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Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

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Erella Dunayevsky

Erella Dunayevsky grew up in Haifa and lives on Kibbutz Shoval in the Negev, where she was raised, and is a mental health therapist. Erella helped found the "Villages Group", a group of individuals working in villages in the Nablus area and South Hebron Hills according to their strengths and capacities. Erella works to strengthen relationships and ties between Palestinians and Israelis. In the past, she was part of a group of mental health professionals who worked with Israelis and Palestinians in Nablus and Gaza.

  • Please tell us about how you got involved in the work that you do.

    I've been involved in Jewish-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian relations all my life. Most of my work has been individual and process-oriented, less collective or revolutionary. In 2002 there was a large-scale closure and it was impossible to contact Palestinians. It was also a difficult year for the olive harvest. A few of us got together very spontaneously: Ehud Krinis from my kibbutz, Yaacov Manor and I met, and we went to work on the olive harvest. At the time the army wasn't involved, even though its role has changed since then, partly due to our work. We operated in villages in the Nablus area: Deir al-Hatab, Salem, Akraba, Hawara and Yanoun. In Deir al-Hatab we met a man who was very excited to meet us. His story began a few months earlier, when his daughter Tbarek, who had epilepsy, ran out of medication. He was desperate because he couldn't get the medication anywhere and he sent out an email through a Palestinian relief agency requesting people help him. An Israeli named Assaf Oron encountered his email and sent the medicine to Nablus for him through Aramex. In order to reach Nablus the man had to pass the checkpoints separating the three villages Deir al-Hatab, Azmout and Salem from Nablus. He stood in front of the checkpoint with his daughter for several days and the army refused to let him through. In the end, when he finally managed to pass, his daughter died at the hospital entrance. Assaf was about to leave for Seattle for his Ph.D. He knew Ehud and asked him to reach the man he had never met, and continue the relationship. Since the issue with the medication, Assaf had spoken to him on the phone every day. A few months later, we visited [Deir al-Hatab] and met the man. We came for the olive harvest - to check how things were. We didn't know where to enter from or how to pass, vis-à-vis the army. We also met with Abed al-Hakim in Salem, who also helped us get involved in the harvest, and that's how our relationship with both villages began. Ehud and I devoted ourselves to these villages, which we chose because they were completely closed off and isolated, impossible to enter or leave, more than other villages. We realized we needed to take a different approach - coming with only few people and not as part of an "operation" the media would cover. Because there was no way for us to enter, we sneaked in. It's difficult to describe these experiences. We never saw ourselves as a group, never named ourselves. People joined us by word of mouth. We would call each other and ask who could come that day. We went there every few weeks, four to six people - that was a good number. At first we were able to enter by car and drive in through a path, but later the army blocked that way and we had to hide the car by the checkpoint. After we had been meeting for two or three years, on one occasion we happened to be a group of thirteen. That was the largest number of people that ever came together. Usually we took at least two cars but that time Yaacov suggested we leave our cars at the meeting place in Kafr Kassem and hire a minibus to take us to one of the villages. When we got close to the drop-off point, a military jeep passed us. A minute later it turned around and stopped us. Ehud said we were on a trip of the area. The officer listened and it seemed to sound fine to him and they drove off. We started walking towards the village and from the corner of my eye I saw soldiers coming down the hill from the road. It was important that we reach the village because we had letters to deliver, especially the letters from Physicians for Human Rights. This was a very difficult period and [for the villagers] meeting us sometimes meant substantial help, and it was really important we reach them. We decided that three of us would sit and wait for the soldiers and the rest would walk really quickly to the village. We reached the village before the soldiers managed to reach the point our three members were waiting. We reached the village council