WEST BANK, Monday, March 22 — Just as I grab my computer in bed
this morning to write some thoughts about nonviolence, I get a call
from Neta. I am in Beit Sahour doing a training for a small group
of internationals and some of the core of those who will be
trainers. She is in Ramallah. This morning, in Gaza, the Israelis
assassinated Sheikh Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas. He was
an old man in his nineties, confined to a wheelchair, coming out of
the Mosque after morning prayers. A perfect martyr.
‘Everything’s going to go crazy,’ Neta says. ‘If Sharon wanted
to set off a bloodbath, he couldn’t have done anything better.
People will be lining up to die.’ She’s deeply upset, walking the
streets of Ramallah with Nizar, her husband, still trying to
encourage that late baby to get on with the process of being born
into this rough world.
I’ve been lying here thinking about violence and nonviolence and
struggle. I’m in a small hotel in Beit Sahour where we do
trainings. It’s been being renovated, since last year, in some
spirit of undying optimism that someday normality, and tourists,
will return to this region. Bethlehem is a closed up city, dying
from economic starvation now that the thousands of Christian
tourists can no longer come. Last year, right before Easter,
another ISM volunteer and I got a tour of the Church of the
Nativity — we were the only ones there, and it was eerie and quiet
in the stone halls and the deep chamber where Jesus was presumably
born. Only a few monks walked the halls, and up on the roof, we
could still see the bullet holes of the assaults from the year
Yesterday, as we began the training, our friends in the village
of Kharbata were sitting in front of the bulldozers again. I felt
terribly torn — wanting to be there with them and yet having a
commitment to be here. My focus for this trip is training — that
seems to be the way I can make my best contribution. But my heart
is always with the action. And it’s anguish to be getting reports
— twelve injured, twenty-five injured, one village woman shot in
the eye with a rubber bullet, one ISM volunteer detained, possibly
arrested, others shot in the leg, hurt — without being able to be
there and do something. There’s the stress, and the quite
irrational but real guilt, and the less admirable but also real
sense of somehow missing out on the excitement.
Which of those women I marched with lost an eye? Was it the old
woman with the toothless grin who limped up to us over the rocks,
raised a stick above her head and cried out ‘Allah Akhbar!’ Was it
the mother, grandmother of the sweet young girl who tried to teach
me how to say ‘swimming’ and ‘oasis’ in Arabic? One young Israeli
was shot between the eyes with a rubber bullet: I think that I met
him last year at Mas’Ha peace camp. It amused me so much to hear
the Palestinians hailing him, ‘Levinsky! Yala!! Let’s go!’
These trainings are in the same place we were working last year.
Tom Hurndall sat in these chairs, did the role plays, the active
listening exercises, and then went down to Rafah. Just a few days
later, he was shot. We were clear in the training then, and we are
even more clear now — you can die doing this work. ‘It’s hard for
any of us to imagine our own death,’ I tell the group as we are
role playing out how to respond to tear gas, rubber bullets, sound
bombs, and live ammunition. ‘But do think about it. Tell yourself
that it really can be you, and ask yourself if you are still
willing to do this.’
On Saturday I went to Bir Zeit University, in a village outside
of Ramallah, to speak to a group of students and show them our
PowerPoint slide show of actions around the world. There were about
twenty students and a few teachers, including some of a small core
group that wants to organize a Right to Education campaign. We had
a good discussion after about strategy. Bir Zeit is a beautiful
campus, high on a hill, with elegant stone buildings donated mostly
by wealthy individuals and modern facilities. The student body, I’m
told, are like most of the relatively privileged students around
the world — deeply immersed in their own affairs, hard to
mobilize. Riham Barghouti, director of Public Relations, who has
organized the talk, told me how hard it is to motivate students to
get active now.
‘The first intifada involved massive non-cooperation with the
occupation,’ she said. ‘Everyone was involved, from all classes of
society. People boycotted Israeli goods. They tore up their I.D.
cards. It was primarily nonviolent, a massive popular resistance.
And everyone felt together. We were clear about what we were
struggling for. But then we got Oslo, this agreement with no teeth
in it. We were split — some for it, some against. Even so, some of
those who were against it at first, they were beginning to come
around, to think, ‘Well, maybe we can make something of this.” But
then came more settlements, more settlers’ roads, more restrictions
on movement, more land confiscations, more deaths.
The second intifada is more grim, more focused on armed
struggle. ‘People think all Palestinians are the same,’ Riham says,
‘As if we were all one person, one terrorist. But we’re not. Most
people don’t want to be fighters. They want to find some way to
struggle for their land, their rights, and they don’t want to use
violence. But it’s much harder now, to believe that a nonviolent
struggle can succeed. They say, ‘We did that’, or ‘Our parents did
that, and look what it got us.”
There’s an ecology to repression. The closures and checkpoints
and roadblocks make movement within the West Bank extremely
difficult. Each town is separated from the others by checkpoints.
The Israelis have built wide, fast roads for the settlers to get to
settlements, or for a tourist from Jerusalem to head up to the Lake
of Galilee or down to the Dead Sea. But Palestinians cannot travel
on those roads, at risk of being shot.
