from Letter from Palestine
“And they covet fields, and take them by violence; and
houses, and take them away.”
"You did not merit, beloved son of this land, to be accepted when you were alive. You took upon yourself to be loyal to Eretz Yisrael, even when everyone blared in your ear that a 'New Middle East is shining.' 'You are hallucinating!,' you answered them.
"And to you, you who murdered my father, you temporary residents of Canaan, I am telling you that we are staying here, because this is ours!
"And to you, Arik, a friend who was so close at the beginning of the way: Take revenge, the way that Gandhi would have done after you, and go back to leading the country the way we knew you.
"And you, dear residents of
Yesha, and the rest of Israel: We are burying Gandhi today, but he asked
me to charge you to be strong and continue to be loyal to the path."
Yiftach Palmach Ze’evi, son of assassinated Israeli tourism minister Revaham Ze’evi, September 2001
“When the inhabitants of Bethlehem came out of their homes, after the long weeks during which Israeli soldiers shot at everything in town that moved, they discovered that the landscape had changed. While they were imprisoned in their homes, the army had been working day and night to separate them from the world by a trench two meters deep and a murderous wire fence...Bethlehem is a suburb of Jerusalem. Hundreds of threads tie it to the city. All these threads are cut now. Jerusalem is farther from Bethlehem than the dark side of the moon.
“This kind of fence is being erected
now in many places around the
country, cutting the Palestinian
enclaves off not only from Israel, but from each other, too. The slogan is
that sounds good to Israeli ears.
‘We are here and they are there,’ as the lamentable Ehud Barak
used to declare. The real situation is quite different: ‘We are here and we are there.’”
Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery, May 2002
you know that your mother, Sarah, drove my mother, Hagar, into the desert?”
Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness
has become my religion.”
In Arabic the placename is ‘house of
meat,’ in Hebrew ‘house of bread’; some etymologies think before that it was
‘house of Lakhma,’ the Assyrian god twin of his consort Lakhama, children of
the coupling of the river and the sea.
When our group approached Bethlehem by a north checkpoint on New Year’s
Eve of 2002, the Israeli army had partially lifted the curfew, since Christmas,
at the Pope’s request; they'd reimposed it in November, after someone from
Bethlehem killed himself and eleven Israelis on a Jerusalem bus (Ilan Perlman, 8, with his grandmother). During the invasion the previous
spring, I read that bodies lay in the streets and Israeli army snipers (Hassan Mesman, shot in the neck, Manger
Square) shot at those who tried to claim them; the Church of the Nativity
was under siege for forty days, the curfew kept for months after.
It was dark as we passed the checkpoint searchlights and razor wire and camouflage netting, after showing our documents again; the streets were shuttered and mostly empty, but the restaurant warm and alive, where we sat at long tables and made new year's toasts and talked with professors from the Catholic Bethlehem University, which had been bombed from the air and from the land and closed for long stretches during the spring invasion. The dean of students, psychology professor Khader Musleh, told us they hadn’t been able to finish the school year until the end of August, because of the curfews imposed for three and four weeks at a time in the wake of the forty-day incursion. “I don’t know where to start to describe the kind of life we have been living,” he said, and then used a word we had heard often by then. “To be succinct, it has been hell.”
Two-thirds of the University’s students are female, and an increasing number are local, as it became more and more difficult for those from Hebron, Jenin, and Gaza to travel; “Even when the students are in class, they’re distracted,” Dr. Musleh said. “Mud to the knees after walking around the closed checkpoints, exhausted. ‘How are we to get back to our villages?’ they ask, if the curfew is reimposed, and what do I tell them?” He asked if we’d heard of Martin Seligman’s “learned helplessness” and the despair that comes from it, and shook his head. Children were running among the restaurant tables and music was playing. “To be treated like a caged animal,” he said. “Let out of the cage for three hours, then back in. It was lifted Sunday a week ago for the holidays. Maybe it will be back tomorrow. Maybe the next day.”
When someone asked if there was any hope, as someone almost always did, Dr. Musleh talked about the Arab Peace Initiative from Beirut the previous spring: two states, pre-1967 borders, a just solution for the refugees. He said that 65% of Palestinians supported this, and 50% of Israelis--but that after the spring invasion Hamas had scored its highest election numbers ever, 20% of a local vote. “The Israelis are hitting the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas,” he said. “And when they do this and kill people, things change.” He mentioned Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine general secretary Abu Ali Mustafa, assassinated by rockets from an Israeli Apache helicopter as he sat at his desk in his office in Ramallah in August 2001: “After that, 80% of Palestinians supported suicide attacks,” he said, “The highest ever.” After that, Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi was assassinated by PFLP guerillas as he walked to his Hyatt hotel room in Jerusalem--and after that Ariel Sharon moved the Israeli army into the Palestinian cities again.
“But we do not lose hope,” Dr. Musleh said. “We are not losing hope. For the sake of our children. And for the sake of the Israeli children.”
The host handed around baklava because it was someone’s birthday, and Dr. Musleh said there would be a party, more food and drink, a singer and dancing, and how happy they were for the chance to be able to gather this way. But as we drifted out toward the front door, someone said the curfew had just been reimposed, and from the street we heard yelling in Hebrew blared through a loudspeaker, in which I could by then recognize the word Lo, No.