building where people were waiting and said, "Listen, we think we won't be allowed to stay here today, let's get organized quickly". The saga began: our friends who stayed behind - Ehud, Yaacov and someone else I can't remember who - called us and said that the soldiers were saying if we didn't leave immediately they'd enter the villagers' houses. That was their method - the soldiers would harass people. We told them we were leaving and were just finishing up what we came to do. People from the village accompanied us to the girls' school, which was then under construction, and we parted ways there because they weren't allowed to continue. We stood on the hill, saying our goodbyes very warmly. We knew each other for two or three years by then and we had a very strong relationship. I remember I said, "We're going and we don't want bad things to be done to you. But remember you can't steal everything from people. You can rob land, property, lots of things - maybe even health - but you can't rob people of their freedom. You can't! No one will take away our will to continue our relationship, you can't take that away." I had a strong urge to say this, and I saw everybody was crying, myself included. It was moving and I didn't plan to say it, it was just the way I felt. We said our goodbyes and we Israelis glided down the hill to where twenty armed soldiers were waiting. Walking by me was a Russian soldier who had immigrated to Israel a year before and barely spoke Hebrew, and by the time we reached the road we were good friends. I told him about what we were doing, and how it was humanitarian work, not political work. I introduced it very simply, so he could relate to what I was saying. The soldier said he understood us. When I started walking with him he clenched his gun by his side. I said, "You're walking with me, do me a favor and let go of the gun. It's making it difficult for me [to talk], this toy is bothering me. Let it go, just put it down. Don't walk with it." "But I was ordered to", he said. "You were ordered to but you're walking with me. If you don't want to let go of it move away from me." That's how that round ended. On the way back I thought to myself, what is it about belonging? Who exactly do I belong to? What is identity? I could deal with the question at that moment, as we left our friends. Who is friend, who is foe? Why the confusion? Our work has changed according to the circumstances. In 2005 the villagers were able to cross into Nablus, without being stopped at a checkpoint. Things changed and that affected the type of work we did, but we always based our work on core interpersonal relationships in response to the direct damages the occupation created, and this happened very often. Gradually the group of [Israelis] we met through working at villages grew. Our work got practical, such as Uri Pinkerfeld from Kibbbutz Revadim, who works to restore olive trees. We are unique in that we are a group of people and yet we aren't afflicted by organizational diseases. Each of us works according to our knowledge, strengths and capacities. Something about the trust and the lack of ego enables us to do combined and unorganized work. This had and still has many advantages. At a certain point we widened the scope of our work to the Southern Hebron Hills, Ehud knew people there through Ta'ayush. Being geographically close to our kibbutz helped, it's like our backyard because a 40-45 minute drive in the Negev is nothing. That's how we started working there as well. Our relationships with people led us, and still lead us to deal with the trouble and needs people face, inspiring us to help as much as possible. There are different ways of aiding people, some involve money. We invited people to join our activities and money started coming in - small sums - for example, to cover the cost of the driver who takes the schoolchildren in the Southern Hebron Hills from Sussiya to A-Tuwani, or to fund a rare drug that costs a lot. We understood that in order to receive funding we would have to register [as an NGO] and so we had to define what we were, there was no choice. The Villages Group isn't a regular group of people who share similar motives. Trust and mutual responsibility developed. Over the past years many people have taken a different path, some tired of the work and decided to get some fresh air, and some decided to take a different course of action, some people went to places with other problems such as Bilin and Yanoun. People chose different paths and we are fewer than thirteen now. Shatil tried to help us define our group in order to grow, which we'd really like to do. We failed because it's a little difficult for us to define ourselves. There may be drawbacks to this, but it's also powerful and flexible.

