Friday, September 14, 2012

Peace-building where “Peace” is a Dirty Word

Working in the West Bank and Israel afforded me an opportunity to test out my hypothesis that peace is what our world needs most, and empowering and inspiring children to believe in and work for peace will help us get there.

In the West Bank, I worked in what was once “the eye of the storm,” the largest refugee camp in the region known during the Second Intifada as a hotbed for the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and infamous for the number of suicide bombers it produced.  Today, the Balata Refugee Camp houses nearly 30,000 inhabitants in .25 of land. The narrow streets of the camp are alive with the activity of shop owners, street venders, young men and children, making a walk through the camp a crowded and chaotic event.

When I first expressed interest in partnering with a local organization to bring a peace curriculum to the children of this camp, the idea met resistance. “If you pacify the youth, you will crush the Resistance.” I was told. “How can you work for peace without first working for justice?”

I explained the basic premises behind my work with children. I believe all children deserve to know peace. I believe children growing up in particularly chaotic and violent environments are in need of special attention to help cultivate their own peace, and I believe the actions of children can lead to more peace in their communities and the world.

With an explanation my partners deemed satisfactory and weeks of curriculum negotiation, I was allowed to begin my work.

The first day of any Kids for Peace meeting begins with the simple inquiry “What is peace?” I typically ask children what peace means to them, when they feel the most or least at peace, and what they do to create peace for themselves and others.  When I asked the attentive group of children how to create peace, a little boy’s hand shot up in the air. “Fight the enemy!” he shouted, bursting out of his seat. Trying to redirect my line of questioning, I continued, “What do you do to create peace for yourself when you don’t have any, for example, when you’re feeling angry?” I paused, waiting for my typical answers of “Read a book,” or “Go for a walk.” A little boy enthusiastically replied, “I beat my little brother.”

It was going to be a long and bumpy road to cultivating peace…

As the days went on, I worked with the children participating to develop skills to prepare them for facing future challenges. We learned and practiced nonviolent communication, conflict resolution techniques, and ways to ease anger and experience peace personally. They planned days of service and prepared to make a recycled trash herb garden as a project to improve their community’s environment.

The happiest day for me was The Great Kindness Challenge-Balata Camp Edition, a day dedicated to blanketing the camp with kindness and altruism. For three days preceding, the children made preparations for their day of kindness. Guided by a checklist of kind acts translated into Arabic, the children wrote thank you cards, made “Kindness Matters” posters in English and Arabic, designed “Pinwheels for Peace,” and strategized about how they could reach the most people possible with their good deeds. I proudly watched the seriousness with which they pursued service to others, and shared in their delight when the clock struck 5pm and they ran out into the camp’s streets, marking the start of their 24 hours of kindness by sharing smiles with at least 20 people.  

The Great Kindness Challenge was a beautiful day which left my heart full of hope. The next day, however, I was confronted with the realities of promoting peace in a sometimes hostile environment.

A photographer had visited my children’s group a few days before the day of kindness, documenting the children’s work. Unbeknownst to me, the photos were posted on a Facebook page with a sizable local audience under the simple title, “Peace-building Project in Balata Camp.”

The response was immediate from furious viewers.

“How dare you allow a white girl to teach our children about peace. All Americans think Palestinians are terrorists,” one angry commenter wrote. “If her goal is achieved, the resistance to occupation will be over,” wrote another outraged individual.

Quickly, I saw the fragile threads upholding the fabric of my peace program unwind before my eyes. Was that it? Was my chance at working with children to promote peace in the refugee camp over?

I immediately responded with a PR campaign, believing that the outrage arose from a misunderstanding. People were not against the values of kindness, respect, and altruism, but rather, they were afraid of the word “peace.” I drafted a carefully worded explanation for the photos posted on the internet describing the groups’ goals of providing children with a safe space to foster peace for themselves and serve their community.

The storm fortunately passed, and the peace work was permitted to continue.

My experience working with children in the Balata Refugee Camp was equal parts inspiring, educational, and frustrating. The program was very popular with the children who loved the crafts, fun, and games of the Kids for Peace curriculum and confirmed my belief that all children desire to be good and to do good. At the same time, the realities of working in an ongoing conflict zone necessarily transformed my work.  The reason Kids for Peace targets children is because of the deep biases that sometimes inform adults. With one simple word--“peace-building”—months of work was nearly derailed, underscoring the fragility of peace in tense environments.   
A young boy draws his idea of peace for our Peace Puzzle. His image include the Al Aqsa  mosque, the symbol of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade and a continuing point of contention between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the Palestinian flag and the word "hope."

Girls write the script for a skit on conflict resolution, sitting in front of the boards made with the  Peace Pledge in English and Arabic. 

In preparation for The Great Kindness Challenge, a girl shows of her thank you card to a camp volunteer. 