‘We used to go to Nablus or Hebron or Bethlehem, for a day or a
visit,’ Riham says. ‘We could drink coffee, share ideas, discuss
things. New ideas got spread around. Issues could be debated. Now,
it’s years since I’ve been to Nablus. I have no idea what they’re
thinking up there. And the kids come from the villages or the more
conservative towns, and go to University here. They used to go
back, and bring more of the progressive ideas with them. Now, they
don’t go back. They can’t find work there, and they can’t live in
that atmosphere. So they stay in Ramallah. Ramallah is Occupation
Lite, there’s more openness here. You can get to Jerusalem. They’ve
allowed more money to flow into here, there’s more development. But
it can’t absorb all those new doctors and engineers. And then the
other places grow more closed, more conservative, and the split
between them and Ramallah deepens. I know with people dying every
day and houses getting demolished, it’s hard to care about the
stifling of intellectual life, but that’s part of it, too.’
Sharon and his supporters, with their policies of repression and
closure and isolation, are in fact creating exactly the conditions
that foster the kind of narrow fundamentalism they profess to fear.
At least they fear it in Islam: they pander to it in Judaism.
In the morning it is my turn to negotiate the checkpoints. I
wake up before 6 AM, take a taxi to Kalendia where I wait in line
with the women and the young teenagers going to school. We are the
fortunate ones: our line moves relatively quickly and in fifteen or
twenty minutes I am facing a bored young soldier who directs me a
second bored young woman soldier. She looks at my passport and
waves me through. But the hundred or so men waiting next to me seem
to move slowly if at all, and I wonder how long it will take them
to get to their morning’s work.
I catch a service (taxi) on the other side, with a bad exhaust
system that fills the back, where I am riding, with fumes. Halfway
into Jerusalem, we are stopped by yet another soldier, who demands
our passports and wants me to open my bag. He glances at the video
camera, then lets us go. The man in front of me shakes his head.
‘They are bad people,’ he says. ‘You see!’
I abandon the service a little too early and walk a few blocks
on the outskirts of the Old City, back to the Faisal where I meet
the group that will go through the training together. We take
another service to the outskirts of Bethlehem, to the roadblock
that has no real checkpoint but a guard tower with soldiers who
generally don’t appear. We walk up the hill, and get into taxis
that have been ordered on the other side, which take us to Beit
The first day of training goes well, it’s a small group, about
seven trainees, three from Britain, one from the US, and three
Swedes. Four of the long-term ISM activists who are learning to be
trainers also come, to observe and support. By the end of the day,
I am tired, and after dinner I drop into bed and sleep deeply until
Neta’s call wakes me.
It’s a struggle to concentrate. Everyone is upset about Sheikh
Yassin. The assassination is seen as an assault on the entire
community and on Islam itself. And those who think in terms of
policy see it as a calculated move on Sharon’s part — to provoke
more suicide bombings, to open the door for major incursions again,
to forestall any pressure toward a peace process.
The young boy who lives in the hotel, about eleven years old,
looks at me with shocked eyes. ‘He was ninety-two years old,’ he
says to me, shaking his head. And then, ‘Have you seen ‘The Passion
of Christ?’ I tell him I haven’t. He says it is very good, he has
seen it twice, on DVD. ‘But why do they want to kill such an old
man,’ he asks. ‘Soon he’ll be dead anyway.’
We’re getting reports, of demonstrations in Ramallah, Nablus,
even right here in Bethlehem, of more killings and more martyrs.
Rumors of death. At our morning check-in, everyone is restless.
‘It’s part of the quality of being here that you always feel you
should be somewhere else, that the real action is happening
elsewhere. But we’re here, and we’re doing something that will make
our work more effective in the long run, So let’s just be present
here and focus.’ I’m really saying it to myself, of course.
But we do, in spite of the ongoing doubt about whether or not we
can get out of Beit Sahour and back to Jerusalem or Ramallah. Neta
calls and says she has been to the doctor and they are considering
whether they need to induce labor that afternoon. Hisahm tells me
he has not ordered cars yet, that there are soldiers at the back
way out and the checkpoint is closed, and fighting at Kalendia.
Ramallah is closed. I work a bit harder to stay focused.
We are careful to end early enough that we can begin our travel
back before dark. And, in the way things can change here, suddenly
the cars are here and the soldiers are gone and we are picking our
way up the hill and out of Bethlehem. Back to Jerusalem, where I
say goodbye to the others and head around the corner to grab a bus
to Kalendia, which seems to be leaving just as usual. Back to
Kalendia, where soldiers walk above the checkpoint but no one stops
us from entering. Back to Neta’s house, to spend a quiet evening
and a quiet day today, working on the training manual while Neta
makes a hundred phone calls trying to decide whether to reschedule
our coordinator’s trainings, as the roads are closed from Nablus
and Jenin. No one can get in or out. We don’t know if they will
reopen by the weekend, or, if we postpone until next week, if
something else won’t happen that will close them again. Today
everyone is on strike, the shops are closed, the streets eerily
This is the Palestine I’m familiar with, the shuttered doors and
windows, the silence. Everyone seems sad today, and tired, the very
streets steeped in sorrow. It’s a strike, today, however, not a
curfew — there is no fear of soldiers rounding a corner with guns
ready to fire, no tanks. Yet. The fear is deeper, more endemic.
Somewhere someone is planning revenge. Someone is alive today who
will soon be dead, because of this assassination. And after the
revenge will come the retaliation, the tanks, the demolitions, the
closures. It feels like the calm before the storm.
Starhawk is an activist, organizer, and author of Webs
of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising and eight other books
on feminism, politics and earth-based spirituality.
She teaches Earth Activist Trainings that combine
permaculture design and activist skills, and works with the RANT
that offers training and support for mobilizations around global
justice and peace issues. These updates will be posted on her
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