Monthly Archives: September 2011

Interview with Nawal Slemiah, founder of feminist cooperative Women In Hebron

Last week, myself and Skylar, another ISMer, went to the Old City of Hebron to interview Nawal Slemiah, the founder of Women In Hebron, a feminist cooperative that, in the words of their website, is a collective of “over 120 women, of various ages, from eight different villages and communities in the Hebron area” who “use the age-old tradition of embroidery to produce handbags, purses, bracelets, clothing, cushion covers, wall hangings and other articles…we pride ourselves on being the only independent, female run and managed shop in the Old City of Hebron.” You should buy beautiful handmade things from them and support this awesome cooperative! Not only do they resist the occupation, but they are also a beacon of feminist struggle in one of the more conservative parts of the West Bank.

How did Women In Hebron begin?How I started the co-op is I did it myself first, in my home, in my free time, I collected many things, many designs, then I came here by chance to the old city to find people to sell, then I got the shop very easy because the old city was closed and there was nobody in the shops, so  i took it very easy. Then later I had women from other other villages with me, they asked me to help them share their work. Then my sister Leighla came to work with me in the shop. Now she is the boss of the shop in the old city and I work with the women. I can get the designs easy from my home, from my mother, from my grandmother, from my sisters, we had a lot of things in our homes, so I took the old things and I used them new, and from my mind i can design, the same as all the women in our village, we know how to do the embroidery. Its easy for us. It is traditional thing in Palestine, women in the villages have this tradition. We take it from our mothers. Before, it is red color [on the outside] and different colors on the inside, this is traditional. But later we use green, brown, blue, all the colors, for the internationals. Because we sell for internationals mainly, because the Palestinians don’t need it. The main thing for Palestinians is to have food and something to wear, its not important for them to buy. And also many of the women in the villages can make it, they don’t need to buy.

Is it important to sell to internationals?

When we sell something to internationals we know that he is going to take it back to his country and tell his family, his neighbors, his friends that this is from Palestine, from Women in Hebron and he will tell the story of women in hebron, and we always give the card so we will tell other people about us and about our website.

What was it like, beginning the cooperative in this market?

I was the only woman in the market, and it was strange for the media to see women in the old city, in a shop, so [people from the] TV came and filmed me many times. So the women saw me on TV many times talking about how the old city was closed and encouraging people to come back to their shops, so the women came to me and asked me for help.

Do you ever face hostility or criticism from other Palestinians?

Many times we faced hostility, me and Leighla, we are suffering a lot. Every day, especially from  men and from women also. From Palestinians, I’m sorry to say but this is always the case, because we are the only women here. First, the young shebab, and men especially if they see internationals with us, and sometimes I don’t blame them because there is no women here, and this is danger for Palestinians because this area is not controlled by the PA, it’s controlled by the Israelis and its not in our ability to stop any murderers or thieves, so people are free to do what they want, so it is very dangerous for us.
It’s not normal for women to have a shop here, usually it’s men, so we are the only women here.
I think its very important, all the women they should follow us. They should not listen to the culture, this culture, its bad for us. I know how its important to follow the culture, but sometimes it’s not culture, its just people who say something [is] from a long time ago so we have to follow them. We are not doing anything bad here, we feel that we are very ok. Not all the people understand, but many people do understand what we are doing here.
You can see this in Bethlehem and Ramallah, its normal for women to have a shop, but in Hebron it’s not normal. In Hebron women can be teachers, nurses and doctors outside of the old city, but not to own a shop, especially in the old city.
[Even outside of the old city], women don’t own the shops, they work inside the shops., they get 300 or 400 shekels a day, they work 10 or 12 hours, not a lot of money.

I have noticed that men sell even women’s clothing to women! Isn’t this strange?

Yes, it makes us feel uncomfortable. Many time I stop to buy these things and I change my mind.

Are women afraid to join you or to come to the shop?

Yes, women and their families are afraid to join me here. Their family doesn’t like them to stay for a long time. If they come they come to take their money and give us the work and then leave. Because they always hear there are problems here [in the old city] so they are scared….settlers harass the people and the soldiers, so the people are afraid to come here.
The situation is very hard, there are a lot of women who have very hard situations, and we are only one shop. There is too much work, and not enough tourists to buy.
I think there are a lot of women who want to be independent, but their family will not let them. There is one woman with us but her husband is very bad with her. She wants to work in the city here, she worked for 5 years but she stopped after 5 years because her husband did npot want her to go outside, and her family also thought t is not important for her to go and work in the old city, so she has to stay with them.

When you began, did you expect the difficulties, the harassment by the IDF and the community, the fear?

I didn’t know anything about the situation. It was very hard for me the first two years when I started, its still hard every day, especially for Leighla.

Does this work empower you as women?

Me and Leighla and other women for sure, we get more strong and we feel more free. When I give the money to other women they are very happy because they can buy their own things, they don’t need their husbands or their family to give them money. Some of them don’t even have family to give them money, so they were very happy when we give them money, they feel very strong because they can buy things for themselves.That’s the problem, [society says that] she should listen to her husband, if he gives her money she can go somewhere, if not she cant go anywhere. This is the problem with the women, they are very poor. Even sometimes they have money but they cant own this money, their husband holds it, they cant touch this money. I want women to be independent, I don’t want them to depend on their family or their husband anymore.

Usually when people think of feminism in the Middle East they want women to take off their hijabs…

We don’t mention any of these things because especially in Hebron its very important for the people, so if you come at people with this idea they will leave us, especially in Hebron. It is cultural and religious, so we don’t touch this.

How did you start this cooperative?

Myself I needed the money, and I always wanted my mother to give me the money to buy me something because my husband had no money, so I would go to my mother to take money from her. Then I started this project but nobody agreed to give me the money to help me to continue, so I started with 700 shekels and day after day I sold, and then I got 10,000 shekels. Then I accepted more women to work.

What motivates you to continue?

I know its very hard, I like the idea very much but I pay for it every day with my life, with my time. Nothing is easy about it. And I am in a good situation, I am not rich, but my husband is working, we have a house, my husband has a car and I can use his car all the time if I need something. If I need to go to the factory I call him, if I want to go visit any of the women. So this is the idea, I have the help but other women they don’t have the help, so with my situation I can help other women. My village especially, the women they live far away near the wall, they are poor and if they want to come to the organization they need to pay 20 shekels every time. They don’t have the money to pay that, so I ask my husband in the early morning or the evening if I can take the car and get the work from them. So we do that.

What does your family think of your work?

Where I live now, is not my real family, it’s my husbands family. The women in my husbands family they don’t like my work, they think I should stay with my kids because I leave my kids with the family. They don’t like that, they say I should stay with my kids in the home, the money my husband makes is enough. But I was independent all the time before I get married, and then suddenly I was dependent on my husband after I get married, because I left my work. It wasn’t my style, for my life, to wait for somebody to give me money. So that’s why I started something from my home, the same ideas- the women they can go outside their homes, from their family and their culture,

What do you hope to teach to women here, what new things do you want to expose them to?

English lessons, computer lessons because I am the only one who speaks English and works on the computer. I cant do it all on my own. I cant go anywhere, I cant visit my family in the evenings, I spend all the evenings working. Other women need to do my job sometimes so I can take some time to rest. All this work is volunteer for me.
I think every woman should have internet and computer in her home, because with the internet she can see everything. People here know the bad things about internet, but they dont know the good things about the internet. All my friends on facebook are internationals, I dont have any Palestinian friends on facebook.
English in the village is very weak, especially for the small kids. We want all the children to learn English, it’s very important because English is the main language between all the world.
They have school all the time, but not all the women go to school. They have to stay at home, and [when they were young] their family didn’t know that school is very important. Now all the women know that it’s very important for their kids to go to school, but before now they didn’t know this.
Every women should know her rights, what to do, and also she should not forget her duties to society and her family and her husband. If I am working I should not forget my family also. This is what we tell them- ‘you should work and be independent, but do not forget that you have family, because then you make problems for yourself.’

