Roving thoughts and provocations

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Hope in Hebron

AFP/Getty Images
Palestinians at the Bab al-Shams “outpost,” a peaceful protest village, the West Bank, January 12, 2013

On March 16, I joined some twenty-five children, aged about eight to thirteen, who had gathered with Palestinian peace activists in a house in Hebron city to write letters to President Obama on the eve of his visit to Jerusalem. March 16 was the start of the third Selma-to-Montgomery march, led by Martin Luther King, in 1965, a defining moment in the history of the American civil rights movement, and the children—Palestinians who were mostly from the H2 area of Hebron under direct Israeli military control—had come to learn about Martin Luther King and nonviolent resistance.

Most of the letters began by begging the US president: “Open Shuhada Street”—once the main thoroughfare of central Hebron, now almost completely barred to Palestinians, its shops bolted, the doors of its houses welded shut by the Israeli army. Others said simply: “Enough Occupation” or “Free Palestine” or “Down with the Wall.” One slightly older boy quoted a line of poetry: “Either we live, all of us, or we die together.” Some drew pictures: a soldier in khaki uniform standing with his rifle under an olive tree; a child’s map of Hebron, encircled, closed, with its deserted main street, in blue, cutting through to the city center.

A visit to Hebron eats into one’s soul. As of last week, Israel has a new government which, like the previous one, is in the hands of the settlers. Their parties have control of the Housing Ministry and the crucial Finance Committee of the Knesset, among other plums. Their not-so-secret plan is to put a million Jews in the West Bank, and they now have the political means to carry it out. There will be a surge of construction in the West Bank settlements, and new “illegal outposts” will mushroom on the hills. No one should expect the so-called centrists, or moderates, in the coalition to hold back the extremists.

Yair Lapid’s party, optimistically named “There is a Future,” came in second in the elections. But like most of the Israeli mainstream, Lapid seems all too ready to go along with the extreme program of the right. Tzipi Livni, former head of the opposition, ran on a platform demanding that Israel re-open negotiations with the Palestinians; she has been given the Ministry of Justice, but she is entirely unequal to the task of pleading the cause of peace—and in any case, Netanyahu is committed to blocking any progress in that area. For his part, Barack Obama, on his belated first visit to Israel as president, has articulated the hope for peace and the urgent need for a free Palestinian state with a directness and clarity perhaps never heard before in Jerusalem. Netanyahu responded with his usual niggardly, narrow-hearted non-vision.

Whatever real chance there is for peace remains in the hands of the Palestinians. They gave up long ago on Obama. They’ll have to do it themselves, though some Israelis will be there to help, if they’re needed and wanted. One has to hope that when the third Intifada comes, as it will, it will have at least a component of nonviolent popular resistance. In the past the Israeli army has sometimes successfully turned nonviolent protest to violence, which it clearly prefers. Maybe it’ll be able to do this again. But growing numbers of Palestinians, both the leadership in Ramallah and village councils on the West Bank, have come to the conclusion that mass nonviolent resistance may be their best bet.

Ursula Lehmkuhl
Palestinian children learning about nonviolent protest in Hebron, March 16, 2013

Among the Palestinians leading the March 16 gathering in Hebron were Isa Ambrou and Badia Dwaik, both well known to many of us in the Israeli peace movement. Both are impressive, articulate, driven men. In some ways they are emblematic of the new wave of Palestinian grass-roots activists in the West Bank. Both are committed to nonviolent, Gandhian-style resistance to the occupation. Badia was among the six Palestinian “Freedom Riders” arrested for getting on a bus usually reserved for Israeli settlers on November 15, 2011. Palestinians are not supposed to be on those buses. Since then restrictions on Palestinians have gotten steadily worse. Earlier this month even the pretense of equality on buses disappeared, and there are now strictly separate bus lines for settlers and Palestinians. Israelis often protest when the word “apartheid” is used to describe life in the West Bank, with its settlers-only roads and its settlers’ electricity grid and its settlers’ water-supply and its blatantly discriminatory courts; more and more the word seems sadly close to the mark.