  • What have you achieved through the Villages Group's work?

    In many senses, each visit is an achievement. In general, our achievements are practical: there are individual achievements as well as achievements in terms of internal process. In 2002 a several hundreds of people got together for the olive harvest, it was an almost underground organization, and the army was very much opposed to it. This work changed over time and managed to secure the army's cooperation. It is now called the Harvest Coalition. One of the prominent people there is Uri, whose agricultural ideology is very sensitive to the matter of the olive harvest, especially after some negative experiences. Uri took on the harvest project, and he hasn't limited it to assisting harvesters but he also works to reconstruct roads and work cooperatively with the army so it takes responsibility for law and order. This was very successful. We contacted army commanders in various places in the field, not because we support the army's policies but because we need to cooperate. The army knows how to work according to procedures and it is very inflexible. In 2003, about the time we started working, settlers ambushed Palestinians on [the Palestinians'] lands and beat them - nearly to death. We visited one of the Palestinians, Samih, when he was released from the hospital. I remember one visit I was joined by Yitzhak Mendelsohn, we're both therapists. We tried to ask Samih what he was doing with the anger and insult he suffered, we asked his wife and kids too. Our presence was very important then. The scope of our work grew and it got difficult visiting everyone on Fridays and gradually we stopped visiting Samih. I think we hadn't seen him for two years and a while ago we came to the village's new council building, which is very close to his house. We had a meeting on a music project we wanted to organize and when we left he was waiting for us, leaning on a cane. The last time we saw him he had trouble breathing and it wasn't clear how he was, and whether he would recuperate. He stood there with his cane, an old man, older than we remembered him, and he said he missed us a lot and invited us to visit him next time we came. When, as promised, we visited, we talked to him and his sons on the stairs and he told us that our visits were very significant for him. Only then did we realize the bond create by our visits. I told you about the larger achievements. Now I'll tell you about the small ones, a story within a story. The road to Salem is an apartheid road and Palestinians aren't allowed to use it. The villagers have to cross the road to reach some of their lands. Uri worked hard so there would be a gate so people could cross the road, so that it be orderly. One Thursday Uri and I were there, it was our turn to mind the crossing between the road and the gate. We were waiting for people to return from the olive harvest. The first to return on the path was a 13 year-old boy riding a donkey carrying sacks of olives. Four soldiers stood not far away by their vehicle. The moment they saw the boy, they got out of their vehicle and we heard the sergeant tell the driver, "Watch this - I'm going to break his head." The boy got closer and the sergeant signaled him to stop - his gun pointed at him - and get off the donkey. We saw the boy getting off the donkey, trembling. The sergeant told him to unload the sacks and the boy said, "But I can't" - these were open sacks and if you unload them their contents spill - so they argued. We didn't intervene until then, and in an instant we crossed the road and got nearer. We saw the sergeant raise the butt of his gun and tell the boy that if he didn't unload the sacks he would break his head. I intervened and said to the soldier, "Excuse me? You can't break his head. That isn't your assignment. What do you want from him - his ID? Wait, his father is coming. Do you want to reach into the olives and check if there are weapons there? Check. But you can't ask him to unload the sacks because the olives will spill out. You don't even need to do that, it isn't your duty." He looked at me and opened his mouth but didn't say anything. He lowered the gun and told another soldier he'd find a way to break his head. At that moment, he was powerless. He bullied the boy a little but more and let him go. I achieved what I wanted. He didn't break his head open and had we not been there, he would have.

  • What have you learned from your work?

    You could say that I view my work as different kind of practices that my life summons. You don't have to go to the Territories for this, but the absurd [situations] you meet and the different kinds of behavior you experience are in the field, not in the newspaper or on television, in the field, and you're faced with them. When I'm in the field I feel part of this saga. I mean this in the most practical way, not spiritually speaking. I've learned the skills necessary for containing the paradoxes, pain, anger, absurdities and injustices, and do only what is possible, not what is impossible. The seam lines there are paper-thin, and it's difficult not to cross them. I've also learned a very difficult lesson: the work is minimal. The people who reap its benefits are few, and our work is so negligible that sometimes I ask myself, "What's your story?" We all do what we know how to do. For example, Noam Dotan is organizing a solar power project in the South Hebron Hills, and what am I doing? I know how to love, I know how to listen. It's hard to remember that's what I know how to do best. We all have a part in this work, it's an amazing jigsaw puzzle and I've come to understand there is true humane work being done here. In this continuous process I meet and get to know people, relationships grow, we are always connected. I get to know the problems from inside and understand some of them resemble the problems people everywhere have, while others are related to the culture, perceptions and collective mentality. It fascinates me and has become part of a process of growth and education in my life. Part of what I've learned in general is how to set my limits in the right places, including the limits of my power. I've learned - and I'm still learning this - that I have an idea of what happens to me when I meet someone, but I have no idea what happens to them when they meet me. I use my presence, I learned that when I'm in the right mood, my presence has an effect and it does a lot for people I meet. It's important and it plays a role. There is water in the trough but you can't force the horses to drink. I know what my role is: I bring water to the trough. That's quite a lot. Passersby on both sides will drink if they want to, they won't drink if they don't want to. I don't make an effort to connect with people around me and influence them. I used to run after things. This is a development in my life, now I quietly draw the water to the trough from a hidden spring. I don't create the water, I only make sure it can pass. I make sure the trough isn't destroyed and that the path to it is clear.

