Homage to Niemöller

First they came for the Arabs, and I was not concerned–
because I was not an Arab;

Then they came for the Mexicans, and I did not speak out–
I was not a Mexican, so I was not concerned;

Then they came for the queers, and I said nothing–
because I was, of course, no queer;

Then they came for the blacks, the natives, the anarchists, the Jews, all kinds of brown people, Asian migrants, and all dissidents,
and I did nothing–
because I was not any of those things.

Then they came for me–
and there was no one left

to stop them.

 

 

(~Amitai Ben-Abba, November 2016)

I found myself standing in front of a military bulldozer like this:

Cat and mouse, the Jordan Valley, 10/13/2016. Photo: Guy Hirchfeld, Ta'ayush

Cat and mouse, the Jordan Valley, 10/13/2016. Photo: Guy Hirchfeld, Ta’ayush

It was 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 Fahrenheit) in the Jordan Valley. We went for another day of work and accompaniment with the villagers who face constant harassment from Israeli authorities, and we happened to be there when the Forces of Israeli Defense came to demolish a gravel road, the only access road to Al Hadidiyye, a village which has no water supplies except for the overly priced water tanks delivered on this gravel road.

Ro’i, the neighbouring Jewish colony, receives subsidized water. Their main industry is fishkeeping. Yes, they grow ornamental aquarium fish in the desert like this:

Clown fish. Image captured in a Youtube video promoting the Israeli fishkeeping industry.

Clown fish. Image captured in a Youtube video promoting the Israeli fishkeeping industry.

A quick search in the online Israeli “Yellow Pages” reveals that some of the fish they grow is exported via businesses which are registered in Jerusalem and Rosh Ha’ayin, on the other side of the ’49 armistice line. Just an example showing that the boycott movement should focus on the Israeli economy as a whole, and not attempt the logistically impossible task of differentiating settlement products from products produced in so-called “Israel proper.”

Back on the gravel track. I happened to stumble sideways when the bulldozer turned its claws to reach the gravel road from a different direction. We ended up playing a weird kind of cat-and-mouse game, with the bulldozer playing the role of the mouse. The mouse has to reach the cheese – the gravel road – on the other side of the cat. If the cat stands in the way, the bulldozer has to stop, reverse, and try a different route. The problem is that in this version, if the bulldozer stops a moment too late, the cat turns into crushed human flesh. A similar kind of game resulted with the death of Rachel Corrie. The bulldozer operator was playing with a big smile on his face, dangerously testing the limits. Unlike Rachel Corrie, I am a Hebrew speaking Israeli Jew, so the next time he stopped I came by to try to converse with him, at which point he opened the door like this:

Israeli military bulldozer operator. Photo: Guy Hirchfeld, Ta'ayush

Israeli military bulldozer operator. Photo: Guy Hirchfeld, Ta’ayush

And yelled at me to get out of the way. I said that my conscience doesn’t allow me to abide by his venerable orders, and I mentioned Rachel Corrie and how he wouldn’t want to have a similar incident on his conscience, and I advised him to stop the engine and relax and have a smoke until the police arrives. He had heard about Rachel Corrie, and after some cordial yelling, he turned off the motor. His colleague, wearing a glowing yellow vest over his uniform, came to converse with me.

“Bro, are you out of your mind? Do you wanna get hurt?” He said.

“You know that they don’t have running water in this village?” I asked.

“Why do you answer a question with a question?”

“A rabbi was asked why do Jews always answer questions with questions. ‘Why not?’ said the rabbi.”

They chuckled.

“Seriously,” I say. “A couple of months ago they connected water pipes to ‘Atuf nearby. They installed water meters to pay for it and everything, but you came and destroyed it.”

“They didn’t get permission for it.”

“It’s a basic human right!”

“They shouldn’t be here. Why don’t they go to Jordan?” he said.

I’ve been trolling the Israeli military for years, and I still haven’t gotten used to these common revelations that simple bottom-of-the-pyramid soldiers are harbingers of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. When it comes to the army, the tree doesn’t fall far from the bad apples, as this deranged culture is deeply embedded throughout the chain of command. The last time I visited Al Hadidiyye, our host Abu Saqr took us on a tour to see water cisterns which were demolished in the early years of the ’67 occupation. Some diseased bureaucrat actually sat and mapped all of the water cisterns used by Abu Saqr and all other Palestinians in the Jiftlik-Tubas-Tamun area, and ordered to systematically destroy them all. What that war-criminal understood in his sick mind was that if you deprive a people of water and livelihood, you can quietly displace them in a way that is invisible to international media. “Before 1967 there were over 2,000 of us in Al Hadidiyye,” Abu Saqr told us. “Today we are 98.” Al Hadidiyye is like a microcosm of the Jordan Valley as a whole: as shown in this OCHA report, between 200-300,000 Palestinians were displaced from the Jordan Valley since ’67. And still people look at me like a loony doomsayer when I talk about an ongoing process of ethnic cleansing in Palestine.

But then something quite incredible happened. The bulldozer operator, having been listening to my trolling, apparently decided he’s sick of serving an apartheid system that literally deprives children of drinking water during the hottest year ever measured, turned the bulldozer around and back up the hill, lowered the blade and plowed through the military base until no structure stayed standing, then went back to Al Hadidiyye, gave Abu Saqr all the cash he had on him, advised him to connect a pipe to the nearby Mekorot water drilling facility funneling drinking water from the traditional wells for the settlement’s swimming pool and ornamental fish aquariums, told him that if anyone comes to mess with the pipe he’ll return with his bulldozer to teach them a lesson, and then drove off to the horizon, blade up high, far away from the suicidally racist regime that sought to rob him of his youth and turn him into a war-criminal.

Just kidding. Actually he yelled “What do I care?!” and waited for another unit to come and push my lanky bones out of the way so he could resume the work of turning Al Hadidiyye into a ghetto.

