< Report Nine
Bili’n is a small village (of 1800 inhabitants) in the West Bank about 10 miles from Ramallah. From the 1980s until the present, Bili’n has lost over 500 acres of an original village of 1000 acres due to the confiscation for Israeli settlements and for the security fence/Wall.
When we visited, we were warmly welcomed by core members of the Bili’n Public Committee Against the Apartheid Wall, including the head of the village council. Our report focuses on the story of Bili’n, but we were also impressed with the work described by an attorney from Jerusalem who directs the Palestinian Legal Aid Center (started by the American Friends Service Committee in 1976 and devolved to the Palestinians in 1996). This was a dedicated, passionate group of speakers. Some were fluent in English, others were translated, but all of them communicated so much more than just their words. The leader sat at the head of the table, an attractive 30ish year old male, holding his two little girls who were attentive and quite beautiful. Repeatedly, the speakers distinguished between their commitment to end the occupation and their feelings about Jews and Israelis, whom they do not want to harm.
We learned that from the first day when the bulldozers arrived in Bili’n in February 2005, the community began to protest, strongly committed to keeping it nonviolent. Sadly, they were not able to stop the loss of 58% of their land, the uprooting of about 1,000 olive trees (the lifeblood of their economy), the building of an army road, and the erection of the fence separating them from many of their agricultural sites. The fence here is 3 miles inside the “green line,” and while it is ostensibly placed to protect the citizens of Israel, it is obviously not constructed for military strategy but functions to encroach on the villagers’ lives and take their land. While the government’s goal is all too apparent in annexing land for future settlements and driving the generations-old families from their land, the villagers’ attachment is deep enough to withstand these disastrous changes. They are determined to maintain their community’s home, sharing an unmovable devotion to this land.
On another issue, they have experienced more success, halting for one and a half years an Israeli settlement that is situated illegally, and without government authorization on some of the confiscated village land. The Popular Committee managed to smuggle materials behind the electronically monitored security fence and to construct a one room concrete block structure, an extremely bold action which became the legal basis for their obtaining a Stop Work Order on the expansion of the settlement building. They spoke with high regard of the work of their attorney (a Jewish Israeli in Tel Aviv) who had succeeded in obtaining this order as well as an order to destroy the illegal structure.
Every Friday a substantial representation of the villagers are joined with activists from Israel and from around the world. Because of the violent response of the IDF to the weekly protests, our Wednesday visit did not include participating in this non-violent action. The group was very eager to show us where the protests occur, although in recent weeks the IDF has prevented protestors from reaching the actual fence and provided instead a portable fence some fifty yards closer to the village. The villagers are supported by all who join them, but at noon the local group moves to the front of the protest to prostrate themselves in the Muslim mode of prayer. Many have been arrested, some jailed (villagers and internationals, who are then not allowed back into Palestine), and many have been wounded by the variety of weapons the IDF has used, including sponge bullets, rubber bullets, and tear gas. We picked up souvenirs of bullets, plastic handcuffs, metal opener from tear gas canister, and onions – which the villagers use to partially neutralize the teargas. Standing at the barbed wire enclosure used to imprison demonstrators before they are transported to jail, we could imagine the painfulness of being held there in the heat sometimes for several hours handcuffed without knowing what would happen next.
We walked along the fence to the gate where villagers can enter, with the soldiers’ permission, in order to tend their crops and pasture their goats. We were initially denied entrance, but at the urging of one of the villagers, our leader began a dialogue with the soldiers which ultimately resulted in our being admitted for half an hour. Once behind the fence, we could visit the structure they were so proud of having built and dedicated on December 25, 2005, declaring it to be the Center for Joint Palestinian-Israeli-International Struggle. It is occupied by a unarmed security guard (a youth from the village who sleeps in this small one-room house) and has been the site for community celebrations such as the showing of World Cup matches. This part of the encounter became surreal!
One of the surprising dimensions to this exploration was the dialogue that several of us were able to develop with two of the soldiers who accompanied us as we walked to the Center. The Commander, age 21, expressed some recognition of the problematic quality of his role, indicating that as a soldier he couldn’t speak about issues he had feelings about as a citizen. Pleading his youth at points as the reason for not thinking too deeply about the situation, he seemed somewhat open to giving consideration to what it would feel like to be in the villagers’ dilemma. It was strange for us to see how casually the villagers interacted with these men whose demeanor and weapons we found threatening.
