By Nick McCallum
In PWB’s upcoming magazine you’ll read about a two-decade-old peace-building organization that works in regions of conflict called, Seeds of Peace (SOP). PWB founder, Danielle Da Silva, along with photographer Maggie Svoboda, travelled first to a conference in Jordan, where SOP was unveiling their brand new “Gather” initiative, followed by trips to Israel and the West Bank, to document the work that’s done in the field. For those who’ve not seen the news in the last sixty years or so, there is unrest throughout the Middle East. Even now, while writing this article, tensions are boiling over in one of the cities Da Silva and Svoboda visited: Hebron, the only city in the West Bank where Israeli settlers live among the Palestinians. A series of knife attacks by Palestinians targeting Israelis have made headlines recently, as have reports of Israeli soldiers using excessive force against civilians.
Now imagine an NGO trying to humanize the conflict and help instill positive values in young leaders from different regions.
Seeds of Peace has made some great strides in doing just so over the years, as was evident by the hundreds of young leaders originating everywhere from Israel, to Palestine, to Pakistan, India and Afghanistan and beyond, who were present at the Gather conference in Jordan. However, as demonstrated by events in the region of Israel and Palestine from recent days, for every step forward, there seems to be a step backward. In fact, if you browse the Seeds of Peace website for a few minutes, you may come across a tribute page for Asel Asleh, an Israeli Arab and graduate Seed who was killed by Israeli forces during a demonstration on October 2nd, 2000. Fifteen years later and it appears that not much has changed, and Asleh’s induction into that growing roster of victims becomes quickly dwarfed by those whose names and stories we don’t know. One website has been tracking the casuaties since September 29th, 2000, the beginning of the Second Intifada (Palestinian uprising against Israel), and as of June of last year, there was a total of 8,210 deaths—that is: 7,096 Palestinians, and 1,114 Israelis—more than half of which, civilians. Asleh’s death is among thousands that function as a blunt reminder that rarely does the world see a non-violent revolution, but this has not stopped SOP from continuing to promote and advocate for peaceful resolutions of conflict.
Da Silva and Svoboda stayed in Jerusalem and travelled to Bethlehem, Hebron, Tel Aviv, Rawabi, Ramallah, and a kibbutz (a type of commune) in northern Israel. One of the oldest cities in the world, Jerusalem brings with it centuries worth of cultural baggage, as fear and truculent religious rhetoric fuel the region’s seething instability. For not only has Jerusalem long been contested by Israel and Palestine, each proclaiming it to be their capital, but the city is also regarded as a holy site by the three major Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The land subsists in an exhausting dichotomy of worship and wrath, and as soon as Da Silva and Svoboda arrived in Israel they were met with a level of suspicion, intolerance, and anxiety that was instantly palpable. According to Da Silva, as they were entering the country, one of their party of fifteen made the mistake of divulging their intent to visit Ramallah—a city located in the West Bank—and as a result, “we were rewarded with a period of questioning and interrogation that lasted hours and invaded all of our privacy. [Israeli soldiers] went through my phone and had me show them all my friends who were Israeli. I was asked incessantly if I had Palestinian friends or family.” In Bethlehem, walls everywhere were covered in the hopes and prayers of those living under occupation, condemning the violence—graffitied messages floating through a sea of rubble, but reaching no one who will help. Checkpoints leading from the West Bank back into Israel were prison-like, heavily guarded by mostly teenaged soldiers of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) equipped with assault rifles as people were led down a tight corridor and fed through turnstiles and metal detectors, all the while monitored from above by more armed soldiers posted along a series of catwalks.
However, perhaps one of the best examples of how pervasive intolerance has entrenched itself throughout the region is the Ibrahimi Mosque, or the Cave of the Patriarchs, in Hebron. The structure doubles as a synagogue and a mosque as it holds great import to both the Jewish and Islamic religious traditions, but “the place is literally split in two down the middle [so that] the tombs of Abraham and Sarah can be viewed from both sides without Jews or Muslims having to see each other” (Da Silva). These sorts of extreme measures, even in places of shared worship, perpetuate the build-up of fear and tension that makes peace a near impossibility. Without understanding or positive, forward-moving dialogue, Israel and Palestine will be forever locked in conflict, and with world superpowers supporting their respective allies during this crisis, the stalemate shall persist. In the meantime, messages calling for a suspension of hostilities will continue to be scrawled upon the blasted apart buildings and walls while the rest of the world watches.
But will we listen?
Will we wake up?