  • Is there a connection between your work and a political peace process?

    I ask myself that occasionally. From a general perspective, I have no idea. I think it doesn't contribute anything to a peace process, it contributes to something on the level of grassroots. I feel that if we didn't do our work, the distance might be greater. I don't want to find myself hating injustices and protesting what happens to the point it makes my throat hoarse, like Brecht wrote in To Those who Come After. I don't want to lose the ability to love and I do my work in a way so as not to lose that capacity. Sometimes I find myself on the verge of nearly impossible boundaries. Does this [work] contribute to the bigger picture? I don't know, perhaps because I've stopped asking that question. I don't work because I'm hopeful, I work because I can't refrain from working. In the film Antonia's Line, Antonio says that the living want to live. I say that lovers want to love.

  • Could you tell us about the work you did in Nablus previously?

    In 1995-1999 I worked in Nablus with a group of Israeli therapists in the field of mental health. We were five Israelis and two Palestinians from Nablus. We held workshops for a group of Israelis and a group from Nablus regarding using pain constructively, for empowerment. The workshops addressed converting pain into a constructive force. It was just after the first intifada, just after Oslo. The army was still in Nablus and re-deployed its forces from the city while we were active there. The Palestinian Authority didn't exist yet, when it began to operate in 1999 it put a stop to our work because it couldn't accept that work was being done it wasn't involved in. We held these workshops for four years. In 1998 Yitzhak Mendelsohn from Jerusalem and I started holding these workshops in Gaza too. We worked there for two years. The Israelis we brought to Gaza had served there as soldiers during the first intifada. We introduced them to people their age from Gaza and it was a very powerful encounter. We didn't avoid any of the pain, we worked with it. I still have friends from the work we did there and we keep in touch. Even if we can't meet, we can write and our relationships survive. The war in Gaza was very difficult for me. I haven't gotten over it, I can't seem to find the energy to connect to an inner constructive force. I stayed in touch with friends in Gaza throughout the war. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have been able to stand it. It hit me at a personal level because this is about my personal friends, not about Palestinians in Gaza!

  • Where do you find the inspiration and strength for your work?

    I draw a lot of my strength from people I meet. When someone calls me and says we haven't spoken in a week or two, I realize it's really important. Our work doesn't depend on its outcomes, but often the outcome does strengthen our work. We aren't a spiritual group, but we do give each other a lot of strength. Sometimes strength comes from a joint sense of hopelessness, and sometimes it comes from the simplest things. I'll give you an example. During one of our trips to Salem, we finally got past the checkpoint and waited for permission to pass. We now sign a waiver saying the army isn't responsible for our security. One of the soldiers asked, "What is there in Salem?" We said, "We're visiting friends." What do you mean friends?" he asked. He couldn't accept that we were visiting our friends. These conversations are very interesting but they don't always end well, sometimes they end badly. Our friend was waiting for us on the other side of the checkpoint. Usually when we meet we celebrate, we embrace and kiss each other, like good friends do when they haven't seen each other in a long time. When we hugged I was facing the checkpoint and saw the surprised soldiers looking at us. I find strength in these embraces, in the welcome, from knowing we are wanted. I understand that apparently we are doing something right. Perhaps the inspiration and strength comes from being able to see myself as a bridge. In 2004 a settler killed a father from Salem. It's a well-known story. Sayel Jbara saw a settler standing on the road by his car. He stopped to ask him whether he needed help and the settler shot him. The settler was accused of manslaughter and released to house arrest. The legal system assisted him in evading his sentence. When we heard about it, we went to the family as a kind of tikkun [amendment]. There are those who destroy and those who mend. The family has two blind children and we became good friends with Yasmin, the daughter. It was very easy because her English is excellent. Thanks to donations and Yitzhak's daughter, a children's social worker, we bought Yasmin a computer for the blind. We bought the computer in Nablus and the supplier had never visited Salem before. A blind Arab-Israeli young man from Shibli in the Galilee taught Yasmin to use the program. When we met Yasmin she was in the 11th grade, now she's finishing university. During one of our visits, she told me her about her friend, who lives in Balata refugee camp [near Nablus], whose father was murdered. She said her friend was in a psychotic state and that she didn't know what to do about it. I called up Rauda, a friend who's a therapist, and asked her to see the girl. She agreed and asked us to make the introduction. I told Ehud that it takes talent to be a bridge. We are a kind of bridge. The continuity gives me strength, and the contacts we maintain grant me perspective and vision. There is power there that enables me to compete with the things that consume my strength, such as the war in Gaza. The things that consume your strength seem to work overtime.

