Broken Hearts and Bodies in Bil’in

In a poem entitled, “And Now,” Adrienne Rich sets a task for herself: she will pay close attention to our political landscape, to its details and public voice, so that she might better discern just when it was that “the name of compassion was changed to the name of guilt, when to feel with a stranger was declared obsolete.” She points to an “owning up” to the suffering that is inflicted upon the vulnerable,  the poor and the oppressed, and asks: “who was in charge of definitions and who stood by receiving them.”

During my time with a CODEPINK delegation in Israel and the occupied West Bank, I, too, was challenged to learn how to “pay attention.” Though a rather jolting experience, I am grateful for it. Given the enormity of suffering in the world, this is hardly the time to be walking about in some kind of stupor. “Wake up!” is a phrase that often appeared in my notes written at the end of each day, particularly after the day our delegation joined Palestinians, Israelis and other internationals in a nonviolent demonstration in Bil’in.

Bil’in, a village of about 1800 Palestinians, is nestled within the foothills of the Judean mountains. Though it is just seven miles northwest from the city of Ramallah, the village relies primarily upon agricultural production to sustain its inhabitants. Within the first few moments of my sojourn into Bil’in, I marveled at the magnificence of the land. There is at once the play of light upon the silvery leaves of the olive trees, the contrast of its cream-colored rocks against an azure sky and the gentle beauty of its undulating hills. The panoramic view, visible from any street in the village, offered an antidote to the thoughts and feelings of fear that were beginning to crowd my mind and heart. The land was instructive in its capaciousness; it spoke to me of the necessity of a large heart and mind in the work of nonviolence.

Just after the arrival of our CODEPINK delegation, the muezzin’s sonorous call beckoned Bil’in’s Muslim inhabitants to prayer. From Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, the coordinator of activities of Bil’in’s Popular Committee Against the Wall and the Settlements, we learned that the Friday protest walks, which have been held every Friday since February 2005, begin after the noontime prayers are completed. His statement reminded me of something that Daniel Berrigan, S.J. has often shared with members of Kairos, an interfaith New York City-based peace community. According to Berrigan, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described the churches of the American South as the places from which “we  [the Civil Rights Movement] go forth.” I imagined Dr. King and folks from the Civil Rights Movement with us in Bil’in; what a wonderful sharing of stories, songs and experiences there could have been.

Abu Rahmeh led us to the Popular Committee’s meeting house where he and Iyad Burnat, the head of the Popular Committee, gave an orientation and nonviolence training. From the outside walls of the house hung large and brightly colored banners which read, “President Obama, Have a Look!” Had President Obama “looked” on April 17th, he would have seen the violent death of 31-year-old Basem Ibrahim Abu Rahmeh. Abu Rahmeh, a beloved member of the village and steadfast participant in the Friday marches, was blasted in the chest by “the rocket,” a high velocity tear gas projectile. It was shot by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) directly at him and at close range, no more than forty meters away. Though he was not killed immediately, Abu Rahmeh’s chest was ripped open and his lungs were soon flooded with blood. He died in a private car en route to a hospital in Ramallah. Just prior to being shot, he had come to the assistance of a French female journalist who had been slightly injured in the face by rebounding shrapnel. He pleaded with the IDF to stop shooting but was only able to get a few words out before being felled: “We are in a nonviolent protest, there are kids and internationals …”

I wish that President Obama could have met Abu Rahmeh and his family, as did Benny Ziffer, an Israeli who writes for Ha’aretz. In his article, “Low on the Scale of Humanity,” he gives this personal account:

Basem promised he would learn Hebrew so it would be easier to come and visit my daughter … [He] came from a modest family. He was not an intellectual but he had natural leadership abilities. I returned to the village several times and watched him calming down groups of angry young people near the separation fence, so they would not provoke the soldiers. I saw him maintain order during the historic demonstration about a year ago, that marked the [Israeli] Supreme Court’s recognition of the justice of the village’s case, and its ruling that the lands stolen during the construction of the separation fence must be returned to them … Thus ended the brief story of the life of Basem Abu Rahmeh, who was handsome, tall and charismatic, but in terms of the categories of humanity, ranked very low.

