Tag Archives: Ghassan Najjar

Football in Burin

copied from my MondoWeiss article here

burin team

The Burin football team (All Photos: Ben Lorber)

On the 7th of December, a windy Wednesday morning behind the boys’ school in the Palestinian village of Burin, 15 teenagers, dressed in red uniform, took to the football field under the coach’s whistle. As the team began its warm-up exercises, another youth team arrived from the neighboring village of Huwwara, led by its determined coach. Under the morning sun, the football game began. As fans, coaches and players cheered and yelled from the sidelines, a Burin teenager scored a goal in the first ten seconds, setting the tone for the rest of the match. Two hours and two injuries later, Burin came out on top 4-0 against Huwwara, bringing the season’s record to 8 wins for Burin, 1 win for Huwwara, and 2 draws. As the boys walked away sweaty and satisfied, the school bell rang and children poured outside for recess.

huwwara team
The Huwwara football team

In occupied Palestine, the youth football league becomes, not a routine taken for granted, but a rare blessing. “We love to practice and to play,” said the Burin goalie, “but usually we cannot play on this field, because we are afraid of the settlers or the army. And there is nowhere else to play.” Overlooking the boy’s football field on all hilltops, the illegal Israeli settlements of Yitzhar (birthplace of the extremist ‘price-tag’ campaign of violence), Bracha, and a Bracha outpost loom menacingly.

“When times are good”, says Ghassan Najjar, co-coach and former Burin football player, “when there are no attacks, we can play. When times are bad, we cannot get together and have games.” At 21 years old, Najjar’s memories of his own days on the field are still fresh in his mind. “Children here have no outlet. They are lost. They cannot play on the streets because it is too violent, but they do not want to sit at home…my outlet, when I could play, was football.”

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Playing in the shadow of the Yitzhar settlement.

Though the last month has spared the village of settler attacks, Israeli soldiers arrive at the school almost on a daily basis. “The boys’ school,” says Ghassan, “is right by a settler military road that heads up to the settlement. Sometimes the army comes into the principal’s office and says that he cannot let the boys outside of the school to play, for no reason. There is a 24 hour presence of the army outside the school, and the boys are frequently forbidden from leaving.” A football game, like outdoor recess, is a precious window of opportunity for children accustomed to living in fear.

Football- of which the Algerian philosopher Albert Camus, a devoted football goalkeeper before turning to intellectual pursuits, once said “all I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football”- has long cemented Palestinian culture and spirit. Time and again, it appears on the scene as a potent weapon in the resistance struggle, as on October 11, when a football game erupted on the front lines of a hunger strike solidarity protest outside of Ofer Prison in Ramallah.

Once a locus of national consciousness, Palestinian football was deliberately denied international recognition until the Palestine Football Association was recognized by FIFA in 1998. “Prior to 1948”, says Issam Khalidi in ‘Body and Ideology- Early Athletics in Palestine (1900-1948)’, an excellent study of the politics of sport in Palestine,

“there were some 65 athletic clubs in Palestine…these clubs had a tremendous impact on the lives of Palestinian young people, shaping their character and preparing them for social and political involvement…these athletics teams provided a social, national and institutional base for Palestine’s political organization in the first half of the twenty-first century. They developed alongside and in response to Jewish immigration and the Arab-Zionist confrontation. Athletic clubs were important in evoking the Palestinian national consciousness, [and] sustaining connections between villages and cities…the advancement of organized sports in Palestine was closely linked to the development of education. Even though education officials did not emphasize physical education programs in schools, most institutions had competitive football teams.”

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Community Building In The Face of Israeli Occupation

copied from my Alternative Information Center article here

While the Palestinian-led weekly demonstrations against the separation barrier are an important and visible part of non-violent resistance, a children’s community center in Burin fights the occupation on a daily basis just by opening its doors, sometimes for as little as half an hour.

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Residents of Burin build their community children’s center, which is named for Bilal al Najjar. (Photo: Ghassan Najjar)

In the West Bank village of Burin near Nablus, local youth are building a new children’s center to foster hope in their community.

 

Burin’s 4,000 inhabitants live in a valley, surrounded on all hilltops by Israeli settlements — Yitzhar, Har Bracha, Givat Arousna, and a Yitzhar “outpost.” The children and adults of Burin live, day and night, in constant fear of settler attacks and army raids.

