Sunday, April 03, 2016

Tents, caves and other nonviolent tools

Part of the role of a Christian Peacemaker is to stand in solidarity with acts of nonviolent resistance. I was in Palestine with a group from Christian Peacemaker Teams to learn about their work. The first chance our group had to be actively engaged in solidarity with those calling for an end to the occupation was when we joined the Women in Black at a silent vigil on a street corner in the heart of West Jerusalem, the Israeli side of town. I was a bit nervous, as I had no idea what the police would do, what passersby would do, or indeed what the other vigilers would do. A group of armed settlers waving the Israeli flag were dancing and shouting on the street corner opposite us, and some of them came over to our corner and started arguing with anyone who would respond. The police and soldiers, on the other hand, pretty much ignored us, probably knowing that this particular nonviolent direct action takes place every week and never causes any trouble.

Nonviolent direct action at Sheikh Jarrah
The same afternoon we joined another nonviolent direct action at Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian village in East Jerusalem that is being slowly demolished to make way for Jewish settlers. This was in a Palestinian part of town, so the reception from passing cars was much more positive, although one of our team did get egged by an Israeli passer-by. This nonviolent action consisted of local Palestinians, the regular suspects from the Jewish left, a few internationals, and a group of Orthodox Jews who carried placards against Zionism and against the occupation. It was completely peaceful. Afterwards, we visited a Palestinian resident who has had the front  section of his house taken over by settlers, apparently Orthodox Jews from New York. This man's family still lives in the back part of the house and has to risk abuse and harassment every time they walk past the front building, which the father built himself a few years ago. They had set up a tent in the front yard for their neighbours who had also been evicted by settlers, but the tent was confiscated.

Photograph of Jewish settlers settling in to another family's home
We heard more stories of demolition, dispossession and discrimination when we visited the Negev desert. Less than an hour out of Jerusalem the scenery quickly changed from tall buildings and multi-lane highways to desert stretching as far as the eye could see. As our bus soared down the highway, our guides pointed out the exquisite Palestinian architecture dotted amongst the little villages that we would occasionally pass by. Reaching into the heart of the desert, our first stop was a Bedouin family whose home was facing yet another order to move on.

Although they live in Israel and are Israeli citizens, many of the Bedouin communities who are Palestinian Muslims are being displaced in order to make way for a new Israeli settler village that is being built. While for decades they have been denied basic services and infrastructure such as roads, medical care, schools and garbage collection because they are “too remote”, the new settlement will have all these services, and a shopping mall what’s more!! Many have solar panels on their roof, which is a great way to demonstrate self-reliance. One guy told us that his camels had been stolen, and taken to an Israeli camel farm. Upon inquiry, he learnt that if he wanted them back he would have to pay for the food and accommodation they were given while under the care of the camel farm. He couldn’t afford the price, and so had to go home without his camels. He now buys milk from the camel farm, instead of selling it as he used to.

Although we visited Hebron, where the Christian Peacemaker Team house is located, our plans were changed due to a the political situation, which was compounded by a CPT team member being arrested and refused entry to Hebron for two weeks. Her crime? Posting a picture on instagram. Read this article for more detail, as it shows quite directly what was going on and what challenges the permanent CPT team members face. 11 young Palestinians were killed in Hebron by settlers and soldiers just in the week or so that we had been in the country. It was considered particularly volatile last October when I was there.

Most distressing was the murder by soldiers of a girl aged 17 years, who was going through the checkpoint at the Ibrahimi Mosque. Witnesses say that the soldiers accused her of having a knife. She became fearful and backed away, and then they shot her. We’ve heard that no knife was found, although the story from the soldiers is always that people have knives and are stabbing the soldiers. As far as we know, there has been no investigation or justice applied to the soldiers and settlers committing these murders, and the bodies have not yet been returned to the families. What many of us found most difficult to comprehend was the idea that a fully armed soldier would feel so threatened by the possibility of a teenage girl with a knife (assuming she did have one), that he would choose to kill her first and ask questions later. That the soldiers and settlers can act with almost complete impunity is equally unbelievable.

