Sorry it's been so long since my last update. I have been trying to Write about the village of Talluza for many days now, but every time I sit down to do it, I end up just shaking my head and walking away. Even now after it has stewed in my brain for many days, I am not sure I could do it justice, but I will do my best..
Talluza is a little village of about 1000 families situated on top of a rocky mountain overlooking stone terraced olive groves and smoky blue horizons, where the mosque speaker sends ghostly amplified praises echoing through villages nestled in red clay valleys. Talluza is a village where the sun shines on moss covered caves in decaying labyrinths of ancient cobblestone, where terra cotta flower boxes hang from wrought iron windows in sunlit alleys.
Where dirty green eyed boys walk like men in the streets and stooped old women with henna-red hair fill the doorways, and there is a donkey and a paint chipped bicycle tied to every post.
Talluza is also a village that has consistently suffered 24hr curfew and constant harassment at the hands of Israeli soldiers dispatched from a nearby military base. Where humvees race through the streets before dawn, where young girls are young girls are threatened at gunpoint, and young men disappear. Where schoolchildren are detained, and bread trucks are turned away. Talluza is a village occupied, and the villagers want to know why.
When I first heard of the situation in Talluza, ISM activists had been harvesting olives in the neighboring village of Asira. Talluza had been under 24hr curfew for 5 days. No one was allowed to leave their homes. There had been checkpoints set up on both of the roads that lead to the village, and people were being turned away, having been informed that Talluza was closed. That night the curfew was lifted for just a few hours, and we were able to bring a carload of bread from Asira, convincing the soldiers at the checkpoint that we were some kind of church charity group. We were swarmed immediately by a large crowd of traumatized young boys, delirious from 5 days of house arrest, and desperate for some kind of recourse. Having been given the impression by the Israeli authorities that the curfew in Talluza had been lifted, and believing that the situation had been remedied, we deposited the bread at a local store, and were on our way.
The following day, we received word again that Talluza was in a dire situation, that the curfew had again been imposed, and in fact, that immediately after we had left the previous night, that the army had come in, dispersed the crowd, and prohibited anyone from distributing the bread that we had delivered. We set out once again for Talluza early the next morning, getting a lift on a tractor from some farmers in Asira. We were stopped at a checkpoint on the road from Asira to Talluza, and told that we could go ahead, while our Palestinian farmer companions were detained and told to wait while their IDs were checked. We waited with them until they were released, and continued again on our way to Talluza. We had just left our friends with the tractor when we were stopped again, this time by Israeli border police, and told that Talluza was closed, that yes there was a reason, but no, they couldn't tell us what it was.
Finally, when we were very insistent, we were told we could go ahead, but to be very careful not to get shot by dangerous terrorists.
Upon walking into the village, we were met with friendly and relieved greetings from a very hospitable, if not exasperated population. We were able almost immediately to find helpful English speaking contacts and set up a meeting with the heads of the community to ascertain exactly what the most pressing needs were. The village had now been under curfew for seven days, and had only just been lifted. People were running out of food, several people were in need of medical care, having been denied access to the hospitals which lie in the neighboring villages of Asira and Al Badhan. The schools had been closed for seven days, and teachers coming from other villages had routinely been turned away. When the village had attempted to open the school earlier in the week, soldiers had come and closed it, sending the students home. The previous night a teenage girl had been held hostage and threatened at gunpoint in front of her family by soldiers at the checkpoint. They wanted her brother, Mustafa, for what, they don't know, he had never had problems with the law before.
When Mustafa realized that the soldiers had a gun to his sister's head, he turned himself in. They arrested him, along with his friend, and no one had heard from them since. The villagers were fearful and disheartened. They wanted some kind of recourse, but were unsure what to do next. We informed them that we would be happy to do everything that we could, but our resources were limited. Hopefully, our presence there would be enough to bring some attention to the situation in Talluza, and begin to alleviate it.
The next day ISM activists organized to accompany the teachers from Asira and Al Badhan through the checkpoints. Other activists monitored the checkpoints to get as many students through as possible, while others kept a presence at the schools in case of army harassment. School was in session for the first time in a week.
A mobile clinic was organized to come through with international accompaniment the following morning, and the Israeli group T'aayush (Coexistence) organized a food and supply truck. The curfew continued intermittently in the days to follow, but with international and Israeli pressure, the situation is slowly recovering.
The Israeli activist groups Machsom (checkpoint)Watch, T'aayush, and Rabbis for Human Rights were instrumental in the success of the actions in Talluza. The army would consistently tell the media that there was no curfew in Talluza, and when activists on the ground in Talluza would verify that there was, in fact, curfew in Talluza, the Israelis were extremely helpful in pressuring the army commander to lift it.
I spent several days waking up before dawn and walking half an hour to the checkpoint between Talluza and Al Badhan to make sure that the school children could pass. On a couple of occasions bus loads of school kids were detained for over an hour, sometimes hours on their way to and from school, university students prevented from making their exams, their IDs supposedly being checked by some officer. Again and again and again, I was asked, "What to the soldiers want with Talluza, what is the problem?" For them it was painstakingly irritating, but for me, who has the privilege of leaving this land all too soon, I count myself extremely lucky to have spent time with these people under the fiery clouds of daybreak in the mountain sky, to have been a part of this beautiful place, with its laundry-strung rooftops, and men who drink coffee in chairs on street corners. It's like knowing a secret.
The story of Talluza, I feel, is an exemplary model of how international presence can be effective in the West Bank. It is not charity work. It is not like we are "helping" these people because they are poor, although they are poor. It is actively challenging an occupation that keeps ordinary people from using the resources that they already have, and if it were possible to die from drinking too much tea, then I would be in a nation of vicious terrorists, but until then, feel pretty safe, and very, very grateful. I can also decisively say that nothing disrupts the order of a Palestinian boys' school like an American girl.
Take care, everyone.