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First Report from the current FOR Interfaith PeaceBuilders

First Report from the current FOR Interfaith PeaceBuilders
Delegation to Israel & Palestine

April 30, 2003

Like most documented journeys of the 21st Century, we need a soundtrack...

Orientation's anticipatory silence before symphonic sounds, Jet engines drone from a New York City Night, to a Middle Eastern sun rising. Call to prayer brings another Amman day to close. Flapping pigeon wings in sky. Camel grunts. Guttural Arabic A's and Harsh Hebrew H's pass by in clips, but Good intention sounds the same everywhere. Divine mumbled messages delivered by Davening bodies at the Western Wall. The ping of sling shot stone on window. The beeping chirps of security. The irony Of Madonna beats at checkpoint "Borders."

And the wonderful laughter that peeks through It all. Nevertheless, angry, even Apocalyptic, Words ground the region. Tastes of harmonic melodies and the dependable dissonance That underlies all life in the Middle East. The symphony is set to the tone of Our discursive thoughts. Thoughts Of identity, justification, understanding, And fear. Thoughts open to another Sound bite, and thoughts Desperately grasping at Ungraspable space for a solution.

The cacophony of bearing witness.

Much to our chagrin, our 10 hour flight to Amman, Jordan is absolutely full. Every last seat is taken and sadly there is no room to stretch out and sleep. Later we discover that Royal Jordanian had canceled all of its flights to Amman prior to this week because of the war in Iraq. The plane trip could certainly be considered a beginning to another culture. A large percentage of passengers are Muslim families-mothers with their head covering (heejab) and many, many children. And to catch the eye of a child who would so readily break into a smile, shy away, then look again and dissolve into a smile so big her face could hardly contain it! One particular child comes to mind of the girl who loved the peek-a-boo game off and on during the long flight. And then, in spite of the dreadful experience of airsickness during landing, still her eyes would smile through the tears and paper towels.

How can one describe the welcome at Queen Alia Airport upon our arrival Sunday afternoon? Follow exit sign and there is a sea of expectant faces of families and children-more children than could ever fit in that space! And all wide-eyed and smiling at our arrival. Our guide in Amman, Mohammed, is a sweet man of ready laughter, from whose eyes shine an infinite sadness. He is eager to show us the best of his city with the waning daylight hours. Smiling with pride and information, he leads us on a chilly evening through the Ummayad palace atop his city, shows us the many layers of civilization beneath. We peek our heads in to see the ancient artifacts of the Amman Archaeological Museum before it closes. (Interestingly, when asked why several display cabinets stood empty, staff explains that some of the museum's most valuable items had been put away for safe keeping at the outset of the US led invasion on Iraq. Had the war spread to the Jordanian capital, they feared being looted in a similar tragic fashion to what happened at the National Archaeological Museum of Baghdad.) We feast our eyes upon a fabulous panoramic view of the seven mountains of Amman from the Citadel. As the sun sets, we absorb the evening call to prayer (adhan) in 'surround sound' as it emanates from the numerous neon green lit minarets that dot the landscape. We are the only people there, and that is part of Mohammed's sadness, because the tourists have disappeared from Amman. His colleagues can not believe his good fortune in having a group to guide. Though we are only eleven, we are almost the only group in town.

Mohammed, as we sit in the mostly empty dining room of a four-star hotel, wants to talk about Iraq, and we want to hear. It seems odd and ominous to us that US occupied territory is now only 150 miles away. He starts by saying that in Amman, people are being made crazy by what they hear has happened there. We share a language since we have all been glued to CNN for a month.

Mohammed shares the news that is circulating in Jordan. Why did Baghdad fall so easily after the staunch resistance in Basra? There was a "great treason." Stories have come in of Saddam fighting in the last battle at the airport, betrayed now, and telling his followers to disband; stories of the fierce fighters to the death from many countries, caught between the US attackers on the one hand and the Iraqi traitors shooting at them from the other. The previous day 500-800 US troops had died as electricity was sent through the water and oil-the unconventional method the Minister of Information had promised the day before. Then the US had started "pumping"- he does not know what. Thousands died. It was over. Mohammed struggles to make sense of this. The Last Days, promised by the prophets must be now upon us or soon to come. One day soon the sun will rise in the west, and those who have not believed will wail and want to believe, but it will be too late for them.