Back in Jerusalem again. The Western side of the city keeps on pacing in elephant steps towards its realization as an overly populated messianic Zionist capitalist dystopia, wrought with new twelve-story luxury apartment complexes, replete with orange-yellow Jerusalemite stone all the way to the cellular antennae on the red-tiled European rooftops. The streets overflow with the razzmatazz of chic blue Jeans clad boys dancing with their Breslev yarmulkes to the heartwrenching sound of a troupe of Christian Koreans playing Jewish music.

This is real. I saw them last night next to Jaffa Gate on the way to play samba with my friends. The Koreans distribute awkwardly written Hebrew leaflets saying, “We are really sorry for what Christianity and Christians have been doing to Jews since the fourth century.” The last line reads, “From Koreans who love Jews and pray for Israel.” The walls of the Old City shine in blue and white colored LED lights nearby.

Korean apologists in action. Sorrryyyy...

Korean apologists in action in Jerusalem. Sooorrryyy…

Our samba band assembles, incidentally, at a march for animal rights. I love playing samba. The whole world turns into a blend of delicious tunes, a symphony of simple beats fitting into each other like puzzle parts to make a shapeshifting auditory complex. I play and let the world disappear, joyfully ignoring the absurdity of marching next to the occupied Judiaizing Old City for a single-issue protest with soldiers who wear the new vegan military boots. That’s one small cruelty-free step on Palestinian rights, one giant leap for Israel.

נעליים לטבעוניים. לא עשויות מעור

Of synthetic leather, the vegan boots. Photo stolen from: the IDF Spokeperson’s Unit.

This is all more absurd considering that the ever-growing animal rights movement in Israel is possibly the one confirmed anarchist conspiracy that actually worked. As revealed by an insider in this interview, Anonymous (in English they normally call it “Anonymous for Animal Rights” to avoid confusion), an NGO and the biggest animal rights organization in Israel, was an early 1990’s anarchist plot, a way to inject compassion into the Israeli public from an unexpected avenue. The organization was gradually taken over by single-issue minded activists, until the anarchists finally split in 2001 to form the group One Struggle, who eventually became Anarchists Against the Wall.

israeli troops beating palestinian in jerusalem

Now available with vegan boots. Israeli troops kicking a Palestinian boy next to the Old City of Jerusalem.

The dissonance inherent in advocating solely for animal rights in an apartheid regime is apparently not as evident as one would hope. An example is a new single-issue group with mainstream appeal called the Animal Liberation Front in Israel, founded by a vegan winner of the reality TV show “The Big Brother.” Any connection to the ALF is purely coincidental. My veganarchist friends call them “Hahazitush,” which in Hebrew makes their name sound like “the cute little Front-y with sparkly glitter.” Halfway into the march yesterday, as I was still tripping on funky music, the Hazitush held a direct action against our samba band, forcing us to stop playing. “We came here to yell against death and you’re turning it into a carnival!” One shouted. Still high, I called, “Animal Liberation Front, where are your ski masks? Where is the black bloc?” To which they responded, “I feel like I’m in Rio De Janeiro!” I was tempted to reciprocate their coherence and yell an old Symbionese Liberation Army slogan calling for death to the fascist insect who preys on the life of the working class, but my bestie calmed me down hissing through his two missing front teeth, “You’re blending Jerusalem inside of itself.” To my defense, I did have a long, memorable day. More on that some other time.

[This piece was originally published on Counterpunch. More to come!]

“Paying your taxes is violent.” I signal to both ends of the hall and say, “This side is ‘totally agree’ and this side is ‘totally disagree.’”

The workshop participants spread across the spectrum and stand at places that best signify their level of agreement with the statement. One participant sighs in frustration as he stands in the same place somewhere in the middle, clenching his fists as if unable to move.

A Palestinian participant stands at the far edge of the spectrum showing she totally agrees. “Would you like to explain your position?” I ask.

“When I pay taxes to the Israeli government,” she says. “I contribute to the occupation and to all of the violence against Palestinians. So in my opinion paying your taxes is violent.”

I hand the microphone over to the participant who sighed in frustration earlier. “I can’t move.” He laughs. “I am torn by my wish to express my political position to the rest of the group and by the understanding that the term has become totally meaningless to me.”

This workshop comes at the beginning of the very last section – the social change section – of a March 2016 two-week residential training in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) at EcoME Center in the occupied West Bank. The conclusion of the (Dis-)Agreement Spectrum described above is clear: violence means different things to different people. While some people find it important to show their opposition to acts like touching someone against their will or supporting an oppressive regime, others mill about in confusion around the middle of the space when facing supposedly unambiguous statements such as “murder is violent.” Participants from the same family or the same activist group disagree on the classification of certain acts as violent.i In our context, two important questions arise out of this apparent incoherence of the term: what are the implications for Nonviolent Communication? And, what does this mean about nonviolence as a political strategy for social change?

Let’s start with the latter. After the last statement of the (Dis-)Agreement Spectrum – “linking up arms in front of a police line is violent” – I read a statement from a UC police captain as quoted in The San Francisco Chronicle justifying the use of force against students at the University of California at Berkeley:

The individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence… linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.

We then try to come up with a collective definition of violence. A participant suggests that one way to understand violence is in terms of the threat perceived by other people. In this light, if police perceives a line of protesters as a threat, then they could define the protesters’ actions as violent. Building on top of that, I suggest that violence is a floating signifier which shows the emotional disposition of the person using the term with respect to acts which they do not like. I express a concern that in the broader political discourse, the term often narrows down to a hegemonic framework in ways which de-legitimize any action which challenges the powers that be. The state can define anything which challenges its power as violent, whether it involves protesters linking arms or consumers calling for boycott, as exemplified by the UC police captain or by the way Israeli officials categorize the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as “economic terrorism.”

