Monday, June 25, 2007

On The Limits of Non-Violence

June 8

Left: One of those two faces. The soldier (to be precise, border policeman) with the bullhorn is the one who shoved me.

Musa, Aaron and I went into Hebron to put Aaron on a service back to Jerusalem. We had a fantastic breakfast of humus and foul (why can’t someone open a foul stand on campus?), Aaron took the service, then Musa and I went to meet Afaf at PARC. The place was full of women going to the demonstration at Umm Salamona (see below); there were no men in the building except those who work at PARC (three), Musa and me. The atmosphere was jovial and light; I guess some people are used to confronting armed colonists.

We left for the demonstration on large busses. When we got there the first thing we saw was the Israelis arresting someone about 200 yards from the protest site. I took a picture of the arrest practically by accident. All of the pictures I took are available at, and; a short video (it's just the soldiers pushing people for five minutes) is also available at

I wrote the article below about my time here and the demonstration, but nobody seems interested in publishing it. I've copied and pasted it here since it's too hot to write anything else, even though this apparently sucks. My apologies in advance if it's really not worth reading.

The Two Faces of the State of Israel

The view from Palestine

I’ve been volunteering in the emergency room and surgical ward at al-Ahli Hospital in Hebron, the southern West Bank’s largest city, since May 18. In the first two weeks I was here the Israeli Army shot at least three people in the head who were brought to Ahli afterwards: Jehad Takatqa, a fifteen-year-old boy who may never move or feel the left side of his body again; Fatima al-Jabari, a sixty-year-old woman whom I doubt will survive the trauma in any recognizable form; and Fatima’s husband Yehia, a seventy-year-old man who died instantly when a bullet blew his brain out the back of his head and crushed and shattered his cranium. Jehad was watching a stone-throwing demonstration and was the unlucky child the Israelis decided to shoot to stop the demonstration; the Jabarai couple was shot in their home from close range while the army was apparently looking for someone related to them.

Adjusted for population, this is the equivalent of 123 people shot in the head by a foreign army in New York City.

Meanwhile, this past Friday I had the privilege of witnessing and participating in one of the great nonviolent struggles of our time: the struggle of the Palestinian people – along with a great many Israelis and internationals – to halt and reverse construction of the terrifying wall Israel is building in the West Bank. The protest was organized by the Stop The Wall campaign ( in a farming village named Umm Salamona, located a few miles from Bethlehem.

We arrived at Umm Salamona just after noon on Friday, June 8; the Israeli Army was already there. Before us lay an expanse of cultivated farmland with a horrible scar run through it: the path for the wall, carved into the land by American-made Caterpillar bulldozers. When built, the wall will divide the village from its farmlands, making survival here impossible.

I was immediately struck by the preparations the IDF and border police had made to stop these people from nonviolently demanding their rights: two large military vehicles used for arrests were present along with a dozen army and border police jeeps. People between the ages of ten and seventy armed only with cameras faced one of the most powerful armies in the world, made up of young men in full body armor and helmets, with loaded automatic rifles, battle-grade radios, nightsticks, and riot shields.

The protest began with everyone gathering at the blocked gate. A seventy-year-old woman who lives on the land walked – slowly, smiling and with assistance – to the soldiers and asked them to let her through. They refused. She asked them to go away and to leave her alone; after all, she had done them no wrong. They refused. A border policeman on a bullhorn announced that everyone should “go home”.

One of the soldiers gave an order and they all rushed us, trying to push us away from the gate. We stood our ground without fighting. After several minutes of shoving the army tried to grab someone randomly in order to arrest him. The Palestinians realized what was happening and tried to pull him back into the crowd. Eventually our side won the tug-of-war; the man’s shirt was torn off, but he was pulled to the back of the crowd, and so at least he didn’t spend the night in an Israeli prison.

A Reuters cameraman was standing next to me; one of the soldiers threw him to the ground for no reason that I could discern, nearly cracking his head open. The cameraman jumped back up and started screaming at the soldier. Another soldier got between them and told the first soldier not to act that way. After all, the media can get them in trouble, and only a lunatic attacks people who aren’t defenseless.

Now at the front of the crowd, I was face-to-face with a soldier with dark skin and vaguely African features. “Where are you from?” I asked. He tilted his head back and forth and smiled: he knew what I meant, and that to answer “Israel” would be ridiculous.

