Saturday, December 25, 2010

Peace for One Night in Bethlehem

Bethlehem was just another Palestinian village until the day that Jesus was born. It wasn't until around 300 AD that the prophetic message that Jesus was born became a religious movement, and Bethlehem quickly became a prosperous and fortified city, as well as a popular place for religious pilgrims, with many churches and monastaries built in the area. In the Crusader times (1099-1187 and 1228-1144), kings were crowned in Bethlehem as a symbolic connection to the birthplace of Jesus, and it was promoted as the seat of many religious parishes, including Episcopal and Roman Catholic communities.

Confronted by the injustices of the British colonial system as well as the Zionist threat in the first half of the 1900s, residents of Bethlehem firmly supported the cause of Palestinian nationalism. In the 1920s and 1930s, Palestinians in Bethlehem mounted several public campaigns against the British law that repealed citizenship of Palestinians but granted citizenship to Jewish immigrants. In response, Britain cracked down hard on representatives of Bethlehem. For example, in 1938, the mayor of Bethlehem, Issa Bandak, was deported by the British occupation authorities after his outspoken criticism of the British occupation. Much as Bethlehem housed Joseph, Mary, and the newborn Jesus, Bethlehem subsequently became a sanctuary for countless Palestinian refugees expelled from their villages. According to the Alternative Tourism Group (2008), population figures rose from 9,000 to nearly 20,000, while an additional 40,000 refugees stayed temporarily in Bethlehem on their way to exile in the West Bank, Jordan, or other Arab states.

I visited Bethlehem in May 2010. Today, the Bethlehem district constitutes the towns of Beit Sahour to the east and Beit Jala to the west, as well as three refugee camps (Aida, Beit Jibrin or 'Azza, and Deheisheh) to total 76,000 people. Dominated by minarets and bell towers, the city affirms its religious diversity: it has a Muslim majority (67%) and a strong Christian minority (33%). Almost every Christian community is represented: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Lutheran and Syrian, all sharing the same Arab-Palestinian culture.

Nevertheless, there is much in-fighting between the various Christian groups over control of various religious sites in Bethlehem. For example, despite being a place sacred to all Christians, the Grotto of the Nativity (see photo at left) - marking the exact place of Jesus's birth - has been the object of bitter dispute between the Christian communities. In 1847, the star was stolen, and the Sultan in Istanbul was asked to arbitrate: he chose to freeze the controversy with a status quo, which pleased no one, neither France, as "the custodian of holy places, nor Tsarist Russia, as protector of all Orthodox subjects in the Ottoman empire. Finally, the star was replaced with a copy. However, prolonged disagreement over custody of these holy places served as pretext for hostilities between the great imperialist powers leading to the Crimean War of 1853-1856, with England, France, and Turkey opposing Russia. Even today, there is a complicated and detailed plan of ownership of particular places and hours for certain religious celebrations and feasts. If one religious community fails to honor another 's plan, for instance by walking down the wrong staircase at an inopportune time, then this is cause for shutting down a whole section of Bethlehem in order to rectify the situation.

The hopeful news is that Bethlehem is celebrating its merriest Christmas in years, according to this story from NPR. Mild weather, a booming economy, and thriving tourism (see photo at left) are all helping to bring holiday cheer to the West Bank town. Christian tourists, Palestinian Christians, and even Palestinian Muslims from Bethlehem's refugee camps prayed side-by-side on Christmas Eve. One woman from the camp said, "Because of the hard situation and the pressure we are living in, we take advantage of any joyful moment and bring our children to play."

It's promising to see peace in the little town of Bethlehem for even one night. But let us not forget the wall that continues to surround Bethlehem (as well as the rest of the West Bank and Gaza), the growing number of illegal Israeli settlements that are being built and are eating away at Palestinian land, the failure of peaceful negotiations between the leaders of the region, and the reality that after celebrating side-by-side with people of all faiths, many Palestinian families must return to refugee camps rather than to their rightful homes.

(separation barrier near Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins

The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins is an award-winning documentary by New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly about contemporary artist, Vanessa Beecroft's relentless attempt to adopt baby twins from Sudan. Beecroft is a world-famous artist, most famous for her live tableaus of nude women standing motionless in empty art galleries. The film delves into Beecroft's professional life, borrowing an a brilliant artistic appeal and well-edited style. But Beecroft's career is only the backdrop to the more disturbing main element of the film, which was her obsession with "having/getting" these two Sudanese babies.

Beecroft explains that she visited Sudan and met Madit and Mongor Akot, who were left by their impoverished father to the care of the local village. Beecroft understood this as abandonment, and after breastfeeding the children herself, decided that it was her responsibility to adopt the children. As a Sudanese official explains, Sudan does not have official adoption laws; if a child is left parentless, then the next of kin is contacted and the community takes responsibility for the care of the child. This is common practice throughout many African societies. This doesn't deter Beecroft, and she goes to great lengths to convince lawyers, officials, friends, and family that what she is doing is noble and in the best interests of the twins.

One of the main themes of the film is that Beecroft's social anthropologist husband is completely unaware of her adoption plans. When her lawyers ask her repeatedly if her husband is "on-board" with the plan, (because the adoption cannot proceed without him), Beecroft insists that he is. When she determines that her husband might be a hindrance to her plan, she considers divorce.

Beecroft explains that her desire to adopt the twins is “not just fetishization of the blacks. It will be a beginning of a relationship with that country.” But her actions throughout the movie consistently contradict those words, as Sudan, its people and its children are consistently objectified by Beecroft.

In one of the more revealing scenes, Beecroft is photographing the unclothed infant twins in a chapel for one of her many Sudanese-themed art projects. One of the Sudanese women enters the chapel rightly complaining that it is not right for foreigners to be photographing naked Sudanese children, especially in the chapel. Beecroft has a physical confrontation with the woman, trying so much to continue photographing the children. When the Sudanese women takes the twins away, Beecroft collapses against a barricaded door, mumbling, "These people."