What difficulties do you face under occupation here?

Like all the owners of the shops, the settlers stop near my shop many times and harass me. But for is this is not problems, this is occupation. We don’t call these problems, we call it normal here.
Even with all these problems, we will not close, we will not close. We have to have the shop here. Because if we close ourselves, many shops will close after us. Its very important for us to keep our city open.

In general, do women suffer under occupation differently than men?

If you stop me at a checkpoint, they will stop the women and the men. It depends on the commander, and all the soldiers, if they are nice or not. When the Second Intifada started, women had to raise up their dress, especially if they are pregnant. Every time they have women soldiers, they give them to the women to check them.
It is harder for the women but it makes the women stronger. If I see the occupation, if I see the soldier pass I don’t care so much about their guns. I feel angry when I see them with their guns, but also they are nothing, it is as if I didn’t see them. In my eyes they are silly people. They are strong because of their weapons, but we are strong in our mind.

Promoting culture itself is a form of resistance, right?

I remind my daughter all the time, and the same with the other women, that you should follow the culture, you should keep the culture. That is a kind of resistance.

Some people say that the Palestinian people should work to end the occupation first, and then should work on other struggles within their own society. Do you agree with people who say that the feminist struggle should wait until after the struggle to end the occupation?

If we don’t give women power, they will not help to end the occupation. Women in Palestine they are half the society, so they should share this act to end the occupation. The occupation will not be over in one click. You need a long time because we don’t have any power. The only power we have is inside ourselves, and women are part of the society. So I believe that women should be strong first.

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Settlers Burn ISM Tent in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah

copied from my Alternative Information Center article here

 

At about 2am on Monday, 11 September, settlers in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah burnt to the ground an International Solidarity Movement tent that had been established to monitor and prevent settler violence in the neighborhood.

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Sheikh Jarrah resident pointing out the remains of the ISM tent, burnt by settlers on 11 September (Photo: Ben Lorber for the AIC)


The tent, which thankfully was empty at the time it was torched, had been located in the front yard of the al-Kurd family home since March 2011. The Al-Kurd family, who have  lived on the property since 1956, reside in the back section of their home while a constantly rotating cast of Orthodox Jewish young men occupy the front extension of their home. This is due to an Israeli court ruling that forbids the Al-Kurd family from living in their home extension, which they built with their own hands in 2000. Since it was occupied with settlers in 2008, the al-Kurd family has been forced to endure an uneasy, tense and potentially violent co-existence with settlers in their own home. The ISM has maintained a constant presence outside the al-Kurd home to monitor this situation and demonstrate international solidarity.

 

“I was in the house,” says Nabil al-Kurd, “and at 1.30 a.m. I heard something. I went outside, I saw firemen and I saw the policemen.” Mohammed Sawbag, resident of the neighborhood, adds that “the police asked for proof, photos or something, pictures that we took- we have our cameras around the site, and computer screens inside Nabil’s house. We will send a disc of what happened to the police.”

 

Settler violence is nothing new for this area of East Jerusalem accustomed to political, civil and ideological conflict. In 1956, 28 Palestinian refugee families were allocated the land by UNRWA and the Jordanian government, the latter controlling East Jerusalem after the 1948 Middle East War. The Promised property deeds to the land were never delivered  to the families, and after the 1967 Middle East War the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Israel Committee produced Ottomon-era title deeds alleging Jewish ownership of the land from the late 1800s. Despite the dubious authenticity of the documents (a trip to the Ottoman archives in Turkey in the late 1990s revealed that the alleged documents do not exist in their records, and the documents themselves lack essential specifying features characteristic of the era, such as detailed descriptions of the property), and despite the fact that ownership guaranteed by the documents is merely a primary registration of ownership that does not allow for the uprooting of third parties who inhabit the land, the Committees quickly began demanding rent payments from, and seeking to evict, the 28 families of Sheikh Jarrah.

 

The vicious legal battle which has plagued the community since the mid-1970s took a drastic turn in 2009, when four families were forcibly evicted by Israel from their homes. Now, numerous settler families live side-by-side with the 23 remaining Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, who are embroiled in court battles and live suspended in a precarious state of uncertainty.

 

Why does Israel want this land? The Civic Coalition for Defending Palestinians’ Rights in Jerusalem, in its December 2009 report ‘Dispossession and Eviction in Jerusalem: The Stories of Sheikh Jarrah’, writes that “Sheikh Jarrah’s…strategic importance is based on the fact that Israeli control over this area…will form a Jewish ring or buffer between what Israel intends to keep, Jerusalem with a Jewish majority, under its direct control”[1]. The report continues that “collectively the various development initiatives in Sheikh Jarrah are intended to advance the creation of Israeli strongholds in the historic basin surrounding the Old City- with Sheikh Jarrah to the north, Silwan to the south, and the Mount of Olives to the east. Sheikh Jarrah is situated between the Old City and Mount Scopus which is home to the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital. In order to establish continuity through this valued corridor linking West Jerusalem with locations of strategic, historical, and religious significance to the Jewish population, a succession of Israeli neighborhoods were built to link West Jerusalem and Mount Scopus”[2].

 

The battle of Sheikh Jarrah residents against the Israeli Commissions is thus simultaneously a battle against the Israeli occupation, annexation and colonization of East Jerusalem.  Standing in front of the charred ruins of the ISM tent, Sheikh Jarrah resident Mohammed Sawbag relates how “from the beginning they don’t want this kind of protest. It makes them nervous….they don’t like the tent, with or without [people in it]…they don’t like this kind of symbol”.

 

This recent act of violence is the most extreme in a string of assaults over the last month. “It’s not the first time they tried to burn it”, relates one ISM activist. “In July settlers tried to destroy it, they ripped the side, entered the tent, and were urinating on the mattresses, we had to get new blankets. Then they urinated and defacated on the sofa” outside the tent. The most horrific incident occurred in late July. “We were sitting outside, it was 2 a.m. and from the small window next to the tent they threw all this shit in the tent, it went on the mattress, on the floor, inside, everywhere. We cleaned and then an hour later, shit again. Then we cleaned again and the settlers went out, pretending they didn’t do it.”

 

The blaze in the front yard of the al-Kurd family home came as a shock to the close-knit Palestinian community of Sheikh Jarrah. Says Nabil al-Kurd, “nobody does anything like this except for the settlers, because nobody in the [neighborhood] can do anything to my house, because they are good. If I am good with you, I don’t do anything bad.”

 

The settlers have left visible signs of their animosity throughout the property. The front door and surrounding courtyard of the Al-Kurd family’s home extension, which settlers have occupied since 2008, is adorned with layers of Israeli flags and Stars of David, a display that oversteps the boundaries of religious-cultural pride and enters the terrain of sheer brazenness and stubborn self-assertion. This display pales, however, in comparison to the occupied house across the street, which, in addition to being draped with Israeli flags, is crowned with an enormous 10-foot tall menorah on the roof. The walls of the Al-Kurd courtyard are emblazoned with graffiti like ‘Fuck Palestine’ and the logo of the Jewish Defense League, and most of the colorful drawings on the walls, painted by activists along with the children of the Al-Kurd home and the Sheikh Jarrah community, have been scrawled over with black spray paint. Slogans like ‘Free Paly’ and images of Palestinian flags wrapped in barbed wire, however, still remain on the courtyard walls as testaments to resistance and solidarity.

fuck_palestine

Settler graffiti in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah (Photo: Ben Lorber for the AIC)

 

In the current political climate, with the Palestinian initiative at the UN less than two weeks away, this latest attack on the ISM tent is almost certainly motivated by fear of an uncertain future. Says Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity activist Sarah, “you’re talking about a difficult time point because you’re in September, and there’s a whole buildup by Israeli authorities and the settlers to make things look more dramatic than they are, I think to justify [Israeli and settler] violence. I hope not, but I’m afraid it is so…I think it’s a growing feeling that settlers all over East Jerusalem and the West Bank have, that they are backed up by the authorities, and burning something is a violent action, and I’m assuming that they feel a sort of backing that they suppose allows them to behave as they will.”

