The Light of Thyme

This is written by my friend Jan who is volunteering in the South Hebron Hills. Um al Kher is very close to Susiya.

A Mosaic For Peace

The Bedouin village of Um al Kher lies in the southern portion of the West Bank, nestled in the desert hills of the northern Negev desert.  Community members moved there as refugees in the early 1950’s after having been pushed off their land in the Beersheva area of Israel, a few miles south of where they now live. In the 1980’s Israeli settlers arrived and began taking land adjacent to the community to form the Karmel settlement.

The land on which the village is located is designated as Area C and is therefore subject to full Israeli control, which has included regular military presence, forced evictions and home demolitions, loss of agricultural lands and harassment by settlers.  Due in part to its location, Um al Kher is considered by international organizations to be one of the most vulnerable in the southern West Bank.

Traditionally a herding community relying on their…

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Farewell to Susiya

Sunset in Susiya

Sunset in Susiya

I  had spent my last five nights in Susiya. A new team  had arrived and was soon  able to manage on its own.  However, tummy problems  made it problematic to provide full presence in the village. I seemed  to be the only one who has that ‘cast iron stomach’ and so I was  the constant along with whoever was  well enough.

I could not have known what a gift this would be as I eased deeper into the culture. Continuous shared meals, longer together times, opportunities to help with household tasks. I helped little Hamoodie feed the sheep, Wi’dad, wash the grain sent from Canada and lay it out to dry in the sun, Eola, make labaneh ( dried yoghurt) , Mahmoud, mix za’atar- a Palestinian spice mixture; the day to day tasks that keep men, women, and children so busy.

Canadian Grain Delivered; pmercer

Canadian Grain Delivered; pmercer

mixing spices to make za'atar

Mixing the spices for za'atar

Mixing the spices for za’atar

labenah

labenah

We were all  more relaxed that week. The immanent threat of demolition had been postponed….the court case put off until talks with the DCO (District Coordination Office) take place.  No longer were we planning for and dealing with the steady stream of media, journalists, activists, government officials,  inundating  the village requiring food and lodging. Nassar, exhausted from making himself available to all who have found their way to this tiny village of 350 people, was able to relax and spend time with his family. They sat outside in the coolness of the evening softly talking and laughing.

I enjoyed many meals at Eola’s tent. Ida, a Danish activist, who speaks Arabic, was often there as well.  She tirelessly liaised with all the participants in this drama –  up late into the night, strategically planning  the next day’s activitie, out with the shepherds at dawn, because of threats from the Israeli settlers near by, and  translating for for  the visitors as they come and go.

Ida

Ida

We all rested uncomfortably in the afternoons as  we coped with a heat wave sent to us from India keeping the temperatures well above 40C. At least at night there was a breeze of sorts  pushing the hot air about.

We moved and talked slowly. Through Ida, we were able to ask and answer questions about each others lives. One morning that week Abu Jihad, the patriarch of the family, invited  students to join us. They were volunteering in a refugee camp. As each told a little about themselves, Abu Jihad told them that I was ‘Family’!  Tears …..

Abu Jihad

Abu Jihad

On my last day, the hottest day of the heat wave,  the women of the village prepared for a shopping trip in Hebron for ‘back to school’ clothes.  Eola, who made our breakfasts,  was eight  months pregnant, and was  feeling poorly because of a miserable head cold.  However, she dressed beautifully in a traditional full length black dress for the outing. Life is  hard for the women in the village and they don’t often have the opportunity  for an outing to the city. This shopping trip was a very special occasion.

As  I returned  to our apartment in Yatta for a shower and a fitful rest in the unrelenting heat.  I  wondered  how Eola would manage to get through her shopping day in the crowded city.

A superb meal of stuffed cabbage and turkey greeted is as we arrived  back in the evening.  We joined  Nassar and his family for the evening meal.  I commented on the superhuman feat of his wife’s preparation of  this feast after such a long and tiring day. ‘She is strong’, he grins as they exchange  an appreciative look and a smile.

The camera interprets my innermost feelings

The camera interprets my innermost feelings

After dinner, Leif, my Norwegian colleague,  and I sit appreciatively under  the full moon in a cloudless azure sky studded with stars. With heavy hearts, we decide to make our rounds to say our good byes.  No need for flashlights as we meander from tent to tent in the moonlight. Eventually,  we are called to Eola’s tent. The children are outside, gathered around a coconut cake and her specialty, a milk pudding. She is disappointed  because it hasn’t set as she had hoped. I am overwhelmed as I realize the effort she has made under such trying circumstances.

