In our conversations with Jewish Israelis at Oranim College, everyone with whom we spoke was adamant that what they want most of all is peace. "We don't understand" said one woman "why they, [the Palestinians] don't want peace." At the end of our third day in Bethlehem, it is this statement on which I find my thoughts dwelling. Because after everything we have seen and heard today, it seems that the Israeli military is doing everything in its power to create an unjust, violent situation that the Palestinians can never accept. This is not a foundation for a peaceful society.
We began our day at the Applied Research Center of Jerusalem, where we had a presentation about the current political situation of the West Bank and Gaza in relation to Israel, the long-term goals of the settlements, the construction of the Wall and an overview of the various peace talks between Palestinian and Israeli officials. We also discussed the roles western governments have played in the negotiations. After lunch we got a hands-on look at the settlements and their effect on Palestinian life by travelling to a small Palestinian village near an Israeli settlement that is refusing to leave its land, despite efforts of the Israeli government to make living conditions unbearable. Such efforts include refusing to grant building permits so that the Palestinians can't build houses for their children or fix their public buildings (such as the local school and mosque), and making farming difficult by disallowing the use of pesticides, for fear that the chemicals may be used to build bombs. The Palestinians also suffer from physical intimidation from the nearby settlement. Despite all this, the people of this village chose to remain on their land, even though they could make better life for themselves elsewhere.
However, the most harrowing experience of the day was our visit to the YMCA to learn about the counseling and rehabilitation services they provide to traumatized and disabled Palestinians. The YMCA started offering counselling services in 1989 to people who had been injured in the first Intifada, providing them with both physical and psychological rehabilitation, followed by vocational training if it was required. Since then, the YMCA has opened its programs to all disabled and/or traumatized persons in the West Bank. Often times the YMCA will work with children and adults who have witnessed traumatic events as a result of the occupation, or who have been imprisoned and tortured. We also heard a personal story from a former YMCA patient. He told us that he was shot in the leg, denied medical treatment and thrown into jail. While, in prison he was beaten, harassed and spit on by the Israeli soldiers. When he was finally released after two years in prison, his leg had been permanently damaged due to lack of treatment. His only crime was that he drove too close to an Israeli settlement, where Israeli soldiers began shooting at his car. He was 14 years old.
Fortunately, the day was not all dark. At lunch we celebrated two birthdays within our Yella group: Stephanie turned 26 today, and Michaela will turn 21 tomorrow. It was a nice reminder that even in difficult situations, life still moves on, and there is always a reason to celebrate.