Being Peace is the name of a retreat organised and run by meditation and social action group SanghaSeva. It is held each year in October during the olive harvest in a small Palestinian village in the West Bank of the Occupied Territories. Clare had been on this particular retreat twice before and had been the person who’d introduced me to what was really going on in this part of the world. Since then, I had read as much as I could absorb about the history and nature of the Occupation, realising in the process how little I actually knew.
My first trip to Israel and Palestine had been in May, earlier this year. Clare had been doing some volunteer work with a friend of hers at a cultural centre in the Palestinian city of Jenin. After her week there, I met her in Tel Aviv and we travelled to the Old City of Jerusalem where we stayed for five days. I saw the potent mix of culture and religion from three different faiths and witnessed the significant military presence at checkpoints and the postings of armed soldiers throughout the city. During that visit we had made a day trip to the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank, passing through the Qalandiya checkpoint, where I saw for the first time, the imposition of the Occupation on the Palestinian people.
By going on the SanghaSeva retreat I wanted to broaden my experience of the situation under the Occupation, even though I wasn’t a practitioner of meditation. Including the organisers, Nathan and Zohar, there were 17 of us altogether: two Australians, two Israelis, a German and the rest British. A number of group members had been on the retreat before, some over multiple years, so there were different levels of familiarity with what we’d be experiencing.
We all met at Zohar’s sisters place in Tel Aviv to have lunch and get a brief introduction to the nature of the retreat. Everyone had a chance to introduce themselves and explain in a few words why they had decided to be involved. To ensure everyone had at least some background on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we watched John Green’s informative but fast-paced Crash Course video on YouTube.
After lunch, we piled into a minibus and headed towards the West Bank. Our first stop was on the side of a road where the group had its first glimpse of the tall concrete separation barrier, snaking its way across the landscape. The barrier clearly defined the ‘separation’ between a Palestinian village on one side and an Israeli settlement on the other. The settlement, while on the other side of the barrier, was still on Palestinian land according to pre-1967 agreements.
Nathan and Zohar pointed out various features from the scene in front of us that we may not have noticed or realised at first glance. The first was how close the ‘wall’ passed to the Palestinian village. It was basically right up against the houses giving its occupants a view of grey concrete. On the other side, the wall was covered in decorative tiling and located some distance from the houses of the Israeli settlement.
Also pointed out to us was the difference between some of the architectural features of the two villages. The buildings in the Palestinian village had the appearance of weathered stone whereas the settlement was a relatively new construction consisting of almost identical white houses with red roofs – the standard building model for settlements. On top of each house was a water tank. The Settlement houses had white water tanks, providing hot and cold water. The Palestinian houses had black water tanks which were used exclusively as a backup storage device for times when their mains water was cut off or restricted in some way. The supply and price of Palestinian water is closely regulated by the Israelis even though it comes from aquifers under Palestinian land.
Back on the bus, the road soon passed through a checkpoint in the separation barrier. Israeli citizens are allowed to drive through the check point with ease but Palestinians are not allowed to drive vehicles into Israel unless they have a special permit, which is rarely given. If they need to enter Israel for work or to pray at the Al-Asqa Mosque in Jerusalem or to go to a hospital or for any other reason, they must park their car at the checkpoint and walk through a series of cages and turnstiles at the barrier, after which they must arrange a taxi or a lift on the other side. This process can take a considerable time as they are often deliberately kept waiting before their permits are checked. On any day, it may be the case that they are not granted entry at all, nor given any reason for why. During Israeli holidays, checkpoints are not as heavily staffed, and may not be open at all.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the checkpoints and traffic restrictions imposed on Palestinians has caused more of a humanitarian concern in the Occupied Territories than anything else. By ‘cutting off’ access to the labour market and economy of Israel and the global economies beyond, Israel has managed to effectively ruin the Palestinian economy.
At another roadside stop, now inside the West Bank, we viewed a large industrial complex that was part of the nearby settlement of Barkan. Palestinians are allowed to work at the complex but are generally paid wages 30 to 50% less than an Israeli doing the same kind of work. Palestinians are usually not given work contracts so the stability of their work schedule is never really established. They could be placed on shift work that rarely follows a schedule and paid at the same rate, whether they work night shifts or during the day. During Israeli holidays like the week-long Sukkot, the factories are usually closed and the Palestinians are not compensated for their time off.
A short while later the road circled around the Palestinian village of Deir Istiya, where we’d be staying. It looked very natural sitting on top of a rise in the landscape, surrounded by olive trees. Its buildings were all white or beige, and its skyline punctuated with the distinctive minarets of least four different mosques. We drove into the village and immediately got a sense that life was not easy. There were abandoned buildings, others in desperate need of repair, lots of stray dogs and a proliferation of rubbish. Our accommodation was an abandoned medical centre, rectangular in shape, made of concrete blocks and clad with stone, it had a flat roof and services that were barely functional. It would be the home for all 17 of us over the next nine days.
Clare and I and a few others set up tents at the rear of the building while the rest ‘camped’ inside on the floor, each person covering their sleeping area with a mosquito net. A blank roster was posted on the wall which we were encouraged to fill in with our names according to which jobs we wanted to do each day. The main jobs were cooking (breakfast and dinner), washing up and bathroom cleaning. The organisers had brought a considerable amount of food with us and so we first set up the kitchen area and made it functional. One large room, near the entrance to the building from the street, was set up as a meditation and discussion space and also a kind of communal lounge, with mats and cushions placed on the floor.
There were two functioning toilets and a single shower, initially cold until one of the Palestinians connected a simple water heater during our stay. One of the toilets could also be used for bucket showers, which I often used to avoid the shower queue.
After settling in, the group went for a walk through the village. We entered the old part of the city and came across a building in the process of being converted into a guest house. All of the workers welcomed us and were very friendly and keen to show us around the construction site. It was obvious they were proud of their work and also that they had the opportunity to be building something of significance for their village.
As the walk progressed we came across a big Palestinian man who was happy to talk to the group. Zohar translated the conversation from Hebrew into English. He began by telling the story of a peaceful protest that he attended recently against settlement development. A few days after the event he was visited at work by Israeli soldiers who tore up his work permit in front of him, effectively terminating a job he’d had for the last twenty years. He also talked about his wife, an Israeli Palestinian who lives in Israel. He is not allowed to enter Israel to visit his wife so she must travel into the West Bank to visit him. It became quite common to hear stories such as this – about family members being separated as a consequence of the Occupation.
Despite the daily hardship – the imposition on personal freedom and the relentless attempt to destroy their dignity and livelihood – the Palestinian people we met always greeted us with kindness and hospitality and broad smiles.