Me helping girls make "pop-up" thank you cards for The Great Kindness Challenge.

Kindness Matters

Pinwheels for Peace

The West Bank's Refugees

Refugee camps are designed to offer a temporary home to individuals rendered homeless by crisis or conflict, or for whom insecurity requires evacuation. Ideally, camps serve as a safe space to offer solace to the vulnerable until they can return to their homes.  

For those living within the West Bank’s camps, there will likely be no return. They are permanently displaced people. Many had family members who first left modern day Israel in 1947. Since then, they have lived through several wars and incessant confrontations, witnessing few signs of progress toward finding a sustainable solution to end the land dispute that has long plagued the region.

In May and June, 2012, I worked in the West Bank’s largest refugee camp leading a peacemaking group with children. Simultaneously, I listened, asked questions, and read. I learned about the UN Resolution 197 which guarantees uprooted peoples the right to return; I spoke to people who explained that allowing this would mean the end of Israel; I read the opinion of Alan Dershowitz who accuses Palestinians of not integrating refugees in order to perpetuate anger and foster terrorism; and I learned firsthand from the children of the camps how their life experiences inform their understanding of the conflict that impacts nearly every aspect of their daily lives.

When faced with an uncertain future, humans tend to lose hope or commit themselves to an idea and work tirelessly towards its fruition. In the camps I worked in and visited, I saw a people who were tired, but hadn’t given up hope in their conception of justice, met individuals with regrets about tactics used in the past, but who ultimately wanted what would bring their people peace.  

I saw firsthand how life within the camps might impede a sense of personal peace. Most camps are over-crowded with schools strained to their maximum. “Palestinians are the most paranoid people in the world,” I heard several Palestinians joke, a sentiment rooted in the distrust that develops after decades of warfare and instability. During my time in the West Bank, periodic security missions by IDF forces took terrorist and opposition suspects out of their homes in the middle of the night, further contributing to the pervasive sense of unease within the camps.

As much as meeting Israel’s settlers is critical to understanding the complicated dynamics of the West Bank’s wars, so too is meeting the land’s landless, the refugees who persist without a home. 
Murals on the walls of the Balata Refugee Camp describing the camp's history

Mural in a Bethlehem refugee camp

Coming Face to Face with the Men on the Walls

Martyrs'  Square in Old City, Nablus

Upon the walls of the ancient corridors of the West Bank’s city of Nablus hang banners of young men pictured holding machine guns. These are Nablus’ martyrs, men—often only months out of adolescence—who died for the cause of establishing a Palestinian state.

To many Palestinians, these men are heroes, making the Ultimate Sacrifice in hopes of establishing a free and just land, bidding a final farewell to this world with the pull of a string and the detonation of a belt. Some see their cause as noble, affording them a special place among God’s chosen.

In my country, government leaders have shown no hesitation in calling the acts of violence committed by these men “terrorism.” Their targets were usually civilians, their tactic to breach security at the Israeli border and find a crowded place with the goal of killing as many civilians as possible. Terror reigned. Men, women and children died.  

Yet in the streets of Nablus, I met some of the most hospitable and kind people I have ever known. I was daily beckoned by shop owners to share a cup of tea and discuss life in the West Bank and beyond. From the people I met, I developed a nuanced understanding of terrorism and terrorists, peaceful Muslims who want to live a righteous life, as well as those who explain “just” warfare in religious terms—a tactic utilized by different religious peoples for centuries. I learned that many Palestinians see the actions of the Israeli military in the West Bank as “terrorism.” I looked up the definition of “insurgent”—the term most often used by the U.S. media to describe Iraqi and Afghani militants—and realized that in these countries, rebels probably justify their behavior by calling U.S. efforts "terrorizing" as well.

Terrorism does not arise out of nowhere. It has its basis in ideas, ideas formulated over time that inform the way one views the world.

As I left Nablus behind to begin my work in Israel, I wondered what ideas informed those young men pictured on the posters. What did they grow up hearing? What ideas informed their thinking?

It took me a while to post my final entries from my time in the Middle East in part because I needed to process all I had seen, experienced and learned. I realize the issues I am discussing in my blog posts are controversial, and that no one is without biases in how they interpret "the facts." My primary aim is to introduce those reading this blog to some of the complexities of the conflict, ideas espoused by locals and the international community, and—ever important to me—the prospects for peace.

I left the Middle East with more questions than answers, as I imagine you will notice in this short essay and the ones to follow. I hope these entries will provoke thought and discussion rather than offer generalizations about complex problems. I traveled to both sides of the Israel-Palestine debate, worked for peace with Christian and Muslim Arabs and Jewish Israelis, and made friendships that I hope will last a lifetime. This was a unique opportunity afforded by my American passport, and one I do not take for granted as most living in the midst of the conflict never get to experience “the other side.”