Chris Hedges in the introduction to Collateral Damage, a book he co-authored with Laila Al-Arian, writes: “The politicians still speak [of war] in the abstract terms of glory, honor, and heroism, in the necessity of improving the world, in the lofty phrases of political and spiritual renewal. Those who kill large numbers of people always claim it as a virtue.” The grave of Basem Abu Rahmeh is located nearby the Popular Committee’s meeting house; you walk by it in order to get to the protest route. Far from “improving the world,” the loss of Abu Rahmeh is the loss of someone whose presence and gifts are those needed at this exact moment: he had no qualms about learning the language of the so-called “enemy;” he risked and gave his life to help someone in need; he managed to reach the hearts of those in his community trapped within feeling of rage and despair, etc. More so, he lived the greatest miracle of all: to be human in a situation that brutally dictates inhumanity. While standing by Abu Rahmeh’s grave, I took the call to President Obama as my own: Look! Look!

The ability to see clearly, however, is only an initial step. Ultimately, action is required. If there was a common theme to the various workshops and talks I attended during my two weeks with CODEPINK’s delegation in Israel, the primacy of deeds not more words, reports, analyses, etc., was that theme. “We know what’s going on in the Occupied Territories, now what are you going to do about it?” was the question put forth by almost every speaker I heard. Yes, we have “known what’s going on” for thousands of years, actually, and it is well expressed in a verse from the prophet Isaiah: “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land (5:8)!” Particular to Bil’in, as Mitchell Plitnick writes in his blog entry “Death in Bil’in: End Soldier’s Violence at the West Bank,” is that:

60% of Bil’in’s land, including much farmland crucial to the livelihood of many of its inhabitants, has been cut off by the barrier in order to accommodate the expansion of the Modi’in Illit settlement … the bottom line for all of this is that the root of these problems is the settlement project and the route of the security barrier based on the concerns of settlement expansion.

Recent developments in the expansion of the Modi’in Illit block hit close to home for those of us who live in the United States. In July 2008,  Adalah-NY, The Coalition for Justice in the Middle East, charged New York-based developers, Shaya Boymelgreen and Lev Leviev, both of whom are billionaires, of being directly and indirectly involved in the development of Mattityahu East, located within the Modi’in Illit block. This development is in violation of international law. According to Adalah-NY, “The construction of Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory violates the Fourth Geneva Convention according to a broad international consensus.” At the time of Adalah-NY’s press release, Boymelgreen, the owner of Green Park International and Green Mountain, both of which are Canadian registered, faced a $2 million lawsuit in Quebec Superior Court. Leviev, though not directly named in the lawsuit, is the owner of Africa Israel, whose subsidiary company, Danya Cebus, was responsible for the construction of Mattityahu East. Of Boymelgreen and Leviev, Adalah-NY also points to a connection between the poor of New York City and those of Bil’in: “Boymelgreen and Leviev have also earned reputations in New York City as developers who abuse laborers while building expensive condos that price low-income and middle income families out of their communities.”

In a Ha’aretz article entitled, “Tear Gas Is an Emotional State,” Iris Leal asks Basman Yassin, a Bil’in farmer, whether or not he is able to get to his lands:

“He says that in theory, with the proper permits – which are a pain in the neck to obtain – there is access to the land, but in practice it is often denied for long periods of time. Crops do not tolerate caprices, they demand regularity.”

Yet as Avika Eldar reports in a 2006 Ha’aretz article, “Documents Reveal West Bank Settlement Modi’in Illit Built Illegally,” settlement builders are able to access such permits quickly and illegally. According to Eldar:

“The military government’s Civil Administration chief planner, Shlomo Moskovitch, admitted the building permits for the new neighborhood Matityahu East in Modi’in Illit were issued illegally … The land [Bil’in’s] was purchased by land dealers through dubious powers of attorney, then rezoned as state land and leased or sold to settler’s building companies. The construction of the separation fence prompted the purchasers to implement their ‘rights’ by hastily fixing facts on the ground.”

These “facts on the ground” are intended to be permanent. This is a point, claims Eldar, made by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories and from Bimkom, Planners for Planning Rights, who obtained a copy of “The Master Plan of Modi’in Illit Area for the Year 2020.” Intended as a guiding document, the Master Plan map designates “some 600 dunams next to the plan for Matityahu East, owned by a few Bil’in families, is slated for construction of 1,200 housing units for settlers.” Hence, the “separation fence” may not be so much for the purpose of security, notes Eldar, but quite literally for the separation of a people from their land.

