Fighting for health, under fire

Despite the renewed wave of Palestinian-Israeli violence, our local representatives in the field, Patrick Levy and Raya Eleyan-Al-Abassi* (who oversee our operations in Israel and the West Bank, respectively) have continued their tireless efforts to promote health and empower communities. We felt it fitting to spotlight their personal reflections on the current situation.

*Due to the violence, Raya has since chosen to relocate with her family to a safer environment outside of the West Bank.

HATD: How has the recent surge in violence impacted operations in the field in Israel and the West Bank?

Patrick: For one, many planned gatherings across Israel have had to be postponed for the mere fact that participants could not reach one another—mobility across the country has been severely disrupted since the violence began. Also, personal safety is everyone’s number one priority. The fact that so many of our programs work with women and mothers has also played a role: anyone with children or dependents right now is focused on making sure their families are safe. Most other concerns have been placed on the backburner.

Having said so, some projects that operate in more remote regions—away from the violence in Israel’s urban centers—have been able to continue with less disruption. Our Beterem program (working with grandmothers to lower rates of domestic accidents with children) just finalized a training session, despite the wave of violence, with 15 grandmothers in the Arab village of Tur’an in northern Israel. Our joint project with the Israeli AIDS Task Force and ASSAF, working to support those in the refugee community living with HIV, has continued its awareness workshops and meetings. Though Tel Aviv has been hit by the unrest, the neighborhoods in the southern part of the city, where so many residents are African refugees, have been largely excluded from the violence. In short, we are doing our best to provide the most support we can to all the communities we work with even during this time of uncertainty. I am only sorry that we have to do so while feeling under siege.

Raya: Yes the situation is sadly similar, and worse in many ways, in the West Bank. People are just so afraid, and many parents are not even sending their kids to school out of fear for their safety. I even kept my kids home from school for three days last week, the situation was very unstable and not safe. The school that they attend is a private Christian school in East Jerusalem. It was surrounded in recent days with soldiers and huge [concrete] blocks as part of the security crackdown. Understand, my kids have never seen such things. My 7-year old daughter was especially terrified. So decided it would be best to not to put them through this, never mind driving with them through neighborhoods where we could be targeted by extremist Jews is they realized we were Arab. We are all afraid…afraid just of what would happen living our normal lives if we go out in the street. We come home at 3:30 in the afternoon and don’t go anywhere afterwards. We are locked in and my kids are afraid to go out to the neighborhood grocery store after 6pm.

But amazingly, Palestinian organizations kept sending their concept papers to me in response to our call for proposals. They called and asked if the call was cancelled due to the fact that HATD support Israeli and Palestinians organizations. I explained that HATD’s strategy of supporting HEALTH concepts in all ways that assist living in peace. I also clarified that Dr. Norbert Goldfield, our executive director, will be in the region next month and that our West Bank operations are continuing as usual. In the two weeks of clashes, more than ten concept papers were received.

Patrick:  Similarly in Israel it is usually very common to see children outside on their own—playing, going to and from school on their own—but now there are almost no children at all outside because parents are keeping them at home for their safety. It casts a strange and sad atmosphere on everything that there are no children.

And so many places in the country have become like ghost towns—people are just afraid to go outside. Places like Akko and Nazareth, the town of Sahnin which is only minutes from my house. All these are Arab cities are usually frequented by Jews, especially secular Jews on Fridays and Saturdays whose local Jewish businesses are closed for the Sabbath. These once bustling places are now completely empty. The situation is hurting so many people financially who count on their revenue from their small family businesses.

HATD: What do you see as the reasons behind Jewish citizens not visiting these areas? Is this a political statement of the type carried out during the second intifada, when many Israeli Jews boycotted Arab merchants?

Patrick:  Though there are certainly a few extreme examples of calculated abandonment of Arab businesses, I think that for the most part the reason is pure and simple: people are just afraid. Things are so tense and you don’t want to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are heated demonstrations in many of the Arab communities. Even my friends in Sahnin a few days ago advised me not to visit them for fear that I could be targeted as a Jew.

