In a small house in the hills of East Jerusalem, I witnessed a microcosm of the slow-burn murder of a people. No American who reads the mainstream newspapers or watches the corporate TV news would have had any idea this was happening. But seeing it upfront there was no way to dispute the huge crime that was being perpetrated with American taxpayers’ dollars and diplomatic support.
I spent a week sleeping on the floor in the home of the Hanoun family – a husband and wife and their three children, all Palestinian. I was there with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) – a brave collection of international activists who attempt to help Palestinians non-violently resist Israeli oppression. East Jerusalem was, by international law and basic morality, to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. After the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel had illegally occupied East Jerusalem, in contravention of international law, and has never left. In fact, Israel was working to take it all. At the time of writing, in August 2014, the Israelis have killed more than 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza, the vast majority civilians. There is talk in the mainstream Israeli media about depopulating Gaza and turning it into an Israeli tourist attraction. But during the time I was there the most pressing of the many issues were the attempts by an Israeli settler company to slowly cleanse East Jerusalem of its Arab population, focusing its efforts at that time on the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, which sits in a beautiful valley looking out toward Bethlehem. Longer-term activists were sleeping there as well, ready to document what everyone expected would be an imminent eviction. A few months later, at 5.30am, the Israeli border police did come and forcibly evict the Hanouns (so forcibly that the son Rami had to be taken to hospital). The activists were arrested, as were protesters who subsequently took to the streets. The Hanouns were offered a tent by the Red Cross. It was the culmination of a decade-long program of intimidation and harassment of the Sheikh Jarrah community that had seen lives destroyed to appease the most rancid kind of religious zealotry.
Sheikh Jarrah is situated in a valley down from the American Colony Hotel where Tony Blair, former British prime minister and possibly the most willing servant of the American racket in the world, was staying in a luxury suite when he graced Jerusalem with his presence as the racket’s “Peace Envoy”. When you looked out of the Hanouns’ window, Blair’s hotel was 30m away; Blair, I had no doubt, could see the Hanouns’ house during his morning swim. Before I contacted his spokesperson, Blair had nothing to say about the evictions, and he said nothing in the aftermath. That was one side of the valley. On the other, the British consulate peered down from its high security peak. The British consulate had been only slightly better, calling the latest eviction “appalling”, but had done nothing tangible to halt this obscenity. The US silence was even louder. The Hanoun family, like so many Palestinians, had been the victims of terror for decades as they fought off Israel’s attempts to take their homes. Maher Hanoun, who continued to lead the resistance, spoke to me with eloquence and calm as he chain-smoked his way through the evenings and recounted what had befallen his family. Maher’s father was a refugee from the Nakba, or “the Catastrophe”, as Palestinians call the founding of Israel in 1948 when gangs of Jewish paramilitaries expelled 800,000 Palestinians violently from their homes. Maher’s father was forced out of Nablus; his grandfather was forced out of Haifa at the same time. The Jordanian government gave them the houses in East Jerusalem in 1956 as compensation and transferred the ownership to them in 1962. Maher was born in 1958 so had spent his whole life, and brought up all his children, in his home. The Israeli settler company, Nahalat Shimon, backed by the Israeli courts, used a forged century-old Ottoman-era contract to claim ownership. Like all over East Jerusalem, the Israelis also tried to bribe Maher with an open check, if he would go quietly. He refused. “This is my home,” he told me. “I would never respect myself if I sold my home for money. They want to build a settlement on our hearts, on our dreams.” In the end, they succeeded.
