...reflections from a Compassionate Listener

Monday, June 7, 2010

Friendship across the Gaza Border: “Hope Man” and “Peace Man” start a movement.

Over two years ago, an Israeli man named Eric Yellin, living in Sderot, created a blog with a Gazan man from Sajaia Refugee Camp. They co-authored the blog anonymously, under the names “Hope Man” and “Peace Man”. The blog spurred a movement, now an organization called “Other Voice”.

On June 3, 2010, our Compassionate Listening delegation met with two remarkable women from Other Voice, in the community center in Moshav Netiv HaAsara, an Israeli community that literally bumps up against the Gaza border. (In the photo on the left, you can see the first of three walls separating the community from Gaza...the town of Beit Lahiya is only 400 meters away). 
Here is an introduction to Other Voice, taken from their website:
 "Other Voice" consists of citizens who live in Sderot and Israeli communities surrounding the Gaza Strip. It is a non-partisan group; we are not affiliated with any political party or organization. Other Voice represents a wide array of the public and its members come from diverse backgrounds and hold a broad range of opinions and beliefs.

We live in a violent and unstable region, in which thousands of people from both sides of the border have been killed, wounded and hurt, including children, the elderly and other innocent civilians. The ongoing violence and escalation of the conflict have deepened the mutual fear and hatred, and destroyed feelings of personal safety. We call for creative action that will bring about a long-term and real solution to the region. We call for creative action that will take the civilians out of the circle of violence. 

Meet Roni (left) and Julia, from Other Voice:
“You are visiting us here today in Moshav Nativ HaAsara, my home, with 480 families with an average of four children per family. We grow vegetables, flowers and fruit. We also grow vegetables for seed production.

Beginning ten years ago, life became much more difficult. Before that, we had good relationships with our Gazan neighbors. They walked over to work here. We used to visit them and celebrate their holidays and special occasions with them. These relationships were undermined from all of the military involvement over the years, and the greater political conflict.

In 2005, our government decided to withdraw the Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, because the Palestinians wanted us out. And the day after the withdrawal, we had a rocket sent over. It was a direct hit, and killed 22 year old Dana Galkowicz, who was visiting her boyfriend here in our community.
We are living under constant threat – we never know when it will not be a miracle. We’re all deeply affected. If I’m walking down the room, I’m always thinking about where I will go if I hear the rocket alarm. A Thai worker was killed by a rocket just two months ago, here in our community. 
(photo: Israeli soldiers pack up for patrol during our listening session. These soldiers are stationed at the community center.)
Children are quite fearful – many can’t sleep at night. Even so, even with all this uncertainty and fear, no one leaves our community. We have many rental houses here and not one is available. We have a very strong and supportive community. Some in the community think that the only way to be is very strong militarily…and some of us think we need to come to terms with our neighbors and have a good relationship. I’m in the latter camp.
I’m originally from England and my parents came here when I was 8 years old. My husband is an agriculturalist. The Israeli government asked my husband to go to help Israeli settlers in the Sinai (now Egypt) to develop agriculture. My husband left and we eventually joined him for five years there – near Yamit.

My youngest daughter was five years old at the time, and did not know any Arabic or English. An Egyptian girl in her class handed out birthday invitations to every girl in class, except for our daughter. It took our two families two years to break down the defenses and become friends. Our house became a meeting place for Egyptians and Israelis. From my experience in the Sinai, I realized the importance of dialogue. When Camp David was signed, our community was evacuated, and reestablished here, directly on the Gaza border.

In our group, Other Voice, we have different projects. We have friends in Gaza who we can only talk with over the phone or the internet. They’ve come a few times to be with us in Israel. There are many obstacles but we are very determined.

Julia Chaitin:
I live in Kibbutz Urim, which is 15 minutes from the Gaza border.  I am a professor of Social Work at Sapir Academic College. The College is just two kilometers away from the Gaza Strip and has received many rockets.

There was a red alert (signaling a rocket attack), and a student at the college tried to hide under a tree, and he was hit directly. We’ve had so many injured. Their worst effect is the psychological effect - 75-80% of the people here are diagnosed with PTSD.

The communities here are strong, with lots of educational support. There is no-one who lives here who hasn’t had a close call, who doesn’t know someone killed or wounded. My field is the effects of long-term trauma on people. I’ve done many many studies, including the last ten years on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
(Photo: mural on a rocket shelter on the moshav with the words: "from love, peace is born")

I came from the United States in 1972 when I was nineteen years old. I have three children and a grandson. My first war was the 1973 war. Ten of us couples got married that summer on the kibbutz, and on the first day of the war, 2,500 of our soldiers were killed. My husband was called for reserve duty, and he was gone for 6 months…we had only been married for one month. He was on the Egyptian front. I was okay through all of the wars, but I started having a really hard time when my youngest son joined the Army. (I consider myself a pacifist.)

