In January, I returned with sharply clashing impressions from a delegation to Israel and the occupied territories with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence. We were a group of Diaspora Jewish activists, including several J Streeters. As we proceeded, I found myself caught between political despair and rising hope. Trump and Netanyahu’s annexation plan only exacerbated the despair — but hope remains.
On one hand, we already can see the effects of creeping annexation, represented by summary demolitions of Palestinian homes and public buildings. On the other hand, grass roots activists—Palestinian, Israeli and Diaspora Jews—are creating their own facts on the ground, building relationships and addressing the concrete problems in people’s lives and, just possibly, building a movement that really can change things for the better.
Our delegation met with other nonviolent activists and learned of their work. We also helped our Palestinian partners with constructive projects.
Most of our time was spent in Area C, that part of the West Bank which is entirely under Israeli control. From the outside, most of the homes in Palestinian and Bedouin villages look like shacks with walls of siding, covered with a tarp or woven blanket. Inside, the homes are as nice as people with little money can make them, painted and strewn with embroidered cushions and curtains, covered with textured paneling and bright with mirrors.
The houses look flimsy and provisional from the outside, in part because the residents hope that the army will decide they are not worth tearing down. Nothing is allowed to be built in Area C without a permit, and no Palestinian community may make even the smallest improvements without a Master Plan approved by the military government. Almost no Master Plan submitted to the authorities by a Palestinian or Bedouin village is ever approved.
Periodically, the government or far-right settlement movement activists and vigilantes will send drones to photograph villages, or the army will simply walk through, scouting for unapproved construction. Often, the army will chart the development of a new structure, such as the community center built with the help of international volunteers like us in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hair. Twice, the army watched as the building was lovingly constructed, plastered and painted with murals and signs. Then, twice, they tore it down. There is now a third iteration of that community center in Umm al-Hair.
We split into work groups to assist villagers with special projects. My group went to the village of Susiya, the continued existence of which demonstrates that the work J Street does really contribute to impacting lives in the region for the better. The entire village had been slated for demolition but has been protected by a heavy campaign of international pressure, including strong public US congressional opposition mobilized by J Street. While demolition of individual homes continues, the village still stands.
Our jobs in Susiya were to plant olive trees and to assist in the construction of a women’s center, using material salvaged from demolished structures. We met a local social worker who is uniting the women of the South Hebron Hills into an association for mutual empowerment. The commitment to reach out for relationships, to build from the rubble and to plant saplings that will take five years to fruit represents a choice, a seizure of agency. In the face of destruction and a massive power imbalance, these shepherds and social workers, farmers and engineers are choosing nonviolent creation; they are choosing hope.
Our entire delegation assisted people from the several villages, organized by the Good Shepherd Collective, in rehabilitating a spring that, for years, had been a key source of water for Palestinians. The Ein Albeida spring has been appropriated by residents of the illegal Avigayil settlement outpost for a swimming hole — and apparently a mikveh — and made inaccessible to the villagers who had been used to getting water from the spring for crops and animals.
Together we re-created a trough for animals that had been destroyed, unblocked the water, planted olive trees and created a footpath to the spring from a trail leading back to a village. Of course, it was only days later that settlers came and destroyed our work.
This is the ebb and flow of life in Area C. People build. Their work is destroyed. They build again.
The villagers knew what would happen to our creations. They are determined to make it clear that they are not giving up their land or their way of life. This is the ebb and flow of life in Area C. People build. Their work is destroyed. They build again.
On educational days, we met activists who work on both sides of the Green Line in solidarity with one another. For example, we met representatives of Standing Together, a grass roots group that unites people working to end the occupation, Israelis facing economic hardship, LGBTQ people and others who want to work together for a just world. We met Mizrahi Jews who face racial discrimination within Israel, and we met Palestinians from diverse economic and religious backgrounds who are working to stop home demolitions. And these activists are building ties with one another, creating a civil network which could be the basis for a new politics, for a solution that respects the human and national rights of all concerned.
I think, now, of these new friends in light of the president’s peace sham’ which aims to pave the way to annexation and permanent conflict. Of Palestinian villages that live in the shadows of settlements that are illegal even under Israeli law. Will they be annexed and destroyed? Of Palestinian citizens of Israel who are facing transfer and disenfranchisement. Will their new friends refuse to let that happen? Of Israelis who want to live in peace with their neighbors, and preserve their democracy — can they slowly bring real change to their nation’s politics?
The situation is balanced on a wire, with so much peril. Yet as I saw on my trip, there also really is hope.