Author Archives: Jon Simons

Feeling demolition in your fingers

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Wadi Ejheish, June 25, 2016

It is one thing to look at pictures of demolished homes. It is another to feel the rubble with your fingers. It is one thing to see a photograph of the wreckage of a building left by a bulldozer and another to pull the twisted wreck apart with your hands. It is one thing to cast your eyes on documented destruction and another to put your back into repairing the damage. These are two things, two different types of experience. Perhaps neither is better than the other, but they feel quite different.

btselem.reportTwo buildings in the hamlet of Wadi Ejheish were demolished by the (un)Civil Administration, a branch of the Israeli military government ruling over Area C of the West Bank, of Palestinian Occupied Territories. The demolitions are part of an undeclared process of creeping annexation of Area C, part of a pattern of dispossession and displacement of Palestinians, especially Bedouin. As part of that pattern, the demolitions in Wadi Ejheish were routine, although in this case they broke understandings about refraining from executing demolition orders during Ramadan.

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Detail from B’tselem map

 

Visual and written documentation of the destruction is also routine, notably by B’tselem which shares the information in the hope that it will halt the expulsion that is designed to follow from repeated demolition. Other anti-occupation groups and organizations supporting Palestinian human rights, such as Rabbis for Human Rights, have worked actively for the preservation of communities in Area C, such as in the high-profile campaign to Stand with Susiya. Wadi Ejheish is known as “south Susiya,” somewhat separate from it. While the activists of Ta’ayush do also take part in the sharing of the documentation of destruction, they share experience with the inhabitants of Wadi Ejheish in more tactile, physical ways.

I accompanied the activists on their weekly work in the South Hebron Hills area on June 25th, during which we went to Wadi Ejheish not to look but to touch. The sight is certainly distressing, poignantly marked by the remains of clothing and toys caught in the rubble. Yet as we tried, along with the people who live there, to clear away the mess and salvage the building materials that could be reused, I was struck by the heavy materiality of the destruction. Heavy both literally – the concrete blocks that are thicker for external walls, thinner for internal ones, that had to be sorted separately – but also heavy mentally. No doubt it was easier for we Israelis to regard the work as a job to be done without having to overcome the despair of those whose homes had been destroyed. But still, we were working with the men whose buildings had been crushed days before.

The materiality of demolition is not only about what is found among the ruins – I chanced across the ID card of the wife of the Palestinian man working next to me – but the material of the ruins themselves. To disentangle the tangle of metal poles, rope, tarpaulin, concrete blocks, stones, plastic pipes, electricity cables, corrugated metal is to linger in the violence of demolition. This is a stage between witnessing destruction and the defiance of rebuilding, maybe something like a stage of mourning in which you begin to get through the devastation and, with the help of friends or relatives, start putting a life back together.

But it’s not quite so pat. There are different ways of working together. For some time we worked without much conversation, as men do, coordinating actions by observing what others are doing. After a while two Israeli women came back from accompanying a shepherd elsewhere, and there was more chatter and verbal coordination. It also became more necessary to coordinate as we worked further into the tangle of rubble and it was less easy to pull out individual poles, tarps or pieces of corrugated metal. In any case given that some of us can’t speak Arabic or Hebrew well, some of the cooperation had to rely on gestures. Nonetheless, it was working together, the partnership that Ta’ayush embodies.DSC00205

It’s an odd partnership, not one of equals, but one in which equality is valued rather than achieved. Urban, middle class, and often intellectual Israelis doing Hebrew-Arab labour as if redefining Zionist halutziut (pioneering) alongside poor Bedouin shepherds. For all our privilege, what we offer is what anybody could volunteer. In the shade of a broken down cart, a couple of mathematicians burble away to each other incomprehensibly  (to the rest of us) about zeros while I can’t converse with the guy next to me as he doesn’t speak Hebrew and I don’t speak Arabic. As his son works with a couple of us later, I can only gesture to where he should cut string binding metal grating to corrugated metal. And then a thought flashes into my mind about the common Jewish Israeli saying about Arabs sticking a knife in your back. This work in common, a boy eager to help adults, shows how silly such thoughts are. But I don’t know what he’s thinking. They, the Jews, come with guns and bulldozers to demolition his home, then some other Jews come almost empty handed to help clear the rubble. It’s hard to make sense of that.