At the restaurant entrance, two border police jeeps pulled up and stopped, horns blaring and caged blue lights whirling, one soldier yelling from behind the caged window with his hand to his mouth; we were pressed in the vestibule, our group and the Palestinian families who’d been eating dinner, and I could see our filmmaker out near the curb and our white-haired Harvard psychiatrist speaking Hebrew to the jeeps, telling them we were Americans. The soldier put down his window a slit to yell from behind the steel grill, as if we were a disease he might catch, and the dialogue’s tension ratcheted higher; the children giggled nervously, the boys arguing with their mothers and pressing forward, and there was real fear in the MIT neuroscientist’s voice, telling her filmmaker comrade to get back inside, and in the mothers’ voices and faces pressing their children away from the door. On the other side of the street, two soldiers appeared at their jeep’s open back hatch; they lifted their M16s we had paid for and knelt on the pavement, one aiming down the street and one aiming at us. The old woman next to me gestured toward them and said, “They brought this here.”
In the New York newspaper later I saw a drawing of the soldier whose rifle I looked into for five minutes or so in Bethlehem, in a little article called “Ready to Fire”: “The hallmarks of urban combat,” it said, “are the proximity of the enemy (very close) and the amount of time a soldier has to react (very little). Soldiers are therefore trained to hold their weapons in ways that maximize reaction time while moving through city streets.” Then there were drawings of three basic “weapons carries” for urban combat: Tactical Carry, When an immediate threat is present; Alert Carry, When enemy contact is likely; and Ready Carry, When enemy contact is imminent, with a standing version of the young Israeli soldier we saw kneeling in the Bethlehem street. The United States military calls this Military Operations in Urban Terrain. In 2003 they started to practice it in a staged Arab town set up on an Israeli military base; in 2004 a new town was built on the Tseelim army base in the south, including four distinct neighborhoods: “a complex of high-rise buildings, a crowded commercial district, a marketplace, and a low-rise, agricultural-type environment.” The acronym is MOUT, which also happens to be the Arabic word for death.
The kneeling soldier looked as though his ancestors came from Europe, as did the soldier yelling from behind his grill; another soldier who looked as though his ancestors came from Africa got out and spoke with the men in our group, and it was agreed that taxis would be allowed to come and take us back to our hotel. The Berkeley community coordinator and I traveled with the Princeton neuroscientist and the Northeastern lawyer; “I think the young men are enjoying this,” the Princeton neuroscientist said, as we drove through the empty streets, and our drawn driver with prayer beads hanging from his rearview abruptly reversed at the flash and pop of gunfire at the bottom of the hill, where the soldiers outside their jeep were firing into the upper stories of an apartment building.
The taxis retreated to another neighborhood and it became clear that our driver was too frightened to proceed; after negotiations we got in another cab, with another older driver and his son of about five, whom he dropped off on our way. “Of course it’s bad life for us, but I know everything,” the driver said; we’d shuffled passengers, so his boy was sitting in the lap of the Columbia writing teacher in the front seat. “I like to help everything today,” he said. “I put on the light, so if there are some soldiers don’t worry, I will speak with them in Hebrew. If the soldiers catch us now, you can show them your passport; tell them, This is driver, he take us from the checkpoint, he need to drop us at the hotel, he is our friend. Because I don’t want trouble to my car. Tell him I know this boy, and he want to take us to our hotel. Okay? And I will speak to him nice talking, no problem. And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you happy new year, Merry Christmas.”
“This will be one we’ll remember,” someone said.
“You are from different countries?”
“From the US.”
“Ah, Americans,” he said. He’d rolled down the window several times to ask the young men in the darkness, “Jesh?,” the word for soldiers. “You are Americans.” He turned the corner and a Red Crescent ambulance passed in front of us. “You are welcome to Bethlehem.”
“You are going to George Rishmawi, right?” he said. “Maybe you don’t know him, but tomorrow he will find you and talk to you about Jenin, Ramallah, Nablus. How do I know? I know. I told you, I was born with tourists, I know.” He nodded toward his son. “Since I was his age.”
When we got to the hill over the hotel, he cut the engine and rolled down the narrow twists of the street with no lights; “There is the Three Kings, down,” he said, “See, there is soldiers down there. Allah, save, please. Thanks God they don’t catch us,” and he turned the ignition and raced up to the hotel entrance, where the smell of tear gas was dissipating and the rest of the group was listening to gunfire and waiting for us. I shared a room with the Wellesley bioethicist that night, who called home on her cellphone: “You’re getting a very one-sided trip,” I could hear a woman’s voice telling her, “The majority of Israelis are probably just living their lives.” She was blind, so hadn’t seen the stonethrowers and the soldiers at the hotel doorstep, but heard them and smelled the gas that drifted in. At Islah and Saleh’s, Saleh’s father had said, “In our times we hope to balance writing history and writing the future. The American Jews are the people most committed to human rights. Why can’t they see what is happening here?” “This story has many levels of tragedy,” the Harvard psychiatrist answered, “and one of them plays itself out in the American Jewish community. To be against Israel is to be against your family.” “All right, Happy New Year, bye,” the bioethicist said. “Daddy wouldn’t like it very much, what I’m finding out here.”
the morning we met not with George Rishmawi but with his comrade Ghassan
Andoni, in neat trousers and a leather jacket, gray in his mustache; the curfew
was still in force, so we met in the hotel lobby, with children running around
but not outside, and donkeys standing just outside the door. Andoni was a physics professor at
Birzeit University, and with Rishmawi and Israeli Neta Golan and Americans
Huwaida Arraf and Adam Shapiro helped found the International Solidarity
During the first intifada, Andoni was an organizer of tax resistance in Bethlehem; the movement’s slogan was, “No taxation without representation.” ( The first principle of non-violence-- ) Once the campaign was underway, the Israeli army seized Beit Sahour, the town beside Bethlehem; eighty-nine people were arrested, and the town put under curfew for forty-five days. ( --is non-compliance with everything humiliating ) “A curfew is a license to kill without questions,” Andoni said. “A commander of five or six soldiers can declare it.” The army blocked food shipments and cut phone lines, and took machines from small businesses and ovens from homes to collect the taxes’ equivalent; the UN Security Council resolution in October 1989, demanding the raids end and the confiscated goods be returned, was vetoed by the United States. In 1988, after a jail term for his political activities ( Cowardice is impotence worse than violence ), Ghassan Andoni had started an organization called the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement; in a time when the Israeli Prime Minister who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize, Yitzhak Rabin, was talking about “breaking the bones of the Palestinians” -- Mustafa Barghouthi remembered seeing the boys in the Ramallah hospital cradling hands the soldiers had broken, for throwing stones -- Rapprochement worked under the slogan, “Break bread, not bones.” They moved quickly from dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis to joint nonviolent direct action; soon after the beginning of the second intifada, Rapprochement and various other anti-occupation groups like it came together to create what became the International Solidarity Movement, or ISM.