It follows that nonviolence as a political praxis – or pseudopraxis, in Ward Churchill’s words – is easily co-optable, and intentionally used by states in order to contain and control social movements. This process is documented in great detail in the book How Nonviolence Protects the State by Peter Gelderloos. One way in which it manifests is with the nonviolent rewriting of history. The film A Force More Powerful, which was screened at our NVC training, is a good example. The first part presents the three historical processes most often claimed as examples of the power of nonviolence – the decolonization of India, the Civil Rights movement in the US, and resistance to Apartheid South Africa – as purely nonviolent movements. There is a pattern of deceit in this narrative. All of those movements had armed factions, and all of them had widespread organized rioting (or “ungovernability,” as the ANC called it). No success can be attributed solely to nonviolent efforts.ii In fact, different methods informed each other in a diversity of tactics. It is no coincidence that the film was funded by the United States Institute of Peace, an Orwellian-named Reagan-era institution with close ties to American intelligence services and whose administrators championed counterintelligence and outright genocidal programs in Central America, Iran, and elsewhere.iii

Upon reviewing the literature challenging the hegemonic role of nonviolence, another pattern emerges with the way the discourse for and against nonviolence flows up and down the social hierarchy. While corporate media, big labor unions, NGO’s, and celebrated authors ignore and whitewash at best and at worst vilify and demonize people who choose to engage in more combative tactics, the latter can respond only from the margins of empirical discourse,iv or with anonymously written self-published pamphlets,v or with graffiti on city walls. The debate normally stalls after the unheard response, and the proponents of nonviolence repeat the same old dead-horse arguments, misquoting Audre Lorde on the “Master’s Tools” over and over again and so on, as if no one has ever pointed out their mistakes, ad nauseum. To use a term from NVC – these proponents of nonviolence don’t “reflect back” when confronted with critique. From their position on the hierarchy, they can meet their needs quite well without engaging in conversation, empathic or otherwise.

Many activists have had the experience of knocking on the doors of the people in power, begging them to acknowledge grievances and change their ways. When the powers that be smile and turn the activists down, many still return with even lengthier petitions and more colorful banners. The problem with this form of communication, however, is that it is not communication, at least in the NVC sense of the term. In this format, empathy really goes only one way up the hierarchy.

Thankfully for us NVC enthusiasts, Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, articulated a way out of the stalemate. In his classical book A Language of Life, he briefly describes the idea of “the protective use of force”:

In situations where there is no opportunity for communication, such as in instances of imminent danger, we may need to resort to the protective use of force. The intention behind the protective use of force is to prevent injury or injustice, never to punish or to cause individuals to suffer, repent, or change. (2003: 169)

His main point is about differentiating between protective and punitive use of force towards the abolition of the latter. The concept of protective force is left perhaps intentionally vague. There is no clear articulation of injustice, nor is there a generalization for the protective use of force in the larger political context.vi The concept is open for interpretation, and may have place for the use of force or self-defense the way it is understood by popular and resistance movements the world over. As I insinuated elsewhere, is it not the protective use of force to pelt an occupying army with stones and Molotov cocktails? And isn’t the lack of decisive action in the face of genocidal injustice inherently violent in and of itself?

It is nigh time to introduce the concept of structural violence, defined by Johan Galtung in terms of universal human needs, as a form of violence in which some social institution or structure harms people by preventing them from meeting their “fundamental human needs” (1993). Or, as David Graeber claims, structural violence is “systematic inequality ultimately backed up by the threat of force” (2009). In Palestine/Israel examples abound. Structural violence allows for Jewish citizens to speed past checkpoints while Palestinians squander hours and days. In less dramatically visible manifestations, it governs and enforces implicit gender roles, like the Hebrew news on TV given in the male form and the kitchenware commercials in female. Structural violence is the invisible billy club which keeps the penniless out of the supermarket when they hunger for food. It is the lack of Arabic characters on police cars, silently showing for whom lies their allegiance.

Which leads us to answer the first question I raised earlier – there is little chance of nonviolent communication in situations which are structurally violent. Some basic human needs remain invisible to the party higher up on the hierarchy. An effort to hold that kind of dialogue without observing, acknowledging and attempting to meet those needs simply normalizes the structurally violent power dynamics. Calls for reconciliation without an end to injustice evoke the image of one person beating up others to a pulp, while demanding them to accept his feelings and needs. That is, indeed, the essence of “normalization,” meaning a process in which the inequality between occupier and occupied is made “normal” or invisible. EcoME and many other coexistence projects in Palestine/Israel are often accused of “normalizing” the conditions which perpetuate apartheid by facilitating dialogue on the level of the occupier without actively undermining the power structure.

However, after the NVC intensive at EcoME, I am hopeful that NVC has the potential of transcending these structural boundaries. As a participant in one workshop early in the program, I raised a concern that introducing NVC to the region may be a pacifying force in a situation which really warrants a decisive resistance movement. I pointed out that radical proponents of Palestinian dissent aren’t heard in the space, because they don’t attend in the first place out of objection to normalization (of course, some of them are also physically excluded from this geographic location). This triggered a long and tearful conversation. One Israeli woman expressed deep feelings of hurt, frustration and anxiety, and a need for acceptance of her differing views and background in Israeli settlements. When members of the group applied “emergency first aid empathy” – meaning they attempted to hear her observations, understand her feelings, and help meet her needs – I noticed the conversation oscillated away from the concerns I raised. Radical voices of Palestinian dissent were not introduced to the conversation, as it was consumed by the facilitation of the occupiers’ experience. In my mind I saw that image I mentioned of the crying man expressing regret and asking for reconciliation while repeatedly striking blows at another person prostrated at his feet. Although I left that conversation spent and frustrated, having given empathy without fully expressing my observations and anger, I noticed that the person went through a very deep process over the course of the retreat, really listening to grievances expressed by Palestinian participants, and really transgressing their enemy images. The question of whether she will actively participate in a decisive movement against Israeli apartheid (or in other words – whether this transgression will develop into the protective use of force when communication is impossible) is yet to be answered.

In conclusion I would like to offer two new premises: 1) that NVC can and should integrate a more refined understanding of violence, and an analysis of systemic inequality; and 2) that NVC should not be conflated with nonviolence as a political praxis. This framework can help NVC practitioners to avoid the implicit re-enforcement of structural violence, and give space for change-seeking activists to use NVC as a process of compassionate communication, without the sense that they’re being asked to give up their uncompromising fight for a livable planet. After this two-week NVC session in Palestine, I believe that NVC can be divorced from its curious wedding with state-sponsored nonviolence, and be a useful tool for activists in terms of prefiguring a harmonious society, solving inner-conflicts, and assisting group processes, among the rest. The ways in which a fundamental-needs-based worldview can inform social movements and political strategising is a topic for future analysis.

