials themselves. Those of us who have been here since the beginning of the camp were overjoyed because about 15 volunteers arrived to spend half a day with us. They boosted our spirits as our arms and energy flagged. By early afternoon, we were tired and hot, but we felt great satisfaction seeing the interior of the house take shape.
Vans drove us back to Beit Arabiya for lunch and a talk. Shir Hever from the Alternative Information Center lectured on the economic aspects of the Oc
cupation. He traced the different economic causes and consequences, from 1970 to the present, including the privatization of the Israeli military. The lively discussion lasted until late afternoon, allowing us to avoid the hottest part of the day for hard manual work.
The rock and cement fence being constructed around Beit Arabiya is almost complete. Having a brand new cement mixer donated for this project makes a huge difference.
And finally after dinner, Noah, an artist from our group, gave a presentation about his work which synthesized iconography related to Jewish identity and the Israeli Palestinian conflict. His installations which use painting, video, sound and wall text, map out the failures of utopian projects including modernist abstraction, Zionism and Palestinian nationalism.
The end of the summer camp now in sight and amongst the international participants, it is evident that mixed emotions are being shared. There is the growing sense of accomplishment over the houses we have rebuilt, the joy of new-found friendships birthed in the intensity of tasting a little of what life under Occupation is like, as well as struggling with the reality that soon we will be leaving the Palestinians who have left a permanent mark on our lives and those from ICAHD who challenge us to remain engaged in their struggle to see this conflict end.
Once again, after breakfast we took our places and tiles were grouted and walls painted in the Elyyan home. At Beit Arabiya, the extended patio near the men’s toilet and shower block was finished and the new retaining walls almost completed, making the peace centre a safer place to welcome visitors.
Our afternoon and evening schedule included two debriefing sessions by ICAHD’s director, Jeff Halper. He began by reporting what Palestinians say to him, “Thanks for your solidarity, but we don’t need you unless your action connects to ending the Occupation.” Jeff warned us that one of the weaknesses of solidarity groups coming here is having an experience and then going home and not knowing what to do with it and what to say. Therefore he wanted to help us understand the “big picture”, with political analysis and said that advocacy without well thought-out strategy will not go very far.
Jeff emphasized that because ICAHD is Israeli, it never tells Palestinians what they should request and it lets them take the lead but he emphasized that to achieve a just and sustainable peace, there must be a win/win solution for both people groups. He suggested the following strategies of advocacy to bring about change:
- Link the Palestinian issue to local situations to reach new audiences – one idea is to twin communities or reveal a link to the arms trade
- Re-frame the conflict from a human-rights perspective and always start by acknowledging that Israel is occupying Palestine
- Mobilize global civil society into a “big-picture” meta anti-Apartheid campaign
- Identify the key players in civil society who should be our allies such as trade unions and churches
- Target those in power, such as the most influential politicians, journalists, film-makers, etc and find effective ways to lobby them
Day Fourteen – July 28th, 2008 – The closing ceremony
Today has been a study in extremes, with devastation followed by two small victories. In the space of only eight hours, I witnessed five Palestinian families being forced from their homes by Israeli police, and then, five miles away, a joyous celebration of self-determination, persistence, and rebuilding. It could not have been a more perfect insight into the terrible contradictions of life under military occupation.
To explain: a handful of ICAHD participants spent last night at a five-storey building in Beit Hanina, an East Jerusalem neighborhood about five minutes away from Anata. We had heard that a house was going to be demolished, so we joined a handful of other internationals and went to what turned out to be a large, beautiful apartment building in a well-to-do neighborhood. We met the five families living there, including a single mother, and learned that the owner had expanded the building without a permit after his application had been denied. After a few years in court fighting the demolition order, the Israeli police might finally come to demolish the home.
And that is exactly what happened. At 4 AM, the building was raided by Israeli police armed with M-16s, dogs and batons, ordered the tenants out, and by the next afternoon, wired the buildling with explosives and demolished it. After standing on the street with the Palestinian tenants and their supporters until 9 AM, we ICAHD participants went back to Anata. After all, we still had one home to finish building, and a celebration to attend. Though we did not witness the actual demolition of the building in Beit Hanina we saw firsthand the terror, brutality and humiliation inflicted on the Palestinians.
After this horrifying event, we returned to the relative calm of Anata and prepared for the closing ceremony. At about 3 PM, we gathered outside the newly completely Elayyan home. It seemed everyone was there! The Palestinian workers we had labored beside, the husbands and wives, grandmothers and kids, neighbors and cousins we had met during the last two weeks, who had fed us and brought us tea and water during our work breaks, all had gathered for the celebration. We chatted and posed for pictures, everyone smiling. The atmosphere was one of the most genuinely joyful I have ever experience.
After inspecting the new house and the young olive trees planted in the garden outside, we all took our seats to listen to an array of inspiring and powerful speakers. Jeff Halper, Meir Margalit, and our host Salim Shawamreh, spoke. Mr. Dahan, who had already moved into the smaller house with his family, as well as, an Anata official, also took the stage. All spoke movingly of Palestinian resistance and struggle in the face of Israeli control and oppression. They reminded us internationals of the second part of our work; to return to our homes and speak about what we had seen and learned. They recognized the joy and accomplishment of the day, while encouraging us all to continue to work for human rights, equality and freedom for Palestinians.
After the ceremony wrapped up, we headed back to Beit Arabiya for the real fun! A DJ played some amazing Palestinian music, and almost everyone danced, including Jeff and his granddaughter. Abu Musa and many other Anata residents joined us, and we were treated to a Palestinian dance troupe in traditional costume. Two stuffed lambs were brought out and the night ended with lazy chatting and satisfied stomaches. And underneath the celebration, camraderie and joy lay the truth of why we had to rebuild in the first place. And this was the contradiction of life for Palestinians under Israeli occupation.