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'This Is Our Normal Life': Community Organizing in the West Bank.

BEIT UMAR, West Bank--Four Palestinian farm families, including patriarchs, younger men, wives and rambunctious children--not to mention six international activists from the United States--crowd onto the screened porch of a respectable stone house near the center of Beit Umar. They are meeting to discuss how to defend rich farmland that has been in their families' names for at least five generations, and has now been declared a "close military zone" by the Israeli Defense Forces. The farmers are certain that their land, cultivated in grapes and plums, will be handed over to the Jewish settlement of Karmit Zur unless they mount a coordinated defense.

The evening sunlight breaks through the grape arbor outside, bathing the rounded hills in a warm glow, as the land at the highest elevation in the West Bank begins to cool from the considerable summer heat. In Beit Umar, a town of 12,000 north of Hebron, it is said that tractors outnumber people.

Gazi Brigith, a ruddy electrician at the Beit Umar Municipality and an energetic community activist, has convened the farmers, who have until now chosen to work their fields alone, on the gamble that by being inconspicuous they'll avoid the repression of the military and the hostile gunfire of Jewish settlers. Brigith is asking the farmers to accept the assistance of the internationals--four of us from the International Solidarity Movement, and two from the Christian Peacemaker Teams--to provide protection against military attack and raise the visibility of their struggle.

Ibrahim Slevi raises his voice in consternation, speaking forcefully in Palestinian Arabic: "It is not only about harvesting our plums this season. What will we do when the military sees this demonstration and decides to put up a fence around our field, so that the next year we're locked out? We need a long-term solution to keep our land, not just help on one day." There is clear skepticism about what the internationals can do, even fear that their presence will hasten the farmers' dispossession.

As Brigith begins to translate the farmers' reservations to the internationals, the sharp thudding of rubber bullets begins to reverberate down the narrow, stone-enclosed streets, announcing the arrival of Israeli soldiers. Then from the front window, we see a spent canister of teargas skidding over the pavement.

The owner of the house rushes around, closing windows, and one of the Palestinians smiles. "This is our normal life," he says apologetically. "We're used to it." Children run excitedly to the windows, prompting stern warnings from their worried parents. The meeting continues, with the farmers vacillating between weariness and determination.

They will accept the internationals' offer of accompaniment, but they want to plan for the long-term campaign. There is the nagging legal issue that most of the deeds to the land were destroyed when the Israeli Air Force decimated the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Hebron in F-16 jet fighter attacks. One farmer has been informed by the soldiers that he can apply for a temporary harvest permit from the Israeli Civil Administration, housed in the center of the Jewish settlement Kiryat Arba.

The permit process can take weeks, a period of time in which the plums may have rotted. Land loss is only one aspect of the paralysis of Beit Umar's farm economy. In June, the Beit Umar farmers say, a 150-ton shipment of Santa Rosa plums bound for Jerusalem was held up at the Tarkumiya checkpoint by Israeli security for two days. The plums wasted in the 90-degree heat, rendered worthless. The effects of the military closure were demoralizing to the farmers.

Aside from taking advantage of the presence of internationals, the Palestinians also want to enlist the aid of the Land Defense Committee, a Palestinian organization aligned with the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (and thus independent of the corrupt and bureaucratic Palestinian Authority). The Land Defense Committee also has an Israeli counterpart, the Committee to Stop House Demolitions, a relationship that may offer vital support. (As it happens, the meeting with the Land Defense Committee never takes place, because organizers are stranded in Hebron under curfew.)

Soon the distinct crack of gunfire announces that the Israeli soldiers have switched from rubber bullets to live ammunition. When the soldiers pass our house, everyone crouches to avoid being seen in the window. The shooting comes from one direction in intervals of two or three minutes. We never hear return fire to indicate that Palestinian militias are engaging with the Israeli military.

There is a moment of comic relief as we watch a slight boy who looks to be no older than 10 run down the street with a tray strapped around his neck, shouting an advertisement for sweets between rounds of Israeli gunfire.

At the lead of the two Christian Peacemakers, both veterans of nonviolent interventions in Chiapas and Chechnya, the internationals timidly step out onto the street. A brawny Palestinian boy, probably around the age of 14, slips a fist-size rock into a sling and edges down the curved street before he looses it in the direction of the soldiers. His cohorts are stuffing stones in their socks and pants pockets, and flattening themselves against the wall as bullets whistle past. The kids shout the Arabic equivalent of "homos!" as a cavalcade of shots rings out in reply. (Later in the week, in the aftermath of a similar exercise, bullet-pierced windows, emptied water tanks, and shot-out electrical lines will testify to the Israeli military's presence.)

The next morning, we accompany several farmers, who are unarmed, to their land near Karmit Zur. We hop over ancient stone fences, designating family plots, and cross the freshly bulldozed military perimeter road enclosing Karmit Zur and the Palestinian farmland. This land has been held by the military since July 2001, when a Palestinian gunman from neighboring Hal Houl burst into a mobile home on the outskirts of Karmit Zur, and murdered two settlers.