The Israelis’ tactics were what Maher calls “slow torture”, and included arrests, bribery and violence. In 1998, after Maher refused to start paying rent to settlers, soldiers came to his house while his mother was very ill with leukemia and took all their furniture, including the bed. Maher had pleaded with them to leave it so his mother could die peacefully. In 2002, the Israelis succeeded and eventually kicked the Hanouns out for four years, before they returned in 2006; in 2002 his two girls were 9 and 13 years old. Across the way, and in the sightline of Mr Blair and the British consulate, there was a makeshift tent where a 62-year-old woman was now living after settlers took over her house. Initially they only took two parts of her house so she was literally living next to them. Then she was kicked out. Her husband had a heart attack when the Israelis violently repossessed their house with the help of over 50 soldiers (on the night of Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory). After spending some time in hospital, her husband had another attack two weeks later and died. The family again refused a bribe of an open check – in the millions of dollars – from the Israelis to leave their homes. “I don’t have a life now,” she told me from her tent. “With my husband and house gone, there is no life. I just hope with the help of God that this occupation will stop and we can return to our homes.” I never could find out what happened to this woman in the violent eviction by Israeli forces, but one report I read said even her tent had been destroyed.
I walked from Sheikh Jarrah to the British consulate (it took about five minutes) and asked Karen McLuskie, the spokesperson, what the British line was on the ethnic cleansing of what is meant to be the future capital of Palestine. “The British position is that Jerusalem has to be the shared capital of two states,” she told me. “I think what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah is not unique, sadly. There are a number of sites around Jerusalem where these kinds of actions are taking place – demolitions, evictions and settlement encouragement.” She specifically declined to comment on what the British government is actually doing to stop this illegal and inhuman destruction of Sheikh Jarrah. Ms McLuskie did concede, however, that: “The annexation of Jerusalem simply makes it harder to reach a peace deal, it simply cuts off the options.” After I contacted Blair’s spokesperson I was told that “Blair has raised the issue with the Israeli government”, and that “it remains an issue of concern”. I asked if Mr Blair would make the three-minute walk down to the Hanouns’ to talk to them about their predicament, to which the spokesperson assured me: “Staff from his office have previously visited families who have been evicted.” Notice the past tense. Maybe when the Hanouns had actually been evicted, Blair would send an emissary to their tent. The Americans refused to give an interview.
When you look around East Jerusalem and the surrounding area, there are considerable plots of land without homes. If Israel wanted to (illegally) build new settlements without kicking out Palestinians in the area they could, there is space. The targeting of Sheikh Jarrah and other areas is a process of ethnic cleansing, the transformation of East Jerusalem into a unified Jewish Jerusalem. As Maher asked, “Why can’t they build a settlement on any other bit of land?” The one good thing about the Netanyahu–Lieberman administration, which was in power at the time, was that they were much more honest about their colonization program than their “centrist” predecessors. The Netanyahu administration was now willing to get rid of some “outposts” in return for continued expansion in East Jerusalem and “natural growth” in existing settlements throughout the West Bank. That was the same policy negotiated by Ehud Olmert and George W. Bush before the Annapolis conference in 2007. Netanyahu was just more honest in saying that it obviates the possibility of a Palestinian state. “I can’t see how we can have a capital if there is no land, no houses, no people,” agreed Maher.
The next stop in this attempt to cleanse the putative future capital of Palestine of its indigenous population was the al-Bustan area of Silwan, which sits in the valley down from the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall. When I first arrived in Israel I went on the City of David tour, which functions as a three-hour Israeli propaganda extravaganza (dressed up as an archeological experience). King David in biblical lore is said to have been the first Jewish leader to settle the land in Jerusalem and his son King Solomon is said to have built the First Temple in the 960BC. In 2005, some archeological finds purported to provide evidence that supported this. Now the Israeli government was planning to turn the homes of the people of Silwan into an archeological theme park: 88 dwellings were due for demolition, home to about 1,500 Palestinians. At the end of the tour we went through the waterway that was built to connect the Old City to the spring outside the city walls. When I came out at the end of the tour, I didn’t realize that the spring was located in Silwan. A few days later I went to the tent where the residents of al-Bustan were mobilizing against the destruction of their homes and realized, while watching the tourists being bussed back up the hill to the “City of David”, where I had actually been. Again, as in Sheikh Jarrah, the people were defiant. “If they demolish my home, they will have to demolish my body too, I will die for my land,” said Zaid Ziulany, 54, who lived with his family in house “38” which was due for demolition. “Where are we meant to go?” he asked. “Should we all just sleep on the street?”