The mood changes. We share jokes. He tells us of the djinn who grants a wish to an 80 year old man. The man takes out a map of the Middle East and says, "Bring peace here." The djinn hesitates and says, "I can't do that." The man then asks for renewed sexual vitality. The djinn: "Could you let me see that map again." (A djinn in Islam and Middle East folklore is a creature made of fire who sometimes grants wishes to human beings who can see them.)

We awake the next morning to a sumptuous Middle Eastern feast of hummus, lemon yogurt, and wide selection of breads and other delicacies. With some dread and quite a bit of anticipation, we pile into a small tourist bus, and Mohammed takes us thirty miles west to the border with the West Bank. This is the war zone to the East, with Jordan now pincered between two occupations. He can go no further; another guide waits for us on the other side of the Border, and like Dante and Virgil we will cross alone to find him. Mohammed heads back to our city and his worry that the economy of Jordan, resurgent and building a short time ago and so dependent on trade with Iraq, is now dead in the desert too. As for us, we cross the Jordan River via the Allenby Bridge, into the West Bank-our first look at Israel and Palestine. (By the way, the Jordan River, at least at this point, is neither deep nor wide).

The first Israelis we see are border guards, fit young men and women wearing black bullet-proof vests, some with large guns (Uzis?). We make it through several checkpoints eventually, at one point getting off and back on the bus in rapid succession as it is checked inside and a large mirror searches the underbelly. Once we arrive at the bridge itself, we sit in the bus waiting to be summoned. More sitting. At last we disembark with our luggage, which disappears onto a ramp you'd find at any airport. We all walk single file through a metal detector, two of us beeping, requiring a private body-search (turns out it was our under-wire bras!). A couple of the others of us are also singled out for extra-thorough luggage searches. After a fairly brief individual interrogation, our passports are stamped, visas granted. Leah paves the way, going first and describing us as an "interfaith group on a visit to the Holy Land." We are grateful for the "Have a nice day" from one of the border guards. (Poignantly, there are usually separate lines/sections for tourists and Palestinians, but the tourist line-as there are none-was closed.) Three hours later we are through.

Our day is not yet through with waiting though. More guns in sight, another long wait to enter through the Israeli checkpoint into the city of Jericho, located in one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in the world-now territorially part of the West Bank. At this time, the only way to get into Jericho, a town of 15,000 people, is through this single checkpoint. The town is "closed" to the outside world at 10:00 pm every night, with no one allowed in or out-currently the case for most Palestinian cities and towns. As tourists we got easy passes once we made it to the actual guardhouse. Palestinian travelers seemed to be much more carefully scrutinized. We try to grasp what it would it be like if we had to go through a checkpoint every morning to go to work, or to go for a doctor's appointment, to visit to a friend, or for customers to shop at our stores. This is our first taste of how unviable life is in an occupied territory.

The income of Jericho is dependent on two principal sectors: agriculture and tourism. Traditionally, Jericho had exported its produce to both West Bank Palestinians and Israelis; however, with the near-continuous state of closure, it has become increasingly difficult for the people of Jericho to get their produce to market. And it probably goes without saying that tourism has virtually ground to a halt in Jericho-with the exception of internal tourism in the form of West Bank Palestinians braving the checkpoints to get some rest and relaxation in Jericho's numerous resorts during the winter months due to its warm climate from being at sea level. The controversial Oasis casino opened in 1998, which had provided many jobs for Palestinians in the Jericho area, now stood silent and closed. In other words, the city is flat broke, which was evident in the fact that the coffeehouses were filled with young men in the midst of a workday.

We stop at the Jericho office of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, a vast structure of gleaming white limestone, and have the opportunity for a spontaneous visit with Dr. Sami Mussalem, Director of the Office of the President in Jericho, and president of a Palestinian NGO called the Committee for the Promotion of Tourism. Musallem tells us that we were lucky to have been allowed to pass through the Jericho checkpoint at all, as foreigners are often turned away under the pretext of "security."

Moslem elaborates on the destruction of economic and social life in Jericho due to the continuous closures, noting that in addition to the economic effects mentioned above, Israelis have also prevented Palestinians from celebrating longstanding traditional festivals in Jericho such as the annual Baptism Ceremony of Jesus Christ.

