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.”


Day 3: Gaza and the Psychological Trauma of War

No, I’m not in Gaza.  The Israelis give very few people permission to enter and witness what has happened there.  But our group heard from a man today who was there just days after the conclusion of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict which Israelis named Operation Protective Edge.  Sami El-Yousef, regional director for CNEWA, Catholic Near East Welfare Association, told us about the psychosocial services his agency provided in Gaza to hundreds of children traumatized by the military assault.  He maintained, however, that the conflict left all 2 million people of Gaza needing psychological services.  

Sami interviewed many Gazans about the military violence they had experienced and in every case, he told us, they could not complete the conversation without both of them ending up in tears.   He was so overcome by the level of psychological trauma he observed that he decided to look for some measure of the trauma these people had experienced.  Using United Nations figures for the number of bombs and other munitions inflicted on Gaza during that conflict, he calculated that the people of Gaza heard one explosion every minute for 51 days.  

One explosion per minute round the clock day after day.  Add to that the fact that the people of Gaza cannot leave the narrow confines of their land to take refuge from the bombs.  They are walled inside a strip of land 25 miles long and 7.5 miles wide at its widest point with no exits allowed them.   During the 2014 conflict Israel declared half of Gaza a closed military zone and people were crowded even more densely together.   Most war produces streams of refugees leaving the country, but for Gazans this was impossible.  For 51 days they could not escape the walls that form what is called the world’s largest open air prison.  And for 51 days the constant explosions did not even allow escape into sleep.  It is no wonder that the conflict produced so much trauma.  Yet the resources to meet that trauma are severely limited.

We were impressed by Sami’s account of CNEWA’s work.  As a pontifical mission, it was established in 1949, intended as a temporary mission to care for the 30% of Palestinian Christians who became refugees during the 1948 war.  68 years later the refugees have not been able to return and CNEWA’s work has become long-term.  They have kept a Christian presence in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza providing healthcare, education, and social services for all Palestinians regardless of their religion.

An aside for my husband, Scoutmaster Denny Setzler of St. Ann’s Troop 339:  CNEWA supports 32 Scout troops within Israel to promote Christian community amoung the Palestinian youth, providing them ways to come together to do volunteer work and socialize.  I know Denny will enjoy CNEWA’s appreciation for the role scouting can play in Catholic life. 

A little more about our day

Tonight we made our way out the Damascus Gate and up the hill to the conference center Notre Dame to have dinner with Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, retired from the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue, arranged by our delegation member Jeff Abood.  The Archbishop specializes in Christian-Muslim relations and recently spent a year at John Carroll University teaching a course on the Koran and finishing a book.  I hope I’ll have a chance to share our conversation in a future post.

As we left for dinner and passed through the markets of the Muslim quarter to approach the Damascus Gate we were swimming upstream it seemed.  We passed through crowds of Muslims entering the old city to head to Al Aqsa mosque for the breaking of the Ramadan fast.  Sundown was still more than an hour away.  As we returned from dinner after dark, we encountered the festive lights for Ramadan strung all around the Damascus gate.  We made our way through throngs of people celebrating the breaking of the Ramadan fast with food, music, children’s fun, and general high spirits.  Even if I’d had my camera with me, I could not have captured the warm, spectacular vitalitiy of it all for you.  As I sit here on the hostel terrace, I can still hear the singing at the gate at 11 pm.

Now I’ll capture a few more moments in photos.

Watching Bar Mitzvah processions pass by as we stood in line to go to the Temple Mount.

My favorite view of the old wall with Al Aqsa mosque visible on the left.  We stood in line for an hour and a half to make it up to the Temple Mount to see the mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

Another market scene.  Can’t resist sharing it.