When the father of the twins expresses doubts that consenting to adoption is the right thing, he tells Beecroft (through a translator) that his community and family are worried that these Sudanese children will be taken away and never understand who they are or where they come from. Beecroft quickly responds that she will connect with the Sudanese communities where she lives in New York and visit Sudan with the twins when they grow up. But since she has thus far not made attempts to learn the language or understand the culture, it is unlikely that this will happen.

I believe that Beecroft believes that what she is doing is in the best interests of Madit and Mongor. However, she is unable to that these children may do very well living in their communities, raised by extended family. Beecroft's vision of child well-being is warped by her own Western perspectives of childhood as well as a desire to possess these children and incorporate them into her future artwork. She is also an egoist, comparing herself to the likes of Angelina Jolie and Madonna in her attempts at adoption.

I am not against international adoption, but I am against Westerners believing that they can come in and correct a situation simply because they have the means. As one of the priests that Beecroft seeks (and ignores) advice from says, taking the children away from Africa drains the human capital. These children are needed in their countries to build up their communities/countries and make them strong.

The one redeeming scene was when Beecroft makes a final visit to the village of Madit and Mongor. Tears of joy overcome her as she is welcomed into the community. She sees the twins and then says good-bye.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

When Lost Boys Grow Up

On January 9th, 2011, Southern Sudan will vote in a referendum to decide if they will split from the north and form their own country. This will not only slightly remap the African continent, but also draw to a close a 50-year liberation struggle in which the Christian south mostly fought against the Arab north. One of the consequences of this long conflict were the Lost Boys of Sudan, more than 27,000 boys of Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups who were displaced and/or orphaned during the Sudanese Civil War. About 4,000 were resettled in the United States.

Jeffrey Gettleman's article in this weekend's New York Times chronicle's one Lost Boy's - Joseph Gatyoung Khan - homecoming to his village to participate in the Southern Sudan referendum. After leaving his village at the age of 8, Khan was settled in the United States, working his way from the midnight shift at a casino to a university education at the University of Iowa. He hasn't seen his parents in over 20 years. The following video from The New York Times, shows Khan returning to his village and the mixed emotions he feels upon his arrival.

What I find most interesting is when he says that the world doesn't need him, but his village does need him. I wonder what Khan will be able to do for his village if, indeed, he decides to stay. There are so many valuable human resources that leave villages like Khan's because of war and conflict and poverty. Imagine what great things they can do once they return.

Khan has not yet decided if he will stay in Southern Sudan.

Friday, November 26, 2010

US Aid Continues for Countries Using Child Soldiers

Human rights groups are criticizing Barack Obama's decision to waive a prohibition on military assistance to foreign armies that employ children (under the age of 18) in their fighting ranks. Obama issued a presidential memo in October, and then signed a waiver last Monday that allows the US to continue military assistance to Chad, the Democratic republic of Congo, Sudan, and Yemen. (Burma, which receives no US military assistance, and Somalia, which already receives peacekeeping assistance not covered by the law, are also on the list.) The US provides training and support to the countries through the International Military Education and Training fund, which provides military training and counter-terrorism programs to these countries.

In 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law the Child Soldier Prevention Act, designed to bar US military assistance to states designated by the State Department as having recruited child soldiers into their armed forces. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN's top advocate for child soldiers, expressed her disappointment at Obama's decision, saying that this is a step backward. The White House argued,

"The decision to waive prohibition of military assistance to countries that use child soldiers was in the interest of national security in allowing the US to support countries that back American anti-terror policies or face fragile political transitions. It maintains that continued military assistance would actually accelerate these countries' ability to end controversial practices, including the conscription of child soldiers" (Turtle Bay, October 28th).

There are about 300,000 child soldiers across the globe. The UN is engaged in discussions about the fate of child soldiers in Chad and South Sudan, where local governments have pledged to release as many as 900 children from conscription by the end of the year. Jo Becker, from Human Rights Watch, has acknowledged that Congo and South Sudan have made previous commitments to release child soldiers that they have never honored.

The UN itself has UN peacekeepers cooperating with governments and militaries that use child soldiers in Congo and Somalia. As one UN official said, "We can't get too high on the moral ground"
(Turtle Bay, October 28th).

Friday, November 19, 2010

TedxMcGill 2010: Relentless Curiosity

I know that it has been a long time since I have posted something on Dear Exile, but I wanted to write something brief today and let everyone know my intentions to write more in the future.

The subject today is my promotion of TEDxMcGill 2010 ( event on November 20 at Marché Bonsecours in the Old Port of Montreal from 1-7pm.

TEDxMcGill 2010's theme is Relentless Curiosity:

"Children have the unstoppable propensity to always be asking "Why?". The world that perceive is constantly new and they are inundated with new ideas, new objects, and new people. Child-like curiosity is at the heart of an enjoyable learning experience. Curiosity, and especially a relentless pursuit guided by curiosity, is also a quality of passionately engaged people. This year, TEDxMcGill aims to share in the energy of that pursuit. We are asking our speakers, our attendees, and our extended community to adopt a relentless curiosity and pursue the answers to the child-like "why". We aim to bring together a community diverse in knowledge, yet unique in their passion for it."

My 10-minute talk will focus on how important a “sense of place” is for children affected by war. I will speak about my work in Chechnya, northern Uganda, and then focus on my most recent work with Palestinian youth, using maps and narrative to illustrate sense of place. I will post the talk here after it is complete. But in the meantime, you can go to the TedxMcGill website to see a live stream of the event.

All of my fellow speakers are quite impressive, and I am honored to be able to present my ideas among such interesting other talks.

For more information regarding the event please see and the following article in the Montreal Gazette: .

