Freedom riders on the move in Palestine

As John Kerry’s peace talks falter, activists ride across Palestine to learn more about the costs of occupation.

International solidarity with the Palestinian cause allows activists to see the realities of occupation first-hand [AFP]
International solidarity with the Palestinian cause allows activists to see the realities of occupation first-hand [AFP]

Five hundred packs of L&M.

As far as I could tell, that was the number of cigarette packs, all the same brand, that lay strewn like a dystopian art installation on the bunk above Zakaria Zbaidi’s bed in the prison wing of the Palestinian Authority Police Academy in Ramallah.

He was no stranger to prison. By the time he was 20 he’d been shot by Israeli forces, spent over five years in an Israeli prison, and was one of the most wanted fighters in the West Bank. Then, in 2006, Israeli agreed to amnesty Zbaidi along with other brigade members in return for a pledge to stop all violent resistance. 

Zbaidi had previously been transformed from a militant fighter to cultural warrior as co-founder of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, a group of artists who organised  Freedom Bus rides.

Inspired by the 1960s Freedom Rides that travelled across the US’ south to highlight and challenge the still pervasive racism of the Jim Crow era, the Palestinian version has been going on for the last three years, bringing dozens of activists from Palestine, the US and Europe to spend two weeks travelling the West Bank, particularly in regions where Israel continues to expropriate land and/or resources.

Upwards of one-third of the participants have been Jewish, several of them veterans of the Taglit Birthright tours that have brought hundreds of thousands of young Jews to Israel to “discover” their heritage in a way that encourages support for present Israeli policies.

Failed peace push

A few days along the route and it becomes abundantly clear why the latest round of negotiations shepherded by US Secretary of State John Kerry never had a chance. Indeed, even for a seasoned traveler through Palestine, the Freedom Bus experience can be equally shocking and exhilarating. By day you witness the complex strategies through which the Israeli government, military and settlers continue to steal or prevent Palestinians from accessing their land, water and other resources. At night over simple meals you learn the myriad of ways Israel continues to stifle the economic life of the communities they control.

In Jordan Valley, communities like al-Hadidiya, al-Jiftlik and Khirbet Samra visited this year, Israeli occupation forces routinely prevent construction of schools, access to agricultural land, and the provision of water and electricity. Residents who “illegally” add onto or build new structures almost invariably receive demolition orders. No one was surprised when the bus was met by an army patrol sent to prevent riders from pouring cement for the floor of a school as soon as it arrived in Khirbet Samra. In this case, soldiers were so focused on keeping acting students from the Freedom Theatre from reaching the school, that Freedom Bus riders managed to sneak in and lay the floor.

The minutiae of the occupation are even more frightening than the more gross realities. To cite one example, in Jiftik, the largest village in the Jordan Valley (which gained access to electricity only a few years ago), residents are prohibited from digging wells deeper than 80m, while settlements are allowed to dig 10 and even 20 times as deep. As a result of these long-term policies, the local water supply has become so brackish that it’s unusable for most crops.

On the land they do farm, Palestinians are routinely prevented from using most modern fertilisers or pesticides. “This leads to poor crops,” an activist explained. “Then the Israelis compare [our crops] to their well-watered, fertilised crops to show how modern they are.” Even successful crops often face insurmountable obstacles to reach a market, as Israeli corporations establish monopolies on processing products such as local dates (Palestinians are prohibited from owning the machinery that would allow them to process it themselves) or watermelons and then import cheaper produce from abroad, effectively destroying local industry.

The situation is similar in the Hebron Hills region of southern West Bank. In just the few days of our stay in the village of Atwani, settlers twice attacked young children on the way to school with slingshots, an olive grove was uprooted, shepherds were harassed, a Palestinian worker died after falling while being chased by Israeli police, and settlers destroyed solar panels provided to unelectrified hamlets by an Israeli NGO.

In the central or northern West Bank, Israel has expropriated much of the best agricultural land for settlements such as Ma’on, located just metres from Atwani. In a familiar story, Israel has only recently allowed water and electricity to the village; their provision is still scant and expensive. And Atwani is relatively fortunate. Dozens of smaller surrounding communities remain unrecognised and are prohibited from being hooked up to the electricity grid or water lines, or building communal structures likes mosques or schools

Whether or not one considers the West Bank to be occupied or sovereign Israeli territory is irrelevant. The actions we witnessed are not just illegal, they’re war crimes. Practiced together and repeatedly, they constitute crimes against humanity.

When you add in the even greater routine violence deployed by Israel in other front line communities such as Nebi Saleh and Bil’in, where Friday protests have become a ritual of tear gas, rubber and steel bullets, stun grenades, live ammunition and routine Palestinian deaths, it’s hard to disagree with the pioneering Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling’s characterisation of the entire apparatus or matrix of control as politicide.

Art at the edge

If the Freedom Bus only served to highlight the brutality of the occupation it would be hard to remain aboard for more than a few days. What makes the time on the Bus as inspiring as it is enraging is the centrality of art to the tours and the communal resistance and solidarity it aims to strengthen. As Freedom Bus co-founder Ben Rivers explained during a Playback Theatre workshop he directed: “The inclusion of theatre, music and song connects us to the creative forces that sustain a people and their struggles.”

The inclusion of theatre, music and song connects us to the creative forces that sustain a people and their struggles.

- Ben Rivers, Freedom Bus co-founder

More than merely “plac[ing] the issue of Palestine within its context as a human tragedy”, as novelist Elias Khoury put it, regular visits to Palestine by activists foster long-term relationships, a shared commitment to popular struggle, and the possibility to educate a wide swath of the community.

As a participant in last year’s ride explained, “We, too, need to know what’s happening in other parts of Palestine. We are not all facing the same reality at the same time.” The many unique stories shared through various forms of theatre and other artistic productions during the ride not only offer powerful counter-narratives to the minutiae of the occupation, but also the inclusion of increasing numbers of Israeli and international activists is laying the groundwork for the kinds of broader identities that will be at the core of any post-Oslo solution to the conflict.

An activist from the Hebron Hills best summarised the cultural creation-as-resistance experienced along the route as encouraging a mental, and ultimately political, “jail break” from the multiple layers of occupation – Israel, the PA, Hamas, the US, the IMF, and other regimes of oppressive control in which they are forced to live.

“All these levels [of occupation] are woven together into a rope that is much stronger than each strand alone. Art frays the rope, and gives us a chance, if only in our minds at first, to break free and imagine new possibilities.”

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. His new book is One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, co-edited with Ambassador Mathias Mossberg.

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