In the past 6 months our group was intensively involved in two campaigns of big concern for our
Palestinian partners and friends: In Deir Istiya, farmers received notices ordering to uproot 2,000 olive trees planted on their private land. The reason given for this order was that the area was declared by Israel as a natural reserve 30 years ago and so planting of new trees was illegal. In Al- Walaja, where the separation barrier is being built by Israel on village land, it was we who discovered that the Jerusalem municipality was about to declare 1,000 dunams (247 acres) of the village’s land as a national park “for the benefit of the Jerusalem populace”. Both cases are being disputed in court right now and in both we have been giving support to the people, gathering important information and bringing the story to the media.
These campaigns, the dilemmas they raised for us as well as the ways in which Dharma was manifested through them, were to be the focus of the current report. But instead, a profoundly touching meeting that took place in Al-Walaja in several weeks ago seems to be the right thing to share this time.
The Israeli Engaged Dharma is a group of Dharma (Buddhist way) practitioners who aim to transform Conflict Mindset into one of Reconciliation. We work in solidarity with Palestinians and aim to raise the awareness of the Jewish population to the realities of life under occupation
Our connection with the Al-Walaja begun more than 2 years ago, shortly after Israel started constructing the separation barrier around the village. The story of the fence and wall being built around Al-Walaja, deserves a separate account. As is common in other villages where the barrier has been built, we joined nonviolent demonstrations. We also contributed information for the court appeal by the village to set an alternative route for the barrier which would be less disruptive and we found ways to raise the awareness of the Israeli public to the issue. We are also involved in the campaign to stop the above mentioned national park plan.
But as we learned more of the challenges facing the community and people in Al-Walaja, and as the demonstrations died down without achieving the goal of stopping or changing the route of the fence/wall we felt that along with the protest and struggle, other forms of solidarity were called for. We wanted to take part not only in resisting the injustice of the barrier but also in contributing to the strengthening of the community in Al-Walaja and the empowering of its people. For various reasons this is not so easily realizable1 and for the past 6 months we made very limited progress in gaining the consent of the village to this approach.
Two of us came to Al-Walaja about a month ago to discuss with our local partners possible avenues for joint action. Coming to the meeting we knew that we had already done good preparation work on previous meetings and were expecting to receive agreement that we will join families of the village for the olive harvest. We knew our hosts well and we have deep appreciation for them. Over the past 2 years we stood together in demonstrations which were violently dispersed by Israeli soldiers, we discussed various issues with them and as the intimacy naturally grew between us we exchanged more personal feelings and stories. In order to protect their privacy we will not mention their names. The account of the meeting will be given in the first person.
After some greetings we presented our purpose – we wish to find ways to support the village. What ensued was completely unexpected to us. “What for?”, said one of our hosts, “there is no use in doing anything. You and we are so weak that anything we try to build will be destroyed by Israel”. These words were coming from the mouth of a very determined person who has participated in and led many acts of resistance in the village. He continued with a long monologue and wouldn’t let anyone else speak. It is important for me to explain that this man, nearly 70 years old, has a very strong presence but with us he is always kind and never aggressive. It was no different this time: His words were strong and direct but he was not attacking.
He was critical of the village’s inability to keep up the demonstrations and I took the opportunity to explain that we have something else in mind: “The people in the village are facing many challenges”, I said. Life here is becoming more difficult. As there are no demonstrations we can devote our energy to support the village…”.
He cut me short: “You sound like those UNRWA people”, He said, referring to the UN agency giving aid to Palestinian refugees. “They give us some bread to eat and in turn expect us to behave nicely”2.
He touched a sensitive spot in me: “You know I’m hoping for a Palestinian nonviolent uprising. I’ll be there when it starts”, I said with emotion. But again he didn’t let me speak through: “What do you mean ‘nonviolent’?”, he exclaimed. “We are facing armed soldiers! Have you ever seen us throw one stone in the demonstrations in this village?!”. And thus it continued. The next time I tried to say something he made a comment about my backpack. When I spoke again he said some joke…
I finally understood that he was not going to let me speak so I accepted it and listened. He talked on and on. Sometimes one of the others tried to say something but he didn’t give anyone a chance. The way I described it so far it might seem to have been an unpleasant experience. But the contrary is true. I felt completely calm. What he was saying contradicted my strong motivation for action and my expectation that in this meeting we will finally agree on a joint action but I was very touched by his words. I knew that an important thing was happening: We were making it through the veils of ideology, opinion and pretence to reach the reality of what was there.
After a while the story of Bodhidharma the first patriarch of Chan in China came to my mind. Bodhidharma was sitting in meditation and refused to give any consideration to a man that approached him and asked to be accepted as a disciple. Bodhidharma ignored him for days but the man wouldn’t leave. It was snowing and the snow gathered to the man’s knees and still he wouldn’t move. But Bodhidharma refused to pay any attention to him. In the end the man was accepted by Bodhidharma and became his Dharma successor. Or the stories of people who want to be accepted to Zen Monasteries in Japan and have to wait outside for 3 days in order to prove their determination. I never felt that I would be able to pass such a test. Even during my most zealous days of excitement about Dharma practice I was sure that in such a situation I would become bored or discouraged after a short while.
