“Follow the Women” bike ride for peace in the Middle East

By Mary M. Bennett

“Everyone wants the same thing,” said Jo Ann Smith from California, “a place to raise your children in peace.”

This is what the Israelis and the Palestinians both want.

Many Palestinian women were with us that first day this past autumn in Beirut when we began our bicycle ride for peace. Over 200 women from 38 countries joined ‘Follow the Women’ the largest international peace keeping mission in the Middle East.

The fact that it is highly unusual to see women riding bicycles in the Middle East is one of the reasons why Detta Regan from England came up with this novel idea seven plus years ago. Seeing so many women on bicycles riding in solidarity with other women from the region; (For many it was the first time they had been on a bicycle!) calling for peace as they ride through Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and across the Allenby Bridge into the West Bank, draws attention to the most vulnerable victims, women and children and the need for peace. Promoting freedom of movement for women in particular and empowering them to get more involved, it also generates a lot of media attention to the many efforts for peace in the region.

FTW dramatizes the fact that Palestinians suffer disproportionately in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. To me the comparison is like an elephant and a mouse. Israel, with the support of the US, is flush with power and has used that power to try and safeguard their national interests to secure their safety and supply their needs without sufficient regard for the needs of the Palestinian people.

Although this was my third bicycle ride with FTW, I had hesitated telling the story of what I have seen in Palestine out of fear of being targeted as anti-Semitic and because of my love of the idea of Israel.

Because I want the descendents of the holocaust to have a safe place to call home, I supported the formation of Israel, and wanted it to survive. Taking the land, water and other resources out of the hands of the Palestinian people in the name of safety, and building a 500 mile 30 foot high cement wall to keep the resources under Israeli control, will not provide long-term safety. Nor will continuing to build settlements, even when the international community protests and maintaining check-points to restrict movement, bombing the hell out of Gaza and then sealing the boarders trapping 1.5 million Palestinians in an outdoor prison.

In many ways this conflict is a war of words. Who controls the message wins. Until recently Israel has been perceived as the underdog surrounded by hostile forces in the region. Palestinian’s meanwhile, have been labeled as terrorists. And indeed some have lived up to this label by acting aggressively voicing hatred for all things Jewish. This behavior frightens Israelis and fuels aggression. The ferocity of Israeli’s response has altered that perception, with some of it labeled as crimes against humanity. Personally, I believe this aggression reflects something deeper in the psyche of the Israeli people that has more to do with the past.

Israel is a nation of trauma survivors. Psychologically, for those who have suffered trauma, if there has not been sufficient healing, the abused can become the abusers.

Fear, feeling vulnerable and the need for safety are fueling this conflict on both sides. Each one demonizes the “other” to keep the land-grab going and to maintain power. It will take pressure from the international community to disengage both sides from this ongoing and deadly power struggle and make sure that the needs of the Palestinians have the same weight and merit as the Israelis. Since the plight of Palestinian refugees is especially pressing, their collective trauma and anger continue to fester. Often refugees for over 61 years, their needs are great, including their right to return to their homeland.

People all over the world, including many Israelis and Palestinians, support a renewed peace process. As Martin Luther King Jr. said “It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.” His words are painfully relevant to circumstances in Israel today.

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SABRA & SHATILA REFUGEE CAMP LEBANON

From October 8 – October 21st Follow the Women bicyclists traveled throughout the Middle East. Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon was our first stop.

Over 200 Follow the Women participants from 38 countries visited Sabra & Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon. Our group included over 20 Palestinian women. I stayed close to them as many of them spoke Arabic and English. I wanted to hear whatever people had to say. No translation was necessary to understand the tears of the older women I met. They cried “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, “ as they grabbed and hugged me. They wanted to go home, wherever home was in Palestine and they wanted to see Jerusalem again.

60 years is a long time to be away from home and that is how long many Palestinian’s have been stuck in places like Shatila.

There are approximately 59 Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It has been estimated that 4.3 million people are now living in the camps. The right of return is considered to be one of the greatest obstacles to the peace process. Some fear that if so many people return to Palestine then the existence of Israel would be threatened. Host countries have similar fears because, if Palestinian refugees were given all of the rights and privileges allowed for their citizens, they would overwhelm their services and change the political landscape for them.

