The highlight for yesterday was the walking tour and talk by Avner, a former Israeli special forces soldier and now advocate for “Breaking the Silence,” a group of former military who came together in 2004, to begin working for social justice in the Occupied Territories, particularly the West Bank. These are former IDF (Israel Defense Forces) enlisted and officers who became critics of Israeli government and military policies with Palestinian peoples. These are men and women who served patriotically in the Israeli military but began to challenge policy decisions and in his words “tell the truth” concerning the realities of this occupation and the detrimental implications for all concerned, including the Israeli people. One such example he gave was the fact that the IDF was under orders not to stop or interfere with Jewish settlers who attacked Palestinians but they were to use all their weapons to stop any attack on Jewish settlers by Palestinians. He took us to important checkpoints and sites in the city and described how IDF and Israeli police are trained to physically and psychologically intimidate, harass, and suppress Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Avner concedes his group is a minority but all feel called to “speak truth to power” even at the risk of alienating family, friends, and former colleagues.
Later in the day we loaded into vans for our dinner celebration outside of Al-Khalil. On the way were were submerged in a sea of excited people, cars and trucks honking horns and playing Arabic music over loud speakers with Palestinian flags and emblems everywhere. Beginning April 17, over 2000 Palestinian prisoners (from a total of 4800) had joined a hunger strike to protest conditions in Israeli jails. Some had now been fasting for over two months. Besides agreeing to improve prison conditions, the Israeli government had agreed to release the bodies of 91 Palestinian prisoners who had been buried in Israel dating back to 1960. Photographs of the men adorned placards, posters, headbands, and homemade garments. Some families had been waiting 52 years to have their relatives returned for a proper Muslim burial. Thirty-two of the dead were being brought home to Al-Khalil and their families were awaiting their arrival by ambulances. As we snaked through the traffic the first ambulances came into view and the crowds were ecstatic and resolute to finally bring their dead home. It occurred to me we were witnessing something that the western media probably didn't cover - a major world event for people who had used non-violent means to simply get their dead returned home.
After slowing making our way through the celebration of the Palestinians who were welcoming home their dead to Al-Khalil, we made the trip to Idna where we visited the Women's Cooperative. Layla, our Monday night dinner host, began a women's cooperative and set up her initial shop in Hebron in the center of the Souk. She is the only woman shop owner in the city. Eight years ago with the support of CPT, she began the cooperative and now 120 Palestinian women produce, distribute, market, and sell hand-made embroidery, including handbags, glass cases, scarves, dresses, placemats, table coverings and a variety of hand-made jewelry. This Idna cooperative, like many in other developing nations across the globe provide needed economic support for their families and self-esteem and status for their economic contributions. All U.N. research lauds the importance of women's cooperatives because it has shown to be the most important factor in raising the economic status of families. More so than providing monies for males, women tend to use their financial gain to uplift the entire family. Microfinancing for women has shown the same dramatic success stories since it appears that when you give financial support to women the entire family benefits and it adds to women's status and security in the family and the village. The women provided a sumptuous dinner for us and treated us like royalty with their informal hospitality. We ate, enjoyed the women's company, played with the children, and watched the moon and stars on a very dark and beautiful night in Palestine.