Holy land: A place of despair, a place of hope
Sunday, July 25, 2004
RICK MARK Columbian staff writer
I expected more tension in Israel. More armed guards. Military vehicles
roaming the streets. Nervousness. Anger. I expected to be scared.
What I found was a dry, hilly land much like Southern California, a big
city with big skyscrapers, traffic that was no crazier than Portland's,
and a warm welcome from my brother.
My brother Bob has been living in Israel for more than 20 years, and my
invitation to come experience his world has been out there all that
time. Finally, I made it.
And Bob's world is unusual, even by Israeli standards. Bob Mark is the
only American in a village known as Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, which
is Hebrew and Arabic for "Oasis of Peace."
In a country beset by ethnic violence, Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam is a
peaceful settlement where Jews and Arabs live side by side. The only
community of its sort in Israel, it is a village dedicated to peaceful
The first things you notice in a new place are the things that are
strange and new to you. And what I noticed first in Israel is the
astounding diversity of people.
In this place where Europe, Asia and Africa converge, you see the
diversity in the clothes people wear; you hear it in the languages they
speak. You taste it in the markets. It's as plain as the color of their
I met a red-haired Romanian Jew married to an olive-skinned Iranian.
Dark-toned Arabs bartered with ebony-skinned Ethiopians. Young Israelis
dressed like American shopping-mall teens crossed paths with Arab women
in head scarves and long flowing dresses.
The diversity goes beyond ethnic lines or the borders of continents. It spreads across the ages.
Medieval-looking Christian monks garbed head-to-toe in black share the
street with bearded Orthodox Jews who seem to have been plucked from
some 18th-century Russian shtetl, while an Arab woman with her head
covered pauses to answer her cell phone.
And literally everywhere reminders of ancient civilizations litter the landscape.
You walk with the ghosts of hundreds of generations of desert nomads,
Biblical patriarchs, Roman conquerors, Christian crusaders. You walk
fields where Jews and Palestinians battled for farmland; where eager
Jewish socialists tilled the soil and planted whole forests by hand;
where the only sign of a once-thriving Arab village is the prickly
cactus known as sabra.
Of course, you have to be a little afraid for your safety in a land
where suicide bombings or the fear of suicide bombings have become part
of daily life.
But while guards with metal detectors routinely stopped us at stores
and banks, and while I was startled to see a uniformed Israeli soldier
picking out peaches at the market with a rifle strapped across her
back, the sense of danger was not as pervasive as I expected.
I didn't notice much tension. What I noticed were Arabs and Jews, Jews
and Christians mingling and chatting and going about their business.
Mostly, they seemed to be trying to make a living, trying to get
through the day.
Olive trees of Beit Sira
Bob's hillside house was built about 10 years ago by a Palestinian
named Zakariya as-Sunbati. In exchange for part of the work, Bob would
travel to Zakariya's West Bank village, Beit Sira, to teach his
daughters English. Now, Bob was taking me to meet Zakariya's family.
Life is not easy for West Bank Palestinians. The unemployment rate is
about 50 percent and the average income per person is about $800 a
The West Bank economy is linked at the hip to Israel. When relations
between Israelis and the Palestinians are good, then Palestinians can
find work, sell their goods, feed their families. When tension is high
as it is today the Israelis tighten the checkpoints and the work rules;
and life becomes harder yet.
In response to a wave of Palestinian bombings that began toward the end
of 2000, Israel began building a massive wall a security fence over 400
miles long that is cutting across the West Bank.
The fence is meant to keep suicide bombers out of Israel. At the same
time, the fence is slicing through Palestinian villages and farms,
making it harder yet for people to survive.
Before the latest increase in Palestinian attacks, travel to and from
the West Bank was common. Israelis would travel past Beit Sira on their
way to Jerusalem, some 20 miles away. The people of the village made
their living as Palestinians have always done: They grew olives. They
farmed. From roadside stands, they sold their goods to passing
Today, the world has changed for the people of Beit Sira.
When Bob and I left Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, we drove almost
immediately across what is known as the Green Line, the border that
separated Israel and the West Bank until the 1967 war. After four or
five miles, we came upon several pieces of heavy machinery near a
It was the security fence, cutting through Palestinian fields that are
miles from the original West Bank border.
We drove up to a yellow gate that blocked the road. To my surprise,
there was no checkpoint, no military guard. No one was there at all. A
pickup drove up to the gate from the other side. It was Zakariya, come
to greet us. We locked the car and simply walked around the gate.
Zakariya drove us down a paved road strewn with rocks. Groves of
silver-gray olive trees lined both sides. To the right was a town with
a prominent domed mosque. This was Beit Sira. To the left was a town of
neat white buildings, all with red tile roofs. This was the Jewish
settlement of Makkabim.
"What do you call this land?" I asked.
"This is Palestine," Zakariya said.
He explained that the olive trees on both sides of the road belong to
his village, but that the security fence would pass to the left,
destroying hundreds of trees in the process.
I had read about Palestinians and their olives.
"So these trees," I said. "They are your legacy, right? Something to
pass down to your children and your grandchildren?"
"Olive trees?" Zakariya said. "Olive trees are holy."
