Our Stories, Peace, Women and Peacemaking

Sumud – Keeping the community alive

by Rania Murra and Toine van Teeffelen
Arab Education Institute

In late October, a group of 30 local young women launched the “Artas Deserves to Be Beautiful” advocacy campaign in Artas, a village to the south of Bethlehem. They wanted to solve the waste problem in the village. One participant relates, “I used to read slogans such as ‘After failure comes success!’ or ‘When there is determination, we can reach our goals.’ I did not understand the meaning of those words until I saw some powerful models of women showing determination, passion, and strength.”

“When I was a university student, my only ambition was to graduate and get a job. However, after participating in the project, I started to see things from a new perspective. A sense of responsibility started to grow in me. I felt that I was responsible for my village. I wanted it to be a beautiful place, and I increasingly felt a sense of belonging.”

The women in the village entered the field of tax collection. As volunteers, some went from house to house to encourage inhabitants to pay waste-collection taxes and to raise awareness about the problem of waste; others went to schools to give training sessions to students. They explained the tools of advocacy and campaigning, how to involve stakeholders and address those in authority. The cleaning campaign featured additional activities such as removing garbage from the street, putting flowers in tires along the road, asking the police to take care of parking issues, and celebrating the campaign with a photo exhibit and hanging slogan posters on walls in public areas. As a result, the participants won over students and teachers as supporters and volunteers. The mayor and village council as well as a local heritage NGO supported the actions. The women made an arrangement with the solid-waste department in the Bethlehem district. Authorities agreed to make Artas a “model waste-collecting village.”…

Click here to read the entire article.


Spring days in Bethlehem

by Toine Van Teeffelen, Arab Educational Institute

The taxi driver is obviously nervous and suddenly brakes when a car passes by he doesn’t see. Throughout the journey he keeps talking. “It’s state terrorism,” he says about the killing of Ahmed Manasrah the previous night by the Israeli army. “It is the elections in Israel. They want to show who is the ruler here.” And: “Unbelievable, the racist treatment of taxi drivers near Battir and Wad Foukin.”

Thursday is strike day due to Manasrah’s death as well as of several other Palestinians in the West Bank killed earlier in the week.

All shops and companies are closed. It is the first day of spring, Mother’s Day, a big day here. Good weather day, too.

I realize once again that one unfortunately gets used to the killings – though never completely. However, the driver’s nervousness compels me to closely read the accounts of the killing near Bethlehem in the news agencies and papers.

The Israeli army says there was friction between Palestinians and rocks were thrown at cars. Soldiers intervened, shot Manasrah dead and seriously injured another Palestinian.

Family members of Manasrah have a totally different account. First there was a car accident. Somebody left the car that was hit in the accident to see what had happened to his car. He was shot from a military watchtower. Then Manasrah came out of his car and brought the injured man to a nearby hospital. After this he came back to bring the family members of the injured man home. When reaching the scene he himself was shot and killed. Manasrah’s family members say it was “beyond bizarre” to think he was throwing stones. It all happened near Road 60 between Hebron and Bethlehem, at the entrance of Bethlehem to the south.

Two more were earlier in the week killed after throwing explosives to a group of soldiers in Nablous, according to the army, though again not according to bystanders.

This morning Amira Hass writes in Haaretz that on March 4, some weeks ago, two Palestinians were killed west of Ramallah after they had rammed their car into a group of soliders and seriously injured one. While Israeli media reports afterwards suggested that the killing by soldiers was in self-defense, a video collected by Btselem, the Israeli human rights organization, indicated that 9 of the 10 bullets were shot 4,5 minutes after the crash – proof of a wanton killing.

The incidents were or are undoubtedly ‘investigated’.

On Friday it is Marathon Day. The strike is over, and people are allowed to move again, and move long and well. Music along the roads is on, runners and walkers are cheered or given the high five. Life goes on. There are over 8000 participants – more than in previous years. Mary shows me a video on Facebook how near Rachel’s Tomb some people shout “free, free Palestine” under the military watchtower.

Mary and I tell each other to finally join next year’s marathon.


Photo: Hundreds of Palestinians gathered on Thursday at Ahmed Manasrah’s funeral in the southern occupied West Bank (MEE/Akram al-Waara)


Peace, Peace Spirituality

Ancient time, ordinary time, disrupted time

by Toine Van Teeffelen
Arab Educational Institute

During a quiet morning a few weeks ago, I waited for a mass by Armenian priests in the Nativity Grotto to end. Together with guests I sat for an hour on the entrance stairs. We experienced the timelessness of Christmas through the slow, rhythmic singing of the priests.