Both Isa and Badia also took part in establishing the first of a series of Palestinian “outposts,” or protest villages, at a place called Bab al-Shams in January of this year. Let me explain. Israeli settlers put up “illegal outposts” all the time, invariably on Palestinian land. The designation derives from a peculiarity of Israeli law, according to which official, legally sanctioned “settlements” are established by formal government decision, whereas land that is claimed by settlers through unofficial private initiatives—typically by taking over some rocky hill or valley—becomes an “outpost” that is, in theory, illegal. (Under international law both “settlements” and “outposts” are equally and unequivocally unlawful.) In practice nothing in Israel is as permanent as a so-called “illegal settlement,” which is invariably fenced off by the army, given a detachment of soldiers to guard it, and connected to water and electricity. Now, for a change, we are seeing Palestinian activists setting up outposts of their own on Palestinian land in the tradition of creative, nonviolent civil disobedience.

Bab al-Shams was a small tent-city erected in the arid zone east of Jerusalem that the Israeli government calls E-1—an area Netanyahu, like his predecessors, has earmarked for annexation to Israel, the aim being to cut the West Bank in two and thus ensure that no future Palestinian political entity can be viable. On January 11 some two hundred Palestinians marched in secret to the site and put up the tents. Some Israeli activists wanted to visit them there, to express our solidarity, and to face the soldiers with them, but this time the Palestinians made it clear that they needed to act alone. I see this stand as yet another indication that nonviolent protest in Palestine has moved into a new stage.

The army arrived in the middle of the night, tore down the tents, and also beat and arrested many of the activists. In ordering the military to move in, the government defied a Supreme Court ruling that had granted the Palestinians six days in which to present their case for staying on the site. Netanyahu is not known for respecting the democratic process when it comes to taking more land.

But there’s no missing the novelty of Bab al-Shams. As Prof. Majid Suweilin of Al-Quds University said, the Palestinian outpost was the work of “democratic, resilient, peaceful popular resistance.” The West-Bank-based Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, which organized the action, issued a statement as the tents went up:

For decades, Israel has established facts on the ground as the international community remained silent in response to these violations. The time has come now to change the rules of the game, for us to establish facts on the ground—our own land.”

That’s exactly what this short-lived outpost was all about—changing the rules of the game. It’s the kind of bold, dramatic project we’ve been waiting for. Bab al-Shams was rapidly followed by several other new “outposts”—at Al-Karameh near Beit Iqsa and at Manatir in the northern West Bank, near the village of Burin, among others. There will certainly be more.

The idea of setting up peaceful Palestinian outposts on Palestinian land stolen by settlers or the government is not new. I took part in one such attempt at Susya in the southern West Bank in June 2009; another outpost had been built in Hebron itself on May 5, 2009, again with the involvement of Israeli activists—and quickly torn down by the army.

Even within the occupied West Bank, Hebron qualifies as a special, surreal, nightmarish case. Some 850 settlers, many of them out-and-out racists of a type that has thankfully become rather rare elsewhere, survive here under the protection of about 650 Israeli soldiers, who form part of larger army units stationed in the southern West Bank. The Hebron settlers normally treat Palestinians with contempt, and acts of violence against Palestinians, including schoolchildren, are extremely common. (Here is vivid footage of the arrest of Palestinian children in Hebron on March 20, the day Obama arrived in Israel.) The grave of Baruch Goldstein, the settler doctor who mowed down 29 Palestinian worshippers and wounded another 125 in the Tombs of the Patriarchs in February, 1994, has become a pilgrimage site in nearby Kiryat Arba; settlers come to leave fresh wreathes on the tombstone.