“I know you’re from Israel, but where is your family from?”

“Yemen”, he replied.

“Do you think your parents came to Israel so you could steal land from a poor farmer and his family?” I asked. He looked at me without answering. “Do you really want to be here, doing this?” Again, no answer.

The soldiers rushed the crowd again and then again, and then shut the gates we intended to march through. Frustrated, the man who owns the land chained and padlocked the gate shut. A soldier responded by putting a plastic tie around the gate, the kind they use to bind peoples’ hands. “If you put that,” the farmer yelled at the soldier, “I will cut it! I – WILL – CUT – IT!” They put it on anyway; we tried to cut it, and failed.

Three Jewish Israeli activists, one woman and two men, had been standing on the soldiers’ side of the fence since before we arrived. The soldiers spontaneously decided to assault and arrest them; the woman’s headscarf was knocked off and both men were thrown to the ground, bound and then put into one of the large military vehicles. I thought to myself that I could only think of two places where Jews have forced Jews into trucks: Nazi Germany and Israel.

The organizers decided we should move to the next gate, perhaps 25 yards down the fence. We did, but unfortunately the soldiers beat us there. So we moved down the fence to the next gate, forcing the army to spread out. This time we beat them to it. They had tied this one shut as well, but two young Palestinians managed to rip the plastic tie off. We hesitated, knowing we could be arrested and worse if we went onto the road. Eventually the woman whose family I’m staying with in Hebron [Afaf] led us out. About fifteen of us got through the gate before the army blocked it: not enough to block the road effectively without fighting, we decided.

After struggling for hours in the heat of the Middle East, people decided it was time to leave. This too was blocked by the soldiers. For twenty minutes those of us who had made it outside the fence negotiated with the soldiers for the release of our friends. The border policeman with the bullhorn shoved me from behind, again for no reason, and walked casually onwards.

Eventually our friends were let go; we got on our buses and went back to Hebron. A few miles from the site of Jesus’ birth we had failed to convince the soldiers of a Jewish state to allow a farmer to peacefully protest the theft of his land. June 8 would go down in the history books had its events not been repeated every week all over the West Bank for the past 40 years.

The view from Texas

My medical school paid for this trip, since I’m volunteering at a hospital six days per week. Our Dean of Student Life, an absolutely wonderful man, told me he suggested to the school’s legal team a “release of liability” form for those students who accept scholarships from the school to travel abroad. The school’s lawyers at first said such a form wasn’t necessary. “Really?” asked the dean. “We have people traveling to Columbia.” No problem, said the lawyers.

“We have people traveling to Zimbabwe.” No problem, they said.

“We have one student traveling to the West Bank.” They “went pale”, and decided a release of liability was a good idea.

Later I learned exactly why the lawyers felt this way. It wasn’t because they were worried the Israeli army would shoot me in the head or beat and imprison me for no reason. No, they were “worried that [I] might take a picture with some terrorists.”

This nonviolent struggle will never succeed until enough Americans see the heartlessness of these lawyers’ fears. Yes, there are terrorists in the West Bank. But there is also a colonial superpower, a brutal occupation, a system of apartheid unlike anything anywhere else in the world. The terrorists and this superpower are simply incomparable in terms of destructive power and their history of violence.

For those concerned with Palestinian rights and the survival of the State of Israel, one thing should be clear: Palestinians and even Israelis cannot stop Israel from completing its program of dismemberment and destruction of the West Bank and mass starvation in Gaza, whether they struggle violently or nonviolently. There is only one group of people who can “stop the wall”, and that’s us, Americans. Israel cannot maintain the level of control it has over the West Bank without the massive American aid it receives. We alone have the power to end the destruction of Palestine and to save Israel from itself, and with exactly no cost to ourselves.

The State of Israel shows two faces to the world. To the West, Israel shows the paradoxically helpless and powerful Jew fighting valiantly to stave off the next Holocaust. But to the East, and especially to the Palestinians, Israel shows the brute soldier and the fanatical settler, who together stop an old woman from walking where she pleases, beat and arrest unarmed protesters, shoot children and old people, and yell “go home!” to a farmer whose home they are destroying.

Like the American Civil Rights Movement, the nonviolent struggle for Palestinian rights and human dignity will be won or lost in the minds of privileged Americans. I hope we wake up, before it’s too late.