Monday, November 15, 2010

People & Place: Social Work & the Environment

I wanted to share an on-line lecture I recently gave entitled People and Place: Social Work and the Environment to my undergraduate Social Work course, "SWRK220: History and Philosophy of Social Work" at McGill University. It examines some of the ways that social work as a profession have conceptualized environment, looks at multi-disciplinary ways that the environment has been conceptualized, and suggests that social workers can engage with the environment in their practice and beyond. Overall, the presentation considers the environment as more than just place, but as a combination of people AND place.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Compassion at Damascus Gate

Today, I left Jerusalem for Amman, where I will be returning to Canada. As I was leaving my hotel to find a taxi to take me to the Jordanian border, I saw a large gathering outside Damascus Gate, one of the largest entrances to the Old City. I asked a bystander what was happening, and he said that the Israeli military had closed the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites for Muslims, after rumors that there was going to be a protest over Israel's actions against the Gaza aid flotilla.

For some Palestinians who come to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, they must wait months, or even years, to get a permit from the Israeli government to visit Jerusalem. There were men pleading with Israeli officers to let them enter to Old City to pray. But the military was steadfast. My initial thought was that a denial of people's right to pray might cause more protests, and defeat Israel's intent to quell a protest. This is yet another example of a Israeli policy that exacerbates the opposite of its stated intent.

I heard later (from Anna Baltzer's blog) that when the call to prayer started, the men got as close to the walls as possible, and started praying, some kneeling in the dirt without prayer mats. Calm overcame the area, as the men (young children and elderly alike) bowed down in unison, praying. When the imam began his sermon, everyone listened intently. Some expected the sermon to address the injustices that the Palestinians were experiencing at the moment, but instead it was about compassion in Islam. The imam asked that their prayers be accepted even though they could not be inside the walls of the mosque. He said, "Someday, we will live in a place where it doesn't matter what color your skin is, or where you're from." And the group answered a collective "Amen."

(Above photo: Anna Baltzer)

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Today, I travelled to Hebron, which, with 160,000 inhabitants, is one of the largest city in the West Bank. What makes Hebron unusual is the presence of 5 settlements and 500 Israeli settlers in the middle of the city center. Israeli army presence here is massive, and Palestinians are unable to cross through settler-occupied areas to reach other parts of town. This has consistently caused violence clashes between settlers and Palestinians, and israeli soldiers are occasionally sent in to evict Israeli settlers who are deemed under Israeli law to be illegally squatting in Palestinian homes and buildings.

Hebron has a rich religious history, which is linked to its recent violent history. In Islamic tradition, Adam and Eve lived here after being exiled form the Garden of Eden, while the presence of the Tomb of the Patriarchs - the collective tomb of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, along with their wives - makes it sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Although instead of promoting like-minded links between the major monotheistic religions, this has made Hebron a flashpoint for religious violence, most famously culminating in the Baruch Goldstein massacre.

In 1994, during Ramadan, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli settler from Kiryat Arba in Hebron, opened fire on Palestinians praying in the Haram al-Ibrahimi Mosque, killing 29 men and boys in the back and wounding 150-200 others. After this incident, tensions between the Palestinians and the settlers grew, and the
city was divided into H1 (80% of the municipality of Hebron, under Palesti
nian control) and H2 (20%, which is under Israeli control). The 40,000 Palestinians living in H2 face daily harassment from the Israeli army and settlers. The open-air markets have been covered with netting, to catch the detritus and rubbish that the settlers throw down from the upper floors (see photo to the right). International human rights organizations keep 'observer' groups in town Voluntary teams (such as the Christian Peacemakers Team, who I interviewed) escort Palestinian children to school to protect them from settlers throwing rocks and verbally harassing them. Palestinian violence against settlers, too, has sometimes flared up.

When I was walking through the semi-abandoned market, there were Israeli soldiers on every rooftop, following my every move. I would often turn a corner and be face-to-face with 5 or 6 soldiers in full combat gear with the guns facing me. Unlike all of the other Palestinian markets that I have visited - Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, East Jerusalem - children were conspicuously absent from the city streets. At one point when I looked up through the netting and wires and eclipsed the blue sky above, I saw some children poking the heads outside of a window covered with bars. I waved at them, and they laughed and waved at me. In another area of the Old City, where I was told the poultry market once used to be bustling with commerce,

there were four young boys tending to cages filled with pigeons. They saw my camera, rushed over, and asked for an impromptu photo shoot. I obliged, as they became giddy each time they were able to see themselves reflected in the digital photo.

In H2, I saw anti-Palestinian graffiti, such as "Gas the Arabs" written on the doors of a Palestinian home. The morning of my visit, a settler drove to the entrance of the Arroub refugee camp and shot two Palestinian teenagers, accusing them of throwing stones. As
I write this, the boys in critical condition in the hospital (see the news story here). To quote a 2004 report by The Alternative Information Centre's Occupation in Hebron, "Israel's settlement policy, which supports the presence of radical Jewish fundamentalists with a strong anti-Arab ideology in the middle of a Palestinian city, is the proximate reason for the high level of violence in Hebron."

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

West Bank Settlements

Today, I visited some of the Israeli settlements around the West Bank. Israeli Jewish colonies set up in the Palestinian Territories are most often referred to as "settlements", although this is seen as a somewhat derogatory term to settlers and Israelis, mainly because there is so much politics tied to the term. According to the CIA World Factbook, some 187,000 Israeli settlers currently live in more than 100 such settlements in the West Bank, with around another 177,000 in the area of Arab East Jerusalem.

