Friday, April 29, 2005

Nonviolent Resistance & the Future

I have now spent a total of 5 months in Palestine. With time, I discover new and horrifying ways that the Occupation disturbs life and happiness here. The issue isn’t just that Palestinians lack employment, education, or any real control over their lives. Some of the worst effects of the Occupation are psychological, the type of things that you might hear from shell-shocked war veterans. Many here live in a constant state of anxiety and depression. I feel the difference in myself, the way I’m nervous where I used to be relaxed, the way I’m cautious where I used to be open.

It’s the feeling of constant pressure and danger. It’s not knowing whom to trust, who’s being blackmailed, and who’s a collaborator. It’s my heart skipping a beat each time I hear a loud noise. It’s starting to shake each time I see someone in uniform, knowing that they can do as they please and are not accountable for their actions. How much worse must it be for Palestinians, never knowing whether or when they will see their friends and loved ones again, or if they will be the next ones taken away? How much worse still for those no longer afraid, those believing they have nothing left to lose?

I have a way out. But most people here don’t. This maddening state of mind is their life, and I marvel at most Palestinians’ ability to live through it with grace and hope for a better future. Their resilience is extraordinary; their generosity even greater. I left my wallet in a shared taxi once and found the driver keeping it safe for me the next time we met. Twice I’ve lost my camera. The first time was a month ago, and dozens of villagers from Qarawat Bani Zeid worked to find the foreign car where my camera had fallen out of my pocket. I got it back, and lost it again today.

Last time I lost my camera I was upset. This time I’m calmer. I’m humbled by the patience of the people around me in the face of great tragedies. A friend drove me around today to look for the camera. I learned that his father has been held prisoner in an Israeli jail for 24 years because of his political affiliation. I felt petty worrying so much about an object that I can easily replace. He was focused and said he would continue to search tomorrow in the light again. He refused to take any money for gas or his time and said he was very sorry for my loss. I feel unworthy of his sympathy.

Someone just knocked at our door. Sajid, the young boy living downstairs, has brought us some fresh bread with olive oil and spinach wrapped inside it that his mother made. Sajid’s father, our landlord Abu Rabia, is a longtime activist and one of the people who invited international women to form IWPS in the Salfit region. Sixteen years separate Sajid from his older brother Rabia, who was just 2 years old when his father was taken away for 13 and a half years. Abu Rabia was imprisoned for being a leader in nonviolent resistance to the Occupation. “The army was afraid of my ability to organize against them,” he told me. “It didn’t matter that my position was nonviolence.” Abu Rabia is a warm and well-respected man who doesn’t volunteer the horror stories (most Palestinians don’t) of prison, but when I asked he told me about not being allowed to sleep for 8 days, and about prisoners soiling themselves tied up in chairs and left for days. He said it’s unbelievable how much humans can endure, how strong we really are.

Indeed, the family remains strong and full of readiness to keep fighting and living. The first time I came to Haris in 2003, Um Rabia (Abu Rabia’s wife) was pregnant with their third child Hudda, who was born just over a year ago. We all prayed Hudda would never be deprived of her father’s presence the way her eldest brother Rabia was, and so far she hasn’t. But something worse has happened: six months ago, Rabia was arrested on the charge of introducing two people who were later suspected of planning an armed attack against Israel. Rabia has been sentenced to 5 years in prison, and the family is once again torn apart.

Um Rabia wants us to go downstairs for tea. She is lonely without Rabia. Sajid opens the door for us when we knock. He has seemed so sad since his brother disappeared (the family still hasn’t told him why and where). The house is cozy, and we are greeted warmly. Um Rabia puts some tea on the stove, and Sajid leads us into the living room where his father is comforting a woman from the village. She is crying. She has come to Abu Rabia for help and advice, but when we enter she tries to hide her weeping.

I can see that the woman has a slight mental disability, and I immediately make the connection. She is the mother of Mohammed, who was 16 years old, mentally retarded, and fatherless when he was shot for throwing a stone at a soldier a few hundred meters from our house. Witnesses say he was calling to the soldiers in a high-pitched voice (unable to speak normally due to his disability), but committed no crime and posed no real threat to anyone. That was 5 years ago.

Mohammed’s mother is crying now because her only remaining son Manadel—now 16 and also mentally disabled—has just lost a finger to a small explosive. The weapon blew up when Manadel touched it while placing a flower in memory of his older brother on the site where Mohammed was killed. Probably leftover from an army raid, the explosive sent shrapnel flying into Manadel’s two hands and right knee. Now he is unable to walk normally, and his mother is left alone with a medical bill she cannot pay.

Abu Rabia is no stranger to disability and health problems. Mohammed was killed during a period when soldiers came into Haris frequently and threatened villagers. Um Rabia was one victim—she had a miscarriage at 8 months, which she attributes to the constant attacks and anxiety associated with living in a war zone. Abu Rabia’s brother, Issa, once a healthy and active strength-trainer in his twenties, was condemned to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair after a bullet passed through his shoulder and out his neck. He was shot shortly after Abu Rabia was released from prison, and Abu Rabia suspects it was him they were after.

Issa and his wife have been good friends to IWPS. They have twin babies, one girl and one boy, and an older son. When we visited them a few weeks ago, Issa told us he was okay and started to talk of bigger things, as he usually does. He doesn’t like to concentrate on his personal tragedy, as it is only one of so many in Palestine. For him, the greater tragedy is the Occupation.

