Difficult Times in Ramallah

This is a difficult note to write. So much has happened and there is so much to say. It has taken me some weeks to begin to understand the depth of the quality of the work at Friends Schools, Ramallah. It is so easy just to see a good school and to miss the richness of Friends’ work at the school over a full century and its impact on the life and living of the community of staff and students, past and present.

One of the reporters who questioned me on our verandah at the Boys School, just before the first missile attack, pointed to the violence on the streets and at the checkpoints, the destruction of the car in which the two Israeli reservists had mistakenly entered Ramallah and their subsequent murder in the police station next to the school, and said to me it was clear that our witness to peace and reconciliation in the schools had failed. He further claimed that only the Christian church leaders and a few Jewish rabbis had such a clearly lame message of peace and reconciliation. This message was not shared by the imam of the mosques, he said.

How do we reply to such a charge? The last 15 days, at one level, have been a wonderful God-given gift to me in that the real values of the school have emerged so clearly before my eyes. If you had been there on the morning of the death of the Israeli soldiers it might have brought tears to your eyes. Here was a community of students at the high school, some of whom, particularly some of the older ones, wanted to be out there where the action was. They wanted to demonstrate their indisputable loyalty to the Palestinian flag and nation, to demonstrate with passion their frustration, anger, humiliation, and pain at the loss of friends and family during this latest Intifada, and to make a statement by their action that they too could and would stand up as their fathers and brothers had done before them for a retributive justice, and that they would not be subdued by dangerous and sometimes lethal rubber-coated metal bullets or by tanks and machine-gun fire.

But the staff contained them, talked with them, calmed them down, and persuaded them that this was not helpful and would not solve the problem, and that for the sake of the school and their brothers and sisters here they should return quietly to their classrooms and continue the day until they were told otherwise. Now imagine it—by this time the riot on the streets just 50 yards away was at its peak, the police station was surrounded, the noise of an angry crowd was everywhere. The riot-ous crowd could be seen from the classroom windows as they forced their way into the police station and overwhelmed the police and the army doing their best to prevent entry. The Israelis were shot, and the rest was covered by the news that you have undoubtedly seen and heard.

The school was evacuated because everyone expected the worst. Within half an hour of the incident the Israeli helicopters with their ferocious firepower circled overhead, and everyone knew that an attack was imminent. The children were frightened and so the staff were anxious. The school was evacuated to the Jim Harb Hall, which is the furthest point from the police station and the best place for worried parents to collect their children. The evacuation started by 11:00 a.m. and was complete by 12:30 p.m. In the face of the situation, it was a miracle. It was orderly and, in the circumstances, brilliantly conducted.

Mahmoud Amra, the head of school, was calm, cool, and collected. He oversaw the whole process with a professionalism and a compassion that was admirable. When faced with a classroom of 30 teenagers overlooking the police station, he said to them before the evacuation and before the murder, "Think about the situation, why is it happening, what should be done. Talk about it with each other, express your feelings clearly, and reason out the implications and remedies." The class listened, reordered their desks, and their teacher was able to function better in the face of this volatile situation. Shortly after, they were on their way to Jim Harb Hall.

The story in the Girls School, with children from five years old through to eleven, was the same although the immediacy of the violence was not so transparent. Nevertheless the children were very frightened, there were tears from some of the younger ones and from some parents, such was their concern. Diana Abdel Nour, the principal, and her staff were thoroughly professional and compassionate and led the children to their parents’ arms in safety. The last child left the care of the school at almost the same time as the Boys School, one-and-a-half hours after the ministry of education ordered the schools to close.

Over the last few weeks, I have gained a much better understanding of our schools’ response to the present situation. I challenged our staff too, asking them how they saw the schools witnessing, in this situation, to our historical testimonies to peace with justice and to nonviolence as a proper response to aggression. Both my Christian and Muslim colleagues answered with wisdom and maturity and out of the experience of a previous Intifada and 50-odd years of structural oppression of the Palestinian people.

Humbling would be the right description of my feelings. There was care, compassion, faith, hope, and love alongside frustration and the frailty of our humanity. There was a concern for all God’s people whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, or just for all human beings in apparently impassible or impossible situations.

Well my friend, reporter, only my heart could reveal the quality of Friends’ witness in these schools and only your heart could appreciate it if it were ready to see it.

Following the death of the Israeli soldiers, the interview with Channel Four news, the London Times, and that of the Boston Globe and following the missile attack on the post office and at least five other targets that we heard—eight others according to Channel Four —we decided it was best to leave the city for a few days and travel with a news team to Jerusalem.

Now as I rest with Kathy, my wife, here at St. Andrews Scottish Hostel and know in conversation with my colleagues in Ramallah that life is returning to Ramallah, we realize how stressful it has been for us and for countless other families over the last two weeks. We need these few days before we try to return to Ramallah on Monday for rest and recuperation. The schools were unharmed, no students or staff were hurt on the day of revenge. The accuracy and precision of modern weapons is somehow comforting and somehow deeply disturbing. The schools in Ramallah reopen today, and our thoughts and prayers are with them.
This account first appeared in the October 20, 2000, issue of The Friend, London, just after the killings of two Israeli soldiers and the bombing of a Palestinian police station adjacent to the Friends Boys School in Ramallah, West Bank.