The Common Good
May-June 2000

Breaking Down the Walls

by Molly Marsh | May-June 2000

Together Palestinian and Israeli activists fight 'functional apartheid' in the West Bank.

A young Israeli soldier kicks a small rubber ball to two Palestinian boys in the West Bank city of Hebron, his machine gun slapping gently against his back as he moves. His fellow soldiers smoke and play cards nearby. Men in long flowing robes and white headscarves pass boys riding donkeys, tiny Palestinian shops loaded with film and souvenirs, and stores whose doorways are filled with bulging sacks of colored spices and grains.

Just beyond the soldiers sits an immense, foreboding building—one of its two entrances is guarded by Palestinian soldiers, the other by Israelis. It’s called the Mosque of Abraham or the Tomb of the Patriarchs, depending on who’s speaking, and inside are massive stones marking the supposed burial sites of Abraham and Sarah. Concrete walls enclose the tombstones. Muslims and Jews can view them through a set of iron bars, but only from separated parts of the building. The structure was bisected in 1994 after a Jewish settler, an American, entered the building and killed 49 Palestinians preparing to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The Israeli soldiers are also in Hebron, a Palestinian-controlled city of about 140,000, to guard Jewish settlers who live down the street in a compound distinctive for its brand-new buildings and the barbed wire that surrounds it. "Five hundred soldiers are here to guard 30 settler families," according to Bourke Kennedy, a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Hebron. The Jewish settlement is one of four in the Hebron district; roughly 6,000 Jewish settlers live in two settlements on the city’s outskirts. Because of their political and symbolic importance, settlements such as these have been targets—and impetus—for Hamas and other Palestinian groups who have resisted the Israeli occupation with violence.

Much of Hebron mirrors what is happening in the rest of the West Bank. More than one million Israelis and Palestinians are packed into a region the size of Delaware, with historic, religious, and political claims to the same land. The West Bank has become increasingly segmented and—because of the Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land, the destruction of Palestinian homes, and the expansion of Jewish settlements—Palestinians are constricted to small enclaves throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

While there may be worldwide optimism for the progress of current "final status" negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, Emil Salayta, director of Catholic schools in Israel, Jordan, and Palestine, more accurately reflects the feeling on the ground when he says, "Peace was signed in Washington, D.C., not here."

BOURKE KENNEDY, a native of upstate New York and mother of three grown daughters, has watched the systematic splintering of Palestinian life. She has seen the Israeli government zone Palestinian land as "agricultural" in order to stop the natural growth of Palestinian towns and cities, restrict who can plant crops, and limit Palestinian travel and movement. Fifty-one percent of the Hebron district has been confiscated for military zones, Jewish settlements, nature reserves, and bypass roads that are built to connect the settlements to each other, according to international relief agency World Vision. For the Christian Peacemaker Team’s Kennedy, it all adds up to a peace process that she calls "worthless."

"Under the Barak regime, land under Palestinian control is slowly becoming closed military zones. Israelis tell Palestinians to leave because it’s ‘dangerous,’" Kennedy says. "If Palestinians leave, the land becomes the property of the state of Israel, and Palestinians lose their status as residents."

The Christian Peacemaker Team, whose members live in two apartments in the city’s chicken market, was asked to come to Hebron by its mayor in 1995. Since then they have maintained a continuous violence-reduction presence, supported local nonviolence efforts, and provided a symbolic public witness to what most peace activists call the "Israeli occupation." In the last two years, they have focused specifically on the Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes.

Palestinians, even those who hold proper titles, are not allowed to build on land without a permit from Israeli authorities. Those permits are rarely granted. If a Palestinian family becomes desperate enough, they build a house, or an addition to their existing home, only to be served a notice saying the structure is illegal and that it will be demolished. Since 1967, nearly 6,000 homes have been destroyed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

When Kennedy and her colleagues get wind of an impending demolition, they employ a variety of strategies to prevent the destruction. They occupy the home, sit on the roof, or sit in front of the bulldozers. If nothing else they document the event with photographs. And more than likely, they meet Jeff Halper and other activists from the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolition (ICAHD), an umbrella organization that includes about 15 other peace and social justice groups opposed to the Israeli occupation. Halper, an articulate and passionate Israeli, originally from Minnesota, coordinates the organization.

The groups are rarely successful in preventing home demolitions, but they say documenting and being present at the destruction is important. ICAHD also links Palestinian families who have received demolition orders with families in Israel and overseas for financial and emotional support. They provide practical aid, such as help in filing police claims, applying for building permits, and arranging and subsidizing legal assistance. Most crucial, however, is their public act of Israelis and Palestinians rebuilding homes together.

Hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians rebuilt Salim al-Shawamreh’s home—twice. In 1990, al-Shawamreh sought permission to build a house on his one-square-kilometer plot of land in the village of Anata. His requests were repeatedly denied. Eventually he gave up and in 1994 built a house without a permit for his wife and six children. In July 1998, he looked up from his lunch to see Israeli soldiers surrounding his house. The family was told to get out, an order that was reinforced with rubber-coated bullets and tear gas. Eight hours later, the home was destroyed.

The family decided to rebuild their home and, with the help of ICAHD activists, it was finished in August 1998. Israeli soldiers then visited a second time and destroyed it, along with their water tank and the fruit trees they had planted.