He did go in the army – into a combat unit, and he ended up in the last war with Lebanon - on the border. I spoke to him ten times a day on the phone. He was terrified and asked what I could do. I told him "I can speak with you".

When I came here I believed that Palestinians hated us and wanted to kill us. I went to Hebrew school and studied but I never learned about Palestinians. I did a lot of things, but all with Jewish Israelis. Since the 1990s I have been much more active and have gotten to know and work with Palestinians.

Conditions in Gaza are one thousand times worse than in the West Bank, if you can believe it. Over two years ago, a man named Eric Yellin in Sderot, created a blog with a Gazan man. They co-authored the blog anonymously, under the names “Hope Man” and “Peace Man”. This was the birth of Other Voice. Eric is the founder. I joined two years ago. (Photo: the Walls separating Gaza and Netiv HaAsara)

We have 150 people in Other Voice and the core group is about 15-20 people. We sit in someone’s home or in Sapir College, in a circle, take a cell phone and put it in the middle of the room, and we would speak with our friends in Gaza….men and women, old, young, secular, professional, religious. Since 2007 since Hamas took over, it’s considered an enemy entity, and we are not allowed in and they are not allowed out. All of the borders are sealed. That’s why the lifelines of the telephone and internet are so important.

One very “normal” thing we do is that we all play Farmville on Facebook. I give Ahmad an olive tree…they give us things. All of my neighbors in Farmville are Palestinians in Gaza.
Over the last few days they’ve asked that we don’t call them. Eric has managed to get permits for young people in Gaza for two seminars that we’ve held now. The young people feel caught between Hamas, Fatah, Israel and Egypt. So they lie and say that they’re going to seminars, instead of to meetings with us (Israelis). These last months some of the young people have been questioned by Hamas.

During the war, a number of us came out against it. Within our group, some folks thought the war was a necessity. We sent an open letter to Bibi Netanyahu a few months ago, calling for an end to the siege. Please download the letter and send it to everyone you know. 

The flotilla was a horrible thing. But at least people who have never talked about the siege of Gaza or wanted to think about it, are now talking about it. Just Monday, when the flotilla event happened, our two Israeli friends who live near the Gaza Border went to protest against  the Israeli attack. There was a much larger contingent there of pro-Israeli supporters, and our friends were threatened.

One is a single mother in the moshav, and she was told, “if you don’t write a letter apologizing, we have ways to see that you will no longer be able to live here.” Our reality here is much more polarized, much more black and white. That’s what we’re living here with now, in Israel.  
Please send our letter to anyone and everyone you think would be interested in our work. There are enough of us here who are fueling the conflict, and we don’t need more of them. But if it were up to me, I wold stop U.S. aid to Israel. I do this because I love my country, not because I’m against my country. The message from Monday, from the flotilla incident, should be, “stop the siege, life and dignity for all.”

Roni: Last week I returned from a family trip to Poland – to concentration camps, etc. My thoughts kept returning to this: that we cannot let this happen, given what happened to us as a people. Other family members said, “but you can’t compare.” But it’s not about comparison…it doesn’t have to be as bad as the holocaust for us to be concerned.

Julia: Israeli Professor Dan Bar-On wrote a lot during his lifetime about the “hierarchy of suffering.” Being in the victim situation lets you off the hook. Trying to compare suffering is a no win. And you see it everywhere: “Oh, you weren’t in a concentration camp, you were just in the Ghetto…” and these discussions really happen. I try to tell my students to get off the victim track.

During the second Intifada (Palestinian uprising), there was one front line street in the Israeli neighborhood of Gilo that was getting all the fire from Beit Jala, the Palestinian town across the valley. There was a joke going around at that time that went: okay we’ll sit together in the terrace then…okay, we’ll sit in the living room then… okay we’ll sit in the kitchen then…okay I guess we’ll sit in the freezer – anyone want some schnitzel? We can’t get away from it. We’ve tried to solve it militarily and there is no military solution. The rockets from Hizbollah almost hit the center of Israel. The next rockets from Gaza will hit Tel Aviv – they’ll be GRAD rockets that are much more sophisticated. I think I have a right not to run to a bomb shelter 3-4 times/day. And I think it’s their right in Gaza to live in peace and dignity.

Even if we sign the peace treaty tomorrow, we’re still going to be working all this out for hundreds of years – the fear and dehumanization.

Roni: I have 13 grandchildren and 7 of them live here. Anything I do today, I do for them….for their future. (photo on the right: Israeli soldiers stationed at the Moshav.)

(note: Julia is also senior staff member at the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development (NISPED) – an NGO that works on peace and sustainable human development between Jews and Palestinians within Israel and between Israel/Palestine. See their products that are co-designed, co-designed, co-produced.) 

Read Julia's article in the Washington Post, written during the Gaza War.  

All photos taken by Leah Green and Ellen Greene

Bookmark and Share

No comments: