Tour of Haram Al Sharif and UN OCHA

A small contingent of our Interfaith Peace Builder Delegation went to Haram Al Sharif together.  The site encompass 35 acres of the old city of Jerusalem, and contains the well known Dome of the Rock, also known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque.   Before we could enter we went through security and had our bags searched.  Our tour guide Said told us they where looking for religious items, or national flags, as well as the obvious things that could be dangerous.  I was excited to visit this architectural marvel, and was disappointed to learn I could not go inside.  Said explained that because the site is considered holy for Jewish and Muslim people there are frequently Jewish people demonstrating in the site.  There have been examples of people trying to hang flags, religious items, or desecrate the site.  To help prevent other religious groups from taking over the mosque, all non-Muslim people are prevented from entering.  During our visit a group of Israeli residents were walking around the site with their own security.  They were followed by religious Muslims chanting Allahu Akbar (God is Great) in protest.  We were informed that this happens on a daily basis.  It was a strange and slightly unnerving site in what otherwise was an amazing experience.


Later that day we went to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).  Here we learned a great deal about the conditions of people living in both Gaza and the West Bank.  OCHA works to advocate for and help the worst humanitarian situations.  The Jerusalem office and field offices in West Bank have had a presence, coordinating relief efforts in the region for 10 years.  Approximately 40% of the Palestinian population lives within the West Bank and Gaza.

The area of Gaza is 6km – 10km wide and 400km long.  Many of the residents are not originally from Gaza.  Around 1/2 of the entire population is under 18 years old.  There are no Israeli residents inside, and no military base.  Israel has control of the sea, airspace, and checkpoints around Gaza.  The Southern point is controlled by Egypt, but it is not open.  Since 2014 all checkpoints remain largely closed.  There are restrictions on the import and export of goods to Gaza.  The checkpoint Karem Shalom is the only place for trade of goods, but is frequently closed.  The closures prevent people within Gaza to get basic supplies.  DSC_0201The other checkpoint for people is Erez crossing. An exit permit is required for individuals to enter or leave.  Permits are only granted with a medical referral, to business merchants, or senior humanitarians.

There is generally a 100m buffer from the fences or walls surrounding Gaza.  In some areas the distance is greater or frequently changes depending on the time of day.  It is usually unclear what the limits are, and residents must figure it out through word of mouth.  As a result many people have stopped farming or switched to low maintenance crops.

Since Operation Protective Edge in July 2014, 200,000 people in Gaza have been displaced.  Entire city blocks have been completely flattened.  The region is not developing and is going backward.  Construction materials are restricted and not reaching people fast enough to help rebuild.  Visit this page for a visual map and graphics depicting the movement of goods and people.

Residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem do have more freedom of movement but there are still restrictions..  Around 18% of the West Bank is considered a military zone.  If a resident of East Jerusalem ID  is revoked the individual is not permitted to move to other parts of Palestine.  People are often pressured to leave or asked to move.  Palestinian traffic is pushed off of main roads and pushed onto poorly developed side roads.  People are restricted from entering surrounding areas.  Development is slow in the region because only 2% – 5% of building permits are approved by Israel.  Building without a permit often results in the demolition of homes or business.  Bedouin tents also require permits.  Many Bedouin people have been forcibly transferred, which is a break of the Geneva Convention.  (UN Officials: Israel must halt plans to transfer Palestinian Bedouins)  The restrictions on movement and construction in the West Bank has resulted in poor economic growth.

“Although there has been a reduction in the levels of violence in recent years, many Palestinians continue to have humanitarian needs that are created by ongoing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, including threats to life, liberty and security, restrictions on access and movement of people and goods to and within the OPT, and the risk of forced displacement.” – United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – occupied Palestinian territory. (n.d.). Retrieved from, August 24, 2015.