It is customary in the Palestinian culture, I was told, to sing at a farewell gathering. The children take their turns, singing familiar Arabic songs. Then it is our turn to sing songs from our homelands –  Norway, Denmark and Newfoundland..

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A tender moment

A tender moment

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The little ones weave in and out of our arms and slowly succumb to sleep. One by one,  Mahmoud, their father,  carries them  to their sleeping mats.

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Eola looks at me and, Ida translating, softly says, ‘You are sad! ‘She  intuits that I am overwhelmed by a deep sense of all that  I am about to leave behind. I have come  to love the families with whom we have fostered a friendship midst the turmoil of the past few months. I feel so privileged to have been immersed in a culture that is virtually the same as it was  centuries ago; a way of life that may soon disappear in this new homogeneous world that is being created. I have walked, talked, slept, cried, played, worried,  and celebrated with families I have grown cherish.

With heavy hearts, we  walked  back to our tent where  Mahmoud joined us. He chatted with Leif about  his life in the village. It seemed to be ‘men talk’ and I felt I should leave them alone but my presence didn’t seem to matter,  so I stayed. We felt the  poignancy of the moment. At some point Mahmoud suggested that our tent was so hot and airless that we might prefer  sleeping outside. He told us that when he was a boy, he always slept outside. In the morning, his family would look all  over to see where they might find him. He showed me his favourite ‘sleeping’ rock!  I was open to the idea because  a rat had nudged Leif the night before and I was a little anxious. So….. I contentedly slept outside,  close to the guard dog who had just had a litter and was protective.

IMG_1266 I

My last night in Susiya, I slept under the stars, waking every few hours to follow the full moon’s trail across the deep blue sky. For that night at least, my heart was at peace in this incredible Palestinian village.

“With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,  It is still a beautiful world.”

‘ Desiderata’

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The Week the World Came to Susiya

Reception line welcoming the dignataries.

Reception line  to welcome dignitaries.

And one could ask why….

Susiya EAPPI staff, June 2015, (1)

How did this small Palestinian Village of approximately 350 residents draw heads of state, the world’s media, documentary film makers, Israeli and Palestinian activists, and me.  I joined 8  men and women from around the world  to be  Ecumenical Accompaniers in Susiya. Our protective presence was requested by the UN through the World Council of Churches.

President of ther PA

President of the PA

Protection for PA

Palestinian Soldiers – Protection for PA

Susiya is no different from most  other villages at risk in Palestine. The Israeli establishment has been drafting laws for decades designed to dispossess  Palestinians of their land and property. The International community has largely ignored this injustice which blatantly disregards International law and the 4th Geneva Convention.

Alaister Mcphail of the UK Consulate

Alaister Mcphail of the UK Consulate

EU delegates address Susiya

EU delegates address Susiya

EU delegates tour of Susiya

EU delegates tour of Susiya

So why the sudden interest in Susiya? Is it because the efforts of the UN OCHA sees the demolition of Susiya, as a red line not to be crossed?  Israel has been largely getting away with its wanton destruction of Palestinian lives through demolishing their homes and livelihood.

Jeff Halper of ICAHD with Nassar, and Ea's Dianne and Patricia

Jeff Halper of ICAHD with Nassar, and EA’s Dianne and Patricia

ICAHD volunteers in Susiya

ICAHD volunteers in Susiya

Is the UN, in its reaching out to  organizations opposing Israel’s disregard for the lives of the ‘Other’ saying, this is the beginning of a united concerted effort to shout a resounding ‘No’ to a continuation of this destructive policy?

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Line up for UN sponsored relief..

Canadian Grain Delivered; pmercer

Canadian Grain Delivered; pmercer

Why have all the consuls come.  Again, nothing has changed……The various  governments, the US, UK, Canada, EU, PA, have continually sponsored projects including solar panels, water cisterns, electricity, bathrooms for schools etc. to help sustain the lives of ordinary  Palestinians under occupation.

water cistern

water cistern

Solar panels in Susiya

Solar panels in Susiya

This is the way it goes –  a new cistern, a demolishment order, demolishment; a new cistern, a demolishment order and so on……..Are donor countries protecting their investments, or are they getting nearer to saying ‘Israel, ENOUGH! End the Occupation and begin the normalization of everyday lives of both Palestinian and Israeli citizens!