Israel is – by any definition of international law – a rogue, terrorist state that practices colonial policies and serial war crimes against the Palestinians and has done so for decades, all supported by US taxpayers. There is no shortage of evidence that can be produced to support this claim. Having been initially turfed out of their homes in 1948 to make way for the nascent Jewish State, Palestinians have since lived in the meager strips of land afforded them by Israel and the surrounding Arab states: the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Since then, any Jewish person who can prove their racial heritage has been entitled to settle in the Land of Israel while no Palestinian who was made a refugee in 1948 can go back to their home. This creates the insane scenario where I, owing to my Jewish heritage, can go to live in a place I have never really seen and have no connection to, whereas the estimated 4 million Palestinians living in refugee communities scattered around the Middle East, who were born and grew up in Palestine but had to flee in 1948 or 1967, cannot. Moshe Dayan, who was eventually Israel’s “Defense” Minister, told the Palestinians: “You shall continue to live like dogs, and whoever wishes may leave, and we will see where this process leads.” The same philosophy still prevails among Israeli elites. Since June 1967 when Israel fought a group of Arab states in the Six-Day War, Israel has occupied and built settlements that eat into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The settlements in Gaza were withdrawn in 2006, and the Israelis turned to a medieval siege to maintain control of the population. All of this is in contradiction of international law – Israel has been condemned by the UN repeatedly for its transgressions. The Security Council adopted UN Security Council Resolution 242 unanimously in 1967 in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. Adopted under Chapter VI of the United Nations Charter, it calls for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” and the “termination of all claims or states of belligerency”. This still hasn’t happened to this day: the mob doesn’t have to abide by the law it sets for everyone else. Incidentally, the United States has vetoed all the subsequent resolutions brought against its client – that amounts to about 40 vetoes since 1972, all of which blocked votes unanimously supported by the other powers on the Security Council. It is these incursions into Palestinian land that motivate the violence and suicide bombing perpetrated by the Palestinian resistance and is at the root of all the international opprobrium directed toward Israel. But it has been Israeli state policy for the last 48 years to sacrifice security for expansion in the Occupied Territories.
The US propaganda runs that the Palestinians have been offered the West Bank and Gaza many times and rejected it. From the Oslo Accords in 1993 to the Camp David Summit in 2000, this is simply not true. The Palestinians have consistently been offered a deal which breaks up the West Bank into small, South African-style Bantustans with the right of return always denied. The one time a deal was struck with something resembling a fair final settlement – at Taba, Egypt in 2001 – the Israelis pulled out. In fact, in 2002 after a trip to the West Bank, the great South African freedom fighter and Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu compared the treatment of Palestinians under Israeli occupation with the treatment of blacks under the South African apartheid regime. “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us blacks in South Africa,” he said. “I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks. They suffer like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about. They seemed to derive so much joy from our humiliation.” Israel has also built a “Security Wall” through the West Bank, again in contradiction of international law. The World Court at the Hague has said that “Israel is under an obligation to terminate its breaches of international law; it is under an obligation to cease forthwith the works of construction of the wall being built in the occupied Palestinian territory, including in and around East Jerusalem, to dismantle forthwith the structure therein situated”. It never did.
There is, in fact, no great controversy over the main historical points at issue, and the conclusions that one should draw are simple. The situation is often obfuscated and blurred by the Israeli side to distract neutrals from the glaring, incandescent truth that the Palestinians are involved in one of the last colonial struggles left over from the 20th century. Norman Finkelstein, a scholar of US–Israeli relations, says that the Israel–Palestine conflict is “remarkably uncomplicated”. “The stark truth is an unpleasant truth,” he told me. “And so the pretext is that what we see and what seems so stark, the claim is, that actually isn’t the case and so it’s supposed to make you question your most elementary, your most basic moral judgment and sensibility.” That the occupation of other people’s land is wrong? “An occupation is wrong, building a wall around these people is wrong, shooting children for throwing stones is wrong, stealing people’s land is wrong – that’s not very complicated at all.”
