Peace House: Building Foundations of Hope Under Occupation
In the midst of a mid-July heat wave, a silver sedan weaves across the uneven, jagged terrain of the fertile hills just south of Bethlehem in the West Bank. Suddenly, we divert from the gravel strewn-road and come to stop. The dust, flying in all directions through the arid air, finally clears and reveals a bleached, one-story residence, a solace under the blazing desert sun. The intense light mellows as it pours through the front windows and sparkles through a weave of greens and flowers, illuminating a small garden sitting area perfect for a warm cup of coffee and a good read. Jamal Moqbel, my host, gazes at the structure and smiles.
“I call it peace house.”
Jamal leads a youth program and Sadiye, his wife, crafts intricate embroidery. She sells her hand-stitched pillowcases and accessories in Jerusalem when she is able to obtain a one-day working permit to enter the city. I met the couple at one of her sales, hosted at the home of a Jewish woman in West Jerusalem. Sadiye and Jamal offered to host me in their village of Beit Ummar to see their home and life there. Sadiye would cook a true Palestinian feast, Jamal assured, after meeting them only four minutes prior.
Their home serves as an incubator for tolerance and understanding in the midst of the omnipresent Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Moqbels use their peace house as a landing point where they routinely welcome individuals with a colorful array of backgrounds and beliefs: international activists, travelers, youth — even Israelis.
It is difficult to imagine that this peace house, an island of tranquility, was illegally sitting in the Wild West that is Israeli-controlled Area C, and Jamal and Sadiye are the outlaws who built it.
In 1995, an interim agreement between the Israeli and Palestinian officials divided the West Bank into three categories: Areas A, B and C. Area A, comprising of 18% of all land in the West Bank, contains all major Palestinian cities, such as Ramallah and Jericho, and lies under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Area B (22% of that land) encompasses much of the rural territory and its agricultural resources but is occupied by Israeli security forces despite the PA’s civil control of the area. But the bulk of the land — 60% — is designated as Area C, where Israeli forces have exclusive control of the land and its planning, construction, and law enforcement and Palestinian construction is forbidden.
The division of the West Bank into these three areas was intended as a temporary arrangement until ensuing peace negotiations would determine the permanent status of the Palestinian area vis-a-vis Israel. However, these final negotiations failed to come to fruition and the division remains, creating a crucible of unrest between the Israeli forces and the Palestinians who live under their occupation. This dynamic is intensified due to the increasing growth of Jewish settlements in Area C. The construction of the settlement blocs solidifies an Israeli presence in the West Bank, and their surrounding infrastructure continues to grow, slowly creeping into Palestinian land.
Laying atop rolling hills of agricultural land, the municipality of Beit Ummar is classified as Area B, where Palestinian Authority’s government operates alongside Israeli patrols. This power struggle is most obvious at its entrance. A sign reading “Welcome to Beit Ummar!” greets visitors with traditional Palestinian hospitality — and is enshadowed by a fixed, concrete watchtower. An Israeli soldier’s watchful eye peers from above and regulates all movement in or out of the town.
Sadiye grew up in Arroub, a nearby refugee camp where her family lives currently, but the Israeli security presence makes her visits infrequent. “It just takes 10 minutes to get there from Route 60, but these days, it takes hours. The soldiers at the checkpoint don’t allow people to go sometimes,” she says. For the residents of Beit Ummar, the tower and the presence of Israeli soldiers constrict freedom of movement, barring them from tending to their crops, traveling in a timely manner or obtaining services. “We are in a prison,” she says.
My fortune of crossing paths with Jamal and Sadiye was equally uncertain. As a resident of the West Bank, Sadiye securing a permit to work in Jerusalem was incredibly lucky, almost like the golden ticket — only if Charlie’s chocolate factory was a concrete block surrounded by barbed wire. This security checkpoint into Jerusalem is a single-access point where hundreds of Palestinians wait in line to work, day after day, twice a day. Even with a proper permit, whether or not they are allowed through the checkpoint usually depends on the whim of a young Israeli soldier’s judgment. The same security checkpoint I was effortlessly whisked through earlier that morning, no questions asked, no passport or permit needed.
As its residents are at the mercy of Israeli security, Beit Ummar is also hemmed in by the surrounding Jewish settlement bloc, Gush Etzion. As more settlements are constructed, surrounding infrastructure must also be built to organize the area and allow ease of transportation resources for its residents. But Kelda Ebregeet, a Palestinian engineer at the municipality of Beit Ummar, says these roads are instead devices used by the Israelis to continue to claim more and more territory in the West Bank, segmenting off smaller portions of Palestinian land.
“See how Beit Ummar has become? Like a prison on three sides. And the fourth side is coming in the future.”
— Kelda Ebregeet
With Israeli soldiers enforcing the law in Area B, the illegal construction of roads and the slow bleed of the red-roofed settlement houses that segments Palestinian land continues with no ramifications.
As settlements keep Beit Ummar from expanding on three sides, there is a scarcity of available land that engineers can develop in the local plan. This limitation is a daily struggle to build infrastructure such as water resources, housing and schools.
“You should not have obstacles like this,” says Ebregeet. “You are not free. You cannot dream or design the future or a better Beit Ummar.”
With barely enough land to build public buildings, residents of Beit Ummar who want to build homes within the local plan are out of luck. Ebregeet explains that it is nearly impossible for residents to obtain a permit to build legally in Area B due to so many restrictions and the municipality’s own project goals. There is free land around the local plan, but this is considered Area C and illegal for Palestinians to build upon, leaving many with no place to make their home. Building homes in Area C is risky and the municipality will not explicitly condone it, but it is necessary because the municipality has no legal land to give them. To combat this, Beit Ummar will provide residents with services to encourage them to move into Area C and aid the construction of their homes. The municipality supports these families by providing water, transporting materials and creating surveying plans.
