Solidarity with Palestinians: ISM activist interview

On October of 2002 the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) held a campaign to bring international activists to the occupied territories to accompany the Palestinian olive harvest. Over the course of the campaign, international and Israeli activists and Palestinians have faced attack from armed settlers and roadblocks and closures by the Israeli Army in their attempts to reach the Palestinian groves and harvest the olives. At the same time, the Israeli Army has sent tanks into Jenin, exploded bombs in Balata, and continued a curfew that has gone on for months in much of the West Bank, in what Israel has claimed is a response to a bus bombing earlier this month.

Diana Valentine, an activist from San Francisco, is participating in this campaign and reported on one of the campaign’s actions in a previous interview. In this interview she discusses the olive harvest campaign so far and international solidarity.

Why did you go to Palestine?

You’re asking why feel strongly about the occupation? Why get involved in the Palestine issue? That has to do with an ethical decision, understanding that people are suffering and if you can do something about it you should. And also being a US citizen, means there is an additional responsibility because the US funds and supports the occupation. The US government is directly involved, so a US citizen’s taxes are buying tanks that are going into towns and shooting people, guns and bullets that are ending up in the hands of armed settlers or soldiers who attack Palestinians. So we have to educate ourselves about it and then act. Personally, I came here because I found this opportunity. ISM’s campaigns make it possible for people to come here and take action.

You’ve been participating in the olive harvest campaign. How could one evaluate the success of such a campaign? Was it a success?

That’s a difficult question because the occupation is so pervasive. It works on so many levels—economic, political, social, psychological—in so many complicated, deep, overwhelming ways that it’s difficult to measure even the effects of occupation. You can’t measure the effects of something so overwhelming, so it’s difficult to measure the success of resistance to it as well.

It’s also a very dangerous position to put ourselves in, because part of the point of a military occupation is to make you feel like it’s hopeless, like there are no successes against it, there is no chance of victory, and if we try to measure the success of a single campaign we might feel that way, since no single campaign is going to end the occupation.

But the olive harvest campaign had a very specific focus, and so there were successes: one is that no one was killed while harvesting olives so far. Each day the Palestinians survive—go to the fields, harvest their olives, and come back alive—is a success. The presence of internationals and Israelis here who will go home and educate the people around them is a success.

We don’t always want to be focusing only on these tiny successes—we want to keep a sense of the big picture and remember that the goal is to end the occupation—but we have to count our victories as well, however small.

Many of the confrontations you found yourselves in and the violence you had directed against you in the olive harvest involved settlers. Do you think there is any hope for a solution so long as there are Israeli settlements in the occupied territories?

No. Absolutely not.

One of the problems of these dramatic abuses by settlers is that it takes attention away from the fact that the settlements themselves are illegal. That the occupation is illegal. There is an attempt by the Israeli authorities to present the Israeli Army as the mediator between the settlers and the Palestinians. It makes sense tactically for Palestinians to negotiate with the army, and the settlers are far less likely to shoot and kill people if the army and internationals are present. But the essential point– that neither the settlers nor the occupying army should even be there– is lost. And of course the military is not at all impartial and soldiers told us, plainly, that they are in the West Bank to protect Israel and by extension Israeli settlers. They do this by direct support and complacency. For example, on October 16 we were fired upon by a settler, and had rocks thrown at us by others. Some settlers were arrested that day, but their offenses were treated as a minor matter, since they have all been released.

A couple of days ago an Israeli court actually ruled that the army is to protect Palestinians from Israeli settlers during the olive harvest. Meanwhile, around the same time, we were in a grove where soldiers were clearing Palestinians out and preventing them from harvesting. We asked a soldier if this was supposed to be for the protection of the Palestinians and he replied: ‘yes, because if the Arabs don’t leave I’ll shoot them.’

When we remind the military that an Israeli court obliges them to protect the Palestinians and so they shouldn’t keep the roadblocks up and prevent Palestinians from harvesting, they reply that they didn’t hear that or that it only applies to certain areas. The ruling hasn’t had an effect on the ground, but it has allowed Israel to save face in the international community and draw attention to the settlers and the problem of ‘illegal settlements’ and ‘rogue settlers’ and away from the much more fundamental problem of the occupation and the settlements in general.

Israel claims it needs to be in the occupied territories in order to assure its own security. Is it possible for Israel to ensure its security through occupation? Do the measures you’ve seen help Israel’s security? Is there any provision for Palestinian security?

To start with the question of Palestinian security, the answer is no. Israel, and the United States, are so far from even thinking of Palestinians as people who deserve security or protection that the idea that they would protect Palestinians is ridiculous. Remember that soldiers told us time and again that they are here to protect Israel. After the bus bombing in Israel they banned the olive harvest here. We asked what a bus bombing attack in Israel had to do with olive harvesters here. The soldiers had no reply other than to say they were following orders. We asked them to confirm that the ban was just collective punishment—and they repeated that they were just following orders.

Palestinians feel forgotten by the world. No one thinks of Palestinian security. Their existence as a people is denied. The only protection they get is accidental—when the army doesn’t want to be bothered with a scandal of a settler murdering an unarmed Palestinian while internationals watch, Palestinians might be protected. But especially now, when the whole population has been labeled as ‘terrorists’, who is going to take care of the security of terrorists?

What about the question of whether the occupation helps Israeli security? It seems logical that the tighter a chokehold you apply to people, the more desperate they become. There are plenty of people who argue this. But the whole occupation hinges on the idea that it is justified by Israel’s security needs. Talking to Israeli activists here, they say that when they argue with other Israelis, they can get agreement that Palestinians are suffering; they can get agreement that Israel is engaging in state terrorism; but when they ask, don’t you think we would be better off if we ended the occupation?—the answer is ‘well, no.’

