Friday, December 19, 2003

Deir Ballut Peace Camp Against the Wall

For the past few weeks, Palestinians from the Salfit region, Israeli activists, and volunteers from IWPS and ISM have been meeting regularly to organize a peace camp against the Wall in a half-built school at the edge of Deir Ballut, a small Palestinian village that has since grown very close to my heart. The school lies on the expected path of the Wall so it is slated for demolition, something that we hope the presence of Israeli and international activists can help prevent, or at least publicize.

The purpose of the camp is to bring activists together, to provide a space for learning and strategizing resistance to the Wall, and to publicize the Wall’s destructive impact on Palestinian rural communities. Over the course of two weeks, the camp will host activities including nonviolence workshops, television interviews, tree-planting, and nonviolent demonstrations. The idea for a camp was inspired by last summer’s peace camp in Mas’ha, where thousands of Palestinians, Israelis, and international volunteers camped out together in solidarity on land threatened by the Wall. The camp was started by Palestinian farmers and remained for over four months until soldiers came and arrested over 70 nonviolent activists. The Wall proceeded to take 95% of the village’s land. Although Mas’ha Peace Camp didn’t stop the Wall, it made international headlines and exposed the nature of the Wall as an obstacle to peace.

Deir Ballut Peace Camp Against the Wall began yesterday. We marched from Town Hall to the abandoned school on the outskirts of the village, overlooking some of the thousands of olive trees that the village stands to lose. We marched with banners, and young boys climbed onto the roof to display welcome signs and wave to newcomers.

Within a few hours we had started settling in. The village electricians connected cables all the way from the village and set up lights in both the men’s and women’s rooms. Others stacked bricks in the glassless windows to keep out wind and rain. I lay down sleeping bags and hung up signs calling on Israel to clear out of Palestine and men to keep out of the women’s sleeping room.

At night we hovered around the fire, sipping fresh sage tea and talking about justice. Some internationals played guitar and sang while three Israelis and I settled down to a game of poker. I met Gavriel, a young Israeli activist whose family moved to Israel from South Africa many years ago. “From one apartheid to another,” he said, and I looked up from my cards, hoping he would tell me more.

“My uncle is a settler near Bethlehem. My cousin just founded a new outpost near Hebron. She’s in Kahane Chai.[2] They believe God promised them this land, just like the Afrikaaner people used to say about South Africa. They feel no guilt as they literally take land from under farmers’ feet. They think I’m evil for what I’m doing. They say I’m going against my country, against my people. Just like people used to say in South Africa. It’s the same, really.”

“So how did you turn out so great?” I asked, smiling.

“That’s the funny thing,” he said, smiling back. “My family raised me with good values. They just use a double standard when it comes to Israel.”

That made sense to me. I can’t relate when people say some settlers are just “evil.” People are basically good, and most have some sense of morality and ethics; they just become blind at times from fear or brainwashing.

People like Gavriel have sacrificed a great deal. Gavriel spent two months in prison for refusing to join the military. Other conscientious objectors risk serving up to three years. But it doesn’t end there. Gavriel continued:

In Israel, being a soldier is the pride of your family. Many young Israelis are afraid their families would hate or even disown them if they refused. They say that if you’re not (or weren’t) a soldier, then you’re not a man. It’s hard to choose to be an outcast.

Lots of my friends who are soldiers agree with me, but say they can’t resist the pressure of this militarized society. We are encouraged from day one to join the army and fight for our country. In school we spend one year on world history and two years on the Nazi Holocaust. After that kind of education we all walk away thinking just two things: we’re really scared, and we have to defend ourselves at all costs, because we have nowhere else to go. That’s a dangerous attitude, especially when you’re handing a gun to every high school graduate.

We learn that this land is ours. They call it “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Never mind the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians kicked out in 1948, or the 450 villages that were destroyed. Tel Aviv University, where I study, used to be an Arab village. Does anyone know that? No. Jewish terrorists of the past are heroes. And people who refuse to fight for more land? We’re traitors. It’s all your classic signs of a fascist government: the economic instability, the security hysteria, the culture of fear.