 

21-year-old Ghassan Najjar is the director of Burin’s Bilal Alnajjar Community Center, built in 2008 and named after a villager who died in 1984 while he was being interrogated by the Israeli army.

 

“The youth here are lost,” he says. “There is no outlet for their frustration. The gym that was once open was closed. The boy’s playground is large, but people are too afraid to play there because of the constant army presence in the area…the girl’s school is tiny, and looks like a jail because of all the bars that are up- a caged-up area is the only place where they can play.”

 

In 2005, when they were teenagers in the village, Ghassan and 25 of his friends committed themselves to building a community center. “We wanted to get the youth away from a life of hanging around, smoking cigarettes and doing nothing…we wanted this center to be their outlet, to give them hope.”

 

The teenagers went from door to door raising funds. “People were skeptical at first”, Ghassan remembered. “They would disregard what we were doing, or brush it off, and say ‘how can that help?’ But we were determined.”

 

When the Bilal Alnajjar Community Center was finally established in 2008, the Israeli army began to crack down. From 2008 to 2010, Israeli soldiers targeted the center for harassment, invasion, and vandalism, usually at night.

 

“From 11 pm to 4 am”, Ghassan says, “everyone in Burin knew this village was for the Israeli army… they would break down the doors, break the computers, and trash the center. They would come and go as they pleased, and hang around, and do whatever they want. But this is something that we came to expect. We used to get upset when they harassed our center, but we continued.”

 

In 2010, 22 of the 25 organizers were arrested while cleaning the streets of Burin, and sentenced to a year in prison. While in prison, Burin’s younger generation took on the responsibility of maintaining the community center. One of these young men, who wished to remain anonymous, insisted that “we were dedicated to keeping the center open. It is very important to us. We made sure to open it every day, even if only for half an hour, just to show that we were going to keep it open.”

 

Now, the young men of Burin are building a new children’s center to better serve as a safe haven for Burin’s children. “There are 112 children here who still have nowhere to go”, relates Ghassan. “They don’t want to stay home and sit with their family, they want to go out and have some fun, but they can’t really play in the streets because of fear of army raids and settlers. So they come and hang out in the center but it is small and there is nowhere to play. There is only space to sit and talk.”

 

At the new children’s center, which is currently under construction, the people of Burin hope to maintain extensive athletic, recreational and educational facilities. Villagers have reported seeing Israeli soldiers enter the construction site at night, but they are not deterred. “Once the center is up we expect soldiers to come, this is normal for us. They can enter as much as they like, we will just continue, and renew whatever they destroy.”

 

Ghassan, along with the other directors of the Bilal Alnajjar Community Center, are optimistic. “We have a lot of hopes and dreams. We are still young, we are 21, and we hope to educate the ones younger than us to take over the center. We are not dictators, we will one day move on, but we hope that the young people of this village will keep it up, so Burin can remain strong in spirit.”

 

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Harvesting Olives as a Statement of Resistance

 

 

 

Ghassan Najjar, director of the Burin Community Center, stands as soldiers order his family to leave their olive grove. (David Shaw)

 

Palestinian villages across the West Bank are undertaking their annual olive harvest this October, amid fears of harassment and violence from Israeli settlers and soldiers.

While the Palestinian olive harvest is a tradition that stretches back countless generations, the phenomenon of settler violence during the olive harvest is only as old as the illegal Israeli settlements themselves. Every year around October, grandparents, parents and children saddle up the donkey and, tree by tree, day by day, methodically comb, scrape and pick sack-fulls of olives from their family’s allotted portion of the 10 million olive trees that dot the hills and mountains of the West Bank and Gaza.

According to an Oxfam report, “more than 80 percent of olive farmers are small-medium scale farmers, owning olive orchards equal to or less than 25 dunams (a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters) in size … olive cultivation provides employment and income for around 100,000 farming families who are olive oil producers … in a good year, the olive oil sector contributes over $100 million income annually to some of the poorest communities” (“The Road to Olive Farming: Challenges to Developing the Economy of Olive Oil in the West Bank,” October 2010 [PDF]).

This way of life, vital for the economic survival of countless Palestinian families, is becoming increasingly threatened — both by the hostility and violence of settlers who live near Palestinian villages, and by the crippling restrictions and regulations of the Israeli military.