It is also an argument that’s impervious to evidence. If there are more attacks in Israel, then Israel needs to crack down harder on the Palestinians. If there are fewer, it’s because the crackdown is working. Whatever happens or doesn’t happen can be used to justify the occupation.

What do you think North Americans most need to know, that they don’t know, about the occupation?

We occasionally hear about an incursion, or a massacre, like the bombing in Gaza earlier this month, or an assassination. But what we don’t hear about or realize is how these killings are only part of a process of the destruction of a community. That the occupation pervades every single aspect of the life of every single Palestinian. Can you run a simple errand, can you go to school, can you go to work, will you be able to leave your community today, will a tank come down your road and start shooting people because of a suicide bombing in tel aviv, will police and army come and arrest every male in your household because they feel like it? Being under constant surveillance, being in this constant uncertainty about everything is a kind of psychological torture. I think North Americans need to know that. They need to know that there is a physical danger associated with being Palestinian—the danger of being beaten, having rocks thrown at you, being shot. It’s hard to imagine but people need to try to imagine that. Occupation doesn’t mean just the presence of a military, it means a pressure and a force that is trying to destroy a society by acting and affecting every part of people’s lives. And by taking away hope for the future. I’ve said that before but I think it’s really important. Palestinians are most heartbroken not for themselves, but because they see no future for their children.

Is there anything the Palestinians wanted you to convey?

Yes. In addition to trying to imagine the situation, it’s very important to Palestinians that the world know and not forget them.

I’ve had many people come up to me and say—please go and tell everyone in your country what is happening here. Don’t exaggerate, don’t lie, don’t get angry, but tell them. There’s a desperation in that, because they feel forgotten, they feel that the world doesn’t understand or remember or care. They feel that if the world did understand or care, that the world would react.

Palestinians wanted to convey their fears of what a US war against Iraq would mean for them. Two nights ago I had a talk with a woman, who said– tell Americans that we are people too, and that if America attacks Iraq, the Palestinians are ‘finished’. Later that night, we rushed outside after hearing noises and saw flares lighting up the sky. We were afraid that the US attack on Iraq– and the Israeli attack on Palestinians that would follow– had come. But no, we were told, this was normal. Sometimes the Israeli army would shoot flares into the sky, or shoot into towns from tanks– normal, everyday occurrences. They were trying to tell me then that they had ‘gotten used’ to the occupation.

They wanted to convey that this is not a war. It is presented as a war in the US, but the word ‘war’ implies two roughly equal sides and stories. But it’s not a war. It’s one of the strongest military forces in the world against a civilian population. It is a civilian population being brutalized. Even the term ‘conflict’ is too soft. The word ‘settler’ is certainly too soft.

They wanted to call attention to the dynamic where over the years they have been forced to demand less and less, in terms of land, rights. They have been backed into a corner so that they are asking for much less than they were ten or twenty years ago. The settlements issue is a good example. The idea is now to get Palestinians to negotiate over dismantling the ‘rogue’ settlements, leaving the ‘legal’ settlements untouched—but all the settlements are illegal. But the pressure of occupation keeps building and all of Palestinians’ efforts are directed towards survival: we won’t pick our olives today because we’re not allowed, or we’ll pick for half the day and escape with our lives. One man in Jam’een said ‘they take our olives now, but they took our land before.’

One problem in national conflicts is that violence makes the prospects for solidarity across the national lines more difficult. Did you see hope for alliances, for solidarity, between Palestinians and Israelis?

I was struck by the generosity of Palestinians. The way they survive—obviously I’m no expert, but what I’ve seen is so much generosity, people welcoming us so openly. They have been forgotten by the world and yet they’ve accepted internationals with open arms, with tremendous generosity. They showed the same generosity to the Israeli activists, welcoming them into their homes. They understand that people can disagree and dissent from what their state is doing.

This is a small example of hope, I think, for Palestinians to see Israelis who don’t agree with the occupation. For Palestinians to see Israelis yelling at soldiers, calling them liars, it could give them hope that things could change. To hear Palestinians and Israelis joking, as I did, that ‘the world may not know it, but jews and arabs… we’re cousins’. To hear that acknowledged, is a hopeful thing.

The Israeli activists also would have had much to overcome?

Yes. Before the closures, there were large numbers of Palestinians who worked in Israel. There was daily contact, personal contact, and Israelis had real evidence and could doubt what the media told them. Today the societies are sealed off and Israelis often don’t know the situation in Palestine any better than North Americans. It is an important step for them to come to understand it, to act on it, to come here and challenge the occupation, and most importantly to go back to Israel and challenge it, as many are. That’s not unlike the situation for North Americans.

Afterword. Oct 27, 2002, there has been another round of violent attacks by settlers in Yanoun near Nablus.

From the ISM Press Release: ‘Immediately after a Palestinian operation in the Israeli settlement of Ariel in the Israeli- occupied Palestinian Territories that killed two Israeli settlers and soldiers, a group of about a dozen armed Israeli settlers spotted the workers from their settlement (which is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Conventions), and descended upon the international volunteers, kicking, punching and beating them with stones and rifles butts. The internationals were out in front of the Palestinian workers, trying to protect them from the settlers.’

Four internationals—including a 68 year old woman from the US-UK and a 74 year old man from the US, were hospitalized from the beatings and all of them had their belongings—passports and money– confiscated.

Yanoun was in the news because last week the Palestinians left the town due to repeated attacks from settlers. They returned just a few days ago accompanied by Israeli and international activists.

The settlers attacked and the army didn’t protect the internationals. The settlers and the army understand that the political cost of attacking internationals is higher than the cost of attacking Palestinians. If they’ve done it anyway, it’s a sign of what they are willing to do to Palestinians. It’s also just another example of collusion between the army and the settlers.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.