Annual Earthstewards Gathering 2005

Trish Dickinson from the UK was a key organizer of PeaceTrees Bethlehem 2005. She has offered this report of her impressions and experiences from that event.

"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 Palestinian people.

Stony ground

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 three years.

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.

Fertile Ground

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 their music.

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.

Severed branches

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."

Holy Sites

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 to pasture.

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 with us.

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 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.

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