Peace-making in Palestine


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Treye McKinney and Janelle McIntyre* are two extraordinary young people committed to non-violence through active engagement with the needs of Palestinians in the West Bank. Together they served at the Palestinian Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem from February 2008 through March 2009. Treye has also volunteered with Christian Peacemaker Teams and has participated in various protests against the unjust treatment of Palestinians and the Israeli violence in Gaza.

Question: Treye, you mention on your blog biography that the way you experienced violence as a child directed your journey into active pacifism. Can you talk about that a little? What other texts and models have helped shape your philosophy?

Treye: Yes, the physical abuse I witnessed and experienced as a child actively influenced and still influences my pacifism. I don't believe my past experiences were the deciding factor in convincing me of the truth of pacifism, but they were an influence; now that I have accepted pacifism as a belief and way of life, my childhood memories give my beliefs a personal side. They are not just heady theories. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from my childhood was that responding to violence with violence never helps or improves any situation: it only exacerbates and escalates it.

I have not always been a pacifist. Growing up, my father was physically abusive. When I was about 15, I decided that I would not tolerate violence from my father anymore, so I started fighting back to "defend" myself, my brother, and my mother. The situation at home went from bad to worse, and eventually I realized that one of us, either my father or I, was literally going to kill the other person. Someone had to leave. At 16 I left home and haven't spent much time there since. It takes time to heal from years of observing and receiving violence, and it wasn't until I was 21 that I was really able to ponder the question of pacifism and nonviolence.

The greatest influence on my decision to become a pacifist was my reading of the New Testament and Jesus’ words and example of love and nonviolence. Other influential figures for me were Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., but all of these characters cited the New Testament as the basis for much (if not all) of their pacifism. There are few clearer exhortations than "Love your enemies" and few stronger examples of applied pacifism than Jesus' and the early church's example of turning the cheek--refusing to fight back against the Romans and others, even at the risk of their lives and the lives of those they loved. The Sermon on the Mount has always haunted me, and I happened to be reading this text around the time of 9/11/01. The US response to the attacks struck me as blatantly contradicting Jesus’ words, and that sent me on a personal quest to develop my own beliefs about war and violence.

It was several years before I finally took the stand as a pacifist, but after I made the decision, peace work seemed to find me. I remember the evening when I became a pacifist. Previously I had supported nonviolence, but believed that there were times when it might be necessary to use violence on behalf of the oppressed. A college professor asked me, "Would you want someone to violently liberate you from an oppressor?" "No," I answered. "So then why would you do that for someone else? If God is the defender of the oppressed, let Him do that. Don't do the job for him." These words deeply impacted me, and from that point forward, I fully embraced pacifism.

After this decision, I went on to organize a club and many different antiwar activities on the Walla Walla College campus to raise awareness about violence in our society and nation. After college, I volunteered with at-risk school children and the homeless for several years, while also continuing to work and protest against much of US international policy.

Question: Violence and injustice are a reality in many parts of the world. Why the interest in Palestine/Israel?

Treye: As I watched the run-up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq several years ago, I realized that these wars were really symptoms of an utterly failed half-century long US foreign policy in the Middle East. At the heart of this was America's blind support for Israeli policy, regardless of its effect on other local populations. If there could be a peace between Palestinians and Israelis, this would likely result in Israel making peace with the rest of its Arab neighbors. And if the US could be seen as a more equal-handed force in the region, then there would be much more peace in the world in general. Right now, Israel is the largest recipient of American aid dollars (mostly military), and the Palestinians are the largest and longest running refugee crisis in the world. Finding a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis would greatly impact other conflicts in the Middle East, both current and future.

I have wanted to live in Palestine since about 2003, so having the opportunity to spend a year there recently was a dream come true. The Palestinian situation is personal to me, as Palestinians are caught in a cycle of violence similar, in some ways, to my own story. My father was physically abused by his father, and although my dad swore never to repeat his father's mistakes, he did continue them. On a much larger scale, Jews received persecution for hundreds of years in Europe, and after the Holocaust, they swore never to allow that type of persecution to happen again. However, Jews in the state of Israel are now repeating many of their oppressor’s mistakes by persecuting the Palestinians. To really break free from these cycles of violence, a person or group must say, "Enough! I will not continue the violence, regardless of the cost. I will not respond to antagonism, violence, or aggression with my own violence. The buck stops here. I want to be governed by love, not hatred."

Janelle: I came to Palestine to complete the Field Practicum portion of my Masters in Public Health, Global Health, from Loma Linda University. I chose this region because of my interest in social justice and how it relates to overall health. The Israeli presence and current political situation significantly affects the health of Palestinians. Many social, economic, and political barriers affect the access Palestinians have to health care.

