Monday March 9, by invitation of Dr. Elia Awwael, I attended the Palestinian-Israeli Social Workers Workshop held at the Nativity Hotel located in Bethlehem. The stated goals of the workshop included allowing Israelis and Palestinians the opportunity to discuss current “social” cases as well as identify the needs of social workers on both sides. These goals though, however important, were secondary to the supreme expectation of the workshop; to allow Palestinians and Israelis to begin forming a friendly and trustful relationship, or as the official workshop agenda stated: [To introduce] participants at the personal and professional level. The issue of whether or not this was achieved, or more so, whether or not an environment existed in which it could be achieved, is of extreme interest.
My entrance into the “Nativity Hotel” occurred at approximately 9:30 am. I was immediately greeted by Dr. Elia Awwael and then left to mingle with the approximately thirty social workers who were in attendance. I stood contently near a food-laden table and observed the workshop participants. The number of Israelis and Palestinians in attendance was closely matched. At 10:00, the group was asked to move from the reception area into the conference room.
The workshop began with a brief introduction of the three coordinators as well as a history of the program. According to Dr. Awwael the current meeting was the fourth of its kind and received funding from the American Embassy and Palestine Council of Health. The purpose of the workshop was described as providing the framework for Palestinians and Israelis to examine social welfare.
Following opening remarks participants were instructed to introduce themselves to one another with the emphasis on Israelis and Palestinians coming together. I placed myself within a group of five social workers: one Israeli man, two Palestinian men, and one Israeli woman and a Palestinian woman. The Israeli woman, who identified herself as a head member of the Israeli social worker union, spoke with a Palestinian man and woman, both of approximately 25 years of age. Their discussion, which was dominated by the Israeli woman, dealt primarily with the concept of a social workers union. Adjacent to this three person sub-group sat the remaining Israeli and Palestinian men whose heated conversation contained such proclamations as: Palestinian- “Some kinds of Jews hate us and some of us hate them”. Israeli- “We came and Arabs were here; I know this wasn’t good. I don’t know what to do about this”. In a moment of silence within the ‘union group’ the Palestinian man recognized my presence and encouraged me to introduce myself.
A Palestinian woman faced me and expressed her anger at being denied entrance to Jerusalem, citing her brother’s stay in prison as the reason. Ghadi Rahil, a resident of Bethlehem, and currently a student of social work expressed anger towards Israelis but stated her ability to meet with Israelis in a professional context. Her feelings were echoed by another Palestinian woman who seated herself amongst the group in the midst of the conversation. [They take our land, look at what they did. I can work professionally with the Israeli but this is it]. The meeting of participants lasted one hour twenty-two minutes and was followed with a lecture by Dr. Bernard Sabilla of Bethlehem University.
The speech began rather academically, citing figures and current problems facing contemporary Palestinians. Dr. Sabilla quickly began to form the thesis of the lecture; Peace cannot exist between Israel and Palestine until the economic and educational gaps which exist among the two nations are closed. Recognizing the high birthrate of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank (Gaza – 49 per 1,000, West Bank – 37 per 1,000) as a severe hindrance to the economic growth of a Palestinian state, the lecturer predicted a future Palestinian state composed of a small upper class and large lower class, similar to the class structure of Jordan.
Dr. Sabilla’s uncertainty of the peace process and the ability of Palestinians and Israelis to relate personally became evident as the speech continued. “Now we don’t have peace,” explained Sabilla, “We have the peace process”. The future Sabilla went on to say “Is not as rosy as some politicians would like us to believe.” As the speech continued Sabilla made clear his inability and disinterest in forming friendships with Israelis; To make peace from people to people “its not possible, in my view its not possible”, “Certainly Israeli policies in terms of employment have not been fair.” Referring to the current dire status of the Palestinian people Sabilla claimed, “Yes, Israel is to blame for this thing.” If on the economic level Israeli is not allowing him to breath, asked Dr. Sabilla, how can he ask his students to work towards peace.
Further on in the lecture Dr. Sabilla discussed strategies the Palestinians must adopt in order to compete economically with Israel. The main strategy, according to Sabilla, heavily relies on “using Israelis”; “In my relationship with Israel I am not looking for love or friendship, only for Palestinian interests.”
