Testing the Waters—
Palestine & Israel, 2006

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Journal, April 29, 2006 (edited May 6)—Ramallah

Photos: Jenin

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With the American Friends Service Committee to Jenin

By Skip Schiel

Yesterday, thanks to Fida of AFSC, a journey with AFSC to Jenin, including the camp. And on the way back, hoping to visit and maybe dine in Nablus, a first hand experience with the occupation. More about this dramatic and dangerous incident later.


Like most camps I've visited in the territories, knowing where the camp ends and the neighboring village or city begins is unclear. Yet, as Fida pointed out, for Palestinians the division is painfully clear. She reminded me that camps began as tents; people built one-room cinder or cement block homes, then built vertically. So the tell tale signs are usually narrow streets, cinder block construction, small footprint of homes, building vertically, and of course poverty.

Many of us know Jenin as the site of a disastrous invasion by Israeli forces intending to root out militants in 2002. The movie, Jenin Jenin , reverberates for many of us in its depiction of the savagery of that action. Most of the Jenin camp has been rebuilt, except for one building we saw from a distance which had been bombed 40 days after the incursion had occurred and the Israelis had withdrawn. This in retaliation for the presence of an alleged armed militant. Guided by Yousef Shalabi of the Jenin Creative Cultural Centre, we toured the cemetery not far from this ruined home. The cemetery contained two types of gravestones--for those dying during the invasion, marked by square headstones, and those dying later, sometimes from wounds suffered during the fighting, marked by curced stones. There were over 200 gravesites (maybe not all of them related to the invasion). Two young men were watering plants while we visited. Flowers, herbs, and trees were in bloom--rosemary proliferated over one grave, and geraniums wildly bloomed over another. It is springtime even in Jenin camp.


Earlier, Yousef had brought us to a Greek orthodox church in the village of Bruqin memorializing the site of one of Jesus' miracles, the curing of the men with leprosy. (Luke 17:11-19) The story goes that 10 such men were housed in a dry well, quarantined from the rest of the population. Jesus walked thru on his way from Nazareth maybe to Jerusalem, then the shortest distance between the 2 points (then no checkpoint, access roads, separation walls, road blocks, despite the fierce Roman occupation). He typically chose routes that passed by springs and wells because of the throngs following him needing water. Someone heard of his approach and beseeched him to cure the men. He uttered words to the effect, "Show yourselves, "and they did, with the help of others who pulled them from the wall thru a small hole shown to us by the church guide. Jesus cured them all, but only one thanked him.

The Byzantines built a church at this site, then a school which we saw, the school crudely carved out of stone, merely a cave. Muslims built a mosque which we saw from the distance, with the church's cross in the foreground. Yousef claimed this church was the 4 th oldest church in the world, the Church of the Annunciation, Nativity, and Holy Sepulcher being older. I continue to be astonished at the liveliness of the Christ story, the Christ legend, the Christ myth, what accounts for its resilience?

A note about travel during the time of Christ: Nazareth is some 30 km north of Jenin, which could be walked in 1 day, speedy walking, 2 days if throngs are accompanying you and delaying you by requesting miracles and teachings. Bruqin is about 5 km SW of Jenin. So Nazareth to Jerusalem, about 100 km, represents a walking time of about 3-4 days, assuming Christ and disciples walked. Maybe they sometimes rode donkeys. They'd pass over the spine of the mountains, possibly going thru Ramallah, a very beautiful route. Some of this might be along the route now termed #60, one of the main N-S roads thru the region.

Down the hill from the church and mosque, in the village of Tel or Khirbet Belameh, Yousef showed us a decrepit cavity in the earth, filled with garbage and stinking, connected to a narrow tunnel less than 1 m wide and about 10 m high. He said, "As a boy, I could go thru this tunnel to a pool and swim. For centuries it's been a water source for the village. Now it is mostly dried up. The Israelis have dug deep wells to tap the aquifer." While he explained this and dashed down the steep slope to make photos, boys were skittering back and forth down the steps, slithering over the garbage, and racing into and out of the tunnel. I believe this spring is named Bir es-Sinjil.

These 2 sites, the church and mosque and the water tunnel, were unexpected finds for me photographically. Both tie to some of my major themes: water and holy sites.

Taking a break from the tour in Yousef's office in the heart of Jenin, munching on falafel sandwiches, he asked me if I might be available to help at the Center, either teaching photography or establishing a website. This request surprised me, but apparently Fida had told him about me. I had to say, as often happens when I near the end of a trip, sorry but I think I'm booked. Maybe when I return.

My traveling companions to Jenin and Nablus, besides Fida Shafi who is the manager of the AFSC youth program in Ramallah, were her coworker, Thuqan Qisham, and a visitor from the States, Tahija Vkalo, coordinator of the AFSC middle east and European programs and based in Philadelphia. We were a jolly crew last Friday, April 28, crushed into the office's tiny car, careening around curves and over rutted Palestine roads to get to our visit sites.


While riding I could ask Tahija more about her years in Sarajevo--born and raised there, a Muslim, living thru the 3 year siege of the war. "For years," she told us, "I'd hit the ground when hearing loud and sharp sounds. Duck and cover. I'm over that now, and perhaps stronger for the experience. I can travel as I'm doing now (she just returned from 2 days in Gaza visiting AFSC programs), my husband worries about me, but I'm not afraid. Perhaps facing death does this to a person, makes her more able to take the big risk."

I mentioned my experience in Cambodia in 1995 during the last days of the Khmer Rouge, hearing artillery fire each morning and evening, walking a narrow path thru the minefields. With an outcome similar to hers: strengthened by the experience of surviving fear, not immobilized by it. But I wondered aloud, what would I do now if coming under fire? How might I have responded if in Jenin camp during the invasion? Will I be willing to enter Gaza now with the Israelis constantly attacking and some Palestinians willing to kidnap internationals?


