Two Weeks in Palestine

nablusLast month Samantha Liapes, a young Jewish American human rights worker, traveled to Palestine as an international volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement, a group dedicated to raising awareness about the struggle for Palestinian freedom. During the two weeks she spent there, working beside Palestinian olive farmers in their fields, she witnessed violence and oppression on many levels, in many forms. The following are excerpts from a journal she kept while in the West Bank from November 1 through 15, 2002.

11/06/02: Today I arrived in the West Bank village of Yanoon and was immediately sent to join a family in the olive fields. The village has received a lot of media attention lately because of a recent incident in which heavily armed teenagers from the surrounding Israeli settlement came down the hill and, without warning, severely beat five international volunteers who were helping a Palestinian family harvest olives. I have seen settlers in Yanoon and others when I was in Ramala. They all carry what look like machine guns. Recently arrived from Russia, the settlers near Yanoon talk about having a god-given right to this land. Yet most of the Palestinian villagers can trace their ancestry here for over 400 years. I ate dinner with a family who described years of harassment. The settlers have beaten many people. They shot one young farmer dead while he was harvesting olives. They poisoned 130 sheep, dug up the only road in and out of the village, and burned out the generator, leaving the village without any electricity. They steal the olives and destroy the olive trees -- the village’s main source of sustenance. I heard one mother describe how her three young children had been completely traumatized. They would twitch and duck for cover at random times, and they refused to leave the house.

I feel a special obligation to stand against this occupation because it is being carried out in my name, in the name of Jewish people.

11/08/02: Last night we had to call the military because we heard some settlers near the house. The internationals patrol the village, walking its perimeter, all night long in pairs of two but we only have flashlights and cellphones so we had no choice but to call for help. It made me feel sick to my stomach having to call on them, especially given that just the day before they had raided the home we sleep in while almost everyone was in the fields. They were obviously looking for something to incriminate us so that they could kick us out of the village. When the military finally arrived in response to our call they interrogated us and insinuated the intruders were actually "Palestinian terrorists". They were extremely intimidating and we didn’t feel any safer after having talked to them.

11/10/02: Because of the recent media attention, the settlers seem to be restricting their harassment to armed intimidation and verbal abuse. Throughout the night, they shine an industrial-strength spotlight on villagers’ homes or in the faces of patrolling internationals. You’ll be walking in the nearly pitch-black dark of the village and suddenly become blinded by the intense light. It’s scary, but we are advised to just keep walking the patrol route. It is important that we do not act afraid or change our routine. Over and over our hosts tell us never to run if we encounter settlers or military. Running gives them an excuse to shoot at you.
palestinian kids11/12/02: Yesterday morning, I left Yanoon in response to a predicted military invasion in Nablus and a call for increased international presence there. It should have been a 15-minute drive to Nablus, but with all the checkpoints and detours the ride took several hours. After a great dinner and conversation, I went to bed. I planned to wake up early to accompany children trying to get to school past all the city’s new checkpoints. At 4 A.M., someone shook me awake and insisted I get out of the house immediately. The home was being raided by the military. Outside the house I saw about 20 military officers with M-16s. Everyone in the household -- about 18 people, including eight young children and infants -- was forced to sit in the street while the military searched the home and interrogated the men. All the men were forced on their knees, hands cuffed behind their backs, guns pointed at the backs of their heads with their faces pushed up against a wall. The soldiers barked at the women: "Shut up! Shut up or we’ll use force." Based on the women's pleading and crying, I understood that the physical position that the men were forced into was one in which Palestinian men are routinely assassinated. After about 20 minutes, the soldiers pushed all the women and children back into the house, and eventually all the men, except for one, were released. Ahmed’s brother was taken, without any explanation, despite repeated requests for information. They said only that he was being taken in for questioning. This was the same thing they said two months ago, when they took another brother who lived in the house. That young man, who is still in custody with no explanation, was taken during a home raid where there was no international presence. The military broke most of the furniture in the house that time, and they shot holes in the living room walls. Under Israeli law, Palestinians can be taken in "for questioning" for up to six months without explanation, charges or court process. Israeli military exercise this right often. Over 70percent of the men in the area have spent some time in jail or prison, often without formal charges. Ahmed said that no one in his family is connected to any armed resistance movement. I asked him if the military ever gave any explanation for either of his brothers’ arrests. "No," he answered. "They never said anything at all." After the raid, no one in the house slept for the rest of the night. We sat awake listening to the constant percussion of the Apache helicopter shellings, the booms of tanks shooting into the streets.

