“When the Soldiers Come, the People Leave”: Life Under Israeli Occupation

 By Madronna Holden

“There is a Palestinian saying that all the politicians should be sent to the moon so that they can look back and see that we all live on one world”– a Palestinian-American teacher at BirZeit.

During the recent US election, Canadian Sabina Lautensach observed in her editorial in the Journal of Human Security that those outside the US have no vote in the US election—even if  US policy radically affects their lives.  Democracy implies that those effected by an action have some say in determining it, but not only does the rest of the world get no chance to  vote on the US policy that impinges on  it– but those who do vote in the US election have too  little sense of the affects of their government’s policies on the rest of the world.

Take, for instance, the Israeli Military Occupation of Palestinian territory.  Few US citizens have any sense what is it like to live under such an occupation—which is heavily financed by US dollars.  I certainly did not before I taught at BirZeit University in the Occupied Tterritories.

You might  guess how naive I was by the fact that I brought my two month old daughter with me to live there.

Though it has been many years since then, the dynamics I witnessed have grown no better for the civilian Palestinian population–especially in Gaza. In this context, it is timely to fill out the record of my personal witness of the occupation that I first wrote a bit about here.

October 1982

One of my students in my early morning class comes up afterwards to tell me, “I am sorry I did not participate in class. I did not exactly sleep so well. Last night the soldiers came.”  Palestinian Diary more

Gaza blockade: ensuring Israel’s insecurity

By Madronna Holden

June 2010 update

Note that I foolishly did not place the year in the update below, as if this were such a temporary situation.

Israel’s military choices have only resulted in creating more violence in this region.  Doing more of what has not worked in the past is sure insanity.

There is no excuse for storming a boat carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza– and nothing in this for Israel.  It is time to work both our hearts and minds to change the disastrous Israeli policy with respect to Gaza.  See the organizations at the very end of this post for work in this direction that you can support.

January 22 update.

Temporary ceasefire in Gaza.

Now there is a chance for the US as mediator to help broker in a fair peace in this area, but only if the media tells the truth and US government representatives know it.  When I lived under the Occupation, I was subject to the pressure of the Occupation to eject all foreign observers as it did during the Gaza invasion (even if those observers were from the Red Cross).

Help spread the word by writing letters to your local papers and Congressmen and women:  a fair peace tells both sides of  the story here without a “blame game” that inhibits communication and negotiation.

Here are some links that indicate the bias of the press in this regard and offer a balanced perspective:

The Blame Game in Gaza – Erasing Israeli actions to fault only Hamas:
http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3667

Video – Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land:
http://br.youtube.com/watch?v=eCL6WdnuNp4

Jon Stewart’s satirical critique of media bias on Gaza conflict:
http://www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=213380&title=Strip-Maul

International Law Seldom Newsworthy in Gaza War – Israeli justifications often cited uncritically:
http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3672

For a recent US poll which shows the impact of the media bias:
http://www.ipsos-na.com/news/client/act_dsp_pdf.cfm?name=mr090114-2a.pdf&id=4236

Newsworthy and unnewsworthy deaths:
http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3057

Video – Media bias about the Israeli – Palestine conflict exposed:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kiyyp9cZdY0&NR=1

Video – Biased media reports on the Israeli-Palestinian:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOC1RReb6gc

If Americans Knew – A US project helping to convey alternative perspectives to Americans:
www.ifamericansknew.org

Please click on this link for an award winning video made by Avaaz which is the kind of material that we can be used to encourage more balanced understanding of the Middle East: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWyJJQbFago

January 15 update:

The situation in Gaza is desperate.  Over 1000 dead.  Medical supplies, food, water–and journalists– are not allowed in.  And civilians are not allowed out. President Bush has blocked the UN initiative to negotiate a cease fire.  But international pressure is mounting.  You can help by signing this petition and passing it on to those you feel would be interested.  There are over 430,000 signers now and they are aiming for one million as this organization works sin the international arena to help negotiate a ceasefire.

Over a hundred Palestinian children have died in the invasion, including those taking refuge in a UN school.   The Red Cross has publicly complained about the refusal of the Israeli military to let medical help for the wounded in and out of Gaza–or to tend to them themselves according to the Geneva protocol.