The farmers and the internationals begin to collect fruit in wide paperboard cartons. Within a half hour, a white four-wheel drive Toyota truck appears and a Jewish settler armed with an assault rifle surveys the farmers. He speeds off and quickly returns with an Israeli soldier.

"What are we doing here?" the settler asks tersely.

"We're here to pick the fruit," responds Jim Satterwhite, a Christian Peacemaker who is a history professor at Bluffton College in Ohio.

"This is a closed military zone, and we must follow the law," the soldier says.

Diane Roe, also from the Christian Peacemaker Teams, appeals to the soldier: "The decision is in process and the fruit needs to be picked, or else it will go bad." Then, turning to the settler, she says, "I am sure you know what it's like to have families to feed."

"We have families too," the settler assures her, "and they're being killed by these Arabs."

After listening to heated protest from the owner of the land, Ayad Mather Ahmade Bahar, the soldier announces that we will be arrested if we refuse to leave. The internationals prepare for a standoff, but Bahar gestures in alarm: "We have to go. They will bring more soldiers." We climb onto the perimeter road, but not before a second jeep has arrived to ensure that we don't return.

Farmers say they can sometimes get in four hours a day on their land, hiding in the plum groves from settler security. Returning to Beit Umar, we meet one who is headed to the fields to do just that.

It's an inauspicious beginning for a non-violent civil disobedience campaign, to be sure. Resistance like this is painstaking and full of hesitation. It requires a slow process of building consensus among the farmers, and doesn't command headlines the way the Hamas and Al-Aksa Martyrs suicide bombing operations do. Within three weeks, the Palestinians will return to the fields, accompanied by some 10 internationals. One of the Palestinians will be briefly detained by settler security for the infraction of failing to carry an identification card. Again, threatened with arrest, the Palestinians and internationals will retreat.

It's in this dilemma that the International Solidarity Movement and other Palestinian civil society groups find themselves. Movement coordinator Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian-American, estimates that 95 percent of the Palestinian population is unarmed, so nonviolent direct action is critical in engaging the whole of society in a struggle to end the occupation. "As a movement, we do not agree with the suicide bombing operations or any violence against civilians or noncombatants," says Arraf, "but we stand behind the Palestinian right to armed struggle. We don't criticize it, but ours is a nonviolent movement."

In this the International Solidarity Movement takes its cues from international law, in particular the 1982 U.N. Resolution 37/43, which "reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle ... against foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle," with specific reference to the Palestinian case.

While most Palestinian professionals, and international activists aligned with the struggle, express horror at the suicide bombing operations, the question remains: What level of resistance will be credible in compelling an Israeli withdrawal? The International Solidarity Movement is making a gamble that the actions against land confiscations in Beit Umar, as well as other direct action campaigns throughout the territories, will be effective enough to galvanize a broad cross section of Palestinian civil society and build a credible pressure to force the Sharon government to desist.

The movement's nonviolent direct action campaign, which also involves repairing a Gaza well that is under constant Israeli fire and holding marches in Nablus and Ramallah to violate military curfew, are also part of an effort to re-engage the Israeli peace camp. American Jews and a few Israelis who hold dual citizenship have participated in the International Solidarity Movement, but most Israelis on the left have kept their distance from the organization.

Peace Now, the main civil society force mobilizing Israelis against the war, has long organized under the banner of "get out of the territories," so there would seem to be room for collaboration. Naomi Chazan, an Israeli peace activist who is deputy speaker of the Knesset is blunt in her assessment: "This is a situation reminiscent of the homeland policy of South Africa in the 1960s. The situation on the ground is one of severe distress."

And yet the Israeli peace movement is riven by a debate on whether to push for immediate withdrawal or the resumption of negotiations. Even Tel Aviv University professor Tanya Reinhart, a staunch critic of the state of Israel, expresses resignation about the expansion of the settlements. "I don't know if we can pull all of them out," she confesses.

Solidarity with the Palestinian struggle is also paralyzed on the Israeli side by fears for Israel's existence. Ronni Shendar, who organized a food relief convoy to Beit Umar last December, is wary of calls for immediate withdrawal. "It would be great if we could just withdraw from the territories unilaterally," she says, "but if we did we would open ourselves up to attack. I would love for this conflict to be as simple as (the anti-colonial struggle in) Algeria, but it's not," she continues, "You have to understand that Israel exists because of the Holocaust."

So, Israelis and Palestinians continue in a state of weary suspension; the Israelis increasingly unnerved by the attacks of suicide bombers, the Palestinians under a continued siege of roadblocks, random military assaults and confiscated land. EndBlock

  • 'This Is Our Normal Life': Community Organizing in the West Bank.

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