On a bus ride down a dusty road in the West Bank, Middle Eastern pop music blared over loudspeakers, punctuated by the clapping and cheering of the passengers on board. I was heading to a Palestinian village called Deir Ballut, with a group of young refugees; participants in an educational project to confront colonization. We had been driving for about an hour, to visit an olive farmer whose crops were being threatened and poisoned by Israeli settlers. Despite what awaited us in the village, it felt good to leave the narrow alleyways of Dheisheh refugee camp for the openness of the country. The mood on board had already been festive, but suddenly the bus erupted into cheers and laughter. I craned my neck to see what was causing all of the commotion, and as the bus lurched, I barely made out the vague blue strip of water on the horizon. Just past the hazy skyline of Tel Aviv, the Mediterranean Sea blurred into the pale blue sky. It was surprisingly unremarkable, I thought, but still, I was swept away with the clapping and singing, the joy of watching grown men and women laugh like children at the sight of the sea.
There are lots of stories I should tell, about the injustices and abuses that Palestinians endure. There is the physical violence that you see on the news. But there is also the everyday oppression, the simple cruelty of depriving a people of something as natural as a day by the seaside to forget about their suffering for a moment. With the exception of those who are eligible to receive permits for entry into Israel, Palestinians must remain on one side of the massive “Separation Barrier” that the Israeli government has been building since 2002. The Apartheid Wall, as Palestinians call it, has turned the West Bank into one massive prison. The Mediterranean Sea is not more than a 45 minute drive away from Dheisheh refugee camp, but its beaches are a world away from the streets of the camps and the bullet-riddled facades of the homes that line them.
As I looked out the window, squinting my eyes to see past the dusty haze, Leila, the young woman next to me beamed, “I went to the sea twice when I was younger.” A quiet sadness pooled in her eyes as she added, “It was so beautiful.” Suddenly, I couldn’t clap anymore. As the bus turned a corner, the view from my window shifted to a hilltop covered in rows and rows of identical, utilitarian townhouses; an Israeli settlement, illegal under international law, on Palestinian land. This is occupation. This is apartheid. This is life in Palestine.
When we reached the village and filed out of the bus, we were greeted by a woman in traditional Palestinian clothing; a black hijab and a floor length dress, embroidered with the patterns of her village. Iman had skin like leather, dark after years in the relentless sun. Though her face was strong and her brow furrowed, her eyes were framed with deep lines that somehow made her appear much softer. Following behind her, I struggled to walk through the loose stones and dirt, and sat with the rest of the group under one of the thousands of olive trees around us. As she began to speak, I sat, listening to the foreign sounds of Arabic roll off her tongue and wishing I could understand what they meant. My friend Abed leaned in to translate, telling how she spoke of her childhood as a refugee in Jordan, of her return to the West Bank, and of the happiness she felt working her land. She talked about how young Palestinians were beginning to reconnect with farming, and how she was happy to teach them how to reap the harvests of these hills. The lines around her eyes deepened as she smiled.
Her face changed, though, as she motioned towards two local men walking through the rows of trees. Iman told us that the men of her village have to stand guard over the fields to prevent attacks on their crops. Deir Ballut is near the contentious “Green Line,” which delineated Israel’s border prior to the Six Day War of 1967 and subsequent occupation of the West Bank. The Green Line is generally accepted by the international community as the border for a potential two-state solution, but Israel has rejected it as a limit to its territory, and continuously tries to erase it from the map by annexing land on the Palestinian side of its border. Deir Ballut’s location just 20 km away has made it a target of Israeli expansion policies, and has left its people vulnerable to housing evictions, demolitions and displacement. The people of Deir Ballut have resisted, with the help of solidarity organizations, but Israeli tactics have most recently escalated to poisoning the villager’s crops. Many other villages have lost similar battles, and have seen Israeli bulldozers level their homes and their fields to make way for settlement construction.
Since Israel claimed the West Bank after the Six Day War, a system of control has been put into place to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish state by claiming land for Israeli settlements and disempowering the Arabs that threaten their demographic majority. Much like the apartheid system that crumbled in South Africa, Israeli policies create Palestinian ghettos, separated from Israeli neighborhoods in an entirely different world. While Israel claims to be vested in a peace process that includes a two-state solution, each Israeli administration since 1967 has made settlement construction the cornerstone of a policy to establish facts on the ground that would make the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state impossible.