The history of Sabra & Shatila refugee camp is a particularly bloody one. In 1982 Ariel Sharon withdrew his protection and, by some estimates, over 3,000 people were massacred. The Christian Lebanese Forces did the killings but Sharon was held responsible because he gave the order to withdraw the Israeli Defense Force who were responsible for protecting the camps. The United Nations General Assembly condemned the massacre and declared it to be an act of genocide.

There were many large posters depicting the massacre all around Shatila and I worried about the children exposed to so much violence.

In a listening session held after our visit, Palestinian men and women discussed the mental health problems many of the adults experience especially depression. They also expressed concern for their children. Boys are experiencing behavioral problems they said. I noted that there is a tendency to keep tight control over girls throughout the Middle East, while boys have less structure. Palestinian boys living in the camps also have limited economic opportunities, which contributes to a sense of hopelessness. It is understandable that they are having behavioral problems.

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FOLLOW THE WOMEN MEET RESIDENTS OF EAST JERUSALEM

We bicycled over and down the mountains of Lebanon. We had a spectacular ride into Tripoli. The entire city stopped, honked and welcomed us as we rode through. We crossed the boarder into Syria and cycled even higher mountains and long, long flats visiting villages, the city of Damascus and refugee camps. We cycled the highways around Amman Jordan and spent the night sleeping in tents at the Dead Sea. The next day we spent many hours waiting for permission to cross the Allenby Bridge into the West Bank. By evening we cycled into Jericho and were greeted warmly by the Palestinian people. We later visited Hebron and marveled at the many, many checkpoints restricting movement in the city and in Bethlehem we could now experience that awful monstrous 30-foot cement wall up close.

Although we could not take our bicycles, I was delighted that arrangements could be made to take us to Jerusalem. We met with some families in East Jerusalem who have received notice that their homes would be taken without compensation.

The Israeli Land Registry, within the framework of a 1950 Law of Absentee Property, revoked all claims of pre-1948 ‘absentee Arab property owners’ (i.e., Palestinian refugees.) They also reestablished title to property owned by Jews prior to 1948.

The families we met said they anticipated being forcibly removed from their homes soon. At the same time, they begged us to get the international community involved to prevent this from happening. They said their children were afraid to go to school because they did not know if they would have a home to come home to.

We also met a family that had been evicted and they were now living on the street under an olive tree across from their former home. We were told that a Jewish family from America was now living in their home.

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FOLLOW THE WOMEN JOIN PROTEST AT BIL’EEN

We road our bikes up the hills into the beautiful city of Ramallah and west to a small town called Bil’een.

There we met Mohamed Khatib, who proudly told us how this town, with a population of 1,700 have so far been successful in stopping the progress of the 30-foot 500 mile cement wall. If it does go through, they will lose 60% of their town. He said most of the inhabitants of the town are young and they protest regularly using tactics developed by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He said town residents have chained themselves to olive trees to keep them from being cut down and the entire town goes to the point where the wall has stopped to protest in silence.

Mohamed said he is convinced that the wall is not for security. The purpose is to take more land. He also said that Israeli peace activists have been supporting them in their protests and are helping them use the Israeli courts to their advantage.

He said technically a settlement is illegal until a permanent structure is built. On Christmas Eve last year some men from Bil’een built a temporary structure near the wall and declared it a settlement. The Israeli’s said they would have to dismantle the structure but allowed it to stay till morning. Overnight he said the town’s people built a house on the spot and was then declared a settlement! He said various people in town stay in the house to keep their settlement status.

He said the town is also using the international courts to try and stop construction of the wall by going after foreign construction companies hired to do the building. They now have an appeal in the Israeli courts.

He said the town is resisting the construction of the wall, that is their goal. Any Israeli who would like to live in their town is welcome.

We got on our bikes and went to the place where the construction of the wall has stopped. We sang a few of our usual peace songs. This is one of them:

“We are women from all around. We want peace for everyone. I’m from here and you’re from there. We want peace for everyone.”

Unfortunately, Israeli soldiers stationed there decided we had over-stayed our welcome and they fired several large, bouncing tear gas canisters at us.

Perhaps they did not know we were an international peace group representing 38 countries and we would go home and tell the world what we saw!

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