By Clare Bayard of Dialogues Against Militarism
When we crossed the Egyptian border at Taba, into the 1948 boundaries of the Israeli state, I ran over to the earthy cliff beside the road and touched Palestinian soil. Hours later, after dusk, we swam in the bathwater-warm Red Sea, and I felt this place soaking into my pores. I got involved in Palestine solidarity organizing when the second intifada began in 2000, and ached to come here for years. But the pain of being able to walk right in, holding my U.S. passport, into the homeland that millions of Palestinians in the diaspora are not allowed to return to, kept me focused on the work I believe is primary for U.S. citizens anyway: working within the U.S. to change our government’s policies, and to build popular support for Palestinians trying to live in peace.
The brutality of “Operation Cast Lead,” this winter’s attacks on the already besieged population of Gaza, jolted me over my block about coming here. When I became involved with the Dialogues Against Militarism delegation, it became clear to me that this was the way in which I needed to finally come to Palestine. The fundamental connections between anti-occupation resistance here and anti-war organizing in the U.S. has the potential to reshape the direction this world is going. For generations, Palestine has been a keystone in global resistance to imperial wars, one which the governments and social movements of different countries have aligned themselves in relationship to. During apartheid South Africa, Israel and the United States lined up against most of the liberation movements of the world that supported an end to white supremacist rule in South Africa. Palestinian and South African anti-racist movements have connections going back decades. Now with the global call for boycott/divestment/sanctions to pressure Israel that Palestinian civil society issued in 2005, and with the continuing exchanges between South African and anti-occupation workers here (both Palestinian and Israeli), we are being asked in the U.S. to consider more deeply and then act upon how Israeli colonization is creating apartheid in Palestine. Adding this to the power of the G.I. Resistance movement in the U.S. to end our undisguised colonial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan… yes, there is potential here, potential to change direction.
We didn’t reach Palestine, as currently defined, until a few days ago. When we left Jerusalem and entered the West Bank, I broke down in joy and rage. Leaning against the window looking at the apartheid wall, my fists clenched, gripping the seat, wanting to kick out hard and scream. Joy at finally being here and the rage at what my U.S. tax dollars are subsidizing here.
50% of the West Bank is being annexed by the apartheid wall. In 2002, Israel started building a wall through Palestine in, detouring outside the “Green Line” 1967 border wherever there is desirable farmland, water sources, or in the occasion of Qalqiliya, a city it wanted to entirely surround with a wall and leave only a bottleneck controlled as a military checkpoint (i.e., a jail). 100,000 olive trees, some hundreds of years old and most the primary income of their cultivators, have been uprooted, chainsawed or burned. People are cut off by a wall from their fields, their families, from visiting each other, from jobs, from grazing land for the animals that are their means of subsistence. The military gas bombs the animals people raise for food and income, blows up home water tanks, and has occupied schools and used them as interrogation centers for kids as young as 13.
The wall has also solidified Israeli control over the freedom of movement for people with West Bank residence IDs. Permits are needed to visit other areas and are routinely denied. Over tea in Ramallah, a young man named Mustafa told us he was denied permission to his CAT scan appointment at a Jerusalem hospital. Women and infants die in childbirth at checkpoints. As Ariel Sharon famously said in 1989, “You can’t force people to leave, you have to create the conditions so they will have to do it themselves.” The pressure cooker of apartheid policies dividing up peoples’ civil rights and land rights, and the military enforcement of a Bantustan system reminiscent of South Africa, works to push people out and keep the remaining population virtually enslaved.
“There is no future in occupation,” says Jamal, coordinator of the grassroots Stop the Wall campaign, which coordinates representatives from 54 committees based in the villages fighting the wall. He describes the tightening net of occupation in the West Bank moving towards a virtual slave labor system, with Israeli industrial areas inside the West Bank and a captive population with its domestic economy destroyed. This is what Stop the Wall fights, by coordinating youth committees with the committees based in the villages, building the civil resistance campaigns of direct action against the wall. In villages like Bil’in, Ni’lin, Jayyous and many others, villages have mounted for years steady campaigns of putting their bodies on the line. Last week in Ni’lin, where 5 people have been killed and 1000 injured in the last 2 years of protests, the youth tore down a section of the concrete wall on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The discipline of people living every day in the shadow of a wall built through their farmlands, villages, and directly through some homes, who continue organized civil resistance to the wall, the military, and the blatantly racist policies of this occupying force… I can hardly wrap my mind around it. http://Stopthewall.org contains fact sheets and resources.
