Time constraints and the cumulative effects of physical and emotional exhaustion are my excuses for my failure to post with any frequency lately. Here I review just a few fragments from recent experiences.
The Friday before last I joined several other International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activists to participate in a non-violent direct action in Qaryut, a village of perhaps 2,500 southeast of Nablus. The aim of the action was to remove a barrier set up by a nearby settlement which had blocked off the main road to Ramallah, forcing residents of the village to travel more than twice the distance to reach the same destination. As with most spatial barriers of this kind, its purpose was not simply to make life difficult for local Palestinians (though this no doubt played a role), but rather to facilitate the ongoing enclosure of Palestinian land. According to one reporter, Qaryut has already lost more than two thirds of its land to the three neighboring settlements Shilo, Eli, and Shvut Rachel, as well as the “outpost” Adei Ad. In Palestine, geographical fragmentation is nearly always bound up with geographical appropriation. According to village residents, in the past it has been the Israeli military that has erected the road block, which they have in turn taken action to remove, only to have the military erect the barrier once more. Since the beginning of the Second Intifada, this dance has been rehearsed countless times. Recently, however, it seems that the military finally gave in to the village resistance, and begrudgingly agreed to remove the roadblock. Thus, the settlers stepped in and rebuilt the barrier themselves. This Friday’s action reinitiated the village resistance to the roadblock.
The demonstration began in the town, where villagers and solidarity activists assembled amidst music and speeches, after which our march of at least 250 proceeded towards the barrier with the intention of physically removing it. Unsurprisingly, a line of Israeli soldiers stood waiting for us down the road. As often happens in such situations, the march paused, not quite sure of what to do next. After a few moments of confused deliberation, we continued slowly and non-threateningly towards the soldiers and the roadblock which lay beyond them. Almost immediately the military began to fire upon the march, shooting volley after volley of rubber-coated steel bullets and teargas canisters directly at demonstrators, paying no heed to the fact that the march was filled with children. The action was effectively crushed in a matter of minutes. Several people were injured, at least one seriously. Two of the solidarity activists from my group were hit with rubber-coated steel bullets, but thankfully only sustained minor injuries (due to the distance from which the projectiles were fired and the parts of their bodies which were hit). It was perhaps one of the most disheartening actions I have attended thus far, leaving me with the feeling that the Israeli military apparatus was swatting us away like flies. Generating such feelings of despair is, of course, one of the primary aims of this kind of state repression. And yet the village has no plans to abandon their resistance.
A short video clip of the action can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=yxNv7FpxulY
I spent the following Sunday and part of Monday in Khan al-Luben, a once beautiful stone building constructed sometime in the early Ottoman era near al-Luben, a village of around 2,500 about 20 kilometers south of Nablus. The property is owned by a Palestinian man named Khalid and his family, and ISM maintains a constant presence there due an extensive history of settler harassment, violence, and defacement of the home – settlers have severely beaten Khalid’s son, sexually harassed his wife, written taunts on the inside of their home, and sabotaged their family’s spring, to cite a few examples at random.
I’ve spent a number of days and nights in their home in the past without incident. In many ways, staying in Khan has provided a bit of respite from the day-to-day violence of the occupation – waking with the rising sun and to the sound of hundreds of birds leaving the crevices in the ceiling which serve as their nightly resting place, working with Khalid in the garden or on minor construction projects during the day with a picturesque view of the rolling hillsides, cooking simple food over a fire in the evening, and settling down for sleep with the setting of the sun. Unfortunately, the calm was deceptive, due primarily to the fact that the nearby road which the settlers generally use has been closed for construction. Now construction is essentially complete, and settler and military presence have increased in turn. Earlier in the week, the military stopped by and accused Khalid of residing on property which was not his. They also asked one of my fellow ISMers for his passport, and when he told them he didn’t have it on him at the moment, they took him away to be detained (to add to the tragicomedy which is daily life in Palestine, the military vehicle got into a car accident on the way to the jail). When I arrived in Khan, Jeff reported that a settler had been standing outside the house taking photographs earlier that morning. In the late afternoon, three settlers arrived in what looked like a Ford Focus (settler cars are often immediately identifiable by how starkly they contrast with Palestinian cars in terms of their quality). They stood around for maybe 45 minutes, condescendingly laughing at Khalid and telling him that his home belonged to Israel, gesturing with Torahs as if they were deeds to the land.
