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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

 

From Jerusalem - Monday, February 4, 2008

Our Monday began at the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) in Jerusalem where we saw a power point presentation by UN staff. The Palestinian Authority gets the highest per capita percentage of UN humanitarian aid in the world. Poverty in Palestine is very high - 57% (79% in Gaza) with 34% of the population without adequate food, 1.3 million people are not sure where their next meal is coming from! There are 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank area plus 250,000 in east Jerusalem. 450,000 Israeli settlers now live in 150 settlements on West Bank territory. All of these settlements are illegal by international law (Geneva, 1947). There are also an additional 150 outposts on West Bank land and these are even illegal under Israeli law. This UN office monitors the internal blocks that Israel has put on Palestinian (West Bank) territory. There are now 561 of these - checkpoints, partial checkpoints, road gates, road blocks, earth mounds, trenches, road barriers and earth walls. These are the main reason for Palestinian economic problems and humanitarian issues and have increased since 2005 with no indication of any removals coming. The route of the new separation barrier is 80% on Palestinian land and is contrary to international law (International Court of Justice, 2004).

We then travelled by bus to Ramallah and the Lutheran School of Hope (a school which has received financial support from our congregation). The senior high students first danced for us - wonderful dancing by both boys and girls and then we broke up into small groups to talk (in English - every student here studies English) with students.

The students had a lot to say! Here are some quotes:
"We will never give up hope - we are the school of hope"
"Please tell people in the US that we are not terrorists"
"Life here is hard, we study hard"
"Some people have hope, some do not"
"The Israelis have many weapons but appear to be afraid of our rocks and stones, our thoughts and dreams"
"We live here in one big prison"
"We just want peace - we are tired"

In 2003 Kris and I had also toured the School of Hope and spoke with students. I was surprised to hear how "present" the 2002 incursion by Israeli soldiers into Ramallah (and this school), which we had heard of in our 2003 visit, still was for these students still in 2008. One student told how the soldiers took over their home for several days after which they left. They found nothing suspicious but still took away his father and brother to prison where they were not charged and were soon released - their arrest appeared to be just to have some excuse for invading his family's home.

The Lutheran School of Hope has 455 students, 35% Christian and 65% Muslim. 22 of the students are Lutheran. There are 32 faculty plus staff. Tuition is $1,000 per school year but no student is turned away because of inability to pay. The building is overcrowded and the ELCJHL hopes to build a new school soon - land and plans are already made, funding is the main issue delaying construction.

We next stopped at the Lutheran World Federation's (LWF's) Vocational Training Program in Ramallah. The LWF began vocational training in east Jerusalem in 1949. The Ramallah center was opened in 2004 so that Palestinian who have great difficulty coming to Jerusalem could have classes close to home. The need for this training is great - high unemployment and poverty here. Most students work 3 days and attend class for 2 days each week. There are three programs: 2 year, 1 year (apprentice) and test preparation. Classes are available in auto mechanics, telecommunication, carpentry, and metal work. Both men and women attend, but women are only in the telecommunication classes, not the others. They work with 155 area small businesses for apprenticeship and placement and 15 local non-government agencies (NGO's). We then visited one area business, a BMW repair shop, which has employed graduates and is a place for auto mechanics apprenticeships.

We also visited the tomb of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah near his former Ramallah residence and office. When Kris and I were last here in 2003, Arafat was under virtual house arrest by Israeli troops which had surrounded his compound and destroyed most of the buildings. In 2003 when we visited in the rain this area was a mud hole. Now it is a beautiful memorial to this important Palestinian leader.

After a very late lunch at a Ramallah restaurant, we headed back to the Lutheran School of Hope to wait for Bishop Younan to join us. Bishop Younan then joined us to plan for our 6:00 p.m. meeting with Palestinian Authority officials.

We then returned to the Palestinian Authority headquarters (next to Arafat's tomb) for our meeting with Dr. Rafiq El-Huseini, Chief of Staff for the Palestinian Authority President Abbas. Joining us for this meeting also was Issa Kassisieh from the President's Office for Christian Relations.

Kassisieh shared his story with us - He is a Christian and an east Jerusalem resident. He married a Bethlehem Christian woman in 2002. They are not allowed to live together in east Jerusalem and cannot register their children in schools there. Kassisieh noted that his example, far too common for Christians here, also shows how this may be "the first time in history when Jerusalem and Bethlehem are kept separate." A major concern is the emigration of Christians from Palestine. For example, the Armenian section of the Old City of Jerusalem had 5,000 Armenian Christian residents 7 years ago. Now there are only 400. "Occupation is the reason Christians leave Palestine."

Dr. El-Huseini began by noting that he was born at the Augusta Victoria Hospital and wanted to share his support for the Augusta Victoria Hospital and urge us Lutherans to do everything we can to keep it open. El-Huseini said that AVH is an important link between the West Bank and east Jerusalem and performs a very important community service.

Israel's strategy, El-Huseini stated, for 60 years has been "to get Palestinian territory and resources without Palestinians!" The current West Bank and Gaza represents only 22% of historic Palestine (1948 Israel is the rest). The current Palestinian Authority controls only 18% of the West Bank and Gaza. "Israel wants Palestinian land without the Palestinian people."

El-Huseini noted that 2008 is a very important year since President Bush has indicated that he would like to see a Palestinian/Israel peace treaty by the end of this year, just 11 months away! He noted that Palestinian society has always been very tolerant of all religions but is in danger of becoming less tolerant because of "Islamic and Jewish radicalization." "We are not creating an Islamic state - Palestine is open to all people. Our equality is not based on religion."

El-Huseini stated that while the short term situation is bleak that, in the long term, Israel (and Palestine) have no choice but peace, no choice but the two state solution. Israel can shape Palestinian public opinion negatively and can radicalize Palestinians by their occupation policies. But that will only bring war. So, the only solution is a negotiated peace. El-Huseini said that Hamas won the Palestinian elections because of the lack of progress in the peace process and that they "will not win another election." With a good peace agreement, "Hamas will pass away." He noted that Hamas violence towards Israel only works against peace and only plays into the hands of radical Israelis. "We (the Palestinians) will never win by military means. This is chess, not boxing."

When asked about the US Presidential election, El-Huseini said that he has "no hopes, only fears" because American Presidents have recently not addressed the Israel/Palestine issue until their second terms (Bush, Clinton) and, thus, he fears that it will take 6 years for the next US President to involve him/herself in this situation.

After this session we headed by bus back into Jerusalem for dinner at the Notre Dame center. It was a very fine, late dinner. We returned very late to the Holmans' home.

Eric

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