By the time we stopped work I’d been close to calling it quits for myself, my strength drained by the hard physical work under the unrelenting sun. I was deeply fatigued, but not in terms of the compassion I could feel by looking at yet another photo or video of Israeli occupation forces demolishing Palestinian homes and work places. I was deeply fatigued by the sheer effort of undoing destruction, and I wish that the photos could convey just a fraction of that difficulty to the Jewish Israelis in whose name the demolitions are executed. For all the sensuous power of visual experience, perhaps you have to feel demolition in your fingers to experience how cruel occupation is.

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A Hot Field in Hebron: Ta’ayush and the Gleaners

On one of Saturday’s weekly activities by Ta’ayush in the South Hebron Hills area, nothing dramatic happened. Neither settlers nor soldiers used direct physical violence, and nobody got arrested. And yet, a lot was happening, a set of connected features of settlement, military rule and the symbiosis between them that characterise the banality of the injustice of occupation.

For once, I would have wished to get up earlier, as by the time the van load of seven Ta’ayush volunteers arrived from Jerusalem to Abu Anan’s house on the outskirts of Hebron, it was already hot. It didn’t help that (on instructions from above) the guard at the road entrance to Kiryat Arba hadn’t let us through, forcing us to find a different, longer route.

The police station above Abu Anan's field.

The police station above Abu Anan’s field.

Abu Anan lives in a difficult neighbourhood, sandwiched between the settlement of Givat Ha’avot and Kiryat Arba, and overlooked by a police station. He’s been jailed three times for short periods on charges he denies but is not deterred from remaining in place.  We had come to help Abu Anan harvest the grain crop on his terraced field, with which he would feed his goats.

DSC00146No sooner had we made our way on to the field than the military welcoming party arrived, brandishing a “closed military  zone” order which somehow drew a red line that excluded most of the area where harvesting was still to be done. The officer’s interpretation of the map would have meant that we could have worked on only a fraction of the field. He couldn’t explain why we were not allowed in the zone but the settlers are, other than that he believed (incorrectly) he has the authority to decide who the order applies to and where. When we questioned him further, he just said “the discussion is over,” and at one point referred us to his regiment’s (Yehuda) spokesperson, but couldn’t give us their number.

A policeman also came to the scene and tried to come to an agreement with Abu Anan himself, but the latter kept saying that he wanted to work the whole length of the field. We agreed for the time being to work within the permitted zone – vaguely delineated from a white building at the top of the hill to a tree near the bottom – until the “makat” (an officer who is supposed to coordinate civil and military affairs) turned up to negotiate. He never did.

DSC00149We were doing what we could in the permitted space when the real reasons for the military closure appeared. We shifted to the main road to watch the procession of settlers set up their mobile synagogue on the path, dressed in their clean shabbat clothes and the men wrapped in their prayer shawls. It seemed like an odd place to pray, but the prayer is politicized, less an expression of heavenly spirit and more a reflection of the sense of superiority, guaranteed by the guns carried by the soldiers and policemen, that is entailed in holding the prayer there.

DSC00164After a while we resumed our work, focusing on a corner of the field that was outside the zone and still had enough left to harvest. It extended to the road at the bottom of the hill and took us close to the forbidden path, where one of the settler canopies stood. There were a few comments shouted from their side, but for the most the settlers preferred to dialogue on friendly terms with the soldiers and police, until they eventually moved on.

We were working with our hands (fortunately wearing gloves) as agricultural tools are considered a threat. We tore the chaff along with the grain from the earth as fodder for the goats. The harvested piles were packed into bale bags and hauled up the hill to the pen. That part of the field was cleared, other than thorns that not even the goats would eat and some trash by the side of the road.

DSC00170Yet a small strip of the crop remained alongside the path. As we got closer to the path, we were also close to the red line on the map of the closed zone order, now guarded by a few remaining soldiers, at whose feet we found ourselves working. We had to leave the last few sheaves behind and between their boots, as if for the gleaners.

