By Gene Knudsen Hoffman
Fellowship, the Journal of The Fellowship of Reconciliation, May/June 1997
In the spring of 1996 I received a phone call from Leah Green, Director of the Middle East Program for Earthstewards Network. She wanted to talk with me about my writing on Compassionate Listening, a process in which people open up to new thoughts and ideas when they are carefully listened to. Sometimes they even change their opinions as they learn to listen to themselves. Over the years I have doggedly kept visiting the Middle East, pursuing this process. Leah invited me to come to Israel and Palestine in November of 1996 with a group dedicated to Compassionate Listening.
On November 10, a party of eighteen left the United States – all committed to listen to both sides nonjudgmentally, non-adversarially, compassionately. This article is about some of the people we encountered during that remarkable experiment.
The first night we were there, we met with Mikado Waraschawski, Director of the Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem. I’d known him for some time as the founder of Yesh Gvul. Yesh Gvul means “There is a Limit.” To Mikado and many Israelis of military age, it meant they would not serve in the Israeli Army of Occupation on the West Bank.
Mikado was the same vivid, clear-thinking and clear- speaking young man, with hints of Asian ancestry, that I’d met before. He spoke to us about the hundred-year struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, “two different realities in a very small land.” The Oslo Declaration of Principles was based on important joint assumptions that recognized the mutual legitimate rights of both realities. But this is now being undermined by the Netanyahu government that “is replacing this mutuality with domination.” Mikado also spoke of the fear in both societies of war between Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists, as well as deep concern over “the collapse of Israel’s internal cohesion” if the militantly orthodox and extreme nationalists continue to grow in political power.
Sara Kaminker describes herself as a “devoted Zionist and a Jew.” She is a former Jerusalem city planner and City Council member. She wants Palestinians on the City Council so that they can air their differences. Sara is a handsome, bold woman-larger than life, with an arresting voice. Her apartment is tastefully decorated, full of color, with rare impressionist paintings, Persian rugs, furniture of rich woods, and large windows opening onto patios and views of Jerusalem. She is beloved by Palestinians, for she is a public voice on their behalf.
Sara described to us how land is distributed in East Jerusalem-a burning issue for Palestinians. In the past three and a half years, Jerusalem municipality policy has destroyed 291 Palestinian homes. In the worst cases, the municipality gives families five minutes to two hours to take what they can and leave the area. Then bulldozers demolish their houses. Sometimes demolitions are held up for months in the courts. “Jerusalem,” she told us, “was expanded after the 1967 war. In 1967 there were 164,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem and no Israelis. Seventy thousand dunhams were then expropriated and annexed to West Jerusalem.” Today there are 170,000 Israelis in East Jerusalem.
To use Palestinian land, Israelis confiscate it for public use. This includes parks, schools, public buildings, the apartment complex in which Sara lives, and settlements. The Palestinian villages in East Jerusalem have been designated as “yellow areas.” “Green” land is owned by Palestinians, but they are not allowed to live there or to build. Palestinians are always offered some compensation for their lands, but no Palestinian who values his life or reputation would accept it, since seeking this compensation denotes a traitor. The Israeli government offered twenty-five million dollars for certain Palestinian lands. No one took.it, and the government confiscated the land anyway.
“Once they have lost their homes, Palestinians have the choice to live under poor housing conditions in ‘yellow’ areas, leave Jerusalem, or build new houses on ‘green land.’ No permits are issued to Palestinians to build on ‘green land,’ nor are there any subsidies. Homes on ‘green land’ are regularly demolished, often as soon as they are built. The Israelis have subsidized 60,000 apartments in East Jerusalem for Israelis, and only 5,000 for Palestinians. It is obvious,” continued Sara, “that they want to populate Jerusalem with Israelis.”
Sara Kaminker is an amazing woman. I feel Israel is blessed with her presence.
From Sara’s we went to Beit Horon, a settlement in the West Bank. There we were met by Yehudit Tayer, Associate Director of the West Bank Yesha Settlement Council. Yehudit is a slim woman with long blond hair. She was born in the United States and has a fragile look. But she is far from fragile; her delicate chin is set; her brown eyes flash; she is a militant Zionist who believes unwaveringly that God gave this land to the Jews as an irrevocable gift. She lives with her husband and two small children in Beit Horon. We met with her in the settlement’s synagogue, a handsome building with stunning and unusual stained glass windows. “We moved here,” she began, “because we are Jews and want one homeland. Here is where it is: these Judean mountains were biblically given to us. The first settlers here had the beginnings of a friendly community. There were lots of empty mountain-tops, plenty of room to live here for both us and the Palestinians. I oversee the 141 settlements of 150,000 Jews here in the heartland of Israel. We have a bypass road for the safety for our children; our drivers speak Arabic.