Notes

iOne can imagine that if different family members have different notions of violence, then the polarization will be much more extreme across different cultures. In our falafel context, as acutely noted by the anonymous interlocutor of this CrimethInc interview, most Palestinians see “nonviolent” simply as “unarmed,” or “popular.” Popular struggle with use of stones and Molotov cocktails is widely accepted as a legitimate form of protest. A similar observation is made by anthropologist David Graeber with respect to Egyptian revolutionaries during the Arab Spring.

iiGelderloos mentions how those movements were not nonviolent, nor were they really successful. With a deeply entrenched neocolonial system of inequality in India, an unfathomably elaborate prison industrial complex replete with a racist police force in America, and a status-quot in which a white minority controls the flow of resources and most of the land in South Africa, one can’t help but wonder whose interests are served by the nonviolent historical narrative.

ivSee, for example, Peter Gelderloos, an ex-political prisoner and college dropout writing from the squats of Barcelona, in his latest The Failure of Nonviolence, published by the esoteric Left Bank Books, carefully dissecting Chenoweth and Stephan and other establishment proponents of nonviolence who were published and endorsed by high academia.

vOne such noteworthy pamphlet was written in an attempt to explain the window smashing at the anti-WTO protests in Seattle at 1999, an event which triggered a media fiasco around the smashing of windows, regardless of the harm to individuals: “When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights … The number of broken windows pales in comparison to the number of spells—spells cast by a corporate hegemony to lull us into forgetfulness of all the violence committed in the name of private property rights and of all the potential of a society without them. Broken windows can be boarded and eventually replaced, but the shattering of assumptions will hopefully persist for some time to come.”
viAlthough he directs us to an out-of-print book about the topic: Irwin, Robert. Nonviolent Social Defense. Harper & Row, 1962.

It is especially early in this day of winter. We’re hoping to pass before the auhtorities arrive. Last week Taayush activists have been stopped, driven slow and madly backwards, with a one-of-a-kind warrant of ideological profiling, prohibiting activists from reaching the South Hebron Hills. They tried crossing the checkpoint by foot. The ever-dope Amira Hass wrote about it last Sunday. Ezra was let through, though. He almost crashed the car into the military barricade and was stopped not a moment too soon due to Luana’s sharp harmonious scream – “Ezra-a-a-a!!!” She said he’s so used to not being stopped on the way out into the West Bank that he just kept on driving. Everyone laughed hysterically, and the approaching gunmen were obfuscated. “They’re my four wives, don’t worry,” Ezra cried signaling at the laughing passengers and then driving off. The rest were stopped but they found their ways through uncanny roads, to meet closed military zones in every accompaniment spot.

A week later, we drive down, and the road is still snowy on the terraces. Not in the deep South Hebron Hills, though, which are turning slight green, minutely adorned with small pink colchicum, or lahlaah in Arabic or sitvanit in Hebrew. “Autumn saffron” or even “naked lady,” confused by the strange weather our region is now facing. The weird south has seen twenty centimeters of snow, as Mahdi will tell me. In this, I bet, Mr Peabody’s unprotected facetious affair with Coal has played a role. Are we in a stage in which only a universal climate disaster will lead to a global political response? Perhaps a methane catastrophe in an ice-free Arctic? Sam, my Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee comrade, wrote about indigenous resistance in Black Mesa. These are the places from which, I hope, that global response will emerge. But I digress.

A police car stops the transit. The cop approaches asking if we’re anarchists. “We’re here to identify anarchists, and return them back!” He explains. He asks for IDs or passports. G refuses, saying, basically, that there’s a court rule against arbitrary controls that forces police to conduct a search only with a provable suspicion. The cop threatens to detain him if he doesn’t identify himself. Uriel jumps in and presents his ID.

“Mr. V, are you anarchists?” The cop asks.

“Am I an anarchist?!” Uriel exclaims, and shuffling through his wallet, says: “Do you see an anarchist ID in here?”

The group is then released. This possibly immortal scene was captured in a hilarious video [Update: now with English subtitles!]:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXv0na7ojZg

The cops must have sat in the car comparing pictures of Emma Goldman and Tolstoy. Policeman approaches dark-clad person carrying sack full of treasure as an alarm reverberates through an alleyway. “Are you the burglar?” “The burglar? No, why do you ask?” “You’re not in a position to ask questions. Show me an ID. … Are you sure you’re not the burglar?” “Sure I’m sure.”

We meet Mahdi from Maghair al-‘Abid, a village on the outpost strip of the firing zone. David Shulman used slightly different names talking about it in this typically beautiful piece of writing. In close vicinity to Havat Ma’on, Mahdi and his family face daily harassment from the ultra-violent settlers. His mother was shot in her thigh. Over seventy, she goes in and out of surgery. His son is hospitalized with a mouth disease. He gives us bread. Three of us join him to carry the petrol for the plowing truck. We accompany him close to Havat Maon outpost, fast-paced, headed in a slithering line to his valley underneath the hill of the previous Havat Ma’on, two hundred meters east of their current location. Two others join us with sacks full of grain on the truck. Mahdi tells us to spread around the valley, so that if the settlers attack they won’t be able to assault all cameras at once.

The old truck noisily plows the soil in circular paths. I take a mental photo when it makes the letter Q. The work is completed successfully, undisturbed. Ezra manifests himself and picks us up. He has a new automobile, bought with some readers’ generous donations (thank you!). He says he indulged a cop that questioned him earlier. They talked about the problems of the Hebron police station. The cop told him a high-ranking officer said that no logistical changes are planned because in two years the settlements will be evicted anyway. Is the beginning near?

