We must have been traveling on back roads for over an hour when our shared-taxi came to a slow halt. In front of us was a mound of large rocks and soil, blocking the road before it was connected to a main road. Our driver jumped off, and so did all other drivers of a caravan of Palestinian service-taxis on their way to Hebron. After a brief exchange of words about alternative routes, we turned around and continued our journey, on narrow mountain roads, through isolated communities where villagers would advise on open routes, and passing next to Israeli settlements guarded by tanks and heavily armed soldiers. Our trip to the village of Surif near Hebron took more than 2 hours from Bethlehem - it would have been a 45-minute scenic drive without the Closure.
I was accompanying Najla and Toshiko, staff members of Sunbula, a non-profit organization that assists self-help craft groups in refugee camps and economically disadvantaged villages by providing skills training and selling their products. Veteran back road travelers, for their job requires frequent visits to remote villages, Najla and Toshiko commented that each of their travel has been a discovery of new routes: "How persistently Israelis block every possible road and how creative and knowledgeable these drivers are for making it to our destinations."
Surif was a quiet yet impoverished village nestled on rolling hillsides of southern West Bank. It showed typical features of underdevelopment under three decades of the Israeli military occupation, such as unpaved roads and poor school buildings.
Women of Surif Craft Cooperative greeted the Sunbula staff with warm smiles. The cooperative employs 10 staff persons, and provides income-generating opportunities for over 400 women who bring in pieces of Tatriz (traditional Palestinian embroidery) work to the Cooperative to be sewed up into products. Sunbula assists 12 such groups throughout the Occupied Territories, and sells the products at their store in Jerusalem. Najla handed them materials that were not reachable to the village due to the Closure, while Toshiko busily inspected quality of finished products. Vibrant conversation, sprinkled with jokes and laughter, filled the room as the women worked in an inventory room, at sewing machine and ironing board. "Intifada brought in an extreme economic difficulty to our village," told me the director of Cooperative. "The village economy largely depends on physical labor inside Israel at construction sites. Because of the Closure, our husbands cannot reach their jobs. In many households women became a sole breadwinner by selling crafts through Sunbula, which used to bring an average of $100 per person each month. Now it's down to less than $50 because tourism in Jerusalem has declined." Packing tablecloths, purses, napkins and aprons, beautifully decorated with patterns and colors unique to this village, Toshiko said, "we will take as many products as possible, and see what can be done at the store."
Our journey back to Sunbula's office in Jerusalem was literally a trip into a different world. After another lengthy trip through a different route, which passed through newly installed Israeli military posts and checkpoints, street scenes in the Israeli West Jerusalem were almost surreal - people sitting at trendy cafes, elderly couples walking a dog, and children with their neat clothes running home with colorful schoolbags bouncing on their back. However, in front of Damascus Gate where bustling transportation center for West Bank cities are located, I was pulled back to the reality of the other side. To my remark that there was a heavy presence of Israeli soldiers, my fellow passenger on a shared-taxi to Bethlehem replied: "Another Palestinian has just been killed around the corner, on Salah Eddin Street."
PS: if you are interested in obtaining Sunbula's product catalog, please write me or contact Sunbula directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org