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A Stony Field, An Olive Grove, An Iron Dome: Researching Peace in Israel/Palestine at a Time of War

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While researching images of peace produced and performed by Israeli activists, I found myself in a pastoral olive grove in Jayyous, in a stony field by Umm el-Arayes, then under an Iron Dome in Tel Aviv as another round of explosive violence erupted between Israel and Gaza. What peace was to be found in these sites? And which war was being fought?

This presentation is a reading that draws on my blogs (http://israelipeaceimages.com) and field notes from my research semester in Israel, fall 2012. It is not an academic analysis of my research material, but a personal reflection on some of my experiences and encounters. This presentation speaks to my motivation for and some of the challenges of undertaking such research. At some points I use ‘we’ to refer to Jewish Israelis, reflecting my own identification within my research context. The visual material you see includes my photographs, along with stills and video footage that activists groups circulate on social media, and other illustrative material.

 

The reading takes place across several scenes:

Scene 1 – Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Defense (Israel-Gaza War, November 2012)

Scene 2 – Iron Dome (Israeli missile defence system)

Scene 3 – Composing peace as a picture (Combatants for Peace demonstration by Beit Jala, West Bank)

Scene 4 – The Stony Field: Partnering in Justice (Ta’ayush activity at Umm el-Arayes, South Hebron Hills, and clip from Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer)

Scene 5 – Pastoral Peace: Olive harvesting in Jayyous (West Bank)

Scene 6 – Café in Tel Aviv (activist interview)

Scene 7 – This war here, that war there (clips from Waltz with Bashir and Towards a Common Archive: Video Testimonies of Zionist Fighters in 1948)

Scene 8 – What peace? (Imagination)

Thankful for the living, not mourning for the dead

Far from the daily tensions and confrontations of Israel, Palestine and occupation, I am spending the Christmas holiday with my niece’s family in rural Leicestershire, England, staying at a bed and breakfast in the hamlet of Teigh. On a morning stroll we did hear some shooting – but this is hunting and farming country. The owner of the bed and breakfast gave us a large, iron key so we could let ourselves into the local church, after telling us a little about the history of the Old Rectory where we are sleeping, as well as of the church and the pattern of landownership and farm tenancy of the estate on which Teigh is built. Patterns of land use and ownership go back centuries, Teigh being mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1085 following the Norman conquest, the Rectorship in the hamlet being continuous since 1238. Holding the heavy key in my hand, I thought of the similar ones held by Palestinian refugees as material symbols of their lost homes, and of their claims to ownership and usage of land that are denied by the Israeli laws since 1948.

 

Teigh church interior

Teigh church interior

 

The small church was unused this Sunday, cold and yet intimate. At the end of the south wall is a brass plaque that says:

THIS TABLET IS ERECTED

TO THE GLORY OF GOD

AND IN THE HUMBLE ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF

HIS MERCIES IN PRESERVING THE LIVES

OF THE ELEVEN MEN AND TWO WOMEN

RESIDENTS OF TEIGH WHO SERVED IN

THE GREAT WAR OF 1914-19I8

Let everything that have breath praise the Lord

Teigh is thus known as a ‘Thankful Village’, for having escaped casualties in that horrendous, murderous war.

 

Plaque in Teigh Church

Plaque in Teigh Church

 

Memorializing those who died in wars is a way to legitimize and sanctify wars, to turn them into acts of collective sacrifice that bind a nation together in conflict with Others. With the passage of time and under conditions of peace, the antagonistic force of such commemoration can be blunted as old enmities give way to new alliances, as between Britain and Germany. But in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, memorialization of the victims of violence for the most part reinvests the emotions and practices of mourning in confrontation between the two peoples. A notable exception is the ‘Alternative Memorial Day’ held by the bi-national group Combatants for Peace in which casualties on both sides are remembered.

But what if instead of investing our energies in commemorating the dead of war and violence, we focused on the living, as in thankful Teigh? What if we chose life rather than death? What if we spent less time sanctifying the fallen, and more time caring for those with whom we share life in the present? If we became less reconciled to the repetition of hostility and more hopeful that routine life will go on, would it become easier to imagine peace rather than expect war? The serenity of the winter countryside is seductive, the warmth of a family holiday immunizing against thoughts of national hostility. It’s easy to overlook the history of conquest in this landscape, never quite forgotten in the inequalities of lands seized and ancient rights erased. Yet, being thankful for the living must, I believe, be a more peaceful practice than memorializing the fallen.