“They’re making profit on the occupation,” Jihad al-Wazir, Palestine’s central bank governor, told me when I interviewed him for the FT in New York. “They control the electromagnetic waves, they control the real estate, they control 60 percent of the West Bank and this is why they like the status quo and this is why they don’t want to have a Palestinian state because it’s nice the way things are. They’ve taken land and people are not fighting them.” Despite this obvious injustice, Israel remains the “third rail” in US political discourse because of the huge financing of the lobby that supports it. When I was at Columbia Journalism School my professor, who worked at the New Yorker, told me outright when I mentioned I wanted to do a piece critical of Israel not to do it. His words were: “Do it if you want, but criticizing Israel in the US is like railing against Mother Teresa: you’ll never work in the American media.”
The US alliance with Israel did not become economically or politically significant until the 1960s and 70s. Mr Finkelstein told me that “no one in America even cared about Israel for the first 20 years of its existence.” What changed was the decline in the efficacy of the “Arab façade” whereby control of much of the Middle East could be exerted behind the scenes through subservient local Arab rulers. So when, for example, an Arab leader such as Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt turned to the Soviet Union, Israel became the perfect buffer against Arab nationalism and hopes of true independence in the Middle East. Around the time of President Nixon there was a conscious effort to buttress American power with what the Defense Secretary Melvin Laird called “local cops on the beat”. The perfect “local cop” in the Middle East was the Jewish “democracy” Israel. As the CIA put it at the time: “a logical corollary” of opposition to Arab nationalism “would be to support Israel as the only reliable pro-Western power in the Middle East”. As the CIA was trying to destroy secular nationalism in the Middle East, ironically it was Israel and Islamic fundamentalists (Hamas was helped out initially by Israel) who provided the perfect vehicle to do it. The burgeoning relationship between the two countries served the self-interest of both. In a controversial essay, two prominent academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, wrote that the pro-Israel lobby in Washington benefits Israel to the detriment of the US’s own foreign policy objectives. The article caused great consternation among supporters of pro-Israel policies in the United States, but their argument was somewhat misplaced. The evidence would suggest that the relationship between the United States and Israel is much more symbiotic than Mearsheimer and Walt contend. Israel is, by far, the largest recipient of US aid presently. Since 1947 Israel has cost the US taxpayer nearly $84,855 million, which means that the taxpayer has paid $23,240 for every Israeli citizen alive. This is not the result of a mystical, paranoid “Jewish lobby” or a completely anomalous foray into the politics of altruism. Israel plays a very important strategic role for the United States, one which is based primarily on political expediencies. There is the “cop on the beat” strand, but there were also concerns about the march of the Soviet Union in the Middle East. When Israel became reliant on US aid in the 1970s, its geopolitical outlook became much more western-oriented; its domestic society also became more unequal. Israel has long been the most loyal US supplicant in the Middle East and even globally. Together they supported apartheid South Africa and supplied weapons to fascist dictatorships in Latin America, among many other horrors. Israel also provided unflinching support for the US at the UN. The inventory of UN votes compiled by the State Department planner turned historian William Blum reveals that Israel reflexively votes with its patron on all matters, whether they are of strategic importance to Israel or not. In turn, according to Mr Finkelstein: “If you look at the record it’s Israel backed by the US who have been the obstacle to the resolution of the Middle East conflict, which the international community on the one hand and the Palestinians have supported.” Even though Israel has been condemned hundreds of times by the UN, even though it continues to occupy the West Bank and control the Gaza Strip, even though it has attacked its neighbors (Lebanon in 1982, killing 20,000), the US continues to provide support. There are evidently no conditions on the aid provided by America in terms of “good behavior”. Michael Mann, the historian, goes as far as to say: “I think Israel is actually the tail wagging the dog. Israel has more power there than the US does. It has a fifth column among the neo-cons and Zionists in the US and it can do whatever it likes.” All the US asks is that Israel remains a loyal “cop on the beat” to push US interests in the Middle East.
