Jaffa Youth Movement & Boycott from Within

Today in Israel, we met with representatives from two Palestinian advocacy groups. The irony of a Birthright Israel bus behind us as we drove from our tour of Lydd to Jaffa was not lost on us. We are on two very different tours.

Jaffa Youth Movement
With our IFPB group, we took a guided walking tour of Jaffa, a port city in Israel next to Tel Aviv. The city is 5,000 years old and before the Nakba in 1948 was the second largest city in Palestine. It’s a beautiful city on the Mediterranean Sea. Not all is so beautiful about it though. Arabs cannot buy new homes in Jaffa (as only Jews can). Arabs are thought to bring the price of the property down, so contractors will not sell new construction to them. They can only buy homes secondhand.
DSC_0100While in Jaffa, we met with Abed from the Jaffa Youth Movement. He talked about the difficulties of life under occupation for youth and the goals of the Jaffa Youth Movement. Three main goals were to have Palestinian youth learn Arabic (many don’t know it there as they are only taught Hebrew), promote Arab women’s rights, and to take part in political activities.
DSC_0074 DSC_0081 DSC_0085 Boycott from Within
Our next meeting in Jaffa was with Kobi Snitz from Boycott from Within, a collective inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid to apply the same type of pressure to stop the oppression of Palestinians. They believe measures such as boycott, divestment, and sanctions are necessary steps to pressure the Israeli government to stop the occupation and to follow international law.
DSC_0102Kobi provided some eye-opening insights for understanding how the BDS movement is reported and perceived in Israel. He indicated that Israelis were more likely to learn about the boycott movement in the entertainment section of the newspapers, when a performer cancels a show there.

He told our group that, “If it’s a real threat, there is going to be a backlash.” He noted that the backlash will be against Palestinians (more violence towards them because it’s easier) and political policing on the Israeli managerial class, having a chilling effect on the boycotts. He believed that BDS was the biggest strategic threat against Israel and that the army and secret service were monitoring those activities. This is called delegitimization of Israel. Kobi pointed out that “The left Zionist group will brag about opposing boycotts” and that the Israeli government believes that their “only hope to slow down BDS is to use the left.”

Kobi noted recently that a large U.S. progressive company with business in Israel met with anti-occupation activists and the Israel Foreign Ministry to learn more about the issues and that Foreign Ministry’s arguments against BDS made an even better case for boycotting than the BDS supporters! He stated the Foreign Ministry only major argument was, “Muslims and Arabs are dangerous and God gave us this land.”

Other activities of Boycott from Within focus on writing letters to artists and people outside of Israel to boycott the country. Kobi reported that they first write personal letters to the artists (and some make excuses for canceling their concerts/appearances vs. directly stating that they are boycotting). If that doesn’t receive a response, they write a public letter to the artist encouraging them to boycott. Sometimes people picket their concerts on their way to Israel. He emphasized, “There is no artist that comes here that doesn’t feel the boycott.”
DSC_0101Kobi also told us about Who Profits, Israeli activists who research Israeli companies who profit from the occupation. Ultimately, he said they call for a general boycott of Israeli products as the entire Israeli economy profits from the occupation. He noted that everyone in Israel believes the economy is hurting because of the boycott.

Another threatening tactic used by the Israeli government to suppress dissent is a website created for students to report their teachers who say anything considered to be anti-Israel, delegitimization, and/or insulting the honor of the army and soldiers. The left on campus has been pretty much decimated. Academics, even with tenure, are pushed out for speaking out about the government. The sense that there is no real academic freedom is disturbing to say the least and something that is intolerable in many academic institutions in the Western world. But again, we are told the lie that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East.” The veil is coming down and more and more are realizing this to be untrue.

-Amber

Bethlehem & Israeli Refuseniks

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.
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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.
IMG_0039Palestinian 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.”
DSC_0022All 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.
DSC_0043 DSC_0044To 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.”

