by: Leila Dregger on August 4th, 2014 | 1 Comment »
Bombs turn play areas, refugee camps, entire streets into ruins. In these ruins, children bleed to death. Ten thousand people looking for shelter, but hospitals are overcrowded and exhausted doctors. Operations are carried out under mobile phone flashlights because, after the destruction of the only power station in Gaza, there is no electricity. On the other side, an entire people re-experience an age-old fear of attacks and extermination every day, after the discovery of tunnel systems. Eighty-five percent of the Israeli population is, according to the polls, pro-war. Dehumanization, demonization, and hatred exist on both sides. Meanwhile, there is a completely marginalized peace movement – powerless, abused, and threatened. Economies such as the USA or Germany, that have raised their arms exports up to a quarter in the last year, have failed to provide adequate aid, while an airplane with medicine for Gaza was denied landing permission in Egypt.
The only response for an open heart in hearing this news is to act.
Amidst this seemingly hopeless situation Sabine Lichtenfels, co-founder of a peace research center called Tamera in Portugal, initiated what she calls a “vision camp” in the West Bank. It had mainly one goal: to create and maintain humaneness, trust, and equal exchange between Israel and Palestine. Even the international flight cancellations to Tel Aviv could not stop her; Sabine did not give up until she and her team had managed to get the last seats in a fully booked Israeli airplane. Finally, fifty peace workers from Palestine, Israel, and other countries met from July 24 to 29 in a completely open area, near Bethlehem.
Parallel to the first day of the meeting, the population of the West Bank rose: ten thousand people marched from Ramallah to Jerusalem. In violent clashes with the military, several Palestinians were shot, three of them in sight of the camp. “They were terrorists,” said the soldiers. “Peace workers,” said the neighbors. People’s views are so far apart about almost everything in this region.
The participants were meeting, eating, and sleeping under the open sky. In simplest terms, their question was, “What can we do to stop the violence, hatred, and fear?” The venue and the names and photos of the Palestinian participants were not published. In the Palestinian society any contact with Israelis is condemned as “normalization.” However, the camp was safe, despite the fear that the camp might be attacked.
“I could not stand to watch the horrible news at home alone. I had to do something,” said Gabriel Meyer from Israel, initiator of the Sulha movement, which has tried for a decade to bring Arabs and Jews together. Like him, peace activists on both sides are tired – some even feeling desperate, burnt out, and helpless in the face of violence. Peacemakers have become a minority of a minority in their own country.
“We need to find out why we as peace workers have failed,” said Sami Awad, director of the Holy Land Trusts and teacher of nonviolence in Bethlehem. “We face burning hatred on both sides. That is why I cannot believe in any solution that is based only on the agreement of political leaders. We need to resolve the hatred itself, a work of reconciliation, which starts at the individual and at the community level.”
The beginning was not easy. Worldviews collided – fears and blame, helplessness and anger came up. Some would rather leave immediately. “We’ve talked enough, we must do something!” they said, but did not know what.
Deep listening to one another was the most important element. Sabine Lichtenfels, who led the talks with great power and patience, said, “It is essential that we perceive the pain and fear of the other person and not be too quick to give answers and advice. We must dare to face our own inner, sometimes painful place of not knowing – only then we will be open for real answers and solutions.”
Ali Abu Awad, the owner of the land, had been in prison as a young man. Soldiers had shot his brother and at first he was full of revenge, but then he made the deep decision to work toward nonviolence.
“At that time the whole Israeli army could not prevent me to throw stones and to use force. But then I found something that kept me: meeting like-minded people here, who perceive me in my humanity and with respect,” Abu Awad said.
Such encounters between the two groups are becoming less frequent recently. Decades of war propaganda on both sides as well as historical trauma have created an explosive mixture of non-communication, distrust, and fear throughout the region. Each extremist government that wants war can easily ignite such a mixture for their purposes; the economic interests then remain in the background. “Those who do not want a war need a vision for peace,” said Sabine Lichtenfels. This includes envisioning a place where trust and humanity are stronger than fear and hatred.
More and more peace activists from Israel and the West Bank came to visit the camp, participating in the think tank, planting trees, and listening. “Here I can breathe freely for the first time in weeks,” said one visitor from the north of the country. People from around the world are also joining us at the camp – a Japanese man introduced me to his idea of a pilgrimage from Hiroshima to Gaza.
The humanitarian ceasefire between Israel and Hamas held little more than a day. Ali Abu Awad said, “Today, on a playground in Gaza ten children were killed by bombs. This is a great crime, and we all are to blame for it, not just one side. The biggest enemy of the Palestinians is the fear of the Israelis; the biggest enemy of Israel is the suffering of the Palestinians under occupation. The biggest enemy of both is hatred.”
On the final evening, neighbors, settlers, peace workers, internationals, were sitting together at the table to bless the bread, when the sirens wailed. There were no bunkers, only a free field. But the visitors stayed collected. Also, there were no outbreaks of blame or fear. Then missiles from Gaza flew over their heads like shooting stars and were intercepted by the defense shield of the Israeli army. It was like a symbol: in this camp a frequency was found to overcome separation – and with that also fear. Like this, over the long term, war can be overcome.
Sami Awad said, “One thing is very important: we need an international public, which does not take side, and favors or pities one side more than the other. This does not help us, and I speak as a Palestinian. We need global partners that are pro-Israel AND pro-Palestine and pro-peace and justice.”
For the participants, one thing is clear: The war in Gaza and Israel is not a local conflict, but another outbreak of the global war system, such as in Syria and Ukraine. They will therefore also work on a global solution and of a transformation of the war society, including its economic, environmental, social aspects. The hundred thousand people who were follow the camp via Facebook and Twitter show the global outreach possibilities for this necessary effort.
Sami Awad said, “Five days Vision Camp have shown the immense potential of the region of reconciliation and deeper humaneness. We need such places permanently in order to not forget it.”
Some of the participants are planning a concrete project. They want to build a Peace Research Village (PRV), a real model for a society in which trust and humanity are stronger than fear and hate, a model of coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. “As difficult as that seems to be at the moment, during the five days, we noticed that it’s just the most urgent needs,” said one participant from Jerusalem. The team planning to build the PRV deserves every kind of support.
Learn more about the vision Camp.
More about Sabine Lichtenfels.
More about the PRV.
More about Sami Awad.