Today in Bethlehem and all over Palestine, young people got the scores of their tawjihi exams, which are the exit exams that every student here takes at the end of high school. From the time I was eating breakfast at 7:45 in the morning with Zoughbi and John, people were setting off fireworks outside. This is a custom at any celebration, and fireworks are often set off at weddings – but this was broad daylight, the morning no less, and the continued all day!
People were driving around and honking, because passing these tests is the first step towards a future, and they are notoriously difficult and obnoxious – “it has been a pain in their behinds” as Zoughbi put it. This despite the fact that unemployment for 18-24 year olds is close to 80%, as estimated by Usama, a staff member at Wi’am. It’s the little things that people celebrate, which refresh and invigorate them. Nearly every night there is a wedding here, I am surprised the whole city isn’t married yet.
Meanwhile, life here is intense and at times even bleak. When I first arrived here I was full of idealism and thought that obviously injustice could not last forever, and that any upcoming changes here have to be positive. In one of the first weeks I was here, Usama let me know he thought that things would get worse before they get better – I now have to agree. The situation on the ground is critical, yet there has been no increase in the political will of any party to work for peace.
I was traveling last week with my parents and a group led by Max Carter, the Director of Campus Ministry at Guilford and his wife Jane Carter, who is an administrator at the nearby New Garden Friends School. We visited the Galilee area, which is an exceptionally beautiful region of historic Palestine in Israel. We met with Elias Jabbour, a world-renowned expert in the traditional Arabic Conflict Resolution process called sulha who has lectured before, among other groups, a collection of Israeli supreme court justices. When asked about discrimination in Israel, he joked that he felt like a “10th class citizen”, not just 2nd.
We toured with Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli ex-soldiers who now take Israelis and internationals on tours of the South Hebron Hills, as well as document stories of military service from willing soldiers. Our guide, Avner, recalled how his first “straw widow” mission (forceful entry and occupation of a Palestinian home) turned out to be simply a training mission. He described to us the process of Israeli settlements being surrounded by a “special security zone” of Palestinian land which Palestinians are not allowed to enter. Under a conveniently kept Ottoman Empire law, after 3 years of being uncultivated, any land becomes public property. After 4 years of cultivation, it belongs to whoever cultivated it. This explains the olive trees that settlers plant in barrels in these areas, affecting “legal” land transfers under a law hundreds of years old. Special security zones are why the village of Susiya, a tent village of which you may have heard in the news recently if you follow Palestinian affairs, has been under demolition orders for years.
Despite these conditions, Palestinians keep their spirits high. They peacefully resist the occupation simply by remaining, and striving for a better life. Unfortunately, more and more Palestinians are leaving the country – especially educated professionals who can get a much higher salary elsewhere. Some will stay, though. And they will continue to celebrate “the little things.” Last Friday, I helped bring a group of close to 80 children and youth from Wi’am’s summer camp to the Tent of Nations, a family farm south of Bethlehem that is holding onto their land despite being surrounded by 4 settlements. In East Jerusalem on Sunday with my parents, we watched a group of traditional Palestinian musicians. Today many students passed their exit exams, securing the keys to adulthood. Events like this are cases for celebration and unwinding, where children laugh and play and adults sit back and relax, content to live in the present moment. It’s even the graffiti on the wall. It’s especially the recognition by UNESCO of Bethlehem’s Nativity Church as a World Heritage Site. These things help people to remain, as Zoughbi described his own worldview, “cautiously hopeful” that the situation will improve, that there will be justice, that the occupation will end.
Note: The photos of the tawjihi celebrants leaning out of cars are credit to Lloyd Johnson, a fellow American from Seattle who is visiting the West Bank with his wife. He wrote an incredible blog post recently documenting the lack of freedom to move experienced by Palestinians called “Trapped”, which you can find here.