November 7th, day #6

Home visit with Farhan Alqam in Beit Ummar, West Bank

“Other peoples live until they die. Palestinians are dying to live.”

~ Farhan Alqam

Editor’s note: Between October 1 – November 7, 69 Palestinians have been killed including 14 children, and over 7,200 injured – including 2,200 wounded from live ammunition. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, the Israeli Army has “thrown away the rule-book.”

Farhan with his daughterFarhan Alqam, father, engineer, poet and former Mayor of Beit Ummar, West Bank. Farhan was deposed by the Fatah faction with Israeli collusion after Hamas swept the fair and democratic elections in Gaza and the West Bank in 2005 (the elections were overseen by Jimmy Carter and other Nobel Laureates).

Shattering stereotypes

by Joel Berman, November 7, 2015

Hamas. The word evokes fear in so many of us who equate Hamas with terror and inhumanity. The word leads us to reflexively recite our familiar tropes: Hamas wants to drive the Jews into the sea. Members of Hamas don’t love their children the way we love ours. There’s an unbridgeable divide between Hamas’ values and our own. Any suggestion that Hamas might be human and rational like us is often a conversation ender.

These thoughts bounced through my brain as our bus approached Beit Ummar, a Palestinian town of 18,000 situated fifteen miles southwest of Jerusalem. Farhan Alqam, the Hamas former mayor of Beit Ummar, had invited our Compassionate Listening delegation to join him for a luncheon feast at his home with his wife, three children, and numerous extended family members.

Over the next three hours – to my astonishment – I discovered humanity in Farhan Alqam. Sitting in his living room, I witnessed his loving devotion to his wife and children, and they to him – communicated in the way his son looked at him as Farhan described one of his arrests by the Israeli authorities, and his son’s reactions – first anger at his father for suddenly disappearing, then anger in the dawning recognition that the Israelis imprisoned his father for publicly protesting yet another expansion of the separation wall that encroaches ever deeper into Beit Ummar.

[We later learned from Leah Green, the founder of the Compassionate Listening Project, that during several of these arrests, Israeli soldiers severely beat Farhan in front of his young children, ignoring his plea that they take him outside so his children wouldn’t have to see his humiliation.]

We witnessed Farhan’s passionate dedication to his people and to their land. He reminded us that his blood is red, just like ours. What motivates him, he insisted, is not hatred for Jews, but hunger for human dignity – for himself, his family, and his people.

How do I reconcile what I now know about Farhan with the reprehensible acts of terror that Hamas has perpetrated against Jews over the decades? Does Farhan’s willingness to talk with our delegation portend the possibility of future talks between Hamas and Israel?

Such seemingly impossible rapprochements have happened before. Who would have predicted that Yassir Arafat, the saber-rattling leader of the PLO, would shake hands with his arch-nemesis Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn? Or that 35 years after the “three no’s” of the Khartoum Declaration, all 22 members of the Arab League would offer Israel a peace plan that includes full diplomatic recognition and a formal end to all hostilities?

However I ultimately answer these questions, my encounter with Farhan makes it impossible for me to deny his humanity. There’s much about which he and I will never agree, but there’s no denying his humanity.

This is learning that’s foundational. It assaults my preconceptions like a bulldozer shifting the granite upon which my house is built. It shatters my stereotypes. It releases an enormous amount of pent-up energy which, I suspect, is why I – and a few of my fellow travelers – feel on the edge of tears so often during this journey.  At the very least, I must acknowledge that energy. At the very best, I can harness it to transform my house into a more humane home.

 

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Compassionate Listeners with Farhan and his children


Al-Arroub Refugee Camp, West Bank, with host and peacemaker, Nidal al-Farajin

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Nidal Alfarajin. Reflections on caring, compassion, and community
by Joel Berman, November 8, 2016

Consider this: I just met a man named Nidal Alfarajin who lives in a community where everyone watches out for each other; a community where there’s no homelessness, little drug addiction, and almost no internal crime; a community that heavily invests in higher education as a path to a brighter future for its youth.

Now consider this: Nidal’s community is the Palestinian refugee camp of al Arroub.

Al Arroub sits on a 0.35 square km plot of land halfway between the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Hebron. Although it’s only 12 air miles from West Jerusalem, it might as well be on a different planet. Ask Google Maps for driving directions from al Arroub to West Jerusalem and you’ll get this reply: “Sorry, we could not calculate directions from al Arroub to West Jerusalem”. Google gets it right – most Palestinians literally can’t get to West Jerusalem, or anywhere else in Israel, from al Arroub.

