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3/14/2014 10:13:00 AM
With compassion for oppressed, Northfield couple visited West Bank

by Sue Sullivan

In a part of the world rife with conflict for thousands of years, two Northfield residents spent 40 days last summer in the West Bank, Palestinian Territories, hoping to observe "occupation."

Soraya Dangor of Northfield, grew up in Rosemount and is a 2011 graduate of St. Olaf College.

Graison Hensley Chapman is the son of Cassie Hensley of Cannon Falls and Rob Chapman formerly of Cannon Falls now living in Farmington, and grandson of Lois Chapman of Cannon Falls

Hensley Chapman, a freelance reporter, and Dangor, a teaching assistant, traveled on the first Ruth Hansen Palestine Travel scholarship, to an alternative tourism program run by the Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies.

The purpose of the scholarship is to send people to learn about the lives of Palestinians and the impact of Israel's military occupation of the West Bank Territories.

There are lots of causes to be passionate about, and Dangor explained that this is one that caught their attention through reading and courses they took at St. Olaf College.

Dangor said, "I learned that the money our country gives to Israel's military occupation makes this an issue our country can really help fix."

That is why she and Hensley Chapman applied for the travel scholarship funded by Northfielders for Justice in Palestine-Israel. "We wanted to see how people were coping with this oppression and share the stories with as many people as possible."

Unlike the typical Holy Land tour, they lived with a Palestinian family in the West Bank city of Beit Sahour, outside of the more renown little town of Bethlehem, volunteered at a local summer camp and senior center and visited with Palestinian, Israeli and international peace activists, and had the opportunity to study Arabic.

"Learning the language was fun," Dangor said, "but we realized right away that we didn't need to since almost all Palestinians speak really good English. A number of people spoke Hebrew as well."

Beit Sahour, meaning House of the Night Watch, sits farther east on the same ridge as Bethlehem overlooking a plain known as the Shepherd's Field where, according to the New Testament, the angel announced Jesus' birth to shepherds.

During their visit Hensley Chapman and Dangor heard stories of Israeli military occupation. They said that Palestinians are also very critical of their own government.

"What we saw there is so different than what is presented on TV or in the paper," Dangor said. "(Most) of these people are peaceful," she concluded, "but we're never told about them."

They heard stories from their hosts about the difficulty Palestinians had obtaining water, though Bethlehem sits atop two large aquifers. They were told that Israel ports water away from Palestinians to wealthy settlements nearby, leaving the townspeople to live with water coming through their pipes bi-weekly or less.

At one farm they visited by the Jordan River, a non-profit was helping fix an old Roman well. "They were forced to stop again and again when settlers attacked them," said Dangor. Then the Army came to help the settlers stop them," Dangor remembered.

Soraya was especially disturbed by the story she was told of a man who built a home in defiance of the Israeli government, which she was told, refuses to grant Palestinians building permits. The home was demolished. The man, as an act of peaceful resistance rebuilt the house and once again it was demolished. "The rubble now serves as a museum to the destruction," she said.

Hensley Chapman spoke of the dividing wall. He explained that the wall is built twice the height of the former Berlin Wall in Germany and effectively isolates Bethlehem and Beit Sahour from Israel's capital, Jerusalem, about six miles north. "There are check points manned by the Israeli soldiers and you need documentation to pass. We didn't have any problems, but every Palestinian has to wait in line to show identification to get to their jobs. It can take two hours for them to get across. We even saw an old lady who was turned away."

Though the construction of the wall was intended to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel, according to the government, Hensley Chapman asserts that Israel actually built it to deter Israeli contact with Palestinians, "because if they met then the two groups would get along."

Another story related by Dangor and Hensley Chapman was that of the father of their host family in front of his home being grabbed, punched, his face covered and shoved into a truck and driven out of the city. When the soldiers arrived at their destination, the man was unmasked and another soldier exclaimed that he was not the one they were supposed to take. Exclaimed Dangor, "He had done nothing wrong and was kidnapped in front of his own home!"

Most of Dangor and Hensley Chapman's time was spent with Palestinians but they did encounter Israelis and said, "They're great people... like most people you meet everywhere are."

During their travels from July 25 through September 3, 2013, Soraya and Graison had the opportunity to spend time in Jerusalem, Hebron and in Haifa.

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