While we visited, Issa looked down at his daughter and wondered, “What will happen to her? Will her situation be better or worse than ours?” We talked about the possibility of peace but quickly moved on to the seeming inevitability of the Wall. Issa said peace would never come from a wall, because you cannot squeeze a people into being peaceful. People must work to transform their anger into nonviolent work for justice, the only thing that will bring true peace. He quoted an Arabic saying, “You can’t clap with one hand” and explained that
Jews, Palestinians, and the world must work together if we are to successfully fight injustice. Issa said it’s especially important that Jews speak out against human rights violations, since others are easily dismissed as anti-Semitic terrorists. He said he respects Judaism but cannot respect a country that discriminates against people based on ethnicity. He said he respects the America of Martin Luther King, Jr., but not of the current Bush administration, which finances Israel’s atrocities unhesitatingly and prioritizes imperial goals over human dignity.

I marveled at Issa’s resemblance to his brother—so committed to nonviolence despite personal tragedies. He shared with us his vision of a one-state solution in which Jews and Palestinians would coexist with equal rights in one country in spite of their tumultuous past. Issa spoke of the similarities between European colonialism in the US, South Africa, and Palestine. He said that although achieving true democracy and desegregation in the United States and South Africa continue to be great struggles, most people would agree that their solutions of coexistence are preferable to racial division. Why shouldn’t this also be true for Israel/Palestine? The non-Zionist non-ethnocentric option in the Middle East seems so far from the spectrum of current thought that for most people it’s not even an option at all. But there is a growing minority of Jews and Palestinians who now believe that only a truly democratic and open state could sustain itself and peace in the region.

The diversity of opinions among Palestinians regarding the future is remarkable. Hannah and I recently went up to Jenin to visit the Arab American University (AAU) there. We presented photos and statistics about the Wall and resistance, and afterwards one student volunteered to lead a discussion. He started with an open question to everyone: “Could you coexist peacefully in a shared nation alongside the Jewish people?”

A young man from Jerusalem spoke up first: “Of course we can. We just need to respect each other.” Another student interrupted: “Maybe that would have worked in the past, but now too many people have died on both sides. It’s too late.”

A third student offered his opinion: “Peace cannot happen with the Wall and so many of our loved ones in jail for bogus reasons. Stopping the Wall and freeing the prisoners is the essential first step. Then we could live side by side.” A fourth student said something that everyone agreed with: “Of course we want to live with them in peace. But they don’t want it. They say they do, but they don’t. Actions speak louder than words.”

There is a new group at AAU called “Green Resistance.” A few dozen students gather weekly to discuss nonviolent resistance tactics. The group’s current project is organizing a campus-wide boycott of Israeli Tapuzina fruit juice, a product that not only supports Israel’s economy (and hence, the Wall) but also contains very harmful preservatives. IWPS also tries to avoid purchasing Israeli products, but few Palestinians are so conscientious, perhaps because they don’t realize the consequences of their consumption. According to Green Resistance, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories contribute US$84 million a year to Israel’s economy. (Of course, that’s still nothing compared to the more than US$10 million dollars a day that the US provides to Israel, most of it earmarked for military use.)

Green Resistance also gives talks on the history of nonviolent protest in Palestine. Many people assume that such tactics are foreign to Palestine because anything short of a bomb goes largely unreported in the Western media. I can’t count the times I’ve been asked, “Why are Palestinians always blowing themselves up? Why can’t they learn to use nonviolent resistance?”

The fact is that Palestinians do use nonviolent resistance. In fact, they use it constantly, almost every moment of every day. For many Palestinians, simply staying in their homes on their land and not emigrating is resistance. Farmers walk miles to harvest their trees because the old Palestinian roads have been demolished, blocked, or paved over with settler roads that Palestinians are not allowed to use. The farmers persist because they refuse to give up their right to go to their land. This is nonviolent resistance.

Nonviolent resistance is everywhere. Children wait for hours at checkpoints on the way to and from school every day because they are determined to get an education despite the obstacles; Palestinians and Israelis camp out together as partners for peace in spite of widespread attempts to turn the war into one of Jews versus Muslims; a movement leader returns from prison after 13 years and goes back to the nonviolent resistance he was arrested for; an old woman, armed with only her voice and determination, confronts a bulldozer uprooting her trees and the fourth strongest military in the world protecting it; a shepherd grazes her sheep despite threats of poison and settler attacks; a young boy constructs a roadblock all by himself with rocks and wire in an attempt to prevent army jeeps from entering his village that night; students paint murals on the Wall and young children dig tunnels to pass under it. Palestinians are not strangers to nonviolent resistance; they are champions of it.

There are, of course, other options. Palestinians can join the movement advocating armed resistance. But in my experience, most Palestinians refuse to resort to violence, even though it’s the only resistance that consistently receives attention from the media. Palestinians could also give up and accept the loss of their land and freedom. But I see no signs that this will happen, at least within the general population. To this day, farmers still refuse to sell their land even though they know they are likely to lose it soon anyway. Families plant young olive trees where old ones have been uprooted. They build new homes where old ones have been demolished. Palestinians persist in the most widespread nonviolent resistance of all: simply living under the Occupation. Existence is resistance.

Unfortunately, the most widespread resistance happening in Palestine is also the least widely reported. For as long as I can remember, the Western press has been calling on Palestinians to “choose peace,” promising that if Palestinians would just work towards justice without harming Israelis, they could “earn” back their freedom and human rights, as if these rights were privileges. Given the prevalence of nonviolent resistance in Palestine and the deterioration of the situation in the Occupied Territories, one cannot help but wonder what is meant by “choosing peace.”

One student in Jenin said he was tired of the false promises and wearied by the everyday resistance required to survive life under the Occupation. He wanted to go to the United States, or to Europe. But then he stopped himself: “I want to leave. But then I remember that if everyone thought that way we would lose everything. We should be allowed to live here because it’s our land, and our history. It’s that simple.”

Resistance takes great courage, but without it Palestine would be long gone. The struggle must continue.

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