Additional comments made by Dr. Sabilla included a reference to the settlers, “Settlers have taken a lot of land from us, we have no land.” The Israeli participants, perhaps in disbelief at Sabilla’s provocative words, began laughing at what they determined to be a joke, although I have no doubt judging by the manner in which the sentence was delivered that it was meant to be a serious statement. Continuing in this mode it was explained that Palestinians are now becoming capable of making individual decisions, a trend according to Sabilla, which is not popular amongst Israelis. The speech closed with a reaffirmation that friendship was not being sought with Israelis although it was acceptable for Palestinians to deal with Israelis in a way which served the Palestinian interest.
If there had been any misunderstanding of Dr. Sabilla’s opinions, I believe the question and answer period thoroughly clarified his position. Two Israeli participants expressed their surprise at the pessimism of the speech challenging the notion that friendship could not exist between Israelis and Palestinians. The response; “I try for Palestinians to get whatever they can from Israelis, I will not change my political view.” Another Israeli woman questioned the use of stereotypes within the speech; her remarks were disregarded. The attitude of Sabilla became strengthened as he admitted that “[He] cannot fly with Israelis because [he] cannot deal with them.” “I come from a history of conflict with you,” Sabilla proclaimed, later adding “What matters is what I can learn from you.” Palestinian participants also spoke during the question-answer period focusing their comments on the anger they still hold and the problems they face when travelling within Israel. A participant also voiced his opinion of being fed up with all these meetings which “Do nothing in the end.” Shortly before the Q+A session ended Dr. Degaulle S. Hodali spoke of the alleged Israeli practice of distributing spoiled food to poor Palestinians.
I accompanied Dr. Hodali to the hotel-provided lunch sitting with him and two Israeli women. Notable topics of discussion included the refugee problem, settlers, and the issue of East Jerusalem, which Dr. Hodali believes must be given back. While Dr. Hodali theorized that the settlers, many of whom he believes exist primarily for economic reasons because as he stated “Jews love money”, can be relocated following monetary compensation, the Israeli social worker insisted the “Settlers are crazy” and that millions of dollars would not persuade them to leave. Lunch ceased at 1:30 and the group ventured back to the conference room.
Reseated, the participants were told that they would now engage in group work which would involve “Identifying social cases of adults, women, disabled people, and elderly at home and at the local community.” Participants returned to the reception hall to complete this task. I remained seated and began a discussion with Turi-Therese Schoder, a Norwegian woman visiting Bethlehem as part of a social worker exchange program. Ms. Schoder, who currently works with the Children Cultural Center of Bethlehem, identifies with the Palestinians and considers herself to be “half-Palestinian”.
Ms. Schoder related to me that she found the Israelis attending the workshop offensive and saw Dr. Sabilla’s speech as realistic. When asked why she viewed the behavior of the Israelis as offensive she explained that Israelis who, following Sabilla’s lecture, insisted that friendship was an important part of a professional relationship were naive and disrespectful of the Palestinians. Our conversation continued and Schoder told me of a day when she accompanied a group of Palestinians on a car trip. “I understand”, she said, “why some Palestinians are suicide bombers”. Also in reference to the lecture, she told me that the Palestinian women she had sat with at lunch would only make one comment, “There are bad feelings”.
Although her sympathy clearly lies with the Palestinians and she admitted that there are many Israelis she “doesn’t even want to get to know” it was still her expectation that the workshop would allow Israelis and Palestinians to get to know one another and that she didn’t expect to hear “negative things” said, as was the case. Her reference to hearing negative comments most likely referred to what she perceived as Israeli aggression but it may be possible that had it not been for Sabilla’s speech a more positive atmosphere would have existed.
At this time the group began to reenter the conference room and present their findings. Presentations were extremely brief and it was obvious that the majority of participants had not met the suggested criteria and were unclear of what this criteria was. The coordinators paid little attention to the presentations, instead talking amongst themselves. The presentations complete the participants quickly dispersed.
Turi Schoder invited me to tour the Cultural Center where she works, I accepted. Before exiting the conference room though, I approached Dr. Awwael and asked his opinion of the workshop; “I believe we succeeded at least to get both sides to explore how to work together.” I then began to exit the building but not before approaching an Israeli social worker and inquiring his view of the meeting. Doron Rabu appeared disappointed at the content of the workshop which he had, before attending, assumed to be an opportunity to “meet the neighbors” although he had no concrete expectations besides this. “It makes me angry,” exclaimed Rabu, “I felt like the only point of [Dr. Sabilla] about relationships with Israelis is about his needs. What happens when they don’t need us anymore?”