Monday, February 14, 2005

Back in Palestine, the Struggle Continues in QBZ

It is difficult being back in Palestine. We are busy and freezing, and I have been fighting a cold for weeks. But I am filled with energy and excitement about being back here. The competing forces of war and peace-making all around make me feel awake and alive in a way that I rarely feel at home.

Palestine is even more beautiful than I remembered it. Every tree, grove, and field is so ancient, fertile, and cared for. I am surprised to feel a strong attachment to the land here unlike anything I’ve ever felt in my own country, even though I make no biblical or hereditary claim to Palestine. Feeling an attachment to land for the first time in my life helps me to understand why people would fight so hard to take or keep it.

I spent last weekend in a village called Qarawat Bani Zeid (QBZ), where locals had asked for an international presence at a boy’s high school due to frequent incursions by Israeli soldiers. Two years ago, several soldiers entered the village on foot and opened fire in the school courtyard, killing two and injuring several others. The attack was retaliation for students throwing stones at army jeeps in the village. There have been dozens of Palestinians killed in the village since then, with no justification given, no investigations carried out, and no one held responsible. The jeeps continue to drive around and the boys continue to throw stones.

My colleague Fatima and I were asked to sit at a bus stop on the main road next to the school on Saturday morning, the first day of the school week. The children gathered in the courtyard at eight o’clock to sing the anthem and get organized for the day. Five minutes later, a jeep and a Humvee drove by and the students quickly picked up stones to throw. We were helpless, unable to prevent the army from coming into the village or the students from throwing stones. But we were visible in the road, watching. The Humvee drove away and the students went into the school, where they spend all morning except for one recess.

The army returned precisely at recess. This time, the teachers had received a call from a nearby village warning them of the army’s approach and managed to usher all the students in before the soldiers passed. As the jeep and Humvee drove by, a soldier threw a sound bomb[1] into the empty schoolyard. Then they were gone.

I tried to imagine how the exchange would have been reported in the mainstream American press: “Angry Palestinians Shower Israeli Soldiers With Stones,” with no mention of the terror the village faces each time a US-sponsored Israeli army jeep zooms through. Two days ago a young man was arrested; two weeks before, two men were killed and one house destroyed. Residents wonder what is coming next.

The article would also not mention that the army consistently drives by during the recess period, when the boys are outside. We interviewed the headmaster, who said that the pattern had become so obvious that the school changed its recess time to avoid confrontation. He said the army now comes during the new break time with regularity that cannot be coincidental. We asked what it was like to teach under such circumstances, and he sighed. “We have to seize each day to teach them. Who knows if tomorrow we will have the chance?”

Sitting at the bus stop, we talked to passers-by about the situation, each one seeming less hopeful than the last. Some were students taking a break. One young Hemingway fan asked me if I had read A Farewell to Arms, his favorite book. The English teacher Dawud came out during his free hour to welcome me. He had heard that I was Jewish and told me that Jews are cousins of Arabs and the neighbors of Palestinians. But he lamented the 30,000 homeless in Gaza and the innocent people killed every day. He said he no longer wondered how people could blow themselves up: “When you’ve lost everything and everyone, you want to do something to make yourself feel powerful again.”

One man waiting for the bus spoke excellent English and French. After shaking our hands, he said in the most respectful way possible, “Something has been troubling me.” He read aloud from the IWPS card we had given him—“We support nonviolent resistance to the military occupation”—and then said, “I welcome you to our country and I thank you for the work you’ve done, but tell me, why do you only support nonviolence? Violence has always been an acceptable means of fighting oppression in most countries in the world... Why not here? How can you expect us to be nonviolent when we are under attack? What else can we do?”

I explained that I believe the resolution to the problem must include international pressure on Israel to stop, as it did with apartheid in South Africa. I also believe that pressure might never be realized if people in other countries continue to view Palestinians as terrorists.

Fatima, who is from South Africa, pointed out that there was also a major armed resistance to apartheid that helped end the system in her country. She said, “I believe nonviolent resistance was part of the struggle, but not all of it.” Our new friend asked what she would recommend, and she suggested boycotting Israeli products.

He laughed. “Boycotting?! What can we boycott? Israel completely controls our imports and exports, so we have no choice but to buy from Israel or its trade partners, and both of those options contribute to the Israeli economy. The few products produced in Palestine, like milk and hummus, would never make a difference. Once we tried to boycott fruits and vegetables and Israel lowered its prices so low that farmers couldn’t keep up. Believe me, we’ve tried. But it doesn’t work.” He smiled. “Your most important work is not boycotting; it’s telling your family and friends what you see here. And our work is to resist, and to never, ever lose hope. We are not leaving.”

He’s half right. Most Palestinians are not leaving, despite the curfews, incursions, house demolitions, arrests, and killings. They are more determined than I could ever be, but I wish that their success matched their determination. It’s unclear to me what would be most effective, and from my perspective much of the resistance seems chaotic and disorganized, with no principal strategy to guide and unify the movement. As it is now, I believe most of their nonviolent sacrifices are forgotten.

