Last night, Israeli troops advanced into Gaza, in a conflict that has already claimed the lives of over 440 Palestinians in just eight days (Palestine Red Crescent figures after 20 days put total deaths at 1133 including 545 women, children and elderly). Living in the Middle East for over 40 years, Maltese nun Patricia Crockford, who teaches music at Bethlehem University, tells of the human suffering she has witnessed.
Surprisingly, the most memorable experience 72-year-old Sister Patricia (Rhoda) Crockford, from Sliema, shares does not involve the three major wars, two intifadas (Arab uprisings) or countless bombings she has survived; instead, she talks about a moment when music turned enemies into friends:
‘Many experiences from my long stay in this country stand out. I shall not say anything of the first time F16s flew over my head and bombed a building close to where I was standing, nor about armoured vehicles, personnel carriers, tanks and helicopter gunships, which I learnt to distinguish during the intifada.
‘The experience of living under several curfews that lasted for over 40 days is hard; but something all Palestinians here have lived through. I shall not say anything about my feelings during the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War and the Gulf War,’ says the music professor, who has witnessed the major events in 60 years of conflict between Israel, the Palestinians and Arab countries since the founding of the Jewish state.
Beethoven the peacemaker
‘I have chosen to tell you one story which has made my life here worth living. When our university was closed for three years by military order, we taught small groups of students and tried to carry on with business as usual. We taught in homes, in public gardens, hospital grounds and wherever we could.
‘One day, one of my students came to class and told us that he would like to share an experience he had just lived. Ahmad lived in the refugee camp of Dheisha, the biggest of three refugee camps in Bethlehem. There was much resistance to the Israeli army in his camp and it was normal for small boys to throw stones at the soldiers and be chased.
‘This time, the soldiers chased the boys as far as the first floor of Ahmad’s house. Ahmad was doing an assignment for his next music appreciation class and listening to Beethoven’s ninth symphony. The first soldier kicked open the door and could not believe what he heard. How could a camp boy be studying Beethoven? He walked on tiptoe to where Ahmad sat and asked him what he was doing. The other soldiers followed. Ahmad ended by saying that, thanks to music, these soldiers walked in as enemies and out as friends,’ Sr Patricia says.
In 1967, when the Six-day War broke out in the Middle East, Sr Patricia had been in Jerusalem for only a few months. She had just finished her organ studies in Paris and was sent to Israel as part of the congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Apparition, the first group of nuns to go to the Holy Land in 1848: ‘I came here for a year or two, but have been here, on and off, ever since,’ she says.
During the Six Day War, Israel carried out strikes against Egypt and Syria, and has occupied the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem as well as Syria’s Golan Heights ever since. Sr Patricia has chosen to live in this territory for most of her life declining an offer to transfer and share her expertise with people in other countries.
In 1984, she started at Bethlehem University where she still teaches choral music, music appreciation, theory and harmony, flute and piano. ‘I was asked to teach music full time because the students needed some means of relaxation from the difficult lives they were living.’
Bethlehem is a West Bank town in Palestine, 15 km from Jerusalem. ‘The Palestinians living in the West Bank have been under occupation since 1967. I don’t think anyone can understand what this means.’
Although she teaches at a Catholic University, most of her students are Muslim: ‘You might be wondering why the university teaches both Christians and Muslims. Well, they have lived together in this country for a very long time. In my class I teach young men and women who are Arab-Palestinian Christians and Muslims and who come from most of the Palestinian towns and villages around Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah and further north and south.
‘Many travel long distances and meet many Israeli checkpoints to come here. In the not-too-distant past, we even had students from Gaza. Now, they are unable to come because of the total closure there, so our university has been giving regular courses to students who learn occupational therapy through video-conferencing. The first group of students graduated this year.’
Since the construction of the controversial wall, much has changed. ‘At present, a huge “separation wall”, which is three feet thick and 25 feet high, encircles all the Palestinian towns and villages. The wall makes the Palestinians feel even more that they are living in a big, open-air prison. In some areas, it passes through the middle of streets, it separates the farmers from their fields, thousands of trees were uprooted in order to build it and it can be seen from everywhere. And, to add insult to injury, it is built on Palestinian land! This wall has blocked all exits except for one or two which are highly supervised by the Israeli army.’
Sr Patricia does not mince her words when describing her perspective of the conflict in the region: ‘This conflict can be described by one word, namely, ‘occupation’. Synonymous with occupation is oppression, injustice, which is translated into the fact that people have no voice, no freedom and no choice about what they want to do. Land is taken away and movement is restricted—permission is granted at random. The occupation paralyses all sectors of life.’
There was a significant attempt to end the occupation in 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israeli positions along the Suez Canal and Golan Heights, beginning the Yom Kippur War. Israel pushed both armies back within three weeks, which is not surprising considering Israel’s military might—it is one of the top beneficiaries of weapons’ aid from the US.
In 2007, The New York Times reported that Israel and the US had signed a deal to give Israel $30 billion in military aid over the next decade in what officials called a long-term investment in peace. The new aid to Israel will average three billion dollars a year on a sliding scale, an increase of about 25 per cent annually on previous years.
Who’s to blame?
Israel was the sixth largest arms importer in the world for the period 2003 to 2007, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The imbalance in military power between Israelis and Palestinians is reflected in the number of casualties on each side in the ongoing conflict in Gaza where over 440 Palestinians have been killed compared to four Israelis. World governments and international celebrities have called for an end to the bloodshed.
