Towards the end of our time in Hebron, Christian Peacemaker Team staff member Mona sat us down for a session called “Undoing Oppression.” She joined our delegation leader Amy who asked us a series of questions. We were told to give a gut-response and not to over-think (not easy for me).
- We’re asked to monitor abuses at a check-point. Would we choose the routine, quiet site, or one that’s a well known “shit-show”? (Most of us said “shit-show”. I knew instinctively that this was the wrong answer. It implied that we were in this for an “experience.” Yet given our brief time in Hebron, can we be faulted for wanting to prove ourselves in some real, visceral way?).
- Someone asks you why Palestinian children throw stones. What do you say? (I figured I got that one right; I’d say I didn’t know, and to ask the child. Mona told us that some children throw stones as a form of resistance. They seldom hit their mark. Interestingly enough, the children who throw stones most often and most aggressively hope it’s a way to get out of going to school. According to Mona, these children can be pretty mean to CPT staff).
- You and a fellow CPT staffer observe the arrest of a child. What do you do? (Intervene? Concentrate on documentation? Cede to a staff member? Of course, it all depends on the dynamics of the situation,when to use the privileged status of an international observer rather than a Palestinian national, when a woman can seem less threatening to a soldier, the question of who carries a camera, who does the talking, and who takes notes, what strategy causes the least harm to the child and is most likely to gather information that can be shared).
In Hebron, countless factors come into play. And we might as well know it: we’re being played. That’s why we’re here: not to rush into tear-gas and come out carrying the body of a Palestinian child, not to speak truth to power– at least not in Palestine– and certainly not to have a transformative experience. We’re here to be useful, which means– let’s face it– we’re here to be used.
When our interfaith delegation came to Palestine, we became pieces on this complicated chess-set of Hebron human rights strategy, joining the CPT staff, the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) which is hardly temporary, having been in the city since 1997, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine (EAPPI), the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) best known for the bulldozer-defying and bulldozer-crushed Rachel Corrie, the United Nations bunch whose flag flies from at least one Hebron school, and assorted other volunteers and paid staff, with vests and hats and armbands that denote distinctions as subtle and various as the hats and side-locks of the Hassidic sects that haunt Jerusalem.
These volunteers, broadly termed “Internationals”, appear to be the tourist base of Hebron’s Old City. When our group arrived, burdened with enormous backpacks, vendors and children called out “You are welcome”. We’d been told to save what cash we had to purchase crafts there, and in fact, those backpacks were considerably heavier upon departure. The center of town features a Rachel Corrie Cafe. Still, more difficult and ambiguous were the ubiquitous children who appeared out of nowhere, hawking plastic “Free Palestine” bracelets. Once, a cadaverous man pushed in close with a fist-full of the things and wouldn’t go away, insisting, “Why won’t you buy it? Don’t you care about us?”. It took Leilah from Women in Hebron to make him go away; she claimed he had a job. I suspect he was a junkie. An activist later told us about about a chemical marijuana substitute called“Mr. Nice Guy”, highly addictive. We smelled it all over the Old City.
Even before we left Philadelphia, our group discussed the ambiguities of being “conflict tourists” with return tickets in our pockets. Amy, our delegation leader, had been in Hebron with CPT two years before, and she let us know– firmly– that we were not free agents; we were there to serve the Hebron team. Yet all the prior discussion in the world couldn’t prepare us for the things our privilege couldn’t buy. We couldn’t tell customs agents that we planned to go to occupied Palestine, not if we wanted to enter Israel. We couldn’t wander through Hebron on our own. When we were confronted by Israeli border guards, our job was to get out of the situation as quickly as possible and not cause further trouble for CPT staff. It may be fair to add: our friend Wilbur had to remove his kippah. More critically, our privilege couldn’t earn us the trust of local people. When we walked down the street with CPT staffers like Cody or Yousef, they’d high-five just about every boy and vendor in the market. What did those locals make of us? We couldn’t stick around long enough to really know.
