Last year on this day, 25 people were given a choice on the side of a highway in the West Bank: get back on the bus or be arrested. One of those choices was mine to make and with little hesitation, I climbed onto the bus and watched as many of my companions were taken into custody.
A half an hour before that, I had been talking to a Palestinian girl on our way to the weekly protest in Bil’in. She told me how her parents did not like her going to the protests for fear she would be arrested or injured. When our bus was pulled over at the flying checkpoint, I described what was happening outside and when they collected our IDs, she passed me her papers and I handed them over along with my American passport. I guided her into the aisle when they ordered us off the bus. I did all of these things because she was blind.
When we were given the ultimatum at the guardrail, she stayed, I left. I felt a bit like I had abandoned her, but I stand by my choice today. There was a great distance between us in that moment. It is even greater now.
Today, January 27th, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Last year at this time, Jesse, Mori, and I went to Yad Vashem in the morning for reflection. We didn’t have much time, but we made a pass through the Children’s Memorial, which was overwhelming and awe-inspiring. The memory I recall most strongly was the feeling of being lost in the darkness of the halls, unsure of the space around me where candles seemed to float at varied distances. It was a very good place to be quiet for a time.
Immediately after our visit, the three of us headed to Mt. Scopus, where local activists were staging a protest against a plan to confiscate Palestinian land for a proposed national park. The idea was to prepare the land to plant olive trees and a small group of Israelis and Palestinians spent an hour or two moving rocks and digging small holes. Most attendees were young, many were children.
Before writing this post, I spent some time thinking about if and how the two parts of this day were connected. I’m not in the business of mashing ideas and experiences into forced revelations so I will stop at a simple appreciation for the role of children in this world. Even as they are inevitably entangled in humanity’s conflicts, their innocence and honesty should be be a source of inspiration and hope for all of us.
Our bus of Israeli and international activists was stopped en route to a demonstration in the village of Bil’in this morning at a temporary checkpoint in the West Bank. Because of police action, we were denied the right to demonstrate at the seventh anniversary of the world-famous protests against the wall in Bil’in. A police officer boarded the bus at 11:25am and collected everyone’s identification for a “routine check.” For myself and other internationals, this meant reluctantly handing over our passports. We sweated it out for about ten minutes on the bus, before being asked to disembark. An experienced international activist called the other foreigners together and discussed with us the merits of attempting to walk through the checkpoint sans passport. It could, he argued, confuse the police and force their hand, which would probably result in us getting our passports back, and possibly result in our arrest. Luckily, we didn’t have to choose because after another five minutes or so, our IDs were passed back unscathed.
However, this did not mean that our path forward had been blessed by the police. On the contrary, we had been deemed a potential security threat and were ordered to return to Jerusalem. A loud discussion in Hebrew ensued, while more officers arrived on the scene and began filming us, recording our faces for posterity. I’m not sure what, if anything, will become of this footage. There wasn’t much to see. We were just standing there. They already knew exactly who we were from our passports. I’m sure they had already updated our information in whatever huge database the Israeli police are maintaining on its population and those who enter their country. Even so, I put on sunglasses and ducked a bit.
Then, the police gave us an ultimatum: get back on the bus in five minutes, or be arrested. All of this in Hebrew. The internationals were getting spotty translations from anyone with a spare ear and the presence of mind to think bi-lingually. Then our party began to splinter apart. A few attempted to walk forward, sat down, and were arrested. I got back on the bus with a handful of others. Another man sat down and refused to move. Four officers carried him to a police car. All in all, eight activists were arrested, Israelis and internationals alike. They squeezed seven people into the police cars (over capacity, I believe), and one man, an Israeli-Palestinian, was left behind to wait for another vehicle to take him away. I don’t know what happened to him.
About ten of us remained on the bus, but our adventure with the police was far from over. They had kept the drivers’ ID, and were holding it until we were back in Jerusalem and they were satisfied that our venture in the West Bank was spoiled. We had no choice but to follow a police car for perhaps 20 minutes until they finally let us go somewhere in North Jerusalem. During the ride, I learned that the police had known of our plans (unclear how) and set up the checkpoint specifically to intercept us. We had received a very unusual military order, only valid in the West Bank, featuring a map with a red box drawn around Bil’in. The police were preventing “suspicious” people from entering this area. Another bus (maybe from Tel Aviv) was also stopped.
We headed to the police station in Giv’at Ze’ev where the other members of our party were detained. We learned that the detention center only had room for half of the people they had detained, so some were inside, while others waited outside in the increasingly nasty weather. Clouds blew in and the temperature dropped. There were rumors of snow in Ramallah later on, and we were all expecting rain. We also learned that the majority of the activists had just been detained, not arrested, and they could only be held for three hours. However, it is subjective when the three hours starts, so we worried that the activists waiting outside might not start their three hours until the first group was released and they could be moved inside. With Shabbat approaching, this could make things unpleasant for getting home that evening.
