Witness to the Occupation: Facing Injustice in Palestine (2004)

The following was first written in 2004, for a local community newspaper in Michigan, following my return from Palestine. In the following version, identifying factors have been removed to preserve desired anonymity.

With the end of my first year of law school coming to a close, I had to decide what to do with my first summer. I was pulling my hair out. As they say, I needed to start building my resume and establishing a career path. While many fellow students were wrestling for corporate and government positions in offices and firms, I was unsure if that was the right fit for me. True, I was in law school, and it’s likely that I will, perhaps, practice law. But I wasn’t attracted to the conventional career mill of the typical law school program. I was eager for more than office duties and “experience.” I wanted to be outside, interacting with the world and a broad array of people. I decided to go to Palestine.

palestine-2004-018.jpg

Wall construction in Bethlehem, Palestine. Photo: C. Kurpiel-Wakamiya

My decision to travel to Palestine was not difficult. After years of reading and learning as much as I could about Palestine and Israel, I felt compelled to visit and witness firsthand the brutal consequences of the Israeli military Occupation. Now, with the ongoing construction of the apartheid wall, recently denounced by the International Court of Justice as “contrary to international law,” the Palestinian people are experiencing yet another layer of tyranny. While the Israeli government claims the wall is for security purposes, it serves nothing more than to drown out the Palestinian cry for justice and independence behind concrete slabs and ominous watchtowers.

1.

Seven of us from the United States traveled to Palestine, arriving at the Ben Gurion Airport at 1:45 in the morning. Upon arrival, only three of us were allowed immediate entry. The rest were taken away by airport authorities as suspected “security threats.” Three of these “security threats” were Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic nuns in their 60s and 70s. It’s hard to believe that Israeli authorities saw these people as violent individuals. It is more likely that they they were taken away because their purpose for coming to Israel was to further expose to the world the truth behind the Occupation. Recently, Israel has denied entry to and deported an increasing number of peace activists and humanitarian workers for fear that they are aiding the occupied Palestinian population. After over three hours of interrogation, extensive body searches and luggage inspection, they were finally allowed entry.

We spent the night in East Jerusalem, and with a day to spare before our non-violent training session, we decided to visit the Holy City of Bethlehem and inspect the newest construction of the wall as it extends into that city. As I walked along the towering concrete barrier, my eyes began to swell. I watched children play in the streets under the imposing shadow of the wall and I was struck by the clarity of the message it sends: Israel does not want you. Your very existence is a threat to our state. We do not want to hear or see you. Leave.

Such is the power of the psychological message of the wall. But the barrier has even greater physical consequences. As it snakes its way through the West Bank its path is not faithful to the 1967 borders. The wall’s path, as conceived by Israeli authorities, swallows up vast acres of Palestinian land severing access to profitable farms, keeping students from schools, preventing the sick from reaching needed medical care and dividing families from one another.

In the tiny village of Jbarrah, an old man walked us to the place where we could see beyond the barrier that stood above his town. With the afternoon sun falling across the landscape, he pointed out over the wall and told us that the breathtaking ridge just beyond the wall used to his village’s land. There, hundreds of olive trees sit, waiting for the harvest that may never come.

The wall in Jbarrah also cuts off the village children from their local school. Through there is a gate that is supposed to open at certain times to allow access, Israeli soldiers consistently fail to abide by the established schedule. The gate is opened for the students only when the army gets around to it, leaving the children on some days waiting for hours in the rain. Only a makeshift shelter of blue tarps and aluminum poles sits at the gate’s entrance to protect the children from the weather as they endure the long waits that result from the army’s erratic schedule.

2.

palestine-2004-199.jpg Organized by Palestinian communities, we attended many demonstrations against the wall and the Occupation. Although Palestinians routinely hold non-violent demonstrations, they are often met with violence from the Israeli army. Live ammunition, rubber-coated bullets, and tear gas are commonly fired on men, women and children. Having international visitors present at these demonstrations sometimes clams the violence of the army, so our presence there is encouraged and very much appreciated. But in no way does it ever stop the army from using all violence. I was shoved, tear gassed, and had an automatic weapon drawn on me.