Our next stop is the land of the Shamasti family close to Susiya. Everyone is quickly shooed off the land with a Closed Military Zone order. Settlers come down but stay away. A strange all-adult coexistence dialogue normalization group on tour stops by. Border Police, Civil Administration, international solidarity activists from Germany and Italy, and us anarcha-anarchist folks all find ourselves together on a desolate hill with the multi-generational Shamasti family. The co-existence group had a camp or something of the kind in Germany. Israeli and Palestinian folks engaging in dialogue in a so-called neutral context. In my experience, these dialogues are often set within the occupier’s discourse, assuming a kind of symmetry between conflicting sides that simply have a misunderstanding, assuming good intentions on the part of the State, thus normalizing the reality of occupation. Tami says that people often get entrenched in their expected views and fail to communicate. Reub asks one of the Palestinian members of the co-existence group how she relates to the Israelis. She responds: “I can’t talk to them. I’ve been doing these projects since I was ten years old. They’re all Europeans. They should go where they came from.”

In the chapter “Dilemmas of Privilege” in the book Anarchists Against the Wall, Kobi Snitz writes that “normalization” means that “any interaction that Palestinians carry out with Israelis, be it for the most positive purpose, while the conditions are such that Israel occupies Palestine, contains with it a degree of adjustment to these conditions.” (2013 55-56) In this light it is obvious that if we believe that a joint struggle has potential for change, normalizing the situation cannot be entirely avoided. This creates a lot of the weirdness that we encounter daily in our activism. When are we normalizing apartheid and when are we acting in solidarity within a joint struggle?

Having the language and privilege and a curious willingness to do so, the Israeli members of the coexistence group talk to the soldiers that stand on the edge of the military zone and try to convert them to a more lefty position. I guess we do it as well sometimes, changing our language in order to make it comprehensible, placing ourselves in a slightly dishonest position. Sometimes Israeli activists find themselves negotiating “concessions” with commanders on behalf of their Palestinian comrades, in order to allow farmers to access a particular patch of land for a limited amount of time and under specific behavioral conditions, or in demonstrations. This in turn may warrant more brutality if the agreement is “breached,” or create a situation in which some protesters police the others in the name of their self-appointed negotiation. Policing forces, of course, will always try to impose their control with use of martials from the protesters themselves, in exchange for minor privileges like the ability to walk outside of pens. This is why, as David Graeber writes in The Democracy Project, folks at Occupy Wall Street in NYC decided not to have a police liaison. Interaction with authority is all different, I believe, when a clown nose is placed on the other side of the gun’s barrel.

I chat with Abdullah on the side. We’re asking ourselves what the hell is going on. One enlightened and post-military-looking fellow from the coexistence group commences interaction with us in basic Arabic. We’re not particularly welcoming to him. GH tells me off for it afterwards. He’s already made the first step, he tells me, and that’s big. “I never manage to bring people down here.” He’s right. I often complain that the movement is not welcoming and not inclusive enough. Every fit-looking man that approaches is treated as a potential douchebag (or in its new Hebrew blogosphere term – hel’an). Maybe I’m just projecting what I secretly feel about myself. I’d rather be kind next time.

Protest in Nabi Samuel. Friday December 27. Photo: Amir Bitan

Protest in Nabi Samuel. Friday December 27. Photo: Amir Bitan

The Sabbath ritual of Umm al-Arayes went accordingly, we’re told. With a Closed Military Zone and the pushing and so on. Sumoud.

We visit Umm al-Kheir. The outdoors oven is still getting attention from the settlers of Karmel. Two days ago they came with water buckets to put it out and sabotage it. Settlers wreck it regularly, they dislike the smoke.

On the way back north, Abdullah takes us to see houses facing new demolition orders in Beit Ummar. Buildings not yet completed. Ezra says the idea is to block the village’s expansion northward.

Around four o’clock, when we get back home, settlers from Havat Maon attack Twaneh. With slingshots and covered faces, they throw stones and hit Hafez in the head. He is taken for treatment in a hospital in Yatta.

Abdallah stares for a second, like a chess player that has already picked a move but is now imagining the board after the move has been played, as a final precaution.

“This hat – why do you put it on your head?” He points at me.

Tagging along, I respond, “Weapon against the sun.”

“Weapon against the sun. Would you put sunscreen on your head?”

“No,” amused, I imagine his hair white and greasy with sunscreen.

“Exactly, you can’t replace one weapon for another. I am a photographer, my weapon is the camera. Fair enough. So, if you say that your demonstration is peaceful, what is your weapon?”

Yoav brings up the point Eishton wrote about (Hebrew, quoting Black Panther George Jackson). “The protesters think,” Eishton asserts, “that they alone determine the nature of the protest, not very different from the way a man thinks he can decide if it’s sex or rape. In practice, a protest is peaceful only if both sides agree that it’s so.”

“The concept of nonviolence is a false ideal. It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one’s adversary. When this adversary has everything to lose and nothing to gain by exercising justice and compassion, his reaction can only be negative.” (-Black Panther George Jackson on nonviolence)

*

Work in Bir al-‘Id

It is early in the morning and the air is fresh from a night of rest. The big sphered sun has finally passed the hilled line of the horizon with its entirety, and the sky is blue and clear. We’re at Bir al-‘Id, the place with the nicest view in the Wild South, in my opinion. One can lose one’s inner eye beyond the firing zones beyond the city of Arad and between the mountains of Moav.

This beaten dirt road we’re working on today has been blocked twice recently by settlers from the nearby illegal outpost called Mitzpe Yair. The military has given its quiet consent, and soldiers have been documented shaking hands with the outlaws. We’re working quietly. The military follows us from the moment we arrive in the Wild South. Four or five jeeps quickly gather around on the asphalt road leading to the settlement nearby.

We’re quite efficient in our work on the dirt roads. We worked last Tuesday in Safa, which suffers frequently from the outpost of Bat Ayin, among the rest. The road we’re working on this Saturday is an important one, a major pathway into the area that has been deemed “firing zone 918” (more on this below). One person reveals the edges of a rock with a pickaxe, one sticks a heavy pole underneath the rock and lifts it up, others roll the rock out of its place, and finally, the remaining hole is filled with use of a shovel. We work a bit and just begin to sweat when the military approaches us.

Activists repairing the road in Bir al-'Id. Photo: Guy

Activists repairing the road in Bir al-‘Id. Photo: Guy

The Civil Administration demands we stop working or they’ll present us a Closed Military Zone order. It has already been issued, and it contains the area of Umm al-Ara’is as well, before the grazing has even begun over there. They present us the warrant, and the soldiers swarm around to shoo us off.