I couldn’t help but consider Gavriel’s observations in relation to my own country. Many American liberals fall to the right on this one subject of Israel/Palestine. We, too, are taught from grade school about the Nazi Holocaust; it is at the forefront of our minds when we imagine any sort of injustice in the world. That’s why, until recently, I too was ashamed to criticize Israel. Jews are supposed to be the victims—how can they be the oppressors too? Many people refuse to face the paradox. For them, Israel can do no wrong. Period.

Gavriel continued:

The worst part of all is that people really don’t know what’s actually going on! One of my friends lives 10 minutes away from the Qalqilya ghetto, and he couldn’t tell you a thing about what life is like here. People are so removed. You feel it as you drive back into Israel, into the lights and the billboards and the traffic. You forget. And your only reminders are headlines of violent Arabs, headlines that never mention how many fewer civilians are killed by Palestinians than by the Israeli military, headlines that make you want to be more and more removed and “safe.” When I tell my friends who’ve joined the army what I think of what they’re doing, they start complaining about the unpleasant reality of their own lives. I can sympathize. I say, “Yeah, life as a soldier sucks. But have some perspective. Life 10 minutes away from here is a living hell. Compared to that, you are living in paradise. That hell is what plagues your life too. And you have the power to change it. We all do if we work together.”

But nobody wants to be the one to do it. Students here aren’t liberal like in other countries. They think, “Hey, after three years in the army I have served my country. I don’t have to feel any responsibility any more.” Some liberal Israelis even join the army thinking that as a ‘humane’ soldier they will be replacing someone who could have been even worse. There are so many excuses. The fact is, lining the Green Line with soldiers would bring Israel more security than the current policies do. But my family and people like them would never accept that. They want more than security. They want land.

I know from experience how hard it is to resist the system. But I still expect people to do it, and I don’t excuse them if they don’t. It’s wrong. It’s immoral. It’s South Africa all over again, and anyone who thinks they have done no harm despite their participation in the system is fooling themselves. One of my soldier friends told me a story recently. He said he and his team were occupying a flat in Ramallah. They knew they would need the building to have ideal shooting visibility in the neighborhood, so they charged into the house and locked the family downstairs below their apartment with their hands tied behind their backs. All this in the middle of the night. Picture it: Grandma’s fainting. Grandpa’s shaking. Daddy’s already in the slammer with almost all the other under-40-year-old men in the neighborhood. Children are clinging to their tied-up mothers as they cry. What will become of those children? What do we expect that child to become? A peace activist?

I tell my friends in the army, “Expect the bullet. Expect the rock. You are on someone else’s land. If someone were on your land, you would do the same thing.” And deep down they know I’m right.

Gavriel’s mention of the Qalqilya ghetto reminded me of my last trip north along Israel’s Highway 6, west of the Green Line. I was stunned by the difference between the way the Wall looks from the Palestinian city of Qalqilya and the way it looked from the Israeli highway. On the Israeli side, there were grass and flower beds built up almost to the top, so it didn’t even look like a wall. I realized that although Israelis are generally much better informed about the Occupation than most Americans, many of them may not necessarily know what the Wall looks like. They may see the top of it as they drive to work every morning, but do they really know what the Wall is about, where it’s being built, and how it’s affecting average Palestinians? Disguising the Israeli side of the Wall prevents the reality of what the Israeli government and army is doing from reaching the average Israeli citizen. That’s why activists like Gavriel are so important: They bring the realities across the Green Line, and provide an alternative youth culture to the militarism that Gavriel described.

I stayed up the first night of Deir Ballut Peace Camp with activists like Gavriel, discussing our hopes of what the camp can accomplish. Two weeks of like-minded Palestinians, Israelis, and internationals coexisting in the same space with respect and companionship in the spirit of dialogue, action, and solidarity is, at the very least, a step in the right direction.

[1] Nazeeh Sha’alabi, “The Camp in the Eyes of a Palestinian Activist,” Stop The Wall (December 31, 2004).

[2] Kahane Chai is a far-right Israeli political party advocating the forcible expulsion of Palestinians from Israel and the Occupied Territories. It is on both Israel’s and the US State Department’s lists of terrorist organizations.

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