The sun was setting behind the barbed wire fences as the adolescent shepherd whistled his goats onto the military road leading to the gate, which the soldiers opened with an air of complete normalcy. We proceeded to be hosted at a home where an elaborate dinner was served followed by an out-door showing of a film about the protests recently released and already winning several prizes. “Bili’n, I Love You” is well worth seeing, and we were able to purchase DVDs to show at home. The hospitality was wonderfully warm throughout our time with these inspirational people.
The group spent the night in homes in both Bili’in and the neighboring village of Kharbatha Prior to the fence coming to and through Bili’in, it reached Kharbatha where the villagers were similarly determined to hold onto as much of their land as possible. One of our hosts, a close friend of Tony Bing’s, relayed proudly the story of how every single person in the village, including the very old, went to the field to lay their bodies down along the boundary. In the morning when the bulldozers arrived to clear the land for the fence, they said to the Israelis, “You will have to kill us. We will not be moved.” Their non-violent action spared many, many very old olive trees as they succeeded in getting the fence shifted away from a large orchard.
-- Susie Ravitz and Beth Keiser
It is depressing when so many Palestinians you meet feel compelled to ask you to spread the word in the U.S. that “we are not terrorists.” So far, I have actually avoided writing about this out of a fear that even mentioning the word contributes to that being a frame through which people in the U.S. see and understand the conflict here. But because many of the students at Birzeit University (near Ramallah, in the West Bank) asked us to do so, I want to start this report with some quotes from them about the stereotypes they endure, before I talk about some of the challenges and contributions of students at this university:
“People in the West are so afraid of the hijab. When they see me wearing a hijab, they think I am a terrorist or that some men are oppressing me. Men do oppress me – just like they oppress women everywhere. Why aren’t people afraid of nuns? Or of Jewish women who cover themselves? It is my choice to wear this.”
“Wearing the hijab says something about what religion I have but nothing about how I think. I am part of a conservative version of Islam but I am not conservative in my thoughts.”
“People think women have no freedom here. Look, it is 8 women speaking with you now and we all think and dress differently. And our university has 55% women, courses on women’s studies and gender studies – you can even get a master’s degree in that. And we have a special library on women’s studies and gender studies.”
“Wherever I go, people assume I am uncivilized, that we are all uncivilized here. They are shocked to hear we have computers, internet, that we speak English, that we are educated. Getting a BA here is nothing. Everyone has a BA.” [In fact, Palestinians are among the most educated people in the world.]
“I don’t have any problems with Jews. I have no problem with the Jewish religion. I have a problem with the Israelis who are occupying us.”
Our meeting was with Ghassan Andoni, Yassir Darwish, and 8 students from Birzeit University. The students were all women – there were two men who were supposed to join the group but because we arrived late due to checkpoint issues, they had a class they had to go to and could not meet with us. As with any group of people, the women we met came with a diversity of experiences and perspectives. And since I’m taking a moment to dispel some stereotypes, I’ll mention that there was also a big range in dress, including women who did and women who did not wear a hijab. But whether or not someone did was not a predictor of how revealing or modest the rest of her clothes were. And clothes were certainly not an indicator of a person’s political stances. It was a woman wearing stretch-pants, a hot-pink baby tee, makeup and sporting meticulously styled hair who expressed the greatest amount of cynicism with Israelis who want to have peace camps and dialogue groups “while they are killing us and destroying our lives.” Her main hope lies with Hizbullah. (Which, to dispel another stereotype, should not be confused with support for suicide bombings. Everyone we have met here distinguishes between armed resistance against the Israeli military and suicide bombings that deliberately target civilians.)
Another student expressed her frustration by saying, “The hardest thing is to live in insecurity, never knowing what will happen tomorrow. And feeling like your hands are tied, that you’re powerless to do anything for people you care about.”