Raya: Though people may be afraid I think that it is wrong to underestimate the level of political calculation not to buy from Arab merchants. The mayor of [the Tel Aviv suburb] Givatayim just announced that he would no longer employ Arabs from East Jerusalem. The other day I was apparently mistaken for being Jewish and was handed a bumper sticker that said in Hebrew “Whoever buys from Arabs is trash.”  I am an Israeli citizen, I was raised in Haifa, went to convent schools, I am from both sides really—and this is what some of my fellow citizens have to say. It’s devastating. It is why we recently decided to relocate the family, despite how difficult the decision is.

HATD: You have two young children, Raya. What have you told them about what is going on?

Raya: Frankly I don’t really need to tell them anything. They can see it for themselves. Things happen all around them every day. What can I possibly tell them? We see things around us in recent days like extremist Jews walking carrying clubs. We are all terrified and I feel it is best for us and for the children to distance ourselves physically from here for some time. There have already been two shahids (Arabic for “martyrs”) from our village, men that have carried out attacks against Jews and subsequently been killed by Israelis. The Israeli authorities decided that they won’t return the bodies of the martyrs to their families. I think this is a wrong decision that can only lead to more anger and violence against Israel, not the opposite. Muslim families have a three-day mourning period, similar to shiva in Judaism where your home is open to visitors paying respects. Rather than concluding this period as usual, the families of the two men are now perpetually stuck in the mourning phase because they can’t have a proper burial for their sons. The house of mourning, and the emotions surrounding it, have as a result become an open wound of anger. Both sides would have been better served, in my opinion, had Israel decided differently.

Our home was recently caught in the middle of a firefight we had nothing to do with. The [Israeli] army came through our front yard in the middle of the night, en route to a home behind us. Some youngsters began throwing stones at them, and live-fire and tear-gas shooting began. They rolled over our front yard with their army vehicles and the shrubbery and some surrounding areas were scorched. As this was happening we were all huddled in the house, terrified. Once they left we saw that our yard was covered with hundreds of Israeli shell casings. This type of things will be seared into their memory forever, mixed with fear, anger, and frustration. My son drew a picture of what he experienced and now talks about the incident all the time. How can I protect them from things like this? And from the opinions that they will form about the situation, about Israelis, as a result of events like this? I am sorry that we need to relocate, but I feel it is our best option right now.

My children, and especially my 8-year old son, has been very influenced this whole situation, and by the reactions of other youth in the village. My son started wearing his keffiya (the Palestinian headscarf symbolizing with the nationalist movement) all the time and carrying his toy gun with him.  When he sits down to draw I’m so sorry that he has such a memory of clashes, rather than a beautiful picture of rainbows and bright colors. What can I do? It’s one of the reasons I want to relocate, now more than ever. It is almost impossible to bring up your children in a healthy environment – with a sense of normalcy, of sanity and peace symbols. How can one effectively teach their children respect for “the other” when they are in this situation. All I can do is restate my deep-seated beliefs: I believe in God. And I do not believe that any human, Jewish or Arab, has the right to take someone else’s life. This is God’s decision alone. This is what I tell my children. They can hear me say this, but under the circumstances, the violence and the hatred that they witness, I think that it is very hard for them to fully internalize my message. In the meantime I can only shower them with love and hugs—this is my remedy for what is happening around us.

Patrick:  Yes avoiding the hatred is difficult. It is everywhere. Here in Israel you don’t even need to read the notoriously racist and hateful messages on Facebook or other social media—you hear these things and are exposed to them everywhere you go. The level of hysteria—of fear and anger—is so high. And what I see happening in response, by people like myself and others who have more progressive ideas, is that we are becoming more and more isolated. In fact everyone from all spectrums is becoming more isolated, living in a bubble in order to shut out the anger and volatility and maintain some level of normalcy. It is a very human response. The community that I live in is relatively progressive. But even here, along with all the other Jewish communities in the area, of course the natural response is to close our gates in order to protect our safety on a practical level. Our bubble, everyone’s, is becoming smaller and smaller. We are all inside these bubbles, all of us so confused, and so exhausted. Jews and Arabs alike. Especially since at the macro level of the conflict, we can no longer see or believe that a real solution is on the horizon.

HATD: And at the political level, what do you think can be done? Where are we going?