You can find additional information, including maps of the region at this site –

The main website is –


A step back in time

DSC_0144Lifta is an ancient town located in the outskirts of Jerusalem.  The village is nestled within the hills.  Houses and shops were once spread out from the top of the mountain and into the valley below.  In the lowest part in what was once the town center there is a spring that is still used today by locals.  Today most of the remaining buildings in Lifta are unoccupied.  About 60 of the original houses remain, with a few that now house Israeli residents.  Lifta was once considered to be a wealthy community, where people would come to purchase fabric and embroidery.  The area around the spring was once used as a social place, and for special occasions by the residents.  The water system running through this town was established by the Romans.  The upper pool was used for cleaning while the lower was used for animals.  Many people where swimming, and playing in the upper pool area.  Residents used to maintain vegetable gardens and fruit trees within the town.  DSC_0157Today you can still see many fig trees throughout.  During our visit we explored the inside of some of the homes, a mosque, and an olive oil press.  The crumbling structures offer a glimpse into how homes where typically constructed in the region, with each new layer built on top of the other as families grew.  collage1

DSC_0162Scattered around the area we could see large cacti intended to represent spots where houses once stood.  In 1948 about 30% of the Palestinian population lived in cities and towns like this one, with the rest scattered in small farming villages.

During the time of the Nakba a coffee shop higher up on the hill in Lifta was attacked.  A nearby Jewish neighborhood claimed they where surrounded and felt threatened by the Arab people.  After the attack many moved further downhill into the homes of friends and relatives.  The attacks continued forcing more people to flee.  A few men remained to protect the town, however they soon realized they did not have enough resources.  The land was considered absentee property to allow the state of Israel to claim it.  Many of the people left toward Ramallah.  There is a small community of people from the town of Lifta living in East Jerusalem today.

Our group leader Jacob Pace from Interfaith Peace builders created the video below

Lifta is just one example of what happened throughout Palestine in 1948.  The Zionist movement at that time was well prepared for war, but the people living in the region where primarily farmers and not prepared.  In June of 1948 in Tel Aviv it was decided that the refugees would not be able to return.  Some did try to return home but where prevented.  After Israel took the land and properties it was sold to the Jewish National Fund (JNF) who then sold it to incoming residents.  About 6%-10% of the land was purchased to sharecroppers who do not live in the area.

Zochrot is an organization formed in 2002, working to preserve the history of the region.  Their mission is to promote accountability and responsibility for the ongoing impact created by the Nakba.  So far they have created records of 600 of the places that had been destroyed.  They have recorded stories from surviving families, created maps depicting where the villages are located and are working on publishing a book for each place.

The map can be viewed on their website, or through the iNakba app for iPhones.  The app provides coordinates and information for each village.


A ghost town called Hebron

Hebron was possibly the most depressing town we visited during our tour.  No where else was the discrimination so blatantly obvious.  The city is divided into two sections.  H1 is governed by the Palestinian authority, and about 120,000 people live in the section.  H2 has around 600 Jewish residents, and is under Israeli military control.streetview3 streetview

From the moment we got off the bus we were met by children, desperately hoping for money or water.  Some had small souvenirs to sell, others asked for money for photographs we took of them.  They followed us almost everywhere we went.  The city itself seemed abandoned, most of the shops had shuttered doors.  We saw buses for settlers that are bullet proof driving through the streets.

Hebron is the home of Ibrahimi Mosque and the Tomb of the Patriarchs.  It is believed that the tomb is were biblical patriarchs are buried.  We were not able to visit these places, however we did learn that in 1994 a US-born Israeli military physician opened fire on the people praying inside.  Many died or were injured during the massacre.  The Israeli army killed more civilians during protests taking place in the city.  The Israeli government ordered over 500 Palestinian shops to be closed, most of which remain closed today.

Houses, hotels, stores close to Israeli settlements are not allowed to be occupied.  Many of the streets we walked down had checkpoints, staffed by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).  Cameras can be seen everywhere.  Palestinian residents do not open their windows because settlers will throw garbage inside.

On one empty street soldiers told our tour guide, Muhanned Qufesha who was born in Hebron, that he could not continue on, but the rest of us from the U.S. could.  Palestinians going through a checkpoint are often made to wait for hours at a time for no particular reason.

This video was filmed by our group leader Jacob Pace of Interfaith Peace Builders. (IFPB)


nettingWe walked through a market street that now houses Israeli settlers and a watch tower in the floors above.  People living in the floors above often throw trash, excrement, and cleaning water down onto the street below.  The people owning the shops below installed netting to catch the garbage.  We met one shop keeper who told us his shop was passed down by his grandfather.  Many leave the city, but he is one of the few who are determined to stay and maintain his family business.

star We walked down a called Shuhada Street sometimes called Chicago St.  A large abandoned hotel stands at one end, and a Kibbutz can be seen on the other.  All the store fronts are closed.  Many of the storefront doors have a Star of David or racial slurs toward Palestinians painted on them.  The street is completely closed to the residents.  Those living in the area are forced to exit there homes over roofs or through back doors.