In this type of situation, it can be quite a challenge to keep one’s cool, to try and act on the basis of principles of solidarity rather than emotional impulse. My impulses urged me to confront the settlers, to demand some acknowledgment of their wrongdoing, but I resisted this compulsion, knowing that such a confrontation could very well escalate the situation and ultimately make things worse for Khalid and his family. And so instead I simply stood silently by Khalid as he engaged in this humiliating exchange with the settlers. After they left, I spoke with Khalid, and he made it clear that he felt entirely comfortable with me engaging with them verbally, with demanding some measure of accountability for their actions (provided that I documented the exchange with a video camera, that is). Knowledge for next time. The main lesson here, however, is that solidarity is rarely straightforward, as it is determined in relation to a world of ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty. It is for this reason that developing a nuanced analysis of power relations and deriving some general principles from it is so important. Beyond this, however, we can only do the best we can, and then try to honestly evaluate where our choices have led us.
We received the call about the demolition while staying in Nablus. Though we rushed to the scene as quickly as we could, we arrived at least half an hour after the Israeli military had departed, leaving destruction and despair in their wake. Unfortunately, the logistics of transportation to the Jordan Valley pose significant obstacles, especially when time of the essence. The demolition had taken place in a small Bedouin village near Aqraba. Like most Palestinian villages in the Jordan Valley, this village is located in Area C of the West Bank (placing it under both full Israeli civil and military control), a fact which renders these communities especially vulnerable to home demolitions. In this particular instance, the family had build their modest concrete home in November of 2011, only to be told that their home would be subject to demolition, as the lacked the appropriate building permits. Talk of “appropriate permits” is nothing but a cruel joke, however, as it is Israel who grants these permits, and the systematic discrimination of the Israeli bureaucracy in this regard has been well documented (between the year 2000 and 2007, 94% of the requests for building permits in Area C were rejected). Even the authority of Israel to grant such permits is a cruel irony of history, as a community may have been living in a particular location for a thousand years, yet they are required to ask a state just over six decades old for permission to build a simple structure on their own land. The absurdity of this juridical arrangement becomes all the more apparent once one realizes that Israel’s entire permit system (insofar as Palestinians are concerned) is aimed less at regulating construction for the sake of public welfare (in accord with the typical self-representation of modern liberal states), and more towards facilitating the dispossession and spatial segregation of the Palestinian population. The Jordan Valley has been especially coveted by Israel, given the significance of its water resources and rich agricultural land. And so Palestinians build, with or without permits, and simply hope for the best.
But fortune was not on this family’s side. After receiving the demolition order, they began the long and grueling process of contesting it in court, a process which was still underway when the bulldozer arrived to destroy their home. According to one resident, when villagers asked the soldiers if they had a proper demolition order, one replied that here he was the judge. If one were to take Israel’s juridical system seriously, one might protest that the soldiers had no right to proceed with the demolition. But to paraphrase Marx, when it comes to the determination of rights, force decides. Thus, the soldiers destroyed the home and left the scene quickly, presumably to avoid the scrutiny of any international solidarity organizations. When Jeff, Andrea, and I arrived, nothing remained of the structure but concrete rubble. It had been home to a family of five.
We spent the first little while helping the family and a handful of other international solidarity activists to create some temporary shelter for the family’s possessions, now entirely exposed to the elements. As if to drive the point home, a storm was moving in, and rain began to pour down shortly after we arrived. After fastening tarps over the family’s possessions, we began to erect some small tents, which would now serve as the family’s home through what would surely be a cold and wet winter. At some point, Andrea and I took shelter in one of the tents, where we found Jeff sitting and journaling silently next to one of the family members, a 58 year old Bedouin woman. With Andrea as our translator, she proceeded to share with us her feelings about the tragic circumstances into which she had been so callously cast. She spoke of utter despair. She was old and sick, she said – what would her family do through these bitter winter months? It wasn’t fair, she said. And what could we say to this? What could we do but reaffirm what she already knew far better than us? – that, yes, she was right, it wasn’t fair. Meanwhile, in spite of her situation, she went out of her way to show us the utmost hospitality and gratitude, making sure that we had hot tea and sincerely thanking us for being present – we, who were all but entirely helpless to do anything substantial to alter her situation, a fact of which she was surely well aware. We were like her sons, she said. Such warmth in the face of such hardship!
