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firsthand narratives from an american in palestine

a friend of mine is in palestine right now, working with the international solidarity movement. because audio, video and written material are nearly impossible to get accross the border, she is e-mailing people in the states about her experiences doing community and direct action work with palestinians in the occupied territories. these are the first two e-mails i recieved from het.
from the occupied territories

november 3, 2004

I've been struggling with writing my first reportback for the last week. I don't know where to start or how to address the diversity of all fifty people on this email list. I feel a great responsbility to accurately depict what's going on here, but I'm not an expert with a million facts and figures at my fingertips, and I feel confused and overwhelmed myself. I know that some people on this list may be uninformed or "undecided" on this particular issue, while others may be very knowlegable and/or already involved in work at home to support the palestinian struggle. I'm not going to give an enormous amount of background information because I feel that it will weigh me down while I try to write about what I have personally seen. If you feel like you're missing out on a lot of information please email me with questions, set up a meeting to speak with me in person when I come home, or go to the ISM website (palsolidarity.org).

Two days ago I finished my ISM training in Ramallah, which was attended by about 15 activists from the US and europe. It was one of the most intense two days of my life, in which seasoned ISM activists tried to prepare us for anything and everything that might happen to us and around us in the occupied territories. One of the most important aspects of the training was learning about the history of nonviolent resistance in Palestine, how ISM fits into this framework, etc. Most of us from the US are used to all Palestinians being categorized as terrorists. Obviously our presence within ISM shows our resistance to this idea, but most of us still have no background or sense of history. It is useful to realize that the first suicide bombing was in 1994, and that there has been a rich history of nonviolent opposition since the twenties. The second day of training was a little bit harder to take, as it dealt with what weapons might be used against us during protests, how to deal with arrest, interrogation, deportation, etc. A lot of people have never even witnessed this much violence before, let alone been put in direct confrontation with soldiers with M16's. It's a givem that everyone is scared. The main fear that most of us expressed, however, was that of guilt. After only a week here I don't know how I'll feel once I have to leave. I'm not sure that I'm ready for the overwhelming sense of responsibility that I already feel and may feel for the rest of my life. There is a certain sense that nothing we do will be good enough unless we drop our entire lives and end this.

After the training we split into affinity groups and were sent to the various regions where people need help. My group was sent to the Nablus region, where there are quite a few families who have land right near illegal israeli settlements. These farmers are considered to be in the highest risk areas. It is possible that they will be killed by settlers (with tacit permission from the israeli military and police) for trying to harvest.

At other times the area is called a "closed military zone" and farmers are arrested or kicked off of their land by soldiers. Our presence helps to de-escalate the situation and lessen the risk of violence towards Palestinians.

Before going to Nablus we stopped in a village called Budrus, where there is a demonstration against the building of the apartheid wall every week. We joined the march early in the day and it was much like any demonstration at home. People were in high spirits, chanting and marching together towards the area where bulldozers are demolishing parts of the town in order to build the wall. The swedish contingent (dubbed "the swedish martyr brigade" by palestinian coordinators and other internationals) were singing a song in swedish, to the basic effect of "long live a free palestine". One thing that is immediately and obviously different from protests at home though, is the enormous amount of very young children marching and chanting. Children here are very politicized, and very aware of the risks they face by protesting as well. All of us marched right up to the bulldozers and the soldiers started to approach, throwing tear gas and sound bombs. We continued to hold a presence there, moving forward and retreating in reponse to the soldiers but not leaving the area completely. A group of shebab ("young boys") then started throwing stones at the soldiers, and at this point the situation immediately escalated. I believe that stone throwing is a symbolic/psychological attempt to show that the boys are not afraid, and that the soldiers are not welcome. Shebab are arrested, detained and tortured on a regular basis. They see death regularly, and they realize that the state of Israel is willfully attempting to negate their lives. ISM does not support stone throwing as it is not non-violent and it often escalates tense situations. However most people agree, when speaking to each other privately, that we can't see how a young boy throwing stones at an armored tank is "violent". The imbalance of power is so overwhelming evident.