To learn more about what is going on in Hebron today visit This is a group of young activists working to end occupation through non-violent civil disobedience.

The video below is of Youth Against Settlements member Issa Amro discussing life in Hebron for Palestinians.

The video below was created by our IFPB group leader Jacob Pace.





First impressions

The journey to Israel/Palestine had its challenging moments, but we made it! I’m certain everyone in the group was feeling exhausted by the time we arrived at the Tel Aviv airport. On the bus ride to Jerusalem, the terrain was rocky and hilly with small shrubs and trees. Our tour guide Said pointed out that many of the trees are not indigenous to the region, except for Oak trees, and possibly Cyprus. The many pine trees, and palm trees had been planted to hide destroyed Palestinian villages.
The highway we traveled on was built to allow drivers to avoid areas where Palestinian people live. There are other roadways through tunnels that avoid the bypass. Some of the roadways are cutoff, and dead end at the bypass. We learned that Palestinians are only able to use certain sections of the bypass for limited number hours. However, they must go through a checkpoint and cars are detained for several hours, making using the bypass impractical. We also spotted a soldier on a ridge, and a surveillance balloon watching the highway. Said pointed out the villages with black water towers on the roof. He explained to us that the Israel government will cut off the water supply without notice, and the black water towers serve as a backup.

It seemed to me that the shadow of Israel was even more evident within the wall of the old city of Jerusalem. On the surface the old city is vibrant, and beautiful. There are vendors selling spices, clothing, and freshly pressed juice. When looking viewing it through the lens of a tourist it is an amazing place to visit. However, if you take a moment to scratch beneath the surface it quickly becomes clear that people living in the city are not truly in harmony. There are cameras on every street, and barbed wires and fences separating different sections. Israeli parents hire security guards to escort their children. More and more settler only homes are appearing. We passed a Mosque, which will soon have a settler home next to it. Street names have been changed from their original Palestinian name.
To me the old city was like a trip through Disneyland. Many areas where sanitized of their history, and visitors only saw what people in power wanted them to see.

-Stephanie Langer

No turning back

Today we are leaving for Washington D.C., to attend the orientation. We will meet the other people joining us on this trip, and of course our guides.

Right now I’m all packed, I’ve said my goodbyes, and I’m sitting in my comfortable home, surrounded by everything that is familiar. As that moment when we leave draws nearer, I am feeling more and more nervous about the entire thing. Did I pack everything I need? Am I bringing too much with me?

Whenever someone asks me if I’m nervous or scared about the trip, and they tell me I’m brave, I usually shrug it off. Many people before me have gone to Israel/Palestine with IFPB (Interfaith Peace Builders), and they have returned home safely. Why should I be afraid? However, the reality of making this trip has finally set in. This will be the furthest I have ever been from home. I have visited Germany a few times, but that was to visit relatives, and not much different from a drive to Pennsylvania. Of course the purpose of this journey is very different from any other time I’ve flown overseas. The truth is am a little afraid of visiting a land in such turmoil, but there is no turning back now. At the same time I am looking forward to meeting new people, and listening to their stories, and to becoming a witness. Most importantly I will share my experiences on this blog, and when I return home.

I will leave you with a quote from one my favorite heroines;

“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.” ― Sophie Scholl

Visit Interfaith Peace Builders for more information about the organization we are traveling with.

-Stephanie Langer

We are coming to bear witness

In just a few days from now, Stephanie Langer and I will be taking our first journey to Israel/Palestine with Interfaith Peace-Builders to bear witness to the occupation. We plan on meeting with Palestinian and Israeli groups and leaders to hear their stories and gain a deeper understanding and perspective of what is transpiring on the ground. Our goal when we return back to the U.S. is to educate others on what we observed and to influence U.S. foreign policy.

Listen to our interview with Ute Ritz-Deutch’s WRFI Community Radio Human Rights and Social Justice Program in Ithaca, NY on 7/17/15 about our upcoming trip, making the connections between oppressions and more!

In solidarity,
Amber Gilewski