 

Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity, an organization of Israeli activists, has been campaigning and holding weekly demonstrations on behalf of the Sheikh Jarrah community since August 2009, when the first evictions occurred. The organization began, says Sarah, with the realization that “obviously there’s been a long tradition of Palestinian nonviolent struggle in which Israelis and internationals have taken part, but it has mostly been in the West Bank. In East Jerusalem, the struggle, before Sheikh Jarrah, was in the footsteps of this popular nonviolent struggle…when the evictions happened in Sheikh Jarrah, it was almost unheard of – people almost didn’t even hear about it. Now a lot of people know what Sheikh Jarrah is…there’s much work to be done in bringing this story to new publics… which may view themselves as more center, but we feel that if they learned about the situation in Sheikh Jarrah, they would understand how much discrimination and how many problems the people are facing.”

 

The situation in Sheikh Jarrah has evolved since the forced evictions in 2009. Then, police patrolled the streets constantly, clashes between settlers and Palestinians were regular and sometimes turned violent, arrests were common, and international activists were present day and night. Now, ISM activists often find that the streets are quiet,and their only role for the night is to smoke cigarettes with Palestinian locals and scoff at settlers, who occasionally spit at them before returning to their nightly routine. On the 1st of September, Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity announced on their website that “the situation has changed…the settler takeover of properties in Sheikh Jarrah has been hindered in parts of the neighborhood, and halted in other parts. The courts have begun, for the first time in years, to rule against the settler organizations in hearings about the future of the neighborhood. The police, the executive arm of the settlements, have retreated from the neighborhood. Arrests of neighborhood residents have dwindled to next to nothing…most importantly, the political reality in East Jerusalem has begun to change. The joint Palestinian-Israeli political struggle has become a byword in East and West Jerusalem. Nonetheless, the goals of our struggle- the removal of the settlers from Sheikh Jarrah, the return of the families to their homes, and, above all, the liberation of the residents of East Jerusalem from repression- are still far from being realized.”[3]

 

Precisely because the goals of the resistance are far from being realized, ISM is more determined than ever to rebuild their tent and maintain an ongoing presence in Sheikh Jarrah. “We can’t let the occupation become normalized here”, an ISM activist said while standing outside the al-Kurd family home. “If we leave now, we will be sending the message [to the settlers]- ‘Ok, you win, you live here now, everything’s all right, there’s nothing we can do about it’. These settlers have been here for almost three years. Even if everyone in the neighborhood is used to it, as long as there is an occupation we will be here, because it is unjust. And even if the streets are calm most nights, who knows when something could happen?” And indeed, anything could happen at any time. On 9 November 2008, the Civic Coalition for Defending Palestinians’ Rights in Jerusalem recalls how “police entered the [al-Kurd family home]. In the middle of the night, the front door of the house was broken in. Police, masked and heavily armed, quickly filled the residence after having surrounded and locked down the neighborhood” (22). This attempted eviction set the tone for all future evictions, which occurred by surprise, in the middle of the night, and were always accompanied by a barrage of heavily armed soldiers and a military lockdown of the area.

Chomsky_book_in_Sheikh_Jarrah

A book by Noam Chomsky was amongst the articles burnt when the ISM tent in Sheikh Jarrah was destroyed by arson (Photo: Ben Lorber for the AIC)

 

As ISM will continue its presence in Sheikh Jarrah, Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity is developing new tactics to raise awareness and combat the occupation throughout East Jerusalem. Says Sarah- “Sheikh Jarrah isn’t an isolated incident, you can’t isolate the incident in Sheikh Jarrah from what’s going on in all of East Jerusalem. So through the past year we’ve been demonstrating in other places, and the objective now is to bring this situation to new audiences, that maybe may not come to a demonstration because they’re scared, or don’t like to demonstrate. So we will do this by way of tours and by founding an information center which will be a base in Sheikh Jarrah, and not something which will just be on a weekly basis, and raising the situation there as related to the rest of East Jerusalem…. the point is we are working out of very basic human rights…it’s about fighting for equality and justice. And obviously what’s going on in East Jerusalem is that Palestinians are being discriminated against- that’s why it’s easier for Jewish settlers to take over the land, because the law favors them.”

 

For now, the police are investigating the al-Kurd family footage, and searching for the suspect(s). Meanwhile, ISMers maintain a nightly presence in Sheikh Jarrah, sitting out under the stars until a new tent is constructed. Says Mohammed Sawbag, “they [the settlers] will not try to do anything for the next few days, because the situation is bad for them. We have pictures of who did it. They are afraid. A settler told me he was not responsible, that he doesn’t know who did it. I told him you are lying! He tried to tell me that during the last month there were no insults and nothing bad has happened. He is lying!”

 

Nabil al-Kurd said it best as he stood in his front yard, next to the charred remnants of the ISM tent, three feet away from the words ‘Fuck Palestine’ scrawled on his courtyard wall, beside the home extension which legally is not his, though he built it with his bare hands- “This is democracy in Israel!”


[1]http://www.civiccoalition-jerusalem.org/ccdprj.ps/new/pdfs/Sheikh%20Jarrah%20Report%20(2).pdf. page 9

[2]page 19

[3]http://www.en.justjlm.org/584

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Rally Renames Hebron’s Shuhada Street as ‘Apartheid Street’

copied from my Alternative Information Center article here

 

On Wednesday 14 September, a rally was held in Hebron to officially rename downtown Shuhada Street ‘Apartheid Street’, in protest against the Israeli  occupation that for nearly 20 years has shut down the once-thriving town center,

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Israeli soldiers gather around demonstrators, who explain to them that the ceremony is a non-violent action (Photo: Heather Stroud)

 

severely curtailed freedom of movement and caused for the Palestinians of Hebron humiliation, harassment and persecution at the hands of settlers and Israeli soldiers.

 

The rally and renaming ceremony were organized by Youth against Settlements, a committee that since 2009 has organized non-violent demonstrations and actions to raise awareness of the occupation that plagues the over 165,000 Palestinian residents of Hebron.  A crowd of Palestinians, internationals and journalists gathered at the heavily guarded checkpoint entrance to Apartheid Street at 1 p.m.,waving signs and placards and emblazoning, with stencils and spray paint, the walls of the area with the proclamation ‘Welcome to Apartheid Street’. Despite the explicitly peaceful nature of the protest, a crowd of 20-30 Israeli soldiers immediately assembled across from the protesters and on the rooftops surrounding the site. Rifles loaded with tear gas canisters and stun grenades, they quickly strung up razor wire to block the path of the protestors, though the latter incessantly repeated their peaceful intentions.

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Israeli soldiers placed barbed wire to prevent the demonstrators from moving forward (Photo: Heather Stroud) 


At a press conference, Youth against Settlements member Issa Anmo told a gathering crowd of Palestinians and journalists that “on behalf of all the Palestinian residents of Hebron we have one simple demand- open Shuhada Street and end the occupation. We are changing the name of this street to Apartheid Street for many reasons. The reasons are- only Israelis and foreign tourists are allowed to access Shuhada Street. It becomes as a ghost town. The street is closed to the Palestinian residents of Hebron…Palestinian residents who live on the street are prevented from going on the street, and to enter and exit their homes, and to get to their businesses. Some families are using back roads, and some other families are using the roofs to get to their homes. Shops have been closed by many military orders, [and] it’s forbidden for many Palestinians to drive on the road. Imagine that you are living on a street and it’s illegal for you to drive on the street!”

