A Letter from the Founder of the Palestinian House of Friendship to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

November 17, 2007

The following is the text of a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from Mohammad Sawalha, the founder of the Palestinian House of Friendship who participated in the Center’s Community History by Youth in the Middle East project. Sawalha’s son, Yazan, was arrested on November 8 in his home in Nablus, Palestine. He is being held in Kishon Interrogation Center, where he was denied access to his lawyer until December 4. As of that date, charges have not been brought against Yazan.

Dear Secretary Rice:

As you prepare for the upcoming meetings in Annapolis, I would like to share my story with you in the hopes that it will underscore the urgency of your mission.

Here, in my city of Nablus, and in my region in general, the efforts of “ordinary” Palestinians and Israelis to build peace are routinely undermined, and our hopes are often dashed. In my case, my years of work were answered last week when, at 2 a.m. on Thursday, Israeli soldiers crashed their way into our home, pulled us from our beds, turned our house upside down and – finding nothing – detained my 19-year old son, Yazan. I was powerless to stop them. All I could do was convince the soldiers to allow Yazan to wear a sweater over his pajamas.

I am not aware of anything Yazan might have done to warrant his detention. The soldiers did not offer any reason for taking him, and, to my knowledge, no charges have been brought against him. With some effort we were able to find that he was taken to the Kishon interrogation center in Haifa, where he was held for a week and denied access to a lawyer. Yesterday, after one week, Yazan was transferred to Moscobiya, in Jerusalem, where he is likely to face even greater pressures. We still have no idea on what basis he is being held, or when he will be able to see a lawyer.

The last six years have been challenging for Yazan. Because of checkpoints and curfews, he has been able to travel outside of Nablus only four or five times. During some periods, he has been forced to stay indoors for weeks at a time.  Through these years, I have stayed close to him, helping him to direct his frustration into productive channels, protecting him from getting involved in anything that could be dangerous, and encouraging him to maintain hope for a better future. I turned down several opportunities to travel abroad so I could help him study for exams and so I could be aware of his developing friendships and interests. This year, Yazan has been studying economics at An-Najah University and has said that he hopes in the future to contribute to the economic development of Palestine.

Over the last two decades it has been my mission to help end the violence that is devastating the lives of so many Palestinians and Israelis, and to prepare the Palestinian community for the responsibilities of democracy. More than ten years ago, during Palestine’s first democratic election, I organized in the northern area of the West Bank over 500 volunteers to monitor the polls. Since that time, I have founded and now direct the Palestinian House of Friendship (PHF), a small non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting values of peace, democracy and human rights. PHF runs summer camps, focusing our efforts on children who are at particular risk, for instance because of poverty or the absence of a parent.

Also in the past two decades I have welcomed Israeli families into my home. We have shared meals and engaged in serious, respectful conversations. In 2001 and 2002, I participated in an exchange program – Community History by Youth in the Middle East – funded by your own US Department of State and hosted by Brandeis University near Boston. There I met young Israeli, Jordanian and American professionals who work with youth, and developed friendships with dozens of Americans from all walks of life.

My commitment to democracy, human rights and non-violence has shaped every aspect of my life, including the way I talk to and raise my children. In our house, each person is respected and generosity and empathy are practiced. This is not easy, living as we do in the crux of so much violence, anger and frustration, but we persist.

When Yazan was taken away to the interrogation center, I worried not only about whether he is being harmed but also about how this experience will change him. I am worried about whether I will be able to help him recover from these experiences in a healthy way. I am also worried about the effects of this trauma on my other children, especially my thirteen-year-old son who witnessed the soldiers tear apart our home, and who misses his older brother and now has difficulty sleeping at night.

Of course above all are the questions that plague me every minute: Is there anything I can do to win my son’s release? What can I possibly do to at least gain for him access to the lawyer I have retained?

Just as I am worried about Yazan, thousands of Palestinians parents, and Israeli parents, too, are worried about their children. We worry about our children being victimized by the violence that envelopes us, and we worry about them becoming violent themselves.

If there is no progress at Annapolis, if there is no immediate improvement in the day-to-day lives of Palestinian people, if we are offered no reasons for hope, I am afraid that the West Bank could descend into the chaos that has enveloped Gaza. The whole region could sink into extremism, with no place left for those of us committed to the ideals of freedom, democracy and peace.

At this moment I am living a nightmare that every parent would wish to avoid. Still I can say with conviction that the time for forgiveness has come. If not now, when?

Dr. Rice, there have been many conference and high-level meetings before, but conditions have continued to deteriorate. It is easy to be cynical about the possibility of peace. But we do not have the luxury of cynicism now.

What is at stake is Yazan’s future, and the futures of all the children of the region. I ask you to hold our political leaders accountable to the thousands and thousands of Israeli and Palestinian voices crying out for a real peace now.

Thank you for your efforts on behalf of peace in the Middle East. We are counting on you.


Mohammad Sawalha

 Mohammad Sawalha's son, Yazan (circled in photo), now 19, at a peace demonstration in West Jerusalem when he was a young child.