Palestinians are forbidden entry to large sections of the inner city of Hebron, which have been cordoned off. Those who still live on Shuhada Street can’t enter their own homes from the street. Some use the rooftops to go in and out, climbing from one roof to another before issuing into adjacent homes or alleys. Some have cut gaping holes in the walls connecting their homes to other (often deserted) houses and thus pass through these buildings until they can exit into a lane outside or up a flight of stairs to a passageway on top of the old casba market. According to a survey conducted by the human-rights organization B’Tselem in 2007, 42 percent of the Palestinian population in the city center of Hebron (area H2)—some 1,014 families— have abandoned their homes and moved out, most of them to area H1, now under Palestinian control.

The March 16 gathering of Palestinian children and activists took place at the proudly named Center for Sumud and Challenge, in a Palestinian house on the edge of Tel Rumeida, in the H2 part of the city. (Sumud means “holding fast, perseverance” in Arabic; for decades this word has defined Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. What can a Palestinian do in the face of systemic injustice and the ever-present threat of losing more land? Sumud.) After writing letters to Obama, the children went inside to watch YouTube clips of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Mkhuseli Jack, and Nelson Mandela. Isa Ambrou translated and explained.

There are black people in America, and once there were laws that kept them to certain places and forced them to sit in the back in buses. Before that they were slaves, until a man named Lincoln set them free. Martin Luther King was a black man who spoke the voice of freedom and equality. He fought without violence for civil rights, and he won. He wasn’t afraid. We Palestinians are choosing that path. We will overcome, we will be stronger in our selves, and we will not be violent.

Then, on the screen, the scenes of my American childhood: the sit-ins, the arrests, the beatings. Rosa Parks. The march to Montgomery. 250,000 people marching on Washington. The words: “I have a dream…that someday sons of slaves and sons of former slave-owners will sit down as equals.” The song.

Ursula Lehmkuhl
A girl making a drawing for Barack Obama, Hebron, March 16, 2013

What’s our dream?” asked Isa, and the children shouted their answers: “Open Shuhada Street.” “Free the prisoners.” “No settlements in Palestinian territory.” And so on. “What will we say to Bibi?” “1-2-3-4, Occupation no more!” Another film, a long one: Steve York’s A Force More Powerful. Then they sang along with Joan Baez.

Less than five yards away, the settlers of Tel Rumeida were out for their Shabbat walk, with the inevitable tail of armed soldiers. Even young settler children know who is master; I saw a little girl yell at a Palestinian boy, “Don’t even think of stepping on this path.” Everything is close, too close, astonishingly intimate, ugly. Inside the Center, Bishop Tutu was on the screen saying, “I suppose people would say that arms are the most dangerous things a dictator has to fear. But no. It is when people decide they want to be free.” Half a kilometer away was the empty swath of the Shuhada—empty but for the soldiers on patrol.

I stood there with Badia Dwaik, surveying the mad scene. Here’s what he said:

One of the greatest challenges for any human being is to create a life. It’s not enough just to stay alive; you have to be human. You have to work hard, facing lots of obstacles. You work for an idea. We are resisting in order to gain our human rights. We’re not against Jews; we oppose only the apartheid system of the occupation. Non-violence is difficult, more difficult than violence, but it is our way.

It’s easy to be cynical. What use are twenty-five children singing “We Shall Overcome”? What have the new Palestinian outposts achieved? They’re here today, destroyed tonight. On March 20, Badia and Isa were arrested along with other Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists during a peaceful protest march on Shuhada Street; they were wearing tee-shirts with the inscription, “We have a dream,” and masks made from photographs of President Obama.

Yet that same day other Palestinian activists re-established the demolished “outpost” of Bab al-Shams in Area E-1. And it won’t be the last time. Men like Isa and Badia and Abdallah Abu Rahma from Bil’in, and Bassem Tamimi from Nabi Saleh, and women like Irene Nasser of Just Vision in Jerusalem, all of them fully committed to nonviolent resistance, seem to be popping up everywhere, and one day the children I met in Hebron, too, will take their places. I, for one, wouldn’t underestimate them.

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