And at that moment, in the midst of the sympathy I was feeling for this woman, I began to feel anger welling up inside of me. I was not simply angry at the Israeli military and state, or at the uncritical support for Zionism which is so pervasive in my country, but even more so at the racist and Islamophobic caricatures I have encountered time and again in the US. Here I was, with this woman who had just lost nearly everything, and who was nonetheless able to show me warmth and appreciation, while in the country I come from, the country which had helped pay for and build the bulldozer which had destroyed her home, she would be likely be regarded as a religious fanatic or terrorist. People in the US have often shared with me their concerns about my safety while traveling in Palestine, by which they have generally meant their concerns about the allegedly irrational, violent, and extremist Arabs and Muslims which live there (most white people in the US don’t really bother to make a distinction between the two). In fact, I have never, in any other place in the world (the US included), felt safer than I have amongst Palestinians in the West Bank, for reasons which are not entirely clear to me. Often enough, Palestinians have fed me, housed me, or given me rides while asking for nothing in return. Or perhaps I should correct myself: I have never once felt that my safety was threatened by Palestinians. I have many times felt and been unsafe, but it has been the putatively liberal democratic Israeli state which has been the purveyor of violence. I have been shot at with rubber-coated steel bullets, teargas canisters, sound grenades, and even live ammunition countless times now, and never once come even close to experiencing the kind of insecurity that many Palestinians experience on a daily basis.
Now let me be clear: I am not romanticizing the Palestinian people, as so many North American and European solidarity activists tend to (a tendency which is really just racist Orientalism in another guise); I am simply stating facts which ought to serve as correctives to the pervasively negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in the US. Certainly Palestinians lie, take advantage of and hurt others just like any other social grouping, but the stereotypes of Palestinians as irrational and violent extremists are simply false. If we are looking for examples of deeply rooted militarism or belligerence, we might instead turn our gaze towards Israeli society (which has been founded upon a militaristic ethos since its inception, as demanded by its particular model of settler-colonialism), or towards our own society for that matter (which has no shortage of bloody history, or examples of deeply-seated violent tendencies in the present). I am reminded of James Baldwin’s reflections upon the Nazi genocide from the vantage point of being black in the US:
“White people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust…They did not know that they could act that way. But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded – at least, in the same way…I could not share the white man’s vision of himself for the very good reason that white men in America do not behave toward black men the way they behave towards each other. When a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed. I know. I have been carried into precinct basements often enough, and I have seen and heard and endured the secrets of desperate white men and women, which they knew were safe with me, because even if I should speak, no one would believe me. And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.”
So as we left the village, with the family in little better position than when we came, I did not fixate upon the Israeli soldiers that had carried out this crime, nor even the larger Israeli state apparatus which compelled it, but focused instead upon the role of the US and its population in facilitating these violent processes – and, in particular, the role of racism in the constitution of the hegemonic representation of Palestine and the Arab world in the US, a representation which blinds us to the realities of power, inequality, and domination in the region. Yet here is a sphere where we can actually engage and make a significant impact, for these misguided perceptions are not given, but rather are produced. They are open to contestation, if we make the effort.
Had Jeff, Andrea, and I arrived to the village an hour earlier, perhaps we could have placed our bodies in front of the Israeli bulldozer (as Rachel Corrie bravely did at the cost of her life), and for a time delayed or maybe even halted the demolition of this woman’s home. Yet an even more substantial contribution, in my view, would be a commitment on our part to long-term organizing against anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia in the US, for without these forces, it is quite possible that the bulldozer would never have arrived at this woman’s home in the first place.
References and Further Reading
Baldwin, James, The Fire Next Time (New York: Random House, 1993).
Berryhill, Jeff, “Reflections on a brief exchange in the aftermath of a home demolition, 4 December 2012,” International Solidarity Movement (4 December 2012), available from: <http://palsolidarity.org/2012/12/reflections-on-a-brief-exchange-in-the-aftermath-of-a-home-demolition-4-december-2012/>.
“The Jordan Valley: A Microcosm of the Israeli Occupation,” PLO Negotiations and Affairs Department (December 2011), available from: <http://www.alzaytouna.net/english/selections/2012/Jordan_Valley_Israel_2-12.pdf>