5 May 2004 — The view from the Bahai temple on the Carmel mountain of Haifa is on a beautiful day simply beyond description. Green plateaus covered with flowers form a huge, inviting staircase waving down from the mountain towards the sea. The horizon shows little boats imperceptibly moving foreword. The temple itself is surrounded by a large garden with trees and plants that are extremely well taken care off. The little things that deviate from the harmonious order, such as an orange fallen down on the ground, appear like the finishing touch of a painting. We - three Dutch visitors, educators - silently watch, almost with reverence, a spectacular tree out of which colorful hanging plants straddle down along the stem. The tree of life.
That morning we had visited a school in Haifa to explore the possibility of Dutch, Palestinian and Israeli schools conducting a computer exchange. One of our interlocutors was an Israeli school student with ‘Seeds for Peace’ experience, an American sponsored Palestinian-Israeli exchange project. The boy harbored youthful enthusiasm for our newly proposed project. (His teacher gently told him not to speak too fast). He asked whether there was really a need to have the Dutch included. After all, we, the Israelis and Palestinians, had to live together, not the Dutch and Israelis, he said, and why not having contact with the Palestinians directly, face to face, instead of all this distant communication through the Internet? He was aware of the existing inequality in almost any contact between Palestinians and Israelis but thought it could be dealt with, as long as intentions were good. I made the point that good intentions in such exchange projects can be easily undermined. How often did it not happen that Palestinian students went to Turkey or Cyprus for a beautiful holiday together with Israelis and internationals, and that afterwards the contacts broke down? Or the Palestinians felt that after their moment of freedom they returned back to their cage? Educators here call this “the morning after” or “cold shower” effect. Before and after the talks we strolled across the spacious school campus where students were sitting and studying in the grass while having a distant view over the sea only a few hundred meters further down.
Perhaps a view of the sea is the best educational method to release tensions, to calm down, dream of a harmonious future, I thought. Later on during the day, we watched a train slowly moving parallel to the sea. Looking at the horizon, I was reminded of the book of Amin Maalouf (a Lebanese-French writer), titled “Ports of Call” in the English translation, about the intricacies of Palestinian-Israeli contacts. The cover of the book shows a woman staring longingly across the Mediterranean. She is Jewish, her husband is Arab. They fell in love with each other during the Second World War as members of an underground resistance cell in France. Afterwards they decided to emigrate to Haifa where they became members of the Palestinian communist party. There they pursued an intensive political dialogue of, what the writer calls, “moral elegance.” In each argument about the political situation the Arab husband did his utmost to show profound understanding of the Jewish plight in Europe while the Jewish woman went out of her way to justify Arab resistance. Grace as a guideline for the moral understanding of one another. The reality as depicted in the novel was not so graceful, though. During the war of 1948 the Arab happened to be in Beirut. He couldn’t come back to his home in Haifa and so the couple became physically divided. After years of estrangement, they met each other once again in France, but whether the contact was renewed is left open by the story. The narrator tells how he watched the man and woman approaching each other on a Paris bridge but after having observed all what happened before he apparently felt too committed and therefore unable to adopt the casually curious look of somebody who stops to observe an interesting scene. So he turned away his face, and at the end of the story the reader is left in the dark about the future of this specific Palestinian-Israeli contact. Now I feel that our project of Palestinian-Israeli school exchanges is such a plunge into darkness too.
However, the three of us feel that despite the risks it is worthwhile, from a humanist perspective, to give the project a real try. We observe that some of the interlocutors don’t believe much in the contacts, others do. The coordinator of the school’s community project in Haifa, introduced as a leftist, is skeptical about Palestinian-Israeli exchanges. He finds them “scratching the surface” as long as there is no general political arrangement between Palestinians and Israelis. How can those little projects overcome the general gap of suspicion that exists between the peoples? On the Palestinian side there are even more reservations. Are these contacts, certainly when they take place between Palestinians from the occupied territories and Israelis, not legitimizing, “normalizing” the occupation? Many of the “people to people” projects have been stopped after the beginning of the latest Intifada.
Before I left to Haifa, Mary and I had invited our educational colleagues and two other friends for a dinner at home. The friends are a couple living at the border of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The husband is formally retired but still very active in developing an Israeli-Palestinian exchange. Due to the circumstances of the Intifada it had been kept along separate tracks; that is, without direct Israeli-Palestinian contact. He and his wife told us how their family became thoroughly mixed Jewish-Palestinian after they adopted Palestinian and Jewish children and after their own Christian daughter converted to Judaism. The family is totally at peace with the various identities. It lately happened, they said, that their Palestinian adopted son asked permission from an Israeli soldier to enter Jerusalem. For what reason, the soldier asked. Their son said he wanted to visit his brother in an Israeli kibbutz in the north. But only Jews live in a kibbutz, the soldier responded, as if he had found a hole in the explanation and perhaps an excuse to deny entry. Yes, the son said, my brother is a Jew!