After the stone throwing began soldiers advanced into the town, shooting at the shebab. Internationals followed, yelling at them to not shoot children and generally trying to de-escalate the situation. It's amazing how little fear you feel as an international in a situation like this. It's not only that you've moved past fear to something else (sadness, and lots of it) but that your privilege still follows you. Our lives are more "valuable" than the lives of Palestinians. It's an incredibly bizarre and enraging feeling to see soldiers walk right past you as they continue to shoot at little children. The best we can do is use our privilege to force them to exercise "restraint". The soldiers continued to run through the town and broke down the doors of a few houses to terrorize the families inside, and to accuse the children of "stone throwing". Eventually, things calmed down a bit, and luckily none of the shebab (or anyone else)was hurt.

During the course of all of this conflict we learned that there had been a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that day and that the bomber had been from a refugee camp in Nablus. The Israeli military uses collective punishment whenever there is a suicide bombing, so we knew that there would be a military incursion in Nablus, a curfew imposed (ie house arrest), and the the bomber's house would be demolished.

Already a 14 year old boy had been killed. My whole group was quite tense, as this is the area where we were supposed to be; but everyone agree to go anyway, as we were needed more than ever. Others agreed to stay in Budrus to keep an international presence in case the soldiers tried to harass shebab again.

the old city of nablus

november 8, 2004

Today we have Internet access and a break from olive picking, so I'm going to try to write as much as I can about the current situation here and some of my thoughts on my time in Nablus so far.

I left off saying that my group had decided to continue on to Nablus after the demonstration in Budrus. We were needed there more than ever after the revelation that the most recent suicide bomber had been from Oscar refugee camp near the city.

Israel often keeps human rights workers, media, and medical relief people from entering a region that is under military invasion, curfew, etc., or which contains the family of a suicide bomber; so we knew that traveling there would be incredibly difficult. However, our struggle to get into Nablus is just an example of what many Palestinians face trying to get to school or work everyday. It's my opinion that the road blocks and checkpoints are there primarily to keep Palestinians separated from each other, making it more difficult to build coherent community/society and resistance. The way the little pockets of supposed "sovereign" Palestinian areas are set up mirror reservations for native American people here in the US.

(An example of this deliberate disruption of everyday life, which Israeli's do not face: To get from Nablus to Ramallah should take around 30 minutes, but recently it took some in our affinity group plus the local Palestinian coordinators 14 hours, because of being detained at checkpoints, etc. Because of this they all missed the ISM core meeting, even though they had anticipated the delays and left early in the morning to get there by night time).

We left in the evening, first to Ramallah, where we got a "servise" (like a taxi bus, for many people) to travel towards Nablus on the settler road. (Palestine is filled with illegal Israeli settlements which are connected by new, well-kept "Israeli only" highways.)

We encountered very little trouble on the settler road, and even managed to get through one checkpoint by saying that we were christians doing a project with children in a village five minutes away. In preparation for the military incursion that always follows a suicide bombing, Nablus had been shut down, with no one being allowed to leave or enter. We avoided being refused entry at other checkpoints closer to the city by stopping the servise at the side of the mountain that borders Nablus and literally bolting and running up the mountain at full speed. Whenever a car passed on the settler road we dropped to the ground until they they were out of sight. We found out later that the military was close by and we could have been shot at.

When we arrived in Balata refugee camp, where there's an apartment for ISM activists, we learned that five Palestinians had been assassinated that day, one as young as fourteen. Eery Arabic prayers/music has been blasting from the central mosque every night since I arrived here to commemorate the martyrs. There is definitely a very tense, expectant feeling of dread hanging over the city. So far the expected military incursion into Nablus hasn't actually happened. Everyone has been wondering if this is a military tactic. Right now there's no curfew, so people feel relatively safe to walk around and go about their lives; but every few days someone is killed, and a 16 year old girl was taken a few days ago (for what reason and where to we don't know). We are beginning to believe that the lack of massive military action is a way to cover up/avoid media attention of the more discreet killings of Palestinian people (some of which are resistance leaders/fighters, and some of whom are not) that has been happening ever since we arrived here. (These killings were carried out by Israeli "special forces" who were dressed as women, so there's an enormous amount of distrust/anxiety at the moment).

