Sticks and Stones: An interview with Palestinian educator Mary Khass

Mary Khass lives in self-imposed exile in Gaza, where she has worked in UN and Quaker-sponsored programs since 1967. Mary has been in charge of the UN Relief Agency pre-school programs for the Gaza strip, working with children and teachers. She is especially concerned about the traumatization of the current generation of young Palestinians, and with helping them develop into mentally healthy adults. She is a "practicing feminist" and a strong proponent of dialogue and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. Maxine Nunn first met Mary when she was speaking to a group of young Israelis headed for army induction; part of her ongoing personal campaign to "show the good face of the Palestinians to the Israelis and the good face of the Israelis to the Palestinians."

By Maxine Kaufman Nunn (interviewer)

Maxine: You have said "both sides are raising a generation of haters." My co-author recently saw a disturbing scene in a film about the Intifada: Palestinian children were yelling anti-Israel slogans, sounding violent, and being encouraged by their teachers. She felt that their socialization was encouraging aggressiveness.

Mary: I haven't seen the film but I can talk about the children we deal with-children under six. Life in a camp has become a daily routine since the Intifada-soldiers raiding houses during the night, during the day, early in the morning. All these little kids see is the harassment of their community, friends, brothers, sisters, mother, father. They don't see anything else. Now, a child must react. I wouldn't call it aggression. To shout slogans is not aggressive; it's a reaction towards pressure and harassment. When we grownups are being harassed, we sometimes scream. When some people are angry they throw things on the floor to let out steam. I have not seen children attacking soldiers-except throwing a stone from far away because they're too frightened to come near. But I've seen adults-soldiers-beating children. I don't think you can call the reaction of the children aggressive.

On the other hand, the children are the expression of their community. Children not only play the [Intifada] games; they are aggressive toward each other now in the kindergartens. They need supervision and protection from each other. It's very hard in Gaza. It's not easy for you people to visualize what really happens. But if you live in a camp, maybe only for 12 hours, you'll understand what really goes on. Children don't see anything but Intifada; they don't live anything but Intifada; they're under curfew when everyone else is under curfew; they're paying the price when their father or a brother is rested. The majority of these children have witnessed the beating of their loved ones. And they let out steam in the street and the kindergarten by throwing stones or maybe hitting at each other.

We're finding it difficult to help these children relax. They're hyperactive, aggressive, frightened, restless. It's difficult to control them. We need to help them let out steam, express their difficulties-not only by shouting slogans, but by drawing and by games.

Maxine: As a nonviolent person, can you see a possible way to make co-existence more likely between the two peoples?

Mary: I think the Palestinians should use civil disobedience, and I think there's a need for dialogue with the Israelis. We are doing that very well. I would be happy to see Jewish volunteers in the camps helping in everything-like health, education...

Maxine: Would they be accepted? I've been told maybe foreigners would be, but Israelis would not be trusted.

Mary: It would be difficult, that's true. I would love to see that, but it is not going to come easily. There's a lot of education to be done; it's time we Palestinians accept that, although the regime is discriminating and biased, the Israeli people vary. Some are not discriminating; many Israelis support the Palestinian cause and would like to help by volunteering. We should educate our people to see the difference, and to accept Israeli volunteers. It's only right! Since we're being beaten, harassed and shot by Israelis, I would like to see us treated by Israeli doctors.

Maxine: You mentioned dialogue. Many Palestinian are critical of dialogue. They say that it very often doesn't lead to action; it's just a sterile exercise.

Mary: Listen, it isn't! It may be a sterile exercise if you "preach to the faithful," but talking to Israelis is necessary, because there are many misled Israelis, and they need to see the facts. We need to break through the barrier of their understanding of Palestinians. It's important for them to realize that the Palestinian people have as much right as the Israelis to this piece of land, that is supposed to be a holy piece of land, that is supposed to be a peaceful piece of land. The more dialogue the better!

Maxine: What do you get for yourself from it? Do you learn anything from the Israeli side, or do you think the main benefit is in getting your point of view across and showing who you are?

Mary: It helps me regain my trust in people. It's necessary to see a nicer side of Israel. In occupied Palestine my people only see the face of the soldier, the governor, the military court, torture, harassment. They need to see the Israeli as human. I cannot deny that the progressives, the nonviolents, the human rights believers are a minority. But the dialogue is helping the Israeli community.

Maxine: What activities of the Israeli peace movement do you see as helpful?

Mary: They write articles, they form supportive groups for legal and medical advice. All their activities are effective.

Maxine: I'm glad to hear that. What about the times when an Israeli group takes part in a demonstration within the occupied territories?

Mary: That's the most effective! Yes. It gives the Israelis a taste of what harassment really is and it also may protect the Palestinians who are participating. And that's why it's very important. For example, there's the Citizens' Rights Movement, Beer Sheva Branch (actually the Association for Civil Rights in Israel-ACRI) who come to Gaza once a week. When they go to court, the procedures are different, the convictions are milder.

Maxine: You are aware that the Israeli peace movement is divided. What about on the Palestinian side? We hear that there are certain political divisions, but that everyone's behind the PLO.

Mary: That's true. During a crisis, people unite more. During a war, during a revolution, people are stronger. But factions exist and that's also natural. After the Intifada and the achievement of the state, the factions will be stronger, and will have to deal with each other. We're like all nations. In Israel you have many parties, in America you have parties, in England you have parties, and we do too.

Maxine: You mentioned "after the state." Some people say, "Once the state is there, how can we know that the Muslim fundamentalists, for instance, won't have a take over-or somebody who supports Syria?"

Mary: It's going to be our state. We will not accept anything but democratic elections. We are hoping to build a democratic state. Fundamentalism is rising, but it's not going to be a fundamentalist state. It's not going to be a Khomeini state. That I know for sure. What will happen 20 years after the establishment of the state, I don't know and you don't know.

Maxine: What about Jewish fundamentalism? Do you see religious forces having an effect on the area?

Mary: You know something? Sadat wanted to fight the progressive forces in Egypt, so he strengthened the Ichwanis, the Muslim brothers. And in the end they killed him. The decision makers in Israel have strengthened the fundamentalists among the Israelis.

Maxine: And also among the Palestinians?

Mary: Definitely. They even admitted that. They have given them, not only money, but arms. They strengthened our fundamentalists, and also the Jewish fundamentalists. I'm afraid they're going to have to pay the price of what they have done. When fundamentalism is so strong in Israel, it's affecting the Israeli community; Jewish values and Jewish morals are going down the drain. It's not because there's an Intifada. It's because of the way they deal with the Intifada. And it's because they have those fundamentalists in decision-making positions. At least our fundamentalists are not in that position. I hope they never will be.

Maxine Nunn is a Canadian living in Israel doing work on nonviolence.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1991

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1991, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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