Thursday, December 25, 2003

The Women & Children of Deir Ballut

Deir Ballut Peace Camp runs the risk of excluding local women, since it would be unheard of for them to sleep overnight next door to a room full of strange men in a run-down abandoned schoolhouse. Nonetheless, we are committed to making the camp a place where everyone can participate, by offering various activities for women and children.

On Tuesday, in a show of support, a group of women planted trees at Munira’s encaged house in Mas’ha. We brought young trees ready to be planted and volunteers eager to get their hands dirty. It was fun, despite the dreary concrete wall in the background. We managed to plant several new olive trees on the small strip of dirt in the family’s yard—the only remains of their former fields and greenhouses. The army wants the family to leave now, but Munira planted trees that will only blossom in decades. The young olive trees are a symbol that Munira and her family intend to stay in their house for years to come, in spite of the dangers posed by the settlers, the army, and the Wall surrounding their home.

Other recent camp activities have included discussions, women’s leadership workshops, resistance films, first-aid training, and activism through art. Local young people spent Tuesday morning drawing pictures of the Wall and what it means to them. The children produced colorful and heartbreaking scenes that reminded me of the drawings I had seen in Jenin. Most portrayed the Wall as the end of their futures, an eternal prison. One young boy wrote in Arabic, “After the Wall is built, that’s it. We just wait here to die.”

A few children chose to illustrate the shortsighted nature of the Wall. They emphasized that it can never destroy the Palestinian people and spirit, and that one day the Wall will be destroyed. I believe them.

Many of the children’s pictures and ideas became posters for a children’s march today. Dozens of youth marched with their pictures through the village, their parents and older siblings cheering them on from houses as they walked by. They took turns using the microphone and holding the loudspeaker.

One of the kids in the parade was Leila, a young girl who would giggle and hide when I caught her sneaking a glance at me. Her mother invited me to dinner that night, and when I arrived Leila was too shy to come out from behind the sofa. Her family patiently asked me questions while I stammered out half-sentence answers in Arabic. Eventually Leila’s vanity outweighed her bashfulness and she jumped out to greet me as soon as the conversation topic strayed to something other than her. She spent the evening by my side as I enjoyed my first meal in a real house for days.

When the subject came to my background, I repeated my standard answer, that I am Jewish but neither a citizen of Israel nor a supporter of its government. Everyone around the meal accepted the answer easily enough—except Leila. She froze as soon as she heard me say the words, “I am Jewish.” I could guess the thoughts going through her head: I was one of them. I had betrayed her. Before her mother could explain the misunderstanding, Leila ran out of the room. Her mother followed her.

My spirits fell as Leila disappeared. I felt awful for upsetting her. Leila’s family assured me that experience would later teach her to understand what she was too young to understand now. But her family and I had both underestimated Leila. A few minutes later, I looked up and I saw Leila waiting in the doorway next to her mother. She walked slowly up to me, reached out for me, and when my hand was in hers she lifted it, kissed it, and brought it to her forehead, repeating the last two gestures several times. This was something I had only seen a few times in Palestine and always with respected elders. Leila was apologizing without words. She was asking for forgiveness, with a gesture of respect and humility. I smiled instantly and took her onto my lap. She clung to me for the rest of the evening.

I spent the next evening in the home of Zahara, a woman who was arrested for her leadership in the women’s resistance in the late 1980s during the First Intifada. Zahara was imprisoned for many years with 27 other female activists held for similar reasons. In 1996 the army agreed to free all but five of the women, but the remaining 23 activists refused to leave. They said it was all or none of them, a nonviolent resistance technique called prison solidarity. The guards cut off water and electricity and brought in the army to “encourage” them to leave. Zahara says they went through 21 days of absolute hell, but shortly after, in 1997, all 28 were freed. She believes that pressure from AmnestyAmnesty International and other activists was instrumental in securing the women’s release.

Zahara invited me for dinner and I met her whole family. Her five-year-old granddaughter won’t let Zahara out of her sight. The family let me use their shower and gave me some clean underwear. Families in Deir Ballut like Zahara’s and Leila’s have opened their homes to Israelis and other foreigners who tire of the rainy nights in the camp and are looking for a warm shower or bed. Local women come by the camp several times a day with large steaming plates of rice, meats, and vegetables. They always bring a meat-free and dairy-free plate on the side for the Israelis who keep kosher, and the vegetarians and vegans. There is a real sense of family and solidarity building here, evident in even the smallest things. I am excited to be a part of this creative experiment.

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