Wi’am: Helping the people of Bethlehem see Stars not Bars
January 7 2011: Conflict breeds conflict and Israel's occupation of Palestine has consequently increased violent disputes within everyday Palestinian society. The strains of conflict create a potent mix of societal problems. High unemployment, land confiscation, checkpoints, economic deterioration, and a stagnating peace process combine to create a perilous mix of tensions. The holy town of Bethlehem has felt this growing despair. Domestic violence has increased, drug abuse is rising amongst the young and the Separation Wall has severed vital economic links with Jerusalem; unemployment is now at 23%. Wi'am is a Bethlehem based NGO that has evolved to mitigate these social problems. They mediate in community conflicts to stop them escalating by using a traditional Arabic process of reconciliation called Sulha.
Conflict breeds conflict and Israel’s occupation of Palestine has consequently increased violent disputes within everyday Palestinian society. The strains of conflict create a potent mix of societal problems. High unemployment, land confiscation, checkpoints, economic deterioration, and a stagnating peace process combine to create a perilous mix of tensions. The holy town of Bethlehem has felt this growing despair. Domestic violence has increased, drug abuse is rising amongst the young and the Separation Wall has severed vital economic links with Jerusalem; unemployment is now at 23%. Wi’am is a Bethlehem based NGO that has evolved to mitigate these social problems. They mediate in community conflicts to stop them escalating by using a traditional Arabic process of reconciliation called Sulha.
Ancient desert custom
Wi’am is run by the charismatic Zoughbi Zoughbi, a Bethlehem peace activist, who says the intermixing fallout from conflict is creating a “pressure cooker situation. The Palestinian people need some signs of hope. We are depressed, frustrated, disappointed.”
Zoughbi uses an ancient form of conflict resolution to prevent these feelings of hopelessness from overwhelming his community and manifesting in more conflict and violence.
The word ‘sulha’ is derived from ‘sulh’ meaning peace which is derived from ‘musalaha’ meaning reconciliation. And this is what Sulha is – peaceful reconciliation. It is an Arabic custom that existed before the advent of Islam, evolving out of desert culture and surviving by being passed down generation to generation. Zoughbi explains how it works:
“Sulha deals with each conflict as individual. We first humanise the people involved and make it clear that its the system which is at fault and the person who is good. This creates the environment for people to talk without feeling judged, so they will be ready to move forward and find closure.
“As a conflict emerges, mediators go to the scene and listen to all parties. We observe everything, we validate emotions and consider the conflict from all dimensions: psychological, social, economic, spiritual. The success or failure of the mediation falls on our shoulders. We need communication skills, wit, cultural knowledge and to pay attention to the minutest detail. Our mission is to do that while protecting all parties from loosing face, to redress the wrong, and to restore the relationship. Ultimately most of our work is based on compassionate listening, listening to others with our hearts. People here are surrounded by trauma, they are like sponges and they absorb it, they lose land, they go to prison. We are not machines, we can not keep it all inside, people need someone to talk to.
“Really it is shuttle diplomacy, we go back and forth between each party as many times as we need until the ground is ready for the parties to come together. Then we meet and work to agree a resolution which is legally binding. Then once the Sulha has been agreed the conflict must cease with all grudges and hard feelings left in the past.
“Drinking coffee is then the crowning of the ceremony. When both parties shake hands, sit and drink coffee together we know the relationship is mended. We measure our time in coffee cups. The more we drink, the more conflicts we solve!”
Turning violence into peace
Zoughbi and his team deal with conflict issues from across Palestinian society. Since first opening their doors in 1995, they’ve built up a stellar reputation in the community and local people know who to turn for when they need guidance and support.
“People in the local community are not reluctant to call us! Breakfast, lunch, 2am in the morning! And for all sorts of problems – debts, car accidents, domestic violence, marriage problems, local feuds, brawls, land disputes, honour, neighbours, workplace, even the police have referred conflicts to us.”
Zoughbi tells the story of one family he helped support.
“A lady came to us after her husband became violent and depressed. They’d been married for 15 years, had 6 kids, and up until then had a wonderful and happy family life. Then one day her husband started to beat her. He used to work in Jerusalem but lost his job once the Wall was built, so he had to sneak there illegally. One day he was caught travelling without a visa and was beaten and humiliated by a 17 year old Israeli soldier. Fortunately his name was not black listed and so he was released. When he got home his wife asked him for some money to cover a few bills and he hit her.
“He became depressed because of what he’d done and for what had happened to him and never left the house. She came to us then. She asked us not to tell her husband because it is not right to speak to a stranger about domestic issues so we came to his house pretending to ask for directions. He invited us in for coffee as is the Palestinian way. We sat, drank and talked. He asked us about our work and then he called his wife into the room and said ‘we must tell this man what happened, so he can help us.’ He told us the story and we visited several times. We found him a job, as part of our work is job creation. Six months later he, his wife and 6 children came to visit us with a box of chocolates to say thank you and to ask to become volunteers. His sons are now involved in our non violence programmes and he is now part of our committee.”
Keeping community alive
Whilst a peaceful resolution to the Israel Palestine conflict remains fundamental but elusive, Zoughbi chooses to focus his attention on creating and maintaining peace within his internal community.
“It is more important for me to recognise our lives in this big prison and solve the problems here than to cast my eyes outside the prison window and try and solve the problems beyond. Someone else is doing that and of course I wish they find the answer soon. But this is my people here, my family, my community and the community matters to the Palestinians, our society is built on it. We can not allow for a community where chaos and violence – symptoms of the conflict with Israel – take over our lives. It is not easy it takes all your energy, resources, sanity!! But we have to do it. And people appreciate it. That’s why the building we work in has been given to us free of charge for 10 years, because the owners see the importance of our work. This is our resistance to occupation. There is a saying, that two men are looking out of a prison window, one sees the bars the other sees the stars. That’s what we tell our community – to look for the stars. We want our building to be a place for living and for hope. Sooner or later this Wall will fall down, when you have nothing you have nothing to lose. And we have nothing but our handcuffs to lose.”
Finding peace with Israel
Zoughbi believes a solution to the Israel Palestine conflict will come when top level political will combine with grassroots movements for peace.
“There are three processes that will help end this conflict. We the Palestinians must continue to build on the non-violent movement that’s growing out of the villages by the Wall. At the moment these actions are happening in isolation so we need to join them up and give them momentum. Secondly the voices for peace in Israel must grow and get louder to put pressure on their government. Finally the international community must use its power and media to help unite these local movements and join them with international voices for peace.
“I believe in power coming from the bottom up, but we desperately need top level intervention. I see no solution without it because here Israel is absolutely powerful. How can we build peace between the two of us when one side is forbidden from travelling to meet the other? We do not start from equal footing. But I believe ordinary Israelis and Palestinian are exhausted from the violence. The Palestinians will not disappear and the Israelis are here to stay. We have no option but to find peace with each other. Neither of us is going away.”
To find out more about Wi’am visit http://www.alaslah.org/
Article by Susanna Bennett, January 2010
More from the blog
Ambika Pokhrel describes the dedicated but under-reported work being done by volunteer women's organisations to foster peace in Nepal. Read more »
Adan Suazo argues that conflict over water is not just an issue for the future. Read more »