Staying put: the nonviolent resistance of daily life in the West Bank

Nonviolence has many faces in Palestine, but the most fundamental act of nonviolent resistance is probably the simple act of staying put.  I’d like to share with you the stories of three families who resist the military occupation of their land by staying in their own homes and on their own land:  the Anastas family of Bethlehem, the Nassar family of Tent of Nations near Bethlehem, and the family of Hani and Rema Habuhaikal in Hebron.

What each of these families has in common is that Israel and/or its settlers want their land/house.  The Anastas family lives in their family home housing three generations and their businesses on what was once a busy thoroughfare in Bethlehem.  In 2005 Israel built a nine-meter high concrete wall in Bethlehem that surrounded their house on three sides and cut their street off from traffic.  Below is a photo taken in the early days after the wall was erected.


I’ve snapped a photo (below) of the Bethlehem map that shows the incursion that the wall makes into Bethlehem land in their area.  Israel annexed Rachel’s tomb which is on Bethlehem land with plans to build a settlement nearby.  They offered the Anastas family a handsome sum of money to sell their property, but Johnny and Claire believed it was their right to stay in their home.  They believe that staying is the most important way they can struggle for the rights of their fellow Palestinians.  They operate a travel hostel in their home and a Christian gift shop featuring religious olive wood carvings.


Johnny moved his brake shop for cars to another street in Bethlehem so that he could attract more business.  Recently the Israeli military entered his shop, took the machinery he uses for grinding brakes, and shut down the shop with a sign alleging that the owner was making weapons in the shop.  Two weeks later Israeli military officials admitted that they were mistaken.  Johnny asked for his machinery, but was told it was destroyed and he would have to sue for compensation.  The suit may take three years to resolve.  In the meantime, Johnny is deprived of his livelihood.  The action puts pressure on him and his family to vacate the house and leave it to the Israelis.  The Anastas family is determined to stay.

From Bethlehem we made a drive to Tent of Nations, the environmental and educational farm belonging to the Nassar family.  The drive would have been shorter, but the direct road to their farm has been blocked by the Israelis forcing the family and their visitors to take a longer and more difficult route through the narrow streets of the small Palestinian village of Nahalin.  Why would Israelis want to block the road and make life difficult for the family?  Take a look at the map below for clues.


Tent of Nations is at Daher’s Vineyard near the center of the map.  Surrounding Daher’s Vineyard are the Israeli settlements of Bitar Elite, Gush Etzion, Eliaza, Nev Daniel, and Erfatz.  Each settlement sits on a hilltop and smack in the center of the ring is the hilltop where the Nassar’s Tent of Nations farm is located.  Settlements are attempting to join together into settlement blocks encompassing large swaths of land, and Tent of Nations stands in the way.

Daher Nassar was the grandfather of Daoud, Amal, and Daher who now operate the farm.  Their grandfather bought the 100 acre farm on a hilltop near Bethlehem in 1916 and registered it with the Ottoman Empire.  The family lived in caves on the farm and cultivated it in grapes, olive trees, and other crops continuously since that time.  In 1991 the Israeli government declared the Nassar land and its surroundings as Israeli “state land.”  The Nassar family has the documents to establish their claim to the land and have been in court for many years.  The history of their struggle is at this site.

In 2014 Israeli bulldozers arrived in the middle of the night and bulldozed 1500 olive trees.  With the help of the international community, including Jewish people living in England, 1000 new trees were planted.  The Nassar family is determined to protect their family land and at the same time “embody a positive approach to conflict and occupation.”  Tent of Nations  seeks to “work with others in the local area to lay the foundations for a future Palestine, in the belief that justice and peace will grow from the bottom up.”