“ISM is a coalition, a movement,” Andoni said, “not really an organization;” when I interviewed Huwaida Arraf after we returned home, she said, “I don’t usually point to a specific date or a specific person who founded ISM.” She and her husband Adam were speaking at Rutgers; “After the outbreak of the second intifada,” she said, “at the end of September of 2000, there were various isolated efforts in different places, to do something to try to change the direction of where things were going. The outbreak of the second intifada, sure, it was sparked by Ariel Sharon going up to the Temple Mount, but it wasn’t just that. It was over seven years of helping build up this facade of peace, while what was really happening was this cementation of the occupation.
“So when Ariel Sharon stepped foot on the Temple Mount, it enraged a lot of people,” she said; ( The ultimate weakness of violence-- ) “it was a slap in the face. Palestinians protested; the next day was a Friday, the Muslim day of prayer. ( --is that it is a descending spiral-- ) There were police everywhere, and seven Palestinians were shot dead. So popular protest took to the streets throughout the Palestinian territories, and they were responded to with gunfire. People were dropping from bullet wounds to the chest and head. So it didn’t take long for popular demonstrations to stop, for people to recognize that Israel was shooting to kill, not just restraining demonstrations. ( --begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy )
“So trying to protest this, most people had just given up. From 1987 to 1993, we had a massive popular uprising, with the first intifada -- sure, there was an armed aspect to it, but it was mainly unarmed, everyone was involved. It revolved around popular actions like breaking curfews, tax resistance, and lots of other forms of nonviolent resistance that everyone can be involved in. And that came to an end with the signing of the peace process that didn’t really deliver peace.
“But the second intifada became nothing like that. It started off with popular protests; but when people responded with gunfire, the demonstrations started taking on an armed characteristic. Those on the Palestinian side who had guns were going out and shooting at settlements and at Israeli soldiers, and it became that most people could not participate. Not everyone can participate in an armed resistance. And these people were totally outdone by Israel’s military--I mean there’s no way anyone can believe that we have any chance against the Israeli military. But of course you didn’t see or hear that in the press. The press was showing it, at best, as even; you know, ‘clashes between the Palestinians and the Israeli military.’ It was very frustrating. Day to day life was getting worse.
“So I was one of the people searching for something to do,” Arraf said. ( The sword of the satyagrahi-- ) “And speaking to a lot of the leaders of the first intifada, I would hear a long list of reasons of why the situation isn’t the same, and why it wouldn’t work anymore, why people are tired, why people are frustrated. No one could hold Israel accountable for Palestinian lives or for anything it did. If the UN refused to hold Israel accountable, as long as they were backed up by the United States, Israel could do whatever it wanted. So most people who had struggled for so long were like, ( --is love-- ) ‘We’re tired. We don’t know what else we can do.’ ( --and the unshakable firmness that comes from it )
“One woman very specifically told me, a female leader of the first intifada: ‘I agree with everything you’re advocating’--because I was trying to think of new creative ways we could organize--’but we’re just tired. And maybe it’s you, the young and naive, who need to take over and lead this forward.’
“So I was searching for a card, a card we could use. Why should people get involved again? All you hear is ‘Do you really think this is going to work? So we march and protest and get shot down, but is it going to lead to anything?’ So I was one of many who thought ‘Well, internationals could really have an effect.’
“So we started doing some actions, and I was trying to organize internationals to have a voice--both to try to get through to their media, about what was really happening, and to try to provide protection to Palestinian demonstrations, by being in them. We didn’t have the weapons Israel had--they had better organized media, they had better organized propaganda, for a whole host of reasons--but our resources are the justness of our struggle and our steadfastness. So we just had to think of how to use this. And internationals could be a card.
“One route I tried to take in the beginning was doing internationals only, like Americans only, protesting against their weaponry, their money being used to attack civilians--to try to give hope to Palestinians, that they’re not alone. And to try to break through to the media, to get another voice out there. Basically what was coming out was that it was all Yasir Arafat’s fault, because he turned down Camp David and decided to go back to violence--this is what the Israeli government was putting out, Yasir Arafat never gave up his terrorist ways and chose violence over diplomacy. Which anyone who remotely knows anything about the situation, or has lived in the occupied territories and has seen what was going on, knows isn’t true. So this is where we started.”
Ghassan Andoni told us about organizing a peaceful march on December 28, 2000, to an Israeli military base from which Bethlehem was being bombed; Israelis and Palestinians and internationals participated, Neta Golan and Huwaida Arraf among them. The demonstrators walked past the gates without impediment, and presented a letter to the soldiers demanding that the base be dismantled. On their way out, one international made his way up the soldiers’ tower and raised the Palestinian flag. This raised some public curiosity in Israel and the occupied territories; but it wasn’t until the spring of 2002, when ISMers made their way into the muqata’a in Ramallah, trying to get out the wounded and keep Yasir Arafat from being killed or deported, and made their way into the besieged Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to bring food and serve as human shields, that as Ghassan Andoni said, “People everywhere started to ask, ‘Who are these people?’”