Last week was the Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot, at which time the Book of Ruth is read. Ruth, who was not Jewish, was a gleaner, providing also for her widowed Jewish mother-in-law Naomi. So the Biblical commandments and rabbinical teachings about leaving gleanings for the poor, orphans, widows and strangers should have been in the minds of the religious settlers and soldiers.

In close up, in that section of the field, we were leaving the gleanings. But in a broader perspective, and with regard to the Biblical simplicity of our work with our hands, gathering bundles in our arms, we were the gleaners confined to a corner of the field.

That is what occupation has made of Abu Anan and the Palestinians: gleaners on their own land. The settlers are the lords of the land, the soldiers their sometimes willing, sometimes unwilling henchmen, their fiefdom granted by the civil and military establishment of Israel. The occupation encroaches on more and more of the Palestinians’ life, their place, their fields, until they should feel grateful that they are allowed by these lords to glean from the corners of what was once theirs.

We did not strike a blow against the occupation today, at best a pinprick. Maybe the officer and those under his command realized how unjust the “closed military zone” order is, and how absurd it is to enforce it for some people but not for others. Maybe some of the settlers were reminded that their bullying does not go unnoticed. But many pinpricks, the accumulation of little acts, might tip the scales towards justice in the end. In the meantime, as we gleaned together with Abu Anan in the permitted corner of the field, we practiced quietly, under the unkind sun, what life could be like without occupation, Palestinians, Israelis and internationals working together without lord and master,

Flags, place, and people

Growing up in the UK in the 1970s, I had no love for the British flag which had been appropriated by the racist far right, especially the National Front. As I was a keen Zionist at the time, I’m pretty sure I felt a lot more affinity to the Israeli flag then. I’m visiting Israel again, but without the Zionist identity that brought me as an immigrant to this country in 1985. It’s not long after Independence Day, so there are perhaps more flags around than at other times of the year, but there seem to be a lot of them. Living in the US, I’ve grown used to seeing the red, white and blue on the houses of neighbours, on massive poles outside shopping malls and in the town square. Perhaps it’s unfair, but I can’t help feeling that when a nation feels the need to brand a place so insistently with its flag, there’s some insecurity there about the land belonging to the new nation rather than the people who lived there before.

It was hard to feel ambivalence at all about the Israeli flag on “Jerusalem Day,” a day that marks the Israeli conquest in June 1967 of the eastern part of Jerusalem, which had been under Jordanian rule since 1948. There might be something to celebrate about the reunification of a city torn apart by war, but the unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel makes it clear as can be that the city is not united but deeply divided along the lines of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The “celebration” of the day has been thoroughly appropriated by the religious nationalist settler movement which re-stages the conquest of East Jerusalem, especially the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, each year with the “dance of the flags.” The “dance” has been accompanied by physical and verbal violence on the part of the conquerors and the police who enforce their passage through the streets placed on lock down, but less so this year. The Israeli flag in the hands of the marchers has become a symbol of an exclusive Jewish claim to the place of Jerusalem, of racist superiority over the Palestinians who live in the place, and of possession of place by violent means.

Over the years, the British union flag has become cool again, reclaimed from the racists even if it’s been appropriated as a fashion item. There are Jewish Israelis opposed to the settler nationalists who also want to claim the flag for themselves. Peace Now has its own flag for Independence Day, which replaces the Star of David at the center with the word “shalom.”
Last night in Zion Square gay rights activists did their best to engage mostly religious protagonists while holding the rainbow flag embellished with the Star of David.

At the counter-demonstration to the flag march organised by Free Jerusalem someone held the blue and white flag among the red flags of Hadash and other socialists and the green banner of the liberal Meretz party.

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Free Jerusalem Facebook photo

Free Jerusalem Facebook photo

The flags confronted each other across barriers, with a small proportion of the thousands of marchers lingering to stand opposite the small number of counter-demonstrators corralled into a balcony overlooking the street corner, like a bunch of hobbits hoping to hold off the orcs. There were drum rhythms and slogans from the balcony: “End the occupation.” “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” The conquerors also chanted and sang songs which in another peaceful contexts of mutual recognized attachment to place would have been tuneful. It was hardly an opportunity for a frank and free exchange of views, as we regraded each other with mutual dislike and disdain. Indeed, the largest of the counter-demonstrator’s banners (which I didn’t see from where I stood within our corral until I saw this photo on Facebook) spoke over the heads of the conquerors to wish the Muslim residents of the Old City Ramadan Kareem.