One form most of these students’ resistance to the occupation takes is precisely in trying to do something for the people they care about, through staying in school and building civil society institutions and through helping the PA and other service-providers. But even staying in school is a challenge under occupation:
During the first intifada, the university was closed more than 15 times for “security” reasons, generally for six months at a time, once for consecutive six-month periods adding up to four years. As Yassir put it, “It is a strange logic to close the university for security, since when it is closed, the students spend more of their time fighting the occupation rather than studying. And they closed kindergartens, too – what security threat does a three or four year old child pose?” When the university set up classes in mosques and churches during these closures, a curfew was imposed (that is, people were unable to leave their homes on a 24 hour/day basis) to prevent these “illegal educational cells.” During the second intifada, international pressure made such closures less politically viable for Israel so the state reverted to other measures of interrupting education. Now, students are held up at checkpoints, especially around exam time when dozens are arrested and then released (but not in time to take their exams). If you don’t take your exams, you lose a full semester of school. The combination of checkpoints, road blocks, and a strict pass system that limits students’ movements from one area of the West Bank to another has turned what was once a national university into one that mostly serves students from Jerusalem and Ramallah. And even students who come from Jerusalem have to pass through three checkpoints on their way to school, meaning that in order to make it to an 8am class, they need to leave home by 5am. Students who can afford to find a place to live near the university. There are no dorms on campus, however, as this would serve as an excuse for the Israeli army to invade the campus with their tanks, something they have already done five times even without a resident student population present. There are not only hardships for students. The university has lost much of its foreign faculty due to Israel’s entry/re-entry policies that make traveling to and from Palestine difficult. The permit laws have also made it difficult for local faculty to participate in an academic community – it is hard to get permission to attend international conferences and even when permission is secured, the checkpoints and roadblocks mentioned above mean that it takes 2-3 days to travel to Jordan in order to catch a plane. As a result of all these issues, local faculty have started accepting positions elsewhere as well. As Ghassan put it, “We are under a severe Israeli boycott.”
Ghassan also provided an overview of the larger context:
“During the ten years of the so-called peace process, settlements and checkpoints actually increased. And this happened even more under liberal governments than under right-wing ones. The prospect for civil resistance is still there. But it is localized. And the major problem is that it is only possible when hope is created, not when people are desperate and trying to survive. Survival is a very dangerous concept. There is no hope in the international community anymore among Palestinians. No one believes that if you have a just cause and play decent and honest and human, that people will pay attention and say, ‘let’s give them their rights back.’ Palestine used to be a very secular society. But even I’m not so secular anymore. A part of me is a conservative Muslim now. [For those who do not know, Ghassan is Christian.] One source of hope, though, is this young generation that’s hitting a wall with no future. Only 10% of them will get jobs. And many will not get jobs with their degrees but will become cheap labor for Israel. And yet they are still motivated to learn, to compete, to seek excellence. They are much more hopeful than me. They are still dreamers. And dreamers can bring about a better future.” Turning to address the students directly, Ghassan adds, “Keep your dreams, touch reality, and be wise.”
We also had the opportunity to meet with some Israeli students from Hebrew University. Again, it was a group of all women (five), with the exception of the organizer. These students also spoke about frustrations with their school being closed (though for them it was a situation of one day or three weeks) and about having to open their bags for a soldier before entering campus. They, too, talked about the difficulty of living with insecurity. But what was discouraging was that four out of five of them saw their fear as a justification for Israel’s policies rather than considering that Israel’s policies are what ultimately produce the fear that they feel. So for them, the way forward focused on education and dialogue groups. Coming face to face with Palestinians so that both sides can get over their fear of the other and reduce animosity. For the Palestinians, however, the animosity does not have to do with individual Israelis. Many work closely with Israelis who are committed to ending the occupation. They differentiate, however, between those who talk in vague terms about wanting peace and who can then feel good about themselves because they have a conversation with a Palestinian once a week versus those Israelis who are active in the nonviolent Palestinian liberation movements, putting their names and lives on the line alongside the Palestinian activists. The animosity I heard expressed by Palestinians was directed at Israeli policies and at those Israelis (and internationals) who support those policies even if they do so with a sigh, expressing, as one of the Hebrew University students did, how sad it is that sometimes these “necessary” measures of military oppression and the apartheid wall are “difficult, ugly, and immoral.”