“Our idea is to show the occupation that there are limits to what they can do,” he said. “To move with ambulances. Stay in homes to save them from demolition. Dismantle roadblocks. Walk children to school. ISM is a Palestinian-led international organization--which means that the agenda of ISM is part of the Palestinian agenda of resisting occupation in order to end it. So you have to be aware, joining ISM means that you take sides.” Among our group there was the shifting and rustling of papers that had accompanied Ilan Pappé. “If you are not ready to take sides,” Andoni said, “if you come here to ‘bridge the gap,’ if you come here to preach peace, if you come here to say ‘Well, you did wrong and they did wrong and we need to...’ If you come to do that, don’t come to ISM.” He leaned forward. “Work with other organizations. Because you have to be decided. Our point is: regardless of how bad Palestinians are performing or how good Palestinians are performing, I’m with Palestinians against occupation. If you reach this conclusion, in Arabic we say Ah’len wa sah’len. If not, you can do work with others, because there are so many peace groups functioning.
“Look, I know Israelis are more focused about ‘Am I going to be exploded the next time I ride a bus,’” he said. ( Hodaya Asraf, 13, Bus No. 20 ) “And everything else becomes irrelevant. But if it becomes that irrelevant, then your message is, ‘In order to protect my life, I need to kill everybody else.’ And if you reach that level, then you become self-destructive. And when Israel becomes self-destructive, we will be destroyed as well.” Or as the settlers’ slogan puts it, via Jerusalem graffiti, “No Arabs, no terror.” Early in the first intifada, Revaham Ze’evi, the retired general who later became tourism minister, formed the Committee for the Mass Expulsion of Arabs (CMEA). “I believe there is no place for two people in our country,” he said in July of 2001. “Palestinians are like lice. You have to take them out like lice.”
“People have to shift the paradigm in which this conflict is looked at,” Huwaida Arraf said. “They always talk about an absence of peace--well, of course you can’t have peace if you don’t have an end to occupation. We’re very clear: it’s a freedom struggle, and one side is preventing that freedom, and continuing to occupy. So we have to unite against the occupation first. Humanitarian work is 100% needed--but I feel like Palestine doesn’t need any more band-aids. It needs politics. Because we can keep applying band-aids, but someone’s going to keep ripping them off.
“We were trying to figure out ways that the majority of people that are unarmed and that didn’t want the intifada to take an armed characteristic could participate,” Arraf said; “not because we didn’t believe in the Palestinians’ right to armed resistance, but because that’s not the way we’re going to win. We came together and in August of 2001, almost a whole year later, we launched our first active campaign. We had demonstrations and did things together before--but in August 2001 we decided to invite the international community to come from abroad to join us. We’d been working with the international community that was in Palestine already, for school or for work; in August 2001 we issued a call for people to come and join us, for two weeks of coordinated nonviolent direct action against the occupation. At that time fifty people registered, and came, mainly from the US and the UK. We called it the August Campaign Against Occupation. Then we had the December campaign.
“When we were training and orienting the new people, there was that huge bombing in Jerusalem of the Sbarro café; the day after, the Israelis shut down Orient House,” the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters in Jerusalem. “So we switched our focus and the group took a decision to go support the Palestinians who were protesting the closure of Orient House. And that turned violent, with internationals being beaten up and arrested. But it got some media coverage. In fact, the Israeli government accused us of being propaganda ploys of the Palestinian Authority, professional demonstrators shipped in to do some professional demonstrating. But what happened really was that people saw international solidarity again. And more importantly, the people who came went back to their countries and really wanted to support this idea, and started working to get other people to come join us.
“For the December campaign approximately seventy people joined. And different solidarity groups also came. So in that December period there were times when we worked with two or three hundred people. One of our marches had three hundred internationals and over a thousand Palestinians. What ISM focused on was coordinating actions on the ground that would constantly resist the army, trying to stand up to the army, with whatever we had. Nonviolently, with our bodies and our voices.
“We were getting ready to coordinate another campaign in April--it was supposed to start March 29, with the training and orientation--and on March 29 the Israeli army invaded Ramallah. Massively. We were thrown into emergency mode. There was a group in Ramallah, there was a group in Bethlehem, there was a group waiting in Jerusalem, and there was this massive invasion of Ramallah. I was with the group in Ramallah. Throughout the day we were hearing the helicopters, the gunfire, the tanks; we knew there was going to be an invasion. There was a bombing a couple of days before where twenty-three Israelis were killed sitting down to a seder dinner; we knew something was going to happen. We were all supposed to be in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but I stayed in Ramallah, and brought some people into Ramallah just in case. That evening, myself and Neta and Adam were pushing for trying to prevent the Israeli army from invading. We were actually pushing for organizing to put people on every possible entrance to Ramallah in the middle of the night. We were like, ‘We have to go out there with mirrors and flashlights and just lay down and prevent the tanks from getting in.’
“We were talking to some of the Palestinians we organize with, and specifically--I’m going to go on record saying this, I never have before--Mustafa Barghouthi was like ‘No, we’ll just wait until morning and see what happens.’ And we’re like ‘No, we can’t wait until morning to see what happens!’ But he really pushed for that, and a couple of other leaders of Palestinian NGOs agreed, ‘Let’s just wait and see what happens;’ and of course we waited and they invaded, we couldn’t stop them. I don’t know if we’d been out there on the roads if we could have stopped them, but we could have done something.” We were sitting in a cafeteria at Rutgers, before Huwaida and Adam spoke to a group of students, the January night Ariel Sharon was re-elected; on the radio, people at Likud headquarters were cheering and singing about the return of the Messiah. Huwaida told me she was very patriotic growing up outside of Detroit, waving the flag and declaring that she’d be the first female president someday. Her father is from the Galilee, her mother from Beit Sahour, and the family spent holidays there; at about age ten she was arguing the virtues of the United States with her aunts, and one said to her, “Look at what America is doing to us. Reagan is supporting Israel and Israel couldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for America.” So she lowered her American flag. “This woke me up,” she said. “And a year later the intifada broke out.”
