Today was a jam-packed and memorable day. Our itinerary consisted of meeting with amazing activists from Badil Resources Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights, Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center Wi’am, Kairos Palestine, and American Friends Service Committee.
We went to Bethlehem for most of our meetings, some light shopping, walking in the historic center, and witnessing the occupation first-hand through the separation wall (aka the Apartheid wall) and walking through a checkpoint. Bethlehem is one of the major cities to be designated as zone A and fully under control by the Palestinian Authority. No Israeli Jews live in Bethlehem and 30% of the population consists of Palestinian Christians.
The energy in Bethlehem seemed different than what I’ve experienced so far on the trip. It was the first time I saw a Palestinian flag flying freely. I saw the Apartheid wall up close, including artwork from Banksy. The vendors and shop workers were very friendly and accommodating. Not as many home demolitions occur in the confines of the town, but the wall and settlements in the distance remind one that this is still occupied territory.
Badil Resources Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights
Our first and probably most extensive explanation of what has happened and continues to happen with Palestinian refugees was by a presentation given by Lubnah Shomali of Badil. This organization participates in all UN forums and focuses on humanitarian and human rights law. Displacement of Palestinians has been occurring since 1917 and even today in 2015. We learned that the issue isn’t just about land, but really about refugees. We heard about forced displacement and FDP (forced displaced persons), obstacles and solutions, policies of silent transfer, the Israeli regime of forced population transfer, colonization, institutionalized racism, buffer and seam zones, right of return, obligations of 3rd party states, Israeli talking points, and the ongoing Nakba resistance. Lots of free materials on these issues can be found in PDF files on their website.
Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center Wi’am
We had a unique experience of hearing three men discuss life under occupation during this outside meeting in Bethlehem. The director of Wi’am, Zoughbi Zoughbi helped to translate for two Palestinian men who shared their stories. One had taken an extreme risk by talking with us, as he was in an Israeli prison for 21 years as he resisted the occupation in 1967. Speaking with our group could have been considered “incitement” which could put him back in prison for life as a political prisoner. Another man named Shelklu Maher Assaf spoke of being a refugee from a nearby village called Allar when his family was expelled and settlements came in. He stated that “We built good and healthy relationships with Jews before the occupation. It’s not because of Jews, but because of Zionism. The torah says, ‘Do not steal the land of others.’ Anyone who wants to win elections must start war with Palestinians. The war on Gaza was gauged for political reasons to win elections…We are suffering when there is an attack inside Israel, because I have children too.”
All three men hoped to convey their message to the world through us and emphasized repeatedly that their problem was not with Jewish people, but with the occupation, U.S. foreign policy, and apartheid.
To quote Zoughbi Zoughbi, “The Apartheid wall is choking us. We are in prison. No one can prevent us from organizing in prison. If we were MLK, we’d be writing a letter from inside Birmingham jail.”
We met Nora Kort of Kairos who was a Palestinian Christian of Armenian ancestry and a refugee in her own city of Bethlehem (as she was displaced from Jerusalem when Israel was created). Kairos Palestine works from a Christian Palestinian perspective to tell the world about what is happening in Palestine. It requests that the international community stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people who have faced oppression, displacement, suffering, and apartheid for over 60 years. Nora stated, “We cannot use the holy books to feed our political needs. Here we have three religions who preach love, peace, and justice, but we don’t have that…We have irrational violence all over the Middle East. We cannot attribute to any one religion. Barbarism comes out of lost hope.” On solutions, Nora pointed out that “BDS is a campaign and a tool of resistance and love. We tried the peace process for over 20 years and it didn’t lead to peace.”
American Friends Service Committee
I was excited to meet Sahar Vardi an Israel Program Coordinator from the AFSC in East Jerusalem (and fellow vegan) at the end of the day. This committee has been a leader in promoting speaking engagements in the U.S. of Israeli refuseniks who are conscientious objectors to serving in the IDF, Israel’s military.
Sahar was born and raised in Jerusalem and talked in detail about the militarization of Israel and how completely normal it is to see large amounts of weapons on the streets. She also discussed “teacher soldiers” that are frequently used in understaffed and underprivileged schools, teaching completely unrelated subjects with no training. She talked about the treatment of women in the military as supportive roles and the sexual harassment and demeaning terms used to describe them such as “platoon mattress” and “skirt.” We learned that Israel is the top exporter of weapons in the world and that it’s not AIPAC that has the biggest lobby for Israel in the U.S., but Lockheed Martin. Sahar humbly told our group about how she became a refusenik. She started going to the occupied territories since she was 13 or 14 as a protester in Bi’lin. She stated in regards to the IDF at protests, “When you are shot at enough times by them, you don’t want to join them.” She spent 2 months in prison and another 3 months in detention for her refusal to serve and was released (as many commonly are) for mental health reasons. She told us about a new organization called New Profile, founded as a feminist movement to demilitarize Israel. Sahar is a beacon of hope amongst Israeli society and youth and more light needs to shine on people like her who refuse to take part in Israel’s crimes against humanity.
Stephanie, Sahar, and me