 

At the beginning of the 1990s, Apartheid Street was still the booming downtown marketplace of Hebron, and the commercial center of the entire southern West Bank, as it had been for centuries. Center of a vibrant community economy where Palestinian residents and farmers maintained small shops to sell fruits, vegetables and other goods, it was also the home street for thousands of Palestinian families who lived in apartments overlooking the bustling town centre. The May 2007 B’Tselem report ‘Ghost Town: Israel’s Separation Policy and Forced Eviction of Palestinians from the Center of Hebron’ paints a bleak picture of the desolation inflicted upon Shuhada Street by the occupation in just two decades: “at least 1,014 Palestinian housing units in the center of Hebron have been vacated by their occupants. This number represents 41.9 percent of the housing units in the relevant area. Sixty-five percent (659) of the empty apartments became vacant during the course of the second intifada. Regarding Palestinian commercial establishments, 1,829 are no longer open for business. This number represents 76.6 percent of all the commercial establishments in the surveyed area. Of the closed businesses, 62.4 percent (1,141) were closed during the second intifada. At least 440 of them closed pursuant to military orders.”

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Hebron’s bustling fruit and vegetable market in 1990


Israel’s occupation in Hebron has a turbulent history and over the past 40 years, one can discern familiar pattern: The one-sided domination of fundamentalist Zionism and its colonialist impetus, with the military backing of Israel trailing in its wake. In 1968, religious Jewish settlers rented a hotel in Hebron for Passover and barricaded themselves inside, refusing to leave; eventually, the Israeli army coaxed them out and established for them the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba to appease their desire to reclaim ‘Judea and Samaria’. In 1979, 40 women and children from Kiryat Arba repeated this brazen gesture, sneaking into an abandoned building on Apartheid Street in the middle of the night and, despite a lack of electricity, food and water, refusing to leave the next morning. This time, the Israeli army eventually allowed these squatters permanent residence in downtown Hebron, with full military support.

 

The fundamentalist settlers of Hebron are guided by the religious conviction that they are reviving a Jewish presence in Hebron that dates back 4000 years ago to the days of Abraham, who, along with most of the oldest patriarchs and matriarchs of the Old Testament, is buried at the nearby Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque, which today is a half-synagogue, half-mosque structure, heavily guarded by the Israeli army. They are also determined to maintain their community in memory of the 1929 Hebron massacre which 82 years ago, in the midst of a tense political climate and rising animosity in Palestine, resulted in the deaths of 67 Hebron Jews and the evacuation of the entire Jewish community from the city.  This massacre is contrary to the history of the two communities in the city, as Jews and Arabs had coexisted peacefully in Hebron for centuries, a peace attested to by the fact that several hundred Jewish lives were saved during the massacre by Palestinians, who hid Jewish families in their homes at considerable personal risk.

 

Since downtown Hebron was settled by Israelis in 1980, Apartheid Street and a small surrounding area have gradually become occupied by approximately 500 Jewish settlers (the term ‘Israeli settlers’ would be misleading in this case, as many of the settlers are recent arrivals from the east coast of America), guarded by at least four times as many Israeli soldiers. The process of apartheid over the last 20 years has been complex and gradual, but unmistakable in its intentions. After a massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque in February 1994, in which 29 Palestinians were killed and over 100 wounded by an Israeli settler from Kiryat Arba, the Israeli military began to pursue an official separation policy that closed the shops of Apartheid Street, blocked off the Jewish area, already heavily guarded and controlled, from the rest of Hebron, and sought to remove most Palestinian presence from the settler enclave.

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Hebron’s fruit and vegetable market in 2007, closed by the Israeli army 


In 1997, Hebron was officially split into two areas- H1, 18 square kilometers, under Palestinian control and containing most of Hebron’s Palestinian population; and H2, 4 square kilometers in the absolute center of the city, encompassing Apartheid Street and much of Hebron’s Old City, under Israeli control and enclosing the settler population alongside a handful of Palestinian families who could not be coaxed or forced to leave. The Second Intifada in the early 2000’s brought, according to B’tselem, “unprecedented restrictions on Palestinian movement in the city, primarily a continuous curfew and closure of main streets to Palestinian residents…during the first three years of the Intifada, the army imposed a curfew on H-2 for a total of more than 377 days, including a curfew that ran non-stop for 182 days, with short breaks to obtain provisions. On more than 500 days, the army imposed a curfew that lasted for a few hours up to an entire day.”

 

In response to the military crackdown, which began in the 1990s and reached a feverish pitch in the 2000s, the vast majority of Palestinian apartments and storefronts in Apartheid Street have either been voluntarily abandoned or forcibly emptied out. Today, what was once a booming marketplace is now, indeed, a ghost town, traversed only by settlers, Israeli soldiers, and the occasional Palestinian who holds the proper permit.

 

“I was born just 50 meters from here”, says Issa Anmo, sitting in the office of the Christian Peacemaker’s Team on the border of H-1, “and I am not allowed to visit the house where I was born, I am not allowed to go back to my neighborhood to smell my flowers. At the same time, the settlers can do what they want inside my house!…why are they allowed and I am not allowed? They are civilians and I am a civilian! Why am I not allowed? Is their blood blue and my blood is dark, is black?…This is apartheid. Nobody can argue [with] me if it is apartheid or not.”

 

The 14 September rally, like many others held over the years, was meant to highlight this unjust and oppressive state of affairs and indeed, the disproportionate Israeli army presence at the explicitly peaceful rally itself highlighted the reality of everyday life for the Palestinian population of Hebron. “It was just a rally to explain what is happening in Hebron. At the beginning we were afraid we could not send out the message to explain what we were suffering from, but then the army and the Israeli police came and they put up the barbed wire and detained us, and prevented us from doing a civil right. They showed exactly what it means, that we are suffering from the apartheid and inequality in Hebron…I’m not happy the police came, but they showed the real face of the occupation, this is a reality.”

 

The rally also intended to highlight the resolve of the Palestinian people, and the fear of the Israelis, toward the upcoming September initiative at the UN. Says Issa, “it’s very connected to September…the Palestinians are suffering from occupation, from settlements, and from apartheid. And this activity was concentrating on apartheid, to tell the world look, there is a problem here! We do not want you to stand against Israel, we want you to stand against apartheid, against occupation, against the settlements. We are not asking people to stand against Israel or say anything bad about Israel, we are just asking them to stand with us against the occupation, against apartheid and against the settlements which are destroying our own lives and violating all our human lives.”

 

Not all Palestinians at the rally, however, were pleased that Apartheid Street was officially receiving a new name. Said resident Azmi Ah- Shouki, “I don’t want to change the name of Shuhada Street, because this name has a relationship with the history and suffering of the Palestinian people. We want the occupation to end and we are here always. The cccupation makes apartheid, but we are Shuhada Street.” Shuhada Street means ‘The Martyr’s Street’ in Arabic, and recalls the memory of those murdered at the Ibrahimi mosque during the massacre of 1994. A small faction of Palestinians showed up at the rally to oppose the decision, and later in the day the group partially covered many of the ‘Welcome to Apartheid Street’ wall stencils with black spray paint.

 

Issa, however, along with other members of Youth against Settlements, remains steadfast. “[These people don’t] know what apartheid means, that is the point. We need to educate the people more about apartheid. We are not changing the name really, we are just explaining, giving a description for the street, that it is an apartheid street. [The name is] officially changed, but it’s not a big change. Finish the apartheid, then it will be the same name [Shuhada Street] again”.

 

Walking away from the entrance to Apartheid Street as the rally dissipated, passing the endless storefronts of the Palestinian people of Hebron as he made his way through the crowded, narrow corridors of the Old City, Badia Dwaik, Deputy Coordinator of Youth against Settlements, expressed perfectly the prevailing feeling of the day- “We did many protests and demonstrations before, but it is important to get attention from the world media. I am happy because we announced this to raise awareness that it is now Apartheid Street. The message is rich, so I am happy.”

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Settler Attacks Countered by New Refusing to Die In Silence Group

copied from my Alternative Information Center article here

 

Settler Attacks Countered by New Refusing to Die in Silence Group

Wednesday, 21 September 2011 11:14 Ben Lorber for the Alternative Information Center (AIC)
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On Tuesday afternoon (20 September), Israeli settlers from the settlement of Yitzhar arrived at the Palestinian village of Affira Al-Khaeliya outside of Nablus and, after a brief demonstration, stormed the village, assaulting its inhabitants and damaging property.

