As with all border crossings in Israel-Palestine, our entry into Israel proper was a (milder) microcosm of the politics of surveillance and control for which the country has become renowned. Of course, our experience pales in comparison to that of Palestinians, other Arabs or people of color, and Muslims, but is revealing nevertheless. With white internationals (or in Jeff’s case, someone who can often pass for white), the primary fear seems to be that we might be doing exactly what we in fact planned to do – either traveling in the Occupied Territories and deepening our understanding of the Palestinian struggle or, worse still, engaging in direct solidarity work with organizations like the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Jeff was the first to approach the customs counter (we decided Jeff ought to go first in hopes of taking advantage of his characteristic nonchalance). The woman barraged him with questions: “Why have you come to Israel? What do you do for work? You were a student? What did you study? Do you have any Israeli Facebook friends? Why have you only reserved a hostel for one night? Do you plan to visit Ramallah or the West Bank?”
Eventually she asked Jeff whether or not he knew any (Jewish) Israelis, to which Jeff replied that we would at some point be visiting my cousin in Tel Aviv (true). At this point I was summoned to the counter. “What is your relationship to this man [Jeff]? How well do you know him? How long have you known him for? What is the name of your cousin in Tel Aviv?” (translation: does his name signify Jewishness or Arabness? – reflexively treated as mutually exclusive categories). After I communicated to her my cousin’s clearly Jewish-sounding name, she eased up a bit. Still, she needed to make sure. “Do you have any plans to visit Ramallah or the West Bank?” (translation: are you coming here to associate with Palestinians, or have you come here to drink and have sex and see archaeological sites like the majority of tourists from the US?). I looked at her quizzically as if to say, “Are you crazy? Of course not,” shook my head no, and the next thing we had our clearance stamps and were on our way. I had forefronted my Jewishness, indicated my disinterest in (or perhaps even hostility towards) Palestinians, and that was all it took to render us safe entrants in the eyes of the Israeli state.
We would be heading to Ramallah the day after the next.
Demonstration: Nabi Saleh
Last Friday, the day after completing our training with ISM, we attended one of the weekly demonstrations in Nabi Saleh, a small Palestinian town about 20 kilometers northwest of Ramallah. At face value, the demonstrations are against the seizure of Palestinian land and the appropriation of Palestinian water resources by the nearby Halamish settlement, but of course these demonstrations are also an expression of a deeper discontent with the dispossession and subjugation to which Palestinians have been subjected across the whole of Palestine for the past six decades. We gathered in what appeared to be the center of the town, seated in a circle beneath the shade of a large tree beside an aging cemetery. At first, the group was made up primarily of (non-Palestinian) internationals – some (US) Americans, a handful of British, and a small army of Italians – but after prayer had come to a close the number of Palestinians clearly exceeded that of internationals. We began marching towards the town well, which has become a symbol of settler encroachment. Almost as soon as the Israeli military was within view, they began firing teargas canisters at us. Teargas canisters are, mind you, dangerous projectiles, which is why the military is supposed to shoot them at a high angle (this is what makes it possible to pass them off as “non-lethal weapons”). These soldiers, however, were shooting tear gas canisters at a low angle, so that they whizzed past us as we marched down the narrow street (in December 2011, Mustafa Tamimi was killed in one of the Nabi Saleh demonstrations after being shot directly in the face with a tear gas canister from just a few meters away). One canister missed Jeff by maybe a foot. I took cover alongside a nearby house, eyes burning and throat closing from exposure to the tear gas.
The demonstration went on for hours. Palestinians and internationals acting in solidarity would advance, soldiers would respond with teargas, rubber-coated steel bullets, and sound grenades (several fellow demonstrators said that live ammunition was also used at times, but I have been unable to confirm this). Most of the soldiers used violence to quell the “unrest” without any hesitation or apparent remorse, as one might imagine zookeepers dealing with a particularly rebellious group of (non-human) animals. But the Palestinian demonstrators seemed undeterred and unafraid. Children as young as seven would directly confront fully armed soldiers in stand offs – displays of bravery which were profoundly humbling and inspiring. Boys just a little older would slingshot stones towards the soldiers, and even sent a blazing tire rolling towards the military at the end of the road, only to have to scatter once more under showers of rubber-coated steel bullets. Many of the soldiers were themselves little more than children, and as I stood face to face with one of the more boyish of the bunch, I could see the discomfort written on his face, perhaps even seeds of doubt. But when one is young, insecure, and eager to take one’s place in a hyper-masculine and militaristic culture, doubt can be just as dangerous as conviction.
In the end, somewhere between four and six people were arrested, including one Palestinian boy aged 15. It seems that the arrested internationals have been released, while the Palestinian boy, as far as I know, remains imprisoned. The whole demonstration almost felt like the enactment of some bizarre play – the soldiers going through their well-rehearsed motions as an overwhelming and unrelenting repressive force, the Palestinians communicating once more loudly and clearly their refusal to submit to the violence and indignities of Zionist settler-colonialism. One could easily see these demonstrations as futile exercises, a hopeless banging of one’s fists against the unyielding frame of a massive military machine. But I think this would be a mistake. For the value of these demonstrations is not, as I see it, in the extent to which they materially combat or undermine the forces of Israeli domination, but rather in the act of refusal itself, in their capacity to keep hope and dignity alive. As Mahmoud Darwish once put it, “[s]teadfastness is survival and survival is the beginning of existence.” These small acts of refusal comprise the foundation upon which the possibilities for new beginnings rest.
