"Children are our Hope Flowers"
The dream for Peace Trees Bethlehem was sewn at the International
Earthstewards gathering in Devon 2003.We heard Ibrahim Issa describe
his father's vision for a school which was open to children of all
denominations. The school started in a shed in the refugee camp where
Ibrahim himself was born and young people from all cultures and faiths
were bussed into the school each day to learn each others language,
songs, rituals and to plant food together. "Children" said Mr Issa
"are our hope flowers."
In 1993 The Hope Flowers School, managed by Ibrahim,
moved to a four-story building, which includes a centre for peace
studies. Our Earthstewards team from Germany, Netherlands, USA and
the UK worked with Ibrahim to bring about Peace Trees Bethlehem in
July 2005. Earthstewards have two branches to the programme. To support
the local community, in an area of crisis, by cleaning up the environment
decimated by the existing conflict and to plant trees with people
from the local and international communities. The practical task of
planting trees by replenishing the land being the first step to break
down cultural, religious and gender stereotyping. This literally creates
fertile ground for the responding to conflict part of the programme.
This was my second Peace Trees initiative as five years
ago I had planted trees in Vietnam with American and Vietnamese war
veterans. On this trip my emotions fluctuated between utter admiration
and joy witnessing the partnerships of Israeli and Palestinians working
for justice; I felt deep empathy for the fear carried in both societies
and anguish witnessing the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian Communities.
Our tree-planting group consisted of twenty seven Palestinians ranging
form ten to twenty five years. The majority came from the Dehesia
refugee camp in Bethlehem and others from local villages. The international
group of twenty five came from the Netherlands, Austria, Germany,
UK, the US and New Zealand. Our ages ranged from eighteen to seventy
years! Many visitors joined us during the three weeks some from Israel
and some from international organisations. It was very hard for Israelis
to experience the duality of being Israeli and hearing what the Israeli
army does in the territories and the consequences of this for the
The Hope Flowers School and International Peace Studies Centre is
situated in village of Al-Khader south of Bethlehem. The school provides
a full education pursuing a philosophy dedicated to education for
peace and democracy. In the field of education the school is an innovator,
providing mixed-gender classes, interfaith classes for Jewish, Muslim
and Christian pupils and free education for children directly affected
by the conflict. A mini farm has been created providing food for the
school community and the proceeds from produce offers twenty scholarships.
Water is limited and erratic throughout the West Bank. Children are
now arriving at the school malnourished. A war-trauma unit for mothers
and teachers is established on the campus, promoting human values,
and psychological support. A place is necessary to express woundedness
in a society where men have learnt to be closed and woman become martyrs.
Conversation cafes and non-violent communication skills are integrated
into the unit and my colleague from Serbia and I have been invited
to deepen these skills with teachers and social workers over the coming
The school campus is built on a rocky hillside overlooked
by a military sniper tower and surrounded by demolished houses. Over
the last two years the school cafeteria, under which is housed the
water supply, together with twelve houses and farms, have been living
under the threat of demolition. If this were to happen the school
would be unable to function because the wall would go through the
campus. The stress from living with this threat was very apparent.
On the hillside can be seen cabin accommodation occupied by Jewish
settlers, themselves recently evicted by the Israeli government from
Gaza. This is part of a plan to urbanise and link up the land between
the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Access for Palestinians is
limited to dirt roads as petrol roads are restricted for Israeli vehicles.
Numbers of children attending the school has reduced from six hundred
to one hundred and fifty because families are intimidated by the presence
of soldiers and by sniper fire. It is now illegal for Israeli citizens
to enter the occupied territories, unless they carry an additional
international passport, this means that the Jewish students who were
attending the school need now to send their school work over the internet
to stay in touch with their teachers. This enforced separation makes
it harder for the communities to be neighbourly.
In the days leading up to the tree planting the team met with the
Governor of Bethlehem, the Mayor of Al-Khader and the local farmers.
We planned the planting programme for the coming two weeks and the
municipality agreed to water the plants when the project was completed.