This assault on civilians is NOT an appropriate  response to Hamas’ lobbing a few (thankfully) ineffective rockets over the border in response to the Israeli blockade that has stopped not only food and medical supplies but water from reaching the population of Gaza during months of suffering.  This invasion is an inexcusable assault on a population that cannot fight back– nor even run away.  And it has resulted in a vast escalation of Hamas rockets coming over the Israel border.

The combatants for peace include former Israeli and Palestinian fighters who have come to the conclusion that there is more effective way to ensure peace in this reason.  I have heard these brave and articulate men and women speak as they travel the US speaking on behalf of an alternative to the Israeli-Palestinian violence.

If you are in the US, follow one of the links below to call your Congressperson to urge a ceasefire. The new Congress is now seated, so there is a chance to change US policy that has supported the Occupation.

http://www.avaaz.org/avaaz_gaza_congress_action

http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/161/t/288/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=26387

Or write a letter to your local newspaper.

There is good information and action to take here as well: US Campaign to End the Occupation.

Here is my original post drawing on my own experience living under the Occupation that indicates why the Gaza invasion does the opposite of protecting Israeli security.

Israeli airplanes, substantially  financed by US, are currently bombing  populated areas of Gaza in order to get at Hamas administration targets. All of these targets in heavily populated civilian areas, which are also suffering from the blockade Israel has established at the Gaza borders. The civilian death toll in the bombing has reached over three hundred and eighty since last Saturday.

The abhorrent humanitarian implications of the wholesale bombing are apparent in eyewitness accounts that relate the tragedy.

But those who  think that the bombing is necessary to Israel’s security need to think again.  Since four decades of oppressive occupation tactics coupled with  undermining moderate Palestinian elements has led to Hamas leadership in Gaza– more of the same will only make things worse.

Here is what is wrong with the “need to bomb” argument:

  1.   Attacking Gaza’s civilian population ensures the continued and growing support of Hamas in Gaza.   Indeed, forty years of Occupation policy bears essential responsibility for the emergence of radical Palestinian elements. During my year teaching in the Occupied Territories (on the West Bank), I witnessed the Occupation systematically attack  moderate Palestinian leadership out of the fear such leadership would strengthen the Palestinian ability to become self-governing–and thus undermine the Occupation.   Thus, for instance, anyone with ties to Fatah was systematically arrested and/or deported and university teachers were pressured by the Occupation, on pain of deportation, to sign a statement that the PLO was a terrorist organization. (We did not).

The Occupation systematically undercut person to person communications between Israeli and Palestinian citizens,  forcing a busload of Israeli university students on their way to share lunch with their Palestinian peers, for instance, to stand all day in sleet before they turned them back to Israeli proper. They also conducted a concerted campaign of negative publicity to discourage other visits by Israelis to the Occupied Territories. As a result, even the members of the Solidarity with BirZeit committee of Hebrew University faculty were afraid to cross the “green line” of Occupation.

Notably, in my own modern Western clothes, I was sometimes taken for an Israeli but was greeted everywhere to the traditional hospitality of Palestinians.  Of course, the fact that I had a baby at the time did not hurt.

Occupation forces also attacked local self-sufficiency by uprooting Palestinian olive orchards and detaining and sometimes arresting those who came to join in community olive harvests and oil pressing.

The year I was there the PLO put out the word that under no circumstances should students respond to violence on the part of the Occupation with violence– to avoid giving the Occupation any excuse to close BirZeit University.  However, after nine months of pressure levied by the Occupation (blowing up houses, unsubstantiated arrests, closing local shops, sporadically confining civilians to house arrest by confiscating IDs and interminable check points, etc.),  the anger of some reached a boiling point.

And that anger was vented on the moderates who refused to fight back in the village of BirZeit (location of Bir Zeit Universtiy) when certain members of the radical  Muslim Brotherhood started a fist fight with Fatah-leaning students. When this resulted in a riot, the Occupation forces simply left the scene without lifting a finger to restore order. Elders in the village of BirZeit put down the riot by  standing at its gates and turning away any non-villager who showed up with a stick in his hand.

Israel has been particularly fortunate to have such wise elders to support a moderate course through Fatah leadership on the West Bank.

