When I was 18, I did a yearlong AmeriCorps program called City Year. Oren and my parents joined me on MLK Day for a service project in a high school. I told them that they would be painting, and my parents wound up painting murals of famous African Americans and prominent DC figures (Oren met George W. Bush. Different story).
At the conclusion of the service day, my dad commented to one if the City Year administrators that he had been expecting to do more “substantive” service, like painting walls of crumbling paint. Most people who work with volunteers in direct service probably recognize that response, and would criticize it for centering my dad, the volunteer’s need to feel like he’s doing something substantive, over the needs of the person or organization being served.
The point of our service in Susya was very much not the service project. It reflects the reality that the only thing keeping Susya from being demolished is international attention. In some ways, it’s really sad that the people in Susya have to turn their village into a tourist attraction just so that they can stay in their homes. They have to come up with “service projects” and offer activities like horseback riding, cheese making, goat milking and henna painting just so that internationals will have something to do while they’re in the village. Because every day that internationals show up is another day that the bulldozers don’t come.
Which isn’t to say that the people in Susya are wonderful, and kind, and so thrilled to have us—they are, they are all of those things. Fatima told one of our trip leaders that her only fear is that we’ll stop coming back.
Our three-day work project in Susya centered on one project, at least in theory. Susya has a lot of international visitors, because international visitors are the only reason that Susya hasn’t been demolished. Our project involved creating décor for the entrance to the restaurant for international visitors. When I say restaurant, what I really mean is a small, dark room with concrete walls and a tarp as a roof, 20 broken plastic chairs, two filing cabinets, and a teacher’s desk. The original plan had been to expand the room, but their lawyer warned them that could lead to demolition.
On Tuesday, we painted several tires, which were going to be used as planters for the large rock outside the restaurant. On Wednesday morning, before we arrived, a drone from Regavim, a rightwing NGO arrived to take pictures of what we had done. Regavim claims to operate in the name of “law and order” and “rule of law” but what they really do is collect photographic evidence of Palestinian villages, and send it to the army in the hopes that Israel will demolish the village. Clearly, a settler from the settlement of Susya (confusing, I know) had noticed a big group doing something, called Regavim, which sent the drone.
The conclusion of the project on Wednesday involved arranging the tires, filling them with dirt, and planting flowers in them. Susya isn’t allowed to plant anything new on their own land. By planting within the tires, above a rock surface, they are pushing the boundaries, but not breaking the law.
In addition to our service project, on Wednesday we did art therapy with the women and children in Susya. We asked them to draw their hopes and dreams for Susya and for peace. Most of the children drew Palestinian flags (general rule—whenever you give Palestinian children art supplies, they tend to draw Palestinian flags. Kinda like how I always used to draw the same outdoor landscaper involving a two-story home, a sun, grass and a tree. The longing of a city kid for the suburbs?). Many of the women drew the homes that they want to build, and the trees that they want to plant. My favorite was Danya, a seventeen year-old in a polka-dotted hijab. She drew the beauty salon that she wants to build, which immediately made me think of In the Heights (both the beauty salon, and the line “everybody’s got a job, everybody’s got a dream”).
After some dancing, lunch and flower planting we milked goats (!!!!!), got henna designs done, and did some yoga. And then we left.
About 60 members of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence arrived in Al-Tawaniyyeh on Thursday night, after a full day of nonviolence training, know your rights training, and making the all-important decision on whether to accept a high-degree of risk with our action, or stick to the lower risk pool. At Al-Tawaniyyeh, we met up with activists from some of our partner organizations (All That’s Left, Combatants for Peace, Popular Resistance of the South Hebron Hills, Holy Land Trust, Youth Against Settlements), and went to sleep on the roofs of a partner’s house (yes, he has two roofs on the two different sections of his house). Friday morning, after assembly-lining stacks of pita/humus/pickle/tomato sandwiches (the first of many assembly lines…) we hiked about half an hour to Sarura, the home of our Sumud Freedom Camp, where we waited for the remaining CJNVers, plus another 150 activists who would join our work camp on Friday. Our mission: to return Fadul ‘Arad to his home, a former resident of Sarura to his home, using thru model of Standing Rock camp, where activists from all over the world can stand in solidarity with Sarura.