Haneen Zoabi, Member of the Knesset

Haneen Zoabi, Member of the Knesset

NY Tomes reporter, interviewing Nassar Narwaja and Patricia Mercer

NY Tomes reporter, interviewing Nassar Narwaja and Patricia Mercer

Why have all the media come? As I walk around Susiya this week, my colleagues and I are asked for interviews by The New York Times, CNN, Austrailian Broadcasting Company, Italian TV,German TV, Independent Documentary Film Makers.

Again, nothing has changed from the month before…..

Can the reporters who tell us the stories be truly interested in Susiya? Are we finally seeing a beginning of impartiality in the telling of the story. Is it that the public, informed by social media, is tired of the misrepresentation of the facts, the lies, the bias that has been the mainstream narrative?

Why indeed….

Could it be a Kairos Moment. In rhetoric kairos is  a Greek Word that means “a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved”. Perhaps, just perhaps,  this moment in time could be that opening – we are seeing the gathering together of forces which have the power to bring about the changes which are so needed by both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.
The other face of Kairos is  that if we let the moment pass,  an opportunity, pregnant with possibility,  is lost! And we don’t know when another opportunity will present itself.

This we do know….the present situation is unsustainable. The occupation will end at some point. The process of co-existence will begin.  Why not now?  If the forces (you, me and others who insist on preserving Human Rights) gather and  demand that International Law be upheld, the beginning of a new order can begin.

We could see ‘peace in our time’ in the Holy Land!

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This is a blog post by colleague Leif Magne Helgesen

EA Poem: “The sound of an early morning in Susiya”

 by Leif Magne Helgesen, Summer team,

10.07.15. South Hebron Hills, Susiya, Watering olives at dawn, Photo EAPPI / P. Mercer

The morning is full of sound

dogs barking

roosters crowing incessantly

a donkey gives a full throated bray

A butterfly breaks the sound barrier

it flys quietly and disappears

Continue reading

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Handcuffs at the Convent!

handcuffs at the convent

handcuffs at the convent

Handcuffs on the step just outside the convent where I am staying in Jerusalem. Israeli policemen had been resting there as I had been returning earlier. In fact I had made a joke to the receptionist that they were well guarded. She didn’t laugh!

The Nun's Way

The Nun’s Way

I looked around. There was no one in sight. I bent over and picked them up, cold heavy steel. The only handcuffs I had ever held were  plastic ones the boys got when we were children. These were serious business.

There is always someone watching!

There is always someone watching!

I brought them inside the convent thinking this was the closest place |I could responsibly bring them. The receptionist’s face blanched and she said, ‘police, go out’ I tried to explain but it became very obvious that the handcuffs  weren’t going to spend any time with the receptionist.  I thought … just or a millisecond mind you, that they might make an interesting souvenir….just a millisecond, before I put them back where I found them.

What about a photo! A more appropriate souvenir

handcuffs at the convent

handcuffs at the convent

It needed context. Soooo,  I backed up to get a fuller shot and tripped on the step behind me!

The fall

The fall

In another millisecond, I was being tenderly helped to my feet by a very concerned Israeli policeman.

“Are you OK?”

“I think so,” feeling quite shaken!

Holding, steadying  me, ” Are you sure?

Giving myself a mental check-up; I can stand, I don’t feel sharp pain, ‘Yes, I’m sure!’

In that millisecond before thought, one reached out to another in need  In that moment, lies our true humanity, our relationship to each other.  This is who we are, before we remember what we have been taught.

The next moment for him brought into focus my vest..a symbol of where i stood in the peace process; the next, (a relief, I’m sure,),  the  handcuffs, he hadn’t realized were missing.

At that same moment, I saw an Israeli police officer – a cog in the wheel of a brutal occupation. Maintaining eye contact for a moment longer,  we back away from each other  and go our separate ways

I am left to ponder those in between moments ……opportunities to remember who we really are!

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Bethlehem Checkpoint 300

Bethlehem Checkoint 300....going to pray during Ramadan

Bethlehem Checkoint 300….going to pray during Ramadan

In 2011 I volunteered with EAPPI and at that time my colleagues and I  understood that the Bethlehem Checkpoint was a nightmare. It was extremely poorly managed (perhaps by design) with little regard for people passing through,

I was not surprised to see nothing has changed for the better.

One of my EAPPI tasks has been to monitor Bethlehem Checkpoint 300 on Friday mornings during Ramadan. We count the number of men, women and children who pass through in their attempt to go to the Al Aqsa mosque to pray. Approximately 20,000 men, women, and children pass through between 6:00am and 12:30pm while we are there.