But my students from Gaza told me that the repression was far worse in Gaza than in the West Bank where I was teaching.   I do not doubt that the Occupation forces systematically undermined moderate Palestinian leadership in Gaza as they did on the West Bank.  In this sense, as noted, the Israeli government must assume substantial responsibility for Hamas coming to leadership there.  More repression and now this outright killing can only lead to strengthening the more violent wings of Hamas.

  1. The memory of the dead contributes to the typing of Isrealis as enemy.  When I lived there, I did not meet a single family without personal memories of someone taken from them.  As more die, moderate Palestinians who consciously differentiate Jewish persons from Occupation policies have a harder time gaining currency among their fellow citizens. If Israel hopes for peace, they will need to work to change such memories–  as certain courageous Israeli citizens, such as protestors of the bombing in Tel Aviv, those who took humanitarian goods across the Gaza blockades, those Isrealis and Palestinian doctors who share a hosptial in Jerusalem,  and current  draft resisters are doing.

3.  Gaza is the traditional homeland of the Palestinians who live there: one that they know intimately and love dearly.  Bombing them will dislodge neither their knowledge nor love of the land. But it will strengthen their resolve against the Occupation.

  1. Israel cannot expect a cease fire while it blockades  Gaza.  Not incidentally,  Israel’s blockade gives the radical Muslim Brotherhood (based in Egypt) an opportunity to gain support among the local population by bringing in life-saving goods  from that country. By NOT negotiating such a cease fire and moving toward a policy of mutual respect with the citizens of Gaza,  Israel is missing a chance for the security of an Arab friend on its borders.

Now, of course, there is much to be undone in order for such a friendship to develop. However, repeating and enlarging on the mistakes of the past is no way to do this.

All in all, it is no winning strategy to make a desperate people more desperate– or give an angry and grieving people  more reasons for anger or grief.

5.  This bombing also attacks Israel’s world status in the global arena. The Occupation and its tactics have  been censored by the UN for decades and the right of return of those ousted by the Six Day War from the Occupied Territories affirmed by that same body.

More information and ways  to support a cease fire in Gaza can be found here:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/gaza_time_for_peace/?cl=161584785&v=2605

http://jewishvoicesforpeace.org

http://www.unitedforpeace.org

www.tikkun.org

What makes a hero? Letter to the Israeli Defense Minister

What Makes a Hero?  A Letter to Israel’s Minister of Defense

To Mr. Ehud Barak:

You should be proud indeed that you have young people such as the Shminitism to secure the future of Israel. These young men and women poised on the edge of adulthood have the uncanny ability to discern and destroy the enemy, even when it is hidden in the most treacherous and shadowy place of all, the mistaken hearts of their countrymen.

I am not assessing your situation from afar.  I lived under the Occupation for the year I taught philosophy at BirZeit University.  I know firsthand what it is like to practice ways of walking that do not gain the attention of the soldiers as you buy fruit in the marketplace.

I know what it is like to have your students come to class wet and shivering from sleeping in the fields to avoid the soldiers searching house to house for the colors of the Palestinian flag since it was a punishable offense to pose the possibility of a Palestinian state.

I know what it is like to have my best students disappear to prisons where UN and Israeli civil rights groups cannot locate them-and where torture is rampant.

I saw soldiers fighting children, since that is what happens when a civilian population becomes the enemy:  one sees the ghosts of threat everywhere. And multiplies them.  Now there have been 41 years to multiply such chimeras in the Occupation.

It takes a clear-sighted hero to see through the Occupation’s boxing at shadows and stand eye to eye with a Palestinian and hear their story.

Such clarity came to Sahar Vardi at the age of twelve when she visited a small village in the Occupied Territories with her father for work on a water project. . In her following visits to the Territories, she learned  that the values that she was brought up with,  “such as justice, freedom, human rights and equality,” were violated as the state she loved oppressed “millions of people so that I could enjoy the ‘freedom’ they taught me everyone deserves.”