A few words about Sarura: In 1997-1998, the residents of Sarura were evicted from their homes and their homes demolished as collective punishment for the murder of an Israeli settler. There is no evidence that the residents of Sarura, nor the other villages that were also demolished had anything to do with the murder. Sarura’s residents are allowed to return to their homes… but every time that they try, they face settler harassment. Under Israeli military law, of a settler and a Palestinian get into an altercation, the army may arrest the Palestinian but not the settler. Thus, if a settler shows up on Palestinian land, the Palestinian has no recourse—if the settler attacks her, and the Palestinian defends herself, the army will arrest the Palestinian. The civilian police rarely show up if called, and they’re unwilling to take action against a settler in a settler/Palestinian dispute. Even light settler harassment (like just showing up) is very dangerous for Palestinians.
About five years ago, firing zone 918 was established adjacent to Sarura’s lands, but no one seems to know the boundary of the firing zone. Chavat Maon is between half a kilometer and a kilometer away from Sakura, so it seems implausible that the village of Sarura is within the firing zone, but not the settlement, but no one actually seems to know.
As soon as we arrived at camp, we set up our banner, and got to work clearing rocks and thistle from what would be our sleeping location—the large foundation of a demolished home. I connected with Anna, my friend from Laos who sat down next to me at a storytelling performance, and met her husband. Later, while we were clearing rocks, assembly line style, from some of the caves where future families would live, a Regavim drone flew overhead, taking our pictures. This was not the only settler harassment that we faced that day—just before Shabbat three settlers drove up on two motorcycles and an ATV, and the ATV drove around some of our flags that we left on an adjacent hillside. Later, we passed concrete assembly line style from a truck to Fadul’s cave, where the non-shomer Shabbat contingent of the delegation laid the concrete on Saturday.
On Shabbat morning, Fadul sat with us during our discussion of Parashat Bihar, and of the mitzvah of Yovel, and the restrictions on oppressing someone who has a shared relationship to the land. I’ll be honest, usually Parashat Behar passes me by as being about mitzvot around land that bear no relationship to mitzvot that I actually observe. Not this year.
For the rest of Shabbat, I napped, schmoozed, ate, and sang Seudah Shlishit songs. Just before Havdalah, my friend Nina led us in some stretching, that all of us fruity American Jews were totally into. The Palestinians behind us… not so much. They were cracking up at a bunch of Westerners all blindly following a leader in strange motions.
Saturday night… still trying to find the right words. We had a barbecue dinner, danced debka, and were screening a documentary about Combatants for Peace. I had napped a lot over Shabbat, and signed up for a 4-6 AM watch shift. To watch for the soldiers and settlers that we feared would attack us. I head to bed early. Before I could fall asleep, I heard “everybody up! They’re here!” I woke up the former SNCC organizer lying next to me, and ran out of the tent. I could see the military amassing, their headlights blazing. I gathered with my pod. We had prepared for this scenario. But from that point on, everything is a blur. I remember linking arms with the people next to me and singing as the army stole our generator, at which point we had no light. As they ripped up the tents we had erected, and tore down the signs we had drawn. At one point a soldier shoved me to the side as he ran past. I forgot to scream. Later I learned that several of us ran into our giant community tent, and sat down in it, literally holding up the tent as the soldiers tore it down around us. Soldiers bent back fingers and elbows, and jabbed torsos and legs with blunt objects. I stood outside, singing and chanting, and asking the soldiers questions, while they destroyed our work of the previous two days.
The soldiers were there for about an hour. At no point did they produce an order to destroy our tents, or steal our generator. After they left, we slept outside, unprotected from the wind. I did my 4-6 AM watch shift. Then, we carried our supplies over to Fadul’s cave, and rebuilt our Sumud Freedom Camp outside. And now, for the first time in 20 years, Fadul and his family can sleep in his cave.
The camp is still under threat, with soldiers and settlers regularly scoping it out. Our fear is that the violence will be worse next time, if there are fewer internationals and Israelis.
On Monday night I went to a friend’s wedding. It was joyous, she looked beautiful, it was so good to see her family, and I danced all night. But every time that I looked at my forearms and saw the henna designs that Danya from Susya had drawn, I couldn’t help but feel sad. Susya was scheduled for demolition the following day.