She was on the dance team in high school and president of the student council, but not involved in politics; in the photographs I saw of her in Beirut, she looks like a dancer, standing in front of the tanks with her arms raised. In Leila Sansour’s film “Jeremy Hardy vs. the Israeli Army,” Adam talks steadily into the face of an Israeli soldier, and Huwaida stands like that, surrounded by comrades, and the tank backs up. “I can’t say that a few times I haven’t lost it and yelled at a soldier,” she said. “Sometimes I’m not as calm as I think I should be. A lot of conversations that are tense or disturbing I have gotten confrontational--but sometimes you can’t hold back this natural inclination to challenge something that is so wrong. For example, being at a checkpoint, and they’re not allowing an old woman to go through, just a hundred meters to get to a taxi and get her home, because of terrorism. Is this seventy-year-old woman a terrorist? Why don’t we let her cross this checkpoint so she can go home? So it’s arguing this, and probably arguing in a confrontational way ( A type of constructive non-violent tension necessary for growth ), and then seeing if the woman would agree and then taking her hand and walking her with me, I don’t care if they shoot at us.”
“The checkpoint is not about security,” Ghassan Andoni said, “it’s about the mood of the soldier. If he’s happy, everybody moves. If he’s not, everybody waits hours and hours. It’s sporadic, random, to the mood of the guy there. These are collective punishments, these are not security measures. And not only collective punishments, but trying to change the demography and geography of the place. If Palestinians are not allowed into Jerusalem, Jerusalem will become Jewish. Jerusalem is shifted out of our life. If it is really difficult to go to Ramallah, Palestinians will stop going to Ramallah. You create the ghettos.
“Because the Israeli government says they have a military solution to the problem, they always have to be convincing their people, ‘We are doing something to protect you. We are not helpless.’ Honestly speaking, it’s totally decided by the militant groups among us if they want to do the attack or not to do the attack. But Israel wants to create the impression, ‘We are reducing the number, We are the ones who decide, We have a solution to this problem’--so you have more checkpoints, more roadblocks, this wall.
“I have been in jails, I have been interrogated,” he said, “I have been harassed, I know how they function, I know how they lie. They cannot cheat me--but probably they can cheat others. And I think Israelis could be cheated, because Israelis want to hang to something that says ‘Someone is doing something to protect me.’ I understand it. They are using that.” He answered his cell phone and told us it was an Italian group trying to get into Bethlehem, so far without success. “If it’s a curfew, then this is a closed military area,” he said, “foreigners cannot be here.” When someone in our group worried about our departure, he smiled. “No, no, you can leave,” he said, “they want to get rid of you.”
“Before any direct action I always have this fear,” Huwaida Arraf said, “’Oh God, please let this work.’ I’m a little nervous about any mess-up, because you are really dealing with an army, so it really takes courage, determination and unarmed strategy to deal with it. I remember we were standing once in front of tanks, just a small group of students who wanted to get across to Birzeit University, and from a tank a machine gun fired at us. I think over our heads or to the side, I don’t know, I couldn’t see. But we froze. And I didn’t see this until later, but Adam had gone to one of my friends, Sofia, and asked ‘Sofia, what did you think about that?’ And she was like ‘Holy shit, I almost shit my pants.’ I was kind of at the front, I was one of the decision-makers. I knew they were shooting at us but I was determined. So I was about to tell all these people behind me, ‘Let’s walk forward.’ It’s everybody’s life. And they’re going to follow. So it’s not easy. But I’m careful also to tell people, You’re not safe. You’re going into a war zone. We try to take precautions so no one loses their life, but in a sense you are giving your life for something you believe in, just by agreeing to be here.”
It was later that month that a college student from Seattle arrived in Bethlehem to be part of ISM’s work, a young woman named Rachel Corrie ( I am hungry for one good thing I can do ); in March she was standing in front of a Palestinian pharmacist’s house in Rafah, in southern Gaza, to prevent its demolition, when an Israeli army bulldozer ran over her. The next month ISMer Tom Hurndall of Britain was shot in the head in Rafah, and Brian Avery of Albuquerque shot in the face in Jenin. Rachel Corrie wrote to her mother shortly before she died, “So when I sound crazy, or if the Israeli military should break with their racist tendency not to injure white people, please pin the reason squarely on the fact that I am in the midst of a genocide which I am also indirectly supporting, and for which my government is largely responsible.” Ghassan Andoni wrote at the end of March, “What stops the soldier from shooting an activist standing in the way of ‘executing his orders’ is the love hidden behind the tough appearance, the human inside him that sets the limits to how brutal and how exploitative of the power he enjoys he can be. If that is not there, then we would rather not live in this jungle in which the one who has sharper claws kills and eat the others...Without people like Rachel I doubt I would be willing to continue living in the world that the warriors have prepared for us.”
young girls set out on such adventures and court risks,” Gandhi wrote on
September 8, 1906, about the Russian revolutionaries of 1905; “A book was
recently published about the lives of young women who have thus made themselves
immortal. Knowing that death is
certain, these fearless girls, actuated by patriotism and a spirit of
self-sacrifice, take the lives of those whom they believe to be the enemies of
the country, and themselves meet an agonising death at the hands of
officials....It will be no wonder if such a country succeeds in achieving
freedom from tyranny. The only
reason why it has not become free immediately is that such patriotism is
misdirected, as we have pointed out before, and results in bloodshed.” Three days later he met with 3,000
Indian men, Hindus and Muslims, in the Empire Theater in Johannesburg, men who
would soon be registered, fingerprinted, and required to carry residency
permits under the new Draft Asiatic Ordinance; instead they signed a pledge not
to cooperate with the ordinance in any way, to resist its demands, without
violence. It was the discovery of
a card, as Huwaida Arraf might put it, “a sensitive instrument,” as Erik
Erikson puts it in Gandhi’s Truth;
“he seeks to keep the individual in control of his tools,” Nelson Mandela has
written of Gandhi, “to maintain an interdependent love relation between the
two, as a cricketer with his bat or Krishna with his flute.”