That first night our group discussed how we could help with the problem of "collective punishment," (which is illegal under international law). When there's a suicide bombing all Palestinians are made to suffer by military incursion, curfew, house demolitions, random killing and house occupations etc. Some of our group decided to occupy the house of the suicide bombers family, to try to prevent it from being demolished. I didn't go because I've only been here a week and have very little experience. I'm not sure of the whole story, but the house was demolished anyway, at 4 am that night. No one was hurt in the process (Palestinians or internationals), and the Internationals were able to stop the soldiers from arresting the Palestinian man; but everyone was pretty devastated that the action had failed.

In the next couple of days we continued on with our original plan to do olive harvesting work; though we are all preparing for a military invasion if one happens and talking about how we might help prevent military violence. The first day of olive harvesting went really well. We accompanied a family to their trees and picked with them all day. Luckily there was no settler violence or harassment. In some ways these days can be sadder than others, because you realize how simple and nice of a life this could be. Adrenaline keeps us from feeling scared or sad most of the time. Whenever we have a break from actions and enough time to reflect I think a lot of the people in the group, myself included, get really overwhelmed.

It's incredibly apparent once you've been here, and especially once you've heard the stories of farmers, that this is not a religious conflict, but an indigenous land struggle. It's a colonialist issue. It really sickens me that the US is once again supporting massive land confiscation and a very complex system of apartheid and cultural genocide to support it. Olive trees are systematically destroyed, farmers harassed and intimidated, olives confiscated and olive oil poured out when farmers come across soldiers/settlers - anything to keep Palestinians off of the land that has been in their families for generations and destroy the economic infrastructure of Palestinian society.

The second day of harvesting went smoothly until about an hour before we were going to leave. A large truck stopped on the settler road above us. We could see from a distance that whoever was driving it was on their cell phone. A group of Internationals had been beaten by settlers in this area about two weeks before, and the Palestinian man that we were working with is risking his life in a situation like this. He decided that he wanted to pick up his things and leave before there was a confrontation, so we accompanied him; following our Palestinian guide around the mountain on windy steep paths to stay as far away from the settler as possible. Things like this are incredibly frustrating, but we have to remember to be happy just for the fact that no one has been hurt. Those of us who are willing to risk our necks in this struggle sometimes want to stay in situations like this, rather than back down immediately; but the point is that we do whatever the Palestinians we're with want us to do. They're the ones, after all, who will have to deal with the consequences of our actions far into the future and who are also more likely to be seriously injured or detained.

We have stopped olive harvesting for a number of reasons. First there was the Friday holiday, then the family's son was sick, and now there seem to be more pressing military issues here. The olive crop hasn't been very big this year anyway, and work in a lot of villages is already finished. So we've been spending most of our time in the city of Nablus rather than surrounding villages. There's so much more to say about what we've been doing during that time. I already have another email entirely composed, but I'm trying to break these posts up and send different bits separately so as not to completely overwhelm everyone.

Please pass these on to anyone you know who's interested, or to local indymedia, etc. Sorry also if this is abrupt or badly written. I do my best!

Much love to everyone at home! Keep loving, Keep Fighting.

* a note on the word "martyr". it's a very rough english translation for a word in Arabic (which escapes me at the moment) that means anyone who has died as a result of the conflict; suicide bomber, innocent bystander, or anyone in between

Great work Nablus Group. 09.Nov.2004 00:06

Alaska Pete

Thanks for the great report, Please keep them coming. Thanks also to who reposted this, Pete

photos 09.Nov.2004 09:45


the ISM web site, palsolidarity.org has some amazing photos that give a visual to the account written here. I suggest taking a look at the site.

olive picking at gunpoint! Thank you for the emails. my thoughts and prayers are with you and those you are blessing.

thanks, me, and ISM! 09.Nov.2004 10:01


Keep inspiring all of us to seeing and action! It is often very difficult to remember the tragedy of Israel-Palestine, which escalates in its violence and outrageousness day after day. This cruelty must be exposed, another way is possible, and you are showing us the way.

Blessings, Peace, Love--

shahid? 10.Nov.2004 13:25


Probably the word is "shahid" = martyr