search11/13/02: Yesterday and today I visited Palestinian homes that have been occupied by the Israeli military since the invasion two nights ago. Soldiers arrive in the middle of the night, wake everyone up, and usher them all -- usually 20 or more people -- into the smallest room in the house, where they are told to be silent and sit still or else. They are often denied food and water and do not have sufficient air circulation. In many cases, these houses contain elderly people with life-threatening illnesses that require medication or hospitalization. We pleaded with the military: "Please, let us bring these people their medicine. Let us take them to the hospital." Even when we could show proof, the military officers refused. These occupied homes temporarily become military property. The soldiers don’t just take over the homes; they destroy them in the process. With my own eyes, I have witnessed destruction beyond all comprehension. They break all the furniture to bits; they bust up walls and floors; they empty cupboards, closets, shelves and drawers, creating piles of broken possessions in every room. They eat all the food, leaving wrappers, dirty dishes and food waste all over the floor. In one home the entire bathroom was covered with human waste. They occupy homes mainly in the center of the refugee camps so they can watch the entire camp and so the entire camp will be fully aware of their presence. It is as if they are saying, "We are next to you, around you, above you, within you. Nothing, not even your homes, is sacred."

11/14/02: I leave for Jerusalem today, where I will catch a taxi to the airport. I am not ready to leave. I said goodbye to my friend’s extended family and thanked them for their wonderful hospitality. I left some toys for the children, in particular for the three young sons of the man who was taken by the military the other night. One of his sons, the 11-year-old, looks just like my brother did at his age. And my Palestinian friend is always telling me that I am the spitting image of his sister from Gaza.

These thoughts of family remind me why I decided to come to this place. I feel a special obligation to stand against this occupation because it is being carried out in my name, in the name of Jewish people. In the United States, mainstream Jewish institutions continue to use all their money, resources and scare tactics to equate Jewishness with the uncritical support of Israel. Many Jews, including many Israelis I talked to, are horrified and angered by what they see happening in the occupied territories, and they actively resist Israeli policies. Many others feel moved to stand up against what they see as injustice, but are afraid of being ostracized by the Jewish community or repression by the Israeli government. Zionism, which purports to be a protecting and unifying force for Jews, is actually tearing Jewish communities apart. The violent occupation of Palestine has tainted what it means to be Jewish for many young people around the world, depriving them of a connection to their heritage.

protest I am proud of so much of my Jewish heritage. For centuries, Jews have participated in movements for peace and freedom and justice in every country we have populated. My mother was active in the civil rights movement and her stories always include proud references to the disproportionate numbers of Jewish young people who went south to participate in the Freedom Summer. I see myself as part of this tradition -- a tradition of Jews who recognize that our historical oppression as Jewish people links us intimately to the struggles of all oppressed people. For me, to honor my heritage as I was raised to understand it, I am obligated to take a stand against what I know to be wrong. And given that I happen to be a Jew born in the United States, a country that gives billions of dollars to Israel every year, I feel doubly obliged. There is no question for me that I must resist this occupation in any way that I can. The Israeli occupation of Palestine is violence in more forms than I could have ever fathomed until I saw it with my own eyes. The Palestinians want peace, whether the world is willing to believe it or not. But there will be no peace for Israelis or Palestinians until there is no occupation.

Samantha Liapes is a spoken-word artist with Freedom Fighter music, a progressive hip hop collective and record label. She currently works at a human rights organization in San Francisco, and is also a member of Jews for a Free Palestine, a Bay Area group of Jewish people working in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

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