It’s clear that privilege is a tricky term, as Wilbur’s detention at Ben Gurion airport would attest. Each of us had distinct gifts and limitations. Matt– deeply read and analytical — works on legislative issues for Jewish Voice for Peace; Lisa Jo, a theater professional, fearlessly initiates conversations with strangers; Harvey, aged 83, a legendary Philadelphia photographer carries two camera-cases nimbly where I stumble. Lowell has a camera too, and asks keen, searching questions that initially seem naive but invariably generate substantive answers. Chelle’s nine-thousand Twitter followers attest to her semi-secret life as novelist J.L. Fynn, and she manages to listen long and hard to Palestinians and also to keep track of funny things delegates said; every group needs that, I think. Judith, as CPT staffer Rachel’s mother, had a personal connection to this trip that made her own experience distinct. She was there to bear witness, in the Christian sense, and also whole-heartedly to see her daughter. Both Suella and Amy, our leader, are Mennonite pastors. Suella came to Palestine without preconceptions, which seemed to me– as time went on– increasingly remarkable.
At daily meetings, we debriefed, reflecting on what we’d seen and heard in ways that were by definition half-baked, rough, and inconsistent. Because we came from different places intellectually and spiritually, we would often see the same experience in contradictory ways, and there were hurt feelings at times, but we tried hard to be kind to each other. When meetings took place at night, it was sometimes hard not to fall asleep, but we tried not to, because we were genuinely interested in what other people had to say. Those of us who didn’t have a fixation on Israel and Palestine were able to consider how what we learned here applied to life in America– the legacy of our treatment of indigenous people, institutionalized racism, what it means– in every sense– to be an occupiers in our own country.
Luke, a delegate from Arizona, seemed to have spent a lot of time examining privilege. He’s white, youngish and bearded, in such good condition that when we went to fetch water bottles for the group, he could carry twice my load. His arms are covered with elaborate tattoos based on Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series, and Palestinian kids eagerly asked him to pose with them for selfies. Unlike the rest of us, Luke has spent plenty of time in Palestine; in fact, he hopes to join the CPT staff. But when we met with Palestinians, I noticed that Luke didn’t ask a single question. I wouldn’t say his privilege silenced him. I would guess that he was disinclined to ask any more of Palestinians than they already give.
Luke was particularly useful the morning we were were summoned by one of the city’s first-rate problem-solvers, Hamed Qawasmeh, who– among other things– founded the Hebron International Resource Network, the VIllages Group, and a Hebron football team (“Freedom Through Football”). He needed us to help move files and shelves in one of the kindergartens on Shuhada Street that was surrounded by settlements. Because the street was closed to Palestinian traffic, all of this work had to be done by hand, and Luke was strong enough to carry an entire press-wood shelf across the hall. As my own inadequate arms were piled with Arabic textbooks and binders full of student records, I kept coming back to a moment in The Phantom Tollbooth where an enormous pile of sand is carried from one place to another with a tweezer, one grain at a time. The process is hypnotic. It’s all too easy to get lost in the rhythm of those single grains of sand, and lose sight of the desert altogether. In the end, the two hours of work felt paradoxically concrete and symbolic.
At the Aida Refugee Camp outside of Bethlehem, Shatha,the young woman who described their projects felt that internationals were useless. When the IDF raid the camp, they run away. She also considered the UN useless. They built the camp’s school, but when Israeli soldiers shoot at the building, their response is to make the school’s windows smaller. I asked Shatha about the role of the Palestinian Authority which controls roughly 16% of the West Bank, including Bethlehem. She said the PA gave the camp’s projects no support, nor did they receive help from other Arab countries. The camp’s playground was built with donations from the NGO Playgrounds for Palestine. Their greenhouse plants had signage in English, which implied it was intended to be seen by non-Arabic speakers. The camp has clearly benefitted from international attention, yet Shatha’s conviction was that only the Palestinian people themselves could end Israeli occupation.
As Freedom Movement veterans know, privileged outsiders bring attention with them. Sometimes, attention makes an enemy feel cornered; the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project began with a triple-murder, and went on to accumulate more burnings, beatings, and arrests in a single summer than any other time in the movement’s history. However, that attention has its own utility. The white students who came to Mississippi made invisible places abruptly visible to much of white America. It’s easiest to apply this analogy to a village in the South Hebron Hills, where our delegation spent the night: Susiya.
The South Hebron Hills are in Area C, a sector of Palestine where Israel has both civil and military control. It’s in the Judean desert, scrubby and dusty. Maybe things can grow there, but it wouldn’t strike any of us as prime agricultural land. Yet these hills have a theological pull for religious Zionists. Since conquering the territory in 1967, Israel has thousands of dunam into state land or expropriates it for “firing zones”. They hand out demolition orders to Palestinian villages, but allow settlers to set up encampments on the same “illegal” land.
