This post is a reminder that we’re not spending our Year in Provence or in any other normal environment. My neighborhood feels like a civilized, peaceful place, what with its espresso bars and used bookstores and gigantic park. Certainly most people who live here pay very little heed to Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, even though there are checkpoints only about five miles away. Some days, I’ll admit, I also want to forget the political — and thus geographical — ugliness and complexity that surrounds us. But some days my conscience and curiosity make me face it. One such day happened during my parents’ visit when we went on a tour of the Ramallah region with Breaking the Silence, an organization of former Israel Defense Force soldiers. The organization’s mission is to tell the story of the occupation from the perspective of the occupiers. (My father had expressed an interest in seeing more of the Palestinian Territories on this trip. Between Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, lunch in Ramallah with Terence, and a full day of Breaking the Silence, I think he got his fill).
Once you get outside of the towns and cities, the landscape of the West Bank is astonishing, with rocky, scrabbly cliffs. It’s a miracle that anything grows there at all. The natural landscape is overlaid with a bizarre man-made geography that only adds to the hostile feeling: the Separation Barrier, of course. Watchtowers, barbed wire. The dual road system (one set of highways for Israelis, the other for Palestinians) — not always segregated by law, but almost entirely by custom. Settlements and ‘outposts.’
Our guides talked at length about how they enforced the occupation as soldiers, mostly through the practice of “making their presence known.” The idea is if Palestinians think that Israeli forces are constantly at their backs, there will not be any trouble. So, for instance, the IDF might set up “flying checkpoints” anywhere on the roads. Or photograph all the children in a village, entering houses at night to do so.
The centerpiece of the tour was a visit to Nabi Saleh, a village that has drawn international attention and Israeli anmity for its ongoing resistance to the occupation and specifically to the neighboring (and rapidly growing) Israeli settlement, Halamish. Every Friday, residents in Nabi Saleh hold a non-violent demonstration. Every Friday, Israeli forces seal the village off as a closed military zone. The IDF often responds violently to the demonstrations, with tear gas, rubber bullets etc.
A collection of tear gas canisters hangs on the main street, like a gruesome piece of public art. Nabi Saleh was in the news last month, when a protester died after being hit at point-blank range by an Israeli soldier, in violation of IDF policy.
Nabi Saleh residents are media savvy; they have a blog and they actively capture images and data about the IDF’s response to their demonstrations. And they welcome groups like ours. We sat in a basement, watching footage of tear gas attacks that had happened immediately outside that house. I have never been in a real “conflict zone” before. It was intense to listen to Manal Tamimi, a village leader, talking about the community’s commitment to resistance in the face of death, injury, humiliation. It was equally or more intense to listen to the former Israeli soldiers as they explained the IDF tactics in containing the resistance.
The longer I live here and the more I learn, the more I become “Palestinian facing,” as local lingo puts it. But the situation is just so complicated and does not inspire any hope whatsoever. I’m not sure how to wrap up this post except to say that I recommend this tour highly, as upsetting as it was. I need to continue to learn and to embrace the cognitive dissonance between my comfortable life and the violence and oppression that lies just a few miles away.