Well, I’m back. Two weeks ago, I returned to my suburban American home, and since then I’ve been enjoying family, air conditioning, and any food that’s not derived from chickpeas. I went a while without posting anything up on here, as I was rather busy during the month of July. I can’t recount it all, but here are some thoughts.
Our Work with the Kids
During July, I kept busy with the Inspire Dreams team. We ran a different summer program for kids each week in three different camps, and we tailored each program to the needs and ages of the kids. Our first one, which we called our Youth Leadership Academy, was for a group of about 15 high school age youth in Dheisheh camp outside of Bethlehem.
Over the course of four intense days, we talked to the youth about the meaning of leadership, teamwork, cooperation, communication, and personal vision. We played games with them that taught them how to work together, we did exercises in speech and debate, brought in outsiders who taught workshops on human rights, nonviolent activism, and sensitivity to others with handicaps.
The four of us interns worked with our Inspire Dreams supervisors to create the schedule for the camp and design each of the workshops. We tried to strike a balance between being serious, having fun, teaching the students, and letting them discover things for themselves. The last day of the camp ended with a trip to the pool and a graduation ceremony which gave the kids a neat sense of accomplishment.
After that, we spent a week in Jalazone, a week in Askar camp outside of Nablus, and a final week in Jalazone doing similar camps, but with different age groups of kids. For each program, we tailored the activities to the specific age and group size, and we experimented with new games. One of the things that I loved the most about interning with Inspire Dreams is that while kids were learning from our programs, we were able to learn a lot about how to design and implement the programs, through trial and error. We held debriefing sessions after every day and we had longer one on one meetings with our mentors each week. Taking the time to reflect, as always, helped us to be more purposeful in our work and enabled our programs to make a difference.
Outside of work, the month of July was a busy one. I took trips with the other interns to cities in Israel including Jerusalem, Haifa, Akke, Nazareth, and Tel Aviv, and spent more time exploring places in the West Bank like Jenin, Bethlehem, and Nablus. I feel lucky to have seen all those places, an experience which not many people in either Israel or Palestine get to have.
A Play’s the Thing
This morning I followed my usual routine and got out of bed and walked to my computer. I opened my email to find an email from the staff at the Jenin Freedom Theater. The theater is Palestine’s only theater school, located in the Jenin refugee camp in the north of the West Bank. In 2002, Jenin was the site of a pitched battle between the Israeli Army and Palestinian guerilla fighters; during a nearly two week siege, hundreds of men, women, and children were killed or wounded.
The Freedom Theater was established to help children overcome the trauma of living through war and to give them a creative, nonviolent outlet for their passions. The Theater ran acting programs, put on plays and musicals, and offered theater degrees to students from around the West Bank. In March of this year, the director of the Theater, Juliano Mer Khemis, was shot by assassins in the street in front of the theater.
When I and the other interns visited the Theater in July, the staff there were still reeling from their loss. The new director (whose name or photograph I won’t print here), had worked by Juliano’s side for years and told us of his death with tears in her eyes. He was shot as he was getting out of his car one afternoon, holding his infant son. Students and children were in the street at the time and saw the entire thing. Until now, there has been no verdict as to who the killers were. The theater staff had received threats in the preceding weeks, possibly from religiously conservative Palestinian factions offended by theater’s liberal inclusion of girls into their singing and dancing programs. Even so, there has been no proven link to the killing, and the theater staff has given up trying to solve the mystery. “Whoever they were,” said the new director, “they couldn’t have been from our community. People here loved Juliano. They saw what he did for the children, and even if they disagreed with his methods, they respected him.”
After Juliano’s death, the theater staff refused to stop their programs. “A lot of the interns left for Ramallah and wouldn’t come back, and people here told us to stop,” the director told us. “But I told them no. If we did that, that would be letting them win. I knew that we owe our work to the kids, so we didn’t close down. We opened again the next week. We’ll stay open,” she said between a few tears and a few nervous laughs. “I’ve had anonymous threats that I’m next on the list, but if they come and get me, someone will take my place and continue.”
