Today, I helped a 22 year old Palestinian get a permit, despite the fact that he is on some army blacklist, so that he can spend the last days of his wife's life beside her at the hospital in Tel Aviv. She is dying of cancer, and he has until now been prevented from leaving his West Bank village to enter Israel. As a leader at Sulha, an organization that connects people for solidarity building, including bringing Palestinians into the country, I cooperate with the army. Over the years, working relationships with the soldiers at the army permit-office have enabled us sometimes to get through bottlenecks. I didn't do much today. Just contacted a veteran officer who has often assisted us, within the limits of his authority, asked him to take urgent action to get the field office to yield, regarding this young Palestinian. I offered to take personal responsibility for his actions, if he were to be allowed in.
We representatives of the various peace organizations have a strange connection with the army's permit office. They often throw up obstacles to our doing what we do with Palestinians. Rejected permit applications are never explained, the intelligence world is not accessible to us. Sometimes, if the applicant is a distant cousin of someone who once attacked Israelis, his application will be denied. People we know personally and whom we trust are often denied entry. Irritating as this is, the soldiers are there to protect Israelis like me from terrorists, and I actually expect them to do that. Not simple.
What kind of cooperation is acceptable, when dealing with the occupation? Does one strengthen the army's hold on the territories when one negotiates and cooperates with it, treating the army as a legitimate player on this field? If we didn't cooperate, the activists who come to our events, and the curious from both sides who have never sat with someone from the other side, would stay at home. The Palestinians who we enable to get to the sea with their children would miss the short breather of a day in Israel, enjoying the change of scenery. Israelis have no moral conflict in joining us at Sulha, just their own reticence. But Palestinians who come to Sulha events often face criticism and even interrogations, when they arrive back home. They are accused of "normalization," defined as any act that denies the reality of occupation.
While I can understand opposition to Palestinians getting rich through doing business with Israelis, we at Sulha are busy peacemaking, we spend much our time together confronting the oppressiveness of the occupation. We develop determination, among our participants, to carry on the struggle, while experiencing folks from the other side who want to be free of occupation, no less than they. This work is good for everyone. It helps create the human framework onto which any political resolution will be built. So attacking our participants as "normalizers" makes no sense to me. How to interpret the phenomenon? Is it the deep bitterness festering for years under occupation, a hopelessness that would deny anyone else the experience of hope, a few hours of relative freedom?
Last night, near Bethlehem, we brought 100 Palestinians, Israelis, and some American guests together. The gathering was graced by the presence of a young couple from Gaza, with their three kids, who managed to get a five day permit. We lit candles with accompanying prayers, we did some icebreakers, and then we went into 90 minute listening circles where we worked on the continuum between constriction and freedom. People shared from their hearts, there were no political arguments, because we were connecting at a different level. In my circle, one Palestinian teenager shared his fear to go out into the street in his village, when the soldiers are around. A hijab-covered woman spoke of the empowerment she draws from her practice of Islam. People listened attentively, as the "speaking object" was passed around. A disabled man from the States spoke of his pain when facing the attacks of his friends and family on his leftwing views. An Israeli spoke of his fear for his grandchildren's future. People connected, appreciating each other's openness.
After dinner, we played guitars and sang songs in Arabic and Hebrew in which we cried out together for peace. "Earth and sky," we sang, "the heat of the fire, the sound of the water….I feel it in my body, in my spirit and soul…" The children came to the center and we prayed and sang our hopes for them, as they danced in a circle, holding hands.
"Normalizers?" I would rather expect the Palestinian Authority to bless our activities, to support us. But following yesterday's event, there has been a volley of criticism, hatred, threats, in the social media. Some of our activists are even afraid there could be physical violence directed at them. Aren't our governments making things tough enough, without us fighting among each other, endangering the little sparks of solidarity? We will continue along this path. We will arrange a meeting with the PA, and we'll make our case. We will not succumb to the pressure. Hope and devotion to our common future will carry the day. The children demand it.
Yoav Peck, a Jerusalem organizational psychologist, is director of the Sulha Peace Project