Once a true lover of country sees such things, they cannot abet their country on its destructive path-but must instead show that country its true values once again. This is the service to country Mia Tamarin wishes to express in the three jail sentences she has served for her own refusal to join the occupying forces.  Omer Goldman has served her jail terms because, as she says, “I believe in service to the society I am part of”.   That is the same refusal-and resulting jail terms-of Udi Nir, Yuval Ophir-Auron, and Raz Bar-David Varon.  Tamar Katz is currently in solitary confinement for her refusal to wear the uniform of those enforcing the Occupation in jail.

I don’t know if the snow is falling in the mountains of Palestine today as it fell relentlessly the winter I lived there, but December 18th was a fitting day for the public actions supporting these young men and women. For delivering to them the 20,000 letters they received in support.

On the verge of the darkest day of the year, it is time to honor what humans can contribute to the light. Like that contained in the letter one hundred teenagers up for the draft have sent to Israeli officials, asserting their refusal to become part of the occupying forces which Katz notes, make of her Israel an “invader of foreign lands… which… tyrannizes civilians and makes life difficult for millions under a false pretext of security.”  They fully understand they will be jailed for that refusal. And when released from jail, they will be drafted and jailed again if they continue to refuse service-with no end in sight.

These young men and women have assessed some hard issues that face their people in terms of peace and economic justice, as their statements indicate.  They are no strangers to the realities of the relationships between the Palestinians and the Israelis.  But they take responsibility for stopping the oppression of civilians. They refuse to sanction the punishment of a whole population for the violence of a few.

Most striking of all they are motivated by hope. As Yuval Ophir-Auron puts it: “I am convinced that it is no one but ourselves who determines that it is our fate to live by the sword. There is another way…This is the path of dialogue, of understanding, of concession, forgiveness, of peace.”

What better hero would you find, Mr. Barak, than a man willing to be jailed rather than fail to enact this hope for his country?

And what better values for your heroes to live up to than the ones cited by Udi Nir, “human rights, democracy and the personal responsibility each and every human being bears towards fellow human beings…As an Israeli citizen and as an adolescent liable for enlistment I feel a sense of extensive responsibility for the cycle of violence..It is out of this sense of responsibility that I refuse to enter the cycle of bloodshed and to add fuel to the fire of hatred raging here.”

Though in the context of this cycle of violence, hope feels “so far away” as Raz Bar-David Varon notes, she will go to jail rather than join the occupying forces– since only standing up for her beliefs makes that hope real to her. And I would add, to those who see her model her hope with her courage.

To cycles of violence that exist anywhere these young heroes show us the alternative that allows us to inspire the vision of peace in one another as we stand face to face, enacting the values that come to “a human being among other humans”, in Yuval Ophir-Auron’s words.

What great heroes Israel has in these brave young men and women. Heroes who love their country enough to go to jail to defend its highest values.

Heroes who sow hope in a climate of violence and despair.

I urge you to free them from jail and celebrate them in the way they deserve.

————

Here is my previous post including a bit of my personal experience on the West Bank

The December 18th above gives you a way to send your own letter in support of these teenagers who refuse to enforce the Occupation.

Amnesty International has issued a statement supporting their cause .

Jewish Voices for Peace works for justice to Palestinians in a number of arenas.

Supporting the Heart of Palestine: An Avenue to Peace in the Middle East

By Madronna Holden

“Whenever something makes us happy, something else makes us sad again.”

–Palestinian girl growing up under Israeli Occupation

“If you have been enlightened enough to take the side of the Palestinians – oh bless your hearts – take our sides, because for once you will be on the right side, right? But if taking our side would mean to become one-sided against my Jewish brothers and sisters, backup. We do not need such friendship. We need one more common friend. We do not need one more enemy, for God’s sake.”

–Abuna Elias Chacour, Palestinian bishop of Galilee

In 1982-1983, I taught at BirZeit University and lived among the Palestinians at Ramallah under the Israeli Occupation.In spring of 1983 I wrote these words in my journal:

Spring has come to the mountains of Palestine, drying out the winter rains that dampened everything in our stone house. We are warm for the first time in months, but I feel vulnerable in the dazzling sunlight, as if I were made of glass and the ever- present wind of Occupation could blow right through me. How good it would be to surrender to the exuberance of the Palestinian earth bursting with green. How good it would be to live a predictable life, not threatened with deportation by the Occupation forces because I am among the foreign teachers who have refused to sign a statement declaring the PLO a terrorist organization.