The World Court and UN Security Council both condemn settlement building as illegal under international law, a ruling that Israel disputes; the United States and the European Union have commonly deemed settlements an obstacle to peace and have urged Israel to stop further building. In May 2009, President Barack Obama demanded a freeze
of settlement construction in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by saying, "Israel...will abide by its commitments not to build new settlements and to dismantle unauthorized outposts." Reports of continued settlement construction and expansion, however, have appeared in the international press. My trip to visit the settlements has also confirmed that there has not been a freeze to settlement construction. (See the picture to the right of Ariel settlement, where there is active construction on the expansion of the University). Netanyahu has stated, on several occasions, that settlement construction and expansion is part of the "natural growth" of the Israeli population. But it seems that settlement construction is designed to annexe large parts of the Palestinian Territories, thereby marginalizing and fragmenting the Palestinian population.

Settlements range in size from a collection of caravans on a remote hilltop to large urban areas, such as Ma'ale Adumim near Jerusalem, home to tens of thousands of Israelis and now considered by most Israelis to be a suburb of Jerusalem. I visited the settlement of Rahelim, near Nablus, and the settler who spoke with me gave me a short tour of the compound, which included the construction of a new preschool, funded by an American organization. I visited the large settlement of Ariel, which includes a university campus and 25,000 settlers. The settlement of Alfe Menache, which is a few miles from the Green Line, is considered a "moderate" settlement, with the residents hoping that they will one day be absorbed by the Green Line (as it moves closer in towards the West Bank) and become part of Israel.

The settlers in all of these communities have moved to the West Bank for both ideological (they believe the land belongs to them as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy) or economic reasons (the rent is cheap). Most of the people that I interviewed expressed an enormous amount of apathy for the occupation and the plight of the Palestinians ("Are we in the territories? I didn't even
notice!"). None had visited a Palestinian village, and most considered the land that they settled on to be just another part of Israel ("This land didn't belong to anyone when we arrived.").

Palestinians claim that the settlements illegally occupy land belonging to Palestinians, and that they frequently divert precious water resources from nearby Palestinian cities, towns and villages. Many roads threading their way through the West Bank as access roads to settlements off-limits to Palestinians, who commonly refer to these as "apartheid roads". Security around these roads and settlements means that Palestinians are frequently required to perform lengthy diversions to get to work, school, or elsewhere. There are numerous reports of harassment of Palestinians by settlers. As I drove along the road running south of Mount Gerizim, I saw some fields burning and a lot of Israeli military on the road. When I read the news later, I saw that the settlers living in the settlement of Yizhar had set fire to the olive and almond groves of the Palestinian fields of the neighboring Palestinian village, Urif, burning over 100 dunums (about 24 acres). See the news story here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Qalqilya is located along the 1949 Green Line and less and 20K from the Mediterranean Sea. However, like most Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories, its residents are denied access to the sea. It is an enclave or ghetto with over 44,000 residents, completely encircled by the separation barrier, disguised from the Israeli-side by a huge earth-bank, and in desperate economic circumstances. Unemployment runs at 60-70% and most families survive on foreign food aid. Closure means that men cannot work outside Qalqilya. Since 2002, in addition to curfews, economic stranglehold, and the change in landscape from the Ariel settlement bloc, thousands of hectares of prime farm and urban land have been confiscated and destroyed for construction of the separation wall and even more recently the creation of the seam zone between the Green Line and the separation barrier, in favour of new settlement expansion. The separation barrier that surrounds Qalqilya is slowly strangling the community, as there is no room to grow, as all cities must do to survive. The only entry and exit point - the checkpoint for Palestinian workers to move in and out of Israel - is tightly controlled by the Israeli military [see the photo below].

Qalqilya was the first town to vote Hamas into power during the local elections, which might explain (but not justify) Israel's heavy-handed treatment of the town. My guide told me that when he would often take a group of tourists to the top of a local school to get a better view of the separation barrier, and its impact on the town. He was informed by the Israeli military that if he continued to show people the view of the separation barrier from the school that they would destroy the school. This is an example of collective punishment of the whole community.

Monday, May 31, 2010


Today, I discovered other social issues that exist in the society in addition to the occupation and conflict. I visited the Arab Women's Union Society, which runs an orphanage for girls (ages 6-20). Many of the girls are not only orphans, but have been further stigmatized because their mothers were executed for being collaborators with Israel. Having a parent who was killed for being a collaborator with Israel is a serious stigma. But their mothers were not willing collaborators. Most likely, these women become involved in affairs with men before or outside of marriage, which is a serious offense in Muslim society. Israel uses evidence against them (e.g., photos or video) to blackmail them into giving them information about the community. The woman often feels as if she has no choice: she can be shamed in front of the Muslim community or give information to Israel. Either way, she will suffer and her children as well. The children of these women are shunned forever, and many of them were living in this orphanage. They were very sweet young women, who gave me lunch (watching my every bite), and then taking me to their common room for an "American" dance party.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


Today, I visited Bethlehem, where I met with local organizations working with children. I took this opportunity to walk to Aida refugee camp. Aida camp, plagued for years by Israeli military restrictions, curfews, and incursions, is in the shadow of the separation barrier, and words and drawings of protest mark its 9-meter-high concrete walls. [See the photo of the separation barrier that runs through Aida refugee camp.] The area that I was walking through was a once vibrant neighborhood, but had been devastated to accommodate the barrier and an expanding Israeli military base, with homes and businesses confiscated. When I checked the news that evening, I read that Aida camp had been without water for two days.

Friday, May 28, 2010

South Hebron Hills

Today, I toured the South Hebron Hills with a former Israeli soldier, Avichai, from an organization called Breaking the Silence, which aims to share what it is like to serve as a solider with the Israeli army. According to Avichai and Breaking the Silence, "The South Hebron Hills are situated far away form the inquiring eyes of Israeli society. They are almost completely ignored by the media and in public discourse. This large region and the many Palestinians who live there are forgotten in the conversations conducted about the future of the conflict. We, soldiers who served in the South Hebron Hills, have been witness to the consequences of this callous disregard. It's our duty to inform Israeli society about what happens in the Territories in its name, and hold a mirror that reflects the price of our presence in the Territories."