And now, facing my host’s unstoppable speech and his insistence that there is nothing we can do I was surprised to see how unaffected I was. I wasn’t irritated, I wasn’t discouraged. There was no hint of doubt or frustration in my heart. And then I realized that this has been going on for quite a long time: For 6 months I and my partners have been trying to break through the obstacles facing Israeli- Palestinian solidarity in Al-Walaja but nothing worked. We were refused politely but firmly. And these refusals had no effect on my confidence that we should keep on coming to the village and find a way to be of value.
Our host spoke of his frustration at the political situation and of the stupidity of cutting up land by a wall. He spoke of his disappointment of his community who were not able to keep a prolonged campaign of struggling against the barrier. He also spoke about the Israeli public who don’t care about what’s happening to Palestinians and about the insignificance of Israelis like us who try to make a change.
Our host was going on about the political situation and how bad it was. I usually have no patience for long talks about politics and politicians. It’s always the same and all the analysis seems to me to be of little relevance to what I as a grassroots activist can and need do. But somehow there was something very touching about what he was saying. The facts and opinions were not new but it was all said in a very connected and heartfelt way. He didn’t mince his words: When one of the others told him : “You’re blaming Israel but it’s not Israel, it’s the Israeli government”, he directly dismissed him: “Most Israelis want the occupation to continue, the Israeli left is so small and so weak – what can you achieve? And anyway, you pay taxes don’t you? You’re part of it as well”.
It didn’t feel like we were being attacked. On the contrary, our host was voicing his despair and we were being allowed to see into his heart. And he has so many reasons for despair: He was born with the Nakba3 in 1948 during which his village was uprooted and his community dispersed. Then in 1967 he came under Israeli occupation. In 1994 he was held in an Israeli military jail for 9 months without trial. The interrogations must have included torture. Since being released he wasn’t allowed to work
in Israel and has been practically unemployed since. Due to the construction of the separation barrier, over a hundred of his olive trees have been uprooted and he will lose practically all of his land as it will be left on the other side of the barrier and he will have no access to it. And the list of injustices continues.
His reasoning didn’t convince me at all but I had nothing to say back. Our differences were made vividly clear: He is living under occupation and I am a free man. I take it for granted that I am master of my destiny and he has seen, time and again, how his plans, work and dreams are crushed by the enormous power of the state and its military. I understood that I can not really understand him, I don’t know how it feels to be oppressed in this way. And coming face to face with this gap between us was at once a painful and a valuable experience.
It was getting late and then one of us simply suggested that we join the olive harvest together with families of the village. The olive harvest season is very close and olives are an important part of Palestinian culture as well as a source of livelihood for many Palestinian families. Many Israeli activists join Palestinians during the harvest to protect against settler violence or harassment by soldiers. In Al-Walaja we do not expect such attacks but still help is needed. The harvest this year will be very symbolic: In a few months the separation barrier on the village’s lands will be completed and most of the olive groves will be separated from the village. Yes, the barrier’s route was drawn in such a way that most of the village’s agricultural land stays on the Israeli side and with very limited access for the farmers of Al-Walaja who own that land.
Leaving the village, the conversation continued to resonate with us. I think it will stay with me for a long time as one of the meaningful experiences for me as an activist.
A month has passed since that conversation and a big shift has happened to our relationship with the village. During the olive harvest season we organized 3 groups that joined and assisted the local families. Over a hundred people came this way to the village, many of them for the first time. Working together, a natural closeness develops as people ask each other for help, share food and tease each other. We had the chance to meet new people in the village and strengthen ties with those we already knew. As the harvest came to an end, our partners in Walaja started to suggest ideas for further joint action. The door has opened more.
The timing was also significant: During the harvest, the Israeli army started to lay down the fence around the village. In a few months this work will be completed. The village will be surrounded and the separation between it and Israel will be solidified. But this barrier will not separate us. It will merely emphasize the value of open hearts, determined minds and continuous right action .
1 The difficulties facing Israeli-Palestinian solidarity deserve a whole separate report
2 There is much criticism of the aid agencies which make the occupation bearable and in that sense allow it to continue. UNRWA, established more than 6 decades ago exemplifies the way aid can create and perpetuate dependency.
3 The Nakba – disaster in Arabic – is how Palestinians refer to the destruction of over 400 villages and uprooting of over 700,000 Palestinians who became refugees in the 1948 war. The war, which gave birth to the state of Israel, is called by Jews the Independence War. One people’s joy marks the other people’s catastrophe.
We will be very happy to hear your comments on this report. Your support, suggestions and feedback for improvement will be received gratefully. Please feel free to forward it to Dharma Engaged Dharma in Israel friends. Our blog engagedharma.wordpress.com is currently Hebrew language only but we would be happy to provide more details about our vision and guiding principles. Please write to us at [email protected] .