People on flags. Design by Ariel Katz, produced with her by John and Hazel Varah from Same Sky.

People on flags. Design by Ariel Katz, produced with her by John and Hazel Varah from Same Sky.

I don’t feel like reclaiming the Israeli flag for peace and tolerance, not least because its symbolism excludes its non-Jewish citizens. People are more important than the flags with which they brand places with their identities. When that’s forgotten racism and chauvinism blot out the identities and belonging to place of those who don’t adhere to your banner. If there must be flags, these are the ones I can identify with. Women and men, Palestinians, stand together, refusing the monopoly of national identities and looking for ways to reach across to each other. Flags don’t dance, but people do, and there’s no place we can’t dance, not even divided Jerusalem.

 

There’s nobody to talk peace with (even when you’re speaking to them)

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Peace Square (Bereaved Families Forum), Jerusalem, June 5 2016

The simplicity of the slogan of the Bereaved Families Forum, “It won’t end until we talk,” is already an answer to the simplistic and often repeated phrase “there is nobody to talk to,” (ein im mi l’daber). (The forum’s slogan rhymes in Hebrew: zeh lo y’gamer ad shen’daberI wrote about this slogan in the context of the 2012 war on Gaza). Reassuring themselves in the certainty that talking and dialogue is pointless, Jewish Israelis often convince themselves that while they want peace, “they” (the Others, Arabs, Palestinians) do not. It can hardly be an entirely comforting belief, because it condemns the citizens of the Jewish State to be at war, “to live by the sword,” for the foreseeable future. Inevitably, that means there will be more bereaved Israeli as well as Palestinian families. But we humans are peculiar creatures, so sometimes it makes more sense to us to repeat the trauma of personal and collective loss, to enfold it in a tragic narrative of good versus evil, the peaceful versus the belligerent, the victims versus the perpetrators, than to break through the loss. What could be more horrifying than to think that perhaps our loved one was lost because there was something we didn’t do, especially when that something was as simple as talking to your enemy. So it’s better to insist that there’s nothing that can be done.

Perhaps that is some of the feeling that I could hear in the anger of one of the people who passed by the Peace Square set up by the Parents Circle Families Forum in the German Colony neighbourhood of West Jerusalem. The tent, which I’ve written about previously from a distance, was part of a series of events to reclaim Jerusalem Day in the name of tolerance.  The day marks the “reunification” of Jerusalem when Israeli forces conquered (or some would say “liberated”) East Jerusalem, then under Jordanian control, and has become a festival of the national religious settler movement whose idea of liberation is one of exclusive Jewish control.

Two members of the forum, Rami Elhanan and Roni Hirshinzon, were there to explain the work of the Forum, to answer questions, and once again to open their hearts and tell the story of the loss of their children to the conflict. For the most part, the discussion in the shade of the small park among those who had chosen to come to the event was quiet, somewhat curious, respectful. But not everyone who chanced by and stopped wanted to listen, or even to take note of whose banner marked the square. Foremost among them was Mr. Shouty, who succeeded in rousing other sceptical and critical observers to shout among themselves and close down the discussion.

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Rami Elhanan sitting with a picture of his daughter Smadar and his friend Bassam’s Aramin’s daughter Abir, both killed in the conflict.

Mr. Shouty (for the sake of this blog I’ve absorbed the statements of some others into this one character) had all the regular answers to the Forum’s slogan, all of which add to “there’s nobody to talk to” (ein in mi l’daber). We are only here because we’re strong. If they had the power, we’d all be dead. They vote for Hamas. If the Peace Square can’t be held in the open air in Hebron, that shows we’re the peace lovers and they aren’t.

