My Surprisingly Inspiring Trip to the West Bank: Echoes of Our Civil Rights Movement
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As I prepared for a grueling fact-finding trip to Israel and the Palestinian West Bank (occupied for 46 years), Secretary of State Kerry announced that Israel and the Palestinian Authority had agreed to resume peace talks without preconditions.
On the day my delegation flew to the region, Israel announced that it had approved still more housing for Israeli settlers: “Israel has issued tenders for the construction of nearly 1,200 housing units in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank,” reported London’s Financial Times, “defying U.S. and Palestinian opposition to expansion of Jewish settlements three days before the scheduled start of peace talks.”
It’s the same old depressing story, with Israel showing little interest in making peace.
So before I turn to what’s surprising and inspiring in the West Bank, let’s acknowledge the bad news: Palestinians are slowly being squeezed out of their homes, deprived of their water and centuries-old olive groves, humiliated on a daily basis by Israeli settlers and the Israeli state in a relentless violation of their human rights that gets worse as much of the world looks away.
But here’s the good news: Across the West Bank, Israel’s occupation has given rise in recent years to a nonviolent “popular resistance” movement that should be an inspiration to people across the globe. This unarmed resistance has persisted in the face of Israeli state violence (aided by U.S.-supplied weapons and tear gas), lengthy jail sentences for nonviolent protesters and widespread detention and abuse of children.
It was fitting to return to the U.S. on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington because Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy of militant nonviolence were invoked by Palestinian activists in virtually every village and town I visited as part of the fact-finding delegation.
Like King, leaders of the Palestinian popular resistance – from intellectuals to grassroots villagers who’d been repeatedly jailed – spoke to us about universal human rights, about a human family in which all deserve equal rights regardless of religion or nationality. “We are against the occupation, not against the Jews,” was the refrain among Palestinian activists. “We have many Jews and Israelis who support us.”
It was indeed inspiring to meet several of the brave Israelis who’ve supported the nonviolent resistance, often putting themselves in the frontline of marches (their jail sentences are tiny compared to what’s dished out to Palestinians). They are admittedly a small minority, thoroughly ostracized within Israel – a society that seems as paranoid and militaristic today as our country during the McCarthyite Fifties.
NABI SALEH: In this village near Ramallah that’s being squeezed by settlers, a leader of the local popular resistance waxed poetic about Israelis who’ve supported their struggle: “After we started the popular resistance in 2009, we saw a different kind of Israeli, our partner. We see them as our cousin – a different view than the Israeli as soldier shooting at us, or the settler stealing, or the jailer shutting the cell on us.” The story of Nabi Saleh was compellingly told in an atypical New York Times Magazinearticle by Ben Ehrenreich, “ Is This Where the Third Intifada Will Start?”
“It’s not easy to be nonviolent, but no soldier has been killed by a stone,” said activist leader Manal Tamimi. “We want to show the world we are not terrorists. On CNN, Fox News, we’re just terrorists, suicide bombers. I was in the states; you never hear of settlers attacking Palestinians.”
As we were leaving her house, Manal added: “You need to be our messengers because your tax money is killing us. You are our brothers in humanity, but you are part of the killing.”