Much of the area of the South Hebron Hills has been confiscated illegally by the Israeli government and illegally by Israeli settlers to build the growing settlements of Carmel, Ma'on, and Otniel. Avichai told me about his training, which carried an overtone of treating all Palestinians as potential "terrorists", even if they had not committed any offense. He also said that his main job was to protect the settlers, even though they are living illegally on Palestinian land. Avichai introduced me to Yassir, a Palestinian resident of the village Susiya, who told the story of his village (consisting of tents and small caves) being destroyed by the settlers during the heat of July one year. The Red Crescent Society came and provided them with more tents, which were only large enough

for the children to stay in. But the Israeli civil administrators came and confiscated the tents saying they were illegal. When the villagers sought shelter in the shade of the olive trees, the military came and chopped down their olive trees. When they went to stay with the shepherds and their herd, the military came and blared their sirens so the herd would scatter in fear. I was moved to tears when he said, "We have only tents and caves - they are nothing - and they want to destroy it all." [See the photo of Yassir's home consisting of tents, with the Israeli settlement - red-roofed homes - in the distance behind it.] Unfortunately, stories like this are not uncommon.

We drove past the Palestinian town of Yatta, which has 40,000 inhabitants. Although agriculture used to be the village's mainstay, only a small fraction of its working population now works on the land. Yatta's land has been regularly confiscated from the town to build the settlements of Carmel, Ma'on, Otniel, and others. The majority of workers would daily cross the Green Line (5 kilometers away), often illegally, depending for their living on jobs in israeli industry and agriculture in the north of the Negev; these days the closures, checkpoints and absence of freedom of movement have hit this area badly.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Today, I also visited the village of Sebastia, about 15K from Nablus, on the road to Jenin. My guide, Hassanein, told me the following story: "Archaeological evidence proves the site was Chalcolithic Period. In the 12th century BC, a small city grew up which acquired its economic and political power in the 9th century BC, when it became the capital of the Kingdom of Israel (or Samaria). King Omri, sixth king of the kingdom, elevated Samaria to his capital, open to the estern mediterranean cultural sphere. The influence of the Phoenician cities made itself felt in all aspects of life: material, culture, commerce, and religion. Threatened by the rise of Assyria, King Omri cemented an alliance by marrying his son Ahab to Jezabel, a princess from the powerful Phoenician city of Tyre. Ahab erected a temple to her gods, Baal and Astarte, in the city, thus infuriating the Judaeans who condemned this act as the work of an infidel. They looked upon the Assyrian conquest by the troops of Sargon II of the Kingdom of Israel in 721 BC as a divine punishment. The city regained its status as a provincial capital during the Persian period. In 331 BC, Alexander the Great made it a Greek settlement; the city was under Hellenistic cultural influence until its destruction by John Hyrcanus in 108 BC. Herod, the right-hand man in palestine of the Roman Empire, rebuilt the city on the model of the Greek polis, or city. He renamed it Sebaste (Augustus the Greek), in honor of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus (27BC - 14AD). In the second century AD, Emperor Septimus Severus conferred on Sebaste city status with all the pertaining

privileges. As the popularity of Christianity grew in the 4th century, this former center of Graeco-Roman paganism went into permanent decline."

I was especially interested in the recent history of Sebastia. Currently, the site of the ruins in considered Area C, which means it's under full Israeli occupation, and the town is considered Area B, which means its under Palestinian civil control and Israeli military control. (In contrast, Nablus is an Area A, under full Palestinian civil and military control, with no Israeli allowed to enter.) It seems like Israel has complete control of all of these historical sites around Palestine, which is where a lot of tourists come. The owner of the Palestinian cafe, where we had lunch, said that he wants to expand his business (put a roof on the cafe, and create wash rooms) but he is not allowed, because his cafe is in Area C. Another interesting thing is that the ruins (and the towns) are covered with graffiti, much of which expresses anger against the occupation. For example, in the Byzantine Church of St. John, where John the Baptist's head is supposedly buried, there are many blue Stars of David spray-painted on the ancient stones on the ground. These were painted on the ground by Palestinians to symbolize "stepping on" the State of Israel. In the Old City, there are Stars of David on almost every corner, some with a line through it, others as a part of an anti-occupation sentiment in Arabic, and others supporting the DFLP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine). Some of the translations I have made read: "Together we get freedom," and "Those believers who feel God in their hearts, keep our promise with him and say the right thing."

The Samaritan Community

I visited the Samaritan village on the top of Mount Gezerim, guided by Husne Kahim (pictured below), the Samaritan's high priest and 163rd descendent of Adam (and he has the framed family tree to prove it). Nablus is the home to one of the world's last Samaritan communities. Samaritans are one of the world's smallest communities, numbering about 725 people (as compared to 146 in 1917). At it's peak, the Samaritans numbered over a million followers in the fifth and fourth centuries BC.

Their religious observances cement cohesion of the community and are strictly defined, with no tolerance for breaches. Women are particularly affected by laws to ensure their purity; they are not permitted to participate in any ordinary activity for seven days during their menstrual cycle or after their have give birth (40 days if the baby is a boy and 80 days if the baby is a girl).

They hold three passports: Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian. Samaritans believe that Mount Gezerim was not only the first piece of land ever created, but it was also the land out of which Adam was made, the only place spared in the great flood and the place where Abraham went to sacrifice his son (opposing the common belief that this took place in Jerusalem). Their small population, coupled with their refusal to accept converts, has caused a history of genetic disease. A Samaritan male may do so on the condition that his future wife convert and submit to a six-month trial period under the direction and supervision of a priest who decides in the end if the marriage may take place. The Samaritan High Priest said this process has been been done with 25 Jewish, 3 Muslim and 5 Christian women. However, there are few non-Samaritan women who want to live segregated on top of a mountain in the middle of Palestine.

