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Tea and Tear Gas in Occupied Palestine
[Please see the end of this post for links to nearly two dozen first-hand reports with photos and video.]
My traveling partner Tangle and I had the privilege of visiting Jerusalem and Palestine in December 2010. We met many kind and courageous people in the West Bank. We witnessed the hardships Palestinians face daily under the Israeli occupation. We saw how the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) react to those who dare to stand up, even peacefully, for the rights of their families and fellow villagers. We met Israeli and international solidarity activists willing to risk arrest and injury themselves. And we documented as much as we could during our relatively brief stay in the West Bank.
While not an expert by any means, I have been following more or less closely the major geopolitical developments in Israel and Palestine since around the time of the First Intifada — and there's nothing like being on the ground to see it with one's own eyes. It was my first trip to Palestine, Tangle's second.
Everywhere we went, Palestinians were appreciative of our efforts to report out what's really happening in the West Bank, warmly welcoming us as supportive internationals. Everywhere we went, generous and gracious Palestinian families invited us into their homes and shared with us trays of hot tea, a social tradition in the region.
And everywhere we went in the West Bank that Palestinians and solidarity activists stood up for the rights of Palestinians to determine their own fate and to make use of their own lands, the IDF released an especially nasty form of tear gas to repel protesters. Sometimes the tear gas was fired into the middle of villages for no apparent reason at all.
Hence, from what I have now seen on a personal level, I've dubbed the occupied territories the Land of Tea and Tear Gas. The phrase captures both the extreme kindness of the Palestinians and the cruelty of the occupation.
Deep-Felt Cynicism Runs in Tandem with Unshakable Determination
Tangle and I figuratively were sponges as we traveled through the area, soaking up all that we could, picking the brains of everyone who would lend us their time to discuss the current situation, and witnessing crimes of the occupation first-hand. Upon our arrival we spoke mostly with Israeli anarchists and leftists in West Jerusalem. The rest of the time we discussed the issues with Palestinians in the West Bank.
To say that the mood is dour would be an understatement. Arabs continue to be kicked out of their homes in East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers. After a ten-month freeze, West Bank settlements are now expanding again. There seems to be little reason to hope for justice for the Palestinians. The IDF continues to assault young and old Palestinians alike, disrupting their lives, brutalizing them, murdering them, and denying them free access to travel and to tend to their own lands. Settlers basically take what they want, destroy orchards, and kill Palestinians as they please. The IDF in the West Bank and Israeli police in East Jerusalem, along with Israeli courts, either look the other way or protect the settlers from accountability for their crimes. While the number of active checkpoints and some other intrusions have decreased or relaxed since the time of the Second Intifada, in many ways the situation is growing worse as the occupation-by-force expands and becomes further normalized.
Yet, at the same time, there's a strong belief that the occupation simply cannot continue forever. There has to be an end to the thievery and cruelty and madness — and it is this end that carries activists and everyday people onward despite the cumulative obstacles placed in the way of Palestinian liberation. There simply is no giving up hope. No matter what nuisances and horrors settlers, the IDF, and the Israeli government inflict, there remains an incredible resilience. The spirit of the Palestinian people and their commitment to live free one day cannot be taken away.
To Call It Racist Ethnic Cleansing Is Not Hyperbole
We spent most of our time traveling in and around five cities: East and West Jerusalem, Beit Ommar, Bil'in, Beit Sahour, and Bethlehem. In all but Beit Sahour, illegal settlements loomed ever-present, and either the settlers themselves and/or their armed guards, the IDF, torment Palestinians on a daily basis. Beit Sahour, though, is a short walk from Bethlehem, which has seen the apartheid wall rip through the city and is now the site of a major checkpoint for Palestinians who wish to travel to Jerusalem, through which they are only allowed with a special permit. The checkpoint is known as the Gilo checkpoint, named for the Gilo settlement nearby.
To be clear, there are two sets of laws in Israel and the West Bank, one for Jews and one for Arabs. In any conflict between the two — almost exclusively initiated by settlers seizing control of Palestinian housing and lands, destroying Palestinian crops or orchards, and/or attacking and killing Palestinians — the Jewish settlers are granted every benefit of the doubt in Israeli courts and, in stark contrast, Palestinians are granted none.
