Editor’s Note: Dick Toll reflects on the time in Jerusalem, Bi’lin and Hebron.
We eight intrepid adventurers – members and friends of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s Palestine Israel Network – set off to Israel/Palestine on 18 April 2015. We had studied over the past year articles and books on the conflict in the Holy Land. We especially spent time on the study series “Zionism Unsettled” edited and published by the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church USA.
And so we begin in Jerusalem:
• We saw Israeli flags flying in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem and in the Old City in the Muslim and Christian Quarters as settlers have begun over the past number of years to take over portions of East Jerusalem.
• We saw large settlements on Palestinian land and Jeff Halper from ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions) showed us future areas of settlement expansion. Apparently plans are all made on which Palestinian land and villages are to be confiscated in the future for the purposes of settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the removal of Palestinians.
It is heartbreaking to say the least…especially since Jeff showed us what had happened in the past five years as the land that was Palestinian is now settlements.
We left Jerusalem and entered Bi’lin, a small village near the 1967 border that has been protesting the building of the separation wall on their land and the taking of their ancestral land. The protest began in 2005 and the movie “Five Broken Cameras” documents the protest. We had all seen the film and realized that for the last 500 Fridays the protest has been taking place and we were to be a part of the protest when we arrived. We were not surprised by the violence of the tear gas and rubber bullets that were being used on the villagers as the protest began. The protesters were simply trying to reclaim land that has been taken from them the by settlement and the building of the wall… We held back from the main protest as internationals but the wind shifted and we received a strong dose of the tear gas. The nonviolence of the demonstrators week after week is an affirmation of the Palestinians who only want justice and are trying to attain their goal through nonviolence. Their protest actions have been picked up by neighboring villages.
We went to Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, and experienced the military occupation in all of its ugliness We talked with parents and children who had experienced the military court system used by the occupation forces to intimidate and enforce the occupation. It is a tool of the State of Israel to maintain the occupation, confiscate land, control all aspects of the lives of the Palestinians and intimidate those who are occupied.
Five hundred settlers have invaded the Old City of Hebron and surrounded it with settlements. The heart of the Old City is completely shut down. When I went to the same area in 1983 the Old City was thriving much as the Old City in Jerusalem. No longer in Hebron. 2,000 soldiers from the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) are stationed in Hebron for one purpose only…to protect the settlers. The settlers are allowed to attack Palestinians and do so regularly. Palestinian children are harassed and attacked as they go to kindergarten and all levels of school. The World Council of Churches has people on the ground to protect the children. Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) are also monitoring the violence and as observers are able to insure the safety of children and adults in the Old City.
We spoke to people who are monitoring the military courts where Palestinians are sent to when arrested. Jewish settlers on the other hand are dealt with in civil courts and they come under the laws of the State of Israel even though they are living in illegal settlements according to international law. All the settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law and all countries accept this understanding including the US, which through its veto power allows this law to be circumvented. The problem for our country is that we do not acknowledge the abuse of international law and instead protect Israel in our use of the veto in the United Nations over 50 times in the last fifty years.
The military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza affects four million people. Each person we spoke with had a story to tell of how the occupation continues to destroy their lives and the lives of their loved ones. The military occupation must end for the sake of the Israelis as well as Palestinians.