Kairos Palestine
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.”
IMG_0086American 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.
IMG_0113Sahar 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.
DSC_0107 DSC_0108Stephanie, Sahar, and me

-Amber

 

Day trip to Bethlehem

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This morning we took the bus to the city of Bethlehem, which is Zone A section of the West Bank. According to the Oslo II Accord Zone A is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Zone B is under joint Israeli- Palestinian control. Finally, Zone C is under complete Israeli control. To enter Bethlehem we had to through a military controlled gate and watchtower. The city is surrounded by a massive grey wall, and barbed wire.

DSC_0047Our first stop was at Badil, a human rights group seeking to protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees, and displaced people.  The amount of information provided in the PowerPoint presentation was overwhelming.  One of the issues that stood out for me in particular was the policy of silent transfer created by Israel.  This is accomplished by discriminatory zoning and planning, segregation and institutionalized discrimination, and denial of natural resources, and access to services.  As an example a farmer who has a farm outside the walls of Bethlehem must exit through the checkpoint, which requires a permit, to get to their land.  Once the farmer reaches his land, he has no access to water, and is unable to irrigate the farm.  This same farmer is also unable to teach his children the family trade, and they must find other ways of living.  Soon the family will loose their right to the land because they are unable to farm on it.  Further, Israel issues 1%-4% of the building permits requested the Palestinians.  If an individual adds to, or makes improvements to their home without a permit, they will be evicted and the house will be demolished.  These are just a few examples on how the state of Israel makes everyday life difficult for individuals living in the West Bank.

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 While in Bethlehem we also met with some local representatives.  They spoke about their perspectives of life in occupied Bethlehem.  They spoke about houses being demolished, and a strong desire for elections and representation. They emphasized how that they do not hate the Jews, but they are against the occupation, and feel as though the Palestinians are being punished for crimes that happened abroad.

“We love you, your foreign policy needs to be adjusted” – Wi’Am.

Before leaving the city we met with Nora Kort a Community Development Consultant with Kairos Palestine, a Christian Palestinian movement.  She spoke to us about the importance of respecting other religions and differences.  She explained that we should not use the holy books to justify political actions.

“If you do the will of God you are chosen” – Nora Kort

Nora also talked about Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).  She described it as a tool of resistance that is attempting to take away extremism.  It is a nonviolent and creative method that is something we can do as individuals.  Palestine is completely dependent on Israel, and BDS attempts to bring back awareness.

Lastly, we returned to Jerusalem and met with Sahar Vardi, an Israeli Refusnik.  She spoke a little about her experience when she refused to join the military, and gave a presentation on the militarization of Israel.  Sahar explained that everything surrounding Israelis is completely militarized from a very young age.  Off duty soldiers can be seen with guns in shops, and on the streets.  Military images are included in school worksheets.  Soldiers educate other soldiers as well as civilians, usually in underprivileged schools.  Soldiers are invited to schools to talk about leadership as well.  Students get a week of military training in the 11th grade.  Youth are taught that if they do not join the military the Jewish people will be persecuted.  By the time individuals reach the age to join the army they can find no reason not to.  However, there are young people that do refuse.  One group called New Profile asks young people, do you want to serve, and why?  It is a feminist movement for the demilitarization of Israel Society.  They offer support to individuals who are conscientious objectors.

DSC_0104Today was packed with a lot of information, and experiences that I have not completely processed.  I think the message overall is Palestinians and Israelis are human beings and should be treated as such.  Both groups are victims of the military forces.  International pressure is important to help bring about change.

-Stephanie

Our first 24 hours in Israel/Palestine

Our first day has been like a whirlwind. As I sit down to write this, I am exhausted both physically and mentally. We have seen so much in such a short time span that I cannot imagine how it will continue to get even more intense in the days and weeks to come.

Before sharing what I have witnessed thus far, I must remind our readers (particularly my American friends and anyone from a country that was colonized), that we too live, breathe, and work on stolen land. Indigenous people have been driven from their land that has been ethnically cleansed, just as what is happening now in Israel/Palestine. So our history is not a clean and pristine and there are many parallels and connections to be made.