Protest Theatre of the Occupation

Earlier in the week, as the “pillar of cloud” war raged in Gaza and southern Israel, Combatants for Peace had planned a demonstration for Friday afternoon calling for a ceasefire. This bi-national Israeli-Palestinian organization opposed to violence and dedicated to achieving a peaceful resolution of the conflict had no trouble switching the emphasis of the demonstration (after the ceasefire was agreed on late on Wednesday) to the acute need for direct and immediate negotiations to address the conflict. But the demonstration could have happened on any other Friday afternoon of the year. The world’s attention has been directed in the past couple of weeks to one area of Palestine striving for independence, the enclave of Gaza, but there has been no let-up in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Combatants for Peace demonstration in Izbat Tabib, 23.11.12

In the last few months Combatants for Peace has been supporting the struggle of a small, isolated Palestinian village, Izbat Tabib, that is close to the Palestinian town Kalkilya and the large Israeli settlement, Alfei Menasheh. Izbat Tabib is in Area C of the West Bank, the area constituting about 60% of the West Bank that according to the Oslo agreements of 1993 remains under full Israeli civil and military control until a later agreement. It’s nearly 20 years later since then, and Israeli rule is increasingly permanent and restrictive. For Izbat Tabib that has meant losing about 45% of its land to the building of the Separation Wall in 2011 and demolition orders, issued by the military government, for most of the homes and the village school that also serves as a community centre.

The group of about 100 Palestinians of Izbat Tabib and Israelis from the Tel Aviv area marched the short distance from the school to the junction with the main road. Protesting  the occupation in general and the demolitions in particular we chanted slogans in Arabic, Hebrew and English: “No, no to war; yes, yes to peace,” “One, two, three, four, occupation no more; five, six, seven, eight, end the killing, end the hate,” “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” We held placards, mostly in Hebrew, on which were written slogans such as “There is a partner,” “it won’t end until we talk,” and “yes to dialogue, no to violence.” But other than passing traffic and the rain clouds quickly crossing the windy sky, nobody was listening or watching.

Combatants for Peace demonstration, Izbat Tabib, 23.11.12

And then our audience arrived. Hesitantly at first, they kept their distance. Then they must have called some friends, and a small group of military vehicles and soldiers came and stood close by. The Tel Aviv – Tulkarem group of Combatants for Peace use theatre as one of their approaches to non-violent resistance to occupation, and have previously performed for the villagers. Today, the improvised performance was for the soldiers. At first a couple of the demonstrators took up stances showing the soldiers how we saw them, how they held their guns, how they watched us. They turned to show us what they were doing, and then more demonstrators became actors, moving and standing in ways that showed the soldiers how we thought they saw us. A rainbow joined in. Then we all crammed in together to show that we could all be that close, without fear, without hatred, without any need for the red sign that warns Israelis it is dangerous to enter a Palestinian village.

Demonstrators acting the roles of the watching soldiers

The audience didn’t seem very appreciative. They came over-dressed, with far too many military accessories. Some seem to have got bored and left early in their armoured vehicle. One guy kept his distance throughout, staying with his vehicle on the other side of the road. Perhaps they were wondering why they had to be there and when they could go home. Maybe we should have brought snacks for them. We didn’t have a programme for them to take as reminder of the event. And really, they didn’t need to be there. Really, the Israeli military doesn’t need to be in the West Bank at all. They don’t need to come and demolish homes and schools, to build a Separation Wall on Palestinian land. We can get along fine without an audience, performing for each other the roles that neighbours play for each other. We’ve been playing a theatre of cruelty for too long, a theatre of domination and oppression, a theatre of fear and hatred. Combatants for Peace are writing a script for a new play and are ready in the wings to perform it. They just need a bigger troupe of actors and a larger audience.

Demonstrators acting as demonstrators

Composing peace as a picture

Combatants for Peace rally in Beit Jala

Peace-making is an art, an art that demands much skill, patience, a deep, empathetic understanding of the human material of which is peace is made, and willingness to try and fail many times before succeeding. The bi-national Israeli-Palestinian group Combatants for Peace practiced its art of peace-making in its rally against the “Pillar of Cloud” war on Saturday evening, 17thNovember 2012. The movement was started jointly in 2005 by Palestinians and

Israeli contingent marching to Beit Jala

Israelis, who have taken an active part in the cycle of violence; Israelis as soldiers in the Israeli army and Palestinians as part of the armed struggle for Palestinian freedom. Not only have members of the group renounced violence in favour of dialogue and reconciliation, but they have also committed to working together, as former enemies, to achieve an end to the occupation and independence for Palestine alongside Israel.

