Among the many tragedies, large and small, that collectively characterize the situation in Israel and the occupied territories, there is one that has affected me particularly deeply. Just over a week ago, the Israeli army sent tanks and troops into Bethlehem, declaring the area a military zone and effectively imprisoning people in their homes. On Monday April 8, eight days later, the army allowed people to leave their homes for an hour. Noah Salameh, director of the Center for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, seized the opportunity to visit the center and pick up his e-mail messages. Arriving there with his three daughters, he was shocked and saddened to find the door broken down and the contents ransacked.
I had arranged to meet Noah Salameh at his centre in Bethlehem when I was in Israel recently on a research visit, but the meeting proved impossible. Instead, we had a long telephone conversation and I was able to hear more about the work he was doing and his feelings about the situation. Since we are both members of TRANSCEND, an international network of cooperating individuals concerned with peace by peaceful means, I had heard about Noah’s work, but our telephone conversation gave me a much richer sense of what he does, the obstacles he faces, and especially about his approach to his work.
Noah’s deep, unshakeable commitment to what he regards as his mission is obvious. His involvement in the Palestinian cause while still a teenager led to a 15-year stint as a political prisoner. The experience might have radicalized him; instead, much like Mandela, he came out with renewed resolve to work for peace and reconciliation. Studying peace studies in universities in the United States gave him the opportunity to learn whatever he could and develop a link between theory and practice. Back in the field, at home, he discovered the limitations of methods and theories based in foreign cultures and developed unique, creative ways to develop practices more suitable for his own context. Noah and his colleagues established the Center for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, a centre committed to the principles of nonviolence and peace by peaceful means. The work included working in the schools, dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis, and efforts to integrate Palestinian and Israeli security. Teaching part-time at the university of Hebron on Ethics and Human Rights was a way for Noah to earn some money, always in short supply for the work of the centre, and to spread the teachings to more people.
Back in Canada, I had the opportunity to get to know Noah better. Confined to his home by the military siege of his town, he was not idle. Instead, in the intermittent periods when there was electricity, he took to writing e-mails about the situation to his wide list of contacts, both in the region and internationally.
These e-mails are remarkable. They describe the experience of being under attack and how it affects people in their everyday work and family roles. While Noah describes himself modestly as a simple person, a human being rather than a politician, I see deep insights in his writings about what a new kind of politics could be like, one based on respect for the human dignity of all people. In what Noah writes, there is no separation between his work as a peace activist and political actor, his role as a father, and his very being as a person.
Those of us privileged to receive Noah’s letters see him grappling with the emotions and contradictions and challenges the situation evokes, and how he deals with them with characteristic honesty and integrity. He has shared, too, his responses to people critical of his work, mostly Israelis. In each case, he listens deeply to the concerns raised and answers in a patient, principled way, not hiding his own doubts and questions.
Most poignant are his feelings about his role as a father. Noah has three daughters, and the anguish of the situation is most powerfully portrayed in relation to them. He shares his pain when the eldest, a 13 year old, talked about contemplating suicide. What is the point of his work, Noah wondered, if he can’t give hope to his own daughter? He sees this despair as widespread in Palestinian young people.
To be a Palestinian advocate for nonviolence and coexistence is a position fraught with difficulty and danger. It is to be misunderstood and attacked by both sides. How does a father explain this to a child? This is no rhetorical question but one Noah was called on to deal when his 10 year old asked about what was written in the papers about her father.
And the youngest daughter, Lara, became alive to us as well. Her 5th birthday was last week and the military conditions made it impossible for her to celebrate it with a cake, with friends. Noah shared with us how it felt to have to explain that to a little girl.
Mostly, the picture that emerges is of a dedicated peace worker, struggling against enormous odds. Noah faces the familiar obstacles of anyone working for peace: lack of money, lack of support and lack of time. A shortage of materials in Arabic is another key issue. Far more difficult to deal with is how to maintain a moderate, nonviolent, conciliatory voice in a polarized situation where this position is suspect from both sides.
Noah did this. He maintained his commitment, his hope, his values and his mission. And then came the disaster of his centre’s destruction.
I can only imagine the shock and despair at seeing all the valuable work gone. Those who broke into the centre took its few- but crucial assets: a fax machine, some telephones, a printer and a camera. The computers were opened and its training programmes, contact lists and files removed.
The loss of the infrastructure was devastating, no doubt, considering how much work was done with so few resources, but far more damaging was the loss of the work and the potential loss of hope.
There is no doubt in Noah’s mind who was responsible for the damage of the centre and the theft of its assets. For him, it had to be the Israeli army, the only people who were able to travel freely with the curfew in effect.
Noah’s deep sense of betrayal comes out in these words:
“In our Center (The Center for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation) it is written in big letters that we were working for peace, by Nonviolent Means, so did the soldiers look at that? Did they read the name of the Center? Did they look at the materials that they took from the computers? I don't understand how they can do that. I thought that some one who has the minimum human values will feel shame to destroy books, and computers which has materials for peace, and Nonviolence.”