The Israeli government asked the residents of Susiya to relocate in 1986 when ruins from an ancient synagogue were discovered on the site. The village was fenced in and transformed into a museum and the villagers moved onto their original agricultural fields. They applied for a building permit, but it was denied on the basis of the land being unsuitable for human habitation. Meanwhile, a Jewish settlement was built nearby and, of course, provided with electricity and running water. The settlers burnt the village tents, and the IDF didn’t coordinate in time to intervene. The villagers spent years constructing rooms in caves, which are below-ground and exempt from permits; again and again, they applied to the Israeli Supreme Court for legal status. Altogether, Susiya was demolished seven times, but the village continued to fight for legal status.
This is a common story in this region where Israel continues to push Palestinians from their villages into cities, like nearby Yatta that are in Area A and controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Essentially, this is a a de facto land-grab. But in Susiya, something happened. Susiya became a cause. It might have begun when Nassar Nawaja was first approached by CPT in 2001, made contact with Rabbis for Human Rights, and became convinced of the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. He reached out to other sympathetic NGOs in Israel and in Europe. These connections did not bring Susiya any closer to legal status, but increasingly, Susiya’s pending demolition became the subject of international debate and condemnation. Not long before our delegation left for Israel and Palestine, Susiya was the subject of a series of recent articles in the New York Times, including an opinion piece by village spokesman Nasser Nawaja. The village has been visited by officials from the European Union, and demolition orders have been condemned by members of the U.S. Congress. By the first week of August, the demolition orders had been frozen indefinitely, and the reason was clear: Internationals were serving as both a virtual and a human shield.
When our delegation arrived in Susiya on August 11th, the Nawaja family were experienced, gracious hosts. They gave us a tour of the compound. There were the remains of the caves that were demolished in 2001, no longer habitable, a crude but functional outhouse, and a craft shop that featured grape-honey, zatar, and embroidery. We wandered around the compound which was decorated with Fattah flags, posters of Yasser Arafat. Boulders were painted with Palestinian flags and English graffiti. They served us dinner in a tent. What electricity they had was provided by donated solar panels, and what water they had in cisterns was certainly scarce; the toilet “flushed” with a bottle. Fatma and Nassar were gracious– though clearly exhausted. Who knows how many well-meaning people had passed through this village in the past few months, how often they’d pulled out those mattresses, fixed the rice-dish, told their story, and posed for photographs? Their translator, a woman from the International Solidarity Movement, spoke so softly that she might have actually lost her voice.
Yet what really got to me about Susiya were the children. Playing on a half-rusted swing-set, mugging for photographs, climbing over rocks, cute as elves, they were also thoroughly obnoxious. They played with our phones or gadgets, and then assumed that they owned them. One angelic girl tried to give me her watch, but when I gave it back, she implied, with emphatic gestures, that she’d traded it for my binoculars. Then, she pointed to my money belt and said, “How much?” They were sad, cunning, and untamed, utterly used to dealing with outsiders, and frankly contemptuous of them. At one point, we realized a boy was spying on female delegates using the outhouse. I tried to stand guard and he boldly lifted up the roof. When fearless Chelle grabbed him by the armpits and pulled him away, he put up a fight that left some bruises. Harvey, who could charm anyone, asked permission to take another boy’s picture. The boy threw a shoe at him.
What would it be like to grow up where it is normal to be surrounded by people like us– outsiders who appear in dusty vans, eat separately from the household, soil the toilet because they don’t know how to use it property, and gather in hushed silence as your grandparents tell the same story over and over again? What would it do to you? As we slept outside in our clothes, I heard wild dogs fighting somewhere between our clump of mattresses and the outhouse, and I couldn’t help but know those dogs had more of a right to be here than I did. Yet the presence of people like us was certainly a reason why Susiya hadn’t yet been demolished.
We are hardly the only reason Susiya has survived. Their own steadfastness and articulate advocacy on their own behalf are far more important factors. Yet as I left that morning, grubby and looking forward to a shower, I did wonder: what will become of Susiya when that steadfastness is all they have? To what extent is it enough to hope one day will follow the next without disaster? Is steadfastness the same as resistance?
But then again, why do I have the right to raise these questions?