Conversation and Jihad on a hilltop in the ‘Promised Land’

Eilis Haden - off from Derry to act as a human rights' observer in the West Bank. 0507MG05
Eilis Haden - off from Derry to act as a human rights' observer in the West Bank. 0507MG05

Eilis Haden is a Derry Community Relations Worker posted in Hebron (Al-Kahlil) in Israel-Palestine as a human rights observer on a Quaker Peace and Social Witness programme. This is the first of Eilis’s reports for the Journal from there

What are the moments in your life when you felt most alive? Yesterday, perched on a rural hilltop outside Hebron discussing Bob Geldof with two Israeli peace activists, I think ‘Life really doesn’t get any better than this!’

The weekly Palestinian rally which my team were monitoring was first set up in protest against the illegal take-over of local farmers’ land*. However, this week there is an additional theme. Local peace activists have created a large paper boat (see pic) to represent the Gaza bound aid flotilla sent by our friends in Ireland and across the world. After the arrest of Jusif, the group leader, as he tried to make his way through the human chain of Israeli soldiers, the activists stage a silent sit-in. We have no idea how long we will be here for. The sun is burning through my skin and it looks like lunch will not happen any time soon.

In the true spirit of Palestinian generosity and kindness, Abid, a young local dentist uses the Palestinian flag he had been waving to pass around the yellow plums which he had gathered from surrounding trees. As I eat, I notice Michal and Ariel, two young activists, standing in the crowd. I have never before made a beeline for anyone in order to ask their religion but I cannot help myself as I suspect that they are Israeli Jews and am overcome with curiosity as to how they view this situation.

Michal, a 21 year-old student of politics at Ben Gurion University in Tel Aviv, does most of the talking. She says that she understands why Jews might want to settle in this place but feels that the settlers should return the land to the farmers and move back to the Israeli side of the green line (official border).

I tell her about Martina, a Derry woman I know who would like to return to Israel with her local Jewish husband but who can barely afford the astronomical house prices. Michal nods. “It’s true” she says, “that people can often no longer afford to live in Tel Aviv but that is the fault of our government. They [the government] claim to be patriotic but yet they sell off all our resources and drive our inflation upwards... They fill people with fear and hatred for the Palestinians and so many of us do not realise that we can all be friends. We are treated badly by our politicians but we are afraid that if we do not continue to vote for them we will be overrun by enemies. There is no future for us this way.”

Most of the Palestinians I have met so far, like Michal, share an understanding of the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and can differentiate between the ordinary Jews who live a peaceful life in Israel and the settlers who build homes on illegally confiscated land and wage a holy war on civilians. Many can see that the majority of Jews are good people with positive intentions and not an alien enemy.

During this afternoon of protest, one of the activists shouts into the faces of the young soldiers; “I understand that you do not mean to harm us, that many of you are just performing your military service but I invite you to join us now in our struggle for freedom and peace”.

As he shouts, I watch the faces of the soldiers. They are still joining hands to block access to the farmers’ land but their expressions are full of nervousness and frustration. They never shout back and in ways appear as self-disciplined as the peace protesters carrying this makeshift flotilla at the top of the hill. I suspect that all of these young men would prefer to be somewhere else rather than stuck at the top of a hill in 40 degree heat wearing full army combats and an M-16.

Hovering at the back of the procession are two young boys called Mohammed and Jihad. I observe their quiet dignity as they wave their Palestinian flags in the gentle breeze, each rarely speaking, even to each other.

Abid, the young dentist, translates for me as I ask where they boys are from and what brings them here.

Jihad tells me that their father owns some of the farmland on which the settlers live and that it has been stolen from them. With a serious face bearing the troubles of the world, the ten year-old boy tells me that they have been coming here every week for the past six months for the past six months to demonstrate that the occupation must end.

When I later express surprise to one of my team mates that the older brother is called ‘Jihad’, he tells me that this name in reality does not mean ‘holy war’, as bin Laden had us believe, but in fact means ‘the struggle for faith’.

Cheesy as it sounds, after witnessing the grace and persistence of this young boy, I feel that he has helped me with my own struggle for faith in humanity and the inspirational value of peaceful protest.

Michal and Ariel can have nothing but good things to say about the Palestinians they have met here during their protest on the hill. My hope is that they will carry this message with them back to the politicians, business people and diplomats of the future who study alongside them in Ben Gurion University.

But what of the illustrious Sir Bob? As we stand under the shade of a tree eating more of our yellow plums, Mical tells me of the day when our esteemed Irish lord received an honorary doctorate at Ben Gurion.

“He was terrible,” she laughed. “He arrived wearing dark sunglasses that he never bothered to take off the whole time he was with us and he swore continuously through his acceptance speech. I had arrived expecting to hear about his aid work in Africa but instead he told us of how the bicycle was the best ever gift to the now peoples’ sex lives can go beyond their own villages and they can cycle from place to place making new conquests. “Every second word he said began with F! Our head of department just sat there with her face becoming more and more red. I do not think we will have him back again!”

Oh dear Sir Bob! I think you have stamped yet another black mark on the record of the Irish!! Thank God we have a semi-successful peace process to revive our reputation.

Next week I will be in Jerusalem for a weeks’ training. I am hoping that whilst there we may get time to visit all the amazing biblical and political sights it offers. Until then, as our Palestinian friends would say, ‘Masalama’ (Go well).

*For those of you not familiar with the situation in Hebron, here is a rough synopsis: The Hebron area hosts over 500 Hasidic Jewish settlers who have driven farmers from their land through the use of violent force. Local Palestinians call these newcomers ‘special’ settlers as they recognise that, unlike the majority of the settlers, these people have not come because they cannot afford housing in Israel but because they believe that they are doing God’s work and hastening the coming of the messiah by reclaiming the promised land.