Bridging the Wall by Gail Epstein

Bridging the Wall
by Gail Epstein

I am still digesting the experience of visiting Bethlehem in November as part of a Cambridge delegation.  It doesn't go down easy for an American whose tax dollars help build Israel’s wall of separation.  More than twenty feet high and declared illegal by the International Court of Justice for reaching deep into Palestinian territory, the wall has enabled Israel to confiscate West Bank land, groundwater wells and cisterns.  
As it winds through Bethlehem, the wall separates neighbors and families, people from needed services, farmers from their olive trees, students from their schools, and workers from their jobs.  Travel between Bethlehem and Jerusalem also includes checkpoints that stretch a twenty-minute commute to two hours or more, and many who live in Bethlehem are not allowed into Jerusalem at all.  
But resolving those struggles is not the focus of the Cambridge/Bethlehem People-to-People Initiative.  Our work is about building bridges – lifelines – between the Palestinians in Bethlehem and those of us on the other side of the wall in Cambridge, MA.  One way to encourage these human connections is by telling the stories offered to us as gifts of friendship and trust, allowing us to be witnesses to the suffering, humanity, and "beautiful resistance" of the inspiring people we met.  
The director of the Aseela Women’s Cooperative proudly gave us a tour of her olive oil soap factory.  Begun in her kitchen, it became an alternative source of income for both uneducated women and professional women like her who, after working for six years as a nurse in Jerusalem, was forbidden to travel there.
Beautiful resistance is also the story shared by a soft spoken young man over a traditional Palestinian dinner in a smoke-filled restaurant.  In 1988, during the first intifada, he was jailed for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.  He was 15 years old.  He spent the next six years in an adult prison in Israel, using that time to move through his rage and helplessness, finding empowerment in learning.  Often he went for six months at a time without being allowed visits from his family.  Reading constantly, he educated himself and staved off loneliness, boredom, and depression.  
Today, at age 34, he has resolved his old anger towards the Israelis who imprisoned him.  He works part time with young people at a local YMCA, and helps lead tours of the West Bank for those interested in getting a Palestinian perspective on life there.  His hope is to come to Cambridge and study at Harvard’s JFK School.  As we said goodbye, he spoke about the importance of seeing one another’s humanity: “Once there is that trust, it’s possible to disagree and yet remain in connection and in peace.”
For the young people at D'heisheh Refugee Camp’s IBDAA Cultural Center, beautiful resistance is preserving their cultural heritage through performances of traditional dance.  For high school and college students, it is getting the best education they can, even if economic and political hardships prevent them from ever finding jobs doing the work they’re trained for.  
In a co-ed 11th grade chemistry class at Bethlehem’s American-Jerusalem School, where students are a mixture of Muslims and Christians, teens eagerly gave us their email addresses to connect with peers in Cambridge.  They want to tell their stories directly to Americans, be seen for who they are rather than as the U.S. media portrays them, and speak for themselves:
Q: What is "peace" to you?
A: No walls.
             Being treated with respect.
                Israelis and Palestinians living together.
Q: What gives you hope?
A: Religion/God.
            Our families.
             If our parents lived through this, so can we.

     Q: What do you want students in the United States to know about you?
A: We want to be treated like human beings, not caged animals.
           We deal every day with helplessness and humiliation at checkpoints.
            We're not terrorists.
           We're not trying to drive Israelis into the sea.
           We want peace.