Our main task was to visit sites of the Public Achievement program, one in Jenin at an American style high school, the other in a small village south of Jenin. The high schoolers were talking about a project that had something to do with cosmetics and boys and girls coming together. While Thuqan or Fida translated for Tahija who was carefully observing and sometimes making notes, perhaps for a field report, I put my eye and mind to photography. This sort of scene, people talking, just sitting and talking, is among the hardest to photograph with any flair. The other group, older and all male, were planning to open a social center since none existed in their village. A side project had been to clear a field of debris left when the Israeli military dismantled and demolished one of their bases. The boys had created a football field.

Thanks to Fida and Thuqan who had excellent rapport with the youth, both conversations were very lively and interactive, making photography simpler. I continue to be impressed with PA, seeing how effective it is in mobilizing youth to gain leadership and community building skills, while constructing a project of use to the community. The model originated in Minnesota and has spread worldwide. But from what I gather it is not much used in States, nor has it been successful at the Ramallah Friends School. Thuqan explained that it had failed at the Friends School because the students have many alternatives like sports, music, drama, and art. And this is a pattern: PA is most effective in afflicted communities, ones with few alternatives for community building and skill development.

I also question whether and how PA functions to end the occupation. A critic could claim it simply makes an illegal, immoral, and destructive dynamic more tolerable. And a rebuttal might be that it provides vital skills and experience to future leaders of a free nation.


Now the little story of the occupation and a close call. Just to give you a flavor for the life of one innocent abroad.

The hour was late, we were all tired, night was coming, we'd eaten very little all day. We'd passed 5 checkpoints on our way in and did not look forward to returning by that same route. We'd observed in the morning long lines of cars on their way south, which would have been our direction when returning. So we decided to drive thru Nablus, visit someone, have dinner, and return to Ramallah by an alternative route that would have minimum checkpoints. Part way there--a roadblock. Taxis waiting on the northern, Jenin side. We saw a few people walking over the blocks out of Nablus. We decided that Fida, Tahija and I would walk in while Thuqan drove around to meet us on the southern edge of Nablus. This would make possible a leisurely visit for at least 3 of us in Nablus.

We soon discovered that this block was only one of many, a series, stretching for at least 1 km, some 6 of them, dirt and stones heaped up, the road ditched. Fida had trouble walking up and down the mounds because she's recovering from recent car accident and walked shakily and with a limp. After 3 ascents we heard a gunshot, it echoed thru the canyon. The wadi scene was beautiful, the shot perplexing, we had no idea where it originated, where it was directed, and what it meant. We continued walking.

Then we heard shouting from high up in the hills, spotted 2 people, perhaps soldiers. Fida wasn't sure what their message was. But she shouted in return, surprising Tahija and myself, in English, "I have a broken leg, I was in a car accident"--as if this might persuade soldiers to show some mercy. Instead: another shot. We ducked behind dirt mounds. We inched our way back and retreated, not sure the shot was fired at us or to warn us. Later Fida suggested they had shouted, "Go back or we will shoot." We chuckled about her choice of response--a broken leg, please have mercy.

Later, discussing this with Neta Golan, co-founder of the International Solitary Movement, she confirmed a suspicion I had: "You are lucky, some soldiers would simply shoot and not shout. No one in the whole world would notice."

Discussing why the blocks and why the firing later with Thuqan whom we'd phoned to meet us--it was now about dark, I suggested in jest that maybe if we waited another 30 minutes we could walk under the noses of the soldiers, forgetting they well might have night vision equipment--we came to the following interpretation: the Israelis had created the blocks after the Tel Aviv bombing, planted the soldiers, and sealed Nablus completely. Why Nablus when the bomber came from Jenin? Short-term punishment, recognized universally as collective punishment and illegal under international law. And long term strategy to decimate the industrial and commercial center of Nablus. The 3 of us were mere blips on the radar screen. Nothing personal, you understand, just caught by circumstance.


Thuqan navigated us home, another small adventure. We took the chance of going thru a checkpoint into Israel (with Palestinian plates, usually an automatic reason for exclusion), thru the Jordan valley, which would reduce the number of checkpoints to 2. Maybe we could be home before midnight. Approaching the first one, Thuqan explained that he had a card that established his identity as an international worker, and if Tahija or I, with American passports, would do the talking, say we are all working for an American based NGO, this might persuade the soldiers to let us pass. The decision is entirely in the soldier's hands. I launched into my inner emergency routine, mainly chanting Namu Myoho Renge Kyo , and thanking Wakan Tanka and Tankashila (Lakota Sioux names for deistic figures) for all the gifts to date in my life, hoping Tahija and Fida who are practicing Muslims are doing what might be equivalent in their lives.

"Shalom," we said, smiling, greeting the 2 soldiers standing in the drizzle, at night, vulnerable. And they responded. A few questions, "Where are you from, where are you going?" Thuqan, in his fluent Hebrew conversed and laughed with them, finally earned permission to pass. Same with the 2 nd checkpoint. "Oh, Boston, the Boston Celtics," the soldier exclaimed when he heard where I was from. "Yes, and the New England patriots," I replied.

In both cases, with face to face meetings--unlike many other checkpoints like Kalandia, Bethlehem, and Arez in Gaza where the soldiers are encased behind concrete and bullet proof glass, barking out orders, and the road into Nablus with the snipers--we could meet each other human to human. Someday, oh lord, when the rains return.


Amira Hass: "Prisoners in Their Own Land," January 2006

"All Palestine: One Prison Nablus, Tubas, Jenin" by Graeme 16 Mar 2004

Public Achievement

The American Friends Service Committee in Palestine-Israel