<  Reflection Three: Christopher Ellingwood’s Daily Travelogues  >

May 2015 Delegation to Palestine/Israel
Co-Sponsored with the University of Georgia's Catholic Center
and the Central Presbyterian Church of Atlanta

OVERVIEW: In IFPB’s early days, reports from our delegations were often longer, more detailed, and attempted to provide reflection on every meeting (hard to believe, right?). May 2015 delegate Chris Ellingwood has been filing daily reflections akin to our old style of reporting and they are powerful in their scope, nuance, and incorporation of both the meetings and some chance encounters along the way.  Here we present many of his daily reflections to give a sense of the depth of the experience and provide updates on many organizations and allies doing transformative work in Palestine/Israel.


DAY 2  l  Jerusalem’s Old City, East Jerusalem, and the Carter Center

We toured through the Old City of Jerusalem today on stone walkways worn smooth by millions of feet. Architecture ranged from the Roman period to the Ottomans, and everything before and after that. We were able to see many of the major religious sites as well as the markets in between. We also saw a couple Jewish settlements, their characteristic fences and guard posts breaking up the skyline. We walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and to the Western Wall (sometimes called the Wailing Wall), while I am informed that we will be seeing some of the famous mosques another day.

Later after the tour and a generous lunch we went to meet with Grass Roots Jerusalem, a Palestinian activist group that works for justice in the form of civil rights for Palestinians. Micah, the sole Israeli member, was our guide for the next tour through Palestinian areas east of the Old City. Most of the tour was focused around the giant wall that cuts the Palestinian parts of East Jerusalem off from other, also Palestinian, areas. From our vantage point we could observe how the wall cut economic/industrial districts off from residential districts which had the inevitable result, we were told in cutting off the former districts from a workforce and the latter districts from employment. Unemployment could reach as high as 45% in some parts. We learned about several settlements in the area that were funded by American (United States) individuals or groups. Apparently Mike Huckabee was personally involved in cutting the ribbon on at least one of these Jewish settlements in the Palestinian that is illegal under international law. We were also informed of how Israeli border police had a hand in training police in Beijing and Rio de Janeiro for when they evicted locals in order to build facilities for the Olympics. We were also informed of the training that they had provided for various American police officers as well.

Later in the evening we heard from Nathan Stock, the field office director for the Carter Center who has his office in Ramallah, the seat of Palestinian government. His office does work in Palestinian areas such as the West Bank and Gaza trying to develop political unity and cohesion amongst Palestinian leadership. He mostly talked about Gaza and the recent conflict that has been taking there. He told us that Gaza is cordoned off from the rest of the world by the IDF so that it is incredibly difficult to get supplies or refugees across or to have any kind of economy. This predicament had the unfortunate effect of limiting transmission of information or contact with the main Palestinian government in Ramallah.  So long as this is the case, it is impossible for anyone to deal with Palestinians as a single group with a single set of representatives, furthering political discord and tension.


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DAY 6  l  Tent of Nations, Kairos Palestine, and the Church of the Nativity

Today on our agenda we headed to Bethlehem and to the Tent of Nations, a Palestinian farm that is fighting a legal case to keep its land. Bethlehem is part of “Area A,” which means that it is one of the few areas under the Palestinian Authority and not under Israeli military authority. It is a mid-sized city of about 85,000 people and about twenty five percent of those people are Palestinian Christians.

Our first stop was in the International Center of Palestine where we met with Dr. Munther Isaac of the Bethlehem Bible College who talked to us about the Kairos Palestine document. The Kairos document calls for a nonviolent means to end the conflict by Palestinian Christian leaders. This was inspired by the similar Kairos document written in South Africa during apartheid. We were told that there were around 165,000 Christians in Israel/Palestine, but that their numbers are declining as some are leaving the country. Of the Palestinians polled, only 0.8% said that they left for religious reasons while the majority listed political or economic reasons which is to say that they left because of the occupation. Dr. Isaac also answered a question about ISIS moving into Palestine in the case that it became an autonomous country by saying that he did not think that it would happen. He said this because there has been no Sunni/Shi'ite or history of religious conflict like there has been in Iraq and Syria, that Palestinians tend to be more secular due to Western exposure, and he pointed out that ISIS is not in Jordan because, like the Palestinians, they are Sunni and not Shi'ite Muslims. He expressed that one of his biggest concerns was in the pilgrims who came to the area and did not think of the plight of the people actually living there or stopped to consider how many Christians were there, even in places of power such as two ministers of government and mayors of a couple of cities. Dr. Isaac also told us that he was a part of the 'Christ at the Checkpoint' program that held conferences in Bethlehem that gave the opportunity for Evangelical Christians from across the world to meet and discuss the occupation.