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Launch of new campaign Refusing to Die in Silence, on Sunday 18 September 

Israeli soldiers eventually arrived, only to protect the heavily armed settlers from the local unarmed Palestinians, who attempted to defend their village with the stones at hand. In the ensuing conflict between soldiers and Palestinians, one 13 year old boy was hit in the back by a close-range high-velocity tear gas canister, and at least three people were injured by rubber bullets.

 
Thom, an international activist from Britain, arrived on the scene at 3 pm with ‘Refusing to Die in Silence‘, a solidarity group formed on Sunday by popular resistance committees in the West Bank. When he arrived at Affira Al-Khaeliya, “the soldiers were standing in between the settlers and the villagers, protecting the settlers as they went back to their settlement. As we tried to confront the soldiers and ask them what they were doing, they threw many sound grenades at us and started firing tear gas and later, rubber-coated steel bullets. They fired a tear gas canister straight at a boy who was 13 years old, hitting him in his back before he fell to the ground. At the time it looked like he had been paralyzed, I don’t think he was, but he couldn’t move and had to be carried to an ambulance. When the owner of a nearby house tried to walk to her house, they threw a tear gas canister at her feet. She is 80 years old. She was taken to an ambulance as well, but she is ok…once the settlers had returned to the settlement, the soldiers started to move back and fire less tear gas, and the conflict slowly dissipated.”

 

‘Refusing to Die in Silence’ was launched on Monday (19 September) in the Ramallah-area village of Nabi Saleh. The group uses a coordinated system of cars and video cameras to monitor, respond to and intervene in settler attacks occurring this September across the West Bank. Speaking of the need for the group this September, Bil’in resident Mohammed Khatib of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee noted on the committee’s website that “If anyone needed further proof that Palestinians cannot count on Israeli authorities to prevent settler violence, recent events show beyond doubt why we need to organize to defend ourselves. This is exactly what these volunteers will do in a civic and peaceful manner”.

 

“The idea” behind the group, explains Thom, “is that we get a call from the villages experiencing settler attacks, and we immediately get in the car. There are two Palestinians in the car and two internationals and two cameras, one video recording camera and one photo still camera. We go straight to the village where it’s happening and document the settler violence and, if feasible, if there are no soldiers and it appears the settlers are attempting to escalate violence, then as internationals we get out and try to deter the violence.”
Refusing to Die in Silence represents a concerted attempt to unify the efforts of popular committees from villages all across the West Bank, in face of an almost certain increase in settler violence as the UN bid for statehood commences this week. The best way to respond to settler violence, which strikes unexpectedly and disappears as soon as the damage has been done, is to respond quickly and to protect Palestinians. Thom notes that “the idea came from the lack of media as settler violence is actually taking place. There are numerous reports of settler violence, you can find alot of media covering violence after it happens,but there seems to be little or no media trying to cover the violence as it is occurring. So [‘Refusing to Die in Silence’] came to try and fill this gap.”
Internationals play a crucial role in the organization, not merely as observers watching the conflict from afar, but as actors standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people. “We use the international solidarity here in Palestine,” says Thom, “to try and deter the violence and stop settlers from entering the villages.”
The settlers entered Affira on Tuesday in response to the anticipated UN vote, as part of a new initiative to ‘show Palestinians whose land it is’. They also attempted to show this to Palestinians later on in the day, outside the nearby village of Awarta when, at about 5:30, settlers could be seen, in Thom’s words, “on the fields of Awarta playing music and waving Israeli flags and singing and celebrating.” This region has seen much violence and harassment recently- last week, in the village of Burin, next to Affira Al-Khaeliya, settlers burnt two hundred and twenty olive trees belonging to Palestinian farmers.

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Wednesday September 21st, Hebron March for Statehood

Today- crowds surging through the streets of Hebron with Palestinian flags waving, running through traffic in the middle of the morning, yelling and chanting, swarms and swarms of people. as the taxis rolled, as the shops baked bread, as grocers arranged and cut their meat, as mothers went shopping, as kids were walking to school, as cars were honking. Gathering and expanding on the street, surging forward, the crowd with flags and fists and chants- the PA came and blocked them, a resounding ‘boooooo’ through the crowd, yelling, chanting, children looking up at me- i had a camera, i was white, everyone swarmed around me, ‘take my picture!’, kids with palestinian flags and UN 194 banners posing for me, grabbing their brothers- the crowd surging forth past the PA guards, down the street, resounding cheers- then BOOM! BOOM!, the crowd doubled back, bodies turned to run towards me, surging mass pushing towards me, panicked faces running, I turned and ran as well, ran past old women trying to get bread and tomatoes from the market at 10 AM, ran past men in business suits, ran past taxi cabs with doors half open, and shopkeepers who looked startled, ran and jumped over boxes, tumbled over crates and skipped over tire tracks in the middle of the road- smell of tear gas began to hint in the air- BOOM! BOOM! children yelling, ‘allah hu akbar’ as we ran as one mass. Then stopped, panting, out of breath, doubled back to take pictures, people streaming onto side streets. The protest dissipated, PA and IDF standing by the checkpoint, looking guarded and bored and riled up and tense and at the ready. kids walked back together with rolled up palestinian flags, looked down at the ground, looked up and smiled again.

then baladayi square- huge billboards of hebron, UN 194, OCCUPATION OUT, PALESTINIAN STATE- thousands, thousands jumping and screaming and cheering. marching bands full of 10 year old kids in regal uniform. huge mobs of schoolgirls swarming past me, chanting and clapping, backpacks bouncing off their backs. mothers holding children, teenagers pouring water on each other, crowd surfing, pumping fists in the air, old men standing off to the side with their arms crossed, smiling. i was with a girl from ISM, the young palestinian men swarmed around her asking whatsyrname, ‘they are from a village and have never seen a foreigner’ an old man explained to us. shouting jumping crowds, thousands more marching past every minute with enormous banners with mahmoud abbas’ face, slogans. the hope! joy and optimism as trucks came up to give free water. the drums! happy crowds under the sun, everyone waving cheap palestinian flags, running up to you smiling hello! take my picture! singing and clapping, the cheer! even though the US will veto! the hope!

then the market. old old city, ancient market, cobble stones, narrow windy pathways. IDF soldiers standing in a line, firing tear gas, running, huge crowds running, screaming. whirlwind, stampede, like gazelles, we duck in an alleyway and see the kids and adults running, running, and then a moment later the soldiers, running, running after them. all the screaming. here, at two in the morning before i go to bed, with mosquitoes kissing the screen in front of me, i can only remember the BOOM, and the screaming. some palestinians took us up on a roof to watch- six fresh faced young IDF soldiers on an adjacent rooftop, crouching, looking down below. Down below, in an alleyway, young shebab with kafiyas on their faces, throwing stones and running. not more than ten years old, they peep out from behind an alleyway, chuck a stone up at the roof, or down the alley, then disappear again. some have fancy home made slingshot, they whirl it in the air and launch the stone as a projectile that, if it hit at the right spot, could be mildly frightening, even for a heavily armored and armed soldier. then the tear gas hits the ground beside them, and they run. battle like this for an hour, the kids never give up, for what? to resist. alleyways littered, covered with stones. battered street, marketplace closed. how could you continue to sell falafel as tear gas canisters roll on the street outside your shop? and yet they do it, life goes on for a city under siege, used to it, though battered, bruised city, marketplace closed by three pm. ghost town. bruised, licking its wounds. tomorrow morning the shops will open again. i remember, in the midst of the old city tear gas, a young boy runs up to me- you understand? he yells with frightened face, reddened and teared from gas. do you understand?!?!?

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Israel Targets Vittorio Arrigone School in Embattled Jordan Valley

copied from my Alternative Information Center article here

 

As schools around the world begin another year of instruction, one school, near to completion in one of the most grief-stricken and resilient areas of occupied Palestine, has suffered a massive set-back because the Israeli military has carried away its infrastructure- the Vittorio Arrigone school, in the small village of Ras Al Auja

 

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Israeli soldiers confiscate and take away a donated caravan that was to serve as a classroom (Photo: Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign) 

 

in the Jordan Valley.