People talk a lot about suicide bombers. There are extremists on both sides of this conflict, people whose actions are not applauded by the majority of whichever population they come from. (To learn more about Israeli extremists, check out KACH and read about the Hebron settlers.) People also talk a lot about stone-throwers. Stone-throwing might be considered a more mainstream activity among Palestinians (though many discourage it as an ineffective tactic). However, wandering the streets with automatic weapons is a mainstream activity among Israelis. And not only among soldiers – civilians, too! I have never seen such a militarized society, and I grew up on a US military base. The government is made up of former generals, soldiers are teachers in elementary and high school, most social service benefits depend on having served time in the military, and even ad campaigns feature soldiers. Many Israelis have told me they don’t really even notice all the uniforms and weapons around them. It is just normal. I have no doubt that the fear is very real on both sides. However, the realities of this conflict are so asymmetrical that it is insulting to insist on “balance.” In fact, insisting on balance is akin to throwing your support behind the oppressor. Israelis who recognize the imbalance of this situation, who recognize the vast power disparities, and are working to change those, are welcome partners to all the Palestinians I spoke with. Those who want to pretend we are all equals coming to a negotiating table, however, those are the people who have disappointed over and over again. Those are the people who (even if inadvertently or unintentionally) end up legitimizing inaction on the part of Israel and the US, who point and say: look, talks are happening and people are still throwing stones. And when Palestinians decide to put a moratorium on those kinds of dialogue groups in order not to normalize relations with Israel until the occupation is ended, then they are the ones who are blamed for not being partners in peace.
So this is my plea to everyone in the US: if you really want peace for this conflict, insist that Israel (with enormous support from the US) ends the occupation. No excuses. No prerequisites. Ending the occupation IS the prerequisite for negotiations and for a just peace.
-- Cecilia Lucas
American Friends Service Committee Youth Projects
The majority of Palestinians are young—by 2016, 65-75% in the Middle East will be less than 25 years old. Poverty and unemployment are widespread and becoming ever more so due to the Occupation’s curbing of physical mobility needed for commuting to work. One third of the population growth is immigrating, and for those who stay, life is increasingly constricted.
On Sunday, June 3, at Ramallah Friends Center we learned from two staff members, Saida and Thuqan, and one intern, Deema, about American Friends Service Committee work with young Palestinians. Groups of young adults (from l8 to 25) learn in one hundred hours of training (focusing on democracy, skills, attitudes, and group work) how to develop the awareness in younger students that they have the right to decide what they want to do and how to accomplish it. The emphasis is on creative thinking and communication to diagnose and solve problems. Instead of looking at adolescents in this harsh environment through a deficit lens that views them as the needy recipients of other people’s largesse of time and material resources, the young adult coaches view the slightly younger teenagers as, like themselves, powerful agents of change in their communities: “You are not only the builders of the future, but the citizens of today.”
Deema’s experience with the Quakers began nearly ten years ago. Now pursuing her undergraduate degree, she remains an enthusiastic volunteer, who shared with us an account of an exciting project she had been part. It was a Diary Project at St. Joseph’s School in Bethlehem. Having lived through the curfews and invasions of the IDF soldiers into their city in the first Intifada, the girls (ages 13 to 15) were dealing with the traumatic events of re-invasions. They collected oral histories of the experiences of family and friends, writing these first as stories, then (with help from a theatre group) shaping these narratives into a dramatic script which they performed for their community. The performances included time for audience response. Eventually the play was translated to be shared in the US where, as Deema noted (having visited the States through AFSC auspices last summer) the image of Palestinians is so often shockingly at odds with the reality.
At three refugee camps, five trainers helped the youth express feelings, desires, and hopes by bringing visual art into their range of options for communication. For seven months they were taught by artists in a variety of media, and then painted large murals on the walls of the concrete buildings in their camps. We had seen some of these paintings at Deheisha in Bethlehem and been impressed by their skill as well as moved by the intensity of feeling they communicate.
We walked through to the Friends School for Boys (now coed—but names change slowly!) to see the large organic garden which has been the fruit of this same AFSC strategy of empowering youth to make a difference in their communities. While most of the projects take place in remote locations, this one was only five minutes away from the busy center of Ramallah. The young adult who oversees this project met us there to explain the various crops and agricultural techniques. The garden is the focus of a summer camp for children five to twelve years of age, and many schools come to learn about the process. Through brochures and the labeling of plants, information is shared with the community, along with the produce itself which is sold locally.
The statistics were impressive: 177 coaches, 1,759 participants, with annual budget of $185,000 and $65,000 for projects. Other projects we learned about included analyzing the conflicts in the region, looking at Jordan Lebanon and Iraq; planting trees around a school; developing a library in a refugee community. What struck me most of all about the AFSC programs was the emphasis on creative thinking. The staff and the intern conveyed hope by their commitment to nurturing the capacity to make meaning and initiate positive change in the midst of loss and suffering. Against all odds, the program supports young people helping other younger people to discover that the answer to “How?” is “Yes.”
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