Seven Palestinian women traveled to five cities across the United States this fall on a three-week cultural exchange trip sponsored by the U.S. State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program. Among the women's greatest surprises was their ease of movement.
This movement wasn't about cars and planes or freeways and roads. It was about their not having to go through checkpoints.
Living in a place where people are deemed dangerous brings with it few rewards. As Palestinians the women must endure life in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which now has an imposing 25-foot high concrete "separation wall."
Construction of the wall began in 2002. Its 700 kilometers (1,126.5 miles) snake through the Israeli and the Palestinian territories and come complete with razor-wire fences, trenches and watchtowers. In some places the wall literally surrounds a village, like a prison, or cuts the village in two, thus making access a hardship and a burden.
Palestinians must go through countless checkpoints to get from place to place. They must carry identification and endure unfriendly Israeli soldiers who manage the checkpoints, said Reem Saleh, project coordinator for the Ministry of Culture and one of the seven visitors.
"Children can't get to school without delays at the checkpoints and that makes getting an education stressful and confusing," said Abeer Shihabi, division head in the Ministry of Education. "It takes some children 50 minutes to get to school when it used to take only eight minutes. Others begin a two-hour journey starting at 5 a.m. Each trip is dangerous and uncertain. Of course, they are searched at the checkpoints and the gates are not open at predictable or regular hours."
People fear the soldiers at the checkpoints, said Shihabi. Searches are often humiliating. Some women have waited so long at the checkpoints that they've delivered their babies.
Access to machinery, water and food markets is also a problem, especially for those who live in rural villages and farms, she said. Families can't see each other as often. For those who lose their jobs, they must rely on their relatives to give them a home or resources that they can't get themselves.
According to the United Nations, over 680,000 people, one third of the West Bank population, are affected by the wall. The World Court has called the wall a gross violation of international law and basic human rights.
"The wall's purpose is to annex lands of the Palestinians," said Nisreen Al-taher, a computer programmer and administrator for the Ministry of National Economy. And the Israeli occupation has also severely limited Palestinians' ability to participate in the global marketplace.
The Palestinian economy is deeply in debt and it shows no signs of a turn around, said Rola Abweh, division head of the Ministry of Finance. Unemployment is at 63 percent and there are no business or development opportunities because the business climate is too risky to attract those willing to invest.
The New York Times reported recently that 85 percent of factories in the Palestinian territories are shut or operating at less than 20 percent capacity.
Only 13 percent of Palestinian women are employed and nine percent are the sole breadwinners of their families, said Fatimah Botmeh, director of training and technical assistance for the Ministry of Women's Affairs.
The stress of the economic situation impacts Palestinian women considerably, she said. When they are widowed or their husbands are imprisoned, they are pressed to make a living for their families in addition to continuing their household responsibilities. The uncertainty of their situation leads to emotional and health problems. Then there is no government (rather it is called the Palestinian Authority) and no police, army or social services organization to assist them.
The World Bank estimates that 75 percent of the Palestinians live on less than $2 a day and so the people rely on outside sources to live.
People from all over the world sympathetic to the Palestinians are donating computers, sewing machines and other equipment. Because girls have the most difficulty in obtaining an education due to safety concerns, some charity groups take Palestinian girls from their villages and bring them to schools elsewhere so that can be educated and then return home to establish businesses in their community, said Botmeh.
The European Union maintains several towns with monetary and material aid and several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) help out as well. U.S. government aid to the Palestinians is minimal.
Hiba Abu Zayyad, a researcher in the Central Public Health Laboratory, said that the Japanese, Norwegians, Italians have especially pitched in to supply equipment and pharmaceuticals as well as food and water. However, the hospital buildings themselves are falling apart and access to advanced equipment remains elusive.
People in rural areas suffer the most, she said. Delays in mail delivery affect the reliability of their pathology tests. Sample kits often arrive just before the expiration date and are useless.
Gaza is isolated from the rest of the Palestinian territories and people live there without water, electricity or proper sanitation. It is a place ripe for disease and no one can do anything about it said Zayyad.
About 4.6 million Palestinian refugees live in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Only 3.7 million of them receive assistance from the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA). However, this funding has been cut and may be stopped because it is believed that the money is funding terrorists groups.
Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of the New York-based American Center for Democracy and an expert on international terrorism, reported in September 2003 that the (UNRWA) distributed $521.7 million to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2002. However, the PA was staffed by Hamas who, she said, undoubtedly used the money for terrorist activities. Ehrenfeld also claimed that while Palestinian Arab refugees constitute only 17 percent of world's refugees, they receive more than one third of the annual refugee funds allocated by the UNRWA.
The Palestinian refugee problem was created during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence where between 520,000 and 800,000 refugees lost their homes and lands to Israel, according to the MidEast Web Gateway. There are even conflicting stories about what happened. The Israelis say the Palestinians attacked them and then fled voluntarily. The Palestinians believe that the Zionists suddenly attacked them, grabbed their lands and evicted them by force.
After the 1967 Six Day War several hundred thousand more refugees fled and were not allowed to return to their homes. Israel has consistently viewed the refugees as hostile, belligerent aggressors. The Palestinians, led by Yasser Arafat, denied Israel's right to exist (until 1988 when he accepted UN Security Council Resolution 242).
"It is the Arab-Israeli conflict that is the issue causing the problems on the West Bank," said Nabila Rizk, director of Evaluation at the Ministry of Women's Affairs. "If we solved that problem, the whole issue of the Middle East would be solved."
"It's not easy being Palestinian," said Rizk. "The United States, the leader of the free world, is usually biased toward the Israelis even though Palestinians are suffering the most from being killed and arrested by the occupying Israel army. Our homes are destroyed and our olive trees (a source of income as well as a symbol of life in that region) are cut down. Then the media criminalizes the Palestinians."
"Americans are used to seeing Jews as a civilized and good people rather than the Arabs and Muslims," said Rizk. "The Israelis come from all over the world [because of the Jewish diaspora] and they are used to dealing with everybody. They also make use of the Holocaust to gather sympathy for their cause [to establish and maintain an Israel state]."
As difficult as the situation is for the Palestinians, the seven Palestinian women expressed their great hope that all will things will turn out well-and they refuse to feel like victims.
Palestinians are "hanging on" said Botmeh, "because we believe that someday we will live in peace as a free and independent state."
"We need to work more to give absolute justice to our case," said Zayyad. "If we did not have this horrible situation to deal with, we would not be as strong as we are." She cites a Palestinian proverb that translates to: A hit that doesn't kill me just makes me stronger.
"It's in our blood to survive," said Zayyad.
The women agreed that just being in the United States to tell about their predicament is a good sign. After all, the U.S. State Department supported their trip.
"We are going to live. We are not giving up on life," said Botmeh. "As long as we are living, we will do our best to advance our cause. We do all of this for our children. We have hope for them and their future."
"We are born free," she said. "When you believe in a cause, you always feel strong and have to defend it. That is automatic."
As professional women, Botmeh believes that she and her colleagues are in positions where they can affect change.
(During their three-week tour of the United States, the seven Palestinian women visited Tampa, FL; Washington, D.C.; New York City, Reno, NV; and Kalamazoo, MI. The women were guests of Colleagues International in Kalamazoo, where this report originated.)
Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.