Elias Giacaman is a Palestinian Christian who believes in peace. He is an olive-wood craftsman from a multi-generational, familial tradition. He also manages the family business, Joseph E. Giacaman & Sons Co., with his father, Joseph, and mother, Mary.
You may remember Elias’ name from my posting on 25 Dec. 2010. He crafted the Nativity set that demonstrates the scale of the Separation Wall in Bethlehem. He and his family know the story of the Wall very well.
The family business was established in 1928 by Elias’ grandfather, a time when Christians made up about 9% of the population of what was then British-Mandate Palestine, roughly what is now Israel-Palestine. The shop was located in a building in the centre of Manger Square. By the 1970s, that building had been taken down. The shop is now located in a newer building on the right-hand side of Manger Square when facing the Church of the Nativity.
The Giacaman family is part of a diminishing Christian community in Israel-Palestine. People are emigrating primarily due to a lack of freedom and security, a poor economic situation, and political instability (see report). In 2007, Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem made up only 1.37% of the population; the figure in 2010 was estimated at 1.25%.
One of the many impacts of the Israeli Occupation is restricted movement for Palestinian Christians and Muslims. The Government of Israel began building the Separation Barrier or Wall in 2002. When completed, the Barrier will be 707 km long. For most of its length, the Barrier is fortified fencing; however, in populated areas such as that between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the Barrier is concrete wall. For a sense of scale, the Berlin Wall was 11.8 feet (3.6 metres) high. The Separation Wall stretches as high as 25 feet (8 metres). Fifteen percent of the Barrier is being built on the Green Line and 85% on land inside the occupied Palestinian territory. (The Green Line is the 1949 Armistice line following the declaration of the state of Israel; the Green Line marks the line between Israel and the West Bank. See this map and how the black line, representing the Separation Barrier, weaves in and out from the green, dotted line.) While the Government of Israel has a right to protect its citizens, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) (the principal judicial body of the United Nations) advised in 2004 that the sections of the Wall that run inside the West Bank are illegal.
Through the building of the Separation Wall, Elias’ family lost over 200 olive trees that his grandfather had cultivated in two areas. They lost 10 dunam [about 2.5 acres; 1 hectare] when Israel built the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. They lost over 25 dunam to the Israeli settlement of Har Homa (see map). Elias recalls that the land was taken during the Israeli-state imposed curfews (between 2000-2002) during the Second Intifada. For 273 days in 2002, Bethlehem residents were not allowed to leave their homes. Every four or five days, people were given three to four hours to shop, tend to their businesses, etc. Elias’ family did not see that the Separation Barrier was being built and their land taken.
Despite the curfew, the Giacaman family’s business survived. Elias has said that, “Like any Palestinian, we want to live in peace and to spend life as human beings with all of our rights. In 2011, we are living surrounded by walls. It’s not the thing you can do with humans. That’s not respect. Like animals inside a wall. What’s that?”
Last December, I was introduced to the Giacaman family by Ann Farr, an Ecumenical Accompanier placed in Yanoun in the West Bank. During that conversation, Joseph told us that finally, Elias had been granted a six-month work permit to visit Jerusalem and Israel for business purposes – after seven years of rejected applications. A few weeks ago, I returned to Bethlehem and had a chance to ask Elias about this seven-year effort, about Jerusalem, and about what this renewed access to Jerusalem means to him. He quickly set the discussion in the larger context of Palestine and Israel in 2010-2011.
“Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine, for all Palestinians. It has the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Al Aqsa Mosque. It is part of religion. Without Jerusalem, the capital, we don’t have access. Jerusalem should be part of the solution that people are seeking to the conflict. They [those seeking to negotiate peace] want to create a state without a capital!”
Elias described that, prior to 2000 and the Second Intifada, people used to receive permission relatively easily to visit Jerusalem for religious feasts (e.g., Christmas) for a few days (e.g., 15 days). Now, however, only a proportion of people who apply receive permission (e.g., of 2000 people, only 500 would receive permits). If a family were to apply for this type of permit, possibly only one or two members would receive a permit.
Most people who are applying for permission to enter Jerusalem are applying for work permits. Before the Wall was constructed, soldiers used to let people go around the existing checkpoint in effect indicating, “Don’t let me see you.” However, that is no longer possible. “With the Wall, it’s more complicated now. Everybody needs permission if they want to work in Jerusalem. If soldiers catch a person without permission, that person would be arrested. Or, if they catch someone without a permit on a bus or in a taxi in Jerusalem, the driver may be arrested too, for three months. Very few people (among those who are labourers) have a permit to work every day in Jerusalem.”
“In general, for example with Palestinians who have to go to Jerusalem for work, they start standing in line at the [Bethlehem] checkpoint at 2:00 am. They are losing half of their lives. For example, for 20 years of their life, they are waiting at the checkpoint for six years.” People choose to do this for the chance of higher pay in Jerusalem (in Israel) compared with what can be earned in Bethlehem (in the West Bank). “For example, if they work in Jerusalem, they might earn 250 NIS [about $80 CDN] per day as a minimum. If they have a professional trade (e.g., as an electrician), they might earn 400 or 500 NIS [about $135-$165 CDN]. But in Bethlehem, they might earn only 80 NIS [about $25 CDN] per day. That is a really hard life.”
Elias’ permit, which he received in December 2010, is valid for six months. It is a business permit and allows him to go and come, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem and Israel. He anticipates that he’ll be doing this weekly for his family’s business, to meet with clients and to purchase goods that he can only get in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Now that he has received this initial permit, the likelihood that he’ll receive six-month permits in the future is good. A few years ago, the likelihood of receiving subsequent permits would have been low.
From his perspective, Elias believes that Israel needs the Palestinians. “Nobody from either [Israeli or Palestinian] party wants the conflict to go on. People want what it was like before 2000.”
“It’s more expensive for Israel to bring in foreign workers (i.e., from outside of Israel-Palestine) because they typically send their earnings back home. But Palestinians, even with spending their earnings in the West Bank, 40% of that money is spent on Israeli goods. So the money goes back into the economy. Palestinians are not a threat to Israelis.”
“Most people – Christian, Muslim, and Jews – we just want peace. In 2002, we were so close to peace.”
He referred to the Nakba (see this and this info), the Naksa, and the disappointment used to describe a missed opportunity for peace that arose in 2002. It is known as the Arab Peace Initiative (API) and was proposed in Feb. 2002, adopted by the Arab League in March 2002, incorporated into the ‘Road Map for peace’ in Dec. 2002, and then officially issued in 2003. The API was re-endorsed by the Arab League in 2007. As of 2009, the initiative was to be incorporated into President Barack Obama’s approach to the peace process. Given this week’s events in Tunisia and Egypt, the API may be very relevant still. For example, see this article published online on 28 Jan. 2011.
Upon reflection, Elias offered that, “Now, we have a kind of peace. We are moving toward peace, in that direction. We’re a few steps away from peace. Who knows when, but it could happen quickly within a two-week timeframe. It will depend on the right players in that moment in time.”
Thinking about the future of Jerusalem, Elias describes how, “The solution [to the Conflict] is that everything is connected. Jerusalem with the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is connected.”
Elias’ vision for Jerusalem is that access would be like before 2000, not with the new borders as outlined by the Separation Barrier: “Palestinians are just looking for access to the Old City, not the new city. We are also seeking to enter Jerusalem, to work in Israel, to have a more comfortable life, a good way together [with Israelis].”