For instance, in East Jerusalem Jews can lay legal claim to virtually any land they want on the flimsiest of pretexts purporting to show Jewish residence or ownership at some distant time in the past — and the police will back them up by forcibly evicting Palestinian families — yet Arabs are not even granted permits to build on their own land. Refugees and their families from the "Nakba" of 1948, many of whom were relocated to East Jerusalem by the United Nations, are being pushed out again. There is no Palestinian right of return.
For any sensible, fair-minded person who looks beyond the so-called legalities of what is happening in East Jerusalem, it is clear that Arabs are being pushed aside to make way for eventual Jewish dominance of the area, obliterating long-time aspirations for East Jerusalem to one day be the capital of a Palestinian state. The same thing is going on in the wider West Bank, slowly but surely, as Israel is creating "facts on the ground" with increased numbers and sizes of settlements that greatly complicate any hopes Palestinians hold for securing their own sovereign state one day.
All too common is the destruction of graves in Islamic cemeteries, when the desecration of a Jewish cemetery, even in part, is totally unheard-of in Israel. And it's not just Jerusalem — the same thing is happening in Jaffa, Beit Ommar, and elsewhere. Islamic holy sites are granted no greater consideration.
While Israeli polite society has typically frowned on open expressions of racism — even though Israel as a state has long acted in racist ways, going back to its very founding — the thin veil masking the country's racist policies is disappearing. Open racism is no longer the unique bastion of the ultra-rightists in Israel, but they do reserve for themselves a special place in the annals of hate when dozens of top Israeli rabbis sign a ruling, as they did late last year, which forbade the rental of homes to Arabs or when Jewish Orthodox publications go so far as to suggest extermination camps and genocide for Palestinians.
A bill to require non-Jewish immigrants to swear to a "loyalty oath" not just to the state of Israel but the "Jewish, democratic state" of Israel, or forfeit potential citizenship, has recently garnered wide support amongst Israeli politicians including current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. There has been talk of extending the bill or writing future bills to include all existing non-Jewish citizens, and even possibly Jewish citizens, banishing from the country any who refuse to take the oath.
In order to assure "Jews from around the world strengthen their connection to Judaism and Israel," Netanyahu announced in January that the government of Israel approved $100 million in funding for Taglit-Birthright Israel over the next three years. The new funding assures that one in every two Jewish young adults worldwide will have gone to Israel on a Birthright Israel trip. The program is an all-expense-paid 10-day crash course in Zionism, militarism, and fear of Arabs, drawing direct parallels between the Nazi Holocaust in Europe and the supposed desire of Palestinians and other Arabs to kill all Jewish people. While in West Jerusalem, we caught a documentary about Birthright Israel called Israel LTD that revealed the program to be both funny, in its over-simplistic fear-mongering, and especially sad, as we watched a self-avowed pacifist teenager from Canada learn to use an automatic weapon and, by the end of the program, abandon his belief in universal human rights.
In this environment of increasingly vocal racism and slow-motion ethnic cleansing, it's little wonder that from the mouths of babes in Israel that a new level of hatred for Arabs is emerging, with many students openly calling for the deaths of Arabs and some even going so far as to advocate extermination.
The Death Penalty Is for Palestinians Only
When we were in West Jerusalem, I naively asked if Israel had the death penalty, thinking perhaps in that singular limited sense a ray of humanity shined through in official Israel policies, that the country was more like Western European nations than the United States on the matter of state-sponsored executions. I was told, "Well, yes and no." Formally, Israel has no death penalty as we know it, but extrajudicial assassinations and more-random killings by the military, police, and settlers are common. It is extremely rare if anyone is ever held to account for the killings, and if they are, the punishment is extremely light.
After we left the region, at the very next Friday demonstration against the wall in Bil'in, a Jawaher Abu Rahmah succumbed to the massive amounts of noxious tear gas used and died. Sadly, her brother, Bassem Abu Rahmah, had been killed by an IDF tear gas canister to the chest in Bil'in in 2009 (similar to how Tristan Anderson suffered a critical head injury in Ni'lin). The IDF's "spins, half-truths, and lies" after the death, while offensive in a number of ways, were not surprising as they were far too typical.