Patrick: Like I said, on the macro level, our leaders today have failed us. They don’t have the courage to take the necessary steps to really improve our situation. We have so many internal problems as well, and in order to distract us from addressing these, at their own political risk, our leaders perpetuate the conflict because they recognize that their rhetoric on the backdrop of the status quo will help safeguard their political power. I recently heard someone say on the radio that we have moved from two states for two people to one state for two people to a zero state, meaning each one on its own.

Raya: For me the situation is very difficult, especially because I am really from both sides—a Palestinian Israeli. I see the dangers and the hatred and the fear on both sides. As for politics, Palestinians are more angry at our own leaders and at Prime Minister Abbas than they are at Netanyahu. He clearly does not represent them here, and makes moves that are good for no one. I want a Palestinian state next to an Israeli one – but I also want to live in peace – this is not the way to build a state. We need leadership that can work with the Israeli leadership, that can improve people’s live. Palestinians have no work, no money. They are angry at Abbas. The Palestinian flag flying at the United Nations is nice but people here need sustenance.

HATD: Do you think there is something that we, as an organization, could be doing differently to improve things for the communities we support?

Raya: I believe strongly that the current HATD model is ideal—we are helping to preserve the critical, and often overlooked, component of normalcy in people’s lives: addressing basic needs like tending to health and wellbeing for themselves and their loved ones. People first need to live in good health, only then they can make peace. And we are helping them live.

Also, the value of us supporting small community groups (unlike larger, more established ones which are usually the focus of funders) can simply not be understated. We are, as a society, intimate and community-centered. By seeking small groups to fund we are serving Palestinian society in the most important and efficient way possible. Just look at our recent call for proposals in the West Bank, evidence of our success is clear in the fact that, despite the current unrest, we received more than 25 proposals to work with us, HATD, an organization that works with Israel. If that isn’t a sign of our doing something right then I don’t know what is.

Patrick: I agree that we are exactly where we need to be. As a twenty year veteran of social change and coexistence efforts, I can say with certainty that dialogue is nice, but true change comes from action. If someone doesn’t have food or basic needs met, like health, they cannot make peace. HATD allows us to see the other via our projects. Different populations that have never worked together and perhaps never even met—suddenly understand that their problems are the same. They have a new understanding and vision of “the other”, whoever that “other” might be. To have a single table with Ethiopians, Palestinians, homosexuals and heterosexuals, secular and religious, and to have them listen to a refugee speak about their problems and relate on a human level—this has a profound impact. Efforts like ours play a critical role in improving our situation, as insurmountable as it may seem sometimes.

What we are doing may seem like just a glimmer of light in the darkness of our region, but this light is critical. And I am very proud to be part of it. We are not pretending to change the world, but for a decade we have been making really change. This is amazing.  I look at the training we’re having with Beterem in Tur’an, which will expand next year to include the Jewish orthodox community and Bedouins. The group’s facilitators, Arabs and Jews, are not coming to speak about peace, but rather how to avoid domestic accidents. One has to begin with breaking stigmas, with teaching people how to view one another as a person, not just as a part of the group he or she is from. This is how you make peace. And such contacts are what we at HATD are facilitating.

Raya: I agree. But this is also why I am sleeping better at night thinking that I can raise my children in a different environment that can better foster understanding. That they can better understand that people are people, that problems can in fact be solved without violence. I know that we will be back, that my children will be back with the seeds of understanding that I am trying to sow in order to make this part of the world better.

Patrick: It is sad to me that so many good people like Raya are leaving this place. That they have to move across the world for some quiet and sanity. But I am hopeful that she can continue to impact our mission, because it is the seemingly small things we do at HATD that are drops of light in the darkness. This is what we can do for now. And this is a lot.

 This interview was conducted by Tova R. Reznicek, HATD Administrative Director. 

To learn more about our work or to be put in touch with Raya or Patrick, write us at any of the following email addresses:

Norbert Goldfield, MD, Executive Director|
Tova R. Reznicek, Administrative Director |
General Inquiries:
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One Response to Fighting for health, under fire

  1. Shana Sureck says:

    Patrick and Raya – You both give me hope that beneath the hate are wise, wonderful people committed to peace and two homelands that live in peace with each other, even in the face of rising hatred and violence. Thank you for your work, and Raya, I pray that soon you and your children are living without such horrible, traumatizing fear.

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