Some of the activists were making phone calls to lawyers, another pair ran off to buy food for the detainees. We waited for maybe an hour and a half, and the suddenly most of our companions were released. The Israeli-Palestinian, who had actually been arrested “for refusing arrest” was not among them. By this time, food had arrived and it was 3pm. We tore into the bread and fruit outside the station as it began to rain.
It was extremely frustrating to be prevented from going to the protest in Bil’in, especially because this was my one and only chance to attend. However, the experience reminded me of a paper presented at a Border Conflicts conference I attended last Fall which argued that modern borders are being moved back into countries, manifested in airports, cities, and of course, checkpoints. They are no longer geographically tied to the borderline itself. This paper was based on the situation in Ukraine, but the theory was demonstrated clearly today in Israel/Palestine. What better case study than a country where borders operate on a de-facto basis and are still being formed and defined? The police who stopped us at the checkpoint today represent a wall that is every bit as real and physical as the concrete blocks that loom in the West Bank.
Today I traveled to the village of Biddu to meet this man. His house, on the outskirts of the village, has been a flash point for clashes in his backyard and the courtroom for the last 9 years. In 2004, Israeli soldiers destroyed his grove of 123 olive trees and piled up rubbish around his house; they were claiming land for the construction of the wall. There was a scuffle. His father threw rocks, a brother was tackled and arrested. But in the end, the soldiers took the land and the family was devastated. But they fought back. For 9 years, they went to court every month, being gouged by an Israeli lawyer for his services, but without a foreseeable alternative, they trudged ahead. And miraculously, they won their case. The land was returned, they planted new olive trees a month ago. The trees are young and tender in freshly tilled dirt, and there’s no telling whether the bulldozers will return to uproot them. But for now, they are safe again.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Irene Nasser, who is a Palestinian feminist and social media activist working for Just Vision. We had a fascinating conversation about Budrus, activism, and social media in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Budrus is a documentary film released in 2009 that chronicles the struggle of a Palestinian village in the West Bank against the Separation Barrier annexing their land. Through constant, unarmed resistance, over a 10-month period, the village was successful in
reclaiming most of their land and the wall was rerouted. Since then, Just Vision has been working to get the film into the mainstream and help examples of successful, unarmed protest become a theme in media coverage of the occupation.
When I questioned Irene about unarmed resistance as an ideological standpoint versus a strategic play, she was quick to respond, “I’m a pacifist,” explaining that her background and upbringing led her to believe in non-violence. However, she also notes that Palestinians who are getting killed, arrested, and doing everything they can just to scrape by, simply can’t afford the luxury of ideology; they just have to do what works. She went on to explain that therefore, unarmed resistance largely functions as an important strategy for Palestinians because it’s effective, more compelling, and easier to get behind.
There is a debate within the Palestinian resistance community as to what role, if any, stone-throwing has in unarmed protests. Stone-throwing is extremely common among Palestinian youths and oftentimes ‘unarmed’ protests are not necessarily ‘non-violent.’ Others argue that stone-throwing, if not meant to injure, is therefore symbolic and acceptable. Again, it comes down to a question of strategy. In Budrus, the village made a conscious decision to avoid stone-throwing, arranging their
marches so youths were in the back and would be unable to land a hit if they tried. During our discussion on this point, Irene pointed out that during the Egyptian revolution, people threw rocks and molotovs, but it was mostly ignored. But Palestinians generally have a less favorable reputation, and similar actions could be perceived quite differently, again highlighting the importance of fair and balanced media.
At the mention of the Egyptian revolution, our conversation turned to the role of social media in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Irene assured me that especially for tools like Twitter and Facebook, “sometime soon, it will be our most powerful tool.” Unique to this struggle, social media helps provide a counter to the powerful Israeli media machine. Activists regularly tweet live from protests and demonstrations around the West Bank, and also post videos and photos from the events. Recently, this media helped debunk inaccurate reports from the IDF in light of the injury of a French woman at a weekly protest in Nabi Saleh. In light of the Arab Spring, it’s easy to see how social media could change the game here as well.
While Irene readily acknowledges that Israeli legislation is getting worse and more oppressive, she maintains that this is no cause for pessimism. Instead, these challenges are giving her a better perspective on how to be relevant and stay relevant. In the quickly-shifting world of the Israel-Palestine conflict, staying at the top of your game is the key to making a difference.