Introducing Hebron (al-Khalil)
Following Friday’s demonstration, we left for Hebron (in Arabic, al-Khalil, ironically meaning “the friend”), one of ISM’s three primary bases of operation. Hebron reveals the system of Israeli apartheid at its worst. The Israeli military presence is ubiquitous, with soldiers and checkpoints at every turn. The blatant function of the 3,000 or so troops stationed in and around Hebron is to protect the 500 or so Jewish settlers as they act with impunity against the Palestinian population of 165,000. Palestinian movements are consistently highly restricted, and frequently subjected to even further delimitations on a seemingly arbitrary basis. Shehuda street (renamed “apartheid street” by Palestinian activists) is fully segregated – Palestinians are not allowed to walk it without a permit from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Meanwhile, settlers roam the streets freely with assault rifles. The city is literally divided. As determined by the Oslo Accords, H1 (the new city) is under the control of the Palestinian Authority (at least nominally), while H2 (the Old City) is under Israeli military control. Hebron’s Old City, as Chiara De Cesari summarizes, now “presents itself to the Palestinian inhabitants as a disarticulated urban space dotted with black holes, no-go and danger zones, a patchwork, an unstable geography. Hebron epitomizes in fact the progressive dismemberment of the Occupied Territories, triggered by Israeli settlements’ expansion in their midst that accelerated during the so-called peace process throughout the 1990s and in the early 2000s.” The economic impact of this process of dismemberment and segregation has been tremendous; in the suq (market), the former economic center of the city, nearly 80% of commercial activity has ground to a halt. Yet in characteristic Orwellian fashion, one can find streets graffitied with slogans such as “Free Israel!”, or the now infamous contribution of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), “gas the Arabs!” In 1994, a settler originally from New York took these sentiments to heart, and opened fire in Ibrahimi Mosque, murdering 29 and injuring 125.
It is in this context that we have joined in the Palestinian olive harvest. Palestinian olive growers have been subjected to frequent attacks on their land, homes, and families by settlers, and the participation of international solidarity activists has been used as a means of mitigating this violence. The personal testimonies I have encountered are what one might expect given the larger portrait of the city sketched above. On my second day of harvesting, one Palestinian farmer showed me an olive grove that had been burnt to the ground by settlers. After harvesting, as I sat with the family over a delicious meal the mother had prepared, she proceeded to describe to me how not long ago settlers had brutally beaten her son, breaking several bones. She said this to me, with tears in her eyes, as a group of armed settlers walked by us, casting smirking and disdainful looks in our direction, laughing amongst themselves. Meanwhile, a group of soldiers sat beneath a nearby tree (“for our protection”), looking bored and playing with their assault rifles. Another local Palestinian olive grower – who is quite active in the Palestinian resistance movement and also helps to run a biweekly free medical clinic – later relayed to me a litany of abuses suffered at the hands of settlers: they have cut down his fruit trees, smashed his windows, cut his water lines, littered his land with trash and barbed wire, and fired live ammunition into his home; they have beaten him, his wife (resulting in two miscarriages), and his son (knocking his teeth out with a rock); they even went so far as to urinate on his daughter. The day before yesterday, we visited another Palestinian who had four 40 year old olive trees cut down by settlers early that morning; in the past they had razed some 400 trees on his land. Yesterday the Israeli military reaffirmed its allegiances when it demolished another Palestinian home in the south Hebron hills.
The transparency of the apartheid system in Hebron is exceptionally relevant to those of us living in the US, not only because we have had our own experience with formal apartheid in the form of Jim Crow (and an ongoing experience with informal apartheid in the form of the present neoliberal regime of racial domination, particularly evident in the system of mass incarceration), but even more to the point – because it could not exist without our consent. Israel is dependent upon the US both militarily (Israel is the largest recipient of US aid, scheduled to receive some $30 billion from 2009 to 2018, the majority of which is funneled into the military and policing apparatus) and diplomatically (e.g. the US frequently exercises veto power on Israel’s behalf on the UN Security Council). While this support is shrouded in racist tropes invoking democracy, anti-Semitism, and so forth, US support for Israel is actually far more cynical and straightforward, and pivots upon the projection of US power into West Asia and North Africa, typically regarded as one of the most geostrategically central regions in the world (i.e. from the perspective of ruling classes). If masses of people were to withdraw their consent from this “special relationship,” it would cease to exist, and Israel’s apartheid regime would no longer have legs to stand on. In my view, the Palestinian solidarity movement which is presently the most dynamic, and which has the greatest chance of both pressuring Israel and raising awareness in the US about our complicity (or forced implication) with Zionist settler-colonialism and its attendant system of apartheid, is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in which I have been a participant for the past several years. More information about this movement can be found here: http://www.bdsmovement.net/
Further reflections on our time in Hebron to come soon.
De Cesari, Chiara, “Hebron, of Heritage as Technology of Life,” Jerusalem Quarterly, Volume 41 (Spring 2010), available at: <http://www.jerusalemquarterly.org/ViewArticle.aspx?id=336>.
Fitzgerald, Markus, “Ultimate goal of Israeli policies in Hebron: ethnic cleansing,” International Solidarity Movement (28 July 2012), available at: <http://palsolidarity.org/2012/07/ultimate-goal-of-israeli-policies-in-hebron-ethnic-cleansing/>.
Strickland, Patrick O., “An Image of Hebron: the Occupation’s Ugly face,” Palestine Chronicle (31 July 2012), available at: <http://palestinechronicle.com/view_article_details.php?id=19448>.