Building Bridges in Israel/Palestine 

Erin Polley makes connections between Peace and Justice Issues in the Mideast and at Home

click to enlarge A delegation from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) recently traveled to the Gaza Strip. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • A delegation from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) recently traveled to the Gaza Strip.
  • Submitted photo

While Governor Mike Pence denies asylum to Syrian refugees and Donald Trump talks about building walls on borders, Indianapolis resident Erin Polley is building bridges between Israel/Palestine and the Hoosier state.

Polley is the Program Coordinator of the Indiana Peace Building Program, under the auspices of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). On Dec. 8, she will give a talk at the University of Indianapolis on her September trip to Israel/Palestine with an AFSC delegation.

During the trip the delegation visited the Gaza Strip — which is still reeling from the Israeli incursion and bombardment in the summer of 2014 — and the West Bank, which is under Israeli occupation.

"The purpose of sending staff there was to deepen our understanding of our organization's role in this work," says Polley. "But also to make connections with the work that's happening in the United States in terms of militarization of US society and the work that we do on the U.S./Mexico border, the work that we do in the private prison industry, and the work we do with youth and farmers.... So that's why I went is because the AFSC is helping facilitate those connections."

Polley, who had never been in the Mideast before, found the militarization in Israel a shock.

"As an outsider it was very challenging for me to be around that all the time, seeing 18-year-old soldiers at every street corner in Jerusalem carrying weapons."

Even more of a shock was her 24-hour-long visit to the Gaza Strip on her third day in Israel/Palestine. This coastal strip, 25 miles long and in some places no more than 4 miles wide, has one of the highest population densities in the world, containing more than 1.5 million people. And its people, fenced off from Israel and Egypt — and the rest of the world — are reduced to recycling cement rubble to make construction materials because of Israel's blockade.

click to enlarge Erin Polley, program coordinator of the Indiana Peace Building Program, poses in front of the gate to Gaza. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Erin Polley, program coordinator of the Indiana Peace Building Program, poses in front of the gate to Gaza.
  • Submitted photo

Israel claims that this blockade is necessary to prevent Hamas from rebuilding smuggling tunnels and obtaining weapons for attacks on the Jewish state. Hamas, which governs Gaza, is considered to be a terrorist organization by the U.S. and most western countries. But left-of-center critics contend that Israel is putting Gaza "on a diet," (as was said by senior Israeli advisor Dov Weinglass in 2006), so that Gazans will blame Hamas for their predicament.

On the third day of their trip, Polley and the AFSC delegation crossed into Gaza at Erez from Israel.

After a briefing with the UN outlining the catastrophic state of Gazan infrastructure, they went into the Shejaiyah neighborhood with an AFSC staff member who lived there. The neighborhood had been devastated by Israeli bombardment the previous summer.

"We were just driving around, and [our guide] was showing us particular neighborhoods and he said, "Let's see if this guy's out working," says Polley. And we stopped in and said hello and he showed us what he was working on and saw that they were starting to clear out the rubble right next to where he had set up his open air shop."

The blacksmith's shop as well as his home had been destroyed by Israeli bombardments and his family was living in a shipping container. He had received an AFSC microloan to replace his equipment.

They visited a youth group, Palestinian Youth Together for Change, facilitated by AFSC. The young Gazan participants were between the ages of 18-23.

"They were sharing their stories about people who had been killed and been put in prison," says Polley. "Some of us were getting really emotional and one of the young women said, "Why are you crying for us? This is our life. This is our reality. Why are you crying? You live in the United States. This is happening in your name.' All that we could say to that is that we were crying because we recognize the humanity of people in Gaza."

The AFSC delegation stayed overnight at a hotel along the Mediterranean shore in which they were required to stay by the Israeli military.

"We came out at eight in the morning to have breakfast. It was a beautiful scene," says Polley. "It was like being on vacation, and then my colleague Jennifer Bing pointed out that where we were was right on the beach where the Bakr boys were killed, right in front of our hotel. I think it was our hotel or the hotel next to it was where the US journalists were who witnessed the entire thing happen. That just said to me how blatant...this assault on Gaza was."

(As reported in the New York Times on July 16, 2014, the Israeli military labeled the airstrike that killed the four boys a "tragic outcome," which they claimed was aimed at Hamas militants.)