I was less prepared to hear Mr. Shouty’s brutal put down when Roni told him he’d lost two sons in war: “And did you hand out sweets?” With one sharp rebuke, he dismissed the loss of Palestinians in conflict to dehumanized celebration of the sacrifice of martyrs. We are bereaved, he said in other words, but they are so consumed by hate that they don’t feel loss. Maybe it would have made some difference if a bereaved Palestinian had been there to voice her own pain, but I doubt Mr. Shouty would have been any more ready to listen. To talk.

Earlier a woman had passedby and rebuked “us” for airing Israel’s dirty laundry in the international public, clearly without knowing who “we” were. I asked Rami how he felt that someone could be so dismissive even as he asked her questions. He talked about how much harder it is when he goes into classrooms and the kids shout at him, but that all he hopes for is one hint of acknowledgement from someone at the back of the room – a glance that suggests that he has made once crack in the wall of enmity, that he might have saved one drop of blood. So Rami, Roni, and other member of the Forum keep on talking, hoping that someone will listen, even when they are being shouted at by people who won’t let them talk. They cannot know which small crack in the wall (the title of the Forum’s Hebrew and Arabic community Facebook page) will open the floodgates and stop the last drop of blood from flowing.

Standing together, standing in one another’s shoes

IMG_20160605_234815For this first time (June 3, 2016) I’ve been able to participate in the monthly Palestinian-Israeli “Freedom March” held at “machsom haminharot,” an Israeli checkpoint on Route 60 to the south of Jerusalem, just by the Palestinian town of Beit Jala. The march is organized by a coalition, in which Combatants for Peace are a key partner, called “omdim beyachad” in Hebrew (standing together). The group has operated since an upsurge in violence in October 2015, offering a clear alternative to the usual pattern in which Israeli Jews and Palestinians each increase their antipathy to and fear of the other.

Being who I am, I had already seen video clips and photos of the event posted on social media, and was expecting the colourful cloud of balloons in the hands of the marchers when our bus from TDSC00067el Aviv arrived at the meeting point. The protest procession crossed the main road slowly, but did not block it, and amid the shouting of slogans and the displaying of placards, found shelter from the sun under the monumental concrete overhang of the separation barrier at this point.

DSC00079The protest ended with short speeches (translated into Hebrew and Arabic) by MK Aiman Oudeh, the charismatic leader of the Joint List, Leah Shakdiel, a long time feminist and social activist who represented the religious peace group Oz v’shalom, and representatives of Combatants for Peace. But I won’t talk today about the content of the speeches, the formulation of slogans (also translated and transliterated between Hebrew and Arabic), or even the ritual of releasing the balloons from under the concrete canopy into the freedom of the skies.

Instead, I want to focus on another part of the protest, the performance of a short scene in which Palestinians and Israelis role played soldiers and themselves in a typical encounter at a checkpoint, an encounter which involves verbal and physical violence, detention, constriction, humiliation, pushing people to the ground. The performance ends with a call for non-violence, to the applause of those who had gathered round the scene. An upper level of the walkway by the separation barrier served as a stage, and some but not all  of the demonstrators gathered together to watch – although it was difficult to hear. Yet, the point is not the production or acting quality of this performance.

DSC00094“Standing together” itself performs the vital political position of “refusing to be enemies” at a time of hightened tension, and in the context of a conflict to which no political resolution can be seen on the horizon. Combatants for Peace, along with other groups participating in the freedom march, such as the Bereaved Families Forum, and the Jewish-Arab parliamentary bloc Hadash, have performed this partnership, including acts of co-resistance, for years now. Combatants for Peace has also turned consistently to the “theatre of the oppressed” as a key element of its activities, often in more rehearsed ways and in settings in which the audience could participate more easily. They have documented some performances, and I have written about one I saw a few years ago.

In the setting of the demonstration the performance has particular significance. We can stand together, we can march together. But we can do so meaningfully better when we have learned to stand in the shoes of the other, whether through role play or dialogue or hearing each others’ stories. Combatants for Peace is a partnership if Israelis and Palestinians who have seen how their armed force and violence of the other feel from the point of the other. They stand together by seeing themselves from the other stands, When you have stood in the shoes of the other, and experienced with them what it’s like to commit or be subject to violence, then standing together just feels a whole better than standing against each other.