Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Three Palestinians walk next to a twenty-five-foot-high concrete wall that passes through the village of Abu Dis on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The wall is part of the security barrier being built between Israel and the West Bank.
© AP Photo/Enric Marti
In March and April of 2004, Starhawk spent several weeks in Israel and Palestine, most of it in the West Bank. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip, also known as the Occupied Territories, are lands captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967 and currently under the joint control of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The West Bank is inhabited primarily by Arabic-speaking Palestinians, but some Israelis have established settlements within its borders in an attempt to claim the land as a part of Israel. These settlers live apart from, but sometimes in close proximity to, the Palestinians, and are protected by barriers and by the Israeli military.
Israel is currently building a “security fence” to discourage suicide bombers who might travel from the West Bank into Israel. Though the original plan was for the barrier to follow the historic 1948 Israeli border, also known as the “green line,” the fence as it has been built curves and loops deep into the West Bank to enclose Israeli settlements. Palestinians have objected to the barrier, which they call an “apartheid wall,” on the grounds that it is built on the Palestinian side of the green line; that it separates farmers from their fields; and that it isolates some Palestinian towns within the West Bank, encircling them completely.
Starhawk went to the West Bank as a volunteer for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), which was founded in 2001 by Ghassan Andoni, a Palestinian professor; Adam Shapiro, an American Jew; his wife, Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian Christian; and Israeli peace activist Neta Golan. The ISM recruits activists from Western nations to support Palestinian nonviolent resistance against Israeli actions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, cofounder of the Palestinian militant organization Hamas, was assassinated on Monday by the Israeli military. Had the Israelis hired a marketing firm to tell them how to create the ultimate Hamas martyr, they couldn’t have done a better job: a blind, elderly man in a wheelchair, murdered by missile fire as he was coming out of a mosque after prayer.
For three days everything was shut down in the West Bank town of Ramallah: stores closed, cafes shut tight, streets empty. On the third day the walls of town were covered with Yassin’s shahid poster. When someone dies in the struggle here, whether an innocent civilian shot by soldiers or a fighter gunned down in a clash, someone makes a martyr poster. The poster Hamas has made for Yassin depicts him in glowing white, flanked by two black silhouettes of armed men. In Arabic it says, “We accept the challenge.”
Assassinating Yassin will not bring security to Israel, only more death. Perhaps the next Israeli killed will be my cousin, who regularly studies at a yeshiva; or my friend Dana, newly pregnant; or perhaps one of the young Israeli activists who are regulars at every demonstration against the wall that Israel is building around — and through — the West Bank. Hamas cannot be absolved of responsibility for such deaths, but neither can Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Because of the assassination of Sheikh Yassin, my friend Neta couldn’t go to her brother’s wedding in Israel proper. Neta, an Israeli, is married to a Palestinian who cannot legally enter Israel. Neta cannot legally live in the West Bank, but she does so anyway. In calmer times her husband, Nizar, might get to a family gathering in Israel safely, but these days everything is tense. Roads are closed. It seems too risky. Though I can feel Neta’s frustration, it turns out to be a good thing that she doesn’t go. She is nine months pregnant, and in midmorning her water breaks.
Neta and I spend the day walking, because it helps bring on her contractions. We walk around the shuttered town, looking for stores with their doors open a crack, an indication that we can come in and buy food. We go out again later with Nizar and their one-year-old daughter, Nawal, who is one of those happy babies who invariably find life delightful and funny.
On the outskirts of Ramallah are terraced hills planted with olive trees, some of them so ancient they are called “Romim” (Roman). Olive trees can live for two thousand years, and some of these have trunks so braided, swollen, and thick that I believe they could indeed have been here when Herod passed by or Jesus climbed these hills. These trees have seen empires come and go, have seen betrayal and brutality and assassination, but still they endure. Someone long ago carved this terrace and stacked these stones one atop the other, carrying the weight of each stone on his back and placing them with his hands. Pink cyclamens and wild irises and tiny magenta orchids peek out from among the stones, returning to bloom each spring as they have always done. I feel as if we’re waiting in the pause, the indrawn breath before the gust that will blow out the candle of the world. But maybe this conflict too will pass, and the beauty and the blossom will yet endure.
Neta’s contractions grow stronger. She pauses and leans on Nizar. A new life is about to be born. I cannot help but feel hopeful, in spite of everything.
Angie and I awaken at dawn to accompany a farmer out to plow fields belonging to a woman in the village of Hares. We are going as volunteers from the International Solidarity Movement, whose members bear witness and peacefully intervene on behalf of the Palestinians.