According to the most recent census of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), 10,000 Palestinians live in al Arroub, giving it a population density of over 25,000 people per square km., four times that of Tel Aviv and seven times more than Los Angeles. If al Arroub were a city, its population density would rank it among the top ten in the world, in the company of such teeming metropolises as Calcutta, Mumbai, and Macao.

Nidal was born and raised in al Arroub. He lives on the third floor of an unadorned concrete house that he shares with his mother, father, nine siblings, and a gaggle of nieces and nephews. Although his father only completed second grade and his mother fifth grade, Nidal and his siblings have all earned college degrees, many in the human service professions. Nidal has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Bethlehem University, an M.A. in human rights and democratization from the University of Malta, and is working towards an advanced degree in gender equality at the University of Iceland. He credits his parents for sacrificing their own needs to invest in the futures of their children and grandchildren.

 Nidal’s family had been preparing for our visit for weeks. His nieces and nephews could barely contain their excitement. “When are they coming? When are they coming?” As we discovered upon our arrival, an overnight visit from delegates of the Compassionate Listening Project is one of the highlights of their year.

Soon after we met him, Nidal took us to his rooftop for a 360-degree view of al Arroub. On a high ridge a few kilometers to the east sits the Israeli settlement of Tekoa, gleaming in the sunset like a shining city on a hill. The architectural contrast between the two communities was striking. More striking was Nidal’s next observation: “Compared to the Lebanese refugee camps, al Arroub is heaven.”

Gush Etzion - shining settlement on the hill - from Nidal's al Arroub rooftop

Shining settlement on the hill – from Nidal’s rooftop

View of Israeli military watch tower from Nidal's roof

Israeli military watch tower from Nidal’s roof

Heaven! There are places on this planet that make a United Nations refugee camp seem like heaven?! Joel, you’re not in New Hampshire any more…

Our visit to al Arroub occurred during a brief window of tranquility. The day before we arrived, an unidentified sniper shot out the camp’s power lines, and Nidal’s family had to buy candles for the possibility that there might be no electricity for our visit. (To their great relief, the camp’s electricity was restored the morning of our arrival.) The day after we departed, an Israeli Defense Force (IDF) incursion into the camp precipitated rock throwing by Palestinian teens and retaliatory tear gas by the IDF.

As we stood on his roof watching the
sunset, Nidal shared the sobering statistic that by age 12, more than half of al Arroub’s boys have been arrested for throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. For many kids, that first incarceration begins a chain of events that determines the trajectory of their lives: a second jailing, a beating or two, a midnight IDF incursion into their homes during which Israeli soldiers interrogate and sometimes humiliate their parents. After witnessing such shaming, many of these kids seek alternative role models they believe to be more empowered than their parents – typically older teens who recruit them to Hamas and other groups that espouse violent resistance.

Al-Arroub Refugee Camp, West Bank, PalestineBut in this refugee camp there are exceptions. Nidal has helped many al Arroub youth find their way out of the labyrinth of incarceration to finish high school, go to college, and even earn advanced degrees.

We met Nidal’s protege Issa, a man in his mid-twenties who was jailed as a teen for throwing rocks. Issa told us that he’s now in a master’s program in oncologic research, after which he hopes to obtain a PhD in the United States. Despite the many employment opportunities he’ll have in the US and Europe, he plans to return to Palestine after earning his doctorate.

Why? one of us asked.

“To see the pride in my parents’ eyes, and to feel that pride reflected back to me. This is my home. This is my community. These are my people. This is my land.”

Shortly before our departure the next morning, Nidal revealed one of the ingredients in his secret sauce:“Leah Green [the founder and director of the Compassionate Listening Project] changed my life. She gave me courage and hope. Her influence helped so many al Arroub youth turn from the negative to the positive. These students have become doctors, social workers, and peace makers. I hope she can join the next Compassionate Listening trip.  And tell her that next time, everyone needs to stay here at least 3 days.”

Journey participant Randy Osmun - a former clown - making balloon hats for children in the Camp.

Journey participant Randy Osmun – a former clown – making balloon hats for children in the Camp.

 

 

 

Map of the ever-shrinking Palestine.

From Joanie Levine, participant: “This map shows the changes in Palestinian land from 1946 to 2013 – and it continues to get worse with planned settlements. Palestinians are being squeezed out of their land – but they will not abandon their ancestral heritage, so they have no alternative except education. We are meeting highly educated Palestinians.”

 

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