Yesterday, at the occasion of Mary’s birthday, Mary and I visited a mass in the small chapel of the Bridgettines Sisters near Nativity Square. It is beautifully located in the maze of old small streets that is part of overlooked Bethlehem. The silence and sounds of bells and the inaudible footsteps of the sisters too remind of the ancient rhythm of the town.

Afterwards we rushed back into the ordinary sense of time. We have all kinds of sign posts that punctuate the normal days. Does the kaek man come in time so we can buy his bread with sesam before Mary leaves to Bethlehem University? Yes, there we hear his distant cry in the morning silence. Or we hear the shouts of school children going to school and know how late it is, or sense the quick steps of students going to their exams at university, studying from books they sometimes read while walking.

Yet there is always an unwelcome third rhythm: that of occupation. It interferes with the other rhythms. Full of uncertainty and threat, it puts people on their nerves. Last week, after a number of attacks against settlers and oppressive actions by the Israeli army, I noticed through Facebook that people in Bethlehem and Ramallah opened their doors for stranded travellers. They offer accommodation to those who do not dare to go out in the evening on the highways because their cars may be stoned by settlers. This happened for instance on the Wadi Nar road, the circling road to the east of Jerusalem which connects Bethlehem and Ramallah. According to an Israeli human rights organization there were last week within 24 hours after an attack against settlers “dozens if not hundreds” stone throwing attacks against Palestinian cars.

Travelling requires daily planning which is here always under threat of being disrupted by unplanned events. Such event can be a sudden mobile checkpoint but also (in my case) the shock of what you see while traveling normally. Along the Ramallah-Nablous road there are quite a number of posters put up by settlers in which the eyes of Mahmoud Abbas, the PNA’s president, are in the center of concentric circles. It is a call for assassination.

Sometimes there is positive traveling news, or whatever we for the moment regard as positive. Lately Mary got a permit to go and fly through Tel Aviv airport. Happy to get a permit to travel in your own country. And this time the permit did not come the day before or after traveling, so she is able to plan her trip well.

The rhythm of politics also interferes with the ancient rhythms of religion. This is not just about traveling or entrance problems when visiting mosques and churches, but about something as simple as sending a Christmas card. I tell people abroad that Christmas cards sent to Bethlehem arrive standard in February. Security.

But post can also take longer. In October it happened that 10 ton of post packages arrived in Jericho. They were held up for no less than 6 years at the Allenby Bridge after being classified as suspicious. Because of some kind of new arrangement between the occupational authorities and the Palestinian Communication Ministry the packages were now released. A favor.

I actually do believe that some Israeli army officials think it is not a humiliation but a confidence building measure — so all pervasive is the delusion of arbitrary power that keeps the occupation in place. Within days the packages were brought by the Palestinian post service to their real destination. Imagine, to receive a Christmas present after 6 years. What kind of time rhythm is that?


Knife into society

by Toine van Teeffelen
Arab Educational Institute, Bethlehem

This Tuesday the mayor of Bethlehem, Anton Salman, was attacked with a knife. He got a deep wound in his right cheek that had to be stitched. It could have been even worse if the knife had landed higher or lower. The attacker was somebody from the Hebron area apparently motivated by revenge, as he did not receive a permit to sell corncobs on the street. After fleeing he was caught by Palestinian police in Hebron. In the evening a public demonstration was held in front of the Church of Nativity to express solidarity with the mayor and his family and protest against the lack of law and order. “An attack on the mayor is an attack on all of us.” In the aftermath people emphasized that decisions are needed, not rhetoric.

Among the issues coming up in the discussions at home and at work are the following.

First, it seems that the police are sometimes reluctant to enforce – or delay enforcing – the law, and arrest lawbreakers. The police are the representatives of the Palestinian National Authority on the street and have a credibility problem due to among other things the ongoing inter-party struggles in Palestinian politics. Due to the overall situation citizens are emotionally on the edge, and an arrest can easily lead to a quarrel or clash. When the municipality decided to regulate the bastaat (sales on the street), such as in the area in front of the Church, the attack took place.

Don’t forget here the broader context of occupation. In area C, over 60% of the West Bank, but also in area B where the Israeli army is supposed to keep law and order, there is actually no law and order agenda – rather the opposite. It is the “Wild East” where settlers supported by the army can make use of Israeli laws and army regulations to instigate a climate of fear and where properties and livelihood are at continuous risk. Palestinian criminals can take refuge there, crimes ranging from aggressive behaviour to chemicals dumping.

Next, there is the general question of how to control and develop public space. The authorities sometimes face insurmountable difficulties. The issue of traffic is a good example. In Bethlehem, like in other Palestinian places, we see from year to year a significant increase in the number of cars. It seems many households have actually two cars, new or old, bought or on a loan. Most car rides do not go beyond the urban conglomeration of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Car owners do not have permits to go to neighboring Jerusalem. So it is quite common now to stand in a queue in what was formerly a free road. As everywhere in the world, this increases irritation levels.