Hares sits on a hillside, with olive groves and small fields stretching out below. It’s idyllic and quiet, but just across the valley, on the crest of the next hill, stands Ariel, the largest of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Israeli settlers have been known to harass or attack villagers who are out to plow or plant or harvest. We volunteers discourage this by our presence, and by trying to convince the Israeli military to protect the villagers from the settlers.
To me, the word settlement implies a lonely outpost in some hostile wilderness, populated by intrepid frontier folk. But most of these “settlements” are actually gated suburban communities that could have been airlifted straight from southern California, complete with clay-tile roofs, ample bathrooms, and swimming pools — only these suburbs have guard towers, razor wire, and an armed security force backed by the Israeli military. The settlements are built on land confiscated from Palestinians, and the vast majority have been constructed since 1993, when the Oslo Accords were signed, calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank. Currently, settlements and their reserve lands take up 42 percent of the West Bank’s land area and use 80 percent of the water, yet the settlers are only about 10 percent of the population.
The settlements are linked by special roads that bypass Palestinian villages and towns and carve up the West Bank and Gaza into isolated fragments. Palestinians are not allowed on most of these roads, which are protected by soldiers and checkpoints and subject to closures. The Israeli government spends $4 billion a year on added military security for the settlements alone.
If you want to know why the Palestinians lost faith in the Oslo peace process, why they distrust the Israeli government and are wary of new negotiations, just imagine what it would be like if a hostile population planted itself on the next ridge over from your house, taking the land without paying for it. Imagine if you had to stand in line and present documents in order to leave your town, or if the shortest route to visit your best friend were obstructed by a roadblock. Imagine if you were searched by soldiers every day on your way to work; if your kids had to pass a checkpoint to get to school; if your house could be entered, searched, or even bulldozed without warrant or due process. Then you’ll start to understand the frustration that built to this current intifada.
Ariel sits on land belonging to the people of Hares. My friend Neta, who is now home in Ramallah nursing her new baby, began her campaign of solidarity when she lived here. Settlers from Ariel would come down to the entrance of the village and taunt the young boys, provoking them to throw stones and then shooting at them in return. But Neta would come out to talk with the settlers and stand between them and the boys. They were less likely to shoot if she was there.
Angie and I go out to the fields with the farmer at seven. He hitches a horse to a small metal plow and drives it back and forth, clucking with his tongue and calling out commands in Arabic. The fields are small and rocky, edged with stone walls. These hills have been sculpted by ten thousand years of cultivation, but many of the terraces are falling apart. It’s hard for the villagers to work the fields or pick the olives when they fear being harassed or attacked by the settlers who live in the walled suburb looming just above us.
Plowing is these farmers’ method of weed control: it aerates the soil and keeps the terraces from turning to scrub. I pick up a handful of soil, sniff it, rub it between my fingers, drip some water on it and feel its texture. It’s mostly clay, which stains my hands. There’s very little organic matter in it. The plow digs into the soil, turning it. The woman who owns the field follows with a hoe to get the weeds that were too close to the rocks for the plow to hit.
Judaism is deeply tied to the agricultural cycles of this land. The fanatical settlers use these ties as one more bit of evidence to bolster their belief that God gave this land to the Jews, and that the Palestinians’ presence here is just a temporary mistake God has not yet rectified. There are three major Jewish harvest festivals: Sukkot, in the fall, which celebrates the fruit harvest and the returning rains; Pesach — better known as Passover — in the spring, the holiday of shepherds and herders and the beginning of the harvest of winter grain; and Shavuot, in early summer, the end of the grain harvest. The New Year of the Trees is celebrated in January or February, when Israel’s almond and fruit trees blossom. (As a child in Minnesota, I never understood why we were celebrating the blossoming of trees when everything was buried under a foot of snow.)
But the Jewish religion has little to say about olive trees, which cover nearly every cultivable square meter of these hills. The olive branch is a symbol of peace, and olive oil figures heavily in the Temple rituals, but there is no olive-harvest festival in November, nothing to suggest the overwhelming importance olive cultivation has in the Holy Land today. I wonder if the soil was more fertile in ancient times, and if the olives have gradually taken prominence as the soil’s condition has worsened.
A soldier comes down to see what we’re doing, and Angie walks over to talk to him. He says he has been stationed here only a week. “The settlers don’t mind him plowing,” the soldier says, “but we have to be careful. A terrorist could come up from these fields. We have our land; they have theirs. My job is to keep the peace.”
Angie points out that Ariel is built on the Palestinians’ land, and that peace requires justice. When the conversation starts to veer toward Sharon, she diplomatically ends it. After the solider leaves, Angie says he seemed decent. We go back to watching the farmer plow. Soon a settler drives up in a jeep, stops on the dirt road that runs by the field, and watches us. We watch him back.
© AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko
Later that morning, I go to Beit Liqya for a demonstration against the wall. Anna, an International Women’s Peace Service volunteer, goes with me. Construction of a section of the wall is underway on a hillside near the village, and we hope to temporarily slow or halt it. Once the march from the village to the construction site has begun, however, my main concern, as always, is just keeping up. We’re climbing a steep hill in the blazing sun, and I drop behind the main group, which is comprised of protesters mostly younger and fitter than I.
At last I reach the top of the hill. On the slopes of the next rise, cranes and bulldozers have been working. A young protester from the head of the march comes running back to the end of the line to say the bulldozers have stopped, at least for now. We all march down the hill. At the bottom, a line of soldiers and border police block our path. The elders of the village and a few internationals approach the soldiers to negotiate. The rest of us stand and wait in the sun.
I wonder why I spend so much of my life participating in demonstrations when I hate them so much. I hate marching in the heat, standing around, and staring back at armed men. I hate that deep feeling of futility that often hits me when I come up against brute force. But then, I always feel this way at some point in every demonstration, and I know the feeling will pass. The soldiers seem relatively calm, not on the verge of arresting anyone — yet.
A group of shebob (teenage boys and young, unmarried men) have stayed up on the hill and are lobbing rocks toward the soldiers. They are a good quarter mile away and can’t do any real damage. Some of the shebob have slings; through the lens of my camera I can see them whirling stones around their heads like present-day Davids going after Goliath. A couple of soldiers move up the hillside. We hear the crack of rifles — warning shots, we hope. The stone throwers continue, undaunted.
Some communities try to control the shebob, saying the boys only give the soldiers an excuse to shoot. (The soldiers may shoot anyway, of course.) But most Palestinians see stone throwing as a legitimate form of resistance. There is some potential for harm, but the action is mostly symbolic, as if the shebob were saying, “You want our land? Here’s a piece of it!” And Palestine is well stocked with stones. Ten thousand years of stacking them into walls has not even put a dent in the supply.
A number of Israeli supporters are with us, and they speak to the soldiers through a bullhorn, explaining that this is a peaceful demonstration. Behind us, a few sharp rifle reports split the air, but the soldiers facing us look relaxed. They have given us five minutes to leave, warning that there is going to be a big explosion in the area, and debris will be flying. We are skeptical; until they leave, no rocks will be flying here. On the hill behind them, the cranes and bulldozers have resumed their work, carving an ugly scar in the green terraces. I try to find shade and plan an escape route over relatively flat ground. The soldiers suddenly appear more tense. They form a line and raise their guns.
They begin lobbing sound bombs, which explode with a deafening noise but are not intended to kill. The bombs do, however, burst into fragments that can burn or wound. The young boys start running away, and the internationals retreat quickly, trying not to run. Boom! Boom! The bombs land all around me. I try to cover my ears, protect my face, and keep moving. My hearing is already so bad that I can’t afford to lose any more of it. A fragment hits me on the arm and bounces off. It hurts, but not badly. The major effect of the sound bombs is to produce fear. The soldiers are shooting tear gas higher up the hill, but I manage to stay out of the billowing clouds.
Eventually the soldiers stop firing, and we regroup. The village elders and a few internationals step forward to negotiate again. The rest of the Palestinians have started back toward the village. Behind us we can hear the thud-thud of rubber bullets — actually rubber-coated steel pellets the size of marbles — being fired at the shebob on the hill. A few internationals are up there, and a lot of media, which means the soldiers are unlikely to shoot live rounds. Some of the remaining protesters want to go up to support the shebob; others want to stay down here. It doesn’t seem that there is much we can do for them.
We wait on the road, moving back as the soldiers push forward. Finally we decide to head back up the hill. The road will lead us straight into the line of fire between the soldiers and the shebob, so we veer off onto the terraces and climb over the rocks. We hear the constant fire of rubber bullets, and the shebob are all around us, dodging and laughing. Most are young enough that death doesn’t yet seem real to them, although all have seen people killed.
We find a sheltered spot to pause and decide what to do. There’s little interest in attempting another march. “This is how it always ends up,” a woman says. “The shebob throw stones, and the soldiers fire until they get tired and go away.”
We wait for the last members of our group to come up from below. They are trying to track down a man who was wounded in the leg and then disappeared. (He later turns out to have been taken to a house in the village, where he spent the afternoon watching a soccer match on TV.) It hasn’t been the most successful demonstration, but no one has been killed, seriously wounded, or arrested. The villagers can at least feel that they have done something; they have not just sat by and let the wall be built on their land without protest.