Yesterday in Hebron, we spent time with a family being squeezed at very close quarters.  Hani and Reema Habuhaikal and their children live in the Tel Rumeida area of Hebron where settlers live in close quarters next door or across the street from Palestinians.  Hani and Reema can no longer keep a car at their home, since their cars have been burned by settlers in the past.  They must pass through checkpoints staffed by Israeli soldiers to go back and forth into the heart of Hebron.  Their car is now parked on the other side of Tel Rumeida where they haul all their purchases up and down steep rocky slopes and long paths to reach their house, passing security cameras and armed soldiers along the way.

Sometimes the power lines or the water pipes to the family’s well have been cut by settlers.  On one occasion Hani organized the neighborhood in a nonviolent action to demonstrate their community’s legitimate need for water.  They ordered a tank truck to deliver water to the community after the well had been disabled.  When the soldiers refused to let the truck pass, down the hill came all the little children with bottles and bowls and pitchers to fill with water and take it back up the hill while major media network cameras rolled.

Hani is a strong believer in using nonviolence to work toward social change.  He said he learned about nonviolence when he was jailed during the intifada along with many professors and activists with “huge minds” who held discussions about their methods.  He said jail gave him lots of time to think.  When an oppressed people uses violence, he says, their actions feed into the hands of the powerful oppressor who uses it against them. He has taught his five children not to hate the settlers or the soldiers and to greet each person with respect.  I’ve encouraged him to ask his daughter who intends to study journalism to write down these stories to share with the world.  We all need inspiration for ways to demonstrate the realities of oppression without engendering new hate.

That evening Hani’s family invited us to celebrate Iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast, with them, and we are grateful for their hospitality.


What unites all of these stories and many others we heard is the families’ conviction that staying put is worth it.  The occupation has made their daily lives difficult, and they could let the difficulties drive them out.  They choose to stay, however, and view the simple acts of daily lives in their homes as their own contribution to nonviolent resistance on behalf of their people.  Capturing the spirit of their lives is the tree that Amal Nassar told us about at Tent of Nations.  The bulldozers left one fig tree standing in the middle of the grove and they have named the tree “Sumud” or “steadfastness.”  At the entrance to the Tent of Nations stands a rock with these words inscribed in three languages: “We refuse to be enemies.”

Advertisements

Day 4 Blog: Art as Resistance


For me Bethlehem is about art and the human spirit.   When we drove into town on Friday, the brightly-painted images with their heartfelt, yet light-spirited commentary reached out to us from the high wall that snakes through the heart of town.  And that was only the beginning.  We witnessed the role of dance, filmmaking, and other art in the lives of refugee youth, the artwork of Banksy in the Walled Off Hotel, and the memorial murals at Aida Camp.  And yet another kind of artistic expression in the gardens and collections of the Palestinian Natural History Museum.

In the face of oppression, artistic expression reasserts a person’s human dignity.  When Israel built the bleak gray concrete wall and watchtowers that cut off the people’s views and their movement, Bethlehem residents answered the wall with their graffiti.  The mysterious  artist Banksy made the wall famous with his sly commentary.  Here is a well-known example:


But many other artists grace the walls with their own interpretations of liberation.  And international visitors often leave messages of solidarity.


At Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem,  teenagers from the camp performed a beautiful and spirited Dabka dance for us that brought tears to my eyes.  The Alrowwad Center for Culture and Arts works with youth in the camp to foster their self-expression and help them become “change-makers.”  Their mission is to encourage “beautiful resistance against the ugliness of occupation and violence.”  One of the directors explained to us that they teach teenagers filmmaking to put them on the other side of the lens where they are not the passive subjects of the film, but the active creators.  These youth are probably the 3rd or 4th generation descendents of the refugees who first entered the camp after the war of 1948.

Heartfelt murals graced the walls of Aida Camp with memories of villages left behind and loved ones lost. A brand new mural commemorated the Palestinian prisoner hunger strike that had just concluded the week before.


The newly opened Walled Off Hotel (next to the wall in Bethlehem, of course) featured social commentary on its lobby walls, like the following example.  (Check my Facebook page for more.)