I don’t understand it either. As a Jew, and someone who is concerned about the future of Israel, I hate the thought that representatives of the Israeli state could commit such wanton, stupid acts of desecration. It wasn’t just valuable work that was destroyed, work that Noah rightly calls “a gift’. It also undermines the credibility—and the very security-- of those struggling against all odds to do this vital work. When will people understand that it this work, not military incursions, that offers the only real hope of making Israelis secure.?
I tell Noah’s story because I happen to know about it and I feel a responsibility to share it. It isn’t an isolated case; a joint statement put out last week by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists reports that the Israeli Defense Force forcibly entered and ransacked the offices of several human rights organizations. We need to understand the possible ramifications of cases like these.
And I tell Noah’s story because ultimately I see it as a story of hope. Noah expresses his anger, frustration and sadness and his belief that peace is not on the agenda of those who destroyed his centre. But his determination to work for peace and his commitment to his values, principles and morals remains. He ends the letter by promising to work for peace and justice all his life.
Those of us outside the country who yearn for peace need to know about stories like Noah’s. We need to understand the systematic obstacles to the valuable work of peace and coexistence. Above all, we need to protest and prevent more tragedies like this one and find ways to support this essential work.
[Noah's original letter is below]
April 15, 2002
Letter from Noah Salameh telling of the destruction of CCRR:
I'm very sad today, it is the 8th day of the Israeli invasion and the closure of our homes, today the Israeli army allowed us to leave our houses for one hour. I tried to go to the Center to see my Email at the CCRR address because I had not seen it for eight days and was using my hotmail account.
As I arrived with my three daughters, I found the door open, and I was shocked to see that the Israeli army destroyed the door and entered the Center which is in an area with no population and no events or violence.
I'm very sad today, as I saw what happened. I found that the army took:
1. Fax machine
2. Three telephones
3. Two printers,
5. They ppen all the four PC computers and took the most important parts, including disks with ll
from trainining material to our contacts, and files...etc.
6. $ 400 USA dollars
I was shocked because I always thought that from the name of the Center and
the advertisements and the papers on the walls, it was clear that we are pro-
nonviolence and working for peace and reconciliation. It is written in English
in Arabic, in French, and in Spanish. They destroyed
everything. They stole machines, and money. Is this also to fight terror.......!!!!??? It is clear from the pictures, and from the papers at the center, that we are working together with Israelis for peace and reconciliation. So I ask the Israeli government if the damage they did in our Center was to help security? Is that from a democratic country, from people who have values of respect, peace, justice, democracy, or any human value?
I want to ask Israeli people and specialy my Israeli friends who defend their army the values and behaviour and the treatment of the Israeli army to Palestinians, to all Palestinians, whether they consider them terrorists or peace activists, I don't see any difference in the treatment of you
At our Center (The Center for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation) it is written in big letters that we are working for peace, by nonviolent means. Did the soldiers looked at that ? Did they read the name of the Center? Did they look at the materials that they took from the computers. I don't understand how they can do that. I thought that someone who has the minimum human values would be ashamed to destroy books and computers that have materials for peace and Nonviolence. Is nonviolence also terror?
I'm sorry that I feel upset after this very sad day and what I saw as a "gift" to my work for coexistence and peace between the two peoples. I'm realy sorry if I seem angry, and use some difficult words, but trust me my friends that those people who have done this crime in our center and the leaders who sent them know very well that peace is not in their agenda and all their work is to destroy peace and understanding and any kind of dialogue or contacts between peace people.
But I promise them that they will never succeed in changing my values, my
principles and my morals. I believe in peace because it is my way , my moral and
my mission in life, and I promise to continue my struggle for peace and justice
all my life.
I'm writing this to tell you my friends that this is the goal of Sharon's campaign, it is to kill all hopes of peace, all work for peace and to ruin all possibilities of coexistence.
I hope that I will still be alive until the end of this invasion and I will photo the pictures to send you some of these pictures to see the work against terror from the Sharon army.
I hope that all of you excuse me, as I'm writing after I came from the Center were I saw the killing of my work of all these years, thousands of hours, and the work of peace activists. When I called my friends who are members of the Center, they cried, they came very fast to see the result of this crime which destroyed their work, their hope.......
I would like to say that they will never be able to destroy our ideas or kill our hope, we will continue our work, our struggle and our efforts to build and build and build.
Today I can say that we again have to prepare ourselves for very very long struggle for our freedom and independence and we promise that we will never abandon, and this cruel work just strengthens our believe and our work for freedom and for our independence.
Yours in Peace & Reconciliation
The Center for Conflict Resolution
and Reconciliation - CCRR
Bethlehem - Palestine
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