At lunch, some of us met a young man named Mustafa at a local restaurant. He had a job at the restaurant, but had taken three months off in order to study in the United States. However Israel did not grant him clearance to leave and so he was without a job as his position had been filled for the three months. He talked to us about his life in Palestine, how he had been arrested in the middle of the night at his home and then jailed, and forbidden by means of the separation wall to visit Jerusalem.

I managed to rush through lunch fast enough in order to join the rest of the group that headed to visit the Church of the Nativity. The church is generally considered to be less accurate in location than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but this church was originally built by St. Helen in the fourth century. It is also the location where St. Jerome translated the Bible out of its original languages into Latin, known as the Vulgate.

We spent the afternoon and evening at the Tent of Nations, also known as Daher's Vineyard. We were introduced to the owner, Daher Nasser, who told our group about the history of the farm. The land was purchased in 1916 and registered with first the Ottomans, then the British, and then the Jordanians. Papers from these registrations have been key in him keeping his land, but there have still been instances of Israeli soldiers and settlers destroying or blockading parts of his property, and a court case to decide its fate has been ongoing for over twenty years with no end in sight. Daher's brother, Daoud, explained to us more about the legal defenses that they had taken and how their Tent of Nations initiative had helped their farm. It had been named after their father, a Palestinian Christian minister, about the Biblical Abraham's tent being a tent for all nations. The program brings in internationals, Israelis, and Palestinians to visit, learn, and assist at the farm. We also heard from Daoud of the unlikeliness of a two state solution due to how Israel has been settling all around Palestinians in general, and their farm in particular. They believe in nonviolence and in educating people of its importance and effectiveness. So far they have addressed the Israeli water cutoff by building rain cisterns and dealt with no electricity by building solar panels. They have become largely self sufficient in these regards.

The farm is situated on a hill, which granted a fantastic view of the sun as it set behind the Mediterranean and the Muslim call to prayer echoed through the valley from the nearby Palestinian town.

We slept in tents set up for visitors, and left in the morning.

DAY 8  l  Bili’in Village and Dheisheh Refugee Camp

The day began with me being accidentally locked in my hotel room. When we our group embarked on the bus, the first thing that happened was that one of the group leaders went down the aisle asking everyone individually to write journal entries so that the organization could reprint them for the newsletter. I'd better keep writing these... or else.

As I write this we are on our way to Bil'in, whose people are known for their longstanding protests which they still engage in every Friday against the Israeli occupation. They were actually the subject of the film, "Five Broken Cameras," I am told.

We passed by Mount Tabor, the site of the Transfiguration where the Franciscans have built a church dedicated to the meeting of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.
I think that I sat on the wrong side of the bus today. Most of the trip highlights are on the opposite side which means that I can't take pictures.

Many of my group cheered as our driver successfully navigated the tour bus up the winding, hilly road To Bil'in. There we met Iyad Burnat, a local activist who has given talks in the U.S., about the weekly protests that the local people have against the separation wall. We were fed yet another lunch in our series of increasingly generous meals. The local people are mostly farmers and everyone: men, women, and children walk towards the wall every week for a demonstration. They are nowadays joined by many internationals coming in from many parts of the world. The protesters are met by Israeli soldiers who shoot at them with tear gas and with rubber bullets. They will shoot at children and one Israeli lawyer who was demonstrating was shot from about ten feet away in the neck, which I saw on camera. I also saw a film clip of a Palestinian man who got shot in the chest with a tear gas canister and died as a result. Tear gas canisters are of course designed to go through windows and to hit solid objects. They are not designed to be directly fired at people. Some of the images shown I found to be pretty surreal like how some demonstrators dressed up like the aliens from the movie "Avatar" to protest or how one video played the Lord of the Rings soundtrack along with the footage. I just find it interesting to see Western pop culture adopted as symbols of resistance.

After lunch we walked back out into the sun where Iyad gave us a tour up to the separation wall and answered some questions. He told us that he believed that one, democratic state was the best solution to the problem, with equality for all. He also wished for the opportunity to visit Jerusalem and the coast of the Mediterranean with his family, which they were not allowed to do because they lived in the West Bank. When asked how long his family had been here, he replied by saying that Adam had stopped to ask his great grandfather there if he had seen Eve anywhere. We were also welcomed by the mayor who told us how important he felt it was that internationals not even necessarily protest, but inform others about the conditions there. I overheard that now other villages have joined Bil'in in weekly demonstrations. Walking in the heat by the giant wall and being told that we were being observed by IDF surveillance from atop a tower suddenly made the Lord of the Rings soundtrack seem more fitting.

We stopped along the way because the other group leader bought us popsicles.

