Earlier this week, I got a phone call from my thesis advisor. “Hi Leanne! It’s —-, I’m in Israel! How are you?” Shocked to hear his voice while staring at my homework in Aroma, I broke into a smile and said hello. After talking for a few moments, he asked if there would be a Solidarity protest at Sheikh Jarrah this Friday. I explained to him that usually, there are, but this week was a special case. The Sheikh Jarrah regulars would not be in Sheikh Jarrah on this particular Friday; they would be in a small Palestinian village in Area C of the West Bank. A village called Susya.
To read about the painful, troubled history of this village, I encourage you to read Nasser Nawaj’ah’s personal account. Nawaja’ah is a field researcher for B’Tselem and a resident of Susya, who published this account a little over a week ago in an effort to save his village from imminent destruction. On June 7, the Israeli High Court of Justice issued an interim injunction to stop all construction in the village, and subsequently the Israeli Civil Administration issued an all-encompassing demolition order for the 52 structures that comprise the village. Solar panels, homes, shacks, ovens, schools, clinics. Imagine, a demolition of an entire village, hundreds of individuals left homeless and lost.
“That sounds great. Sign-me up!” I laughed nervously over he phone, wondering if my professor actually wanted me to attend a protest in the West Bank. It’s one thing to attend protests in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem, but it’s a way more serious affair to venture into the West Bank. Protests under the Israeli military occupation can be scary, dangerous even. But my professor really did want to go, and truth be told, so did I. I wanted to stand in solidarity with these innocent civilians, being expelled from their homes for a variety of “official reasons” and for the unofficial reason that they are Palestinians. They have no real rights under occupation. So I called one of the organizers and signed us up, in addition to another American friend getting his MA at the Hebrew University in Israel.
When we arrived at Gan HaPa’amon in Jerusalem, we boarded one of six busses to the small village. Six busses of Israeli activists, international activists, and some crazy American Jews trying to join the struggle for a better, more just Israel. And then we drove for an hour to Susya, all the while listening to organizers talk about the history of the village and the strategy of the protest. I was impressed. Over and over again, the organizers emphasized that this would be a non-violent demonstration. “We understand, it is easy to get excited when surrounded by soldiers, police, injustice. But please, we ask you to constantly check yourselves. We are fighting a non-violent struggle, because that is the path we have chosen, and for your own safety.” Non-violence. Non-violence. Non-violence. I felt calm, staring into the eyes of the activists around me, aware that they were gathered to demonstrate for justice, not to injure. I felt safe, proud to be surrounded by them.
When we arrived in Susya, I was not surprised at the sight that greeted me. Susya is a small village in the South Hebron Hills, and like another Palestinian village I have visited in the area, the residents live very simple lives. Their homes are shacks or tents, their ovens are caves, their schools are trailers. These villages are also not connected to the main Israeli power grid or water system in the West Bank, although the illegal settlements surrounding them are. And so international aid organizations often provide them with their basic needs; in this case, like in several village in the South Hebron Hills, an Israeli organization called COMET-ME had raised enough money to provide the village with energy providing solar panels. The donations came from Germany.
As I roamed the small village, children excitedly milled about donning green, red, white, and black face paint. Palestinian flags on their foreheads and forearms, some little boys also smiling under painted mustaches. Women and men wearing kefiyyes, waving Palestinian National Initiative flags, some yellow Fatah flags waving in the mix as well. After all of the activists, Palestinian residents of Susya, and supportive Palestinians coming from other areas of the West Bank had gathered, we began our march. The idea was to march from the current village of Susya, 52 structures built on the villages’ historical agricultural land, to the old village of Susya, now closed to the original residents after they were expelled in 1986. (Reason? Israeli archeologists found remains of an old synagogue in the village. Question? Since when do archaeological remains justify expulsions of villages, even individual homes? Doesn’t every single resident of the Old City of Jerusalem live on top of archaeological remains?)