He explains that Israel used Jericho as a testing ground for all of the restrictive measures that were eventually implemented in the other towns and cities of the West Bank and Gaza. For example, Jericho was the first place that the IDF surrounded with a ditch to prevent people from "sneaking" in or out. Closure was first implemented in Jericho, as well as the destruction of agricultural areas, the bulldozing of homes, and aerial bombardment. Situated as it is on a plain surrounded by hills controlled by the IDF, Jericho is an "easy target" for these measures.

Musallem discusses the formation of the new Palestinian cabinet in light of the shift from a purely presidential system to one with prime minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). He expresses his hope that this new government would be better able to curb Palestinian"extremism," and reiterates Fatah's official position of opposing suicide bombings of civilians within Israel. He says that the Palestinians are fighting not because they love to take up arms, but "to be treated like human beings." "We are fighting to be bored...with normalcy." Musallem is optimistic that with the newly restructured government, progress could be made on the Bush administration road map.

Musallem hopes that just as the United States supposedly went into Iraq to force its compliance with international law, it can also use its considerable power to pressure Israel to comply with international law and UN resolutions. He explains that despite the many agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority under the auspices of successive US administrations, there is an element of procrastination on the Israeli side which is signified by the "security" concern which remains largely undefined. Musallem sees peace as a reciprocal arrangement in which Palestinians would re-affirm Israel's right to exist and move towards normalization, in exchange for Israel ending the occupation in accordance with UN resolutions 242 and 338. He insists that such an agreement could only be concluded with President Yasser Arafat, who is currently the only person possessing the legitimacy in Palestinian society to do so.

Regarding the issue of the settlements, Musallem underscores the impossibility of accepting settlers with Israeli citizenship controlling land in a Palestinian state, and suggests that under a peace agreement ending the occupation, settlers could remain in the Palestinian state, but in a position subject to Palestinian Authority.

As for the most difficult question of right of return for Palestinian refugees as stipulated in UN resolution 194, he says that this right had to be recognized in principle by Israel; the details of what form return would eventually take could be negotiated. However, he notes, while you can be compensated for lost property, what is the compensation for years of torture as a refugee? He explains that the refugee question obviously could not be solved overnight, but that the solution had to be political, legal, and psychological in nature.

Outside Arafat's office it must be school time. Here come three little girls, wearing the typical dress with long jeans underneath. They are laughing and they laugh and wave at our bus. We like to photograph but she takes the joke one step further and puts her hat over her face!

We make our way to Jerusalem. As we drive along dusty, winding roads, there is a herd of goats and,--oh there he is, the shepherd. Another mile or two and again we see the peaceful pastoral scene. There, on that steep hillside they try to graze; the shepherd is there, too. Our exposure to Jerusalem begins from the breathtaking overlook at the top of the Mount of Olives. Rimon, our Palestinian Christian guide provides excellent explanations of what we see down below. From there it is a steep drop down to the Garden of Gethsemane, home of olive trees proven to date back to the time of Jesus, approximately 2,000 years ago. We continue to traverse our way by foot through the Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters of the Old City making stops at the ancient Roman cardo, the Western Wall, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

After a day of packed so full experiences we cannot quite sort out, we trudge toward "home." A young Palestinian child peers from a wall at us. And then his little brother-no, peering is not enough for him. He climbs up, both arms, then-there he stands his full stature poised there to take in the novel scene as we pass on...

Since the beginning of our journey, from Amman to Jerusalem, we have been confronted by powerful symbols, voices, and images. The burdens of the past are everywhere evident, as are the imperatives of faith, and the conflict separating national, ethnic, and religious communities. These conflicts are not unknown in our own country, but here they are active in full force and appear to be lived out every day by multitudes of people. It is daunting to think how peace might evolve from such disparate voices and viewpoints. As a small group of Americans with diverse backgrounds ourselves and opinions of our own, we have our own difficulties in dealing with these issues. But we hope that our own journey will encourage others to undertake a similar quest in the search for peace.

Litsa Binder
Ellen Cole*
Vic Eyth
Leah Harris*
Norm Howard*
Maxine Jaubert
Berenice Keiderling
Ian Koebner*
Gretchen Merryman*
Doug North*
Barbara Warren*

*Report writers and compilers

Applications are currently being accepted for our August 1-16, 2003 delegation. For more information about Fellowship of Reconciliation's Interfaith Peace-Builder delegations, click here, or email us at middleeast@forusa.org, or telephone us at 202-244-0821.

Joe Groves, Program Coordinator
Gretchen Merryman, Program Assistant
FOR Interfaith Peace-Builders


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