Our final stop for the day and overnight stay was at the Dheisheh Refugee Camp. The camp was originally comprised of tents set up by the UN that has since been built up into first shelters, and then had additional stories added on over time. There are around 15,000 Palestinians in a camp originally built for 6,500 on half a square mile of land. There are two schools, one clinic with one doctor, and thirteen sanitation workers with hand carts.

We went into the Laylac Center, in which volunteers work to provide supplementary education to people of all ages in the camp. They have everything from arts to politics departments. We heard from several different speakers on life in the camp. From one of the speakers we heard his opinion that there should only be one state just for Palestinians because it used to all be theirs and because he didn't think that the Israelis would ever live in peace. We were told by someone else this was not an uncommon opinion. Another speaker had returned to the camp that he had been born in in order to volunteer his summer away from studying international relations and public health at Brown University in America. He talked to us about his experience in getting to go to America to study as well as about his passion for playing soccer. We also heard from a third speaker about a women's workshop that helped women to embroider gifts to sell. Later we split up into smaller groups in order that we could spend the night with different families in the camp. We went to Naji's well-furnished home and talked to his daughter about their family members living abroad and what life was like for her here. Afterwards we talked to Naji and he told us stories about many different IDF raids on the camp as well as about the appalling conditions in many of the political prisons.

Some of our group members were close to or already dozing off, so we thanked Naji for his information and went to bed.

DAY 9  l  Badil, Hebron, and an Israeli Settlement

We left the Dheisheh refugee camp early in the morning and headed to nearby Bethlehem in order to meet with our next speaker. We met Basem Sbaih, the unit manager for the Badil Resource Center Bethlehem office. They are a human rights organization with consultative status to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Badil’s goals are education, advocacy, and work to aid Palestinian refugees. They believe that only a rights based solution will be durable enough to last and to that end Basem informed us that a one state solution would be the only solution that offered Palestinians their natural rights of self-determination and return to homeland. We were told that the center wished to achieve its goals through studying and exposing facts, and in raising awareness of Palestinian conditions.

After that we made our way to the city of Hebron. Hebron is a very conservative city so we all had to dress appropriately and women had to wear head scarves at times. Hebron has a history of violence between Jews and Muslims perpetuated by radicals on both sides. Hebron was divided into two parts after the Oslo agreement so the IDF has full control in one place and the Palestinian Authority has limited presence in another. In Hebron we went the Mosque of Abraham, part of which was annexed into a synagogue after a Jewish radical killed around two dozen Muslims during Ramadan while they were praying. After that part of the mosque was annexed to serve as a synagogue. The mosque and synagogue are divided internally by, you guessed it, a wall. I'm sensing a pattern here. The mosque is the supposed location of the tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Leah, Isaac, and Rebekah. The structure itself dates back to King Herod in 30 BC. Seeing how all the tombs on the Israeli side were barred while the two on the Palestinian side were open kind of surprised me. I know from traveling around that walls are sort of a one-size-fits-all solution to 'problems' in Israel, but it was really kind of unusual to me to see that happening in a sacred space as well.

After that we received a tour through the old city of Hebron courtesy of the Youth Against Settlements group. They aim to document evidence of IDF and settler harassment of Palestinians living under military law in order to defend wrongfully accused Palestinians. They publish footage of these incidents online in an attempt to get international support for discriminated Palestinians. Walking through the old city markets we could see the settlements that had occupied the upper floors of Palestinian buildings. As the first floors were still used as shops by Palestinians, they had to set up a fence to catch trash the Israeli settlers threw at the people below. We also witnessed how different routes into the marketplace had been sealed by the IDF, which resulted in a decrease in the number of shoppers present and shops open. The tour had to end at that point; both because we ran out of time, and our guide was not allowed to travel any further down the street as a result of certain streets being closed to Palestinians since the attack on the mosque. As one of our group put it, 'I think that's the only time I've had a tour end because our guide couldn't legally go any further.'

After we left Hebron we stopped at a beautiful glass and ceramics shop where we could see them working on the pieces out front. One of the group leaders cajoled me into getting more than a fridge magnet. I'm glad to have the plate and chalice that I bought; I just hope they survive the plane ride home.