Surrounded by settlements

The village of Burin, near Nablus, offers a prime example of the dangers faced by the 2011 olive harvesters. Burin’s 4,000 inhabitants live in a valley, surrounded on all hilltops by Israeli settlements — Yitzhar, Har Bracha, and a Yitzhar “outpost.” Last month, settlers from Yitzhar, proud birthplace of the “price-tag” campaign of racist violence, burned 200 olive trees as villagers were celebrating a wedding (“Yitzhar settlers violently crash Burin wedding, military watches,” International Solidarity Movement, 6 September 2011).

This followed a similar attack in late June, described by Burin residents as the worst attack in 10 years, as 2500 olive trees on more than 900 dunams of land were destroyed, according to a report by the Monitoring Israeli Colonizing activities in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza project (“Israeli colonists Set tens of Olive Fields Alight in Burin,” 2 July 2011).

Ghassan Najjar, director of the Burin Community Center, told The Electronic Intifada that “every year it is getting worse, and this year it is a lot worse. It used to be they burned trees once a year, but this year they have burned trees four times since April. Since April, they have cut down and burned entire areas to clear the land so we can use nothing.”

The olive harvest is frequently a target for settler attacks in Burin. Between 9-16 October 2010, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem reported four separate settler attacks against Burin olive harvesters (“List of incidents in which damage was caused to Palestinian olive trees or property,” 28 October 2010).

Over the course of the 2009 olive harvest, almost 250 olive trees were cut down by settlers, often with chainsaws, as activists with the Michigan Peace Team documented in October 2009 (“Burin tree massacre,” 3 October 2009).

“Like a sister to me”

Ibrahim El Buriny is a 27-year old olive harvester whose family has combed the trees on Burin’s hillsides for generations. “This land is like a sister to me,” he said. “My grandfather bought this land in 1975 from the village of Huwara. They have records. The papers are in the PA and Israeli databases.”

On the first day of this year’s harvest in Burin, he spoke of how settler attacks in the last five years have escalated. “Settlers are getting more radical as they are growing stronger,” he said. “They are growing in numbers and are better armed … Usually groups of 25 settlers come [from the hilltops down to] us, many with guns. [Or] settlers will get out of their car on the main road, curse at us and shoot at us. The soldiers come and defend the settlers … there are two alternatives — either run and leave all the olives, or stay. If we can, we scare them or chase them away.”

Settlers burn olive groves in an attempt to physically erase Palestinians’ claim to the land, and they attack olive harvesters intending to terrify Palestinians into submission and exile. One-third of Yitzhar sits on privately owned Palestinian land, according to data provided by the Israeli Civil Administration (“Guilty! Construction of Settlements on Private Palestinian Land,” Peace Now, March 2007).

For the settlers of Yitzhar, a burning Palestinian olive tree signifies exactly what a burning cross signified to the Ku Klux Klan in the US of the 1950s — in either case, the message is racial intolerance, and the purpose is ethnic cleansing. “The settlers use fear, they intimidate people to leave their homes … they say ‘we cut down the trees because a Palestinian touched this and made it dirty. This is our land and we can do whatever we want,’” Najjar said.

“We can’t leave”

For the Palestinians of Burin, the olive harvest — in the face of settler violence — becomes a political statement of resistance. “The land is like our mother and father,” said El Buriny. “We can’t leave our land, and who would leave their land? That’s the number one reason [we continue to harvest]. But in our situation, we also need [to harvest] this land for the money as well. [But] even if we had money we wouldn’t give up our land. Even if they forbid us from our land, we are not going to drink a cup of fear, and we’re not gonna stay quiet.”

Najjar echoed this determination emphatically. “Olives are the most important farming product here for us. Of course the olive harvest is important for the olives and for the resistance. We know for certain that if we leave the land they will steal it, and claim it is their land.”

As an aside, Najjar added, “we know for certain that it’s not their land, because they burn it.”

Oftentimes, settler attacks spark confrontations between farmers and settlers. El-Buriny, while stressing that villagers almost never retaliate, insisted on their right to repel the attacker, and to defend themselves, and their olive trees, if in danger. “How can we let someone come on our land, and not let us be on our land, and hit us, and curse at us, and stay quiet? … All we have is a rock to defend ourselves. We don’t have anything but a rock, our hearts, and God,” he explained.