Arrival in Tel Aviv airport
We were warned ahead of time by our IFPB leaders the potential for people to be racially profiled by Israeli authorities upon entering the airport in Tel Aviv. Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and people of color were at the top of the list of who were most likely to be called in for further questioning in “the room” where they could be for 1 or several hours (7+). On our delegation, we have two women of color (a Bangladeshi American Muslim and an Indian-American to be specific) which were predicted to be possible targets for this harassment. Unfortunately and as anticipated, the Bangladeshi American Muslim woman was held up by Israeli security and questioned for well over an hour about what her intentions were in the country, her father and grandfather’s names, her phone number, etc. repeatedly. Luckily she was let go and returned to our group after her questioning.

First Impressions
We were taken by air-conditioned tour bus to our hotel in East Jerusalem from the airport. But on the way, we got a crash course in some sobering facts from our Palestinian tour guide Said. We traveled on highway 443 which we learned that no Palestinians can use (unless they have Israeli citizenry). We saw many large settlements in the West Bank and discovered that settlers use 20 times more water than Palestinians. This is also water that they have taken from the people living in the West Bank. Some Palestinians have water for only 2 days a week as the Israeli government controls their water and shuts it off as they deem necessary (along with electricity).

We quickly learned to tell the difference between settlers’ homes vs. those of Palestinians. Palestinian homes have large water tanks on top of them so when the Israeli government cuts off their water supply, they have a reservoir they can use. Settler homes also have one or more Israeli flags dominantly displayed on the outside.
IMG_2599We noticed a surveillance balloon above the highway as we drove into the West Bank. We saw checkpoints/barriers with heavily armed men and women in olive green military uniforms. We also learned that Gaza (which almost no one can get into now) is the most surveillanced place in the world!

Our tour guide told us of the difficulties of Palestinians living under occupation on a day to day basis. Military laws and orders are frequently used against Palestinians in practice vs. being written in the books. They often use “policies” rather than official laws to oppress them.

Something that was very relevant to our guide’s profession were the limits on how many Palestinians can become tour guides. He told us that Palestinians were not allowed to be tour guides for 25 years! Today only 170 Palestinians can be tour guides vs. over 6,000 Israeli tour guides that exist. In the West Bank specifically, only 42 Palestinians are allowed to be tour guides. One essentially has to wait for a tour guide to die to get a permit on their own. The level of control that Israel has on the Palestinians is very obvious and disturbing, especially for a country that prides itself on being the only “democracy in the Middle East.” This is a myth and a lie.
DSC_0126East Jerusalem & Old City
We arrived in our hotel in East Jerusalem on Monday evening. During our Tuesday morning walking tour of East Jerusalem and the Old City, we learned that the police department just blocks away from our hotel was taken over by the Israeli police. Our tour guide described it as having a “dark future” due to the Judaization of Jerusalem and the high likelihood that it will be taken over by settlers.
IMG_2620We received a detailed description of the different religious buildings and beliefs surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City. More interesting and striking to me however, were the illegal settlements in the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City (again, easily observed by the Israeli flags marking the territories).
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IMG_2608IMG_2666Silwan
We met with several young men and women from the Silwan Youth Center on Tuesday. Most of the women had brothers whose fathers who have been jailed by the Israeli government and the men themselves have all experienced imprisonment. We learned that 65,000 people live in Silwan and on November 1, 2004, they began the first destruction of homes in the town to make room for settlers. Palestinians would have to pay a bounty so their homes wouldn’t be demolished. The village also experiences many arrests of Palestinian children. We met one boy who has been arrested 15 times since he was 9 years old. He has not returned to school and has been wandering the streets. When asked what prison is like, he matter-of-factly stated, “It’s just 4 walls.”
IMG_2749Silwan3The Silwan Youth Center and protest tent above the building were developed by young people. The center is funded by the volunteers themselves. They have a soccer team for children whose houses are under threat of demolition and a summer camp for 100 students in the neighborhood. They are trying to help children lead a normal life. A large banner on one of the walls of the center was in dedication to a child who was found burned alive by settlers. It was a sad reminder of the ultimate price so many pay under occupation.
Silwan4Settlers are encouraged to move in by the government. There are currently 60 Jewish families in Silwan costing the government 6 million shekels a month to live in Silwan. Settlers are protected by 340 guards 24 hours a day in four shifts. Settlers are paid 500 shekels a day, given a car, and guards to live in the village. Settlers and their guards have killed Palestinians in Silwan.
Silwan7Silwan12On the flipside, there are no services or infrastructure in Silwan for Palestinians, even though they pay taxes. Families of 8-10 people may live in 2 rooms because they cannot build houses. If a Palestinian doesn’t pay someone privately to demolish their own house, they have to pay up to $5,000 for the government to do it and then another $5,000 for them to clean up the rubble (if they don’t do it themselves).
Silwan10Silwan11Everyday life in Silwan was described as living “between houses getting demolished and being arrested.” We were shown the rubble of a house destroyed in 2008 and were told of a house that was just bulldozed by a Caterpiller bulldozer this morning in the village at 6am. When asked the children’s hope for the future, they quickly responded “rights” and “freedom.” We were told of the joke, “Palestinians are easy to please.” They just want a normal life.”
Silwan5Silwan6Silwan9Silwan14Silwan15Silwan16AFSC Palestine Youth Together for Change Program – Gaza
Since virtually no one can enter or leave Gaza at this time, we Skyped with Palestinians from the AFSC Palestine Youth Together for Change Program in the Gaza Strip.