 

The Arrigoni school, named after the Italian International Solidarity Movement activist killed in Gaza this April, began in February as a small tent school in the village of Ras Al Auja, and began evolving into a more permanent mud-brick and caravan structure in April. Built jointly by the Ras Al Auja community and the activist group Jordan Valley Solidarity, the school, once built, will educate young children up to the age of 13 in one of the areas of the West Bank hardest hit by the Israeli occupation. From the time that Israel seized control of the area in 1967 until the present, the resident Palestinian population has decreased from 320,000 residents to 56,000, as 36 primarily agricultural Israeli settlements, housing 6,400 settlers, have been constructed on 50% of the Jordan Valley’s land.

 

Ras Al Auja is a Bedouin community seven km west of the larger community of Al Auja. Both serve as paradigmatic examples of the devastating impact of Israeli occupation on Bedouin in the Jordan Valley. Until Israel’s occupation, Al Auja was for millennia an oasis, famous for its ever-flowing spring. As it says on the website of Jordan Valley Solidarity, “people would come to Al Auja from all over to swim, fish and sit among the banana groves that once grew there.” In 1972, the Israeli water company Mekorot, which has monopolized the West Bank water,  dug two deep water wells in Al Auja, cutting off the flow of water before it reached the village. “These wells lowered the water table, drying out the spring. Today the area is a desert, crossed with dried-up canals that see water one or two weeks every year during the rainy season.”

 

As is commonplace for the larger West Bank Bedouin communities, families must use tractors and mobile water tanks to bring water to their homes and villages, at considerable personal expense. The estimated amount of water that one Palestinian in the Valley consumes per day, for drinking as well as all other activities, is some 70 litres. This is the amount of water it takes to flush a toilet. Jordan Valley settlers, on the other hand, enjoy free access to water and, from the comfort of their heavily subsidized, modern settlement homes, individually consume about 33 times as much water as their Palestinian neighbors in the Valley.

 

To make matters worse, the families of Al Auja and Ras Al Auja, who settled there after expulsion from Beer Sheva during the 1948 Nakba, used to have “over 100 sheep or goats each, which they grazed on the mountains and watered at the spring”. Now, the settlements of Yitav, Niran and ‘Omer’s Farm’ have colonized the surrounding mountains, an army military checkpoint borders Ras Al Auja to the south, and two enormous settler-only water towers cast a grim shade over the dry Al Auja spring. ‘Omer’s Farm’, in particular, has stolen half the land of Ras Al Auja in the five years of its existence. It consists of a single family, on a hilltop, surrounded by stolen farmland, heavily guarded by the Israeli military.

 

The men of Al Auja, according to Jordan Valley Solidarity, “are reduced to surviving by working in Israel’s illegal settlements, earning a pittance. The area feels like little more than a work camp, reminiscent of the townships of apartheid South Africa, with all the men away during the day in the settlements.” The Bedouin now work for settlers, to farm land that the latter stole from them. While they were previously self-sufficient farmers, the residents now wage-laborers making scarcely enough to get by.

 

In March 2011, Jordan Valley Solidarity joined with community members to construct a school for children of the 130+ families of Ras Al Auja. Over the course of two weeks, volunteers sewed sack cloths together to construct a makeshift tent school, where women from the community began to teach 30 children, mostly aged between 5 and 8, a basic curriculum of math, English, Arabic, geography and history. It was vitally important to establish a school in Ras Al Auja, says Jordan Valley Solidarity coordinator, volunteer and driving force ‘Jane’, who has been involved with this project since its inception, because “if you don’t have education when you’re a small child, that means that when you go to school you’re behind already. Education is a basic human right. These people have a right to education in their community.”

 

Before construction of this school, the children of Ras Al Auja were forced to walk 7 kilometres each morning to the school in al Auja. As the foot path trailed right next to two Israeli settlements, exposing children to regular physical and psychological settler harassment, many parents were wary of sending their young children to school. In addition, numerous fathers are off working in these very Israeli settlements, thus unavailable to assist their children in the mornings. Numerous children, therefore, were left without an education until later years.

 

Today, because the new school in Ras Al Auja only educates children aged 7 to 13, those children over 13 lucky enough to continue their education still need to take this daily trek to the Al Auja Secondary School, where they can study for the Tawjihi (matriculation exams). Mossem Zubaidat, a volunteer with Jordan Valley Solidarity who also works with the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education, relates how “there is no transport to take them to the village, so they use their legs to go to school in summer and winter. It is hard for them to put the bag on their back and walk all the distance…We need to build the school because in Ras Al Auja the people live in boxes, not in houses, they live in tents! We are certain to build a school there, it is our land and we can build a school anywhere!”

 

The Israeli army does not agree. The Area A, B and C zoning system was established for the West Bank after the 1993 Oslo Accords to designate areas of full Palestinian control, joint Palestinian civil and Israeli military control, and full Israeli control, respectively. Because 95% of the Jordan Valley, including al Auja and Ras al Auja, falls under Area C (50% because of Israeli settlements and 45% because of military training grounds and nature reserves), this means that almost nowhere in the Valley can the Bedouin build any permanent structure without requiring an Israeli permit, which is expensive to apply for and almost impossible to obtain. Between January 2000 and September 2007, Israel issued almost 5,000 demolition orders against Palestinian structures in the Jordan Valley. Of those, 1,663 demolitions were carried out – Israeli bulldozers tore down houses, schools, animal shelters and even entire villages.

 

The stated purpose of Israel’s vise-like grip on ownership and control of the Valley is to hold a security buffer space between Israel and Jordan, necessary to defend the country; in reality, however, Israel covets the Valley because (1) the West Bank, which could serve as a future Palestinian state, is thereby surrounded on all sides by Israel; (2) the West Bank is thereby cut off from economic interaction and communication with Jordan, and the rest of the Middle East; and (3) in the words of the soon to be published Jordan Valley Solidarity factbook To Exist Is To Resist, the Jordan Valley’s “abundance of water resources, fertile soil and natural minerals offer competitive economic advantages in agriculture, industry and tourism. It also constitutes a geographical “reservoir” of land where the Palestinians could establish housing projects and public facilities.”

 

Israel’s policy of constant settlement expansion, pervasive military checkpoints, destruction or closure of Palestinian roads (the last few years have seen 17 new roadblocks and 4 new checkpoints in the Jordan Valley), construction of Israeli-only bypass roads and physical intimidation, harassment, and outright demolition of Bedouin villages in Area C is evidence of a conscious attempt to gradually exterminate a Palestinian presence in the Jordan Valley, to cement Israeli control and solidify a long-term Israeli presence that remains illegal under international law. Jane explains the role of Jordan Valley Solidarity in resisting the Israeli occupation: “By supporting communities to construct infrastructure for basic services, we support them to stay in their communities, on their land- because the Israelis want them to leave the Jordan Valley, or to make them move into the 5% of the land which is in area A or B to create an Israeli state with Palestinian ghettoes.” The establishment of a school in Ras Al Auja, like countless other projects in the Valley, is not primarily a gesture of humanitarian aid, but rather a symbol of international solidarity. “The aim of lack of education is to drive people from their land. What that means is that the right to education for people is really important…as a basic human right, it’s not something that can be taken away from children…Therefore our motto is ‘to exist is to resist’, and the people in Ras Al Auja are existing and resisting just by being there, and being on their land is their resistance, so we support them in their resistance…together, [we are] using their own land that the people live on to create a fact on the ground to resist the Israeli occupation.”