Families going to pray under the watchful eye of the IDF at Bethlehem checkpoint 300

Families going to pray under the watchful eye of the IDF at Bethlehem checkpoint 300

The first Friday, families came dressed in their finest clothes for the festive occasion. The first point of entry  separated them into two lines, male and female. There were fully armed soldiers  guarding this first check. At least twice while I was there, the soldiers activated their riot gear and pointed their guns into the crowd….for a reason I could not discern.

Managing families on their way to Prayer during Ramadan at Bethlehem Checkpoint

Managing families on their way to Prayer during Ramadan at Bethlehem Checkpoint

Bottlenecks formed, a rumbling growl from deep within the crowd arose as people were  trapped, until at some point a decision would be made to let everyone through – even those without permits.

There would be a frenzied deluge of people rushing through to try and take advantage of the opening before the gates closed again. This breaking of the rules encouraged those who could not get permits because of age  to hang around.

Too young to pray - denied entry - at Bethlehem checkpoint 300

Too young to pray – denied entry – at Bethlehem checkpoint 300

Monitoring the process was frustrating. The arbitrariness of the rules proved that security was not the issue. Control and harassment of Palestinian families seemed to be the actual goal.

A child's life - at Bethlehem Checkpoint 300

A child’s life – at Bethlehem Checkpoint 300

On Lilat Al-Kader, the Holiest night of Ramadan, it was my day off. I joined thousand s of people trying to go through Bethlehem checkpoint en route to Jerusalem. I arrived at approx 4;00pm and did not reach my destination until 8:00. The bus ride from Bethlehem to Jerusalem usually takes 15 minutes..

Crowds were forming as I joined the women’s line and passed through the first point of entry into the draconian walled checkpoint under the watchful eye of  fully armed soldiers. I walked the  uphill pathway to the second point where I noticed people turning back from one particular line. That usually means trouble. My EAPPI vest offers some degree of protection so I deliberately joined the troubled line to see what was up.  A soldier, obviously filled with his own importance shouted at the women because  he didn’t like the way they were moving towards him – they were taking a step forward before he told them to. He shouted, pointed his finger, and forced them to step back, then step forward at his command. The female soldier next to him has the grace to look embarrassed. He caught the eye of  a  fellow soldier manning another line and laughed!

Gate closed at Bethlehem checkpoint 300

Gate closed at Bethlehem checkpoint 300

I  got through eventually and moved toward the next point. Across the parking lot there was a gate fence. We surged toward it but it was closed. As we all puzzled about this, the crowd piled up  behind me. I found myself towards the front of a crowd with more and more people coming from behind. Feeling potential danger in the air, I extricated myself and moved outside the group where I  waited  for the gate to open. I observed that it in order to open it had to push against the throng of people – a design flaw?

With great difficulty finally it opened!. We  jostled toward the opening but before I could get through, the soldiers closed it again. I was about five feet from the fence and the  force of the forward momentum threatened to crush us. I always avoid  small confined spaces but now I was  trapped.

Families flowing towards the gate at Bethlehem Checkpoint 300

Families flowing towards the gate at Bethlehem Checkpoint 300

I was at the head of a rumbling crowd.  Because of Ramadan, everyone was fasting –  no one had had anything to eat or drink since daybreak. The  temperature rose to 35 degrees, and people continued to  pile up behind me. I felt terribly  it seemed vitally important at that moment that someone should know I was there. My friend Rev Lauren McGrail , who I was going to meet up with later that night,  kept me company through text messaging until I felt safe again.

As my personal space was dwindling, along with that of all those surrounding me. I was particularly concerned about the children. One mother held a baby while her little girl clung  to her. Another bigger girl was carried by her mother, until she became too heavy. Up, down! Up ,down! Mothers doing their best  to protect their little ones.

Waiting to get through at Checkpoint 300

Waiting to get through at Checkpoint 300

Gasping foe air at Checkpoint 300

Gasping foe air at Checkpoint 300

Trying to stay calm we stood pressed together for half an hour.Tempers were fraying. Children were squeezed. The soldiers tried to open the gate against the pressure of too many bodies. If one child stumbled, or an elderly person fainted, or someone lost his temper it could be disastrous.

blocking an opening gate at Bethlehem's checkpoint 300

blocking an opening gate at Bethlehem’s checkpoint 300

Making Space for Chirdren at Bethlehem's Checkoint 300

Making Space for Chirdren at Bethlehem’s Checkoint 300

The gate was finally opening. The soldiers confronted the obvious difficulty of  pushing  it against the throng of people. We were squeezed back until there was enough space to slip through. We protected the children as best we could and then spewed out to open space and freedom.

