The two weeks spent rebuilding a demolished Palestinian home at ICAHD’s (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions) summer work camp at Beit Arabiya in the West Bank town of Anata was a rare opportunity to experience a community of light and spirit in the midst of a troubled and grim situation. To be sure, Palestinians and Israelis alike share this tragic state of affairs, but it is the Palestinians who bear the brunt of daily indignities to body and soul of such magnitude that scarcely can be imagined by those who have not seen them. We came as volunteers from around the world to witness, to work and to learn; we left as apostles carrying a strong message for our communities at home. Coming from the Holy Land, what could be more appropriate?
If this experience was for most of us transformative, all credit must be given to Jeff Halper and the founders of ICAHD, whose idea of bringing Israelis, Palestinians and internationals together in common purpose to redress in a way both small and large one of the gravest injuries one human can do to another-destroy a home-is, as true of most great notions, an utterly simple one. This, after all, is putting one’s ideals into action-what Christians call praxis-and the brilliance of it is that through hard physical work in close proximity with those normally considered “others,” or “strangers,” the usual barriers to communication and shared feelings are literally melted away in sweat, so that we are left with something like essence, the common human denominator, the salty clear liquid of our bodies. If blood is the iron liquid of war, then sweat is the sweet perfume of peace.
The rebuilding of one home destroyed by a brutish and blind oppressor is, considering the scale of demolitions taking place in the occupied territories, a small gesture. Thousands more need to be constructed. Tens of thousands of lives have been ripped apart by bulldozers–the world’s most devastating weapon of mass destruction-propelled to their cruel work by a banal bureaucratic process. But if considered on the grand scale of destruction and need the building of one house is barely more than inconsequential, the measure of symbolic significance and direct effects on a family and those handful of people taking part in the effort is very large indeed. These human, and humane, “facts on the ground,” while modest, work a magic out of proportion to the limited physical scope of their enterprise. Supposed adversaries and strangers meet face to face, discovering miracles of shared goodness and humanity. A ripple of hope goes out into the world. New ripples are created. An unusual sound is heard. People listen.
The real heroes of this story are the Israelis and Palestinians who, with the greater community locked in bitter, seemingly intractable struggle, nonetheless, in the words of camp coordinator, the inimitable Salim Shawamre, “refuse to be enemies.” As internationals we retain the luxury of going home to our safe and comfortable homes. Those who remain must fight a daunting battle every day–every moment–of their lives. For Israelis it is the battle of remembering. “Never Again!” is an imperative that is meaningless if not extended to the rest of humanity. With so much of the Palestinian reality blocked from the view of ordinary Israelis, compounded by an assiduously cultivated atmosphere of mistrust and fear, the effort required of well-meaning Israelis to connect with Palestinians is truly extra-ordinary.
As difficult a task as it is for Israelis to maintain their humanity, the demands made on Palestinians are in another category altogether. While the challenge for Israelis is remembering, that confronting Palestinians is forgetting-forgetting the constant brutal reminders that you are less than fully human; forgetting the poison that must inevitably run through your veins as the result of this degradation, a degradation whose sinister purpose is to push you into a hateful, violent corner; forgetting the hopelessness that beats down on your heads like a ceaseless bitter rain. We met many such Palestinians who struggle to achieve this forgetting and they filled our hearts with a luminous, profound warmth. They were our friends and teachers. They were our protectors. On several occasions in group meetings the topic of our privilege as Westerners arose and was duly acknowledged, but there can have been no greater privilege than that of being admitted into the lives of our extraordinary Palestinian friends.
If our two-week stay at Beit Arabiya amounted to something of a small miracle, it also embodied a paradox. In the midst of such suffering, in the midst of what is essentially a war zone, we internationals found ourselves experiencing something suspiciously close to what might be described as happiness. The hard reality and complexities of the situation notwithstanding, one would like to think also that some these feelings were shared by our Israeli and Palestinian comrades. Perhaps the surrounding pressure of the occupation, the constant threat of Israeli authorities coming to harass us or even destroy our work brought us together. Perhaps the good and rightful defiance that fueled our efforts made us closer. Whatever the case, something special was achieved during our fourteen days at Beit Arabiya. We were soldiers, all of us, and our fight was, and continues to be, for decency and peace. This is cause enough and, indeed, a lesson, which is that it is not the house itself that brings us together but the building of it, and though our stay at Beit Arabiya is over, one certainty remains: As long as occupying forces continue to knock down Palestinian homes, we’ll be coming back to help pick up the pieces.
RICHARD WARD lives in New Mexico.