 

It was in this spirit of resistance that, in April, it was decided that a tent school, though an important first step, was too small and impermanent to meet the community’s needs. Accordingly, over 100 international volunteers and community members began constructing two permanent mud-brick classroom buildings. After the death of Italian International Solidarity Movement activist Vittorio Arrigoni in Gaza that April, the Ras Al Auja community, which personally knows the vital role of international activism, requested to name the school Vittorio Arrigoni. From the Jordan Valley Solidarity website- “Vittorio was, and will remain, a great symbol of resistance. To give his name to one of our schools is an honour, and we will do our best to make this school another example of resistance against the occupation.” On 25 April 25t Luisa Morgantini, former Vice President of the European Parliament, Majed Al Fityani, Jericho Governor, 50 Italian volunteers, members of the local community, and Jordan Valley Solidarity volunteers laid the first brick of the Vittorio Solidarity school while singing ‘Bella Ciao’ and the Socialist International anthem.

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Israeli army taking away the donated mobile classrooms of the Arrigoni school in the Jordan Valley (Photo: Jordan Valley Solidarity Campaign) 

 

It is this spirit of resistance that the Israeli army is acting to suppress. During the month of Ramadan, the Ras Al Auja school joyously received a donation of two large caravans, which would serve as classrooms. Yet at 10.30 a.m. on 7 September, in Jane’s words, “the Israeli occupation force arrived and removed the caravans on lorries, leaving paperwork…they made all the village stay back and declared it was a closed military zone while they removed the caravans”.

 

Jericho Governor Majed Al Fityani, who laid the first brick of the Vittorio Arrigoni school in April, said Wednesday afternoon that “we were surprised by the Israeli actions this morning, we were not expecting this from the Israelis. We are going to request an official answer from the Israelis for why they took the caravans…it is the duty of the government to provide education for the people. it is a question of providing services and facilities for the students, free of charge. It is very difficult to provide services because the school is in Area C, so it is impossible for us to build structures there.”

The start of classes will be postponed until further accommodations are arranged for the students. In addition, a celebration and official announcement ceremony for the school, planned for September 15, will now be postponed.

 

Nonetheless, the community of Ras Al Auja, along with Jordan Valley Solidarity, remains resilient in the face of this new obstacle. Explains Mossem Zubaidat, “its not the first school we built with Jordan Valley Solidarity. The first school was in Jiftlik, it started in tents, now it’s a building. The second school is in Fasayil. We built it from mud and soil and tents, and now it has become a building. So we have experience with the Israelis about these situations. We are sure that we are going to build that school again, and we must build that school for these people. We are going to talk to the media, we are going to talk to the Jericho Governorate, and we are going to talk to the community, to do something about it. The army says it is illegal, but we say it is legal, because it is Palestinian land!…We have to build the school because we need to stand with these people in their land, not to leave their land to the Israelis. We are going to fight to build that school again, we are not going to surrender!”

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Israeli Army Targeting Jenin’s Freedom Theatre

copied from my Alternative Information Center article here

 

In the past six weeks, the Jenin Freedom Theatre, still recovering from the unsolved 4 April murder of its co-founder and mentor, Juliano Mer-Khamis, has faced a new stumbling block: the Israeli military.

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First, at 3:30 in the morning on 27 July,Israeli soldiers arrived at the Freedom Theatre to arrest Adnan Naghnaghiye, Location Manager of the Theatre, and Bilal Saadi, chairperson of the Theatre’s Board of Directors in Jenin. Soldiers further threw stones and huge blocks of concrete at the building, shattering several windows. In the Theatre’s press release, night guard Ahmad Nasser Matahen relates how “they told me to open the door to the theatre. They told me to raise my hands and forced me to take my pants down. I thought my time had come, that they would kill me.” When General Manager Jacob Gough and Theatre co-founder Jonatan Stanczak arrived on the scene, they were “forced at gunpoint to squat next to a family with four small children surrounded by approximately 50 heavily armed Israeli soldiers. Whenever we tried to tell them that they are attacking a cultural venue and arresting members of the theatre,” adds Jonatan, we were told to shut up and they threatened to kick us, I tried to contact the civil administration of the army to clarify the matter but the person in charge hung up on me.””

 

Adnan and Bilal were detained without charges for almost a month, denied access to a lawyer for over two weeks, and subjected to beatings and sleep deprivation, all as part of a supposed investigation into the murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis.

 

Then, on 6 August, Rami Awni Hwayel, a 20-year old acting student who currently holds a lead role in the theatre’s adaption of Waiting for Godot, was handcuffed, blindfolded, and taken away by the Israeli army at the Shave Shomeron checkpoint between Nablus and Jenin. Though the army quickly determined he had nothing to do with Juliano’s murder, he was held for a month pending investigation of a confession, extracted during interrogation, that he had illegally sought employment in Israel for 10 days many years ago. In an open letter to the Israeli Embassy in London, Jacob Gough relates how at a court hearing on 17 August, the military judge “stated that the police and army were wrong to have picked up Rami and spent this time as they have on this matter, and that Rami obviously has no connection to the murder of Juliano, however, in what just seems to be an attempt to ‘save face’, the Israeli authorities are looking to imprison him under the aforementioned charge.” The army usually punishes perpetrators of this ‘crime’ by sending them back across the border; for Rami, who, like Adnan and Bilal, was initially held for over two weeks without a lawyer, it will now be more difficult than it usually is for a resident of Jenin refugee camp to secure a visa to tour Waiting for Godot throughout America this September.

 

Finally, at 2am on 22 August, the Israeli army arrived in Jenin, surrounded the Theatre and entered the home of the Nagnaghiye family, where they beat and arrested Mohammed, theatre security guard and brother of Adnan. They also ransacked and trashed all three floors of the Nagnaghiye family home: “Furniture was thrown to the floor and broken, and there was even dog excrement on the floor. The army also took another three residents of the camp on the same night.”

 

The stated reason for all of these arrests is an Israeli investigation into the unsolved murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis. However, in an interview given on 3 September, Jacob Gough related that “initially [the army] gave the normal rubbish excuses, like ‘they’re acting against the security of the region’. We then found out they are supposedly doing an investigation into the murder of Juliano. But then I don’t count investigations where you kidnap people and treat them inhumanely, treat them to sleep deprivation- for a week they didn’t sleep- and then you try to get them to confess. Like this they work. That’s not an investigation, that’s trying to pin it on somebody.”

 

Indeed, Jacob says in an Open Letter to the Israeli Security Apparatus that “in every one of [Bilal’s] court hearings so far, when the Israeli security services have requested an extension of detention, it has been noted in court documents that no information pertaining to the murder of Juliano has been gained from interrogation”, and that “on Sunday 14 August Adnan was in court for another extension of detention, [and] the judge gave the security services an additional 8 days but stated that they needed to wrap the interrogation up as they have not gained much from this time before.”

 

In addition, the inhumane treatment inflicted on the detainees casts doubt on the real motives of the Israeli army. On 22 August, the same day that Mohammed Nagnaghiye was taken, the two men detained on 27 July – Mohammed’s brother Adnan and Bilal Saadi- were released with no charges filed against them. In the open letter to the Israeli Embassy, Jacob relates that “finally after 2 weeks [Bilal’s] lawyer was allowed access to him…he told her that they had treated him ‘inhumanely’. As of now we only know that they were using disorientation techniques (he had no idea whether it was night or day) and whilst having him shackled painfully and after denying him food for a long period of time they then put food in front of him, obviously with no possible way for him to eat with dignity.” Adnan had been “in much a similar position to Bilaal, but spent 16 days without access to a lawyer.”

 

Israel also appears to be deliberately impeding the movement of Freedom Theatre actors in and out of the West Bank. In our interview last Saturday at the Theatre, Jacob related that members of Rami’s theatre troupe, which plans to tour Waiting for Godot through America in September, “have all had to have visa application meetings with the American consulate. The American consulate doesn’t come to the West Bank, so these students have to go to Jerusalem and Jordan. Jerusalem is a lot easier. In the past these students have never had problems getting to Jerusalem, and suddenly- stopped. None of these children can go, they are all perceived as a security threat.” In a phone interview on 5 September, Jacob reiterated that “there is no doubt in my mind that this is related [to the army’s arrests]…it all occurred at exactly the same time…[this is] another part of the Israeli army crackdown. I’m sure it’s connected.”