The central town reservation would be the home for the one thousand
two hundred Lagusto trees (similar to a large leafed privet) and five
hundred good sized olive trees. The variety of the Olive Trees was
chosen for their high yield of fruit and oil, and would be planted
in solidarity with the local farmers on the rocky hillside below the
school. Both sites were challenging to dig as the ground was packed
hard, covered with rubbish and the temperatures ranged from thirty
five to forty degrees. We needed to plant early in the morning because
by eleven it was extremely hot and the tree planters and the trees
were beginning to wilt! Many of the local community had witnessed
the uprooting of ancient olive trees and were forbidden access to
their own orchards so produce was untended and lost. When planting
on the central reservation welcome kettles of mint tea arrived from
the local community and shopkeepers, initially curious to understand
our initiative, expressed their gratitude in reclaiming some beauty
back to the town. Drivers on both sides of the road hooted either
in encouragement or to prevent us from impeding their way! As we worked
together culture, religion, age and gender were forgotten. Ten year
olds dug with seventy year olds and friendships blossomed.
"The wall of concrete is shameful but the walls of fear and hatred are more terrible"
Listening circles, using a traditional talking stick,
honouring passions were a challenge for all of us as we gathered after
tree planting. Participants had the choice of a structured programme,
incorporating compassionate listening skills and empowerment exercises,
or a more movement based itinerary. Role-play using present day situations
(there was no shortage of material!) We practised different responses
within the offered conflicts. We explored how to cooperate with each
other in stuck situations through creating Gordian knots and experienced
short and long-term visions through building a labyrinth in the playground.
In a local shady area each person chose a piece of wood, which represented
his or her story. We wept many tears and shared much laughter. We
learnt their dances, watched their homemade videos and listened to
When you've been making music with someone how can
you see them as a devil!" said the conductor Daniel Barenboim in the
Sunday Times when he described his orchestra of Israeli, Syrian, Lebanese,
Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian musicians.
The Bereaved Parents Circle is a network of Israeli and Palestinian
people who have lost family or a close friend in the conflict. Our
guest speakers were a father who had lost his daughter through a suicide
bombing and a brother who had lost his sibling through violence in
an army jail. They both spoke of their grief and initially a longing
for revenge for the killing of their loved ones. They both then reached
a place where they had a need to connect with victims from the other
side: they needed to give time and hear each other's pain. At this
stage of their grieving came the will to transform their anger into
cooperative action to prevent ongoing violence. "We must be the only
organisation in the world which does not want any more members" they
joked. They run a help line called Hello Peace and tour nationally
and internationally with their joint message. We were all very moved
and for the Palestinian youth in the audience it was a new perspective
to imagine that an Israeli could also feel like a victim.
"…violence is a tragic expression of unmet feelings
and needs" Marshall.Rosenburg
ICAHD is a USA/Israeli funded organisation with a mission
statement to end occupation by working together in nonviolent ways.
They have a policy to prevent demolition and to rebuild houses when
they have been demolished. Their staff, with Israeli and International
volunteers, formed a human chain with farmers and our Palestinian
youth when the military came with bulldozers to demolish three houses
around the Hope Flowers School. The action of holding hands not only
offered mutual support but also prevented the throwing of stones,
which protected stone throwers from being shot. ICAHD have needed
four times to rebuild their office and residential peace house, which
is also the home of the owner and his five children. The centre has
been dedicated to the memory of Rachel Currie and the wife of the
owner Salem, whose trauma has rendered her voiceless. The building
stands alone in the white wasteland of East Jerusalem, with no bird
song, no trees and no vegetation, its one neighbour being an army
interrogation centre on a far hill. The area of East Jerusalem in
the West Bank of the River Jordan is perceived as "administered" land.
If the land was perceived as "annexed" land the government would be
breaking the international law. I am moved to tears each time I hear
the message in Michael Rosens poem, published in the Lancet
We are the unfound
We are the uncounted
You don't see the homes we made
We are not even the small print or the bits in brackets
Because we live far from you
Because you have cameras that point the other way
The USA backed Israeli government's plan is to create
sixty-four disconnected Palestinian enclaves surrounded by the concrete
walls. Two thousand demolition orders are pending in East Jerusalem
alone. Random house searches, terrorising inhabitants, are carried
out throughout the night with a fifteen-minute warning system to evacuate
their houses before demolition commences. We witnessed the distress
of the elderly, screaming babies, barking dogs and livestock being
evicted before the Israeli army drilled holes in the roof and caterpillar
bulldozers driven by seventeen year old soldiers demolished the building
into rubble. We reminded the soldiers that they had the right to refuse
to carry out these orders if they felt the order was morally wrong!
As the law stands the Palestinians are regarded as
residents and not as citizens so they have no access to house deeds
and no way of obtaining a permit to rebuild their homes. They are,
however, sent the bill for the cost of the demolition. The model of
military bullying demonstrated by our British and American governments
creates violent responses across the world so tragically experienced
by citizens in Madrid and London.