“I could read in every face the expectation of something strange to be done or happen,” Gandhi wrote, about his meeting, which took place on September 11--well before history had made it safe to admire him, before his sedition was turned into sainthood, when Winston Churchill was calling him “a seditious middle temple lawyer,” and a “half-naked fakir,” just as Nelson Mandela before sainthood was an imprisoned terrorist and saboteur, convicted under the South African Suppression of Communism Act, and Martin Luther King according to then-governor George Wallace was “Martin Luther Coon,” in a time when William Faulkner could say to the London Sunday Times--shedding new light on sociologist Seymour Lipset’s insight that fascism is an extremism of the center--“As long as there’s a middle road, all right, I’ll be on it. But if it came to fighting, I’d fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes.” The Israeli settlers who believe in the spirit of Rehavam Ze’evi’s party, in the removal of the Palestinians to Jordan--away from the occupied territories they call ‘Yesha,’ the Hebrew acronym for Biblical Judea and Sam'aria--echo this, often under the Israeli army’s tacit protection. But it’s enormously difficult to think outside one’s own social landscape, to remember the times when coffles of black men led through the nation’s capital or Jewish neighbors disappearing were normal features of those social landscapes too, and to wonder what the contemporary equivalents might be. Often they are camouflaged; as Robert I. Friedman reported in the Nation after Ze’evi’s assassination, “Rehavam Ze'evi was a young officer in the elite Palmach during Israel's 1948 War of Independence when he draped a sheet over his body one day, climbed on a goat and rode it into the mess hall. The barber had just shaved Ze'evi's head, so the skinny fighter with the wire-rim glasses bore a striking resemblance to Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian pacifist. The nickname stuck. But as he told me in Jerusalem in one of his last interviews before Palestinian gunmen fatally shot him, ‘Of course, the nickname Gandhi has nothing to do with my views.’"
The International Solidarity Movement has been using the uncamouflaged Gandhi’s tool (My Dear Fellow Clergymen While confined here--) for almost seven years; you can see it on YouTube now (--in the Birmingham City Jail--), a clip of today’s direct action against the wall in Bil’in, on June 6, 2007, the day I am typing this. The demonstrations protesting the dividing of the village of Bil’in from its outlying fields have been happening every Friday since early 2005. (--I came across your recent statement--) At the beginning of the YouTube clip there are children in soft clothes clapping and chanting (--calling my activities unwise and untimely), holding Palestinian flags, walking quickly along the road toward the wall, at the edge of an olive grove on a beautiful day. (I am in Birmingham because injustice is here) Soon you can see the other walkers behind them, all ages and sexes, Israelis and Palestinians and internationals, some filming, and the soldiers in their body armor and uniforms massing at the other end of the road. With the first tear gas is that loudspeaker voice, its Hebrew cadences linked with fear and rage for me the way German cadences are for my friend Ruth, so she reads Rilke to balance them (a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue)--and the young men at the front are immediately taken, the organizers who live in the village, one who lies down and they drag him, then lift him by his hands and feet. Sometimes demonstrators hold hands and sing, sometimes they’re arrested and deported; at another demonstration there was a banner in Hebrew, unfurled in front of the wall and its watchtowers, which said “Does This Remind You Of Anything?”