“I deal with the media. We residents are always depicted as fanatics. It would have been easier if in 1967 we had just thrown the Palestirdans out. When we establish settlements we live on our ancient land. Hebron was established by Jews, and then we were ‘ethnically cleansed’ from there. We want to return; we have the right to return. We want to live in peace with the Arabs. Despite all the problems, we have grown. We have a high-tech economy, security doors, educational opportunities, even education for disabled girls. Terror attacks are blamed on us. The Government delegitimized us by not allowing us to expand. Hebron should not be given to the Palestinians. All Jewish children in Beit Horon are targeted by the Palestinians-they are calling for the blood of the Jews. This message is coming from mosques: ‘First we kill the Jews, and then the Christians.’ A few weeks ago our houses were under fire. Palestinians are afraid to come here as friends….”
We left feeling downcast-we could sense her pain. Next we went to Gaza and, at long last, met with a leader of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement best known in the West for acts of terrorism, such as suicide bombings. We were to meet Ghazi Ahmed Hamad, 31, head of the Center for Research on Palestinian Issues and spokesperson for the Politica1 wing of Hamas.
The office we entered was small and full of plastic chairs for us. Soon Ghazi Ahmed entered and sat at the worn desk. He was a slim, handsome young man with a surprisingly gentle face. There was something about his presence that caught my attention. He explained to us that during the Intifada, Hamas was militarily oriented, but that now it is more politically and socially oriented, helping poor families, families of prisoners, and women’s activities, “We don’t want to throw Israel into the sea; we want independence like any other people” he said.
“The Israeli government,” Ghazi Ahmed told us, “exacts severe punishment from Palestinians in its effort to keep them under control. We may not export to anyone but Israel. There has been a four month curfew, and Palestinians may not go anywhere outside their own cities.”
Then Ghazi Ahmed spoke about his personal life. He told us how his father and uncle were assassinated before his eyes when he was seven years old. How his mother had been shot, wounded in the lungs, had undergone surgery, but never healed. How on the night before the birth of his first child, while he and his wife were talking about possible names, Israeli soldiers dropped into their house from everywhere and arrested him. They told him to come with them for five minutes-and then told him he had committed acts against Israel, and was sentenced to five years in prison. He suffered thirty days of torture during interrogation. This was in 1989, during the height of the Ihtifada. He said he was never accused of anything specific; he did not know of what he was guilty.
“We live in isolation from the world,” Ghazi Ahmed continued. “Here in Gaza we are in a big jail. We have lost the right to travel. The world should not blame a nation under siege. When we react to the settlers’ violence, we are called killers. But I’m re-thinking violence for us-it doesn’t do any good.”
We asked him if his religion helped him. He responded “My Muslim religion says ‘Be patient.’ If you do good and don’t harass, you will survive. If you kill or harass, you and your state will be destroyed.”
Our time with Ghazi Ahmed Hamad ended. We were all awed by the experience. I went up and spoke to him before I left. I told him, “you have great gifts-you can be a leader to your people. I hope you will explore nonviolence-it may be helpful to you.” “You sound just like my mother,” he replied. I told him I’d be glad to have him as a son. We laughed. He reached out to me; we embraced.
[Shortly after we left, Ghazi Ahmad Hamad joined in two nonviolent demonstrations in Gaza, as was widely reported in the Us press. GKH]
After returning to the West Bank, our group joined a busload of Israelis going to visit a Palestinian woman whose husband had been killed by an Israeli soldier while participating in a nonviolent protest over the confiscation of his land. We passed through the main room of the murdered man’s house and shook hands with his despairing family. The widow was pregnant with her eighth child. On our way out, I noticed a lovely woman with wavy grey hair. She must have noticed me too, because we walked out together toward the bus. We sat down and our conversation began. Her name is Chava Keller.
Chava lived in Poland in 1940. She had to flee from the Nazis, first to Russia and then to Lithuania. She spoke forcefully when she said, “Israelis are not committing Holocaust atrocities on the Palestinians. But if I don’t do anything about the atrocities we are committing, I am like the Germans were.”
I learned that Chava was the mother of Adam Keller, a famous Israeli pacifist who spent years in jail for refusing to enter the Israeli army. He is now editor of the magazine The Other Israel, which is committed to ending the Israeli occupation and undertaking many reforms. Chava is a long-time worker for peace and justice for Israeli prisoners, many of whom are Palestinian.
The following evening, we visited Chava in Tel Aviv. We were invited into a small apartment which, between chairs and the floor, was still big enough to contain our large group. It was warm and cozy, full of foreign souvenirs. There we met her husband Ya’akov and two of their friends and contemporaries, Sara and Itzak. All four were veterans of the ’48 war and were in their seventies.