Polley thought that Gaza would be the most difficult part of the trip for her. That actually came a few days later in the West Bank city of Hebron, where she saw direct interactions and confrontations between Palestinians, Jewish settlers, and Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers.

They visited a formerly open-air market that is now draped with tarps and wire mesh because the settlers who live above the market often dump trash out their windows. And then they had a run-in with an Orthodox Jewish man.

This particular man made a practice of blowing his shofar [ram's horn] over the Muslim call to prayer. It was part of his daily routine as he walked near the Ibrahimi Mosque and the Cave of the Patriarchs, holy to both Muslims and Jews.

click to enlarge An Orthodox Jewish man blows his shofar in the ear of one of the AFSC delegates. Authorities there say he blows the horn every day over the Muslim call to prayer in protest. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • An Orthodox Jewish man blows his shofar in the ear of one of the AFSC delegates. Authorities there say he blows the horn every day over the Muslim call to prayer in protest.
  • Submitted photo

One of the women in Polley's group, an Israeli, went up to the man as he was blowing the horn and asked him in Hebrew, "What are you doing?" He responded by pushing her and blowing the horn in her ear. IDF soldiers intervened and told the AFSC delegation to walk away.

The carnival-like atmosphere of the scene struck Polley, as there were numerous American Jewish tourists who had recently pulled up in tour buses outside a visitor's center.

"After they [the tourists] saw this conflict he followed us out to the street so we were walking away and he blew the shofar in our direction and all of these people and children were standing in a line behind him blowing whistles and making sounds all directed at us," says Polley.

The AFSC delegation also met up with two Italians living near Hebron who worked for Dove International. The Italians worked escorting children back and forth to school, and frequently found themselves asking children their ages, as IDF soldiers can detain any Palestinian children over the age of 12.

Polley was able to assess to some degree the political outlook of the Palestinians who she met. Most with whom she talked don't believe in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict anymore, she said.

Indeed, most Palestinians believe in a solution that would allow the Palestinian right of return to pre-1967 Israel according to a 2014 Washington Institute survey. It is a solution that Israeli historian Benny Morris says would effectively mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

click to enlarge The destruction in Gaza is very apparent, as shown by this destroyed building. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • The destruction in Gaza is very apparent, as shown by this destroyed building.
  • submitted photo

But it's not like the two-state solution track between Israel and the Palestinian authority has gained any ground in the two decades since the Oslo Accords were signed. In this peace vacuum, as it were, the nonviolent Boycott, Divest, Sanctions [BDS] movement was founded. In 2012, AFSC became a supporter of this movement. And this movement, at the very least, means to show Israel that there would be economic repercussions for continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank as well as de-facto occupation of Gaza.

It's a movement, however, that has been criticized by some supporters of the two-state solution. Historian Norman Finkelstein, for one, who spoke in Indianapolis in March, sees BDS as disingenuous because its end goal—he claims—can only be a one-state solution. He views it as a pie-in-the-sky solution to which the Israelis would never agree to implement. He favors the two-state solution—two states for two peoples—that is in accord with international law.

Whatever the endpoint of the BDS founders may be, it cannot be denied that it is a peaceful movement in a hyper-violent region, an example of "economic activism [that] can keep us accountable to our values and affirm our common humanity," as explained Shan Cretin, the General Secretary of AFSC in a Wall Street Journal op-ed dated Nov. 10, 2015.

There certainly wasn't any endpoint in sight on Sept. 14, 2015, the last night of Polley's stay in Israel/Palestine.

"That night we went out to dinner at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem that has this beautiful rooftop that you can oversee all of Jerusalem," says Polley. "You see the [Dome of the Rock] all lit up and then you see drones flying around it. That was the only thing that I saw different or changed."

But there had been, indeed, a change. That day police had been sent in to stop Palestinians from attacking far right Jews visiting the Al-Asqa Mosque compound. And violence elsewhere resulted, both in Israel and the territories, consisting of Palestinian stabbings of Israelis and the inevitable Israeli retaliation.

September 14 was the start of a whole new round of violence in Israel/Palestine, but unfortunately there was nothing really new about it.

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