Our point has been made – the military Civil Administration doesn’t allow voluntary repair work for roads that have been blocked by settlers. They quietly endorse destruction, and cruelly remove restoration. We head out, but an overly-enthusiastic commander wickedly decides that we must exit from the other way, not the way we entered, but over there, into the desert. We protest, “he declares the area is militarily-closed and then doesn’t allow us to exit it.” The Civil Administration commander whispers to him for a short while and we start heading off in our way. The army then moves to heckle our Palestinian comrades, saying that the road we’re going to is restricted for Palestinian movement. But there has been a court sentence on this particular road with this particular issue and after a couple of phone calls to certain authorities, we are all let out of the area.

*

Weddings in the Weird South

It’s wedding season in the South Hebron Hills. Now that Ramadan is over, the weddings flood the hills. Umm al-Kheir is festive. Murad, that I got arrested with a month ago, is getting married today, and excitement fills the air. The army thought the gathering is a demonstration, and there was large military presence behind the fence on the side of the settlement Carmel.

Yatta is filled with weddings as well. Saleh from Umm al-‘Amad is getting married in the city. Shepherd accompaniment in both Umm al-‘Amad and Umm al-Kheir went along with no noteworthy instances, and our group splits to congratulate both families.

I go to the wedding in Yatta. It’s my first Palestinian wedding, and it ticks like a clock. Hundreds of people show up. We’re passed through stations. We’re taken to eat at long tables. Strangers sit on the other side and urge us to eat. The sheep that we accompany in the mornings are presented to us from the insides today, on top of big plates with yellow rice and peanuts. I stick to the rice. Cans of cheap soda are brought to us. Soon enough, the paper table-cloth is wrapped up and we stand to make way for the next group. On the next station, we receive a small cup of coffee from a young man in costume wearing a large Arabic coffee pot on his back and a blade on his belt. I see my friend Fares from Umm al-‘Amad and cordially congratulate him for the wedding of his cousin. The next station is sitting-down-time with strangers and cigarettes. A young man in a suit looks at me with suspicion in his eyes. An older man approaches Ezra and kisses him. He says Ezra picked him up from a checkpoint once. Or maybe it had something to do with prison. I’m not sure, and Ezra isn’t, either. He’s done deeds of generosity and bravery, big and small, with hordes of people, and he can’t remember many of them. The man leaves, Ezra says he couldn’t remember him, but at least now he can blame it on age, he smiles, the perfect excuse.

Next, and final, station – kissing the groom. Saleh stands in the heat in his suit, another very young man stands next to him in an identical suit (turns out there are two weddings in the price of one), and we join the line of kissers. Two kisses on each sweaty cheek and off we go.

*

Abdallah’s Prison Stories

“There’s order in prison,” Alla’ says. “But not in every prison. There’s sijn madani and sijn amani. The madani is horrible, prisoners kill each other. But my brother and I, we were in the amani, because we were sentenced for stone throwing. That’s the prison to which all of the political organizers go to, so there’s order. When you arrive, you have to choose your section – Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc. You have to choose, but it’s good for you. So you choose one of them, no matter what, and they take care of you. And you take care of them. You respect the elderly, and they respect you in return. Fih niTham fi-sijn. These people, that hate each other outside of prison, or at least that’s what we’re told, work with each other and respect each other on the inside. If you’re ill or injured, it is forbidden for you to work, mamnu’a! And if you’re over thirty or under eighteen, also, work is forbidden for you. There are public services organized. There’s prisoner solidarity networks, how do you think they get hundreds of prisoners in different sections and different prisons to hunger strike together?! There’s education. There are old professors, old teachers that give free classes. You can learn anything in prison – engineering, nursing, religion.”

Did you learn some Hebrew?

“Just enough to heckle the guards. Shomer, ani rotze essshhh (guard, I want a lighter)!

“I’m telling you, in the prison, there’re no differences, you’re all just Palestinians. There’s no Khalili or Nabulsi there’s just Falastini. “

This conversation, that seems hectic, like one long monologue, was held over many minutes, many fractions of hours, on the course of many views of stones and rubble on a workday in Safa. The written word is captured on a screen but reality, conversation, imagination, is adrift. The spoken word, said on a spur of a moment, is but a vague representation of a different universe, the universe of a Palestinian inmate. Can it ever transport the experience of incarceration? Transfigured, the moment moves from present to memory to imagination to emotion to spoken to memory to imagination to feeling to thought to written to history. Transfigured like an iridescent soap bubble gliding on the wind.

*

High Court Sends 918 Firing Zone to Mediation

It felt like a wedding in the High Court. A big reunion. Mingling people wearing their fanciest clothes. There’s great natural light in the Israeli Supreme Court, lighting the halls and the corridors with the power of the sun alone, and no photovoltaic mediation. A light that sheds bureaucratic darkness on the very stark reality of apartheid. At the end of long hours of technical discussion between people in costumes, the Israeli State and the Palestinians of the South Hebron Hills were sent to mediation. The State has a month to agree to this, the villagers’ representation agreed on the spot. Sent to counseling with Yitzhak Zamir, the mediator, a former Supreme Court judge, and, few know this, a crucial historical supporter of the Begin administration in the 80’s and of massive settlement construction on private Palestinian land (Hebrew). The 918 Firing Zone. Wedded to the State, mediated by the State, kept in an atrocious status-quo with the State, and finally, possibly, evicted by the State.

The case of the 918 Firing Zone is no case for counseling, but for a divorce. State matrimony is prison. Life in a firing zone is prison. Mediation may take a couple of years, during which things will be quite the same. With little to no access to water, night raids, vehicle confiscation, no livelihood, no education, no doctors, no social services whatsoever, and constant intimidation. What can be mediated in this case of utter asymmetry? The shepherds will be allowed to take the herds to graze between 6-8 AM to enable the army to train between 9 and 5 the next day?