Before the latest Gaza war broke out last week, Combatants were planning a remarkable event for that evening, a screening on the separation wall of Shelley Hermon’s documentary film, Within the Eye of the Storm. I blogged on another occasion about the Tel Aviv premier of that film. But to show a film about how two former fighters, bereaved by the violence of the occupation, came to be close friends on the very structure that embodies all the forces separating Israelis and Palestinians will be a deeply symbolic event. The war caused the postponement of the event, and in its place Combatants organized a joint demonstration calling for a cease fire and a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Organising such an event in short time is no easy feat. Israelis may not enter Area A of the West Bank, which is under full Palestinian Authority control, without a special permit, while the movement of Palestinians other than within the “islands” that Area A is composed of is restricted by the Israeli military. But a point was found in Beit Jala, by Bethlehem, that enabled access to the Israelis coming for the Tel and Jerusalem area as it is in Area C and which the Palestinian members of Combatants could also reach.

So, we marched separately, about 100 Israelis from where the buses dropped us off on a rural road on the outskirts of Beit Jala in the hilly countryside around Jerusalem, and about 100 Palestinians from within Beit Jala. With only a few onlookers, we Israelis (and others) chanted in Hebrew to those ancient hills: “The people demand a ceasefire,” and “War is a disaster, only peace is the solution.” But along the way, a little peace making had to be done. A couple of Palestinians saw the Israeli flag one member of the group was carrying, and signaled that it be taken down. The Israeli and Palestinian organisers had it seems agreed between themselves that an Israeli flag would be there, but not everyone present was happy with that, or knew about it. The Israeli flag is a symbol of occupation and oppression to Palestinians, not a symbol of Jewish freedom. But by the time we arrived at the meeting point, an acceptable arrangement was found: the two flags were held together. Yet, they were both dwarfed by a huge Palestinian flag being held by the youth across the road at which we met, a fabric affirmation that we were now in Palestine.

Short speeches were read out in Hebrew and Arabic, calling on both sides to cease fire, stop targeting and hurting civilians, stop the incitement, and reach immediately the same agreement that will be reached later in any case but after more casualties and pain. Then the chanting began again, the drummers got their rhythm going, and bodies began to move to it, relaxing the stiffness of two sides standing with placards, banners and flags. One Palestinian kid who was enjoying the rhythm was holding a placard with Netanyahu’s picture and the slogan “Peace refusenik”. Waltzing with Bibi. Maybe the bored Israeli soldiers standing in a line to stop us spilling over into other roads wanted to dance too. It was a Saturday night, after all.

One can’t say we all made peace with each other that day, or had a chance to make friends. The activists of Combatants in their grey tea shirts already knew each other, had worked together, consulting each other frequently to keep the event running as planned. But there we were together, Israelis and Palestinians, at a time of war when it is easiest to care only for one’s own pain and injured and dead, to use it as ground to hate the enemy, to demonize them, to believe that they don’t love their children as much as we do, or that they won’t stop until they’ve killed all of us. There we were, determined to find a place to insist together that the violence stop. But even before it stops, Combatants continue the painstaking work of making peace out of the ruins and desperation that the conflict and occupation have left. Last Saturday night, they another added another quick sketch to their portfolio. With much effort, many more helping hands, disagreements about flags and colours and exactly where to place lines, these sketches could become a tapestry of peace across those hills.

Within the Eye of the Storm

Poster for Within the Eye of the Storm

It was International Peace Day on Friday 21 September, a day marked by several events in Israel, including the screening of a remarkable documentary, Within the Eye of the Storm, directed and produced by Shelley Hermon. The synopsis of the film on the website reads:

Bassam and Rami, a Palestinian and Israeli, were once dedicated fighters willing to kill and be killed by one another for the sake of their nations. Yet each one of them came face to face with the price of war when their daughters were killed in the conflict. Left with the excruciating pain of bereavement, they chose to do the unexpected. They set out on a joint journey to humanize the very enemy, which took the dearest thing from them and prevent the vicious cycle of retaliation in themselves and their societies. Along the way they reveal the friendship and humor that keeps them alive. The film follows their two parallel stories and the moments where they converge, both in their personal experiences and peace work as they face their shattered families, confused communities and opposing society. This is a critical junction in both their lives, as their life mission and personal agenda clash and they stand the biggest test to their friendship.