Just two days into the new year, several IDF soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man, Mahmoud Daraghma, who had his hands above his head, at the Al Hamra roadblock in the Jordan valley. Exactly one week later, another Palestinian man, Khaldoun Sammoudi, was shot dead at the very same checkpoint, soldiers allowing him to bleed to death while ambulances were kept away. An army spokesperson claimed the man was found to have an explosive device of some sort on him, but there has not been a suicide bombing in the Israel or West Bank since 2003. Soldiers were absolved in both killings.
On January 7th, IDF soldiers assassinated a 66-year old man, Omar al-Qawasmy, in his own bed in Hebron. The actual target was Wael Mohammad al-Beitar who was not home at the time. Raising questions of Palestinian Authority (PA) collaboration with the IDF on the assassination, al-Beitar had been released from a Palestinian jail on direct orders from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Al-Beitar and five others, who are amongst hundreds of prisoners in Palestinian jails for associations with Hamas, were released just the day before the Israeli raid with PA police announcing they could not guarantee their safety upon their release. The soldier who opened fired on the unarmed man has since been completely exonerated — and another soldier who reportedly shot the elderly man repeatedly after he was already dead was merely discharged from the army.
Every week, there are numerous killings of Palestinians by Israelis, most often by the IDF but it's not uncommon for settlers to kill as well. Just this past week, only one day after destroying several hundred Palestinian olive trees in Beit Sahour, settlers from the militant Bat Ayn settlement shot two youths in the village, killing one, Yousef Ikhlayl. Not wanting to be left out of the action, the IDF attacked the funeral procession for the 17-year old, using both tear gas and live ammunition, injuring over forty people.
An occupation cannot be maintained with pesky activists and journalists running around everywhere protesting and reporting the truth, so a key element of the repression is Israel's vibrant war against anyone who speaks out against or even reports about the occupation.
In East Jerusalem, that might be "legally" expelling a well-respected community activist such as Adnan Gheith from his own neighborhood in Silwan. It might mean imprisoning a 14-year old Palestinian from Beit Ommar. Or it could mean having police harass and raid the homes of Israeli anti-wall activists in Tel Aviv, sending Johnathan Pollak to jail.
Upping the ante this January, the Israel Knesset voted to consider a measure calling for the investigation of any leftist organizations accused of being involved in a "delegitimization campaign" against the Israeli military. Thousands of human rights supporters held a "Rally for Democracy" in Tel Aviv to protest the Israeli "culture of racism" and the new witch hunt against NGOs. Groups that have been accused in the past of engaging in such campaigns include Physicians for Human Rights and the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, which documents abuses by the Israeli military and government against Palestinian civilians. It remains to be seen if this measure and the ensuing investigations will move forward.
And it's not just attacks against the rights of activists, but journalists as well. The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) issued a report documenting 19 abuses of reporters and their property in the month of December 2010. Offenses cited included detainments, including one for 23 days and a 7-hour blindfolded interrogation, a beating, vandalism, and preventing reporters from covering events. Perpetrators included not only the IDF and Israeli settlers, but the PA as well. Not included in the report was the threat of arrest I faced when simply trying to document a peaceful protest in Beit Ommar, which was really more of a conversation between villagers and soldiers regarding access to village farmland.
With Friends Like These
Documents made public by Al Jazeera and the UK Guardian starting on January 22nd of this year, in what have come to be known as the "Palestine Papers", reflecting a decade or more of secret negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government, revealed that the PA offered to give up much of East Jerusalem to Israel, accepting Israel's annexation of all but one current Jewish settlement area. Additionally, the documents suggest the PA likewise had dropped their demand of the right of return for Palestinian refugees, accepting Israel's offer of allowing less than 20,000 to return. Also mentioned are other controversial issues such the close cooperation between Israel and Palestinian Authority security forces, holy sites in Jerusalem, and the PA, in order to please the United States and Israel over the wishes of the Palestinian people, intentionally delaying a vote by the United Nations Human Rights Council on supporting the Goldstone Report on human rights violations during the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza.