Salfit olive trees uprooted, 2004 At a demonstration in the Salfit region, I was given the opportunity to help plant roughly 30 olive trees with the villagers. The olive tree is the eternal icon of Palestinian vitality and resistance. As Israel continues its assault on the Palestinian spirit and culture, it routinely uproots Palestinian olive trees. When Israel destroys these trees, some of them hundreds of years old, they inflict both economic and psychological damage on the villagers.

As we marched through the olive groves, now a military service road for the Occupation forces, we carried small saplings. When we arrived at the top of the mountain where we would plant the trees, I was shocked by the devastation the army had caused there. Hundreds of century-old trees been destroyed–their roots exposed and trunks snapped in half. It struck me that Israel had not only declared war on the Palestinians themselves, but also their traditions. What need was there for killing these trees? It was a senseless act of aggression by the army merely intended to demonstrate their might over the Palestinians. All people of conscious standing before this destruction would be outraged.

The villagers had decided to replant. Men, women, and kids, armed with shovels and picks, began digging holes of the new trees. As we burrowed into the earth, clearing rocks and dirtying our hands, I began thinking about how these saplings are actually symbols of Palestinian strength. While youngsters chanted and carried flags, I watched old men and little girls, under the hot sun, pat the ground of new trees hoping they would take root. In the background, on the next mountain top, the Israeli settlement of Ariel loomed. The contrast of the two images was startling. One was of villagers replanting their destroyed crop; the other was of the lush suburban-like comfort of the settlement. With the settlement watching the village and the wall destroying its vitality, the visual reminders of the Occupation and aggression are constant to the this community.

3.

For most of my time in Palestine, my home was in Tulkarem. In the face of constant military incursions, the people of this city of 75,000 try to maintain some normalcy of daily life. Open air markets exist harmoniously on the streets with cars and donkey carts. Children play while their mothers shop and the sweet smell of pastries fill the air.

Missing, Tulkarem 2004 Like all Palestinian cities, many of the young men in Tulkarem have been rounded up by the army and imprisoned. Charges range from stone throwing to membership in outlawed political organization. Once these men are incarcerated their families cannot contact them. Years go by before families are reunited and children as young as 13 are taken away and forbidden to contact their mothers. The women of Tulkarem decided to hold a march to honor their prisoner children and call attention to their plight.

Hundreds of mothers filled the streets carrying framed pictures of their children. In rapid Arabic, mothers eagerly told me their stories. They told of not seeing their children for years and were worried about the condition of their children in prison; sentiments with which mothers from around the world can identify.

As the women clutched their photos and chanted, I felt like I was in sacred territory, witnessing the genuine emotional pain of the women separated from their children. I was looking at a public manifestation of their personal fears. I too began thinking about the dark cells of prisons and the isolation it brings. Many Palestinian prisoners are beaten in jail or forced to live outside in the Negev desert. Where were these women’s children? Even if they knew, their mothers would not be allowed to see them. In Palestine, the public and personal are often one in the same.

4.

My time in Palestine was short. I am eager to return and spend more time there, traveling more, learning more, and, meeting more people. Here in the West, our conception of Palestine and Israel does not mirror what I saw. The image of the Palestinian terrorist is a product of our sensational media, not the reality of the Palestinian people. And after I returned home to the US, I became even more aware of, and disturbed by, the rampant public sympathy expressed for Israel while leaving none for the people it occupies. In the West, Israel has succeeded in representing itself as the perpetual victim.

Nonetheless, I was inspired by all the internationals, from all parts of the globe, I met in Palestine. News of the Occupation does not spread through the established media outlets so these courageous people carry the message themselves back to their homes in England, Sweden, Ireland, Mexico and Australia, among others. It is especially important that the truth of the Occupation reach our American shores given the amount of assistance our nation provides Israel. As people committed to justice and fairness, this must be our focus and goal.

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