The film itself is an image of peace, or rather a set of images of peace. The key image is the friendship that is displayed between the two fathers, the Israeli Rami Elhanan, whose 14-year old daughter Smadar was killed by two Palestinian suicide bombers in Jerusalem in 1997, and the Palestinian Bassam Aramin, whose 10-year old daughter Abir was shot in the head with a rubber-coated bullet by an Israeli soldier in Anata, East Jerusalem in 2007. Bassam had already been politically active in founding the bi-national Israeli-Palestinian peace group Combatants for Peace in 2005, whereas Rami was roused to activism in the wake of his daughter’s death. Their friendship is highlighted in the public conversations the two fathers had with each other in weekly broadcasts on All for Peace Radio, in which Rami takes the lead. But the friendship is perhaps most evident at one point, after Bassam has had good news about the civil case he brought against the State of Israel for being responsible for Abir’s death, when Rami hugs him and tells him “You know I love you” in the same way that he hugs his son and his deceased daughter’s friend Danielle, who was badly injured in the same bomb attack as Smadar.

Another image or meaning of peace in the film is that Bassam does win his civil case against the State in 2011, although he’s still pursuing his criminal case against the soldier who shot his daughter in violation of military procedures. No justice, no peace, and although Bassam’s court victory is but one very small piece of justice, and such victories are very rare in Israeli courts, so is the friendship between Bassam and Rami but one small piece of peace.

Within the Eye of the Storm is a moving film, as demonstrated by the audience’s response, thanks in part to the intimate camera work that puts viewers inside the homes of Rami and Abbas, making us feel closely connected to their lives. The music also plays a significant role.  Yet, the main affective power of the documentary consists in its composition as an act of mourning for Smadar and Abir. For the most part, these are separate moments for the two characters and families. Bassam’s wife weeps as she holds up a younger daughter to compare her to Abir’s picture, and towards to the end of the film Bassam prays next to a poster size image of Abir in their temporary house in Bradford, England (where Bassam studied for an MA in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution). There are also photographs of Smadar on display in Rami’s home, but his mourning is most evident in his visit to and embrace of Danielle, his daughter’s friend who survived the attack. When Shelley Hermon described the film as a memorial to the two girls in her comments after the screening, she choked up, almost unable to continue. The sense of loss was palpable throughout the cinema hall.

The screening event itself was another image of peace, though more problematically so. The depth of feeling among the audience of about 400 people, of simple empathy, of shared grief, cannot be denied. As Bassam was called to the stage to speak, he received a standing ovation. One woman in the audience remarked that this film was the first time she felt that ‘her side’ had been listened to along with the Palestinians’, and so she said to Bassam and Shelley from now ‘I’m with you’. Other questions revealed more scepticism: how were Bassam’s activities and the film received by his extended family and community? Would the film get the same reception in the West Bank? Yes, he said, catching the implicit racism (and common assumption that ‘we Israelis want peace; it’s those Arabs who don’t) but responding cleverly with humour: they’d applaud it just as loudly in Ramallah, even though it’s full of Arabs. The film was screened on a Friday afternoon at Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque (and other Cinametheques across Israel), thus marking it as a ritual for a secular, bourgeois, Ashkenazi audience, who mingled and chatted as they would at any cultural event. Participation in such a ritual of spectatorship can easily displace any felt need to act to prevent the grounds for further acts of mourning. The film also leaves largely untold the stories of the two mothers, who are not seen to participate in the blood bond of shared mourning that prompts the men’s friendship.

Within the Eye of the Storm is not, however, a naïve documentary, certainly less naïve than my spontaneous feeling as an audience member that if there are such caring and sensitive people, surely Israel can find a way to make peace with Palestinians. In the film, there are several scenes of Rami failing to persuade Israelis that reconciliation and dialogue are the best way forward. Danielle’s boyfriend expresses a common view when says he can’t understand why Rami is helping those who murdered his daughter. Rami himself breaks off a discussion with a member of the public at a rally for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who was then being held by Hamas, at the point when the man says he’s prepared to pay any price to keep a Jewish state. Rami has already paid the price, and even though he is distributing stickers saying ‘It won’t stop until we talk’ (a slogan of the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace Circle), he cannot continue to speak to another Israeli who would have him pay the price again. And why should he? Why should we? Because we prefer to mourn?