Facing the wall


Source : City Pulse

by Daniel Sturm

How two Lansing women stood up to Israeli soldiers by standing down

When the sound grenade detonated at her feet on June 30, Lansing resident Loretta Johnston knew that it was a sign to run. Through the two non-violent peacemaking training sessions she’d taken, the former state employee had prepared for this kind of reaction on the part of the Israeli soldiers.

She knew that when the soldiers wanted to break up a protest, they’d follow the sound grenades with tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades and even live ammunition. She told herself not to panic.

I met Johnston and three other members of the Michigan Peace Team in the West Bank village of Bil’in, where residents have been demonstrating against the separation wall every Friday for the last two years. I was traveling in Palestine and Israel with an educational tour group organized for journalists in northeastern Ohio, and was surprised to recognize members of the Peace Team delegation in a crowd of roughly 100 Palestinian, Israeli and international demonstrators and observers.

But walking over to greet them would have to wait, for the crushing blare of a sound grenade at my own feet had left me panicked, shaken and temporarily deaf. I escaped the scene with several Israeli reporters. Bil’in, a farming community on the West Bank, 10 miles west of Ramallah, had been declared a military zone, and I was glad when my tour guide arrived. The next day I caught up with Johnston and another Lansing resident, Martha Larsen, via telephone.

“I have been to two or three peace rallies in the United States, but this was the first one where things became violent,” Johnston said of the June 30 rally. “And the only violence I saw was coming from the Israeli soldiers. They were hitting us with sound grenades, tear gas bombs and rubber bullets!”

The soft-spoken peace activist said the rally started as a peaceful and non-violent protest, similar to the peace rallies she’d taken part in at the state Capitol in Lansing. About 100 people met in front of the mosque after the village prayer on Friday. There were Palestinians, Israelis, Americans, French, Germans and Japanese among them.

They group started off toward the separation fence, a $3.4 billion Israeli project aimed at improving security for Israeli citizens, including those who live in the Occupied Territories. The barrier is made up of 471 miles of fortified electric fence, protected by barbed wire, watchtowers, minefields and killer dog patrols. Near Palestinian villages, the barrier turns into a 26-foot-high concrete wall. The wall bordering Bil’in is 3 miles long.

Abdullah Abu-Rahme, a Palestinian high school teacher, said the fence’s affect on the local economy is “devastating.” The sale of olive oil is the farming community’s primary revenue source, but 20,000 of the town’s olive trees lie on the other side of the wall. Restricted access to the trees has dramatically affected the olive harvest. Abu-Rahme, also co-organizer of the Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, said that Bil’in residents could get passes to cross over only if they have documents to show that they owned property beyond the wall. “The Israeli authorities gave a permit to my father, who is 80 years old, but not to me, because the land title is written in his name only,” Abu-Rahme said.

The first Israeli settlements on Palestinian land in the area were established in 1979. In 1991, Israel confiscated an additional 321 acres of agricultural land for the construction of the colony Kiryat Sefer. That brought the total of land that had been confiscated in Abu-Rahme’s village to 568 acres, representing more than half the village’s farmland. Abu-Rahme fears that if his hometown doesn’t win a pending court case against the wall, it could lose an additional 247 acres.

The Israeli government began constructing the new colony of Mattityahu East, on Bil’in land, in 2003. The new colony was added to five older ones, forming the city of Modiin Illit. Actions like this lead Abu-Rahme to think the conflict is more about control of resources than control of violence, he said. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense to place the barrier so far away from the city it is supposed to protect.

At a new section of the wall, on Mount Olive in Jerusalem, I met Israeli-American anthropologist Jeff Halper, author of “Obstacles to Peace,“ a few days before the rally. A soldier at the checkpoint barked at me on the loudspeakers when I began taking pictures of the wall. “Why should we stop?” Halper yelled back. “Is it because the wall is shameful?” The soldier mumbled something under his breath, but left us alone.

Halper, who is Jewish, is an outspoken opponent of what he refers to as Israel’s own version of the Apartheid. “The Berlin Wall is nothing when compared with this,” he said.

Here, 50,000 farmers are trapped between the border and the wall, where they face alienation from their land and their water, as well as eventual forced relocation. More than 500,000 Palestinians live within 1.6 miles of the barrier, making it one of the most densely populated regions in the world.

In a June 22 New York Review of Books essay, Israeli journalist and historian Amos Elon warned that when the wall is finished it will be three times longer than the pre-1967 Israel-Jordan border, and that the Jewish state would be enclosed “inside one enormous bunker.”

Lansing’s Loretta Johnston said the idea of an open-air prison very disturbing. She first visited Israel and Palestine for a pilgrimage in the 1990s and she said that the experience had left her with a “deepened spirit” and a “calling to help establish peace and justice.”

She got to know the Michigan Peace Team, established in Lansing in 1993, through her volunteer work with Somali, Eritrean and Georgian refugees. In response to what was perceived as a growing need for civilian peacemakers in the United States and abroad, Johnston said the Peace Team’s goal has been to empower people to engage in active, non-violent peacemaking. The group’s Web site states, “We seek a just world that is grounded in nonviolence and respect for the sacred inter-connectedness of all life.”

Peace Team member Martha Larsen said this was serious work, and that people’s lives lay on the line. Taking the message of non-violence to an unimaginable level, Larsen said she even stayed perfectly calm when an Israeli commander gave the order to shoot at the civilians in Bil’in who were rallying along the fence.

