Ties between Hiroshima and Palestinian regions strengthened through grassroots exchanges

by Miho Kuwajima, Staff Writer

Since the founding of the nation of Israel in 1948 there have been repeated conflicts over the Palestinian territories. Increasing the animosity between the Palestinians and the Israelis, Israel launched repeated large-scale attacks on the Gaza Strip, an autonomous Palestinian region, starting late last year. Isn’t there some way to overcome ethnic and religious conflict and break the cycle of vengeance? Supporters in Hiroshima are working in various capacities to strengthen ties with the Palestinians.

Late last year, as the Israeli attacks on Gaza were escalating, Junko Hattori, 46, a resident of Higashi Hiroshima City, received an e-mail message from Hisham Mater, 47, a water resources engineer in the Gaza Strip. “The bloodshed and the destruction are enormous,” he wrote. “Every street has a sad and painful story. Every family has been left with a tragedy.”

Ms. Hattori first met Mr. Mater 10 years ago when she served as an interpreter at a seminar in Hiroshima that he attended. In his message to her, Mr. Mater also wrote, “No one has been spared the horror. What the so-called ‘free world’ is doing is just watching.” His observations, written while Gaza was under attack, are filled with a sense of helplessness.

The Gaza Strip has a population of 1.4 million people in an area less than half that of the city of Hiroshima. It is surrounded by a thick concrete wall built by Israel and transit by Palestinians is restricted.

Private homes, hospitals, and a United Nations school were damaged or destroyed in the Israeli bombardment, which went on for three weeks. The stated reason for the bombing was to put an end to the “terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas,” but it has been reported that more than one-third of the 1,380 victims were children.

Masae Yuasa, 46, a professor in the Faculty of International Studies at Hiroshima City University, said, “It is not a question of whether Hamas is wrong or Israel is wrong. In terms of the slaughter of civilians by a nation’s military force, the pain suffered by Hiroshima and Gaza are no different.” Professor Yuasa helped Ms. Hattori and her friends organize a screening of the documentary film “Rainbow” in Hiroshima in late January.

In May 2004, as part of its Operation Rainbow, the Israeli army bombed the city of Rafah in the southern part of the Gaza Strip. More than 40 Palestinians were killed. The film presents a dispassionate portrayal of the life of a man who lost his home and family in the bombing.

About 100 people attended the screening of the film. Shiori Kamigaki, 50, a teacher who is involved in an effort to support the Palestinians, called on the audience to donate to efforts to rebuild Gaza. “Why is this happening to them?” she said. “It does no good to wonder about it. So we are quietly continuing to provide support.”

In cooperation with Toshiko Mizumoto, 50, a Hiroshima native currently residing in Jerusalem, Ms. Kamigaki and her friends have been selling handbags and small pouches made by Palestinian women living on the West Bank for the past 10 years. She sends the proceeds from sales in Hiroshima to the Palestinian territories to assist the women to become independent.

In May 2007 the office where Ms. Mizumoto and the Palestinian women were working was destroyed by the Israeli army. The windows were smashed, and computers and documents were stolen. Ms. Mizumoto was later told that the army said the raid was carried out because Hamas operatives were in the building.

Ms. Mizumoto and her group have yet to receive an apology or compensation, but they resumed their work without protest or complaint. “We have signaled our intention by quietly continuing our work,” she said. Meanwhile Ms. Kamigaki and others have held a bazaar in Hiroshima and are publishing a newsletter. The total amount of the donations for Gaza that they have raised in the course of their efforts topped ¥200,000 this month.

“When I talk to people who have recently been to Gaza, they say the people are full of anger, and many children are traumatized,” Ms. Mizumoto said. “I wonder how well the message of Hiroshima can be conveyed to those for whom killing others has become a way to survive.”

As the situation in Gaza gets increasingly less news coverage, Ms. Hattori and other Gaza supporters are considering holding gatherings at which people can try Arab food and listen to Arab music. “I’d like more people in Hiroshima to become familiarize themselves with the Palestinian problem,” she said. “Ties between individuals in Hiroshima and the Palestinian regions will lead to greater opportunities for better understanding.”

“Sounds of peace” to be created from olive trees from West Bank

In late February, four large pieces of wood from olive trees that had grown on the West Bank arrived at the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hiroshima. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Yasuhiro Tateno, 48, is arranging to make pan flutes from the wood and hold a peace concert in Hiroshima.

It is said that every time Israeli settlements within the Palestinian autonomous regions of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are expanded, olive trees that were planted by Palestinians are cut down.

In 2006, Tateno made his first visit to Bethlehem, which is situated on the West Bank. He had avoided the Palestinian regions on his four previous trips to the Holy Land starting in the 1990s because he believed those areas were “scary,” but his visit to Bethlehem dispelled that illusion. “What I saw there was completely different from what I had seen from the Israeli side,” he said.

Rev. Tateno was motivated to visit the Palestinian territories after meeting Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Christian minister who was invited to Hiroshima in 2005 for the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing. Rev. Raheb, who is based in Bethlehem, preaches, “Exchange bombs for love. Peace cannot be built with military might.” He has established a university and a vocational school for Palestinians and has made angel figurines from the shards of windows smashed by the Israeli army.

Rev. Tateno went to Bethlehem in 2006 at the invitation of Rev. Raheb. Whenever he said he was from Hiroshima, children’s faces lit up. All of them were familiar with Hiroshima’s past and present through the story of Sadako Sasaki.

“They see their future in Hiroshima, which overcame its suffering to become a city of peace,” said Rev. Tateno. With that conviction, he returned to Bethlehem in 2007 and held an exhibition about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Seiji Hashimoto, 66, who runs a confectionery company in Hiroshima, helps make the pan flutes from the wood of the olive trees, which are the symbol of the Palestinian regions. Mr. Hashimoto, who was 2 years old at the time of the atomic bombing, saw its flash from the Dambara District of the city. The remains of his father, who was evidently near the hypocenter, were never found.

“I don’t know anything about international politics, but I have a pretty good idea how the Palestinian kids feel. There must be no more war,” he said, recalling his own wartime experiences. “We just have to be patient and keep on doing what we can.” As an atomic bomb survivor, Mr. Hashimoto is grateful for the support he has received from friends and family over the years, and with that in mind he is determined to continue his involvement in the Palestinian issue.

Israel and Palestine
In 1947 the United Nations approved a Partition Plan dividing Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. The following year Israel declared its independence, and many Palestinian Arabs fled. The 1993 Oslo Accords gave the Palestinian National Authority the right to govern the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Hamas is an Islamic fundamentalist organization established in 1987 in the Gaza Strip. Its name is an acronym of Arabic words meaning “Islamic Resistance Movement.” It has carried out repeated rocket attacks on Israel. In the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, Hamas scored a major victory over Fatah, the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In 2007, Hamas gained control of the Gaza Strip after forcing Fatah out in the Battle of Gaza.

(Originally published on March 16, 2009)

Related articles
Editorial: Efforts must be made to end the bloodshed in Gaza (Jan. 31, 2009)
Column: “Assuming I’m still alive” (Jan. 14, 2009)
Anthropologist conveys tragedy of forced deportation of Palestinians (Jan. 9, 2009)

To comment on this article, please click the link below. Comments will be moderated and posted in a timely fashion. Comments may also appear in the Chugoku Shimbun newspaper.