And not to be too narrow in our notion of art, I’d like to include the work of biology students from Bethlehem University who are volunteering at the Palestinian Natural History Museum to collect, preserve, classify, and mount species of grasshoppers and other indigenous insects of Palestine, which they proudly displayed for me.  Their work encourages Palestinians to recognize and value the rich diversity of their own land.


All of this artistic work touches the hearts, minds, and spirits of both the creators and those of us lucky enough to observe it.  If you’d like to see more examples, please visit my Facebook page.

Now I’ll try to catch up on some sleep, after two very busy days of travel and meetings.  Hope to talk to you again next time the Wifi is good.  Thanks for reading, friends!  Josie

Why do we protest?

DSC05345

Protest.  All it means is to disapprove or object to something.  Yet the word carries so much baggage, it seems downright inflammatory sometimes.  I served on a local panel of women who had attended the Women’s March in Washington in January.  The moderator asked if anyone had any concerns now that they were back home again.  One woman spoke up with considerable energy about how the media had characterized those who marched as “protesters.”  No, she insisted, we weren’t protesters.  We weren’t angry.  We were peaceful.  We had a positive message. Several others on the panel strongly agreed.

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” as Queen Gertrude says in Hamlet.  This woman’s protest of protest brings us right to the core issue: many Americans are afraid to express their disapproval or objection to what their leaders do or say.

Europeans have been quicker to pour a million or more citizens into their streets when their leaders misuse their power, but we Americans relish a sort of exceptionalism about ourselves.  Let’s be polite and patient, and perhaps the leaders of our storybook democracy will save us in the end.

Whatever we call this exercise in free speech, all of the women on the panel had been drawn to travel across three states to speak out plainly in our nation’s capital on the side of justice.  It was something to celebrate.

My activist group, People for Peace & Justice Sandusky County, has been protesting war and social injustice at a downtown Fremont corner every week since 2007.  Friends sometimes ask me why we do this thing that seems so futile.  What can it accomplish?

My favorite answer is that we are telling passers-by that it is legitimate to dissent.  Each of us has a right to decide whether or not to consent to the dominant political ideology. Members of the public are not unanimous in their views.  We hope we can give passers-by the courage of their convictions, and at the same time find our own.

A few years ago, I wrote an article for Toledo Faith and Values that attempted to express all of this.  I offer it, slightly updated, below.

Shattering the Unanimity of Consent

Josie Setzler | Original version published by Toledo Faith and Values | Sep 4, 2012

There can be great urgency in protest’s seeming futility.  Pietro Spina, the hero of the novel, Bread and Wine, felt that urgency.  Pietro does just one thing during a time of war; he goes out in the night and writes the word NO on the town walls. Writer Robert Ellsberg comments, “If nothing else, his deed shatters the ‘unanimity of consent’; it allows people to envision the subversive possibility of an alternative reality.”

Saying no feels plenty futile.  I’m one of the Sandusky County residents who gather at a busy downtown corner in Fremont every week to say no to war.  We’ve done this for some nine years now and we don’t expect the world will give us an excuse to stop anytime soon.  Nonetheless I feel the urgency of saying no.

The “unanimity of consent” pervades and supports the comforts of my daily life that have been bought with the application of immense US military might.   It’s convenient to turn a blind eye to the suffering caused elsewhere, and life’s daily busy-ness serves well to distract us.  It seems as if every week the news gives us another story of innocents killed, drones hovering menacingly over houses in tiny villages, men tortured, people incarcerated without charge, our own citizens surveilled, but then the stories pass into oblivion.  And my life goes on as always, just like the lives of all the drivers passing by me at the corner of State and Front.

I’m complicit until I find a way to say no, to break the unanimity of consent.  In small ways, consent starts to break up once someone says no.  Long-time Chicago peace activist Kathy Kelly tells us we need to “catch courage” from each other.  I’ve found the process is mutual for motorists and protesters alike.  My husband Denny holds the sign that lets people make their own statement.  “Honk 4 Peace,” it proclaims boldly.  He pumps the sign up and down strategically as the light turns, and the honking begins.  The honks crescendo beautifully and our spirits soar.  Some folks whose horns don’t work gesture in frustration at Denny.  He grins and tells them to turn on their windshield wipers.  They are delighted to comply, and we laugh in solidarity.