In January of 2005, the people of Bil’in decided that they would resist being separated from their land and formed the Popular Committee. Since February of 2005, what was once a daily occurrence has evolved into the weekly Friday demonstrations. There have been demonstrations on 225 consecutive Fridays since 2005, many of which display a creative pageantry. As Leal reports, “during the Soccer World Cup three years ago, they wore the uniforms of soccer teams; on Christmas, they dressed up as Santa Claus.” As I witnessed last summer, when I first participated in a Friday march, the  essentially, though not always, nonviolent and creative efforts of the Popular Committee are met with a barrage of IDF- launched tear gas cannisters, rubber coated steel bullets, percussion grenades, rubber ball grenades, live ammunition, etc. The meeting between this firepower and human flesh has produced death and horrible injuries. Chroniques de Palestine notes that Abu Rahmeh was the third person killed in the past three months, bringing the total of those killed in the anti-Wall demonstrations to sixteen. Eleven of the sixteen killed have been teenagers, including a ten-year old boy who was killed last summer in Ni’lin, a neighboring village of Bil’in. Frank Barat of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine puts these deaths in a larger context by noting that since the start of the Second Intfada in 2000, 87% of those killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been Palestinians.

On the Friday that the CODEPINK delegation joined the demonstration, Abdullah Abu Rahmeh gave a brief training in nonviolence. The start of the training began with Abu Rahmeh pulling out a large box containing spent tear gas cannisters, tear gas projectiles, grenades and a various assortment of bullets, all of which had been collected on the route of the protest march. I felt nauseated while looking at these spent shells, which can only be described as vile. What kind of mind designs such a weapon? Clearly the outcome of being hit by one of these would be death or being horribly maimed. In his article, “Israel Wages Chemical Warfare with American Tear Gas,” Louis Wolf reports that American made tear gas cannisters have been “shot or thrown at crowds or individual in streets and alleyways, into elementary school playgrounds, and repeatedly inside houses, hospitals, schools, stores and mosques, as well as dropped from helicopters into teeming refugee camps.” They have also been shot at me, twice, as well as at our CODEPINK delegation and, of course, at the internationals and Palestinian participants in the Friday protest matches. What I can describe personally, Wolf describes technically:

A highly concentrated lachrymatory (tear-producing) agent dispensed in a finely pulverized, dust-like substance, the CS gas3 initially attacks the eyeball and the lachrymal gland which produces tears and is the passages from the eyes to the nose. An intense burning sensation renders it exceedingly difficult to open the eyes, compounding the eyes and blinding the victim to what is happening.

Being “blinded to what’s happening” while the tear gas cannisters are being shot is not a situation one wants to be in given the potentially lethal effect of being hit by the cannister or projectile. While walking toward the fence – and you walk in an open field with little if any protective covering – one first hears the distinctive sound of tear gas being shot. It a is rapid “thunk, thunk, thunk.” Next comes the sighting of a white plume of smoke and then the effects of the gas, which are immediate, sickening, and debilitating. The range of these cannisters and projectiles is  stunning; you could be no where near the separation barrier and still be hit. During our nonviolence training, Abu Rameh taught us how to dodge the cannisters and instructed us to listen to the directional commands issued by the leaders of the march. In reality, however, the terror of these weapons makes it quite difficult to follow any instruction. While I looked at the spent casings and listened to Abu Rahmeh describe the effects of each of the weapons on the body, I wondered if the  American taxpayer knew how much of his/her money Israel receives each year in military assistance. If we did know – say perhaps a box of these casings were put on every doorstep along with photographs of those who have been killed and injured — would we resist the spending of our money in this manner? What if each taxpayer was to join in a Friday march and take in just one whiff of the gas, which is enough to create the rather intense burning that Wolf describes? Would we then resist paying at least that percentage of our taxes that are used to purchase such weapons? If Americans understood how our own military contractors benefit from the sale of weapons to Israel, would we be outraged or indifferent?

It’s likely that most Americans have no idea how much of their money has been allocated to Israel for military spending. Former CIA analysts Kathleen and Bill Christison, in their article, “U.S. Military Aid to Israel” provide a helpful guide. They point out, for instance, the:

United States and Israel signed a Memorandum of Understanding in August of 2007 committing the U.S. to give Israel $30 billion in military aid over the next decade. This is a grant aid, given in cash at the start of each fiscal year. The only stipulation imposed on Israel’s use of this cash gift is that it spend 74 per cent to purchase U.S. military goods and services.

In FY 2009, the amount of the grant was $2.55 billion. In order to reach the $30 billion amount earmarked through Memorandum of Understanding, however, the yearly allotment would have to increase, as is noted on the Naval Open Source Intelligence website. Its authors state that the FY 2010 cash gift proposed to Congress will be $2.775 billion. Since 1949, Israel has received $101 billion in total aid from the United States. Of that $101 billion, $53 billion has been allocated for military assistance. Wolf, in his article on tear gas, describes the atypical way that Israel and Egypt can make use of U.S. military assistance. Unlike other nations that receive military aid, Israel and Egypt are given “credits” (loans) through the Foreign Military Sales program. This money can be spent in any way that Israel and Egypt see fit. Further, “in the case of Israel’s tear gas purchases, the ‘credits’ are generously being rolled over and ‘forgiven,’ which means free tear gas.”