 

In the Jenin refugee camp “there is fear, fear of being associated with the theatre, [because] we have had someone killed, lots of people arrested…”. But fear seems to be a common factor on both sides of the equation. “After Juliano’s death”, Jacob explains, “it was shown how much support the Freedom Theatre has in the world, and not just people. Politicians, organizations, media as well…[one] of the most dangerous things for Israel, is showing that places like the  Freedom Theatre can reach really far…we’ve had the actor’s union in Britain, actors’ unions in America, France, Germany- the Parliament in Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, at least- Congressmen in America as well- people phoning the Israeli embassies and sending them letters all the time, asking what’s happening, what are you doing to the Freedom Theatre. The Israeli embassies started sending back replies, which I’ve never seen before! I’ve never seen the Israeli embassy reply to these kinds of letters, they just go whatever…we don’t care. It feels like we’re hitting a nerve, and we try to harness that.”

 

On 1 August , the General Secretary of Equity, the trade union representing 36,500 UK based performers, actors and creative workers, wrote to the Israeli Embassy in London to ask why the Freedom Theatre’s “location manager, Adnan Naghnaghiye, and Board member, Bilal Saadi, “are currently being detained following an attack on the theatre”.  The letter concludes that “as an organisation which campaigns for freedom of expression, we are obviously very distressed about these reports. I therefore urge you to ensure that the individuals concerned are released immediately and safely returned to Jenin.”

 

Two weeks later, on 16 August, Equity received a reply from the Israeli Embassy. Citing the murder of Mer-Khamis, the letter states that “the authorities have instigated profound and comprehensive investigations which led them to the arrest you mention in your letter. Although we are aware that damage to the property was caused during the arrest, this was not intentional.”

 

In his open letter to the Israeli Embassy, Jacob replies that “though it is good of the ambassador to admit damage was caused to the theatre, to say throwing rocks at windows is unintentional is not just wrong, but also a lie. Anyhow, even unintentional harm/damage is at the very least negligent.” An even more curious lapse on the Israeli Embassy’s part, however, is that they ignored completely Equity’s complaint regarding the arrests of Adnan and Bilal, and instead spoke of the arrest of Rami, which was not even mentioned in Equity’s letter and which had nothing to do with ‘damage to the property’ of the theatre, because it occurred far from the theatre! Through this strategic move, the Embassy seeks to deflect attention away from the army’s mistreatment of Adnan and Bilal, and onto “[Rami’s] involvement in a number of other unsolved crimes”- the heinous crimes, namely, involved in crossing the Green Line briefly to bring a little money back to his impoverished refugee camp.

 

If Rami and his classmates are able to tour ‘Waiting for Godot’ through the US this September, “the hope”, says Jacob in his reply to the Embassy, “is [that] they will manage to get offers of scholarships to continue their training, a rare opportunity and ray of light for these youth who have spent their whole lives under occupation…This whole farce of court proceedings puts this trip for [Rami] in a very precarious position and further works to undermine the work of The Freedom Theatre, which I would say seems to be more the goal of the Israeli authorities than a genuine investigation into the murder of our friend and leader, Juliano Mer Khamis.”

 

When Juliano founded the Freedom Theatre in Jenin in 2006, he hoped to use performance and art to show to the world a Palestinian people and their vibrant, creative culture and self-identity. In April 2006, four years after the Battle of Jenin, in which 15-20% of the camp’s infrastructure was destroyed by the Israeli army, Mer-Khamis said in an interview with author Arthur Nelsen in London that “in Jenin – especially in Jenin – something is happening, in the good sense of the word. There is a universalist discourse, an international happening…an international campaign around a new kind of resistance…we want to be part of this third Intifada which is on the way in a way to hopefully influence at least some of the people in Jenin camp, towards non-violent, cultural international resistance.”

 

The Freedom Theatre’s hope remains that, after the violent suppression of the first two Intifadas, a successful Palestinian revolution today must revitalize Palestinian culture and self-identity, and inspire international recognition not merely of a Palestinian state and governing power, but first and foremost of a Palestinian people. On 4 April 2005, one year before the founding of the Freedom Theatre, Juliano said that “we are facing the end of the destruction of the Palestinian people by the Israeli forces. We are in a situation today where not only the political and the economic infrastructure are destroyed, the Israelis are destroying the neurological system of the society, which is culture, identity, communication. We felt that creating a project which will deal with the arts, with cinema, with theatre, with the media activities, computers, web sites, is the best way to fight this deconstruction of the identity of the Palestinian, which is deliberately done in the last year by the Israelis. Israel is pushing back the Palestinian people into the Stone Age…communicating with the outside world, bringing people from the outside world, breaking the wall down, if not physically, metaphorically- is creating the grounds for hope. We cannot bring hope, hope- we cannot bring it in a sack or a package. We can create the grounds so people can build up hope, and this is our task today, to create the grounds for those children.”

 

In the face of Israeli army harassment, Jenin’s Freedom Theatre has received an outpouring of support, both internationally and within Palestine. In addition to the ferocious and impassioned letter-writing campaign, it has received many donations from abroad to support increasing legal fees.

 

Additionally, most recent events may indicate that, in response to international pressure, the army is relaxing its crackdown on the Theatre.  Mohammed Nagnaghiye, who was arrested on 22 August, received a 15-day extension of his arrest on the 29th, but was then unexpectedly released on 3 September. He did not report any abuse at the hands of the army, and was quickly allowed access to a lawyer. In addition, two technicians at the Theatre, Mohammed Saadi and Ahmad Matahen, along with an acting student, Momeen Syatat, were told to hand themselves in to the Salem military base outside of Jenin by 1 September. The Theatre wrote on its website, “to walk into the arms of the Israeli security service quite often means disappearing from the surface of the earth, never knowing when you will come back and knowing that you are most certainly facing harsh treatment. We demand that Mohammed, Ahmad, and Momeen be treated no worse and no better than any Israeli citizen brought in to participate in a civil criminal investigation. Their legal rights, as stipulated by international law, must be honoured.”

 

Thankfully, all three residents of Jenin refugee camp were simply asked a few questions, and then released. Over the phone on 4 September, Jacob noted that “the pressure that the theatre put on and that our friends around the world put on, seems to have made a difference. Otherwise the army would’ve kept acting the way it usually does…They even said to some of the guys who went the other day ‘we like the Freedom Theatre, we support the Freedom Theatre!’”

 

Indeed, at strategic moments Israel does claim to support the Freedom Theatre. Juliano was, after all, an Israeli citizen and well-known Israeli actor; in addition, token gestures of goodwill towards Palestinian arts initiatives bolster Israel’s public image. In reply to Equity’s letter, the Israeli Embassy in London spoke of how “Mr Juliano Mer-Khamis, the director of the theatre, was shot and killed in his car by masked terrorists…Mr. Mer-Khamis…taught alternatives to violence to Jenin’s youth…following his death, the Israeli authorities took it upon themselves to solve his murder and bring his murderers to trial.” In his open reply to the Embassy, however, Jacob retorts that “as there is no evidence or lead or knowledge of who may have committed this attack, it is rather presumptuous of the Israeli Embassy to say it was a Palestinian. Likewise we don’t comment on any theories that it may have been an Israeli…Juliano [son of an Israeli mother and a Palestinian father] was a symbol of co-operation that served very well to show that Jewish-Israelis can live and work with Palestinians, something many far-right Zionists would not like to see…”

 

In addition, though he taught alternatives to violence, Juliano never tried to teach alternatives to resistance- throughout his life he remained unequivocally opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. As he said in 2006, shortly after the founding of the Theatre, “What we [are] doing in the theatre is not trying to be a replacement or an alternative to the resistance of the Palestinians in the struggle for liberation. Just the opposite. This must be clear…We are joining, by all means, the struggle for liberation of the Palestinian people, which is our liberation struggle.”

 

It is this commitment to resistance that motivates Israel to crack down on the Freedom Theatre. As the Theatre continues, in the memory of Juliano, to support the struggle for the revitalization of the Palestinian people, it remains to be seen whether the Israeli powers will continue to impede its progress.

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