The documents present the Palestinian Authority a weak negotiating "partner", desperate due to a lack of progress in talks with Israel, and worried about the growing strength of Hamas. The PA has had difficulty justifying the revelations to a public not ready to offer the same concessions. PA officials have responded by claiming the revelations from negotiations have been taken out of context, even though the leaked documents include extensive verbatim transcripts of private meetings. Supporters of the PA have attacked Al Jazeera offices in Nablus and Ramallah. Already suffering serious credibility issues with the Palestinian people, and now with faith in the PA appearing to be at an all-time low, Hamas has responded to the newly leaked information by declaring that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not represent the Palestinian people and is no longer authorized to negotiate with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. When knowledge that Israel rejected the PA's offers is factored in, the Israel/Palestine peace process is largely considered dead at this point.
Your U.S. Tax Dollars at Work
While we were at the first of two weekly Friday anti-apartheid wall demonstrations we attended in Bil'in, I made a comment to an Israeli activist present that the protest must be costing the IDF a lot of money, what with all of the soldiers present and the large amount of tear gas used. I was told that it really didn't cost the military anything because it was all paid for by the United States' government. "It's your tax dollars at work," I was told — and that the gas was even produced by an American manufacturer. That stung. Not that I am at all unaware of the billions of dollars the U.S. gives to Israel every year, but to see it in action before me and to have the finger of responsibility deservedly pointed squarely in my direction at the same time took me aback.
Just as the Palestinian Authority appears willing to negotiate everything away on behalf of the Palestinian people, President Obama seems to be following in the footsteps of former U.S. presidents by offering Israel military and diplomatic assistance that further enables the occupation while demanding next to nothing in return. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton likewise busies herself opposing U.N. Security Council efforts to condemn Israeli settlement activity in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. While Clinton would not say if the U.S. would once again use its veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council to prevent a vote on the measure, that has traditionally been the means by which the U.S. has prevented U.N. action calling Israel into account for its illegal activities. In effect, Israel has been granted a de facto seat on the Security Council via the U.S.
After several conversations with Israeli and Palestinian activists regarding the varying levels of individual responsibility of the United States and Israel, their citizens and their governments, it became apparent that even though it is the state of Israel that carries out the policies of racist colonial expansion, it is the U.S. government that in the end is the party most responsible for stopping it. Israel cannot stop itself, as it is on a downward spiral of increased theft of land and violence against its indigenous inhabitants. Israel will not stop until the U.S. demands that Israel stop, by cutting off military funding and by allowing the popular will of the world to be expressed through U.N. resolutions without a U.S. veto.
Noam Chomsky rightly highlights the absurdity of U.S. demands that negotiations occur strictly between Palestinians and Israelis, knowing full well the uneven position of power from which the two come to the negotiation table (especially considering the revelations of the Palestine Papers). If the solution is two sovereign states or one state with Palestinians enjoying full rights as citizens, it is too early to tell for sure. We ran into a variety of perspectives on both sides of the apartheid wall regarding what is most desirable and what is still possible at this point. Of course, a single multi-ethnic democratic country would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state, but it's possible Israel itself is assuring this outcome as it continues to expand into East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The Struggle Continues
One state or two, Israel will not seriously compromise unless and until it is has no other choice. If the U.S. government won't do what is right and use the leverage it has on Israel to demand change, then it is up to U.S. citizens and people of the world to push forward for Palestinian liberation and justice on their own.
The Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Movement (BDS) is one means of pushing for Palestinian freedom that is slowly picking up steam. Much as happened with apartheid in South Africa, divestment poses the possibility of making the occupation unbearably uncomfortable to the U.S. and Israeli governments, pushing Israelis towards finally respecting the full human rights of Palestinians.
While Israel continues to resist pressure to reform and attempts to crack down internally by pursuing loyalty oaths and NGO witch hunts, a growing number of nations, especially those in South America, are not waiting for permission from the U.S. and Israel. In just the last week, both Peru and Paraquay added themselves to the list of countries that are ready to recognize Palestine as an independent state.