But it is extremely difficult for governing bodies in the present situation in the West Bank to identify public space solutions in the cities, and this too affects the credibility of public bodies. Besides the need to preserve the ancient buildings and homes, spatial planning requires a local-regional master plan. However, municipalities or other Palestinian authorities are not able to plan and implement public works near, let alone over the traditional boundaries of town. Tunnels and viaducts are not to be decided by the municipality or the PNA when they are in or next to areas B or C. Nor are there structural budgets for the implementation of larger public works beyond patching holes in assfalt roads. Which means that the Palestinian traffic network and public works in general remain hugely underdeveloped. If they can, Palestinian cars make use of the modern highways between the Israeli settlements and the settlements and Jerusalem.

There is a different factor which further affects the authority of the Palestinian public authorities. Given the fact that the Palestinian political system has been stuck now for quite a number of years, we see that other social structures than official governance bodies are becoming stronger, such as tribalism or expressions of religious identity. After the attack on the mayor, tribal leaders from the Hebron area wanted to come over to Bethlehem to arrange a reconciliation. This was refused, because it would only further weaken existing authority structures.

Largely due to occupation and a stagnant economy, there are huge levels of unemployment, especially under youth (not like in Gaza, but I believe youth unemployment levels here in the West Bank reach 40-50%). At the same time people see that some do actually profit from the occupation – or from international subsidies going to local or international NGOs. This is a criticism often heard. The ‘greed is good’ capitalism is certainly here present too. Many teachers or nurses and others working against low salaries are barely able to take care of their (extended) families. It is logical then that the inequality in economic chances eats into the vitals of society.

Is the situation hopeless? Of course not, but given the lack of any perspective on a just peace, Palestinian society is wounded and under considerable stress. Sumud or steadfastness is still there – in the humour against the odds, in the survival tactics, in the history and memories of social resistance, and in the political awareness as you see it during a public meeting as organized in front of the Church spontaneously after the attack. Still people are struggling to develop values of citizenship, to demand an independent judiciary and executive, create a sense of inclusive national identity, and so on. Yet it is a hard struggle.


50 years of occupation: Enough is enough!

by Toine van Teeffelen
Arab Educational Institute, Bethlehem

U.S. President Donald Trump, labeled the ‘most mocked man in the world’, burst out in anger during his Bethlehem meeting with Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas was supposed to curb the ‘incitement’ of which Israel and the U.S. continuously accuse the Palestinian Authority. Trump’s Israeli information sources however showed him quotes that ‘proved’ that the incitement continued.

A favorite subject in the incitement discussion is the Palestinian curriculum. All pupils in the West Bank, whether they are at government or private schools, follow the same curriculum. The Palestinian curriculum is centralized and standardized. At most there are a few additional subjects at private schools, such as a second foreign language besides English. In other words, the lesson books of my son Tamer are largely the same as anywhere else in the West Bank. I ask Tamer (15) how the Palestinian curriculum speaks about Israel. 

Tamer says that Israel is indeed a regular topic in the books. There certainly arises a negative image of Israel. However, it is not the result of direct negative attributions to Israel. The image comes in a more ‘indirect’ way he says. You will read that Israel takes away land from Palestinians. Because of the actions attributed to Israel, you draw your own conclusions and build up a negative image. The actions are well-known, he says.


Trump refused to visit the Church of Nativity because he then would have had to walk along the tent with family members of hunger-striking prisoners. He demanded the tent be removed. The hunger strike of the Palestinian political prisoners was at the time of Trump’s visit a daily topic of conversation, until its cessation by the prisoners after 40 days on water and salt. As always when demands of hunger-striking political prisoners seem to be met by prison authorities, it is a matter of wait-and-see whether there will be a lasting change in the prison regime.

A few days ago Mary went on a visit to the hospital in Beit Jala to meet the son of Imm Hassan. She is a peasant woman from a village, Ma’sara, to the south of Bethlehem. For years she has brought fresh vegetables and fruits to our former and present family homes. Recently she was elected as a council member in the village. Her son was just released after a stay of many years in Nakba prison (Negev desert). He had to be treated in the hospital after losing 12 kilos due to the hunger strike.

I recently heard that in the refugee camp Aida near Bethlehem it happens that at a single moment no less than 200 of the 5,500 camp dwellers are in prison, mostly on accusations of stone throwing. In actuality most of the extended families there are likely to have a family member in prison, with all the ensuing worries and loss of income. Many more will have had a prison experience, once or more times.

All of this obviously has to do with occupation.

On June 5, the Arab Educational Institute has a four-hour program around the commemoration of 50 years of occupation, organized along the Wall in north-Bethlehem.