I feel hopeless, standing at the base of an eight-metre high reinforced concrete wall. Its immense facade looms above me, thick, grey and unyielding, the so-called Separation Barrier. My first impulse is to beat my fists against it, break it down, make it go away. The futility of this gesture carries only a glimpse of the impotence which daily threatens to overwhelm those Palestinians working day in, day out, for peace and justice under the Occupation.
Observing at first hand the situation on the ground for ordinary Palestinians, it seems amazing that there is so little violence.
On 19 May 2009, I flew to Palestine and Israel with 13 men and women from the US, Canada, Sweden and Japan, as part of a two week peace delegation with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). We spent time in East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron and At-Tuwani.
CPT has had a peacemaker team for over 15 years in this small village in the South Hebron hills, recently visited by Tony Blair in his role as Middle East Peace Envoy. We met with 13 different peace and human rights organisations, both Israeli and Palestinian.
In each of these groups we found many determined and inspiring individuals - Christians, Muslims and Jews - who daily undertake creative acts of non-violent resistance and refuse to be silenced, crushed or dehumanised by the oppressive weight of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
It is not just the Palestinian people who are being brutalised by the Occupation. Yehuda Shaul, a 26-year-old Israeli Jew, like almost all Israeli citizens, joined the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) at 18-years-old. He served for two years in the West Bank, of which a year and two months was in the volatile city of Hebron.
An imposing physical presence, Yehuda bluntly and without sentimentality described how, as a professional combat soldier, he would routinely use Palestinian people to identify “booby traps”. He told us how he would instruct them to pick up suspicious packages in the street, on the basis that if they explode, it is only another dead Palestinian. And if it didn’t explode this method of checking would deter other Palestinians from making such devices.
He was clear that this inhuman logic is intrinsic to the structure of the Israeli army. “There is no way to be a soldier in the Occupied Territories and see Palestinians as human beings”.
He described the breakdown and rebuilding of the personality that was part of his military training, pointing out that: “For Israeli children, our transition to adulthood is bathed in violence. You live in a reality where violence is not only your answer to everything, it is your instinct.”
For many IDF soldiers, the crisis comes when military service ends. “It is like a moment of enlightenment. Suddenly you reflect back on what you have done and see it in a very different light. The first second you stop thinking as a professional combat soldier and think like a civilian, is a terrifying moment. You lose justification for 90 per cent of the actions you have taken.”
After speaking to his fellow soldiers and discovering that many others shared his experience, Yehuda set up 'Breaking the Silence', the Israeli organisation that is now demanding accountability from Israel regarding its military actions in Gaza and the West Bank.
Breaking the Silence has collected hundreds of testimonies from IDF soldiers who served during the Second Intifada that began in 2000. The stories all bear witness to the fact that abuse, looting and destruction of Palestinian property are commonplace and yet, Yehuda argues, in Israeli public discourse these incidents, if they are referred to at all, are portrayed as, 'exceptional cases'.
He passionately rejects this 'rotten apple' theory of military occupation, pointing out that, “it is not a story of a rotten apple, it is a story of a rotten sack”. “You don't have to be a monster to be a monster. You have to be human to be a monster.”
Yehuda seeks to unmask the dehumanising effect of the Occupation on both Israelis and Palestinians. “We are holding a mirror up to our own society to start a debate about the moral cost of the Occupation.” His personal bravery in initiating the silence-breaking is something he shrugs off, acutely aware that: “we are not the victims”.
But given the enmeshing of the military in Israeli society and the links between military and social status that he speaks of, Yehuda's choice to tell the truth is a powerful act which challenges the logic of violence underpinning the state of Israel.
Yehuda is not the only Israeli seeking to hold his own society to account. The 35 staff of B'TSelem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights, meticulously document and publicise human rights violations in Gaza and the West Bank, seeking to hold Israel accountable to its responsibilities under International Law.
Likewise, The Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD), though direct action and education about the true human cost of the Occupation, are also working to engage the Israeli and international public with a path to peace. While these Israeli voices may not be dominant, they do exist.
Amongst Palestinians, too, we found committed men and women, working persistently for peace. Nora Carmi, at Palestinian Christian organisation Sabeel - an ecumenical, grassroots, liberation theology movement - is working actively for peace and justice through community education and empowerment programmes with women, clergy and youth.
Nora, who was invited to represent the Palestinian Christian population to Pope Benedict XVI on his recent visit, speaks clearly and with a quiet authority. Her very demeanour seems to embody the spirit of the Palestinian non-violent resistance that we repeatedly encountered – a patient, steadfast refusal to respond to ongoing Israeli provocation with violent words or actions.
Listening to her speak of “our responsibility to raise our voices, to resist but in justice” I have a sense, from the calm clarity in her eyes, of what maintaining this position might have cost her.
Remaining hopeful in the face of constant repression requires great strength. One of the observable realities of the Occupation is the constraints it imposes on Palestinian freedom of speech and movement, epitomised by the web of military checkpoints.
The psychological effect of this physical choking strategy cannot be underestimated. As Palestinian wheat and grape farmer Atta Jabber told us: “They have occupied our humanity, our feelings, our freedom”. Non-violent resistance in the form that those of us privileged enough to hold UK passports may know it – protests, marches, sit-ins – is almost impossible in Palestine. The few non-violent direct actions which exist, such as the Friday demonstration against the Separation Barrier at Bilin, face live IDF ammunition (see a clip on You Tube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TySr95aKSlU&feature=channel_page )
Hafez, a Palestinian farmer living in At-Tuwani, had his home invaded 11 times in one month for working with local peace groups and was told by the Israeli military: “If you don't stop working with these people you will have home invasions every night.”
Yet he has refused to give in to the impulse that I felt, to beat his fists against the wall: “To make revenge is easy, it is easy to kill and do crazy things but if I do that, what will happen? First I will destroy my family, then my entire village and really the whole area. It is clear, the Occupation wants us to turn to violence and make it easy for them to kick us away.” For the many Palestinians we met, rejecting violence was not a passive acceptance of injustice but a difficult daily choice, to maintain hope for peace in the face of a relentless attempt to corrode it.
Yet despite this inner strength, over and over again, the message was the same. The people we met, whether farmers like Hafez, teachers like Zleika Muhtaseb working to support traumatised women and children in Hebron, or architects like Walid Halaweh of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee which restores demolished homes across the city, the message was repeated: we cannot resist the unjust Occupation successfully without international help. We don’t want aid, we want political support. We need you to campaign hard for the following:
• For the international community to hold Israel accountable to International Law.
• For the end of US military funding for Israel – currently standing at $3 billion a year, of which 74 per cent must be 'recycled' for the purchase of US military hardware. www.endtheoccupation.org
• For support for the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions for Palestine movement. http://www.bdsmovement.net/
Christian Peacemaker Teams, and organisations like it, make use of the freedom of movement afforded to internationals in Palestine to support the non-violent resistance on the ground. For those who can do this, recruitment takes place on an ongoing basis www.cpt.org.uk.
For those who cannot commit to this resource, the vital message was clear - use your voice, your pen and your vote to express clearly to your governments that the situation of the Palestinian people is unjust and unacceptable.
(c) Amy Hailwood recently returned from a visit to Palestine and Israel with Christian Peacemaker Teams (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9532). She lives in Tottenham, London, and attends an Anglican church in Hornsey.
Christian Peacemaker Teams UK, an Ekklesia partner, is seeking more recuits. Further details here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9621