There are signs that the European Union is running out of patience as it watches Israel continue to plow through the occupied territories, killing and jailing Palestinians such as Abdallah Abu Rahma as it goes. Additionally, pressure is rising from internal U.S. diplomatic and media channels for the U.S. to support a U.N. resolution condemning Israel's illegal settlements, or at least to stand down and not veto such a measure.
Regardless of international developments, a new generation of Palestinian activists are committed to resisting the occupation with non-violent direct action. The Palestinian popular resistance, independent of Fatah, Hamas, and other political parties — and the joint struggle with supportive Israelis and internationals — will not be deterred. It's their life and their land. There is simply no giving up.
While it is often difficult to predict the future, as events of the last few days in Egypt have reminded us, people power can spring up in relatively unexpected ways and rapidly supplant preconceived notions about the stasis of oppressive regimes. And while it remains untold if real positive change will happen in a quick series of events or over years more of struggle, or both, the quest for freedom and justice in Palestine will in the end prevail. Of course, the sooner the better. The Palestinian people deserve nothing less.
Reports Tangle and I posted to Indybay either directly from or related to our December 2010 travels:
Palestinian Women's Voices: Featuring MK Hanin Zoabi and Areej Ja'fari, Berkeley, 11/02/10: audio
Street Vendor Protest in West Jerusalem, 12/16/10: photos & video
Street Vendor Protest in West Jerusalem, 12/16/10
Apartheid Wall Protest in Bil'in, West Bank, Palestine, 12/17/10: photos & video
Bil'in weekly demonstration against the Israeli apartheid wall
Demo against theft of Arab homes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem 12/17/2010
Interviews with Evicted al-Hanoun and al-Ghawi Families, Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, 12/17/10: video
Protest Against Theft of Arab Homes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, 12/17/2010: photos
Beit Ommar Settlement Protest 12/18/2010
Beit Ommar Protest Against Karmei Tsur Settlement, West Bank, Palestine, 12/18/10: video
Settlers and IDF Attempt to Steal Old Village Mosque, Beit Ommar, West Bank, Palestine, 12/18/10: video
Interview with Mousa Abu Maria, Beit Ommar, West Bank, Palestine, 12/18/10: video
Interview with Miriam Bannoura, Beit Sahour, West Bank, Palestine, 12/21/10: video
Shepherds' Nights Festival in Beit Sahour, West Bank, Palestine 12/23/10: video
Shepherds' Nights Festival 2010 in Beit Sahour, West Bank
Apartheid Wall Protest in Bil'in, West Bank, Palestine, 12/24/10: photos
Apartheid Wall Protest in Bil'in, West Bank, Palestine, 12/24/10: video
Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, Occupied Palestine, December 24th, 2010
Weekly Beit Ommar settlement protest, 12/25/2010
Beit Ommar Villagers Denied Access to Their Farmland, West Bank, Palestine, 12/25/10: video & photos
The Face of the Israeli Occupation in Beit Ommar, West Bank, Palestine, 12/25/10: video
Beit Sahour Lights a Candle for the Establishment of a Palestinian State 12/25/2010
Shepherds' Nights Festival Candlelight Procession, Beit Sahour, West Bank 12/25/10: video
Little Town of Bethlehem panel with Saed Bannoura, Anna Rogers & Nabil Wahbeh, Oakland, 1/7/11: audio
Anarchists Against The Wall U.S. Tour, Berkeley, 1/16/11: audio
Anarchists Against The Wall U.S. Tour, San Francisco, 1/19/11: audio
For More Information and Continued Updates:
International Middle East Media Center (IMEMC)
Palestine Solidarity Project (PSP)
Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA)
Anarchists Against The Wall (AATW)
International Sollidarity Movement (ISM)
Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Movement (BDS)
Electronic Intifada (EI)
Click the image above for a large 1600x1200 version that you are welcome to use for non-commercial purposes, such as placing it on your computer desktop screen. It can serve as a reminder of the stereotypical fear-mongering leveled against Palestinians every day and their determination to refute it and to rise above it, in this case with a plainspoken graffiti stencil.