  • How does your community react to your work?

    People here [on kibbutz] are busy with their own problems, with the kibbutz' privatization, all sorts of things, with growing old - problems people have. What I do doesn't really interest anyone here. People here see it as something we do, Ehud and my partner Danny. They don't consume our strength but they also don't strengthen us. In the past they did consume my strength. After suicide attacks people here would say to me, "Look what your friends are doing." That was very hard. It didn't have to do with me but obviously when it came up it was very painful. It required developing internal mechanisms to survive it. Now I know and I'm at peace with myself about this, and it doesn't consume my energy. I know what to expect.

  • Do you pay a price for your involvement?

    I pay a heavy price for doing this work, for being conscious. It's not an easy place to be, I feel very lonely. I can clearly and painfully say that I'm losing my joy of living. I have a lot of joy in me and I'm losing it. This isn't because of what I witness or because of the meetings or the problems, I'm losing my joy of living because of the lack of a supportive community. It's a crazy sense of loneliness and it can't be any other way. There are large gaps between the people who are working because there are various motives. Many people are driven to work by guilt - I have a hard time with this kind of work, it doesn't suit me. Some people want to prove to the Palestinians that there are good Jews too. I can't stand that.

  • Is there anything you'd like to add?

    I've learned that there is another source of training strength and the delicate mechanisms that differentiate between what I can control and what I can't. That may be the most valuable lesson for people in any situation, and knowing what you can't control is almost a prescription for happiness. For instance, I can't control peace, and that's a very clear distinction. When I know what is beyond my control, it becomes clearer what I can control. For instance, I can definitely control whether I visit people in the Southern Hebron Hills every Thursday, and every two weeks visit Salem and Deir al-Hatab. Liberty is something I can control, even if I'm sentenced to prison. There is a lot of power when you realize most of the things we'd like to have happen are beyond our control.

  • How do you differentiate between what you can control and what you can't?

    I can only control what I'm doing. In his inauguration speech, Nelson Mandela said that when we manage to overcome our fears, we enable others to do the same. From the professional work I do as a therapist, I deal with people who come willing to change and I can tell you how difficult it is to create change, let alone people who have barely any effect on what happens. But I've noticed that often, [my work] creates an experience that has an effect on the sidelines. When I demonstrate in Sheikh Jarrah [in Jerusalem], do you think it will make a difference to anyone if I didn't? I wish. Is it in my hands? At least I didn't let anyone change me. I have to examine what I do so that nobody changes me.

  • How do fears affect this conflict? Do you think Israelis and Palestinians have similar fears? Do you feel you share these fears?

    I don't deal with that because I don't like to. There are people who do, and focus on collective analyses. I can only say a word or two about what I experience in the field. Fears are very central to the creation of collective identities. I think that generally speaking, the Israeli public - this is a generalization - fears extermination and is a victim who fears this. Views of reality are disrupted and become very narrow. There is no range of possibilities for the ways the other side acts and they are constantly interpreted in a very narrow sense - such as "I'm righteous, you're wicked." What are the other side's fears? I was never the other side so I don't know what its fears are. I'm sure there are fears there and perhaps some of them are connected to the [Israelis'] profound denial of the existence of the Nakba, claiming they don't exists in terms of collective identity. Of course there are other sorts of fears and some of the fears on the other side are currently accurate. Someone suddenly arrived, settled and told them [this place] is theirs. The other side also fears for its identity as well as the physical threats in the field. On our side it happened in the past and for them it's happening now.

  • Where do you see signs of hope?

    I don't see signs of hope. All I know is that this work I do in the field with people gives me perspective on this social network and on what we're constructing, and that's significant for people here. This is certainly not novel but these are dedicated people. We are Israelis and we're supporting very small things and our influence is minute. I don't talk in terms of hope in the Middle East. Sorry.