Question: Treye, you participated in quite a few Palestinian protests during your time overseas. What happened at some of those protests? Why did you decide to abandon them?

Treye: What I witnessed at Palestinian protests (anti-Wall, anti-Occupation) greatly disturbed me. There is propaganda on both sides of this dispute, and one of the pieces of propaganda coming from some Palestinians is that the protests are completely peaceful and nonviolent. While the Palestinian demonstrations are not as lethal as Israeli responses (with soldiers carrying M-16s, body armor, and supported by tanks and fighter jets), the protesters display much anger and hatred. Rock throwing, which can also be very dangerous, is a traditional part of most demonstrations. The situation is very much a David vs. Goliath scenario, only the giant is better armed and protected than the original giant, while David is still slinging rocks with slingshots.

While I think I understand why some Palestinians are angry and resort to violence, as a nonviolent pacifist I do not support responding to any situation or person with violence or hatred. Ultimately, I had to withdraw my support of the protests.

Question: Both of you worked at the Aida Palestinian Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, West Bank. What kinds of people did you work with there? How do residents arrive at the camp and for how long do they stay? Where do they go when they leave?

Treye: I went to Aida Camp to teach computer skills and English to children in grades 2-9. Refugees at Aida, like most other Palestinian refugees, fled to the camp in 1948 because of violence and pressure from Jewish militias that helped establish the modern state of Israel. Altogether, there are about 7 million Palestinian refugees (total Palestinian population is about 10 million), coming mostly from two wars: the war for the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the Six-Day War in 1967 (when Israel conquered the West Bank).

Because unemployment is extremely high in the camps (70-80%), most Palestinian refugees never leave them. There are now several generations of refugees that have all lived "temporarily" in camps supported by the United Nations. Once in a while, a person or family manages to save enough money to move away from the camp, and usually when this happens, they move into a city in Palestine or overseas (many Palestinians, if given the choice, would chose not to live in Palestine because of the violence and oppression).

Janelle: Treye and I also volunteered at the Al-Rowwad Cultural and Theatre Training Center, a local community center serving the 4,000 residents of Aida, 66% of whom are under the age of 18. Al-Rowwad supports drama, traditional dabka dance, and choral music.

Question: Janelle, together with another volunteer you started the Health and Environmental Education Activities Program (THEEAP) for children at Aida. What sorts of activities does THEEAP provide for Aida residents?

Janelle: As Program Coordinator for the Environmental & Health Unit at Al-Rowwad, I helped develop and implement THEEAP for 50 Aida camp children. Prior to this, there was no structured health or environmental education program for children.

THEEAP is a 12-week program providing children with daily workshops and drama, craft, and physical activities. It teaches oral health, nutrition, physical fitness and environmental awareness. For example, to teach kids about recycling we have them make crafts out of discarded materials they can find around the camp. We also coordinate presenters for women’s fitness classes and facilitate nutritional classes, weight-loss and oral-health workshops, focus groups, kids educational and recreational field trips, and more.

Question: What was the health condition of the children you worked with?

Janelle: Children in the camp suffer from problems related to bad oral hygiene, lack of nutrition, and obesity. Their seemingly endless consumption of candy is a major contributor to these problems. Even though candy is more expensive than healthy food such as fruit, a local mother explained that kids buy sweets as a status symbol: as soon as they get any money they spend it on sweets.

Another issue is the lack of safe space for kids to be physically active. There are no parks near the camp, and the Israeli Wall separates children from the olive groves in which they used to play. Even though most families are very poor, every household has at least one television. Because it can be dangerous for children to play in the streets, most girls are not allowed to. They stay inside watching Arabic soap operas and music videos.

In July another volunteer and I were finally able to take 28 out of the 50 children that participated in THEEAP to a nearby dental clinic run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Prior to our first visit, it took six weeks for three Palestinian women (who work in health fields) to determine from UNRWA that it could give the children free cleanings.

I was amazed that people from the Aida Refugee Camp (for whom the clinic is specifically designed to help) did not know they could get their teeth cleaned for free. It is true that the clinic is severely understaffed, but my coworker and I had no problem taking the children each morning. None of the 50 children in our program had attended the clinic before, and the 15 women in our focus group had never taken their children for a dental check-up or cleaning.

Question: What is the future of THEEAP?

Janelle: Due to a lack of funding, volunteers, and local initiative (which is the basis of sustainability), THEEAP has not continued in its ideal form. But it has been simplified to deal with these constraints. Last fall, the second session of THEEAP incorporated graduates from the first session as “student teachers,” who performed a drama on the importance of oral health.

Question: How do you see humanitarian service as integral to the work of peacemaking?

Treye: Humanitarian service is a basic component of peacemaking because there are certain things people need in order to survive and act human. When people are deprived of their basic necessities (such as the people of Gaza, who have been suffering from a severe Israeli blockade against humanitarian supplies), they lash out like animals. They become desperate to regain dignity, respect, and the elements needed for survival.

