When I visited the West Bank late last year, Palestinians told me how they suffer under the Israeli occupation.
In the village of Nabi Saleh north of Ramallah, scene of a weekly protest demonstration, Manal Tamini said that “the Israeli soldiers shoot tear gas into my home every morning before breakfast.”
Every Friday about 70 men, women and children, accompanied by Israeli and international observers and media, walk nonviolently down the street in Nabi Saleh singing, chanting and waving flags. Invariably their peaceful effort provokes a reaction of tear gas, sound bombs, rubber bullets and skunk water from the Israeli soldiers.
Tamini showed us a video with horrifying and heartrending images of soldiers beating women and children, a boy screaming after being shot in the eyes with pepper spray, and an observer being dragged into custody. We saw a picture of the bloody wound of her own 12-year-old son, who sustained liver damage when an Israeli soldier shot him in the side with a high-velocity tear gas canister. According to Tamini, more than half of the village’s 550 residents have been injured—160 of them under the age of 17, with one boy paralyzed. Tamini spent 10 days in jail; her husband has been arrested four times and had his camera broken. But despite the daily violence, she says, they have power from within to keep resisting until the occupation ends. Tamini believes the harsh military reaction to their peaceful protests reflects Israel’s fear that the virus of non-violent resistance will spread, and spark a third intifada.
In a sheep-raising village in the hills south of Hebron called At-Tuwani, community leader Hafez Huraini said that every family experiences violence and harassment from nearby Jewish settlers. Every day the settlers harass village children on their way to school, and every week there is a house or cistern demolition and cutting of olive trees. Settlers have poisoned more than 100 village sheep. These settlers are the most violent and aggressive of all, Huraini says, and physically assault men, women and children alike, trying to make their life intolerable so they will leave. In his first experience with them, when he was 12, Huraini ran to escape when settlers beat up his brother. His community’s nonviolent demonstrations, legal work, and international pressure have paid off: the building of the illegal separation wall was stopped, and the Israeli High Court allowed residents of 13 forcibly evacuated villages to return. Huraini has been held under arrest for a month at a time after demonstrations, but he remains committed to the nonviolent path.
East of Jerusalem, expansion of Israeli settlements threatens the survival of the Jahalin, a beleaguered community of nomadic Bedouins harassed by settlers. With international aid, the Jahalin community has built a beautiful and functional school from mud and old tires for its 95 children, and has installed solar panels for lighting in the tents that are their homes. Jahalin leaders said that the community’s 160 people (along with their 140 sheep and goats) face forced relocation. The High Court has temporarily blocked an army order to relocate the Jahalin to Jericho, but it could be reinstated and executed any time. The Bedouins told us that settlers killed and maimed their children by luring them with toys attached to booby traps, then made the parents pay fines for trespassing. “Settlers are above the law, and have no restrictions,” the Bedouin leaders said.
The immediately visible signs of settler harassment in Hebron include a main street on which Palestinians cannot ever travel, hundreds of Palestinian shops that have been closed, and huge nets erected by Palestinian merchants to catch the trash and garbage thrown down on the shopping street by the Jewish families in the apartments above. A young woman in Hebron said she knows at least one person wounded by acid thrown down by the settlers. She also said that a settler tried to run her brother down, then beat him, and falsely told police she and her brother had attacked him. She was arrested and held for five hours.
“When settlers destroy one of my olive trees, I plant 10 to replace it,” said Daher Nassar at Daher’s Vineyard, near Bethlehem. Last year he planted 1,000 trees. For decades he has been fighting court battles to hold on to the farm, purchased by his grandfather in 1916. The hilltop site is a prime target for settlement expansion, but Nassar has refused offers to sell it at any price. “The farm is like my mother, and I won’t sell my mother,” he explained. The family’s motto is “refusing to be enemies,” and it hosts hundreds of visitors annually in its Tent of Nations project, which brings people of various cultures together to build bridges of understanding, reconciliation and peace.
Tear gas at protest demonstration at Israel’s illegal separation wall in Bil’in. (Photo G. Meek)
I observed a protest demonstration at the village of Bil’in, west of Ramallah, and was nearly overcome by tear gas. Although I was 50 yards away, I felt blinded, disoriented, and suffocated for a few minutes. A tear gas canister struck my shoe and left a mark on it, but did not injure my foot. Bil’in has been protesting for eight years against the separation wall, which took about half the town’s land. First the demonstrations took place daily, then weekly. As a result of the demonstrations, as well as litigation, Israel moved its wall, but it still deprives the Palestinian residents of 250 acres of town land. Leaders say the weekly protests will continue, because their goal is to end the occupation.
These are but a few of the voices I heard. I concluded that there is widespread violation of Palestinians’ human rights: the right of self-determination, the right of return, the right of assembly, freedom of movement, the right to property, freedom from collective punishment, the right to due process in civil courts, freedom from arbitrary searches and seizures, and the right to family unification.
Palestinians I met throughout the West Bank were sharply critical of Washington’s unconditional military and diplomatic support for Israel, which perpetuates the occupation, expansion of settlements, and human rights abuses. What I heard convinced me that there can be no balance or middle ground between the oppressor and the oppressed. As Bishop Desmond Tutu put it, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
George Meek, a retired American journalist, spent four weeks in Israel/Palestine late last year listening and learning with D.C.-based Interfaith Peace Builders and the International Solidarity Movement. He currently volunteers in the West Bank with the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program. For more on his impressions, see his “Palestine Journal” at <http://seekpeaceinpalestine.blogspot.com>.