Saturday, January 19, 2008

Inside the West Bank - Our visit to Ramallah

Our trip takes us to meet representatives of many elements in the Middle East conflict. After focusing on Israeli peacemakers yesterday, we turn to leaders in Palestine today.

I have to admit it was with a little trepidation that I headed with the group to the West Bank town of Ramallah. This is my fifth time visiting Israel and Palestine, but I'd always been told Ramallah was too dangerous to visit. Images of the 2002 Arafat siege by Israeli forces added to the sense of Ramallah's danger.

Over the last years, with East Jerusalem increasingly difficult for Palestinians, Ramallah has become capital of Palestine. Just 10 miles outside Jerusalem, the town has a large population, served by what appears to be a large police force. Any concerns about safety quickly evaporated by the scores of women and children out on the streets.

Our first stop of the day was with Jean Zaru, director of the Friends International Center. Quakers have been in Ramallah since the 1860's and their children's schools there are an important part of the educational system here. Jean, a lifelong Quaker, presented the Palestinian issues from her perspective as a woman and as a proponent of non-violence.

News cameras, Jean said, cannot capture the daily violence the Palestinians live with. She identifies the violence as "structural violence" that includes dehumanizing checkpoints, economic disruption, environmental degradation, and many other forms of harm inflicted on Palestinians. In her opinion, violence against Palestinians is of far greater scale than the violence perpetrated by Palestinians against Israelis in suicide bombings and rocket attacks. Much of the current trouble within Palestinian society is related to past attempts by Israel to intervene in Palestinian affairs. Hamas, for instance, was initially nurtured by Israel to counterbalance the power of the PLO. I'm looking forward to reading Jean's new book, Occupied with Non-Violence: A Palestinian Woman Speaks, due out in July of this year.

After our visit with Jean Zaru we headed across town to meet with Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian legislator and probably the most prominent Christian in Palestinian leadership. She's familiar to American audiences as frequent spokesperson for Palestinians during the first Gulf war and afterward. Ashrawi leads an organization working for the economic development of Palestine.

Ashrawi has a bleak assessment of the current situation in Israel-Palestine. "A time of promise is dissipating," she said. "Promises in word are being negated in deed." The growing number of settlements in the West Bank, the Wall, the escalation of violence, and the devaluation of human life are all signs the conflict is worsening. As the Palestinian leadership looks to the facts on the ground, it believes the Israeli goal is to create isolated pockets of Palestinian population centers, spread around a small portion of the West Bank and economically and socially isolated from the rest of the world. She sees Palestine as "de-developing" now, with its population going backwards in education, health, and social services.

Although Ashrawi is an opponent of Hamas, she pointed to American hypocrisy in encouraging elections then boycotting Palestine when a plurality of its voters supported Hamas. To Hamas she has two priorities: 1) Never target Israeli civilians, and 2) keep any military actions inside the 1967 boundaries of the West Bank and Gaza.

She also believes, as clearly many Palestinians do, that the key to unlocking the problem is the active engagement of American political leadership. The Americans have ignored this issue for 7 years and during that time illegal settlement outposts have increased in number from 32 to over 200. There are now over 450,000 Israeli in "formal" West Bank settlements, something Ashrawi identified as illegal land grabs.

The biggest sadness for Ashrawi has been the departure of much of the Palestinian Christian population. Of her 5 sisters' children, none currently live in Palestine any longer. Ashrawi maintains she will never leave, and hopes a future Palestine can be created that will allow Palestinian families to remain in peace.

The outlines of a final peace for Ashrawi are a full return to the 1967 borders, including Jerusalem. Israeli citizens on the West Bank should be offered full Palestinian citizenship. I think we all left Ashrawi's office less hopeful but also pretty impressed with Ashrawi's passion and commitment to a solution.

Afterward we spent the noon hour at Bir Zeit University, a modern, 8,000 student university outside Ramallah. The hundreds of Palestinian students on campus were finishing finals and, though we'd hoped to talk with them, we settled instead for an engaging conversation with Omar, the university's PR director.

The afternoon took us to Arafat's former headquarters, the Muqata, which has now been rebuilt into a shrine for the late Palestinian leader. Arafat was never a sympathetic figure to me, but I did enjoy the architecture of the place and the peaceful setting that had been created in his honor.

Afterward we headed to the offices of Mustafa Barghouti, leader of a new Palestinian political party called "The Initiative." Barghouti is a physician who believes the Palestinians need a competent, professional, honest political alternative to Fatah and Hamas. His new party managed second place (around 30%) in the last election, and it seems to have become the choice of Palestinian professionals and women.

Barghouti shared an excellent slide presentation about the effects of the current conflict. In his analysis the Israelis are creating an apartheid system, with isolated "Bantustans" for Palestinian residents. He feels Israel's ultimate plan is to take over the Jordan Valley, leaving only small pockets of territory for Palestinians. The Wall, which defines the new Palestinian border, is three times the length and twice the height of the Berlin Wall, but few in the international community are outraged about it. He sees two solutions to the conflict: 1) a return to the 1967 borders, something he sees as increasingly unlikely given the Wall and the increasing number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, or 2) a one state solution with one-man, one-vote for all Israelis and Palestinians. He sees this as the unintended consequence of current Israeli policy in the West Bank. Barghouti's new movement, called Al Mubadara in Arabic, has four values: 1) Non-violence, 2) Democracy, 3) Social justice for women, the poor, and the disabled, 4) Palestinian unity. Barghout is an engaging man. He excused himself promptly at the ending time for our talk so he could go across town and treat a woman who had been hurt in a non-violent demonstration at the Wall. While some may disagree with Barghouti's description of Apartheid as the intent of the Israeli government, it is hard not to be impressed by Barghouti's vision and commitment to a better future for Palestinians.

After an ice cream cone we headed to the Israeli checkpoint an a return to Jerusalem. The two soldiers, a man and a woman, who boarded our bus for a passport check couldn't have been much older than 21. I wanted to hold them in my arms and tell them that, somehow, with God's grace, they would be able to live in peace in their land, side by side with Palestinians like Barghouti, Ashrawi, and Zaru.


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