...reflections from a Compassionate Listener

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Compassionate Listening in Beit Jala

I spent June 1-3, 2007 in the small town of Beit Jala, adjacent to Bethlehem, with 19 Israeli Jews and 19 Palestinian Muslims and Christians from all over the West Bank (Palestine). Maha El-Taji and I facilited the training session, and Cheri Catt and Len Wolf came from the U.S. to assist and support us all.

In the past month and a half since my return to the Puget Sound, I have not found many words to describe my experience. It was a great privilege to be of service to these peace and community leaders. Maha and my focus was on holding a strong container so that the participants could trust the Compassionate Listening process and dive deeply with one another. There were times when the wounds were so exposed and the pain so raw, that I wondered if the container would shatter. But we all pulled through. The desire to connect - to understand and be understood, is so huge. They risked so much, and found that it is possible to reach new ground.

The months and days leading up to the training were stressful. The Israeli security wall that many Israelis tell us is bringing them more safety, jut into Palestinian territory so deeply, that it's impossible for the Palestinians to see it as anything other than a land grab. It rarely follows the border between Israel, and the land known as the West Bank that Israel has occupied for 40 years now. The 40 year anniversary of the Six Day War was coincidentally on June 6th, just days after our training, with much international focus.

The Everest Hotel, where our training was held, is located in a virtual "hole in the Wall." It is perched high on a hill overlooking Bethlehem and the surrounding area. One sees the Wall snaking up through the valley and hills of Bethlehem below, but strangely, it stops just short of the hotel, making it possible for Israelis to arrive there by car.

Like a science fiction movie, the Wall creeps closer to the front door of the Everest Hotel every day. The relentless construction brings with it intense noise, and endless layers of fine dust blowing over the courtyard of the hotel and into every imaginable crevice. The topsoil has been scraped off the mountain to prepare the vast construction site, leaving dust so fine that my foot sinks 6 inches down in it, as if walking on snow. The cement trucks, jackhammers, and other heavy equipment that pound the 30 foot  high concrete wall into place were literally operating 100 feet from the front door of the hotel.

Maha, Cheri, Len and I arrived the afternoon before the training to settle in and set the room up, and found ourselves in the middle of this construction zone. In preparation for being cut off by the Wall, the owner of the hotel had already sent most of his family to seek a better life in Los Angeles. This hotel, that only seven months earlier had been full of the warmth of his brothers and many other family members, was now mainly empty.

At dinner time, we were surprised to see a crew of dusty construction workers march in - some with their hardhats still on. It took a while for me to digest that the construction crew building this section of the Wall was a Palestinian work crew from Israel. Since they were so far from home that they camped out at the hotel during their stints in Beit Jala, and only went home on the weekend.

Life in Palestine has been chaotic ever since I can remember, but I've never seen it at this level of chaos. Since the 2nd Intifada in 2000, the network of checkpoints and roadblocks has skyrocketed, and nearly every Palestinian village has to contend with huge barriers of rubble at the entrances of their villages, making simple transportation in and out a major ordeal. The Wall just adds another level.

My personal concern was that after months of planning and preparing, the Wall would close in on the Everest Hotel and our Israeli participants would have no way to get to the training. Since Palestinians have a next to impossible chance of getting permits to enter Israel, the training would be lost. My months of planning - writing proposals, circulating the invitation among Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, the endless email inquiries, and the cumbersome registration process - I feared that all would be lost.

As it turned out, we all arrived, and the only real problem for us was contending with the noise and dust on Friday and Sunday. Thankfully, the construction crew had Saturday off.


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