Then there’s arguing as the two groups meet, pushing, the men in soft clothes in their twenties and thirties coming forward to lean against the soldiers, talking loudly but the way Adam Shapiro did in Leila Sansour’s movie, into faces, somehow insisting on a sentient listener--then somehow retreating without retreating, yielding without yielding, gesturing to be understood, by the young men in plastic visors and vests and helmets and camouflage, with batons and guns. “The more direct uses of Satyagraha,” Erik Erikson wrote, about Gandhi’s tool, “always include the body and the meeting of bodies: the facing of the opponent ‘eye to eye,’ the linking of arms in defensive and advancing phalanxes, the body ‘on the line’: all these confrontations symbolize the conviction that the solidarity of unarmed bodies remains a leverage and a measure even against the cold and mechanized gadgetry of the modern state.” A soldier kicks one of the men in soft clothes between his legs, and he falls, and the soldiers keep the others back from him; the fallen man holds himself with one hand, and a soldier lobs a tear gas canister into his lap, and everyone scatters away from the sheet of gas. (A time when the cup of endurance runs over) The land looks as though it’s been carefully cultivated for a long time, the little rock walls and the olive trees in rows with gas streaming through their branches in the wind. One man sits under an olive with a flag, wiping his face, and four soldiers come up and take him. One soldier approaches the man filming and speaks with him, then walks back to his group; then there’s shooting and the image tilts, the man filming has been shot, and he falls. The next shot is an ambulance, and the skittering lines of gas merging into a line of smoke, a little fire ignited by the tear gas canisters spreading toward the olives, beginning to take one. There are jeeps by the ambulance and old women in headscarves yelling beside them and gesturing (Our legitimate and unavoidable impatience), pointing between the soldiers and the land, the soldiers and the land (Was not Amos an extremist for justice), and the soldiers turn their faces away; then they climb an army truck and spray water from a hose down at the women, who retreat and do not, still yelling. One stoops and picks up a stone; a middle-aged man beside her puts his hand on her wrist, and she puts the stone down. (So the question is not whether we will be extremists--) The only word I could understand was what the cameraman said when the soldier approached him: “Bi salamim.” In peace. (--but what kind of extremists will we be)
Bil’in will lose over half its land behind the wall, which will facilitate an expansion of Israeli settlements on the other side; as we left Bethlehem we saw the white concrete city on a hill just outside the checkpoint, Abu Ghanem become Har Homa, what its website calls “a warm, affordable community right at Jerusalem’s doorstep.” When Benjamin Netanyahu initiated its construction in 1997, in the middle of the Oslo agreements’ ban on new settlements, Ghassan Andoni told the Financial Times, “We are preparing for a confrontation. For us, Har Homa is the end of the peace process.” It made me wonder what it had been like to watch the settlement begin, the roads built and restricted, the agreements and international law flouted--and what it had been like for the people who lived in the town where I grew up to watch this happen, or the people who lived in Manhattan, watching the first white settlers build their houses and their walls and their fort palisades, as the people who lived there looked among their tools to try to decide what to do. “Yet before the ashes of the council fire are cold,” Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux said in 1866, “the Great Father is building his forts among us. You have heard the sound of the white soldier’s ax upon the Little Piney. His presence here is an insult and a threat. It is an insult to the spirits of our ancestors. Are we then to give up their sacred graves to be plowed for corn? Dakotas, I am for war!” Cochise of the Chiracahua Apache said, “I was at peace with the whites until they tried to kill me for what other Indians did; I now live and die at war with them.” In Abdelrahman Munif’s great novel Cities of Salt, about the beginnings of the Saudi oil industry in the 1930s, the people of the desert oasis destroyed to make an oil pipeline react “as if the end of the world had come.” A man in the village, Miteb al-Hathal, says, “We should have done something a long time ago, when they first came. I knew they would return. I knew they would do things men and jinn never dreamed of. They came. I saw them myself. In the wink of an eye they unleashed hundreds of demons and devils. These devils catch fire and roar night and day like a flour mill that turns and turns without tiring out and without anyone turning it. What will happen in this world? How can we kill them before they kill us?” The ‘they’ he refers to is sometimes “men possesed by jinn,” “ghouls,” “the band of devils,” “sons of bitches,” “the root of the problem,” sometimes “the Americans.”
But the International Solidarity Committee and the demonstrators at Bil’in have taken up tools other than killing; Abdallah Abu-Rahma is a prominent member of the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, and was taken from his home and interrogated in July of 2005 at the Ofer Military Base. He was accompanied by an attorney and an international. “Are you a man?” the Israeli soldier asked him, nodding toward the women with him. “She is my lawyer,” Abu-Rahma answered. “I know that this is a state that works according to law.”
Soldier: No, there is no law.
Abu-Rahma: There is.
S: Where were you last week?
A: In jail.
S: Why were you in jail?
A: I was taken from a peaceful demonstration.
Abu-Rahma: If you take a balloon and you step on it what will happen?
Soldier: It will burst.
A: That’s what you are doing to Bil’in. Bil’in used to be called the village of peace. You are strangling it. We are left with no land. Where is my son going to live? The wall in Bil’in will be moved back, but it will happen by peaceful means. We have decided that we are going to resist peacefully.
S: You throw stones. What about the soldier who lost his eye?
A: At the demonstrations stones are not thrown, but when the army enters the village and starts firing between the houses, people throw stones at them.
S: We know everything you do.
A: I know you know everything I do and I have done everything according to the law. I haven’t thrown stones.
S: You do something worse than throwing stones. You tell the people to go out on demonstrations. We have reports about you. We know you make problems. Go home, sit quietly in your house, enjoy your life, don’t make problems. We are watching you very, very closely.
leaving Bethlehem we drove to Manger Square; on the way I noticed graffiti
stencils of the thirteen-year-old boy I saw dying in the newspaper in the
winter of 2001, Kifah Khaled Obeid, from Deheisheh refugee camp at the edge of
Bethlehem. I had wondered why he
was being carried only by other children, and read later that the day before he
died, five children were killed in Gaza from an unexploded bomb left behind
after an Israeli army raid. The
next day Palestinian schoolchildren marched to a Bethlehem checkpoint to
protest this, with a banner that read, The Smile of a Child Is Stronger Than
Israeli Weapons, and Kifah Obeid was shot with a live round to the chest.
“Police! Police!” the boys in Manger Square yelled, running, as the loudspeaker yelling filled the old white stone plaza and the soldiers in jeeps careened up, setting off sound grenades and firing rifles in the air; some of the men in suit jackets with graying hair didn’t even turn around, ducking and flinching a moment for the gunfire and then going about their business as if the soldiers weren’t there. The back hatch of one jeep opened but the soldiers stayed inside this time; they sped past the cedars and palm trees and the Milk Grotto where Jesus was said to have been born, out of the plaza and down the hill, and the small boys and then the bigger boys who’d been hiding ran after them and threw stones.
The week I am typing this marks forty years since the 1967
war; on the radio there are joyful love songs to Jerusalem in Hebrew and
funeral songs in Arabic, and the Palestinian unity government between Hamas and
Fateh is falling apart. Fateh’s
Mahmoud Abbas was installed as Palestinian Prime Minister the April after we
returned from Tel Aviv; according to the New
York Times, Abdel Jawad Saleh told Abbas at a meeting of the Palestinian
legislature that he was making a mistake in not calling for nonviolent
resistance to Israel. “You should
be a Gandhi,” he said.
