October 22, 2012

Bil’in: Hozon (Sadness) and Farah (Happiness)

The last time I went to Bil’in was in January 2011 for a frightening, exhilarating tear gas filled Friday demonstration against the wall. This time, not only did we arrive on a Wednesday, (no demonstrations), but conditions have changed dramatically, though not barely enough. From Birzeit we headed southwest, past the infamous Ofer Prison in the distance, through stunning rugged, rocky landscape, terraced with silvery olive trees, contrasting dark green figs, up and down ear popping hills, winding through tiny towns with tall thin minarets, lush fuscia colored bougainvillea, mansions built by wealthy US Palestinians erupting from the hillsides. As we approach the tiny town of Bil’in, the Jewish settlement of Modi’in Illit appears like a mirage in the distance, a haze of tall apartment buildings dominating miles of hilltops. This is as close to a pilgrimage as I get.

We are met by Iyad Burnat, the brother of the man featured in the recently released film, Five Broken Cameras. Smart, focused, handsome, and deeply committed to nonviolent civil disobedience, he takes us through the area of the previous demonstrations, now littered with tear gas canisters and other military detritus. His young daughter gradually warms up to her latest guests, smiling for photos, and holding onto her father. Ironically Caterpillar bulldozers are rebuilding the terraces and farming areas that were destroyed by the previous wall, ie, the high security fence, sensors, and military roads. This was built to separate the town of Bil’in from the rapidly expanding settlement of Modi’in Illit, simultaneously stealing much of the land belonging to the village.

In some strange way this feels like sacred space, where unarmed men and women, local villagers and internationals, famous leaders and unknown teenagers, people chanting, singing, yelling, beating drums, waving flags, faced down one of the most powerful, aggressive military powers in the world and won a small significant victory. Now that the wall has been taken down, I see a playground with brightly colored slides and climbing structures, near completion by the side of the road.  Such dangerous terrorists these villagers! Imagine building a playground. What will they think of next? What a strange mix of bizarre and extreme. What an immense tragedy for the Palestinians fighting this battle and for the soldiers so brutalized that they are able to fire and beat and tear gas and violate unarmed civilians: just following orders.

While Iyad described the popular struggle, the violent response from the Israeli military, the horrific cost to the villagers and their families, I walked along the current wall, this one concrete with double rows of wide loops of barbed wire beside the off limits military road. The cranes from Modi’in were easily visible over the wall, the struggle is far from over, the land grab continues all over the West Bank.

Filled with emotion, horror, encouragement, we gather in Iyad’s living room, meet his four friendly children and gracious wife serving thick Arabic coffee followed by painfully sweet tea. They have spent seven years building this house and recently moved in. He turns on the VCR and we find ourselves watching Five Broken Cameras, reliving the stories, the violated landscape, the spirited villagers, the brutality of the soldiers.  It is surreal and almost too painful to bear.

The conversation afterwards, however, is powerful and inspiring. Iyad is focused on teaching and building a nonviolent movement for civil action throughout the territories. Other villages are joining the struggle. He will be touring with the film in the US shortly. He is absolutely clear that he is not fighting the Jews, he is not fighting for a few more dunams of farm land, he is fighting the occupation. He is not only doing this for himself, but for his four children who have grown up tasting tear gas and fearing Israelis. He is determined to create a better life for all of them.

For more of Alice Rothchild's blogs from the delegation see:

You need to have a dream, veteran U.S. civil rights activist tells Obama after visiting West Bank

By Amira Hass | Oct.22, 2012

From Ha'aretz newspaper
 original article: 

Vincent Harding, a friend and associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, says Washington should reexamine its relationship with Israel in light of its 'official policy toward the indigenous Palestinian populace.'

Harding in A-Nabi Saleh, in the Tamimi home. Photo by Amira Hass

"In one of my letters to my brother and son, Obama, I suggested to him that what he needed was the courage of his mother and the willingness to take chances that she represented in her life." The writer, Dr. Vincent Harding, is familiar to U.S. President Barack Obama, and we can assume that he also arouses feelings of affection, admiration and gratitude in him.

To Americans his name is immediately connected with Dr. Martin Luther King, because Harding was a close friend and partner of this leader of the struggle for equal rights in the United States, who was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The 80-year-old historian and theologian, a native of Harlem and a believing Christian, wrote (and says ) in polite words that Obama's problem is that he was not sufficiently daring.

"I quoted somebody [in the letter] who mentioned Franklin D. Roosevelt. One of the ways he developed to serve the nation was that he was willing to go outside the traditional borders in search of advisors. He sought out advisors that nobody ever heard of, because he was willing to go out of the expected respectable ways.