Today, the Samaritians live in both Nablus and Holon, a suburb of Jaffa-Tel Aviv. They are both Palestinians and Israelites, they speak Arabic, but pray in ancient Hebrew. Aside from their religious traditions, Samaritans have the same secular traditions as Palestinian Arabs. Although the israeli occupation has granted them special status, Samaritans have remained attached to their Palestinian identities and institutions. There is a seat automatically reserved for them on the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Youth Theatre at Balata Refugee Camp

I have been spending time in the Balata refuge camp, thinking that this might be someplace where I will focus my research. Today, I was invited to observe a youth theatre group at the Youth Centre, which was full of extremely energetic adolescents, who were physically incapable of stillness. They had 15 minutes to prepare a short performance about a problem facing the camp, coming up with the script, dialogue, and props themselves. They closed the curtains and spent the whole time in a frantic racket preparing, while every few minutes one of them would poke his or head out of the curtain with a big smile and a wave. The performance was an extremely violent depiction of IDF soldiers opening fire on a school. There was much shooting, tear gas, death, and destruction as the children acted out the lengthy skit. The audience - consisting of the group moderator, his humourless partner, and me - all had our gaping mouths covered with our hands, trying to hide our discomfort and deciding how best to discuss this

with the children after. After a debriefing with the children, they decided to perform a reprisal in which the soldiers were much less violent, and instead formed a barrier of interlinking arms across the stage not allowing the other children to pass from one side to another. This reiteration illustrated the current occupation in a very poignant way, as mobility is greatly restricted; however, the first performance was not forgotten.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Martyrdom in Palestinian Society

All Palestinians who die for the national cause are honoured as martyrs (shuhada) regardless of their religion. They often receive a picture posted in town honoring them, as well as a gravestone in the cemetery. This means that whether an individual has died as a civilian bystander or as a combatant, they are considered to be a martyr. The word Shahid (martyr) means "witness". Martyrs are thought to receive a two-fold reward: national dignity and spiritual recognition. Contrary to the some depictions of martyrdom, individuals are not encouraged to be martyrs. However, because of the rituals of comfort after the death of a martyr, there is an assumption that martyrdom is encouraged. As one mother I interviewed said, "Do you think that there is a mother who would want to lose her child? And by throwing this stone, there will be freedom and liberation? But what happens is when someone dies, to make her feel better, everyone says that he is a hero, and so I am not sad."Every mourner keeps this comforting verse from the Koran in mind: "All who obey God and he apostle are in the company of those on whom is the Grace of God, of the Prophets, the lovers of Truth, the Witnesses, and the righteous: Ah! What a beautiful fellowship!" (An-Nisa, 69). The bodies of martyrs are neither washed nor changed, thus keeping intact the marks of honour. Their funerals override the family ceremony. The entire population, men and women, accompany the body of the martyr, holding flags and chanting words heavy with emotion that call for the continuation of the struggle: "Al-Shahid habib Allah" (The martyr is beloved by God) and "Allah Akbar" (God is mightiest).

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Jacob's Well

Israel and the Occupied Palestinian territories host three great monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. On my visit to Jacob's Well, near Balata, I found a major Christian site, tended by a kindly Muslim man, Mohammed (and assisted by his 4-year-old grandson). Jacob's Well is the place where Christian's believe a Samaritan woman offered Jesus a drink of water, and he then revealed to her that he was the Messiah, which he didn't do that often. This is reflected in the parable: "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst" (John 4:13-14). A Byzantine church destroyed in the Samaritan revolt of 529 was replaced by a Crusader church, which is currently being restored single-handedly by a kindly old, gnome-like Byzantine priest. In 1979, a group of Jewish settlers claiming biblical ownership of the spot tried to occupy it. The monk tending the site was murdered, with an axe, but the settlers did not succeed in their endeavor. The current priest (pictured above) has had various attempts on his life from the settlers, while he has defended the site.

Hopelessness and Hope in Nablus

Many Palestinian adults express a palpable hopelessness that is heartbreaking. When I asked one successful administrator from An Najah University what he thought about a solution to the conflict, he told me, "There is no solution. There is no future. There is only the present. That's why I won't get married. I don't want my children to live in this." Since I have arrived the city has been in a constant state of reconstruction and improvement, rebuilding damaged buildings and the sprouting of new commerce. When I expressed my amazement to some residents of Nablus about the growth of the city, so soon after hostilities have died down, they said that people are trying to rebuild as quickly as possible before another rise in conflict begins. However, I think of all of the investment in children's programs as hope for the future. The West Bank has a great number of programs just for children and youth, which proves that there is some hope for the future, despite the persistent hopelessness felt by many adults.

Balata Refugee Camp

Today, I visited Balata Refugee camp, which is the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, home to 25,000 refugees, some who have been there since it was created in 1953. With 75% of Balata's refugee population under 18-years-old, there are numerous programs for children and youth.

In Witness in Palestine, Anna Baltzer writes: "Balata sees more violence and incursions than most other places in Palestine, which is evident as you walk through the camp. There are bullet holes in every house, school, and store. The children are tougher than those in other Palestinian communities, and their parents are more suspicious. But the barrier is easily broken with a little Arabic and indication of solidarity" (p.47).

Their resilience is illustrated in the colorful graffitti marking the concrete walls around the camp: "Boycott Israel, Free Palestine," and "Love Palestine, Hate Racism, 1 People, 1 World!" The alleys between the UN-constructed 4-story buildings were tiny – just a few feet across, windows into dark rooms facing each other, so everything said in one house is heard in the next.

