Thursday, 2 October 2014

Paving the way to peace

The conflict in Gaza has once again escalated among the Israeli and Palestinian community, taking the historical struggle to new heights.  

Zenat Kabbani is a 21-year-old Palestinian young woman who has lived her life in Kofar-Yasif; a town in the north of Israeli – a territory, which is also debatably Palestine.

She is tired and confused by the endless tension. But despite all this, upon meeting Zenat, you cannot help but be struck by her infectious passion to create change, and her all-embracing openness and her youthfulness, all of which drive her to unite people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Outside of studying medicine, Zenat volunteers for the Haifa Shelter for Women in Crisis in Israel’s north, which is a mixed shelter for both Arab and Jewish women and their children who have experienced domestic violence. Women have borne the brunt of the conflict over the decades, subjected to laws and norms, which treat them as unequal members of society. The centre provides some reprieve from this reality, offering protection and legal aid, as well as opportunities to lead a non-violent life when they return to their community.

She also sheds light on two other groups making waves of change by engaging the youth of Palestine and Israel: ‘Moving for the sake of Palestine;’ a Palestinian, independent youth group which is working to seek justice by advocating for the human and political right to freedom of movement and ‘Refuse, your people will protect you’, which is a political group fighting the mandatory military recruitment of Palestinian youth to the Israeli army.

It is the commitment and relentless support of such groups, which is paving the way to peace.

Can you tell me some more of these youth groups you talk of Zenat?

Certainly. ‘Moving for the sake of Palestine’ is central to allowing the free movement of Palestinians. The Israeli occupation has physically divided our lands and nation into different areas that the Palestinian people as whole cannot access. The Palestinians of the Gaza strip are under siege, the Palestinians of the West Bank cannot go to areas belonging to the Israeli territories, and the Palestinians in Israeli territories cannot go to the Gaza Strip or other parts of the Arab World, which do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. This youth movement in fact recently held their first event – a virtual gathering for Palestinians living in these three restricted areas – to build a stronger connection and leverage the voices of these groups.

Refuse, your people will protect you’, is working to put an end to forced recruitment of people belonging to the religious and social group known as the Palestinian Druze. Recently, following the introduction of a new law, Palestinian Christians now have the right to volitional recruitment, which means they have the right to choose. If a Druze refuses however, the penalty is imprisonment.

Why do you think the answer rests in the hands of the youth?

I truly believe that the youth of today are the change-makers of tomorrow, because they are the ones witnessing and living the injustices and uprisings. They are the ones, who, by their present actions and positive work, are shaping the future. It's not that the older generation, including our politicians, social workers, activists, and older citizens in general, are not having an impact. From my experience though, young people have the drive, the determination and often, the invested interest which keeps them going.

My Palestinian roots and heritage are a significant part of my identity. It is not something that I get to embody and live freely each day like so many others in this world. Instead, it is something I have to fight for and try relentlessly to hold on to. I can only give credit to my fellow Palestinian youth for keeping the fight for our legacy alive. They are active members of movements that aspire for equality and liberation of our people and our occupied lands.

I know you yourself are incredibility active in your community. What programs are you involved in?

I have been part of two programs that give space to young people from both sides of the conflict to get together and converse. I’m an alumni member of the Building Bridges for Peace program, which provides a safe area for women from divided communities to connect and to learn from each other through conversation and reflection on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We found that Palestinians from occupied Palestine and the West Bank, Jews from Israel, and Americans need open dialogue to break the silence and explore gender issues, sexuality and our entitled right to equality
More recently however, I have been volunteering my time at the Shelter for Women in Crisis. I joined the shelter in the summer of 2009, and have been working closely with the women and children who are victims of domestic violence to build a better life. It is the only shelter in Israel that caters for a multi-cultural population, supporting both Arabs and Jews, in addition to new immigrants. It aims to empower, take care of, and rehabilitate women that come to the shelter, so that they will be able to choose a life for themselves and for their children that is free of violence, fear, and oppression. It is our responsibility to provide physical and emotional protection as well as legal aid to support their needs. Last year we had 66 women and 93 children come to shelter seeking help and it’s becoming clear that the shelter’s main role is supporting the children of women in crisis to ensure they have access to opportunities in the future. Each year, the focus of the program changes depending on the needs of the community, which we find out by directly talking with and consulting the participants.

What positive changes have you witnessed since being apart of these programs?

Personally, I’ve noticed positive changes in myself. I’ve gained a lot of confidence and can stand proudly and tell my story. I now raise my voice and talk about many worldly issues that continue to be communicated with bias across social media channels. I stand up for what I know is right now instead of shying away. I’ve also become better at conversing and listening to people and their needs as part of a leader-in-training program, with the Building Bridges to Peace program, which equipped me with the skills to put my personal experience into action and relate to other’s reality.

… For someone who’s looking at my life from the outside, they’ll only see a normal life that’s similar to any other based on a daily routine between school, volunteer work, social life and such. But it’s not. It’s very far from the truth.

I’d like to learn more of how different your life is ...

Being part of a minority group in a conflicted area is something that I, and my community, have to fight against each day. We are not given all of our rights, and while to others our lives may appear normal, our lives are not normal at all.

For instance, we don’t get to learn in our native language, we don’t have access to the same job opportunities like Jewish citizens, and we don’t get the same financial support for our education and health.

A perfect example is ‘Israeli Independence Day’, which was celebrated in May by Jews in Israel. But for me and my family, friends and wider Palestinian community, they technically celebrate the day of our ‘Nakba’ – the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948 – which is the day the Israeli occupation took over our lands, after the killing and displacement of more than 800,000 Palestinians from their hometowns.

These two weeks of ‘celebrations’ really test me psychologically. It’s absolutely tiring and makes me wonder what kind of humanity is left. But deep down I know that we need to keep going, and keep building our Palestinian community. We need to keep talking and healing. We need to unite in our sameness and our difference.

What is your vision for the future Zenat?

A future where youth can make a difference. A future where the obstacles, barriers and limitations are lowered so Palestinian and Israeli youth can mend the injustices and pave the way to a better living for future generations. I believe that the youth of today will be the ones changing the course of history of our nation. It’s something though that not only Palestine needs to support but the international community at large. The answer lies in our youth.

Question: After hearing Zenat's story, what role do you think young people play in creating positive change, both now and in the future? Join me in the comment box below! x

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