In 1948 they, like Menachem Begin, had been members of the terrorist organization Irgun. They had all fought against the Palestinians. They were now against war and for the two-state solution.
They shared memories with us. Chava’s feisty husband presented a picture of Jerusalem in 1948. “Few Jews walked with Arabs,” he said. “Most were afraid to go to Arabs’ homes.” He had lived in Jerusalem. Parts of the city were destroyed by bombardments. His father lost his job. “We children were told to take Palestinian homes after, the Palestinians left. My father said, ‘Are you crazy? These people will return?
Sara’s husband Itzak was a writer; he reminded me of an elderly aristocrat. At that time, he had felt it was all right to kill. “The idea of killing Arabs gave me pleasure. ‘Kill the tiger and become a man’ was my motto.” Later he became sympathetic to the Palestinians and began to think it was not right to kill them. “In wars everyone is right. Settlers feel they have a right to kill and die for the land.” Itzak feels peace is impossible. “We can have Jews and Muslims in a secailar state but if we’re seeking to be a religious state, we cannot live together as equal citizens.”
Sara, Itzak’s wife, was a fine-looking dark-haired, dark-eyed woman-and a humanist. She had been in the army. She had watched the exodus of the Palestinians from their villages in 1948. She had brought Arab prisoners of war to work for Israelis. She had listened to Arab histories and had seen their villages flattened. She told the Palestinians to leave, run away-but they would not. They knew they could not return.
Chava sees Zionism as built on religion. “I am an atheist,” she told us. “I would like a humanist, secular state. I want partition for both Arabs and Jews. It’s my state; I’m not giving it to the religious, to the Palestinians, or to the nationalists. I want it to be democratic and I want it to be free.
“My main work is with political prisoners today. Jews get a lot of legal understanding. No one takes anything into account with an Arab. I send lawyers to the prisoners and try to get good legal care for them. In 1948 we had an army; the Palestinians had no army. Israeli officers were mobile. It was a time of no choice about our survival. One of the sides would win. It was one or the other. If we lost, we would be exterminated. The 1948 war was more horrible than any other.”
Again, we left in awe. If people who had believed so strongly in violence could give up their violence and feel compassion for their former enemies, even while they were fighting, there may be hope for humankind.
Beit Sahour is a Palestinian town (largely Christian) outside of Bethlehem, and has long been known for its nonviolent struggle. For many years its people have refused to pay taxes for the occupation, and have been severely punished, losing homes, businesses, and money. Yet they have gone courageously on. The people of Beit Sahour developed ‘Palestinian Time.’ They set their clocks and watches to hours different from the Israeli standard, causing many difficulties for the occupying soldiers. Their schools were closed for several years, and students were arrested if they were found carrying textbooks on the street. Yet they developed a curriculum for home teaching, and sent weekly lessons to parents. They held secret dialogue sessions with Israelis every fortnight, and called their meeting room the most democratic in the world.
On other occasions when I had met with the Beit Sahour group, they had been composed mostly of older people. This year, at the Center for Rapprochement, the majority were young, bright, eager young people, busy formulating policy and preparing new actions. Elders, who are their teachers, also attend. Planning involves activists from around the world. Recently a group of young people from Denmark visited and worked with them, and ended by inviting them to spend a ten-day holiday in Denmark. The group’s newest project, teaching conflict resolution in Palestinian schools, is supported by Austria. In 1996 the Center was the recipient of the US FOR’s [Fellowship of Reconciliation] Pfeffer Peace Prize.
”The Israelis are frightened of us,” they say. “They think we are killers, terrorists. After they stay in our homes, they are less frightened-but they take the risk of losing their jobs if they visit us. Some still do it, but settlers don’t come here.
“We know we’ll survive better if we use nonviolence. We need many leaders and teachers; the quality of the leader should be open-minded and aware of peoples’ feelings on both sides.”
The people of Beit Sahour told us they are happy with their commitment-not confident of peace, but still eager to practice nonviolence. They are daring, bright visionaries, open and aware. It began to feel to me that young people are once again becoming the hope of the world.
We returned home, deeply aware of the gulf separating Palestinians and Israelis, but also encouraged by openness where we hadn’t expected it, and changes that adversaries can make. Both Israelis and Palestinians -like us all-may yet discover there really are divine possibilities in every situation.
[About the author — 1997] Gene Knudsen Hoffman is a Quaker from Santa Barbara, California. Founder of FOR’s US/USSR Reconciliation Project, she has worked all over the world for peace. Out of her many visits to the Middle East she has written Peace is Made in Pieces for Pax Christi, and No Royal Road to Reconciliation for IFOR. For further information about the Compassionate Listening Project in the Middle East, contact Leah Green, Mideast Diplomacy, Box 387, Indianola, WA 98342. E-mail: LGreenInc@aol.com.