Hands of Peace, Hearts That Break

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Joanne Tawfilis, PhD, Fine Arts
April 25, 2024

Hands of Peace, Hearts that Break

A Mural Story

by Joanne Tawfilis, PhD, Fine Arts

Gaza 2023 October 6. Like a sleeping giant, villages and the people that live in them are surrounded by barriers of armed Israeli military forces, fenced in by miles of barbed wire and looking exactly like the refugee city they transitioned to. This all due to the continuous settlements built that literally pushed them outstarting in 1948 when the world powers decided Palestine was a good choice to move hundreds of thousands to as their “new home”. Aside from the politics, the brutality and genocide of Palestinians grew to be their 75-year destiny where families and children were born and raised — inside the fence lines, with daily incursion of family homes and property and where they lived in their own country as “refugees”, with deaths hardly noticed by the outside world.  That’s often the way of those who write history.  Even the map of Palestine disappeared after decades to be replaced with the word “Israel”.  However, the hope for peace and justice and return of their lands and property, and even more their “culture”, was illusive but never forgotten.  

For Art Miles Mural Project, they were never and never will be forgotten as murals were created in areas of Silwan to cross the oceans and seas, here in Southern California. And for many years the Hands of Peace program was located in the United States wherein students from Israel and Palestinians came together hosted by American families for a summer.  Again, we painted murals with the organization, beautiful murals, beautiful friendships began.  

However, on the morning of October 6, 2023, the HAMAS organization launched a surprise attack on Israel and about 1200 Israeli citizens were killed and hostages taken.

The headlines were ablaze like an unstoppable forest fire lit by an ember of hatred and the thirst for revenge while the thirst for freedom by Palestinians becomes the lifeline that leads to a cruel inhumane and violent bludgeoning of imprisoned babies, women, children, and men.  My evenings became consumed with broadcasts and social images of concrete blocks crushed and battered by missiles in a continuous bomb flow coupled with white poisonous phosphoric dust that soaked their ways into the veins and organs of babies that would take their last breath in their mothers or fathers’ arms as they too, drifted into the darkness of death.  The once monster sized buildings filled with families of all sizes, newlyweds, expectant mothers, and grandparents were collapsed into mounds of broken cement now burial grounds of the innocents, with others left maimed, dismembered, and trapped with just a few to be pulled from the crushing boulders, by humans who used their hands as if they were tools as small as garden shovels, hoping somehow to save those whose voices screamed and called frantically for help as their voices too, slowly slipped away to a frightening silence. The frenzied responses and screams of terror could not be tempered as they too, wept at their own failures of weakened human strength, at the carnage they witnessed and where only the devil himself was gazing in shock at what humanity had delivered to his waiting hands.  But alas, the belief in their Allah swept away their diminished souls instead,  to that garden of faith that awaited them above the smoke-filled skies.

I watched, bewildered in my own horror transfixed in ways I could not pull away and pass forward into the airwaves, as daily images were posted uncensored by social media — not to be hidden by political press, as ghastly screams and emotions, tears, and reactions of waiting mothers and fathers watched as their beloved lifeless babies unknowingly breathing in the poisonous phosphorous dust melded into their tiny bodies, severing organs and stopping their breathing; now wrapped in burial plastic, handed to them by orange vested rescue workers who tears slid down their exhausted faces, respondents to the living hell caused by humans!

My compassion turned to weeping as I watched in silence alone, and open weeping and overwhelming emotions rising from my body, as my grief watching them unable to overcome their grief gave way. I watched their loved ones kiss those loving infants and newborns holding them to their heart and praying for their return and delivery to their God, as numbers were etched onto their wrappings and some with their name as they were collected and placed in valleys of shallow graves, row by row that grew in never-ending fissures in the earth below their land of birth. I wailed at the images of what human life was birthed and violently taken away and silently added to the sins of mankind. I watched and passed on again and again filling my Facebook pages with shared images that most could not bring themselves to watch. But always, “We Will Not Forget”, took on so many meanings to me, as I did so while I asked myself after all the years of working on so-called peace projects…why?  Oh, why of the babies and women and realized what I only thought I knew what GENOCIDE was! And after years of working with Hands of Peace when so many Palestinian and Israeli youth came together to learn and share a peaceful coexistence, and so many organizations promoting PEACE I couldn’t accept silence and again continued to pass on the gruesome heartbreaking images.  

I recalled one image of a mural Art Miles facilitated one of those summer programs with Hands of Peace where an image of an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian soldier sat facing each other on a train.  Overhead was a sign that read “PEACE”, and my heart filled with HOPE.