I admit there’s something foolish about facing traffic with a sign announcing my wisdom in just a half dozen words.  I remember a conversation with my friend Jude who called our signs ineffective, because “you don’t have room to make an argument on a sign.”  With a master’s degree in theology, Jude figured a statement is a thesis that needs arguments to defend it.   I knew I liked to argue with the best of them, but the vigils gave me something else.  “Jude, just making the statement is the whole point,” I told her.  “It’s about finding the courage of our convictions.”  People fear they’re not allowed to dissent, let alone express that dissent.  They see someone they know standing on a street corner in their own hometown expressing what they know deep in their own hearts, and they are surprised.  The protester finds the courage of her convictions in the hopes that passers-by might discover that same courage in themselves.

Yes, there are the occasional obscene gestures and angry shouts.  My friends at a longstanding vigil in Tiffin actually got mooned once by a passing motorist.  We’ve learned that we are not there to change the minds of people who disagree with us.  We are aiming instead for the hearts of those who wonder about these things.

Don’t judge your action by its prospect for success, long-time peace activist Father Daniel Berrigan told his Toledo audience back in 2002 as he spoke about activism in the run up to the Iraq War. An audience member asked him why our religious leaders were not speaking out at the time. “You can’t wait for them,” he told us. “It’s up to you.  Do it.  Get going.”

Speaking out is the job of each of us.  That much we can do right now.  Fellow protester Tom Younker tells me as we wave at passing motorists, “I stand here now, because I didn’t do it when the Vietnam War was raging.”  He senses it is not too late, and so we’ll be out there with him again next week.  We welcome others to stand with us wherever they might be.

–Josie Setzler | March 24, 2017

Abolish War?

“An End to War?” Commonweal’s cover story in the Jan. 8 edition caught my eye.   Writer David Carroll Cochran reminds us that we have ended other barbaric practices in relatively recent human history.  He recounts that private vengeance and dueling were once accepted as a part of normal life, “unavoidable, a reflection of the natural human tendency to give and respond to offense.”  When Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton Burr dueled in 1804, the practice was only then being outlawed in the northern United States.  Yet today we take modern policing and courts for granted and we no longer accept duels and private vengeance as necessary or legitimate.  In fact, today we find these historic practices revolting and barbaric.

Just as dueling was once considered a reflection of a “natural human tendency,” so is war often described today.   Examples abound for barbarisms that were once standard practice, including slavery and capital punishment.  Cochran maintains that war can join this list.  Alternative conflict resolution practices are well studied and have a proven track record.  What we still lack is the firm conviction that war can be abolished.  He cites the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes: human beings must “free ourselves from the age-old slavery of war” by moving toward “the time when all war can be completely outlawed by international consent” through “establishment of some universal public authority” that provides a better way to uphold international peace, security, and justice.

Let’s say it out loud: To outlaw war by international consent reall means that the nations with the most wealth and technology consent to stop supporting war.  The players with the advantages that money and power bring want to use them to amass even more wealth and power.  Pope Francis used his 2016 World Day of Peace message to point to this problem.  He asks, “How many wars have been fought, and how many will continue to be fought, over a shortage of goods or out of an insatiable thirst for natural resources?”

When will we learn that we can better use our wealth and technology to alleviate the shortages and inequities that fuel conflict?  When will we set aside the supposed advantages of our massive military arsenals to get serious about nonviolent methods of conflict resolution?  Pope Francis cites his recent encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, to remind us that we and our world cannot afford to continue along our present path.  When will we come to terms with the barbarism of war, embrace alternatives that wait only for our serious consent, and abolish war?