I have just returned from a truly amazing trip through tiny, beautiful Israel-Palestine, travelling with a delegation from Interfaith Peace-Builders. Our group of 23 activists (1/3 Jewish) ranged from 7 months to 83 years. We met with Israeli and Palestinian peace activists all over the country for 12 eye-opening days. Such adventure!
We saw a country and met a people that most tourists – indeed, most Israelis – never see, cushioned as they are from the grim and brutal realities of occupation. Israelis drive separate highways most Palestinians are not allowed on, cruising through checkpoints that Palestinians must struggle through, often on foot. We walked through the Qalandiya checkpoint. To be lined up in a cattle cage, surrounded by barbed wire, garbage, and heavily armed teenagers (Israeli military) is unnerving to say the least. “Worse than entering San Quentin”, said one of our group. How do Palestinians endure this relentlessly humiliating experience on a daily basis? “Awesome, isn’t it!” said one young Palestinian man. “This is our life”, said another. The 4 year old behind me was simply wide-eyed and silent.
Nor do most tourists visit the refugee camps throughout the West Bank, where thousands live in the same cramped quarters they were allotted after the 1948 Nakba (the “catastrophe”) when over 750,000 Palestinians fled/were forcibly expelled from their lands and homes. Over 60% of Palestinians live below the poverty line.
Still, everywhere we went, we met Palestinians practising “sumud” – steadfastness. Despite the hardships of living under a regime that wants them to leave, they stay. “Our existence is our resistance”. Nowhere is that more evident than with the Nassars, a Christian family whose gorgeous hilltop farmland just outside Bethlehem (West Bank) is completely surrounded by illegal settlements. We camped overnight at their Tent of Nations, a peaceful oasis that has a sign saying “We refuse to be enemies”. It stands just past the giant roadblock the army installed at their entrance in 2002, cutting off vehicle access to the farm. Their grandfather bought this land in 1916, and registered title deeds with the British in 1924, deeds they still possess. The State of Israel wants this land, but these title deeds, plus continuous inhabitation of the land by the family, make eviction problematic, so the case has been in court since 1991, still undecided. Four weeks ago the army came in dead of night and destroyed 1,500 harvest-ready almond, apricot and apple trees, ploughing them underground. The State long ago cut off their water and electricity supply. This family endures. They put in solar panels; they have a cistern; they will replant. The international community bears witness and volunteers help keep Tent of Nations from destruction.
A tragic side effect here is that trees are sacred in Judaic tradition; I wonder if willfully destroying healthy, life-giving trees also damages the soul of the destroyer. Two young “refuseniks”, who work with a Quaker organization to counter the militarization in Israeli society, told us the Israeli army has the highest suicide rate of any military worldwide, and huge problems with post-traumatic stress disorder. They, and other young Israelis we spoke with detailed an Israeli culture of existential fear and victimhood, educational programming fueling a constant sense of impending threat, and an attitude that never asks or cares why Palestinians might be hostile – “it’s just a given”. The cruelty of occupation makes this a self-fulfilling prophesy, despite general Palestinian commitment to non-violence. A young member of our group said (paraphrasing Immortal Technique): “When you dehumanize people, why would you expect anything but inhuman behaviour from them?”
The human rights situation in Israel-Palestine is much worse than I imagined. At the same time, we experienced wonderful Palestinian hospitality wherever we travelled. And we met many amazing people, working in creative ways toward a peaceful future, as wearing and frustrating as that work can be. We heard repeatedly from both Israeli and Palestinian activists that only pressure from the international community will create impetus to end the occupation. This is a deeply human struggle that needs our sustained involvement.