What does Sr Patricia think of accusations that it was Hamas that provoked the recent offensive in Gaza?
‘Both sides were blaming each other all the time for violating the cease fire. It is true that whenever Israel wounded or killed Palestinians, in Gaza or in the West Bank, Hamas retaliated. Two or three weeks before the end of the ceasefire, Israel killed an important Hamas man in Gaza. It was just like a game. However, the Israeli response is so disproportionate that it is time for the whole world to stop asking who is to blame and to speak out about what is happening here.’
According to Sr Patricia, the suffering occurs on both sides and she speaks of many Israeli citizens who lend a helping hand: ‘I find it very important to have friends on both sides in order to be just. I have Israeli friends who are suffering greatly as a result of the present situation and who are really doing their best to help.’
Aid to where it’s needed
Help comes from all corners of the globe but it does not always reach the people who need it. On December 30 just two days after Israel launched the offensive on Gaza, following reports of hospitals being unable to cope with Palestinian casualties, a boat piloted by an English captain and a passenger manifest that included an American representative, and doctors from the UK, Germany and Cyprus, headed towards Gaza with much-needed help and medical supplies.
Several Israeli gunboats intercepted the vessel in international waters 90 miles off the coast of Gaza and rammed the boat, causing severe damage. The aid vessel was not allowed to proceed to Gaza.
Saddened by the incident, Sr Patricia sent details of the story to The Sunday Times. But she still points to those Israelis who make a difference:
‘I have musician friends who are taking on the teaching of young Palestinians. Everyone must have heard of Maestro Daniel Barenboim, a world-famous Israeli conductor and pianist. I admire him greatly and consider him a personal friend.
‘Together with the late Edward Said, the great Palestinian philosopher born in Jerusalem and who lived in exile for all of his life, Barenboim founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made up of Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Syrian and Israeli musicians who give concerts all over the world, including in Palestine.’
Israelis against occupation
Other Israelis who confront the status quo come from beyond the world of music: ‘I also have friends who belong to a group called ‘Mahsum Watch’ (Mahsum is an Arabic word for checkpoint). They serve at checkpoints and report on the behaviour of Israeli soldiers towards Palestinians. Even if Palestinians have a permit to go into Jerusalem, they are not allowed to travel in a car with us or to drive there. They have to get down and pass through checkpoints where they are frisked, and often asked to take off their belts and shoes.’
There is a limit to the inhumanity a person can witness. For Sr Patricia, the restriction of movement is one of the hardest facts that people must face: ‘We had a student with heart problems who had just been operated on in an Israeli hospital after graduating. He returned home and felt poorly but was not allowed to go back to the hospital in Jerusalem without a permit. He died at a checkpoint. There are also quite a number of cases of women giving birth at checkpoints and losing their babies.’
Sr Patricia evidently feels strongly about the suffering of people in occupied territories. She is selfless in the sense that she refuses to dwell upon her life, her hopes and fears. Instead, every question put to her leads to the same point—the fact that life has been unnecessarily hard for the Palestinian people for far too long.
Pressed to talk about the impact of the conflict on her life, she says: ‘In the past, I was able to take a whole class to concerts given in Israel. Today, this is unheard of, as it is impossible to obtain permits in time and for everybody.
‘The population is under great pressure, so our work at the university is greatly disturbed by the difficulties. It is not easy to plan ahead. Students who come from outside Bethlehem are stopped and checked not only at checkpoints but also en route to university.’
Again, she moves on to the impossible life of Palestinians under the current circumstances: ‘In the past, most of the men from Bethlehem were able to work in Jerusalem, but in 2000 all this changed. The family’s source of income stopped.
‘Palestinians are facing the worst economic situation since the beginning of the occupation due to the fact that men are no longer allowed to work in Israel. Businessmen also require permits from Israel to import all they need. Many have no means of livelihood. Poverty is now rampant.’
Is there hope for Palestinian children? ‘Humanly speaking, the children of Palestine have very little hope. Their land is disappearing beneath their feet. They have great difficulty in procuring jobs when they finish their studies.
They have absolutely no freedom. It is easy to say this but very difficult for people outside here to understand. They are a people without a passport, they do not belong anywhere.
‘If peace comes, it is another matter. They are very enterprising and very capable of starting a new life, the proof is the way our young students, men and women, Muslims and Christians, develop their lives in preparation for the future. They do not sit and mope over their misfortune. You see them vibrating with life, smiling and very active in university life.’
Sr Patricia has been away from her home country and living in a conflict-ridden region for over four decades and, incredibly, there is never a sense of sacrifice: ‘It still gives me a sense of fulfilment to dedicate my life to the people of the region.
‘Staying here helps give them a voice, in a way. It gives me a reason to share their lives, their hopes and fears and to laugh and cry with them. I love Malta and the Maltese. I love my family dearly. However, I feel that the people here need all the support they can get.’
Top right: Sr Patricia Crockford
Centre left: Dheisha Refugee Camp near Bethlehem where Ahmad of Sr Patricia’s story lives.
Above right: Both Palestinians and Israelis live in the Occupied Palestinian West Bank but they use different roads. Palestinian roads tend to be older, sometimes even unusable like this one; Israeli roads are usually more modern, built by the Israeli government for the Israeli citizens living in the Palestinian territories, and they might be four-lane highways like the one at the top of this photograph. Palestinians are not allowed to use the Israeli roads, unless they’re able to obtain a kind of permit, in which case they might be able to use, say, a certain section of a certain road, but in all other cases the roads are segregated.
First published online on January 4, 2009.