The behaviour of soldiers at some check points are
monitored by groups of Israeli woman to ensure respectful dialogue,
however the continuing humiliation waiting for hours in the hot sun;
restriction of movement by curfew within the home and away from loved
ones; inability to access the land for food and scarcity of food,
water and medical drugs; the lack of work or of hope for an education
and, living surrounded by death are a breeding ground for suicide
bombers and growth of PLO branches. Force of any kind may work for
a short time but we will pay for it at some point in the future. This
applies within the family or between nations. Ask any one who is caring
for a two year old!
As John Pilger wrote in the New Statesman "the cause
of current terrorism is neither religious nor hatred for 'our way
of life', it is political and needs political solutions. It is unjust
and double standards which plant deep grievances - the culpability
of our leaders and the cameras which point the other way."
The Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities
lived happily side-by-side until the British and French governments
divided the Ottoman Empire. Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem and Hebron
were Holy sites for all. The Balfour agreement gave Zionists a homeland
after the Shoah (the holocaust) and the Likud party built strategic
military bases, deported half a million Palestinians from Gaza and
subsidised settlers to move into the Holy cities. This August, the
media focused upon the misery of the displaced settlers forced from
their homes by their own USA financed government. In Hebron we witnessed
with members from the Christian congress the siege mentality and military
occupation of the old city. Streets were covered with netting to protect
Palestinians and us from missiles of rocks, bottles and bags of dirt
being hurled down upon our heads by the settlers and their families.
Palestinian school children need an escort to school to save them
from being hurt as do the shepherds trying to take their goats out
Sewing seeds for reconciliation
The Sulha is an ancient
Arab ritual for reconciliation. An orthodox rabbi who had just returned
from a three day Sulha in Jerusalem introduced this to us. Supported
by Rabbis for Justice, two thousand five hundred people from all over
the world gathered on common ground to create listening circles, using
the traditional talking stick; men and woman who refused to be enemies.
Women's tents and children's villages were established, their intention
to hear each others stories - talking from the heart, acknowledging
their fears and destroying the walls of separation. Though seventy
Palestinians from Gaza were not given permits to take part in this
event, Muslims lit the Sabbath candles for Jews who made Ramadan dinner
for the Muslims. "We are two wounded people in the land of the prophets,"
said our Rabbi who also shared the Jewish Sabbath evening service
Roots of war
The culture and language of war has been
sanctified in many countries. So when the Betsacore, the Refusnik
movement, began in Israel it was a shock to the population. Male school
leavers are expected to do three years military service followed by
one month a year as a reservist. Female school leavers commit as school
leavers to two years military service. Refusniks are individuals who
choose selective refusal by doing their duty but not across the green
line, occupation being perceived by them as a calamity for all people.
Many Refusniks are sent to prison, disowned by their families and
are labelled traitors to the state so have difficulty finding jobs.
President Bush's statement "If you are not with us you are against
us!" still prevails. In 1970 after the war in Lebanon three thousand
reservists, including twenty-five pilots, petitioned against occupation.
Now in 2005 over two hundred school students are petitioning the Israeli
government for their right not to enter the armed forces. Four hundred
appeals by Refusniks, supported by human rights lawyers, are waiting
for their cases to be heard by the military or in the high courts.
"We are a trade union of individuals" said their coordinator "challenging
the propaganda to unite in hate and challenging the intimidation by
fear and paranoia. We Israelis have a responsibility to remember our
history and soldiers have the moral right to refuse an order which
is against their values." I was only obeying orders is not acceptable
in the 21st century. The Refusniks are recognised as a leading model
by international peace activists and organisations across the world.
The Conscientious Objectors Movement, in 2005, has an international
profile, supporting not only the right of soldiers to refuse to kill,
but also the moral right of citizens who wish to divert their taxes
from military expenditure. I would like to finish by a quote by the
Tibetan philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh.
"The roots of war are in the way we live our daily
lives, the way we develop our industries, build our society and consume
goods. We have to look deeply into the situation and see the roots
of war .We cannot blame one side or the other. We have to transcend
the tendency to take sides-practising non-violence. First become non-violent,
this applies to the family as well as society."
Trish Dickinson offers theme led Conversation Cafes integrating
Nonviolent Communication please make contact on 44 (0) 121 454 6231
or firstname.lastname@example.org Trish is currently touring with this
presentation and accompanied by photographs and a film. Please contact
her if you would like this in your area.