By mid-April the land is in full bloom and my husband and daughter and I are invited to dinner in Jerusalem by a Palestinian-American who teaches with us at BirZeit. I do not want to go. I want only to hide away behind walls with my daughter at my side. But my husband coaxes me into accepting.

The taxis are slow because the road is crowded. It seems everyone is going to Jerusalem on this lovely day, even as I wonder if this will be the day when the West Bank explodes from the tension pressed on it by occupation. In my mind the houses, the stores, the fields at the side of the road enflame and turn to ash.

“Why did we leave?” asked our elder Palestinian neighbor, referring to those who fled the Arab quarter of Jerusalem in 1964. “There were soldiers, there were guns, and when there are soldiers and guns, something may happen. Our neighbor’s houses were drilled with bullets. We do not blame the soldiers. But when there are soldiers it is best to leave.”

The slow tears thickened on his cheeks as he spoke of the wife and children he never had, since as a refugee he had no house for them. Still he will not allow his story to be “used by someone against someone else. I will not enter politics. Politics divides up everything, politics always lies.”

Our Palestinian-American colleague tells us there is a saying among his people, “Politicians should be sent to the moon to see how small the world is”.

On the way to the Mount of Olives where his brother lives, he points out the ways the streets of the old city of Jerusalem are engineered to take advantage of convection currents that yield heat in the winter, cooling in the summer.

“Arab architecture is very practical. Like Arab burial.” After two hours, his mother was in the ground, before he could get his money out of a bank in Illinois and come back for the funeral. It is practical for a number of reasons: “Why all this fuss and expense on a dead body? And who wants to see your loved one like that?”

He missed his mother’s funeral but he came back to live with his relatives on the Mount of Olives and teach at BirZeit.

At his brother’s house we are offered a roomful of food for five people: stuffed fish, chicken, rolled grape leaves, soup, delicate cucumber and tomato salad, wide meat patties baked with potatoes and other vegetables, heaps of steamed yellow rice: a Friday meal. We are told guests who do not eat it all offend their hosts.

Afterwards, we walk in the cool garden, a tiny space lush with trees of every kind: almond, fig, pomegranate, lemon, orange, olive, mulberry, apple, plum—bordered with the inevitable grape vine and a row of bee houses to pollinate the trees and yield honey from the flowers. All this exists in perhaps a quarter of an acre. The leaves of the trees crowd onto one another, but they are lush and heavy, tended by a traditional Palestinian gardener who knows how to use grafting to strengthen their limbs.

Here there is no garbage caught up and blown in the wind as in other parts of the land. Here every inch of land is carefully, lovingly, tended and it responds in kind.

“It is nice here in summer to take a chair and sit,” he says, as we linger in the shade of trees as loved by this man as they are by the sun and wind.

“These are simple people”, our Palestinian-American host tells us on the way back to Ramallah. He obtained a PhD in mathematics in the States and is having difficulty re-adjusting to life here. But the “simple people” he cannot fault. “I like them best, though they are too easy going. Just smile and you win their hearts. Everyone takes advantage of the simple people of the world.”

After an afternoon with these simple people of Palestine, the helmets and machine guns are at bay in my mind and the spring in Palestine blooms for me once again. I am in a buoyant mood, the sun sparking the sails of the wind that curved up under the Mount of Olives.

Behind the “green line” of Occupation where many non-settler Israelis feared to go because of the calculated publicity of the Occupation Administration, I often opened my door in the evenings to find a child’s smiling face as she proffered a handful of delicate sweets to my family. I walked by lines of Palestinian women who did not wish to remain strangers, calling out, “Come in, come in”, urging me to drink sweet mint tea as they bounced my daughter on their knees, passing her between them to make her laugh until she showed the first sign of a fuss and they handed her back to me. As I nursed her, they clapped their hands in delight. One woman exclaimed, “How nice for her!”

The children of Ramallah and El-Bireh trailed us through the streets calling out “Shalom”—using the Jewish rather than Arabic world for peace, since they took me for Jewish in my modern western clothes. They made a game out of asking my daughter’s name and repeating it back amidst peals of laughter.