Naqba Photo Exhibit in Nablus

Nablus hosted a photo exhibit to com- memorate 62 years since Al-Naqba, or "The Catastro- phe". After a variety of partition plans, even proposals to transfer the Palestinian Arab population, on November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly approved a partition plan - Resolution 181. Although Jewish people owned 6.5% of Palestinian land in private or collective property holdings, the Jewish state was awarded 56.5% of the territory of Palestine, and the Arab state was awarded 42.9% in the UN partition plan. Thus began the Arab-Israeli war, which brought independence for Israel and "catastrophe' for Palestinians. At the start of the 1948 war, 940,000 Palestinians lived in what was to become Israel. By the end of the war, 150,000 Palestinians remained in areas under Israeli control. Though israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion frequently said, "Israel did not expel a single Arab," it is clear that many were forced to leave by Israeli military units.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Al-Naqba Anniversary in Nablus

I am now in beautiful Nablus, nestled between Mount Ebal to the north and Mount Gerizim to the south. Today, Friday, is a day of rest, so I spent the day catching up on reading and writing. Walking the empty streets, I notice relics of the city's violent past: some windows punctured with bullets and streets lined with peeling posters of Palestinian martyrs. Contrary to the Western media's depiction, every person killed in the conflict (whether a combatant or a civilian) receives a tribute poster. Nablus was the focus of repeated Israeli incursions during the second Intifada (meaning "shaking off"), when Israeli planes, tanks, and bulldozers targeted the city, killing dozens of civilians and damaging or destroying about 700 buildings. In fact, today is Yom Ha'Atzmaut (Independence Day in Israel) or Al-Naqba ("The Catastrophe" in Palestine), and to remind the city's inhabitants, the Israeli military flew several planes over the city in the morning, breaking the sound barrier. I can see the Israeli army has set up posts in the mountains surrounding the city, and often Palestinians in Nablus will tell me that they always feel as if "we being watched by Israel". During my first evening here, a gentleman sent a plate of fruit to my dinner table and introduced himself as Professor Sa'ed Jamal Abu Hijleh, a Palestinian poet/human geographer/political science professor/radio host/bogger. I don't usually accept fruit from strangers, but I trusted my instincts, and Sa'ed has become a great resource here in Nablus. Despite his exuberant activism, Professor Sa'ed Jamal Abu Hiljeh became extremely emotional when he started to tell me when his mother was killed by Israeli soldiers. In 2002, the 61-year-old grandmother was sitting on her front porch embroidering, when Israeli soldiers opened fire upon them killing her and injuring her husband. There is a memorial website for her here.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Amman to Nablus via the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge Border Crossing

Amman is only about 200k from Nablus, but, due to the numerous checkpoints and security features installed by Israel, it me took over 9 hours to get here. I catalogued my border crossing, entering Israel from Jordan via the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge border crossing:

- Drive 100K from Amman to Jordan-Israel border (1 hour)
- Taxi drop off on Jordan side of the border
- Walk about 2K (with luggage) to bus depot
- Give luggage to Jordanian official to be X-rayed; retrieve luggage
- Give passport to Israeli official
- Pay 5JD ($7.50); get on bus
- Get passport with Jordanian exit stamp
- Depart on bus; drive about 5K through the Jordan Valley, passing through several military checkpoints (30 minutes)
- Get off bus at Allenby Bridge Crossing; walk past fierce-looking man dressed in jeans and T-shirt, carrying large semi-automatic weapon
- Give luggage and passport to Israeli official
- Wait in line to get passport back
- Wait in line to get passport checked
- Wait in line to get personal belongings X-rayed
- Walk through metal detector
- Wait in line for passport control; answer questions; forfeit passport
- Fill out personal information form; wait in passenger waiting area (2 hours)
- Meet with Israeli official; answer more questions (15 minutes)
- Wait in passenger waiting area (1 hour)
- Meet with Israeli military officer; answer more questions (15 minutes)
- Wait in passenger waiting area (1 hour)
- Get called by Israeli official to retrieve passport; exit passenger waiting area
- Give passport to Israeli official; get another sticker on passport
- Retrieve luggage
- Exit Allenby Bridge Crossing Point

I took a bus from the border to Jericho (the world's oldest continuously inhabited city, settled 10,000 years ago) and then took a shared taxi through Ramallah and onwards to Nablus. The driver, (a surly young man who got into a fight with an elderly passenger and then a Palestinian Authority official), took a circuitous route to avoid the military checkpoints, so the journey took twice as long. But the drive was fascinating. Rising from Jericho into the hills, I could see one of the West Bank's largest and most contentious Israeli settlements, Ma'ale Adumim, which sprawls atop the hills slipping eastwards down from Jerusalem. It achieved official Israeli city status in 1991, and is home to over 30,000 settlers who live there illegally (according to international bodies) on Palestinian land. Palestinians claim that Israel's plan for Ma'ale Adumim's continual expansion is to ensure an 'outer ring' of Israeli settlements that will have the effect of isolating East Jerusalem from Jericho, and eventually the north West Bank form the south, cutting the entire West Bank in half.

On the short drive to Nablus, I didn't expect to see so many settlements, and I tried to write down as many names as I could (while losing a battle of window roll-up/roll-down with my driver): Rimmonim, Ma'ele Efrayim, Qusra, Migdallim, and Gav Hahar. They rose up like green oases - with maroon-tiled houses in the middle - amidst the hilly desert landscape. There are 187,000 Israeli settlers currently living in more than 100 settlements in the West Bank, with around another 177,000 in Palestinian East Jerusalem. One of the issues that I would like to explore more is the issue of settler violence, as there have been reports of settlers attacking Palestinian children on their way to school and destroying families livelihoods (e.g., farms and olive groves), which obviously has short- and long-term impacts on children and families. In fact, last week, Israeli settlers were accused of burning down a mosque in Luban al Sharqiya, near Nablus.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Street Kids in Amman

