In Bitiir, a Palestinian village near Bethlehem, I learn from Hassan, our guide and the director of Batiir Landscape and Ecomuseum, that on June 15th UNESCO will be voting on a proposal submitted by the town to designate the village a World Heritage site. If this designation is not given, Israel will build a separation wall through the terraced farmland and its irrigation system destroying not only an ancient technology, but also an ancient culture and way of life. He walks with us through the village showing us the irrigation system developed by the Romans over 2000 years ago: a natural spring supplies the water that flows through a simple but sophisticated network of narrow channels that meander through the terraced gardens below. For many generations, eight extended Palestinian families have farmed the land here sharing equally the daily supply of spring water gathered for irrigation in a pool at the top of the hill. It is a system that requires cooperation between the families—each family is allowed a measure of the water available for the day. When the designated amount has been used in one family’s section, the water is diverted to the next family’s section by closing off the flow in one section of the channel and opening it up into the next leg of the channel. And on and on it goes—every day of the growing season, every year without disruption. I asked Idadl (a town council member) if conflict ever arose around the sharing of the water. She replied “I have lived here all of my life, and I’ve never known or heard of any problem. We work together—if we didn’t all of our gardens would suffer. And, if our gardens suffered, so would we.”
Such it is in this land (as it is everywhere)—to do harm to others is to do harm to oneself. Sadly, the wisdom that is part of religions and spiritual practices throughout the world is not evident in the actions of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory. Everywhere are signs of the Occupation: barbed-wire fences, forty-foot concrete walls and watchtowers, Israeli-only highways, electrical grids and wires connecting the daily expanding settlements and “out-posts” (rudimentary housing structures that precede the building of a new Settlement) that cut up and eat into what remains of Palestinian land. And now, here in Bitiir—this ancient and beautiful village is at risk for being gobbled up to satisfy Israel’s insatiable desire for more land.
As I walk through the village, my heart is heavy and feelings of anger, fear and sadness arise. Through this vessel experienced as me, I watch the mind and body respond to what walks through the sense doors: the sound of a panicked scream arises in the mind—“No…Stop…Enough, already!” I feel the heart tighten and close, then open, then tighten again…the sensation of tears comes. I practice relating to thoughts and feelings arising with compassion and understanding. I practice noticing and opening into life here as it is—seeing suffering in and around it all, not just the suffering of the Palestinian people, but of the Israeli people, too.
And, I remember the Buddha’s teachings on anattā (not-self) and the unfolding, impersonal and conditional nature of life; that what is happening now is the result of innumerable and dynamically interacting conditions over time. And, because conditions and the effects of dynamically interacting conditions do continually change, and when the trajectory of change is increasingly influenced by actions rooted in doing no harm and in wisdom and compassion (there is good evidence suggesting that this is the case), the unfolding results will be towards the common good. While I have faith in this, I struggle with patience, and sometimes, feelings of despair—how much more destruction and violence will happen before reaching the tipping point?
In this moment and many others, I find comfort and inspiration in the calm, steadfastness (samoud) of the Palestinian people with whom I travel. Remembering the words of poet William Stafford: “justice will take us millions of intricate moves” (from the poem, Thinking for Berky), I breathe in deeply and let go.