Tuesday, May 27, 2008

WWJBB? (Where would Jesus be born?)

Today I visited New Askar Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Nablus. There are three such camps in the Nablus area. New Askar is “new” because it was built in1964 as an expansion of the original (or “Old”) Askar, built in 1950. But since New Askar is not an official camp, there are no UNRWA facilities there and its challenges and hardships are accordingly greater.

Here is the UN definition of a Palestinian refugee:

Palestine refugees are persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. . . . UNRWA's definition of a refugee also covers the descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948. The number of registered Palestine refugees has subsequently grown from 914,000 in 1950 to more than 4.4 million in 2005, and continues to rise due to natural population growth.

I went to Askar camp observe an English class for young children. The teacher, another volunteer with Project Hope, was nothing short of brilliant. For each new topic (days of the week, adjectives, greetings, etc.) she had a song, an activity, a puppet, a funny sound effect or a picture. Sometimes all of the above. The kids were delightful, as well as squirmy, shy, exuberant, and mostly eager to learn. I’m guessing the teacher would stand out in any high-end suburban school in the U.S., but there she was teaching at her own expense in an unofficial refugee camp in Palestine, offering hope and opportunity to kids trapped in a cycle of poverty and despair.

The camps surrounding Nablus are three of twenty in the West Bank. Thirty-nine more dot the map across Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. I visited Jerash camp in Jordan back in 2004 and have stayed several times in Deheisheh on the edge of Bethlehem. Each camp has its stories to tell. Older residents are glad to reminisce over the cherished farms and villages from which they had to flee some 60 years ago. Many yearn to return.

There are certainly darker places on earth to raise a family There is clearly more deprivation in parts of Africa, Latin America, the Indian sub-continent, the Philippines and elsewhere. I wonder, however, whether you’d find anything similar in countries as developed and sophisticated as Israel, with its world ranking as 22nd-highest in gross domestic product per capita (at US$33,299). I have my doubts.

What if Christians on holy pilgrimage to the site of Jesus’ birth were to include a side trip to nearby Deheisheh or Aida camps? What if they paused to listen to a few of these displaced Palestinians tell their stories? It is there, I suspect, rather than in the gilded shrine of the Nativity Church in Manger Square, that they would see most clearly what it must have been like for Jesus to embrace humility and to identify, from the very beginning, with “the least of these” (Mt 25:40). And perhaps it is there as well that we would find there is much to be done in the causes of both mercy and justice.

Monday, May 26, 2008

What about the bond?

Sporting our spiffy volunteer’s vests yesterday, my daughter and I ducked into the Old City to buy fresh vegetables. On our way we paused to chat with a young man whose English was better than average. Immediately his uncle offered coffee. Arabic coffee. The good stuff. Moments later we were balancing on sketchy plastic chairs, surrounded by a dozen young men who wanted to practice their rudimentary English. We learned several new Arabic words, laughed a lot and gave them our vitals: where we were from, why we were here and, of course, how old we were.

One young man had a deep scar in the crook of his arm. Two wore necklaces displaying small pictures of dead family members. A brother. A cousin. An older man pulled at his shirt to reveal what looked like a pair of bullet holes in his neck. Neither our Arabic nor their English was good enough to solve the Middle East crisis but it was obvious to us that these young men—or many of them—were active resisters to the Occupation. “Fighters,” as they say. With us, they were polite, hospitable, gracious, even jovial. Yet when Israeli soldiers come to call—soldiers equally youthful, equally volatile, equally in over their heads—they are deadly serious.

What strikes me in retrospect is the strength of their fraternal bond. Some young men seek brotherhood on a sports team or fraternity or in the ranks of the military. This band of brothers is united by blood—blood of both the inherited and spilled varieties. They fight and sometimes die beside cousins, nephews and brothers. It’s a bond nothing will break. The more Palestinian arrests, injuries and deaths that occur in places like Nablus, the stronger will be the communal resolve to resist.

If Israel’s strategists think they will break the resistance by stepping up incursions, closing more checkpoints, imposing more closures and knocking down more buildings, someone needs to explain to them about the bond.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The difference between night and day

This is the first of (hopefully) several posts from Palestine during May and June, 2008.

Daytime in Nablus hides its nightly war games fairly well. Markets bustle, children play, horns honk, trucks belch. The signs of conflict are easy enough to spot—buildings destroyed or damaged (by Israeli shelling, bulldozers and tanks), ubiquitous martyr posters, stone shrines to the fallen—but people here, like other peoples in crisis, have an uncanny capacity to project a sense of normalcy. Maybe they do it for the kids. Maybe for their own sanity.

This evening, our walk in the Old City spanned that perfect time of day when the waning sun paints the world in amber hues. Everything, even rubble and garbage, takes on an exquisite glow. In that light we threaded through Ottoman alleyways, toured an aging soap factory, greeted friends in the street and stopped for kanafeh at a small shop. Children giggled “how are you?” or wanted their picture taken. For a brief, sun-drenched moment all was right with the world.

But, of course, it isn’t. Earlier today I sat on the small balcony of our 2nd floor apartment. Just minutes from the Old City, it’s a flat for Project Hope volunteers like us. From our lookout I watched the city’s white stone buildings cascade down the valley and climb the other side—the southern slope of Mount Ebal, one of the highest peaks in Palestine/Israel (3,084 feet). Clearly visible at Ebal’s summit is the silhouette of an Israeli military outpost—reportedly the largest in the West Bank. Military incursions into the city are a nightly routine; last night’s action apparently included an assault on a restaurant with percussion grenades and bullets. Don’t know what the troops were after. Tracking a “fighter,” perhaps, or delivering payback. A restaurant burned to the ground. Here in our apartment we heard nothing. Saw nothing. Felt no threat. My only source is a somewhat confusing report from the Maan News Agency. Whatever happened, you can bet it won’t get picked up by the NYT or BBC. But that too is part of normal over here. “The trouble with normal” is, as Bruce Cockburn says, that “it always gets worse.”