When people have their basic needs met, however, they are much less likely to resort to violence in order to solve problems. It is usually only in periods of calm and health that people can reflect upon the questions of violence and peacemaking. In my own personal situation, I could not reflect properly about peacemaking until I had spent several years away from the violent situation in which I was raised. Only then could I make a mature decision to follow a different path. People need to have their basic needs met before they can really step outside of the cycle of violence and live differently.

Question: You inspired a good following where you both studied at Walla Walla College. But Walla Walla is a conservative Adventist school, and your passion for Palestine undermines the “traditional,” one-sided, rigid Christian support for the state of Israel. How do you see younger generations of Christians responding to the ideal of non-violence, especially in Israel/Palestine?

Treye: There is some hope that younger Christians will one day realize that the support of Israel's violent policies is not only bad for Palestinians, but also extremely damaging for Jews around the world. These policies actually threaten the future existence of Israel.

There is a possibility that the Christian support for Israel will start to change slightly in the coming years. However, I do not see much hope for today's Christians returning to the nonviolent pacifism of their past, exemplified by Jesus and the first Christians. Christian history is wrought with violence, and I fear it will continue to be such. There will always be a few people in various religions who believe in and are committed to nonviolent pacifism, but I do not see that tradition becoming popular in mainstream Christianity again.

Question: Treye, you spend active time each day in private meditation and prayer. How does this prepare you for the work of peace-making?

Treye: My private meditation and prayer is the bed-rock of my peace work. Without it, I do not think I would have become or stayed a pacifist. The time I spend each day seeking the Spirit prepares me for life's frustrations.

For me, nonviolence is not just about the absence of war or fighting, but about continually preparing myself to respond to each person and situation with love and nonviolence. I do not consider myself to be a nonviolent person (nonviolence is not something one fully attains, but a lifestyle one attempts). I try to be nonviolent, and by continuously seeking the Spirit, I pray that I can live a life of peace, pacifism, and patience.

Question: What about when non-violence doesn’t bring about change? How do you see efforts for non-violence working and not working for Palestinians?

Treye: For me, nonviolence is not foremost about bringing change. I am not nonviolent because I want to manipulate a situation; nonviolence is not a tactic, but a way of life. I am nonviolent because I have to be, because it is the right thing, what God requires.

We pray that nonviolence will change things, and that above all, the situation will not be worsened because of nonviolence. To my knowledge, there is no significant nonviolent movement in Palestine at the moment. But there are individuals and small groups that act nonviolently.

I think nonviolence could be quite effective in the current situation because Israel is very concerned with its international image. If Israel was seen by the rest of the world to be abusing nonviolent Palestinians on a regular basis, it could threaten Israel's ongoing occupation of Palestine. However, much work will have to be done in Palestine before the masses adopt nonviolence. Their struggle is one for dignity and freedom, and it is very difficult for an oppressed people to react nonviolently to their oppressors. We continue to pray that there will be a change of heart on both sides, that all people will realize the futility of violence and embrace the more peaceful way of coexistence.

Question: Early Adventism preached pacifism and encouraged its church members in the military to enlist as conscientious objectors. How do you see modern Adventism relating to its non-violent heritage?

Treye: I do not see much in modern Adventism relating to its nonviolent roots. To be a legitimate prophetic voice, Adventism needs to reclaim this struggle for nonviolence. Adventism was originally not only nonviolent, but also anti-American imperialism. But today, modern Adventism supports both the military and many of America's imperialistic tendencies.

Question: Treye, your last blog entry states that you return from Palestine less idealistic, less hopeful for the situation in the Middle East, and with less belief in the ability of humans to do good. This is depressing. What hope is left for those longing for peace and wholeness in our battered world?

Treye: Yes, I am depressed about the situation in Israel and Palestine, and I do not have much hope that the conflict will be resolved quickly or easily. Peace work is slow, frustrating work, and we cannot concentrate only on seeing results.

I suppose that I will continue trudging on with peace work at some level or another, not because I believe I will always see results, but because God has called us to be peacemakers. Jesus said that the poor will always be with us, but he didn't add to that, "So, don't help the poor." Instead, he spent all his time helping them. Similarly, Jesus said that in the end there will be wars, but that he and we should spend our time loving our enemies, praying for them, and working against all forces that plant seeds of destruction.

Treye McKinney graduated from Walla Walla College in 2004 with majors in Theology and English. His blog can be accessed at www.palestine-delegation.blogspot.com.

Janelle McIntyre* graduated from Walla Walla College in 2004 and completed her Masters in Public Health at Loma Linda University in 2008.

*Janelle McIntyre is a pseudonym.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1545