Though settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law, and have been condemned by most of the world as destructive to the peace process, over half a million Israelis now live within the West Bank. Israel’s reach into the West Bank is so thorough that under the Oslo Accords only 18 percent of the area is under full Palestinian control. Settlements are not only built on confiscated Palestinian land, but are supported by a network of roads and tunnels that weave through the West Bank and severely prohibit Palestinian freedom of movement, so that they are not only barred from entering Israel, but also from traveling freely even within the Apartheid Wall. The settlements are imposing, both physically, with their accompaniment of armed Israeli soldiers and checkpoints, and socio-economically, as they often control water resources and important agricultural areas. Israelis now control 82 percent of the West Bank’s water resources and two-thirds of its grazing land.
After finishing her speech, Iman unloaded several pots of food made from the farm’s crops: spiced rice with lentils, tabouleh and sour yogurt were piled onto each of our plates. As I ate, I looked to the people talking and eating around me and was reminded that Iman’s story is not unique in Palestine. Everyone under the shade of that olive tree had stories just as infuriating and heartbreaking as hers. Nidal’s corneas were stripped away by repeated exposure to tear gas. Samer saw his cousin blown up during the siege of their refugee camp in the Second Intifada. Several of them bear the scars of gunshot wounds inflicted by Israeli soldiers when they were just 14 years old, throwing stones at tanks. Under the guise of Israeli security, Palestinians throughout the occupied territories are denied entry into Jerusalem for medical treatments, they are imprisoned for years without trial under “administrative detention,” and they are subject to martial law every day of their life.
The media will tell you many things about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The most misleading among them: that it is one between two equal parties. In the US, even the most liberal among us view the conflict as the result of two nationalist struggles for a contentious strip of land. But the Palestinian struggle is much more than a nationalist movement, it is a fight for basic human rights, for liberation from a system of subjugation and oppression. While it is difficult to find the truth through Western media, in Palestine, it smacks you right in the face, impossible to ignore. This is not simply conflict over territory, it is apartheid, and apartheid is never a fair game. The wall, the checkpoints, the Israeli settlers armed with machine guns – all of these things reflect stark power imbalances that tell an entirely different story; the story of a an oppressed, displaced indigenous population, and a heavily armed colonial power backed by a racist ideology and a global superpower.
The night before I left the West Bank, I found myself on a farm much like Iman’s. This one was just a few minutes drive outside of Dheisheh refugee camp, and belonged to my friend Ibrahim’s family. A half-moon shined brightly over the hills on the horizon, and the olive trees were bathed in its silver glow. This hillside is more than just an olive farm or a place to drink beers and look at the stars. It is a sanctuary, in a sense, for these young men, who are otherwise cramped in the 1km UNRWA administered camp, in buildings scribbled with liberation graffiti. Here, in the darkness, they can breathe deeper, fuller breaths. But even in this open expanse, in the fresh air and under the night sky, they cannot feel free, cannot escape the occupation.
“In that direction is Dheisheh. Over there is a settlement, and on the next hill as well. Those lights in the distance too.” Ibrahim gazed out at the infuriating geography of this place. “This is where I spent a lot of time growing up – not in Dheisheh,” he continued. “But I don’t think it will be here much longer.” This farm too, is being threatened by confiscation, engulfed by settlements that stretch all the way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. My heart broke at the thought of him losing this childhood paradise, his grown-up escape, his family legacy.
Feeling the weight of their struggle, the heaviness of their stories, on my shoulders, I leaned forward and asked Ibrahim what he would share with the world about Palestine, if he had the chance. Ibrahim looked at me, and without any hesitation, replied, “Tina, tell them about the apartheid.”
When I arrived in Palestine I did not come as an activist. I came simply because I wanted to know what life is like in a place that conjures such terrifying images in our minds. In the days that followed, what I found is something that is simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring. Depressing and uplifting. Violent, yes, but somehow driven by a desire for life in peace. The fact that I should be the one telling this story is absurd. It is infuriating that I should speak for people who are so much stronger than I am. I feel ashamed, and sickened that you cannot hear it from their mouths, but I feel honored that I have the chance to share it with you.