Palo Alto nonprofit works to rebuild Palestinian homes

Amir Terkel’s army days are years behind him, but never far from his mind.

“I’ve been haunted by thoughts of the children I’ve seen standing in the rubble of their homes later becoming militants or terrorists,” he said.

So, shortly after completing his service in the Israel Defense Forces, he began to volunteer with an agency that helped rebuild Palestinian homes.

“Many Palestinian children never see Israeli faces except those of soldiers,” said Terkel, 35. “I think as an Israeli, building homes that were illegally destroyed by my government in my name is one of the more constructive things I can do.”

Then he moved to Berkeley. The filmmaker and graphic designer thought his activism was over.

But he soon found a way to continue his cause when he learned of a Palo Alto nonprofit that works with Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians to rebuild homes and schools in the West Bank and Gaza.

“When you don’t meet those who you deem your enemy, you can’t put a face on the conflict, and there’s no chance of healing or progress,” Terkel said. “So I was delighted to hear about the Rebuilding Alliance.”

Donna Baranski-Walker, a California transplant, created the Rebuilding Alliance in 2003 after she spent a year working under the umbrella of San Francisco-based Global Exchange.

The Alliance is relatively small — its yearly budget has ranged from $150,000 to $320,000, funded primarily by private donations and a few small foundation grants. Still, volunteers and staff believe in its mission.

“What we’re doing can go far beyond Israel and Palestine,” Baranski-Walker said. “It can be useful in any war zone. People want to come home to a stable neighborhood … It is a way for families to rebuild their lives.”

The Rebuilding Alliance relies on Palestinians to decide collectively which homes to rebuild, since the organization is too small to take applications and work on numerous homes at once.

Volunteers — American, Israeli and Palestinian — perform initial tasks such as assembling materials and laying cinderblock, but Palestinian contractors approve the designs, supervise construction and perform the skilled work. The organization is currently finishing up its seventh home, which is its first in the Gaza Strip.

Baranski-Walker is not Jewish, but her Palo Alto organization has struck a chord with many in the Jewish community. She estimates that American Jews make up a third of her mailing list. An American-born rabbi in Israel serves on her board of directors.

Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, a 53-year-old Virginia native, has dedicated much of his life to promoting Jewish-Arab understanding and dialogue. He’s impressed by the Bay Area’s support of the Rebuilding Alliance (about one-fifth of the agency’s 5,000 donors live in the Bay Area), but knows it still flies under the radar in a community saturated with nonprofits.

“I wish more people would find out what conditions we’re trying to address, the humanitarian needs, and go beyond the slogans and government policy to get involved on a grassroots and human level,” he said, adding that it’s easier than ever to tap into international causes thanks to the Internet (the organization can be found on the Web at www.rebuildingalliance.org).

Baranski-Walker has received international support for her organization. It was a semifinalist in a social venture competition sponsored by the Haas and Columbia Schools of Business. She has worked closely with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and the Jerusalem Center for Social and Economic Rights, and currently partners with the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. In 2003, Baranski-Walker presented her plan for rebuilding neighborhoods at a United Nations conference in Geneva.

But the same is not true for Milgrom and Terkel, who said their work with the Rebuilding Alliance is rarely understood or supported by colleagues and friends.

“People are suspicious,” Milgrom said. “They say I’m aiding the enemy by identifying with their needs, that I’m encouraging them to be more violent against us.

“That logic is faulty and unfortunate,” he added. “I believe that by being a part of this, I am protecting our interest and repairing a hostile situation.”

Since 1967, 12,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished in occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

Terkel volunteered with ICAHD when he lived in Israel. He said working and sweating side-by-side with Palestinians was an antidote to his army memories of pulling them out of their homes in the middle of the night before knocking their houses down.

“If we can’t understand the impact of home demolition, then we can’t work toward any real solution,” Terkel said. “This is our only hope for peace. Without Palestinian sovereignty or dignity, no one will have security.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.