STANDING UP TO THE BULLDOZERS IN PALESTINE 29May10 May 30, 2010
Dr MAZIN QUMSIYEH is a tireless activist for Palestinian human rights who returned to his hometown of Beit Sahour in the Israeli-occupied West Bank last year and now teaches at Bethlehem and Birzeit Universities. The author of Sharing the Land of Canaan: Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Struggle (2004), Qumsiyeh is both a human rights activist and a scientist who has a lengthy list of publications on genetics to his credit. The Electronic Intifada contributor Ida Audeh met with him in April and discussed advocating the Palestinian cause in the United States and his impressions about the current direction of the Palestinian struggle.
During the 29 years he lived in the United States, Qumsiyeh earned masters and doctoral degrees; taught at several prestigious universities, including Duke and Yale; co-founded activist organizations (Al-Awda, the Palestinian Right to Return Coalition and the Wheels of Justice Tour â a traveling tour bus that stops at different communities to educate them about Palestine and Iraq); and was a board member for numerous organizations. Since the mid-1990s, he has maintained email lists that focus on human rights and international law. His weekly postings now reach approximately 50,000 individuals and include reports of events and comments that are informed by a deep understanding of common struggles in other parts of the world. An optimist who advocates âhaving joyful participation in the sorrows of this world,â he includes in every e-mail at least one action that the reader can take to make a difference. (From an interview with Ida Audeh, The Electronic Intifada , 11 May 2009)
Earlier this month, as Israeli bulldozers sought to raze olive groves in the forgotten Palestinian village of Al-Walaja, many thoughts raced through my mind. At one point, the best I could muster to a young soldier intent on carrying out his cruel order was to exclaim, “Why are you doing this? Shame on you.” More than a shame, it is a calamity.
Unquestioned orders threaten to make apartheid in the West Bank the norm. As the world watches, and responds with “proximity talks,” we are forced into ever-smaller Bantustans and subjected to an abusive system of law that favors Jewish settlers and discriminates against Palestinians.
To the people of Al-Walaja, residing in idyllic hills just west of Bethlehem, renewed Palestinian-Israeli talks matter little with Israeli bulldozers muscling into their olive groves. Israel’s violent 1948 expansion forced villagers off most of their lands and now Israel wants the rest.
As we mark the Nakba this month, the catastrophe of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, Walajans cling to what little land remains to them. They see the West Bank and East Jerusalem dotted with 250 colonial settlements housing over 450,000 Jewish settlers.
The Israeli government’s rampant settlement expansion has foreclosed on the two-state solution. Who will have the power to force these modern-day colonizers to comply with international law and depart their illegal colonies? It is not surprising that the talks between the most right-wing government in Israel’s history and the weakest and most divided Palestinian leadership will not advance international law or human rights. Palestinian Bantustans will be passed off as a state with US blessing.
Rejecting Israel’s imposition of apartheid, many have joined us in advocating for a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society with a constitution and a bill of rights. Nearly three decades in the US – much of it in the American South where such equality was once thought impossible – strengthens my resolve to challenge Israeli military personnel seizing Palestinian land and to press for one state with equal rights for all.
Israel wants West Bank land but does not want the people who come with it; a program established decades ago of maximizing geography and minimizing Palestinian demography. Repeating the ethnic cleansing of 1948 would be difficult, leading Israeli planners to do it in other ways: constructing settlements on confiscated lands, demolishing homes, and building a wall around the built-up area of villages to deprive people access to their remaining lands and destroy the local economy. The message to villagers is one of Israeli control, loss of Palestinian agency, and to get out.
Instead, we resisted. Physically weak, but buoyed by justice and international law, we employed Gandhian methods to slow their work and highlight the injustice of their actions. Once detained, I spent long hours in interrogations, conversations with soldiers, and waiting. I drew strength from the civil rights movement in the 1960s and my own experiences working against South African apartheid. The words of Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, and AbdelGafar Khan echoed in my mind.
I also drew strength from those arrested with me, both Christian and Muslim. Two young brothers from Al-Walaja had endured pepper spray, billy clubs, and even a blow with a rifle butt yet showed no bitterness. They talked to soldiers and tried to convince them. They asked: “What would you do if someone uprooted a tree that your grandparents had cultivated and that your life depended on?” The young soldiers had few answers.
It came as a revelation to these soldiers that there are seven million refugees and displaced Palestinians yearning to go home. It was a revelation that international law rejects land expropriation and bringing settlers into occupied territory (including East Jerusalem).
While we cannot reach all soldiers, civil disobedience is working. A nonviolent campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions is taking hold despite strong opposition. In response to our success, vicious violence is being unleashed against peaceful demonstrators by an increasingly isolated Israeli government.
We are willing to pay the price of popular resistance. Yet it is dismaying that the US government gives overwhelming support to a state adhering to supremacist ideologies long discredited by the successful American civil rights movement and anti-apartheid struggle. Governance based on ethnic or religious superiority should have no place in the 21st century.
A government that intentionally and methodically excludes us because we are Christians and Muslims in a land now controlled by “a Jewish state” ought not to receive billions of dollars from American taxpayers. The Obama administration says it wants peace to advance US national interests. If this rhetoric is to result in any change from previous administrations, we must all insist on ending discrimination. No durable peace can come without justice to the displaced and discriminated against Palestinians in Al-Walaja and elsewhere.