Upon hearing that one of the visiting colleagues was Jewish, Mary told him solemnly, “Welcome, you are the first Jew in this house. We used to have better relations, and I hope in the future we will have better relations once again. At the moment, I live in a small triangle of going to my work, to my family and back home again.” Later on Mary longingly brought back to me the memories of vistas she once enjoyed near the Lake of Tiberias or from the top of churches in Jerusalem. From Haifa I told her by phone how beautiful the view from the Carmel was. I felt a bit guilty in making her jealous. She had to laugh and told me that after Jara had heard the other day that we had had a Jewish guest in our house, she panicked and said: “But he could have shot at us!”
Back home I met Sana’a, the headmaster of a UN school in Battir to the south-west of Bethlehem. She told her latest checkpoint story. Sana’a is a fiercely independent Moslem woman who fought for her right not to wear a headscarf at a university in Hebron where she lectures. At the same time she does not hide her criticism of Christians whom she says have not rarely discriminated against Moslems in Beit Jala, where she lives. At the Al-Khader checkpoint she lately argued with soldiers about whether they really succeeded in stopping suicide bombers. She told a soldier that rather than preventing suicide bombers coming in, the checkpoints created new suicide bombers because of the humiliations people suffered. Will you also become a suicide bomber, the soldier asked. Yes, me too, Sana’a responded angrily. On her way back she met the same soldier who exclaimed, “There is the suicide bomber!” and then withheld her ID “for checking.” Sana’a was forced to stay at the checkpoint for three hours while the soldier kept asking her her, mockingly, “So where are your friends?” In fact, after Sana’a had called the UNRWA headquarters in Jerusalem, soon two UN representatives in a jeep appeared, one of them a foreigner. They kept themselves busy trying to contact the soldier in question and convince him giving back the ID. That was not so easy. The soldier was most of the time roaming the fields around the checkpoint to catch those who were trying to circumvent it. The UN persons were all the time following him, or trying to do so. Meanwhile, Sana’a - not a person to let herself resign to a long view of a checkpoint - gave herself a practical role and somehow succeeded in “managing” the checkpoint; helping to translate letters from passers by into Hebrew, pointing out by-pass roads for those who did not want to queue, or cooling down soldiers. She observed all the things which those forced to stand or sit for some hours at checkpoints are used to see: a lot of shouting, soldiers becoming nervous and shooting into the air or shooting teargas, rude behavior towards old or disabled people, and the absurdity of soldiers who sometimes even themselves “suggest” to people they’d better take a hill road around the checkpoint. Finally the ID of Sana’a was “checked” and she herself released from her self-imposed duties. With her characteristic smile, reserved for the tragicomic stories she likes to tell, she told me that after all these incidents, and also after all what had happened in Jenin and Rafah, it has become more difficult for her than ever to have any normal relation with the Israelis. Still, she is in contact with an Israeli professor at the Hebrew University in order to pursue her dream, a PhD in physics education. Will it work out? She doesn’t know. Years ago, people at her school used to climb the mountains of Battir and could even see the sea over 70 kilometers further west. Now it is too dangerous to go up; a settler’s road sneaks through the hills. Down in the village valley there are still the dilapidated remainders of a railway station dating back to the British Mandate time. From there you could take a leisurely train to Jaffa and Haifa, and, if I am not mistaken, even further to Beirut.
Mary is called by a student from Gaza who since three years is unable to complete his final year at Bethlehem University due to the impossibility to travel out of Gaza. Her heart beat leaps after hearing the familiar voice of the student she knew so well. He tells her: “But we are better off than you, at least we have the sea here!”
At the Peace Center the American actor Richard Gere watches some performances from Suzy’s students who had made some good drama plays based on their recently published Intifada diaries. (Lately, Suzy was even invited to the Royal Court Theater in London to tell about her students’ experiences). Gere also visits a group of young children at the Center, among them Jara. They are making drawings of the sea. The teacher tells Gere that the sand and the shells stuck on the drawings are really from the sea at Tel Aviv, a sea which the children cannot visit. Afterwards, Jara is proud to tell her family that she shook the hand of the famous actor. I suggest to her to copy some beautiful Toscana vistas on a calendar but she refuses.
Tamer also likes to draw but chooses the walls of the rooms as canvas. He keeps his little fist tightly closed so that we cannot take away his pencils.
Toine van Teeffelen is development director at the Arab Educational Institute (AEI) in Bethlehem and local coordinator of United Civilians for Peace.