I have arrived in Amman, before heading into the West Bank to begin some preliminary research. When I was touristing around, I sat down under a park bench to relax and regroup. I was instantly seized upon by about 6 young street kids, none of whom spoke English. We tried communicating in mime and using my Lonely Planet glossary. One of them brought me a Pepsi, which became the only word we could communicate to each other. (And wouldn't Pepsi just LOVE that!) When I offered to pay for the Pepsi, they refused the money. I asked (in Arabic) where the Citadel was, and they pointed in the direction of a large hill. I took off, only to feel the presence of someone following me. Hakim and Ibrahim (two of the kids) decided to accompany me to make sure I got there OK. They shuttled me through side streets, alleys, and markets pointing out things on the streets and telling me their arabic names (fish=maki...I think). When we got to the tourist depot, I again offered money for their time, and they shrugged me off. I think that they would have gone all the way to the top of the Citidel with me, but they knew how steep it was, how hot it was, and how uncomfortable it was going to be. They were smart to avoid the near sunstroke I had when I reached the top. I was happy for SPF70 sunblock and conservative Islamic rules mandating that I cover most of my body, or else I would have been covered in sunburn.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Methods of Policy Analysis

Dror (1984) calls policymaking “a very presumptuous activity” (p.13). Though the same might be said about research. In comparing the two activities, Edwards (2005) describes the “uneasy relationship” between research and policymaking. Whereas policymakers believe that research doesn’t concern itself with issues that are relevant to the lived realities of the studied populations and is often “driven by ideology” masked as intellectual inquiry, researchers believe that there is a lack of government interest in research and that there are roadblocks put in place by policymakers to make research more difficult to carry out. Furthermore, Edwards describes a general anti-intellectualism embraced by policymakers, in that they are wary about critical analysis because it could make certain policies embarrassing or irrelevant. Similarly, researchers note that there is a lack of incentives for researchers to create policy-relevant research. To Edwards (2005), all of this bickering illustrates two distinct cultures, but more significantly, two distinct ways of communicating.

Stone (as cited in Edwards, 2005) outlines twelve perspectives that encompass the many reasons that there is a gap between research and policy. Though all of Stone’s supply side, demand side, and socio-cultural factors are insightful and accurate, the ones that I see as being the most striking are:

  • Comprehension: Researchers don’t understand what the policy process is and how research fits into the policy process.
  • Communication: Researchers don’t have the adequate tools to convey messages about their research to policymakers.
  • Anti-intellectualism in government: Government ideology is driven by an inherent distrust in using pure science to base policy decisions.
  • Politicization of research: Researchers and policymakers are not viewed as being objective, but rather present information and/or make decisions based on ideology.

Dror’s (1984) concept of “fuzzy gambling” challenges some of these above factors, with policymaking being a process of unknowable, and constantly changing “rules of the game” (p.15). There is an assumption that research is a yes/no or true/false process. But, Dror (1984) suggests that it is more of a “multi-valued” logic. By viewing research and policymaking through this lens, research and policymaking become more open to dialogue between one another, because they understand that it’s not an all-or-nothing process.

Building upon the policy gambling perspective, Dror (1984) suggests that policy scientists broaden their methodologies, including methodologies “capable of handling irreducible uncertainty, including qualitative uncertainty with inability to specify qualitatively main alternative possible futures” (p.16). Social workers work with qualitative data all the time, in listening to clients’ situations and when conveying these situations through advocacy efforts in attempts to persuade colleagues and government bodies. Edwards (2005) mentions a valuable qualitative methodology, which bridges research and policy: the case study. Edwards notes: “To determine more systematically what works when, there and how, ideally calls for case studies designed to illustrate the diverse ways in which research can connect to policy” (p. 71). Qualitative research methods are an important addition to the policymakers’ toolbox, for they can persuade and convince in a way that quantitative data alone cannot. For example, the United Nation’s Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children in Armed Conflict has been consistently monitoring the six grave violations (killing and maiming of children; recruitment and use of child soldiers; rape and other forms of sexual violence against children; abduction of children; attacks against schools and hospitals; denial of humanitarian access to children) against children during armed conflict. In the gathering of evidence, the UN has solely relied upon qualitative data, which has made quite an impact on the depth of the problem. Nevertheless, the scope of the problem has yet to be understood, and therefore, efforts are being made to supplement the qualitative data with quantitative methods, both of which provide breadth and depth.

Perhaps the divide between research and policy is not so dichotomous. Aren’t researchers always asking themselves, How can our work be relevant and useful? Or is this an idealistic or naïve perspective of research? As a humanist science, social work researchers should be constantly thinking about their work’s impact on practice and policy. For example, I worked as the program manager for the Care and Protection of Children in Crisis-Affected Countries (CPC) Initiative (, which sought to create a global network of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to collaborate on research projects to develop new methodologies for child protection in crisis-affected settings. This culminated in the Child Protection Action Summit, which gathered these figures for a four-day meeting to discuss ways that international child protection research could be relevant to policy, and vice versa. Edwards (2005) notes that even though the literature may suggest that if researchers and policymakers work closely together then there should be good policy outcomes, this might not be true in all circumstances, because there are multiple factors at play. For what didn’t work with CPC was what Edwards noted was most important for the success of bridging the divide. She notes: “The degree to which research influences policy often depends on individuals building relationships of mutual trust and respect, rather than on an ongoing and sustained discourse between governments and researchers” (p.73). CPC conducted the Child Protection Summit, holding conversations with the goal of creating common research priorities. However, over one year later, these conversations are no longer taking place. Meetings are currently happening with researchers and practitioners determining the research agenda, with policymakers at the receiving line of research several years after the major decisions have been made. Why can’t we include policymakers in the “ongoing and sustained discourse”, starting from the research proposal and moving forward? We know that it shouldn’t be such a dichotomy, but rather a partnership. Nevertheless, we still don’t know how to effectively bridge the divide for effective partnerships between research and policy.


Dror, Y. (1984). Perspectives on public policy: On becoming more of a policy scientist. Policy Studies Review, 4(1), 13-21.

Edwards, M. (2005). Social science research and public policy: Narrowing the divide. Australian Journal of Public Administration, 64(1), 68-74.