Finally, we are in Palestine. Not yet a free Palestine, but not ’48, where everything conspires to a specter of a little European colony placed in a Disney-esque layer onto this ancient land. I can’t describe how good it feels to be in the West Bank. Something like being held and bared at the same time, like sweet oil on raw skin. My nerves are tinging with pain at seeing what people are dealing with here, but I am also absorbed in the laughter, music and hospitality.
We’re staying at the Ibdaa Cultural Center in Dheisheh Camp, one square kilometer holding 13,000 refugees, just outside Bethlehem. People here come originally from 45 villages to the west, in the area that in 1948 was seized to create Israel. From the top of Ibdaa, we look out at the rooftops across the camp. People atop many buildings are hanging out in the only available public spaces in this camp of narrow streets, where many walls are spray-painted with the “intifada newspaper,” announcements of demonstrations, deaths, news made available in a camp where newspapers were prohibited. During the first intifada, Israel bombed houses with writing on them. Sometimes Israel shuts off the water; last summer, for 45 days straight. Street-level pumps send water up through thin pipes, sometimes snaking down the block where neighbors share their pumps with families several houses down.
Where we can see land without buildings, it’s green scrubby hills stippled with pale stone. Mosques rise above the concrete houses that residents and the U.N. Started building in the 1950s to replace the tents. Each generation builds the next floor on their family’s structure, which can take a decade to finish. Dheisheh Camp is ascending because it’s not permitted to spread.
My housemate Rahula, a longtime activist for Palestinian self-determination, asked me to bring her something back from the West Bank, like a pebble. Palestine is full of stone, old neatly jigsawed walls, hills rippling with veins of rock stained red with fertile earth. But to bring her a memento from the West Bank, concrete is a better signifier. It’s everywhere, from the flakes suspended in roadside olive trees to the rubble marking where the army demolished another house. Concrete is what people build their futures in. It’s cheap and available, except in Gaza, where basic building supplies are still blockaded even after the devastating attacks this winter that left thousands of people homeless, schools and hospitals torn apart. Concrete is a facade of permanence, so easily destroyed by Israeli heavy equipment, like the Caterpillar tractors that have taken down thousands of homes and several lives. And here in Dheisheh, it makes this almost look like a city, where I can almost forget that this is actually a refugee camp, housing refugees from the world’s longest displaced population. Until Shadi, who is taking us around, invites us to peer in a window of a tiny room. It’s a typical structure built by the U.N.in the ’50s, a single family dwelling that would house maybe 10 people in what looks like not enough space for them to all lie down.
DAM’s first day in Ibdaa included a meeting with 15 teenagers from Dheisheh who are involved with the youth programming that kick-started this center into existence in 1994. They dance dabke (traditional Palestinian dance), rap, study, and keep Palestine fresh. Over the course of a few hours, they asked us why we are here, what do Israelis think of the occupation, our perceptions of refugee youth, what do we plan to do with this when we return home, what do we think of the Ft. Hood shootings, and many other probing questions.
They told us about army invasions of their houses, being 12 years old and raided in the night. About friends and parents being shot, giving up on rock throwing, about their steadfast commitment to struggling for freedom for their lives. They talked of going home to their families’ villages, one boy of going to his family’s house that his grandfather explained how to find, in their village that’s been deserted since the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948 but that the residents are not permitted to return to. A girl spoke about navigating the challenge of what you do over the specific houses that Palestinians still hold keys to, that are currently inhabited by Israelis. She said, “We need something new, not the old solutions.”
They described visions of a free Palestine where Jews and Palestinians have equal rights in a secular democracy, as we have heard from many older Palestinians as well. They talked about how the generation of young Israelis born here are natives too, and how to live together.
These young people talked about their sense of connection to indigenous people in the United States and other parts of the world. They spoke of their denied right to just go to Jaffa and swim in the sea. And then they busted out some rhymes for us.