My mind woke like a light fixture in a dark room that snapped me back to reality and I wondered if Palestinians were to be granted a museum for the world to see, how Israeli Zionists as victims of war and genocide followed and were brainwashed by a leader that caused the deaths of millions, where descendants and photos of them were and still fill museum walls memorializing atrocities and now I ask why? Why is Israeli forgetting the past and committing such horrific acts of torture and genocide I can’t even bring myself to write about.  

And now after weeks and months speed by with mounting numbers and thousands of deaths are covered in shallow rows by operators of giant bulldozers and the grounds concealing us from public view…the tears and weeping come again and transform to deeper thoughts and prayers immersed indelibly into ink spots encased around my heart and I feel the anger rising, then dismay of pathetic indifference that blots out the global protests for an end to this insane pursuit of genocide as the world stands witness with passing on/handing of responsibility to others while growing IDF forces, men and women alike, laugh and tout an incongruous spectacle of happiness proclaiming the rising death toll.

My spirit plunders n the nightmares invade and overcome my need for sleep, for sleep evades me.  And then I get a phone call a few days later, 3 years (post covid) and a sister peace advocate working do Hands of Peace is the voice on the other end of the line! She informs me that the organization has ceased operations and will have at least part of their mission absorbed with “Seeds of Peace”.  Suddenly the glimmer of hope rises and thoughts rise that perhaps there may be a renewed genesis for a call to action in other ways. This wonderful advocate for peace sweetly asks if I would like to have the many murals we created over the years that were so joyously exhibited with the young visitors and host families during their past activities.  Murals, expressions of what was once hope now dissolved in an incinerator like the thousands of Palestinians swallowed up in an inferno of hate where lessons learned became lessons burned.  Would Ior could I react like Palestinians did in 1948 despite becoming prisoners in their own lands, their homes invaded with this 75 year on incarceration? Or do I believe that those brave souls suffered and even in war as seen on those horrific photos and videos, am I witnessing a phenomenon that the strength in their belief is that martyrs and dead placed their lives under peril and dead in the hands of their beloved Allah?  I marvel, yet wonder how  they will ever heal their hearts?

And today, in a torrent of rain and wind, I drive myself blinded by the intensity of this storm to retrieve the murals.  The freeway feels like ribbons of slippery waterways and the car hydroplanes and I move to the slowest lane, transfixed by the cars that continue to drive in their speeding way, flying past and in and out of heavy traffic.  I think of how as a child I was told that rain like this was about angels crying for the suffering on earth and sadness overwhelms me. But once in the driveway of the home where the decades of murals were brought for me to pick up, I remembered the many faces of youthful Palestinian and Israeli students of Hands of Peace and remember their hope and friendships formed and know their hearts were touched and friendships and cultural exchanges would never be forgotten and I prayed that none of them were on either ends of a gun or under a collapsed building, now a burial ground. Seeing the rolls of canvas murals with bright colors on the edges brought a smile of cheer to my face and we swiftly ran through the torrential rain carrying these children of hope to the car and to safety where they will be joined with thousands of others in support of the Culture of Peace.  I thought of Ambassador Chowdhury and knew he would be proud and that he above all, understood that Art Miles once again, was not about the murals, but bringing the people together. That is my own and so many others ... awesome joy!

Thus, I look to the heart of the people and truly believe that there is no war, no conflict that can ever obliterate their culture.  For this culture, like so many others exist for a reason, and that regardless of our differences, our differences can also serve to  unite us, because we learn through personal interaction, how much more we have in common that we have differences, even under the worst of circumstances.  The criminality of some will always show their presence, and we have to believe that justice will be served.

In America, we have learned or maybe not, that culture survives as seen with our own Indigenous Peoples. Our culture with all the advancements in modern technology and being on the so-called forefront of so many aspects of life, we continue to see the return of native herbal cures and medicine and our food and nutrition awareness to stop eating so many processed foods that poison our bodies, and that so many actions we display as adults,  impact our and our children and elders. And thus although Hands of Peace will not exist as an entity, and our hearts that break will continue to be broken, but we must never give up HOPE and if like other forms of life and past wars and conflict, Seeds of Peace, just might serve as a regenerative birthing of life in all forms—be they human, flora or fauna, based on love, compassion and sharing, will rise again from the earth in joyful plantings and blossoming of art, music, literature, dance, science,  technology and so much more, to always serve as the beautiful diversity of cultures that make us human and will always live on.