Monday, April 25, 2005

Soldier-Free Demonstrations

This week the army has imposed closure for Palestinians all over the West Bank, so that soldiers can go home to celebrate Passover with their families. This means that Muslim and Christian Palestinians, who don’t celebrate the holiday, are generally unable to get to work, school, the hospital, or to visit their own families. Settlers, however, are exempt from the closure and are allowed to travel as before.

It is often the case that restrictions on Palestinians heighten during Jewish holidays. Last fall, the army cancelled (not postponed) two of its three designated days to “guard” farmers picking olives in As-Sawiya village because the days that the army had chosen overlapped with Sukkot, the Jewish festival celebrating—ironically—the harvest. Settler attacks are also more common on Shabbat, when religious settlers don’t work or go to school.

It’s so tragic that Jewish days of celebration and rest have translated into extra hardship for Palestinians. Israel’s lack of accommodation for people with other beliefs certainly does not raise respect for Judaism in the eyes of people whose exposure to Jews already consists almost entirely of soldiers and settlers upholding an unjust system. Faced with persistent human rights violations and land confiscation by self-proclaimed Jewish representatives flaunting the Star of David,[1] and branded as anti-Semitic as soon as they attempt to speak out against these legitimate grievances, it is surprising how many Palestinians retain positive feelings towards Jews. Some older Palestinians recall the peaceful relations between Jews and Arabs in Palestine before Zionist immigration. Even today, whenever there is a bombing in Israel, Palestinians who used to work in Israel call their Israeli friends to make sure that no one was hurt. Younger Palestinians, however, have few opportunities to meet Israeli Jews who aren’t a part of the Occupation. This is yet another reason why the Jewish Israelis coming into the Occupied Territories to support Palestinians are so important.

The other day, 10 Israelis and I made our way to the Palestinian village of Deir Sharaf for a demonstration. Settlers from the surrounding settlements had decided to build a dump at the village’s doorstep a few years ago. The settlers brought in a crusher and dug out a huge landfill some 300 meters from Deir Sharaf, where they now throw all their waste. What’s worse, as a way to make money, the settlements have advertised the dump for people in Israel proper to use. Trash from Israel and West Bank settlements is now threatening the area’s air, animals, communities, and most importantly, its water. Less than 300 meters from the dump is the largest fresh water source in the region.

The villagers of Deir Sharaf are upset about the noxious fumes and health threats created by the dump, and they recently organized a march from the Town Hall to the dump. IWPS took part in the event. When we arrived, the mayor welcomed us and said he wished we could be meeting under better circumstances. He gave us a brief history of the issue and said the village didn’t know what else to do other than to try and tell the world about their crisis, through activism and the media.

We walked down to the landfill, where noxious fumes forced us to cover our faces. Before us stood a city of trash with a freshly cleared area the size of a football field—room for more garbage to come. The setting could have been beautiful; cliffs towered above and the weather was perfect. But the place was revolting.

A nearby stream flowed urine and feces instead of water. I asked a villager whether the pollution came from settlements, as in Wadi Qana, but he said the sewage came from other Palestinian villages. He told me the community had sought permission to build a water purification facility, but the Israeli government rejected the request. And so yet another hydration source was lost, in a desert land where water is critical.

This demonstration was different than any I’d seen before. There were no chants, hardly any signs, no rocks or tear gas or sound bombs. We just walked through the destruction in silence. The setting told more than any slogans could have.

Having accomplished our objectives of involving the media and bearing witness to the destruction, we were ready to turn back. The mayor of Deir Sharaf wanted to arrange rides for the Israelis and me, but we said we were happy to walk with the other demonstrators. Within minutes we regretted our decision.

An army jeep happened to drive by and stopped when the soldiers inside saw us. They were worried about our safety. They told us it wasn’t safe to walk with Palestinians without army protection. The Israelis argued with them in Hebrew, but the army insisted on driving alongside us. Soon they called for backup. Eventually, a jeep and a Humvee were escorting us into the village, scaring everyone in sight. People came out of their shops and houses, children left school out of fear or curiosity. Some began to whistle.

We had been heading for Town Hall to have a discussion on the dump, but now it seemed we were causing more harm than good. And so we did what we should have done at the entrance of the village: we stood in front of the army vehicles. We used our bodies to prevent the jeeps from intruding further. The soldiers had no choice but to stop since the village streets were too narrow for them to drive around us. I felt the villagers watching and supporting us. I could sense their appreciation when they caught my eye. This was probably the first time many people in Deir Sharaf had seen foreigners and Israelis standing up for them.

I felt good about our use of privilege in the situation. Palestinians couldn’t have stood in front of the jeep—they would have been mowed down or arrested. But we were relatively safe, and pretty soon the Israeli activists convinced the driver to leave. The village cheered, and the protesters met as planned. We reflected on the march and generated ideas for the next step. One was from one of the Israeli anarchists, who said we should take a truckload of trash left by settlers and return it to them, on their front lawns or in their parks. I thought it was a creative idea, but several villagers were sharply opposed to it. They said it was hypocritical to complain about trash in their community and then put it in someone else’s. They said everyone deserves to live with clean air and water, including Israelis.

The story of Deir Sharaf illustrates what a difference the presence or absence of soldiers can make at a demonstration. Before the soldiers arrived, protesters were focused on making their statement; when the soldiers arrived, protesters became anxious and angry. I cannot know whether or not provocation was the army’s intention in Deir Sharaf, but that has certainly been the case for other incidents in the past. Ex-soldiers tell stories of deliberately egging young boys on to throw stones so that they can pick out the “troublemakers.”[2] Undercover Israeli police once joined a Bil’in demonstration and started a round of stone-throwing before turning around to arrest those who followed suit.[3]

So what would happen at a Palestinian demonstration completely free of Israeli soldiers? I found out at a demonstration last month in Ramallah at the Palestinian Authority Headquarters where UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was meeting with Mahmoud Abbas. The event was planned to protest the fact that during his visit, the Secretary General was avoiding the Wall being constructed only a couple miles away. He had flown the 10 miles from Jerusalem to Ramallah, avoiding the land travel hassles of checkpoints and roadblocks that Palestinians face every day.

The protest began with a silent procession of women carrying portraits of their loved ones who are being held as political prisoners in Israeli jails. Shortly thereafter, demonstrators of all ages, backgrounds, and political alliances joined in waving flags and banners proclaiming things like “The Colonial Wall Demolishes the Basis of Peace” and “The Wall and Settlements are Another Form of Terror.” Protesters’ signs appealed to the United Nations: “Implement the International Court of Justice Ruling Now” and “Stop Ignoring International Law!” Several demonstrators gave speeches while others banged on the compound doors in hopes that Annan might hear. Palestinian policemen watched from the sides as demonstrators spoke their hearts and minds. Instead of degenerating into tear gas, sound bombs, rubber bullets, and stones, the demonstration culminated in a peaceful group visit to Yasser Arafat’s tomb, after which protesters returned to their homes.

[1] The Star of David is a six-pointed star like the one found on the Israeli flag. The star is a symbol of Judaism and the Jewish people.

[2]Trigger Happy: Unjustified Shooting and Violation of the Open-Fire Regulations during the al-Aqsa Intifada,” B’tselem, p. 17; As cited in Finkelstein, Chutzpah, p. 114.

[3] Meron Rapaport, “Bil’in residents: Undercover troops provoked stone-throwing,” Haaretz (14 October 2005).

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