Again with ICAHD’s help, the family rebuilt, and in July 1999 activists helped dedicate the completed house—which is still standing. Al-Shawamreh’s home has become the site of peace events—human rights conferences, political strategizing, and educational activities—and there are plans to develop the land around it for an action center.

"We’re Israelis," says Halper, "but we can try to put ourselves on the ground, with the Palestinians. We can protest; we can resist together. In doing so, we’re beginning to build the foundations of a real coexistence."

Studies of Palestinian home demolitions reveal certain patterns: Homes are often in the path of proposed plans for the expansion of Jewish settlements and Israeli bypass roads. According to World Vision, there are roughly 163,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and 180,000 in East Jerusalem. And settlement growth doesn’t appear to be slowing. According to an article published last September in the International Herald Tribune, Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s government, in its first three months, had authorized new construction in the West Bank’s Jewish settlements at a pace exceeding that of the Netanyahu administration.

To Halper, these policies effectively make Israel "a functional apartheid."

"Since 1967, the Israeli government has created circumstances that will prevent peace," says Halper, "and they have increased their tempo to squeeze Palestinians into smaller and smaller enclaves, or out of the land altogether."

LAND CONFISCATION, home demolition, and expanding Jewish settlements have resulted in numerous, overcrowded Palestinian refugee camps. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees provides basic services, such as education and health care, to about 3.6 million refugees in camps throughout the Middle East. There are 19 official UNRWA camps in the West Bank alone.

Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem is one—its low concrete buildings are home to nearly 10,000 people. The camp’s entrance faces a wide swath of half-constructed hotels, apartment complexes, and restaurants—all developments to accommodate the religious pilgrims expected to swarm the region in the millennial year.

Palestinian journalist Muna Muhaisen has lived in Dheisheh since 1990. Prior to that, she had lived in the United States, where she attended college. But the intifada, the Palestinian uprising that erupted in 1987, provoked some soul-searching. "I didn’t want to be a third- or fourth-generation Palestinian," she said. "I wanted to find out, what does Palestine mean to me?" So Muhaisen came back, though she was only able to do so as an American citizen using a tourist visa. Because that visa expired years ago, she hasn’t left Bethlehem in five years.

Muhaisen walks up skinny, meandering lanes that are littered with trash and broken glass. It is a dirty, bleak place, save for the newest additions to the Dheisheh Community Center: Inside are 14 gleaming computers with a connection to the outside world. Muhaisen and her colleagues have started a program called "Across Borders" to link Palestinians in camps throughout the region via the Internet.

The "Across Borders" site will create an information bank on issues and projects related to Palestinian refugees. As camps throughout the Middle East create their own Web sites, a "refugee ring" will be formed. A second site is in the works for refugees in Gaza, and a third in Lebanon.

"The fate of four million refugees is going to be decided in the ‘final status’ negotiations," Muhaisen says, "and yet there is no way for Palestinians to communicate among ourselves. What is important for Palestinians to concentrate on now is building democratic institutions for our own communities. It is the only way Palestinians can survive all this, because after the negotiations are signed, things will get worse. As long as the Palestinians and Israelis are not approaching the peace talks as equals, [the peace talks] will not work."

SABEEL ECUMENICAL Liberation Theology Center offers refuge of a different sort to Palestinians—Christians in particular. Sabeel is an Arabic word for "the way" and also "spring of living water," and the center tries to address the anguish and faith crises that living under violence and discrimination creates.

Cedar Duaybis, a founding member of Sabeel, was 12 when her family fled Haifa, a northern city on the Mediterranean coast, during the 1948 war. "The Bible says Israel is the chosen people," she says. "How was I to deal with this? Palestinians were called the ‘present absent people,’ the ‘non-Jews,’ or the ‘Arabs of the state of Israel.’ People all over were saying ‘This is God’s will, we have to accept this.’ But Jesus surely isn’t on the side of injustice."

Palestinian liberation theology began out of this need to understand who Palestinians were in scripture, and it has been the tool to bring Christians back into their faith, said Duaybis. When Duaybis reads the liberation paradigm of Exodus, she replaces the biblical Israelites, who suffered under the Egyptians, with present-day Palestinians; present-day Israelis become the pharaohs. "David, with his stones, is Palestine," she says, "and Goliath becomes Israel."

Through the center’s conferences for clergy, programs for adults and kids, and Bible studies, it is holistic liberation Sabeel is after—Palestinians’ development of a faith that is based on peace, nonviolence, and reconciliation.

But Sabeel also wants justice. A program called "Ahlan-wa-Sahlan"—Arabic for "Welcome"—encourages visitors to learn more about Palestinian life through worship services, Palestinian cultural evenings, and a contemporary Way of the Cross that includes Palestinian refugee camps, home demolition sites, and expanded Jewish settlements.

A description of the extended meaning of "Ahlan-wa-Sahlan" reads, "When you cross our threshold you are one of the family, and you have stepped on even ground." It is surely a welcoming sentiment that many other peace and social justice activists share with Sabeel: that David and Goliath not only step on even ground, but they do so as equals.

MOLLY MARSH, an assistant editor at

Sojourners, traveled to the West Bank last November with a delegation of journalists sponsored by the American Committee on Jerusalem, a coalition of Arab-American organizations promoting a peaceful solution in Jerusalem.

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