“Simple people”, Palestinian peace activist Abuna Chacour, bishop of Galilee and several time Nobel peace prize nominee, also called those Palestinians he grew up among at Biram in his book, We Belong to the Land.He hastened to add that this did not mean they were isolated or politically naïve.They sought out and analyzed world news in a way that honored the Arab tradition that, like the Jewish one, holds scholarship and intellectual debate in high esteem.

This tradition is not neglected even after four generations in Palestinian refugee camps created by the Six Day War, where siblings still teach one another to read.

When Chacour’s family learned the news of the Nazi Holocaust, they prayed fervently that justice would come to the suffering Jewish people. Later Israelis bombed Biram to make room for a Jewish settlement. I do not think they understood they bombed the houses which held such prayers on their behalf.

Such “simple” people were responsible for the collection of keys and other shiny objects growing on our dresser in Ramallah, gifts proffered to entertain my daughter in shared taxi rides. When we introduced ourselves as BirZeit faculty in those taxis we would be thanked for not signing that statement declaring the PLO a terrorist organization. Then those who sat with us would express pride in the possibility of the democratic self-rule of Palestine.

It was the PLO that gave the word that the students should not demonstrate no matter what the provocation from the soldiers that year. There must be no excuse for the Occupation to close the university, since education was the road to the self-rule of the Palestinian people.

But under Occupation it was illegal to speak publicly in favor of a Palestinian state. My students sometimes straggled into my morning classes wet and shivering from having slept in the fields to avoid the soldiers going house to house to look for the colors of the Palestinian flag–and arrest the offenders who possessed them.

The simple people of Palestine have a long memory. They do not forget the thousand year old family olive tree even after it has been uprooted—the tree whose years parallel the genealogy of the family that cared for it. After the bombing of Biram, Chacour’s father stayed on to tend the family trees now in the Israeli settlers’ fields in order to ensure their well-being until he felt too much like a “slave” and could stay no longer. Until his death, he felt that soil calling to him to return, a right upheld by the UN, but refused by the Israeli government for unspecified “matters of state”.

Where there are such links to the land, there is the heart of the Palestinian people.
One day I passed by the elder refugee who refused to assign blame tenderly pulling weeds away from the roots of an unlikely looking tree, with the rubble of bombed out houses as the backdrop.

“It is a pear tree,” he announced as he looked up to greet me, “It deserves to live”.

If the violence between Jewish and Palestinian “blood brothers”, as Chacour rightly calls them, can be undone by any means, it is by supporting the heart of the Palestinian people in their links to their land. I know this much: a man in line for the responsibility of caretaking a thousand year old olive tree passed down in his family does not become a suicide bomber.

Indeed, refusing the right of return to their homes and land to uprooted Palestinians undermines the security of Israeli. If the Occupation ever does succeed in destroying the connection between Palestinians and their land, they will not only destroy the heart of the Palestinian people—but give themselves the daunting task of living beside a people without a heart.

It has not aided Israeli security that the Occupation consistently attacked the forces of moderation and education in Palestine, as it did the year I lived there. Nor has it served either Israeli security or basic human justice to punish civilian populations for the acts of a few , a policy I saw carried out twenty-five years ago even as it was most recently carried out in the blockade of Gaza. There is no better way to alienate one’s potential allies.

It has gained nothing to keep Israelis and Palestinians from meeting one another face to face as the Occupation did during the winter of 1983, when they stopped a bus load of students from Hebrew University who were coming to have lunch with their Palestinian peers and made them stand all day in the sleet before they turned them back to Jerusalem.

Certainly the security of Israel is bolstered by the actions of these students, who were those willing to cross the “green line” of occupation the current Israeli government is building into a wall, even as it is bolstered by those who organized a relief convoy of food and water filters during the recent Gaza blockade.

In the wake of failed Occupation policy, it is time for the Israeli government to support the heart of Palestine that lies in its people and their belonging to their land. A first step would be the acceptance of the cease fire offered by Hamas for the sake of the “simple people” who must manage their lives under the Occupation.

Admittedly, that decision will take courage, but it will set the Israelis on the side of both justice and hope.

You are welcome to link to this post.  Note, however, it is copyright 2008, Madronna Holden. Feel free to email me if you wish to copy it into some other format.