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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 co-existence.

    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 skin.

    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 year.

    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 travelers.

    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 cleared-out area.

    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 Palestinians.

    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 friends.

    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 walked away.

    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 tileworks.

    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 years ago.

    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 www.palestineremembered.com.

    * 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 shekels.

    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 markets.

    To see the Lakiya weavings, you can check their Web site at www.lakiya.org.


    Humanitarian aid

    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 a hospital.

    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 nswas.com/rubrique38.html.


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Copyright 2004 by The Columbian Publishing Co. P.O. Box 180, Vancouver, WA 98666. No part of this publication may be stored in a retrieval system, transmitted, or reproduced in any way, including but not limited to photocopy, photograph, magnetic or other record, without the prior agreement and written permission of the publisher.