“This is a special case,” said Court President Judge Grunis, “that requires a creative solution.” Beware of the word “solution” when uttered by state necromancers. The “two-state solution,” or the “Prawer Plan – a solution for the Bedouins in the South,” elaborate plans designed by those in power to keep the Palestinian access to influence as it is, forever dismembered, in silence. A million square kilometers of land in the West Bank have been declared as firing zones. It has been the most effective means of ethnic displacement since 1967, evicting hundreds of thousands from the Jordan Valley alone. It’s always been a war crime under international law. What makes the case of 918 “special,” in the High Court’s mind? Perhaps the fact that there’s an international struggle against it.

The halls were filled with activists, diplomats, and journalists, as well as the villagers themselves (the few that did receive permits to attend the discussion on their own future, of course). Authors, including Noble laureates, have signed a petition against the firing zone. Major Israeli jurists have signed a letter of their own. The Facebook campaign that we initiated less than two weeks before court had an outreach of tens of thousands. This desolate corner of the West Bank is where the firing zone method of ethnic displacement will come to an end. The struggle to cancel the 918 Firing Zone will continue for a while. Plug in.

"Move it grandma, on the truck, the boys need to practice." One of the memes that flooded Facebook last week. Photo: Activestills

“Move it grandma, on the truck, the boys need to practice.” One of the memes that flooded Facebook last week. Photo: Activestills

The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Guerrilla of Qaddum’s children is running to and fro with stones and sometimes slingshots, making funny sounds at the soldiers that are lying bored overloaded with weapons and riot gear in the sun on the hill.

Kids have secret worlds of wandering imagination and play. I would roam around empty building sites and fields, parks and barren streets, and the space would become only partial to the world of imagination flying in my mind. Street signs, stray cats, rubbish, thorns, empty beer cans and bungs and needles on the ground were sometimes present as props in the play, but they were mostly just regular constituents of the Jerusalem scenery, fading in and out of my kids-play consciousness. Likewise, in Kufr Qaddum, kids play around fields filled with used teargas canisters, rubber coated steel bullets, shells of live ammo, and burned patches of ground. My Kosovar and Bosnian friends would tell me of their uncanny childhoods. They were playing at war, like spies or commando units or pirates, wandering between ruins, while bombings and shootings and sometimes massacres were happening around them during the grown-ups’ actual war. In the Palestinian village of Kufr Qaddum the kids take the make-believe of children’s play to a whole other level.

“3ah ‘Aah, ghri ghrri,” the kids cry at the soldiers, like the calls shepherds make to summon their herds. “Awawa 3a wah 3aaaaahhh!”

A child at Kufr Qaddum collecting used gas canisters.

A child at Kufr Qaddum collecting used gas canisters. Big credit to Steve Hynd

Some older Palestinian folks are there as well. “You’re not a commander,” one of them taunts the officer from a distance. “You’re just a municipality contractor in Kufr Qaddum. Look at you, the dog is your leader; our leader is this child over here.” The military released an assault dog on protesters in Kufr Qaddum last year.

The children roam about with zest, wearing shirts in all colours of the rainbow. The demo hasn’t even officially started yet. There is a powerful sense of the joy of resistance. There is an air of hope, of a struggle that persists with determination, with growth and openness. This is a pleasant surprise for me. From fellow activists’ recollections, the struggle in Qaddum seemed dark and dangerous in my mind, filled with violence and cultural tensions.

The joint weekly demonstrations in Kufr Qaddum started two years ago in July 2011. This village, in the north of the West Bank, suffered from land thefts and settler brutality by the nearby settlement of Kdumim. In 2003 the main road to the city of Nablus was shut down, leaving the village isolated with little access to resources, extremely high unemployment, and abject poverty. This is the road towards which the marches lead now on a weekly basis, and the protesters call for its reopening on the top of their lungs. These are now the most well-attended weekly protests. People from all over the village go out and risk arrest and injury, and they do it with style, I must add.

A certain felt tension, however, is the lack of feminine presence. Other than activists that come from the outside, there is no woman to be seen at the demo. There are always noteworthy exceptions, though, such as Suriah Mahmood, that stars in this award-winning photo:

Suriah mahmood in a photo that won a photography contest in Qatar. Credit: Alaa Badasreh

Suriah mahmood in a photo that won a photography competition in Qatar. Credit: Alaa Badasreh

“I think to myself, who takes part in the demonstrations?  The shabab are our brothers and sons from Kafr Qaddum. I think it is my duty to go out to make trouble for the soldiers to make them busy so they are unable to continue to chase the shabab. I again feel something internal in my heart. Sometimes I throw stones or block in front of the soldiers. I shout to make the soldiers nervous and crazy and can’t control my emotions because I think it’s the role of Palestinian women to stand with our brothers against occupation.” (Suriah Mahmood, from an interview with ISM activists)

Like in Bil’in, Nabi Saleh, Ni’ilin and other villages throughout Palestine, demonstrations are brutally repressed by the military. Skulls fractured by teargas canisters. Rubber coated steel bullets. Skunk. Shooting gas into houses. Suffocation. Injuries. Night raids. Child arrests. Administrative detention and long prison sentences. The village got some international attention with the dog assault mentioned above, and more recently, at a bizarre case of psychological warfare when the military put up posters with pictures of four minors and the statement “We are the army, watch yourselves, we’ll catch you should we see you, or we’ll come to your house.” In a night raid earlier this week, one of the minors, age 17, was kidnapped with two other folks ages 21 and 22.

People treat all this dread with humour. It’s a world in which megalomaniac underpaid municipal contractors participate in children’s make-believe war games. Murad, one of the main organizers of the demos and a real fantastic orator, introduces me to a four year old boy that the military tried to arrest a year ago on a stone throwing charge. The threat engulfed in a smile of a child.

“Everyone in Kufr Qaddum has a story,” Murad says and signals at the child with a grin. “Here’s a small grown up man.”

The demonstration starts after the prayer, but the military entered the village early today and threw stun grenades and fired tear gas at houses. I am told that a boy suffocated from the gas and lost consciousness for twenty minutes. Murad just sent an email saying that he’s okay now.