"Obama was not able, was not free maybe to make those kinds of choices. Because, cautious man that he so often is, he probably didn't want to bring in too visible associates with him, too many people that would simply be counted as African Americans. I think he has continued to suffer from the paucity of creative inventiveness that deviate from the accepted norms."

Harding does not conceal the warm place in his heart for the black president: He formulated his opinions based on a reading of Obama's memoirs, which were written before Obama thought of running for the presidency. He saw Obama as a man of "deep integrity, intelligence and deep concern for those who were in trouble in this society and around the world," and in his opinion "he probably came into the presidency not recognizing all of the mechanism of American presidential power and responsibilities that he should take on and work with. I think he did think he was going to change much and did hope, but didn't know what a fight it would require.

"He still has a magnificent heart. What is happening to that heart, when he allows himself to be the keeper of the hit list of the CIA drones, is another deep and difficult question that I would not try to go into very much, but I often wonder what is the nature of the conversation that he has when, thank God, he tries as often as he can to sit at the dining room table with his daughters and wife and mother-in-law, because his girls are going to a Quaker school [belonging to a Christian denomination that is committed to social equality and an anti-militaristic approach, which supported King and his friends] and I wonder what kind of questions are coming up about what their father is doing, in the light of what I hope the school is teaching them."

Those remarks about Obama were given three days ago in the village of Nabi Saleh, in the home of Neriman and Bassem Tamimi, among the leaders of the popular struggle in their village.

Harding is a member of a delegation that is currently visiting the West Bank, composed of American social and political activists including several veterans of the struggle for equal rights in the United States, such as Harding and Dorothy Cotton, an educator and a dedicated activist since the 1950s who worked alongside King. The initiative for the visit came from the eponymous Dorothy Cotton Institute, an education and resource center that trains leaders for a global human rights movement.

Harding wrote King's speech against continuing the war in Vietnam, which was delivered to a huge audience at a New York church exactly a year before King's murder. Harding reassures us that King usually wrote his speeches by himself, but "at the time he apparently assumed that college professors had more time than freedom leaders."

They formulated their views against the war together. Harding and King told the skeptics within the black community that "we have been very glad whenever voices came from outside the U.S., especially from the Third World, to stand in solidarity with us."

For the same reason it is natural for Harding and his friends to come now and listen to the Palestinians and Israelis who are actively fighting the occupation: In Jerusalem and Bil'in, Ramallah, Hebron, the Deheisheh refugee camp and the village of Walaja. One of the things that he learned immediately in the first two days was "how ignorant I was about what is really happening in this part of the world, how little I know and how little I have thought about how little I know - which is not characteristic of me. I come to this situation not simply as somebody who has been involved with non-violent actions of various kinds over many years, but as someone who for some known and unknown reasons, ever since I was in high school, was deeply concerned about learning about the Holocaust.

"Part of it was inspired by the Jewish teachers that I had in high school, a number of whom loved me deeply and inspired me to take my own possibilities very seriously, and then going on to the City College of New York. When I went there in 1948 it was still about 96 percent Jewish in the student body, I was surrounded by the world of the children of the Holocaust and survivors themselves, and that was all part of my reality.

"I also was closely related to some of the many Jewish people who had come to join us in the freedom movement in the South, and some gave their lives for that. So I came to this situation with all kinds of sensibilities. That's part of the large space that I have, to be deeply hurt by what I have seen and felt.

"I come from an American situation in which apartheid has been in one shape or another the reality of the country from its beginning up to the 1950s and 1960s, and then a struggle with how to get rid of it. As I have listened to my sisters and brothers here I felt familiarity and identification. I could identify on both levels - it's important to emphasize I came here as someone deeply in love with specific Jewish people, and deeply concerned by the great tragedy of the Holocaust experience. I came here as someone who experienced and fought against racial segregation and racial domination for half a century or more. So all this was very fresh and painful to me and very recognizable."

And what will you do now with what you've learned?

"I have been gifted with a great network of acquaintances, friends and colleagues, and I see a great responsibility right now to disseminate this knowledge and information in writing and by word. I will meet with lawmakers."
And with Obama?

"If I could I would, if people I know, who have some access [arrange a meeting]. I believe deeply in participatory democracy, so that my focus is not simply on Obama but on the people who must push Obama for a reexamination of what our relationship to Israel is all about, in the light of the official Israeli policy toward its indigenous Palestinian populace."

But this is American policy no less than it is Israeli policy, which people in America also want.

"People wanted segregation until a major movement against it created a change." .