How does the corona crisis exacerbate the already difficult situation for Palestinians? To find out, PAX’s general director Anna Timmerman talked with Lucy Nusseibeh, the founder and chairperson of Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy (MEND), one of PAX’s partner organizations in Palestine.
They spoke about strengthening the voice of women and nonviolent resistance, and about hope in almost hopeless times. Nusseibeh: “Every form of trust and support helps girls to get more out of themselves.”
I was looking forward to a trip to Israel and Palestine, but Covid-19 got in the way.
Lucy Nusseibeh: “There are many infections in the Palestinian territories and in Jerusalem, where I live. There’s a strict lockdown here right now. Yet it seems like people aren’t really taking it seriously – not many people are wearing masks. A lot of people think it’s a conspiracy, a lie, not real. That’s partly denial and partly a hopeful belief in one’s own immunity. In the beginning there was a lot of solidarity, and social cohesion grew. Even appreciation for the Palestinian government rose. People were happy with how it was handled. But the situation has deteriorated.”
I haven’t been to Israel and Palestine since 1997 when I studied History in the West Bank at Bir Zeit University. May time there inspired me to become a feminist and work on human rights. Palestine and Israel have a special place in my heart. How is the situation there now?
“In 1997 it was very different, there was an actual peace process. That’s no longer the case. Of course there were a few roadblocks back then, but they came and went. The current situation is alarming. I’ve often thought it couldn’t get any worse. But yes, it can. When the Oslo Accords were signed, there was hope. But in the end everything was militarized. Back in 1997, there were far fewer weapons. Now weapons are everywhere and people aren’t very smart about using them. People shoot in the air, shoot in celebration during weddings – these shots sometimes hurt people by accident. And people use weapons during family disputes. They’re far too available and get used too easily.”
What changes have you seen in young people, especially in terms of political awareness?
“Everyone used to be involved in politics. The population was smaller, everyone knew each other much better. It was impossible to live here and not be involved in it. But now… people are much less involved, they’re discouraged by what they see going on around them. There’s much less to hope for. I see no hope for a state, no hope for peace. In the past, everyone wanted Palestine to become a beacon, but no one believes in that anymore. People don’t know as much, they are less sophisticated in their thinking. Many people don’t even know what happened during the wars in1948 or 1967. You would think it would be basic knowledge, but it’s not. There’s also more individualism, society is more fragmented. That arose after the Oslo Accords. People are in debt, stuck in systems they cannot get out of. The living situation has also deteriorated. People used to live in houses with gardens, now they live in tall buildings, one floor after another, with hardly any space between the buildings.”
How do you stay hopeful?
“That doesn’t always work. But luckily there’s the work I do, together with others, together with PAX. That has results and impact. We don’t have big ambitions, there’s no room for that here. But we do see growth. It doesn’t change the situation all at once, but we’re building. There’s no more hope for national peace, no. We work on a small scale and help where possible. ”
Can you explain how you work on peace despite everything?
“Training in nonviolent resistance and empowering women are the main part of what we do. We do projects in education, including one specifically aimed at girls’ schools, to make the women of the future more confident. One of the PAX-supported projects is to guide girls and women in making videos in which they tell their own story. Often they don’t dare to make their voices heard because of patriarchal society. This is one way they can be heard. It helps them build confidence and it shows other women that they’re allowed to exist and that they have to speak up. ”
Do those videos also have a broader effect?
“It starts small, we work in groups of eight women. They film and are filmed. They have to get used to their own sound, their own voice. It’s very powerful, although the films aren’t very technically advanced — don’t expect any Oscars for them. But people feel the films show what is real. The films are shown to a wider audience, to policy makers. That results in good discussions, it increases awareness. We also did this in a refugee camp. One of the videos was about a divorced woman with five children. Divorce is something that is greatly looked down upon. It was done so that you couldn’t recognize the woman in the film, but she was so proud of herself at a screening that she stood up and shouted, “That’s me! Please don’t make the same mistakes I did.” Sixteen- and 17-year-old girls are forced to get married, but there’s lots of dangers in these early marriages. These women warn against this. After seeing the video, policymakers take the problems in the refugee camps a lot more seriously.”
And the problems are of course enormous …
Yes, there’s a lot of anger and frustration. We train them how to deal with this, how to convert it into resistance, without violence. The women who took part in our projects do important work. They teach in schools about gender, media and human security. They work as activists and want to join city councils. They are passionate about women’s rights, it’s beautiful to see. It has a lot of impact. We also work with boys and girls. We work together with the Ministry of Education. There are short versions of the videos for mobile phones. We tell them how to understand and criticize media reports. We teach them to tell stories. We train teachers to become trainers. It’s about community building, not about protesting, but about social cohesion. That’s the basis of nonviolence. When you portray yourself and bring out your own humanity, then you’re powerful. People talk themselves down and let themselves be talked down. We try to counteract that.”
How much influence does the occupation have on those feelings?
Years of oppression have been extremely damaging. That feeds victimhood. But people have to escape from that, have to understand the complexity of the occupation. And for women it’s kind of a double occupation. There’s a lot of pressure, and corona makes that even worse. In the refugee camps in the West Bank everyone is watched and commented on. It’s difficult to feel free. Any kind of trust and support helps girls to get more out of themselves. To be less concerned about what the tradition and society want from them.”
I am relatively new to PAX — do you have any advice for us?
“Working with PAX feels like a partnership. There is openness and trust. PAX manages to stay positive. That in itself is quite an achievement. You focus on the right things. The video project on gender was difficult to get off the ground. Now, thanks to your help, it works. In fact, we also receive support for this method from institutions such as the EU and UN. I am very grateful for the support and the way you give it. Stay open to what others say and take risks, just like you’ve been doing.
Thank you. Good to hear, if anything. Let us know how we can improve it. I look forward to meeting you in person.
“Thank you, and thank you for the support. And I wish you well during the pandemic.”
Read more about Nusseibeh’s organization Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy (MEND)
Read more about PAX’s work in Israel and Palestine