“I was concerned about the Palestinians being shot at,” she said. “But there’s less danger for the internationals.” Larsen said the demonstrators tried to approach the gate and walk through to the other side of the wall. This should have been their right to do, she said, “since after all, it was their own land.” When one young Palestinian man began pulling on some of a barbed wire, the soldiers opened fire.

Larsen, who lived in Peru for 12 years after retiring from the Sisters of Mercy, said she was encouraged by how committed and courageous the demonstrators were. “They were trying to push through the gate in order to express that this was their land,“ she said. “Some of the protesters knew well that the Israelis were going to shoot at them, and they accepted the risk of possibly getting arrested.”

A few seconds later, all hell broke lose. The Israeli soldiers threw dozens of sound grenades, four of which landed in direct vicinity of my own escape route, up the hill over rocky ground, bypassing bushes and uncultivated olive trees. Soon my eyes started burning, like they do while chopping onions, only worse. The teargas attacks were underway. A middle-aged Palestinian villager who stood across from a crowd of soldiers was injured in the eye by a piece of shrapnel from an exploded sound grenade. Another man was hit by two rubber bullets, one on his back and one on his leg. A third man was hit in the stomach by a rubber bullet.

To protect themselves from the impact of the tear gas, several protesters covered their faces with orange masks and put slices of lemons and onions in front of their noses. “These were the tactics we learned about during the two weekends of training in Detroit before coming here,” Johnston said. “So when the gas bombs came, people could still breathe.”

However, Johnston didn’t have to use the lemon or onion tactic. Instead, she ran in the opposite direction of the wind to distance herself from the cloud of gas, a tactic she learned from an experienced activist.

But wearing the orange masks was also a symbolic gesture, in protest of what Johnston called the Israeli government’s regular mistreatment of the Palestinians. The former Michigan Department of Labor Relations staff member said she realized the importance of the color orange during a midnight raid a few days earlier, on June 28. She witnessed how the Israeli army came into the village and arrested a man in order to use him as a human shield. Soldiers blindfolded the man and dressed him in an orange prison uniform.

“This is a war,” said Johnston who has documented the military action on a video camera. “Those are war tactics.”

Using people as human shields violates Israeli law, according to the Israeli High Court, which ruled in October 2005 that it was illegal for defense forces to involve Palestinian civilians in military actions. The decision was made after the Israeli group B’Tselem and six other human rights organizations filed a petition in 2002.

Many Israeli citizens I spoke with during my 10-day trip believed that the separation wall was not being built to discriminate and segregate, but to prevent Palestinians suicide bombers from entering Israeli settlements. According to the Associated Press, suicide bombers have killed more than 500 Israelis since September 2000.

“This argument doesn’t hold water,” said Jal Shalif, a Tel Aviv resident who came with his father to the demonstration. “The government wanted to expand the wall not because it brings more security, but to bring more land. They were not at concerned about security at all.”

Shalif, a computer programmer, said he probably wouldn’t have come if it weren’t for his elderly father, whom Shalif drives to demonstrations. Their trip here was difficult, as Israel prevents its citizens from entering cities on the West Bank, unless they’re settlers in the Occupied Territories, so Shalif poses as a settler to gain access.

Israelis would feel uncomfortable if they witnesses what is happening in Palestine, Shalif said. “Before I came here and saw it for myself, I was too lazy to do the right thing. But now I am glad that I know about what’s happening here,” he said.

Shalif described how, two months ago, he saw a soldier shoot a Palestinian protester in the arm at close range. “I will remember this for the rest of my life, ” he said. “His arm was broken. He was a peaceful demonstrator and he was walking very slowly. He just happened to be the one who got shot because he was in the middle. It was so stupid.”

Israeli forces have injured more than 350 Palestinians in Bil’in, using a variety of experimental crowd-dispersal ammunitions, such as electric stun grenades, which they shoot at demonstrators during every rally.

Johnston said she is not discouraged, despite the violence. “I see that the Palestinians are staying committed and passionate,” she said. She said through the work of peace activists and journalists, the world’s attention is beginning to be drawn on the struggling farming community. That has led to international pressure for the Israeli defense forces to justify its actions along the wall, Johnston said.

Rally organizer Abu-Rahme called the presence of international peace activists like Johnston “a blessing.”

He said Johnston and other protesters’ use of video cameras is particularly helpful; if someone is detained on false charges, the cameras could prove the army wrong. “With their presence at demonstrations, along with large numbers of Israelis, it becomes very difficult for the Israeli army to shoot live ammunition at us,” Abu-Rahme said.

Residents of neighboring towns admire the peaceful resistance of their neighbors — they have even begun referring to the people of Bil’in as “Palestinian Gandhi,” in part because they have helped the legal community make a case against the wall.

On July 9, 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled that the separation barrier was illegal and that Israel should compensate Palestinians for property confiscated during the course of its construction. But since the ruling is non-binding, Israel has essentially ignored it. More recently, one Israeli court ordered the removal of a part of the fence running along some six miles near two Palestinian villages east of Qalqilyah. And a few months ago, Israel’s High Court in Jerusalem decided to order the dismantling of the fence around Alfei Menashe and have it replaced with a narrower fence.

Loretta Johnston and Martha Larsen said that they are convinced their trip to this troubled region has made a difference. “I believe that my presence here has been important,” Johnston said.

“I don’t think it’s a far-fetched dream that Israelis and Palestinians will live together in peace. I think that ultimately, justice and good will prevail.”