Following that we headed near Bethlehem to talk with Bob, an Israeli who was in charge of community services for one of the Israeli settlements constructed in the region. Walking into the town's council center, Bob spoke to us about the area's history before answering questions. He explained to us that the land we were on was uninhabited government land that they had started to build on thirty two years ago. Bob expressed that he believed that education was key to finding a peaceful solution and how he felt that by living by Palestinians that the two communities could learn to get along. He believed in a one state solution via annexation of the West Bank and that refugees, both Palestinians and Jews he was clear on saying, should be settled wherever they currently resided, though that there should be some kind of restitution funds to refugees on both sides. He expressed a desire for the U.S. to be more interventionist in the Middle East because he believed that the U.S. has the power to stabilize the region. He also told us that he believed that the key to fixing problems in Israel was in fixing problems in the Middle East and while I don't quite agree with some of the motivations behind that belief, the statement itself seemed quite reasonable to me. The U.S. Is unlikely, in my estimation, to pressure Israel too hard for peace so long as it remains a sort of Westernized country and ally within a tumultuous region. I'm concerned that Israel's problems will be sacrificed or ignored because the state of the Middle East will be seen as such a greater problem that eclipses all others in the region. We ran short on time, and not everyone had the opportunity to ask the questions they wanted, but we had to go leave.

We made our way back to Jerusalem and checked into the same hotel. I even got the same room, so hooray for continuity.

DAY 10  l  Lifta, Zochorot, Erez Crossing, Another Voice, and Bedouins in the Negev

Our first stop today was at Lifta, but along the way we heard from one of our group members about his dinner with some old friends who had since moved to Israel. They had discussed our delegation and who we had been talking to, and he got the impression from them that we weren't getting the full story; that our delegation was one sided. Which is kind of the impression that I have gotten from some, but certainly not all, Israelis that we have talked to.

We met with Omar from the Zochrot ("Remembering") group at Lifta. Lifta had been a village in existence since the time of Canaa up until 1948 when the Palestinians had been forced to flee as a result of violence, Jewish settlers moved in, and in the sixties the settlers left but asked that the area be turned into a park. Zochrot's goal is to educate people, mostly Israelis about the massive forced migration of Palestinians that occurred around 1948, and is now illegal to teach in schools. We walked through the beautifully constructed buildings of Lifta as Omar gave us a lesson on what had happened at various points in the village's history. We were told that a series of terrorist attacks and massacres against the Palestinians of the area eventually convinced the people of Lifta to flee.
We stopped for a break at an Elvis diner/gas station. I found it pretty bizarre seeing what parts of American culture are picked up in other countries.  On our way to our next location our group leader answered questions about Mizrahi Jews, Jews from the Middle East, and their relation to the modern state of Israel. We were told that whether they were offered incentives to immigrate to Israel or were attacked in their homelands in order to drive them to Israel, the Mizrahim remained economically depressed and poorly treated by the government ever since. These things matched up with what we were told by Ruven, the former Black Panther, a few days ago.

We made a stop at the Erez Crossing, which is one of the gateways in and out of the Gaza Strip. In the past day or so Hamas fired a rocket at Israel to which Israel responded with air strikes. The situation was tense, to be sure. We talked with some of the people outside. One man wished to enter Gaza in order to visit his dying mother, but he was continually delayed from entering by the border guard. We also heard from a German journalist who had spent six years in Gaza, who told us his thoughts on the condition of Gaza. The journalist, Peter, told us that the situation was worsening there, and that many people there were disappointed in Hamas. He did not think an uprising likely due to Hamas' military superiority and the fact that most Palestinians in Gaza were too busy trying to survive to organize a rebellion. He stressed the fact that it was not an equal conflict, but that it was a conflict more between a first and a "fifth or sixth world" country.

We drove into the Negev Desert in order to meet our next speaker, who was born in Los Angeles before his parents moved to Israel, who lived at a nearby kibbutz (it's kind of like a collectivist farm with privatization in places) and was a part of the Other Voice group. The group tries to educate people about the conditions in Gaza, protest against the series of wars against Gaza, and attempt to maintain a line of communication to Gaza. He talked to us about the hostilities between Israel and Gaza. He explained his belief that if the quality of life could be improved for the people in Gaza then life could be improved for everyone. He continually expressed the desire that Israelis and Palestinians live in peace through diplomacy.

Our final speakers were Bedouins, and we met at Al Arakib, one of their villages unrecognized by the Israeli government that had been demolished over eighty times. We heard of the continual harassment and violence that were inflicted upon the residents. Their houses, farms, and trees were continually destroyed and their land was surrounded by both new settlements and foreign trees being planted where their own trees used to be. I think that what I remember most was the passion with which they spoke about the injustices committed against them. They had been arrested and shot at yet still remained to get her and did not think twice about bringing us water and coffee when we arrived.

We had group time on the bus back to the hotel, and we will all have an early morning and a long day ahead of us tomorrow.

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Individual delegates contribute pieces to these reports.  As such, reports are not comprehensive accounts of every meeting or experience, but impressions of those things that most impact individuals.  Submitted reports may be edited for clarity or brevity. Trip reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Peace-Builders, trip leaders, or delegation partner organizations.  We hope you enjoy reading and we encourage you to share these reports with others.


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