The email that I got this morning read as follows:
In the past three weeks, the Theatre has come under attack again. On July 27 masked and heavily armed Israeli soldiers attacked the Theatre at 3:30 a.m., hurling rocks at the building and knocking out many of the windows. They arrested the Theatre’s facilities manager, along with the president of the Theatre’s Jenin Board, whose home was also damaged. Then, on August 5, Israeli forces blindfolded and arrested a 20-year old acting student, part of The Freedom Theatre’s young acting troupe, at a checkpoint near Jenin.
The men who were arrested in July were held for at least two weeks before being able to see their lawyers. According to the Israeli authorities, the raid and arrests were part of an investigation into the killing of Juliano, a dubious claim in light of the fact that all of the Theater’s staff have already willingly cooperated with an investigation by the Palestinian Authority Police.
The email came with a link to a short youtube video of the Theater staff showing the building damage and giving their testimony.
It’s a bit eerie sitting at my laptop and viewing the same portico where I stood a few weeks ago now littered with broken glass and rocks. I know that I’m an ocean away from the theater, so my feelings of anger and hurt are compounded by a feeling of helplessness.
What’s important about all of this story is the things that I don’t know. I don’t know who killed Juliano, and I don’t know why men wearing Israeli uniforms barged into the Theater. (This isn’t the first time the IDF has harassed a Palestinian NGO.) I have only been to Jenin once, and I have no idea what kinds of motivations are involved. But I know one important thing. The kids of Jenin and the staff that serves them are sandwiched between two enemies: the forces of extremist religious conservatism in their own society, and the forces of the Israeli occupation on the other. In a way, this tiny conflict reflects so much about the conflicts in Palestine. It is multifaceted, its history is very important, there are hidden personal and military secrets that make unbiased investigation impossible, and there are passions, greed, and feelings of self righteousness at its core. The ones who suffer the most – the children – are the ones who are the most innocent. I ask myself the same questions about the Theater as I ask about Palestine as a whole. How can this be stopped? What is my role? What can I do? What can anybody do?
This same morning, the BBC carried this headline: “Deadly attacks hit Israeli Vehicles near Egypt”. According to various news sources, an Israeli bus was carrying passengers this morning from the Israeli town of Beersheba and the popular resort town of Eliat on the Red Sea, and came under attack on highway 12 near the Egyptian border. The BBC writes:
Reports say two or three men climbed out of a car as the bus travelled on Highway 12 next to the Egypt-Israel border and opened fire on [the bus]. The bus driver carried on until he reached a nearby military base where the wounded received treatment before being flown to a hospital in Eilat. No-one was killed in this incident, but Israeli officials say the assailants fired an anti-tank missile at another vehicle and a military patrol hit an explosive device.
So far 7 have died, and over 25 have been wounded. Several hours after the attack, the Israel Defense Forces launched a retaliatory attack on the town of Rafah in the Gaza strip, striking the town from the air and killing six.
There’s direct link between the bus attack and the Theater raid, but reading about them on the same morning is sick – Israeli soldiers abducting boys and girls for acting, and Palestinian guerillas shooting at boys and girls for going to the beach. Many passionate people on both sides will rationalize the actions of their side as justification for the crimes of the other, but as most people know deep down, two wrongs can never make a right.
It’s usually easy enough to judge people as wrong, but it’s harder to do something about it. In the end, all this writing that I’m doing is nothing more than self serving punditry if I don’t try to work for something better. That’s why I’m going back to the region. In two weeks, I’m headed off to Jordan, where I’ll be spending a few months studying Arabic and learning about regional politics. I’ll update this blog every once in a while and share some of life in Jordan. My goals there will be the same as they were in Palestine: to understand the people there, to help them understand Americans better, and to learn how I can work for peace in the coming years.
If I ever needed an incentive for all of this, the kids we worked with this summer are enough. Seeing them learn and grow and laugh, I couldn’t help wonder what lies in their futures. Will they see freedom? Will they see peace? Both? Many say we can only hope so. I disagree. With decades of work, with dedication, compromise, and a tenacious spirit, we can make it happen.