September 25, 2007

Zoughbi Zoughbi and the Palestinian Road to Peace


In 1990, I spent a memorable day in Santa Cruz, Cal., with Danilo Dolci, the great Sicilian hero of nonviolence who took on the Mafia and transformed Sicily, along with Zoughbi Zoughbi, a long-time Palestinian teacher of nonviolence from Bethlehem. Danilo has since died, but Zoughbi carries on his great work of peace. I visited him in Bethlehem in 1999, and last month we both spoke at a London peace conference.

In 1995, Zoughbi founded Wi’am, the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center in Bethlehem to promote peace and reconciliation in his community. (See: Zoughbi was born in 1963, the second youngest of eight children, just two minutes walk from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. His family has lived in the area for almost six hundred years as a Palestinian Christian family. He is married with four children.

“Wi’am focuses on nonviolent conflict resolution and in particular, offers programs for women and children,” Zoughbi said. “We are all hostages of fear. The need for conflict resolution, mediation and civic education has dramatically increased. We work on the empowerment of women and the creation of community centers for our youth. We try to help women gain equal footing in our patriarchal society. We help children cope with the trauma of the occupation and the war. We are not dealing with ‘post-traumatic stress disorder.’ The stress is ongoing, with layer upon layer of pain, violence and trauma. All the kids suffer from bed-wetting, flashbacks and rebelliousness. We help them cope and play, and give them an environment to air their feelings, vent their problems and create.”

Seventy-six percent of all Palestinians live on less than $2 a day The Israeli government takes eighty-four percent of their water. There are 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. “The Palestinian people are being crucified every day,” Zoughbi told the conference. “The situation has grown much worse since the so-called peace process began in 1993. There are now more than 450 checkpoints. There is a wall around the West Bank, and Bethlehem has become a ghetto. It’s now getting to the point where the people are on the brink of civil war. There is no economic vitality or freedom of movement in the West Bank.”

“We’re living in a pressure. It is nothing less than apartheid, with walls surrounding our towns, isolating people from each other. We have 46 miles of walls in the West Bank. It’s only sixty percent finished. They are creating ghettos of isolated villages. When you are confined to your home or your Bantustan, when the economic situation is deteriorating, unemployment is skyrocketing, and trauma among children is increasing, abnormal conditions create abnormal relationships among people. They create displaced anger against each other.”

“We are the indirect victims of the Holocaust, victims of the victims of the Holocaust. Israel was formed from guilt, and in the process displaced hundreds of thousands of people. But there is no point on dwelling on victimhood. Palestine must be formed now from collective responsibility. Restorative justice--justice that redresses the wrongs rather than avenging them--is the only way to break the cycle of violence. We need diplomacy and political settlements to heal people, and move toward forgiveness, reconciliation and a new culture of nonviolence.”

“By working for restorative justice, we will be able to disarm the extremists, because otherwise they will use what is happening in Palestine or Iraq as a catalyst for extremis, to kill indiscriminately, and think they are martyrs. We oppose suicidal attacks. I believe the right wing Israeli government conducts suicidal attacks. In the long run, they are suicidal. What we need now is the Israeli government to release prisoners, alleviate the suffering of the people, remove the checkpoints, allow the people to move freely. This can create confidence, and build trust, and lead to an agreement reached by both sides. Then we can move into the realm of peace. Otherwise we are doomed to kill each other.”

The occupation, he points out, has had a wide array of effects. Economics: the closure of territories, high rate of unemployment, widespread poverty, difficulty in meeting basic human needs, decline of tourism. Social: signs of social disorder; widespread demoralization and hopelessness. Domestic violence: delinquency, irresponsibility, depression, stress-related symptoms. Environmental: deforestation; confiscation of fertile agricultural land for the sake of building the Separation Wall, Israeli settlements and bypass roads; dumping of waste material; violations of land and water rights. Cross-cultural: deterioration of religious tolerance; lack of understanding; lack of objective information from the international level due to media bias, and so forth.

“We are living the stations of the cross every day,” Zoughbi told me over lunch in Derbyshire. “We don’t need to go to Jerusalem to be reminded of the Passion. It came to us. We’re now interested in the politics and economics of Resurrection. That would mean ending all the injustices, returning our rights and land and resources, and reconciling with our neighbors. The story of South Africa gives us hope; we hope that will happen here, that the Occupation will end, the walls be torn down, that we will be allowed freedom of movement, that our economy will recovery, that all prisoners will be released, that the settlements will be taken down, that our political system will be more democratic, that we will be allowed to coexist with our neighbors in peace, and that justice and healing will be our future.”

“Every day we are doing nonviolent conflict resolution. Any misunderstanding can lead to big fights. That’s why I say using weapons is not healthy, because when you’re not using them to liberate yourself, you’ll use them against each other. At Wi’am we have a ministry of reconciliation, to sort out the conflicts nonviolently among our people. I hope we can resolve conflicts nonviolently at a national level, but at the moment, all we can do is work on the ground among our people.”

“We on modeling nonviolence for everyone, by actively participating in the struggle to change the system. Our struggle does not perpetuate the status quo. For us, nonviolence is about challenging the system, working to change the system, working for the people to have different views. It is a total engagement to address the people’s needs through civilized approaches. We call it ‘nonviolent struggle,’ not ‘pacifism.’”

“There are three dimensions of the struggle. The Palestinians must continue their struggle nonviolently to get rid of the occupation. People in Israel must work to stop being occupiers. And the international community must take collective responsibility.”

Zoughbi quotes Archbishop Tutu: “If you are neutral in a time of injustice, then you are on the side of the oppressor.” “I believe it is time for the world to exert pressure to bring Israel to its senses,” Zoughbi says. “The U.S. bears a great responsibility for what is going on here. Your churches and peace and justice groups can help enormously by raising awareness, speaking out, changing your foreign policy, demanding a true peace process, cutting off funding to Israel for the Occupation and their weapons The U.S. has given Israel $140 billion since 1967, about $4 billion a year. All U.S. aid to Israel must be based on human rights for Palestinians, and Israel must be held accountable.”

I have long thought that we must not be anti-semitic or support suicidal attacks, but that we should all pursue the Jewish vision of Shalom, peace for all humanity, as well as the practice of human rights and justice for everyone, including the children of Palestine.

“I’m not urging people to be pro-Palestinian,” Zoughbi said to me. “Be pro-justice. Be pro-human rights. And if you come to the Holy Land to see the old stones, come to see the Living Stones. Meet the Palestinian people. As we say in Bethlehem, you’ll discover that now, there’s enough room in the Inn.”

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