But the march was cut short by percussion grenades and stun grenades. All of a sudden, we were surrounded by Israeli soldiers and police, dressed in full riot gear, weapons potentially meant for us. I was terrified. When I heard the loud booming sounds, I stopped walking. I heard orders in Arabic, “All of the small children, back to the village!” And I saw a jumbled, confused group of children running back towards their homes. The demonstrators, around 600-700 people total, continued to move forward and I fell behind, afraid.
All of a sudden, I saw a large cloud overtake the demonstration. Unsure what it was, I started to walk back, and found my professor watching the demonstration from afar. He was standing atop of a rock, so I climbed up to see how he was doing. But the wind was slowly blowing the cloud towards us, and my professor suddenly felt droplets of tear gas in his eyes. I helped him down from the rock and pulled out his water bottle. He splashed some water into his eyes, dried off, and replaced his glasses. “This reminds me of my Vietnam days. That’s the first time I got gassed!” Shaking my head in quiet shock (could he possibly be less afraid?), the two of us walked back towards the demonstration. The tear gas had scattered and protest seemed quieter, calmer.
I found my J Street U friends, my Hebrew U friend. They were okay, some recovering from close contact with the tear gas. I still didn’t want to get too close to the soldiers or police—I was afraid of what might happen next. The demonstrators were 100% nonviolent, but the soldiers had used tear gas anyways. What next?
I looked to my side and found two tiny Palestinian girls, quietly staring ahead. I asked if they were okay and if they wanted water. Yes and yes. Immediately after they finished sipping from my water bottle, I began to hear percussion grenades again. The girls attached themselves to either side of me and clasped my hands. “Shh, it’s okay. They’re just loud noises, don’t be afraid.” I walked with them, slowly, towards the back. Activists in the crowd were running, but if I’ve learned anything about dealing with children, it’s to surround them with calm in situations of fear or stress. When we safely arrived at a low area, far behind the demonstration, we sat down and talked. The girls played with my camera and tried on my glasses, and I asked them a little bit about their lives in the village. And suddenly my role at this protest became very clear: to be with the children. A number of small children were separated from their families or had not gone back to the village at the beginning. I offered them water, comfort, smiles. As we joked in Arabic, I swallowed the sadness of shielding children from the terror of sound grenades only a few yards away…I passed my childhood in Winnipeg and Long Island, on mowed grass lawns eating Friendly’s ice-cream.
The demonstration continued for about four hours. At one point, the army pointed skunk water nozzles towards the crowd, but it was mostly for intimidation. They never used them. At another point, a tear gas canister hit an 18 year old demonstrator in the head, and he was rushed to the hospital. He was okay, needing stitches and not much more. And in the end, the protest turned around, walking back towards the village. Although we were unable to march all the way to the site of original Susya, the ending felt triumphant. Chanting for an end to the occupation, clapping to the beat of drums, cheering together under the open sky, we felt a sense of hope. Because there is something amazing about a group of hundreds of Israelis, Palestinians, and a few internationals gathering together to join hands for justice. It felt like the best of my community, the potential of what Israel could be. Imagine it: Israeli Jews, known universally as human rights activists, pursuers of justice, lovers of humanity. Expressing Judaism as love for one’s neighbor, welcoming the stranger, finding the image of God in each human being. Imagine our potential.
At one moment during the protest, after the first tear gas cloud, I found an older Jewish woman standing on the side, looking quite weak and shaky. I asked, “Are you okay? Do you need water?” She smiled and said, “No, I just need some strength. I brought a sandwich.” She continued,
What do they care, if these people live in their tent homes? What do they care of we march from one place to another? This is hilul hashem, a desecration of the name of God. This is not the Jewish state I grew up loving and fighting for. This is a shame, an embarrassment to Torah, to the Jewish people.
Yes. But you, beautiful Israeli woman, are an honor to the name of God, to Torah, to the Jewish people. So were the Palestinians who learned the Hebrew words kol hakavod to thank us for our solidarity. So were the American Jews who shuddered in fear, weaved in and out of the crowd, struggled to hold on to the dream we were raised to love. Susya may still be demolished in two weeks. But we didn’t struggle for nothing. We came together, transcended deep divides, and fought with slogans and drum beats. And we will continue, following the path of humanity to an end of justice and peace. I feel it.