Today Fatima is taking me to a valley called Wadi Cana, where she says settlements are dumping raw sewage onto the land and polluting the water supply. Fatima has a favorite driver, a young, cheerful man named Mohammed, and we set off in his sedan over some of the worst roads in Palestine: down steep slopes of broken limestone, up hillsides of terraced olives, over bumps and ruts and places where the road seems little more than an old riverbed. Mohammed just laughs at every bump and keeps driving.
The road passes through a charming landscape of wild hills and hidden vales where green wheat is planted. A herd of goats covers the hillside across the valley, swarming over the rocks. A man on horseback, holding his small son before him, corrals a herd of cows. White egrets take wing and then land behind the cows, picking insects from their dung. In the afternoon light, the land has a magical quality. We could be living in the days of the ancient Canaanites, long before Abraham came here from Ur. These same white flowers might have dotted the stones. The yellow broom might have been flowering then as now, filling the air with its sweet scent. I feel a sense of peace and contentment — as long as I don’t look up to the red-roofed stucco houses and the guard towers and the barbed wire.
At last we come to a pipeline leading down from one of the settlements. A large sewage pipe ends in a small tank. A spring gushes from the mountainside next to it, but there’s a foul smell, and the stream does not run clear.
We drive on and pass three settlers: a young man in a skullcap and two women in long dresses. They are unarmed, just out taking a walk, but they look uneasy and scowl at us. I think about the Bible story in which two women come to King Solomon, both claiming the same baby, and Solomon offers to cut the child in half. It occurs to me that this wall is literally cutting the land in half. And the settlers belie their claim to it by the utter contempt with which they treat the land — dumping their sewage and garbage onto the Palestinians’ fields, guzzling the water, uprooting the trees, gouging the hills along the route of the “security fence,” as they refer to the wall. Though they call this the “Holy Land,” they do not seem to have any real concept of its sacredness.
Farther along we come upon deep natural pools carved into the limestone rocks. Here, Fatima says, children used to swim. Families used to come and camp for the weekend. Now the pools are black, and no one can swim here.
At the far end of the valley are groves of orange and lemon trees, and we walk among them. Their blossoms perfume the air, and again I have the sense of having stumbled into a timeless world of warmth and abundance. But the stream behind the grove stinks of sewage. A paved road crosses our path, leading out of the valley. We cannot take it: it is reserved for settlers.
We stop and talk to the farmer who owns some of the groves. Last week, he tells us, the settlers came down and threatened him as he was trying to tend his trees. “This is our land,” they said. “Did you see what we did to Sheikh Yassin? We can do the same to you.”
But the farmer is not leaving.
Yesterday I left the West Bank to attend an activist festival in Israel proper. For the first day, I wandered around in a state of mild culture shock. After a month on the Palestinian side, it felt strange to see so many bare arms and legs and midriffs, and such a preponderance of flowing, curly hair. A group of young soldiers participated in the festival, and I had a visceral response to the sight of them. But then I reminded myself that nearly all Israelis do their year of military service, and that many soldiers are also resisters. Their presence at the festival was a good sign.
I attended workshops on opposing the wall, and two given by the Israeli Committee against Home Demolitions. I was a bit surprised to discover how little even this progressive audience knew about the wall, and how many basic terms of the occupation had to be defined for them.
Jeff Halper, head of the Israeli Committee against Home Demolitions, outlined how the government had begun planning for the wall back in the 1970s. The expansion of the settlements, he said, was a deliberate strategy to claim territory. During the Oslo peace process, the number of settlers doubled, undermining the Palestinians’ faith in Israeli leaders.
Now, he said, Israel seeks to consolidate the settlement blocs, annexing them into Israel proper by building this wall. The new Trans-Israel Highway, which will run close to the West Bank, is also part of the plan. It will open up the possibility of new population centers in the relatively empty eastern part of the country. The most fertile and productive land of the West Bank, and the prime aquifers beneath it, will become a de facto part of Israel. Any real two-state solution will become impossible, because there will not be enough left of Palestine to form a viable state.
Halper was joined by Salim Shawamreh, an Israeli Palestinian, and together they told the story of Salim’s house, which had been demolished four times by the Israeli authorities and rebuilt five. Salim was unable to get a permit to build a home for his family on his land outside Jerusalem, because the Israeli government prevents Palestinians from expanding their living quarters within Israel proper. The result is overcrowding and public-health hazards in Palestinian towns and neighborhoods. Salim built anyway, without a permit, and the Israeli government bulldozed his home. This happened four times. The fifth time, he rebuilt the house not as a residence, but as a peace center.
“But people need a place to live,” Salim said. “How many peace centers can we have?”
Eleven thousand Palestinian homes have been demolished since 1967.