On the front page of the Times today is the story of a nine-year-old boy who’s won thousands of dollars playing video games professionally, and President Bush is laughing with the German chancellor, under the headline “US Derails Climate Plan Backed by German Leader”; she’s doing a version of the Shatila teacher’s gesture, palms up, as if she’s asking a question. On page A14 is a photograph, of a long, bending line of people in a wheatfield, like the line of Soweto voters in a photograph I keep of that first miraculous post-apartheid South African election. The text says that ”Marchers intent on protesting the meeting of the Group of 8 industrialized nations walked through a field yesterday, to avoid police blockades several miles from the meeting site in Heiligendamm, in northern Germany.” They look like the young people I met in Beirut, like my students, with a few of the middle-aged thrown in; one shirt says Fight Poverty, one F*ck Racisme, one with the woman symbol with a fist in it, one topped by a kaffiyeh. They look like the demonstrators in Bil’in, a new kind of army, evading checkpoints in a German wheatfield in soft clothes. They look like the future, if there is to be a human one. ”Demonstrators in clown makeup and pink and yellow wigs danced outside a steel fence surrounding the meeting site,” the text says, “clashing with the police, who used tear gas to disperse them,” reminding me of the spirit of Suad Amiry, interrogated at the Tel Aviv airport on her way back from London, who when asked “What was the purpose of your visit?” replied, “Dancing.”
This is the future whose foundation-buildings could have begun in 1989, with the tearing down of the old geopolitical enmities and the wall built as a monument to them the year I was born. Instead we have new enmities, and new industries to profit from them; while the leaders of the G8 nations were flown in helicopters, ”The police had erected a $17 million, 8-foot-high, 7.5-mile-long fence topped with barbed and razor wire, completely cutting off the resort, and banned protests within 200 yards of the fence.” Local authorities spent more than $130 million on “security”; Naomi Klein reports in the Guardian that Israel’s economy is booming, “selling fences to an apartheid planet.” That $150 million is about the same amount the Red Cross raised after the Indian Ocean tsunami, about what George Bush spent in order to be re-elected, and about the cost of the week of social events before the Academy Awards; it’s also about the cost of the Gaza power station the Israeli Air Force bombed in the summer of 2006, depriving 750,000 people of electricity. In 1989 it was the job of one of our elected representatives “To state the sense of the Senate on the use of the peace dividend,” a phrase whose democratic potentials were well on their way to disappearance before the phrase “homeland security” was tied like a gag over the Manhattan ruins and finished the job.
“It was not UN troops in smart uniforms who took up positions in our villages and cities,” Mustafa Barghouthi wrote after the siege of Ramallah, “nor was it American soldiers storming ashore, as in Somalia. It was individuals who responded to our calls, and small groups from trade unions and churches, anti-globalisation activists, committees from the World Social Forum, Jewish and Christian groups opposed to the occupation, governmental representatives, as well as those belonging to Palestinian solidarity groups...These people came, even at the risk of injury, arrest and deportation, to stand up to the Israeli occupation, by the Palestinians’ side.” As George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian in April of 2002, “The movement to which many of the peace activists risking their lives in Ramallah and Bethlehem belong has no name...a sort of grassroots United Nations, trying with their puny resources to keep the promises their governments have broken...In Palestine, as elsewhere, it is seeking to place itself between power and those whom power afflicts.” In his leaked end-of-mission report as UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Alvaro de Soto calls the UN “a milestone in human progress, as it attempts to go beyond the creaky state system that followed the Treaty of Westphalia, to create something that is more than the sum of its parts, the member states”; it’s his opinion that strong leadership will decide “whether this experiment will succeed over time and whether humankind will indeed cross this threshold.” Arrayed against this possibility is a world controlled by the exigencies of war, and what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described in Le Monde in 1998 as “an immense political project...a program of the methodical destruction of collectives,” aiming “to call into question any and all collective structures that could serve as an obstacle to the logic of the pure market.”
Maybe the leaders who could shepherd this experiment will appear unfamiliar at first, difficult to recognize; we might know them by their “sensitivity to evil,” in Abraham Heschel’s words, their appearing “luminous and explosive,” “one octave too high,” navigating “a tension between anger and compassion” and “the hypertrophy of sympathy,” insisting that “Few are guilty, all are responsible.” He called them prophets--messengers, witnesses--Walt Whitman might call them “beginners”--and reminded us that in their own time and place they are more likely to be greeted with hatred than admiration. My hunch is that 3,000 of them were the Mexicans who appeared in Chiapas at the stroke of midnight, just at the end of the age of Columbus, on January 1, 1994, calling the North American Free Trade Agreements “a death sentence against indigenous peoples”; and more sat on the ground in Seattle in 1999 while armored police pulled their heads back by the hair to aim pepper spray in their eyes, saying “Whose streets? Our streets.” Two of them climbed the facade of a hotel at the corner of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue at the opening of the Republican convention in 2004, to hang a banner with the word Truth on it--the place where the Israel Day supporters and protestors confront each other, where New Yorkers marched in 2006 for the young man killed by police on the eve of his wedding, breaking their silence only to count the fifty shots fired--where demonstrators gathered in 2002 to protest the World Trade Organization meetings at the Waldorf Astoria, with puppets and singing and signs that said Oh Say Can You See over American flags, and Another World Is Possible.
Bethlehem, New Year's Eve, 2002
Bethlehem, New Year's Eve, 2002, 2
Bethlehem, Manger Square, New Year's Day, 2003
Ghassan Andoni, Bethlehem, 2003
Birzeit University student & faculty member Dr. Rema Hammami, 2002