Fatima and I took an arrest report in QBZ for a young man named Hassan. We visited his family in their modest home and they welcomed us graciously, feeding us copious amounts of food. On their wall hung a poster of another son, Hassan’s younger brother, who was killed at the age of 16 for throwing a stone at a jeep. He smiled handsomely in the poster and in a framed picture that they kept on the sofa next to them, as if pretending he were in the room. They bragged about another son, Rami, who was a policeman in Ramallah. I recognized Rami’s name from a witness statement I had read earlier that day describing the events of a military incursion in QBZ 18 months earlier. Here is an excerpt from Rami’s statement:

Suddenly they started to fire in the air and I saw a child, Tamer Arrar (eleven years old) crying when he saw himself alone and all who were around him escaped. I approached him on the eastern hill, while down from us stood the three soldiers with [a tall] blond soldier directing his gun towards us. We both lay down on the ground. I told Tamer not to raise his head because I could see the tall soldier targeting us. But as soon as he raised his head, a bullet hit him in the head and I saw his head exploding. The soldiers were about 400 meters [1,200 ft] from us. We were not throwing stones at the soldiers and there were no clashes between them and the children...

[Then] some young boys and I threw stones at the patrol cars and ran away towards the fields and they followed us shooting and firing at us until I reached a dead end. The soldiers and I came face to face and were separated by only 10 meters [30 ft]. The same tall and blond soldier and another one insulted us and the tall one shot at me. The bullet penetrated my right thigh, where it entered from the front and exited from the back. On the same day, my brother Rafat was injured in the stomach and my friend Ghassan was also injured in the right thigh.[2]

It was not the shooting of two unarmed children that startled me most, since such stories are not uncommon. What took me off-guard was the mention of a boy injured in the stomach: I had only been to QBZ once before, and I remembered clearly a striking young boy who had come up to the window of a taxi I was in and lifted his shirt to reveal a large stomach wound from which fluids were draining into a sack. I had forgotten about him until I read Rami’s statement, and I almost fainted when he walked into the room where we were eating with Hassan’s family.

I told Rafat that I remembered him and he verified that he had a wound in his stomach. He was nonchalant about the injury, since his father and three older brothers have also been shot. His younger sister was also hit in the eye and disfigured with a stone thrown by her older brother at a jeep.

Abu Hassan told me the story of his son’s arrest several days before. He said soldiers woke him up at 5 a.m. and asked him to identify his son, who was wanted for being a Hamas supporter. Abu Hassan refused to go, but they threatened him with force. He was taken to a nearby village, terrified the whole time that he would be forced to identify his son’s corpse. When he arrived at the village he saw three young Palestinian men standing, including his son, whose arms had been tied to a jeep. Dozens of soldiers were milling around. An Arabic-speaking officer pointed to each of the three men in succession, asking Abu Hassan each time whether the man was his son.

It is difficult to appreciate the position Abu Hassan was placed in, forced to choose between condemning his son to jail by identifying, and denying his relationship to him. He chose the latter, saying “no” to all three. But when Hassan heard his father say no, he could not help but smile. He said, “He is my father, and I am very proud of him.” They shook hands, and Hassan was taken away. Hassan’s friend Mohammed was also arrested for letting Hassan stay in his home.

The soldiers called Abu Hassan a liar and forced him to squat on the road for a long time. This was difficult because he has a bullet-wound in his leg. When he couldn’t take it any longer he stood up, and was forced down again. Finally he was left with Mohammed’s crying mother, infant daughter, and toddler son. The three had been made to wait outside in the cold as the soldiers searched the family home, which they turned upside down. Before they left, the soldiers threatened to destroy the house, but Mohammed’s mother was too devastated by her son’s arrest to care.

House demolitions are commonly used to punish the families of Palestinians who carry out armed attacks against Israel, even though the Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly prohibits collective punishment and the destruction of personal property by an occupying force. According to the Alternative Information Center,[3] “House demolitions are extra-judicial; there are no charges, no trial, and no effective way to appeal.”[4] And today, a research committee commissioned by the Israeli army announced that house demolitions are also overwhelmingly ineffective at preventing Palestinian violence, because the anger they produce grossly outweighs any possible benefit. I can’t say I’m surprised. I wonder if this means Israel will stop demolishing family homes.[5]

Mohammed’s house was spared that night, but at least 10,000 Palestinian homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have pending demolition orders. Many will no doubt soon join the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have been left homeless by illegal house demolitions. Many of the demolitions date back as far as 1967, decades before suicide bombings began.[6]

[1] Sound bombs are explosive grenades frequently used by the Israeli army to disorient or stun protesters. At close proximity, the explosions can cause burns, hearing loss, and nervous-system damage.

[2] Lena Johansson, “Provocation to Kill: The Use of Lethal Force in Response to Provoked Stone-Throwing, A Case Study of Qarawa Bani Zeid,” Al-Haq (2003).

[3] The Alternative Information Center (AIC) is a joint Palestinian-Israeli publication and advocacy group:

[4] AIC, p. 33.

[5] This seems doubtful given that the vast majority of house demolitions are not punitive. See 2005 entry entitled “Israeli Activism, House Demolitions, & Jerusalem” for details.***

[6] Israeli Committe Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).

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