Cracks in the Occupation
While in Palestine, I also went to the capital of the Occupied Territories, Ramallah. I could sense the fatigue in the city. The feeling I got walking around the streets was that the Palestinians are weary of the struggle against the incremental destruction of their homeland, while the world looks the other way. I heard things like: “Our struggle has been long and it has got us nowhere.” And people asked how the world could stand by while the Israelis annex more land. It was a good question.
In one village the flame of non-violent resistance still burned. I went to the weekly demonstration against the annexation wall in Bil’in, where it cuts deep into the farmland of this old Palestinian village and the Green Line (the internationally recognized border of Israel–Palestine). Since Israel started building the wall here in 2005 (stealing about 60 percent of the village’s land), the people of Bil’in have been inventively and non-violently resisting. While helplessness pervades in occupied Palestine, the successful tactics of the people of Bil’in provide some hope and inspiration. Abdullah al-Rahman, the head of the Popular Resistance Committee in Bil’in, described the villagers’ various tactics, which so far successfully stalled the erection of a new settlement (called West Mattiyahu in Israeli legalese, which implies that it is merely a “neighborhood” of an existing settlement). First, to oppose the wall, Bil’in’s residents tied themselves to their olive trees to stop the bulldozers razing their land. Then, in sight of the settlements, they constructed a one-room house overnight on the other side of the wall, a building that became the basis for a legal challenge. The High Court slapped down their petition twice before they and their Israeli lawyer, Michael Sfard, realized Israel had made an administrative mistake under their own unfair rules. Generally the Israelis use two excuses for land-grabs: one, the land is uncultivated; and, two, there is a security threat. With Bil’in they tried both.
To maintain the interest of the media, essential to their demonstrations’ success, the Popular Committee brings out new initiatives every Friday in their non-violent struggle. When I was there, at the height of the swine flu hysteria in 2009, the Bil’in residents went down for the demonstration wearing face masks to say that they had all had occupation influenza for decades. On another Friday they had a slightly less subtle but equally creative tactic of filling balloons with chicken feces to chuck at the soldiers.
While the Bil’in residents maintain their adherence to non-violence, the same can’t be said for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The month before I was there, an activist from the village, Bassem Ibrahim Abu Rammah, was killed by a high-velocity tear-gas canister, and one 16-year-old child I spoke to survived a live round to the head. These are definitely not “mistakes”: when you shoot a high-velocity tear-gas canister horizontally and not up in the air you only have one goal. They managed to murder Bassem with a shot to the heart. This is where the chicken feces idea came from. “They shoot bullets at us, so we will respond with our animals’ feces,” said al-Rahman. At the demonstration hundreds of tear-gas canisters were shot at us, and rubber bullets were aimed at the children throwing stones. This Israeli tactic of harsh and violent repression has one goal: to stop Palestinian resistance through instilling fear. This is what happened during the second intifada, and it is happening again now, in 2015, as pockets of resistance are starting to form against the annexation of their land. And it works. I asked my Palestinian friend if she wanted to come with us on Friday. “No,” she replied, “I don’t want to die for nothing.” In recent months, since the Gaza War, the IDF has started to use a new cocktail of weapons against the Bil’in demonstrators, which includes stronger military-grade tear-gas with nerve toxins, high-velocity machinegun-style tear-gas and aluminum bullets that have crippled protesters. The IDF has also made it a tactic to come into the village in the middle of the night and arrest the members of the Popular Committee, and children as young as 13, as well as throwing around sound bombs and tear-gas.
According to a farmer from Bil’in, Farhan Burnat, aged 30, who spent eight months in prison after Israeli soldiers arrested him at a Friday demonstration, the Israelis take the kids to prison in Israel and keep them for four to six months as punishment for participating in the demonstration. In Ofer prison about 25 percent of the prisoners are children, he told me: “These lengthy periods of imprisonment severely stunt the educational development of our children.”