Then we had to tackle the buses – but that is another story!

This how the Palestinian people go to pray on the Holiest night of their year under a brutal Israeli Occupation!

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Bulldozers Poised to Destroy Susiya!

EAPPI's photo.

Bulldozer used to demolish homes in Palestine

Our worse fears are unfolding. As we were returning home this bulldozer lumbered down the road past Susiya and was delivered to the military outpost 2 minutes away!

The EAPPI overnight shift arrived. Nothing to report in the handover. It had been a  quiet day. Just as  we arrived  back in Yatta, a phone call from Nassar, the spokesperson for the village, informed us of the unwelcome but not unexpected arrival of bulldozers.

We race back to Susiya. Another bulldozer, and trailer of heavy equipment and bales of hay??? have been delivered to the military outpost. The moment we have been dreading has come. We expect that the plans to demolish the village will be deployed tomorrow.

strategy planning

strategy planning

Days off and checkpoint duty are abandoned as we plan for the probable demolition in the morning. We are prepared ….everything we might need has been stored emergency trunk,,,,water, dried food, first aid kit, flashlight batteries, everything that could be needed in an emergency. We increase our surveillance – camera’s and phones charged; we are ready for whatever is coming. We meet with Nassar and plan strategy.  Sentry duty begins at dawn, the time when the Israeli army usually begins its demolitions. We know that whoever is in the village at this crucial time will be the eyes and ears  to the unfolding tragedy. The road will be closed and the area will be declared a closed military zone. No one else will get in!

Now it is ‘hurry up and wait’. We send reports to our National Coordinators. They contact consulates and the media. At least we can ensure that whatever does happen, it will, like Krakatoa,  sound an echo throughout the world.

Nothing happens that morning…. nor the next!

On Tuesday morning, Henk, a recently arrived EA, and I go for a walkabout. A walkabout serves a dual purpose. The first is to be seen by the Israeli sentry who is constantly watching the village from his watchtower across the valley. The song,

‘I am looking back to see, if you are looking back to see,

if I am looking back to see, if you are looking back at me.’

comes to mind.IMG_0426

The sentry and I have been watching each other over the past few weeks. The other reason for the walk is a reconnaissance to introduce Henk to the area. As we walk past the home of  three young women, they invite us to join them. One attends  university and will qualify as a teacher next year, one is going to be married in the fall and another is finishing high school and also plans to be a teacher. We have a lot of fun posing for pictures, inviting their mother to take a break from hanging out clothes and join us.

New friends

New friends

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As we continue  our walk, the phone rings. Terrible news! The DCO (district coordination office) wing of the Israeli establishment empowered with giving an order for demolitions, has entered the village. Hamdilila,  Nena is there. Usually, we travel in pairs but this morning, luckily, we are three.

Nena and the soldiers

Nena and the soldiers

We race back to the village. The DCO officers, flanked by soldiers, arrogantly strut through the village stopping at various structures to take photographs…usually a preliminary action to sending in the bulldozers. This has happened before.  In 1986, the Israeli administration ‘discovered’ an archaeological site on the traditional village of Susyia. The villagers were expelled and moved across the street. These women and children know only too well that the order to demolish is not an idle threat! Nena follows them, takes pictures and attempts to ask questions. They ignore both her and the villagers.

We arrive as the DCO vehicle is pulling away. Our colleagues from Yatta are not far behind. The women and children  have been badly frightened.

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We, EAPPI,  have been  sent to provide protective presence to the villagers, to show the Israeli authorities that the wider community is watching and to document events as they unfold for the world to see. Our national coordinators have been informed, they in turn have informed the media, and governmental organizations, who will express their outrage that these violations of UN conventions are taking place.

We represent to them world that cares.  This world, through the UN, supported by church communities, Rabbi’s for Human Rights and human rights activists  have sent us to insist on the Palestinian’s right to live on their own land, to develop it as they choose, to send their children to school without fear, to be protected by the rule of law, and to live a life without the oppression of an Israeli occupation.

The lives of Palestinian families  will not change until we, as a world community, insist on an end to this brutal occupation.

What do I do now?

What do I do now?

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