Ever since my return to the U.S., I have been thinking about my participation in the Bil’in march as a “non-violent” activist. Given that I am a citizen of the world’s leading military power, arms dealer and consumer of the world’s resources, the construction of my being in the world, at least in part, has been formed by astonishingly violent forces. Though often outside of my control, still there was much that I still had to do (e.g., resist paying taxes, consume much less than I do, etc.) to deepen my practice of nonviolence, to become honest. The question of nonviolence emerged during our training, though it was directed more toward the rock-throwing youth of the Bil’in marches. “If rocks were to be thrown at the Israeli soldiers, could the march still be considered a nonviolent protest?” was how the questions was asked to Abu Rahmeh. Abu Rahmeh said that while the organizers of the march would not be throwing stones, it was hard for them to control what the younger men of the community might do. In light of all that they had faced – the seizure of land, living in an “open-air” prison, the death of those whom they loved – it is understandably hard to control feelings of rage and frustration, he continued. Burnat, who was interviewed by the Guardian’s Rory McCarthy, pointed out that he had spent countless hours in discussions about nonviolence with the youth of Bi’lin but that “it gets more difficult when someone is killed.” I thought again of Basem, how much he was needed in this community, and how much I could have learned from him. It’s likely that I would not choose to throw rocks but then again I come from a nation that has (and continues to) rained down tons of bombs on other human beings. The “rock-throwing,” if you will, has already been done for me, and I pay for it every April 15th.

By the day’s end that Friday, two persons were treated for injuries and dozens for the inhalation of tear gas. I walked away from the demonstration feeling shaken and sad; it was hard for me to imagine how the community endures such trauma every Friday, not to mention the daily humiliation and hardships of life under occupation. I thought of the Popular Committee and of their courage and constancy. Abu Rahmeh told us he envisions the work of the Popular Committee to be that of a spark which will ignite a mass nonviolent movement of resistance. As did many speakers I met that week, he warned that Gaza was emblematic. It was his belief, as well as others, that Israel hopes to create traumatized and isolated pockets of Palestinian people. This must be countered by, according to Abu Rameh, a unified nonviolent Palestinian people. I thought also of the Israeli soldiers, who had so perfected the ability to “hit their targets.” How does life appear to them? Rabbi Brant Rosen, in a blog entry entitled, “In Search of Perspective in Bil’in,” shared the perspective of one young soldier whose present tour of duty was in Bil’in:

In Gaza you spot a terrorist, fire a shell and it’s over. Here you face a citizen who may hurl a stone or a Molotov cocktail, but your ability to respond is limited. It may appear that we are the ones using force here, but in reality that’s not the case, as we are subject to very difficult restrictions.

A different point of view is shared by a member of Ta’ayush, an Arab-Israeli NGO, who befriended a Bil’in-based soldier and gives this account:

‘Y’ [a reference to the soldier] recounted one instance when a settler woman told the soldiers that someone had thrown a stone at her. The army’s response was to go to the Palestinian village, and line everyone up. Most of the Palestinians there were children, and Y said he started to feel like the ‘bad guy.’ While off-duty as a soldier, Y began to join the Bil’in protesters and see the conflict from their side. One day he was called up by an officer and told that he would no longer serve with them because of his activities. The rest of his service was spent as a ‘jobnik,’ doing secretarial work.

In Denise Levertov’s poem, “May Our Right Hands Lose Their Cunning,” she begins by writing: “Smart bombs replace dumb bombs. ‘Now we can aim straight through someone’s kitchen’ …” continues by speaking of “a dumb fellow, a mongoloid, 40 years old, who, being cherished, learned recently to read and write, and now has written and poem …” and ends her poem by praying “to retain something round, blunt, soft, slow dull in us, not to sharpen, not to be smart.” I think here of the picture of Basem, whose Arabic name means “smile,” used for the many posters of him now found in Bi’lin. In these pictures, he does have a brilliant smile and he is flying a rainbow-colored kite, right next to the separation barrier. I think also of “Y,” typing away in some back office as opposed to shooting a gun. I am grateful to both of them – as I am to so many others – for daring to see “everything beautiful,” as did the boy in Levertov’s poem, for their refusal to be “smart enough” to inflict harm and suffering on others.

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