I went down to the wall the day before the protest and talked to Wahid Salaman, a 44-year-old farmer from Bil’in who was walking home after work. “The ability of us to get to our land depends on the mood of the soldier,” he said. “Sometimes we have to wait for five or six hours to get to our fields.” Mr Salaman’s land is on the wrong side of the wall so he has to go through a checkpoint every day to get to work. He pointed out a huge pole with a CCTV camera on top of it. “They watch us at all times as well,” he said. The Israelis assign each farmer a number corresponding to points on the wall where he is allowed to go about his work. Afterwards we spotted a young boy going through the checkpoint with his herd of goats. “I look after the goats after school for my parents,” he said. “The wall took 60 percent of our land, and as punishment for the demonstration we’re not allowed to work on Fridays.” He said that his goats had been injured by the barbwire around the wall. Like everyone in Bil’in, he said he misses his friend Bassem. “I feel very sad, but it will not stop me from doing the demonstration. We’re strong enough to continue to do it. They shot Bassem because we are achieving something here.”
The brutal behavior of the IDF at the demonstration has motivated a broad contingent of activists from around the world and Israel to descend on Bil’in every Friday – as they know the IDF will be less inclined to murder at will if they have passports belonging to the countries that give them the guns. When I was there, there was a 15-strong contingent of trade unionists, artists and charity workers from Canada, alongside a group of young Israelis. The IDF’s explicit policy is not to fire live ammunition when Israelis or internationals are in the area, which gives you an indication of their attitude to the expendability of Palestinian life. It also makes it clear how vital it is that the brigade of internationals and Israelis continue to show up and protest peacefully alongside Palestinians. At a bleak time for Palestinians, when they were watching the live destruction of any hopes of a viable future state, the heroic and successful resistance of the people of Bil’in (and their analogues along the line of the annexation wall) provided a glimmer of hope, and a template of how to fight this epic injustice with a mixture of consistency, courage and creativity. They did it against huge odds – against one of the world’s most vicious militaries, backed to the hilt by the most powerful military in the history of the world, and a global population continually lied to about the depredations of Israeli state power.
But foreigners are increasingly refusing to believe the lies they are told by their media. What I saw in Palestine was how important it is for concerned citizens to make the journey to the Occupied Territories, or any other place ruined by US imperialism, to make their presence felt. During the December–January 2008–09 Israeli attack on Gaza, the sickness that many people felt about the massacre was compounded by a feeling of helplessness. But there was a way to help out and attenuate the crimes of the occupation: what you realize in Palestine is that just having a foreign passport instantly civilizes the IDF when you are in their presence. I was, as mentioned, working with the ISM, which was set up in 2002 to bring internationals sympathetic to the Palestinian cause to witness and combat Israeli repression during the second intifada. Since then it has achieved a fair degree of infamy – like any organization that tries to protect Palestinians it has been traduced as “terrorist-supporting”, “anti-Semitic” and all the rest. There are even a couple of organizations online set up exclusively to libel and destroy the ISM: Stoptheism.com tries to expose its activists and says the ISM represents “Hamas, and other terrorists under Yasser Arafat”; and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America states that “ISM encourages members to place themselves in dangerous situations to protect terrorists or their homes”. But after spending about an hour with the ISM in the West Bank you realize all these calumnies are baseless propaganda. From the start of my time there, I was impressed by the integrity and professionalism of the organization. The ISM runs a two-day training weekend in London, which instills in prospective volunteers the ethos of non-violence and the Palestinian-led modus operandi (i.e. everything members do has to be ratified by a Palestinian council). When you arrive in Palestine you have another two days of training, which takes you through the history of non-violent resistance in Palestine and the specifics of how to deal with violence from the IDF. When I was there I met inspirational activists from Scotland and the Czech Republic, who had spent months living with families in East Jerusalem, being illegally evicted by an Israeli settler company. This was not glamorous stuff; it was staying up all night and sleeping on a thin mattress in a single room together, day after day, month after month. I also met activists from Sweden who were manning checkpoints to make sure that no Palestinians were physically abused. I had my own experience of this on the way out of Nil’in, another Palestinian village fighting back, for the Friday demonstration against the annexation wall. I saw an IDF soldier kicking a Palestinian man at a checkpoint at the edge of this Palestinian village. I got the taxi to stop, and got out and just watched. I don’t know what effect it had, but you could see a change in the eyes of the soldiers when they saw my camera pointing their way. There was a group of activists from Italy who lived in Hebron, which is a particularly disturbing example of the occupation in the West Bank, since settlers have occupied the downtown market which is now closed because of the harassment the settlers gave the Palestinians living there. When you walk through the now-defunct market there is grating overhead, and caught in it are all sorts of projectiles, bricks and debris.