Boarded up shop fronts in Hebron
In the morning of our visit to Hebron, we were shown around by a well known activist. He pointed out the illegal Israeli settlements, the place where they had taken over a Palestinian school to create an Israeli school, and the chicken wire across the top of the souk to protect stallholders from the rocks or eggs that are thrown down by settlers. It was noticeable that many of the shops in the souk were shut, either due to the owners having been evicted to make way for settlers, or because they were just not getting enough business. While we were inside the Mosque, another two girls were arrested. People were incredibly relieved that these girls were not shot, but so nervous about the situation in general.

It might seem from this report so far that everything is doom and gloom. The situation is grim, but we experienced the most wonderful hospitality, and had conversations with some incredibly inspiring people while in the Palestinian Territories. After our brief visit to the CPT office and rooftop tour of Hebron, we had lunch with an impressive Palestinian woman who lives in the heart of the souk. She served up a traditional dish called Upside Down Maqloobeh, with an adapted version prepared for the vegetarians, and served cups of tea and Arab coffee. On the way back, we stopped at the Al Aroub refugee camp, just outside of Hebron. One of our team members had friends in the camp, and they welcomed us into their home and we shared more tea, more coffee and more delicious food.

Palestinian hospitality in a refugee camp outside Hebron
Our trip to Bethlehem began with a visit to Wi’am, the Palestinian Reconciliation and Conflict Transformation Centre where we heard from folks about a range of conflict resolution initiatives in the local community. There are projects to foster self-esteem amongst young Palestinians, address gender based violence, and also bring young people from opposing soccer teams together. They had originally begun providing traditional mediation and conflict resolution to the local community before it was legal to establish Palestinian NGOs. Some of us reflected that there was a mix of optimism about the success of the programs and pessimism about the overall situation. We noticed a lot of this same weariness and hopelessness in many of the Palestinian groups we met that our tour guide said she had not seen before. It’s difficult for people to see a peaceful end to the occupation when things are so tense right now.

On our return from Bethlehem to Jerusalem we were in a public bus full of Palestinians. Amid the chatter of young people on their way home from work or school, the bus cruised past the villages and came to a standstill at a checkpoint. As has become the norm, all the Palestinians on the bus were required stepped off when we reached the checkpoint. We were told that there was no need for us to get off the bus, as we are foreigners, but we explained that we wanted to do so in solidarity. Sure enough, though, when we reached the front of the queue the Israeli soldier who had checked the bags of every Palestinian before us simply asked if we were enjoying our stay. Our bags were not searched at all. This is just a very simple example of how Palestinians are treated as second class citizens while foreigners and Israelis are given special treatment. Some of us began reflecting on how groups like Christian Peacemaker Teams use this privilege to stand in solidarity, to get in the way of violence and to bear witness to injustice.

Probably the most encouraging aspect of this trip was the visit to the Tent of Nations, a 100 acre farm on land which has been continually owned by the Nassar family for almost 100 years. Unlike many Palestinians, this family had paperwork relating to the official legal title for the land that they own, and so the Israeli government was not able to kick them off their land, as has happened to so many other families. This family has continued to face a number of hurdles, however, as new laws have refused permission to build new dwellings, and they have been denied access to water and electricity.

A large pile of rocks blocks the main entry road to the farm, a very physical representation of the obstacles people face in retaining ownership of their land. Yet, they have found creative ways to resist. They have installed solar panels, begun to capture their own rainwater, built composting toilets, and all their dwellings are caves rather than formal structures (because caves are not prohibited). They continue to find creative ways to resist the settlers and government who are trying to steal their land, and bear witness to the idea that “existence is resistance”.

Entrance to the Tent of Nations farm
Our final supper together was appropriately held at the Jerusalem Hotel which is a haven for activists while simultaneously serving delicious Palestinian food. As the resident cats encircled our legs and made pleas for any morsels that might be sent their way, we began passing around photos of our loved ones; grandchildren, parents, partners, nieces, nephews and siblings. Perhaps this was our way of recognising the importance of human connection and love. Despite living under occupation, the Palestinians we met showed us such warmth, hospitality, and summud - strength and resilience. Family is incredibly important to people, and we began to see that solidarity is sometimes as simple as sharing a cup of strong coffee together. As we return to our respective families and friends, it will be incumbent upon all of us to decide how the connections we have made over here will influence our lives. Many of us committed to join the BDS movement, share stories amongst our networks, and perhaps return one day.

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