However, the illegal home constructions in Area C are met with opposition from Israeli bulldozers through home demolitions. According to B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, over the last decade, Israel demolished at least 1,113 homes of Palestinians in the West Bank, leaving over 5,000 homeless.
This leaves families like Jamal and Sadiye faced with the decision to either build illegally in Area C in constant threat of clashes with soldiers, or attempt to obtain a permit to build in Area B — a permit that will probably never come.
So they build. In 1998, Jamal and Sadiye began to build their home, brick by brick, with no permit, access to water or roads to transport supplies.
The decision was not easy. “This house is the first house in the area. When me and Jamal started building here, many people told us ‘you are crazy to come to this area.’ It’s very difficult, you are too close to settlements, the soldiers come to the area and shoot,” Sadiye recalls. But for their family, creating refuge in forbidden territory was their only choice, despite constant fears of retaliation by the Israeli forces.
But in April of 2000, their fears became reality. Israeli soldiers descended on the property, delivering an order for the demolition of their home and the life they built there. “I was pregnant three months,” Sadiye says, remembering the moment when the soldiers arrived and an Israeli plane soared overhead. “When the plane came, it came very close to me. I was so afraid that I lost my child.”
Through demolition order after demolition order, they continued to build. Jamal and Sadiye even moved the location of their home to dodge further action by the military. “It was a really hard time because the house wasn’t finished. We lived without windows, without water, without good conditions,” Jamal says. But they worked and worked, until “in my eyes, we had the most beautiful house.”
Sitting in Jamal and Sadiye’s home in 2017, smack dab in the middle of the troubled West Bank, there is a relieving, yet naive, sense of calm.
Jamal and Sadiye’s two youngest sons, Ameer, 7, and Amro, 10, bounce around decked in blaze orange FC Barcelona suits, mimicking Neymar’s celebratory goal-scoring dance to perfection. Our cups are never empty, a cycle of Bedouin tea or Arabic coffee regularly offered with classic Palestinian hospitality.
Sadiye’s embroidered art pops up in the most unexpected places: a folded tapestry sitting on a shelf, the cover on a box of tissues, a framed needlepoint spelling out “Jerusalem” hung above the living room couch.
We discuss belief, politics and the struggle of the Palestinian people. Jamal speaks of his activist work with his grassroots organization, Roots, where he uses his home to create starts conversations between Palestinians and Israelis. At first, the people of Beit Ummar, and even Sadiye, cast doubt on on his meeting with the Israelis.
“I thought, ‘Jamal, you are a crazy man,’” says Sadiye.
As a former barber, Jamal lost many of his clients due to their disapproval of his activities. “Normalization” with Israel is frowned upon by many Palestinians.
“They ask, ‘Jamal, what will your activities do for the Palestinians? Or for the occupation? Did it take off the checkpoints, can our farmers keep our fields next to the settlements?’ Sometimes I cannot answer them.”
But Jamal persisted, shielded by his own optimism. He believes that by working together towards a shared goal and creating relationships between people who differ, we can find peace within them.
“I notice how we don’t know much about them, and they don’t know much about us.” — Jamal Moqbel
“I listened to many stories, from both sides,” Jamal says. “And something in my mind started to change. I asked myself to look and listen to the people and open my two eyes, not only one.”
Recently, Jamal led a group of Palestinian youth through Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel’s official memorial for victims of the Holocaust. He is now preparing to bring soon-to-be Israeli soldiers to Palestinian villages and refugee camps, where Israeli forces are in heavy presence. “I like to be active not only for peace but also to teach the Israelis what the occupation means.”
Then mid-sentence, Jamal suddenly rises to meet his boys on the dance floor, where they bust a move to Bruno Mars and Shakira.
Two decades have passed since Jamal and Sadiye built their home. The soldiers still remain. The land available to Palestinians is still shrinking. Demolition requests are delivered and settlements expand each day. Behind Jamal’s cheery eyes, there is a stark realism of the fragility of his existence as a resident of Beit Ummar, a hyper awareness of the bulldozers that could dismantle the Moqbel’s life any minute.
But Jamal and Sadiye and their children are persevering. Their son, Zain, was given a full scholarship by the Palestinian Authority to study in Sudan. Their daughter Yara recently returned from working with Seeds of Peace in Maine. Yazan, a third-year at Goshen College in Indiana, is studying biochemistry and microbiology; He speaks out actively for Palestinian rights on his campus.
It is difficult to have her children so far away, but Sadiye is strong: “I want peace for my kids. I don’t want them to live and see what I saw.”
The most striking aspect of the peace house was not its appearance nor its inhabitants nor even the conversations that we had there. Instead, what was so striking was what was missing. In the world of unrest that is the West Bank, the occupation is inescapably pervasive, filling every thought with politics, violence and hopelessness.
In Jamal and Sadiye’s home, there was no breaking news blasting on the television, rehashing the day’s protest or clashes with Israeli soldiers or flooding our peripherals with imagery of thick fogs of tear gas and fighters with M16s. Instead, the TV was reserved for FC Barcelona highlights and “Uptown Funk” on repeat, choreography included. Hiding in plain view from the conflict that threatens to knock it down every day, the peace house remains a sanctuary of hope, where spontaneous dance parties are frequent and Ameer is free to dream of becoming Messi one day.
Samantha Shanahan is a photojournalist and recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. View more of her work at samanthashanahan.com.