The settlers in Hebron are famous for their extremism. They celebrate the anniversary of the 1994 Hebron massacre by Baruch Goldstein, and the presence of the 500 of them in Hebron makes downtown a militarized zone. In Hebron, ISM volunteers escort Palestinian kids to school to protect them from the settlers, who have been known to shoot at them wildly from their rooftops. The courageous 22-year-old ISM activist Tom Hurndall was killed doing work like this in Gaza in April 2003. He was moving Palestinian children out of the line of fire of IDF snipers and was shot in the head, despite carrying international signs. Hurndall’s death shone the media spotlight on the conduct of the IDF in the Occupied Territories, only because he was British – Palestinians are shot with appalling regularity. And that is why the ISM activists are so brave: they are putting their lives on the line, solely because they know they are worth more in the eyes of the IDF. It is also why the Israeli authorities try to keep out the ISM, by blacklisting anyone they suspect of being involved. Many ISMers have been slapped with a 10-year ban from entering Israel, even though the ISM is a completely legal organization in Israel.
I went to the non-violent Friday demonstrations in Bil’in and the nearby Nil’in on alternate weeks. Again the local villagers say that even though those among their ranks had been killed at an alarming rate in the past year (two in Bil’in, five in Nil’in, including a 10-year-old with a live shot to the head), it would be much worse if the internationals didn’t turn up. In 2011, US citizen and ISM activist Tristan Anderson was critically wounded by a high-velocity tear-gas canister. While I was in Nil’in, the IDF was aiming right for us as we stood on the verge. The only things the IDF are up against at these demonstrations are stones in slingshots. On one Friday, a Palestinian man was killed with a live round. “We always ask internationals to please come, because they are even more brutal when it is just us Palestinians,” said the leader of the demonstration.
There are definitely dangers to volunteering in occupied Palestine, but it is a highly effective way of helping the Palestinians resist oppression, and because of our passports those risks are a fraction of those faced by any Palestinian who raises so much as a finger of resistance. My stay was short, and I did nothing compared to the brilliant and inspirational activists – who range from teenagers to pensioners – who have spent far longer and risked far more. But it is clear that through the solidarity of internationals, Israelis and Palestinians, the occupation can be fought. There are more losses than gains, and ISM and Palestinian activists will continue to be lost, but as George Orwell concluded in his essay “Looking back on the Spanish Civil War”, during which he had fought against General Franco’s fascists: “I believe that it is better even from the point of view of survival to fight and be conquered than to surrender without fighting.” In this sense, “fighting” doesn’t always have to be violent. Being in Palestine also further helped me understand how the truth about what our governments do in our name is invariably distorted by the media. That disconnect between the truth and what we digest is vital to maintaining the domestic US population’s passive acquiescence to the great crimes being done in their name. The powers that be are aware that if people knew the truth they would push them to stop the atrocities, like the massacre in Gaza in 2014; or the massacre in Iraq which began in 2003 and endures until today. In fact, one of the most silent of all the ethnic cleansing programs done with US diplomatic and military support happened in the east of Turkey and again continues today.