It’s all quite baffling. The soldiers are lying among the trees of the village up on the hills around the mosque, frying in the sun with their heavy battle gear and ceramic armors. The shabab (youth, in Arabic) throw rocks in their general direction, but the soldiers are well out of reach. They respond with a stray tear gas canister every once in a while. People say that their idea is to keep the demo on a low flame and then charge suddenly and attack the protesters from several directions at once. This video of an attack on journalists shows what happens to those that stay behind in these charges.

The call to prayer starts and the random teargas shelling persists. Older folks give tips to the kids, telling them when to run off and where to go. Others observe the scene from rooftops and call out warnings in case soldiers charge from different directions. Activists say that over the past two years, the protesters got better at maneuvering the terrain, taking care of each other, avoiding arrests during demonstrations, and leaving each demo with a weird sense of victory. There’s a joy to this struggle, a freshness embodied in the image of laughing men as they step out of the mosque and clap to the beat of the chants. A heyday is foreshadowed in these images, a peak of creative and uncompromising protest.

The demo sort of officially starts. Murad gives a poetic speech about persistence and resistance and lack of fear. People chant and walk up the road towards more soldiers. Then I hear that horrible buzz of the canisters and a white blur of teargas. Pain in the sinuses. Lungs clogging up. I instinctively reach to the onion in my pocket. I break it and breathe deeply through it, and the symptoms ease, and I can see stone throwing and soldiers and suddenly the soldiers charge us and everyone runs and I run after some kids into a house.

I am given tea. I sit and have tea for a few brief seconds to the war sounds of the outside. My host is kind. He’s not attending the demos. I avoid asking too many questions, sensing a certain tension around my presence as an outsider. This is a pearl of a moment nonetheless, I think to myself. I gulp down the tea and thank my host and head back out. Teargas is shot all around the house right afterwards, penetrating the windows and diffusing upstairs in the children’s rooms. How come the kids go out to throw stones? It’s a question of inhaling the gas inside in submission or outside in defiance.

“It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.” (Gandhi quote – weird phrasing, worthy message)

Murad says this is a peaceful protest. Indeed, completely unarmed, the protesters pose little to no threat to the soldiers. Perhaps it is seen differently from their side, but the soldiers stand lazily and disregard the stone throwers in front of them. If they just seemingly start charging, the flock of protesters runs off. If the side at which supposed violence is directed perceives no threat, is supposed violence real? In the media, and sometimes in our minds, the occupier is the one to define violence. Occupier – occupied. Why is violence even a question? Treat the next paragraph or two as a footnote.

The question of violence is still a big one. Before it was popularized by Gandhi and King, nonviolence was a non-issue when it came to imbalanced battles against oppression. It may be useful as a tactic. But adamant ideology is often a little jarring. Some left wing organizations revel in the image of an ex-Israeli soldier putting a hand on the shoulder of a youth about to throw stones telling him “this is the wrong way.” Often, the discourse of pacifism, imposing and condescending, is very violent. Sometimes it extends beyond discourse. The classical example is that of the WTO actions in Seattle 1999, when adamant pacifists physically assaulted black bloc folks and turned them over to the police.

Obviously, there’s no symmetry and no comparison between a pack of kids with slingshots and the fifth largest nuclear superpower in the world, in the same sense that there’s no symmetry between a group of anarchists smashing windows compared to multinational corporations with armies of police, politicians, lawyers, and TV channels. And does the debate on violence have any relevance to Kufr Qaddum, to the brief effervescence of imagined victory when the soldiers finally leave the village and the people clap and sing, not at gun-point, for a mere second?

Most successful insurrections over the past 15 years have been peaceful in the sense that the rebels used no guns and bombs to target individuals. There have been plenty of window-smashing, stone-throwing, tiers burning, and other acts of symbolic violence, particularly against property. Some struggles practically transformed according to strategic need. My favourite example is that of the Zapatistas in the Chiapas of Mexico. Their indigenous insurrection started at 1994 as a classical Latin American armed guerrilla revolution, but then metamorphosed into something completely unique, nonviolent in the sense that they said they would hold guns but not use them, and reaching out for international solidarity and public pressure on the Mexican government to let them have autonomy. Perhaps the Palestinian struggle bears signs of such metamorphoses as well. I propose we approach the question of violence like clowns – with different noses for different occasions.

But again, treat the two or three paragraphs above as an inflated footnote. Let the debate not overshadow the point. That it is criminal to isolate Kufr Qaddum. That the road to Nablus must be accessible. That children (indeed all peoples) deserve to live a childhood devoid of arrests, brutality, trauma.

Despite, or in spite, of the fires, squill grows tall in the fields of Qaddum. Sabres decorates the gardens. A boy is standing on a wall in front of the soldiers. Shabab throw rocks fearlessly. The soldiers languidly direct their teargas canons. It is a strange feeling, to be a target. I raise the lousy camera of my mobile phone in front of my face. Little do.

And yet I felt cordially welcomed. Outsiders are not expected to join in with the stone throwing. Criticism is valid, there may be a certain lack of solidarity in light of Che’s statement that “solidarity means running the same risk,” but running the same risk is mostly not possible anyway and there are still plenty of ways to support. Question mark? Hundreds of people attend, but only few of them are not from the village. The international, Palestinian, and Israeli activists that join in do important work around medical support, media attention, and legal and jail support (Israeli ID holders have particularly privileged access to the latter). There were some parts of the demo, certain roamings in alleyways, at which I was a little worried by the lack of cameras. Outside presence also forces the army to behave in a slightly less brutal way and even obey certain shooting regulations (they don’t obey them all – for instance, they shoot teargas directly at people and from a short distance, a practice that brought about horrible injuries and too many deaths throughout Palestine). The organizers are now reaching out for more companions.

“We want all people to know of our sufferings, to see our life, and support our struggle,” Murad says.

There’s something infectious about the joy of the struggle in Kufr Qaddum. Perhaps it is blooming. It’s an exciting moment to join in. What is often perceived as dark and desolate is in my eyes a unique and colorful display of resistance. Clowns and musicians are welcome as well. Heed the call.

[This piece was also published on Palestine News Network and +972 Magazine]