Guest columnist Katharine Baker and Peter Titelman: A Palestinian peace builder returns to Northampton

  • Mohammed Sawalha, who founded the The Palestinian House of Friendship (PHF), will return to Northampton on June 14 for a fundraising event for the organization. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Mohammed Sawalha, who founded the The Palestinian House of Friendship (PHF), will return to Northampton on June 14 for a fundraising event for the organization.

Published: 6/11/2019 10:30:22 PM

Twenty-five years ago Mohammed Sawalha, at the time a young graduate student in linguistics, created The Palestinian House of Friendship (PHF) in his home city of Nablus on the West Bank.

After many years of Israeli military occupation and a brutal intifada (“uprising”) in the late 1980s, this was a heady time with positive change in the air for both Palestinians and Israelis. The first round of the Oslo Accords had been signed in Washington in 1993, and both Israel and the PLO had agreed to accept each other as negotiating partners in finally working toward a lasting peace.

When Mohammed founded PHF in 1994, he wanted it to become a building block in the growth of a new civil society in Palestine, as the Palestinian people moved through the peace process to fulfill their right to self-determination (as mandated by UN Security Council).

He offered language classes, as well as programs in democracy-building for future adult and young adult voters, teaching them what non-violent self-determination would soon mean for them. And groups trained by PHF monitored early 1994 elections for the Palestinian Authority, a product of the Oslo Accords.

Oslo set up a “peace process” that was supposed to lead toward a resolution of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, with a two-state solution as its ultimate goal. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out as planned.

The Oslo process became a repetitive cycle of negotiations, suspensions and mediations, followed by more negotiations, suspensions, and a continuing movement of Israeli settlers into Palestinian lands on the West Bank. It ended after the failure of the Camp David Summit in 2000, and the outbreak of the second intifada soon thereafter.

With all these ups and downs, hopes, and dashed hopes, PHF continued to survive and thrive, but with the start of the second intifada, Mohammed sadly realized that his dream of building a civil society in Palestine was going to take a lot longer than he had ever imagined.

He decided that it would be more realistic to shift his focus to the next generation of Palestinians. If the current generation remained mired in intractable conflict with Israel, perhaps PHF could offer the children of Nablus a respite from the violence of the military occupation.

It could offer them opportunities to play, to be joyful and creative, to love the music and traditional dances of Palestine, and to learn the principles of non-violence, so that they would grow up to be the wiser leaders of tomorrow.

Under Mohammed’s direction, PHF expanded its summer camps to include disabled children and refugee children, it launched a Girl Scout troop that gave teenage girls a chance to be leaders, to clean up their immediate environment and to offer assistance to elderly shut-ins in Nablus. It started after-school winter programs to keep children busy and happy all year round.

With the support of the Ministry of Education, it pioneered e-learning programs in rural schools to assure that adolescents had access to education during Israeli-imposed curfews and blockades created by the Israeli Separation Wall. With the help of Skate-Pal in Scotland, it constructed a skateboard park in a nearby village, and with support from Playgrounds for Palestine, a playground was constructed in the same village.

American donors helped PHF build a recording studio so that young people could create their own music, and older people could record oral histories of their life experience.

Toward the end of the second intifada, Mohammed was invited to participate in a conference at Brandeis University, and part of his program brought him to the Traprock Peace Center in Deerfield. We met him there, got to know him, and gradually became friends.

In the intervening 15 years, we have visited Mohammed and his family in Palestine, and invited him back to western Massachusetts year after year, so we could keep connected with him and with Palestine. We have organized annual fundraisers for PHF, and many of our local friends have been equally strong supporters of Mohammed’s efforts to build a responsible new generation of non-violent leaders for Palestine.

Over the past two years, the Trump administration’s policy toward Israel and Palestine has become increasingly biased toward Israel and hostile to Palestinians, as the American embassy was moved to Jerusalem, and USAID cut $500 million in humanitarian and other direct aid programs to Palestine, as well as financial support for the Palestinian Authority.

The U.S. has also withdrawn its contribution to UNRWA, which has been devastating for the 50 percent of Gazans who depend on it.

Although PHF has never received any U.S. government aid, these cuts have a ripple effect throughout Palestine, and have increased the distress and impoverishment of the West Bank community that PHF serves.

In spite of these enormous stressors, PHF perseveres, and this year we will again welcome Mohammed to Northampton, holding a fundraising gathering for PHF to which the wider Northampton community is invited. It will be on June 14, from 6 to 8 p.m., at the Florence Civic and Business Center.

Conflicts in the 21st century have generated a dark shadow of human suffering across the planet and spawned large numbers of human rights issues. But the Palestinian House of Friendship projects light into this darkness. We hold up a candle for PHF, a small community center that dreams of a brighter future.

Katharine Baker and Peter Titelman are founding members of the American Friends of the Palestinian House of Friendship based in Northampton.


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