When asked what life was like in Gaza we were told how the Israeli government is trying to fragment Palestinians by making them in different lands and it will make them weaker.

One woman quickly corrected someone who referred to last summer’s assault as a war and stated instead, “It’s not a war, it’s an aggression.”IMG_2781

Many of the Gazans we spoke with had to turn down educational opportunities such as attending medical school in Jordan, college with a scholarship in Tunisia, and more as they aren’t allowed to leave Gaza. They reminded us that the situation in Gaza is very bad, but they feel they need to stand for their rights. We stand with them.

-Amber

 

First impressions

The journey to Israel/Palestine had its challenging moments, but we made it! I’m certain everyone in the group was feeling exhausted by the time we arrived at the Tel Aviv airport. On the bus ride to Jerusalem, the terrain was rocky and hilly with small shrubs and trees. Our tour guide Said pointed out that many of the trees are not indigenous to the region, except for Oak trees, and possibly Cyprus. The many pine trees, and palm trees had been planted to hide destroyed Palestinian villages.
The highway we traveled on was built to allow drivers to avoid areas where Palestinian people live. There are other roadways through tunnels that avoid the bypass. Some of the roadways are cutoff, and dead end at the bypass. We learned that Palestinians are only able to use certain sections of the bypass for limited number hours. However, they must go through a checkpoint and cars are detained for several hours, making using the bypass impractical. We also spotted a soldier on a ridge, and a surveillance balloon watching the highway. Said pointed out the villages with black water towers on the roof. He explained to us that the Israel government will cut off the water supply without notice, and the black water towers serve as a backup.

It seemed to me that the shadow of Israel was even more evident within the wall of the old city of Jerusalem. On the surface the old city is vibrant, and beautiful. There are vendors selling spices, clothing, and freshly pressed juice. When looking viewing it through the lens of a tourist it is an amazing place to visit. However, if you take a moment to scratch beneath the surface it quickly becomes clear that people living in the city are not truly in harmony. There are cameras on every street, and barbed wires and fences separating different sections. Israeli parents hire security guards to escort their children. More and more settler only homes are appearing. We passed a Mosque, which will soon have a settler home next to it. Street names have been changed from their original Palestinian name.
To me the old city was like a trip through Disneyland. Many areas where sanitized of their history, and visitors only saw what people in power wanted them to see.


-Stephanie Langer