About a month ago, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the security
fence had to be rerouted to take into account the humanitarian needs of
The court was responding to a petition from several groups, including
one from representatives of Beit Sira, Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, and
Makkabim, as well as other neighboring towns.
In a rare meeting between a Palestinian town and its neighboring Jewish
settlement, the councils of both communities joined the petition to
move the fence.
Those olive trees that were destined for destruction in June have now been spared.
Beit Sira is a town of concrete and stone, very white, very pale. At
midday in June, there were few people on the streets.
There seemed to be a lot of new construction.
"Do you see how the buildings are two and three stories high?" Zakariya
asked. "We never used to build them like that. But now our land is
being taken away, and we have no place else to build. So families build
their houses higher and move in together."
The concrete walls were covered with graffiti. Pasted to the walls were
posters of Yasser Arafat and the imprisoned militant Fatah leader
Marwan Barghouti, shown defiant and in handcuffs.
As I took pictures around town, I attracted a bit of a crowd. Two boys
riding donkeys wandered over. I snapped their picture with my digital
camera and showed them the results in the LCD screen making instant
An older man in a long, flowing robe and traditional head covering
seemed more concerned. He came up the street to see what was going on,
but when he saw that I was with someone from the village he turned and
A haunting lament
Zakariya took us to his home.
The large living room was sparsely decorated but extremely tidy.
Comfortable sofas lined the walls. A large Mediterranean-style cabinet
of carved wood and glass stood in the dining area. All of the tables
were covered with lace.
Two boys brought out a pitcher of ice water and glasses. Zakariya
rolled himself a cigarette and told me about his six daughters and his
three sons, and his hope that they could all graduate high school and
go on to a university.
He told me that life was easier before the intifadah. He could travel
to Israel and find work as a home-builder. He could sell stone and
Now, travel is difficult, work permits are hard to come by.
Two of his daughters brought out a bowl of fruit: apricots and peaches
and long, pale-green cucumbers that were crunchy and sweet. They also
brought a thick, heavily sweetened tea.
Eventually, Zakariya's wife, Layla, joined us as well, along with their
littlest boy. The older girls tested their English, which they had
learned from Bob. He beamed as they sang songs he had taught them some
Then Jinan, the oldest daughter, sang us a song in Arabic. It was a
haunting lament. Her voice quivered, sending a chill down my back. What
was this song?
"It is about the suffering of the Palestinian people under the occupation," she said.
Zakariya drove us back to the border, past roadside stands in
disrepair. Before the intifadah, these were markets where villagers
would sell goods to travelers. But Israelis no longer use the road.
Zakariya maneuvered the car around stones in the road, some of them quite large.
"The Israeli soldiers come," he said. "Sometimes, boys from the village throw stones."
Rick Mark is a copy editor for The Columbian.
Did you know?
* During the 1948 and 1967 wars in Israel, more than 400 Palestinian
villages were destroyed. In many cases, the residents were forcefully
expelled by the Israeli Army. The story of the expulsion is told in
several books, such as "Righteous Victims: A History of the
Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001," by Benny Morris. One Web site that
explores the issue from the Palestinian point of view is
* Israeli citizens have to cope with the daily fear that bombs can
explode in their cities, anywhere and at any time.
Oasis of Peace
Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam was founded in the 1970s in an attempt to
demonstrate that Jews and Arabs could actually live together in peace.
Today, the village has grown to 50 families, half of them Jewish, half
Arab. The waiting list to join the community is long.
Praise for the village's work has come from many corners of the world,
with prizes awarded by peace-minded organizations in Japan, the United
States, and throughout Europe.
The Swedish parliament has five times nominated Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam for a Nobel Peace Prize.
To learn more about the village, go to www.nswas.org or www.sfpeace.org.
Yarn of many colors
In my two weeks in Israel, I traveled to the Negev Desert in the South
and to Nazareth in the North. I toured Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, visiting
the Arab and the Jewish markets in the old cities. I ate a lot of
hummus and falafel and pita bread and olive oil.
Tourism is down, and merchants everywhere were thrilled to see an
American visitor, especially one who was so easily parted from his
One place that was particularly memorable was the Bedouin weaving
cooperative in the town of Lakiya. There, I chose from beautiful
handmade rugs, handbags, pillow covers and wall hangings.
Huge bundles of freshly dyed yarn in an incredible array of colors were
hanging from the wall to dry. A primitive loom sat on the floor.
The Lakiya co-op sells weavings made by Bedouin women, letting them
earn a return for their work that they would not receive in traditional
To see the Lakiya weavings, you can check their Web site at www.lakiya.org.
The medical care in Israel is among the best in the world and the
national health system cares for all Israeli citizens, Jewish or Arab.
But West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinians are not included.
About 18 months ago, a 5-year-old Palestinian girl was badly burned in
her home. Her burns went untreated because the family could not afford
When word of the girl's accident reached Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a
fund-raising campaign began and an Israeli hospital agreed to treat the
girl, Malak Taiser, who was hurt so badly that she could not walk.
Doctors at the hospital said they had never seen such bad burns.
Today, Malak is walking again, but funds are still needed for her continued care.
Malak's story is on the Web at nswas.com
/village/campaigns/malak.htm. Information on how to donate to the
Humanitarian Aid for Palestinians program can be found at
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