As conflicts have escalated in recent years, the Israeli military has committed itself to administrative and on-the-ground interference in the olive harvest. Its stated intention has even been to protect Palestinian farmers from settler attacks.

In the words of the 2008 United Nations report “The Olive Harvest in the West Bank and Gaza,” “As a military occupying power, the [Israeli army] is obligated to ensure public order and life in the Occupied Territories and the Government of Israel has repeatedly committed to ensuring that Palestinian farmers have access to their fields … according to the Israeli authorities, the IDF and the police will be present at friction points for designated few-day periods to ensure protection for Palestinian farmers from settler harassment” (“The olive harvest in the West Bank and Gaza,” October 2008 [PDF]).

In reality, however, the presence of the Israeli army only offers a minimal amount of meaningful protection for Palestinian farmers, and serves rather to intensify the administrative barriers and physical dangers facing the farmers during their olive harvest.

In 2008, Omar Suleiman, an olive harvester from Kafr Qalil near Nablus, was harvesting with his son when, he told The Electronic Intifada, “six or seven settlers came over the hills with guns and said ‘this is not for you, this is for us, go!’ Since then, the military comes to protect us.”

To a certain extent, he said, “the soldiers are here to make sure there are no problems between settlers and Palestinians.” However, the presence of the Israeli army means that “now, for the last three years, we have to ask the army for permission [to harvest] … [and] if the settlers come to attack us again, the soldiers will help them.” Najjar echoed this claim that “the soldiers are there to protect the settlers. Most of the army are settlers anyway.”

To regulate the olive harvest, the Israeli District Coordination Committee (DCO) provides farmers with permits to access their own land with the “protection” of Israeli forces. Thus, Palestinian families often harvest their land in plain view of the military jeeps and white DCO vans parked on the adjacent hillside. Far from sheltering the Palestinians under a benevolent wing of protection, however, the army will frequently forbid families from accessing their land, usually with no explanation. Additionally, the DCO decides on which days farmers can legally access their land, and usually allots only one or two days for harvesting time, not nearly enough for the majority of families. Finally, if a family does not request a permit from the DCO, the army is given a pretext to prevent them from harvesting, especially if their land is close to a settlement.

On 12 October this year, the Israeli military drove up to the fields of Burin at 9am and ordered the families, on the first day of harvesting, to leave their harvest. Soldiers refused to give an explanation. The military then stated that families would be allowed to return to their fields for the next three days. Two days later, however, the military returned to kick one family off of their land, declaring the area a closed military zone and again offering no further explanation.

Najjar was present with his family when they were ordered to stop harvesting on 12 October. “This is normal for us,” he said later that day. “We are used to it.”

He continued: “This is not the first time we have been kicked off our land. That is no reason for us not to go back and continue work. If my father was not there, I would have been angry and refused to leave. But in front of my father I controlled my emotions, and did not show that I was upset.”

Israeli army’s inaction toward settler violence

Realistically, the presence of the Israeli military during the olive harvest, far from meaningfully alleviating the threat of settler violence, works instead to thicken the layers of oppression through which the Palestinians must struggle in order to make it to their olive trees and back.

In October 2010, Oxfam noted that, “in the first six months of 2010, the United Nations reported that hundreds of dunams of agricultural land and thousands of olive trees and other crops had been damaged in settler-related incidents. Israeli NGO [non-governmental organization] Yesh Din, an Oxfam partner, recently published a study in which it did not find a single case where the Israeli authorities had taken action to bring those involved to court.” (“Palestinian olive oil profits in the West Bank could double if Israeli restrictions ended,” Oxfam, 15 October 2010).

As the settlers grow more radicalized and Israeli regulations grow more dense, October 2011 may be a rough olive harvest for Palestinians in the West Bank. However, Omar Suleiman from Kufr Qalil offered a glimmer of hope. While an Israeli military jeep, a DCO van, and a small group of settlers sit perched together on the opposite hillside, he continued to affirm the pride, steadfastness and determination of his people.

“This settlement [pointing to Har Bracha] came here 20, 30 years ago. Israel has been here for 60 years. My family has had this land for 4,000 years.”

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