While I was serving in the South Hebron Hills as an Ecumenical Accompanier for the World Council of Churches, it was our job to be with the Palestinian people and experience their daily life under Occupation. This meant going to checkpoints, villages, schools, and homes, taking reports of human rights abuses, and being in regular contact with representatives of the United Nations, our office, and our own governments.
I recall one evening last month when our team wanted to relax before the 3 am wakeup to go to the checkpoint. So we decided to have a movie night. At the last minute before leaving the USA, I had packed several DVDs from home, so we looked to see what the choices were. At first, we thought we would watch Far and Away, an adventure story about Irish immigrants. But as I watched the trailer, I remembered more of the plot. These immigrants had been forced off their land, and had arrived in America as refugees, only to finally make a better life for themselves by participating in a land rush in the newly opened American West (where the American Indians had lived until recently.) Given the sort of thing we had been dealing with and wanted a break from, this plot did not seem to be a good choice; nor did Dances With Wolves, which I had also brought, and which detailed the removal of the American Indians from that very frontier. We finally settled on a feel-good movie, a love story called August Rush, in which a displaced child finds his way home and reunites two people who had been forced apart.
Today I’ve been thinking about the pervasiveness of this plot line of displacement in our modern entertainments. Why is tragedy entertaining? Maybe it’s the fact that, as Thomas Wolfe taught us, we can’t go home again. Deep down inside, we are all longing for a home we cannot return to; it’s the existential loneliness of the human condition. After all, the immensely popular Fiddler on the Roof carried the same idea. Not only did the people in Anatevka unavoidably have to change as the times changed, but finally, of course, the Jewish residents of Anatevka were driven forever from their homes. It was a tragic moment, complete with a fantastic musical score, reminding us that for centuries the homes of Jewish people were not secure. The show was more than entertainment. It was larger than life. It was a metaphor for human existence.
Now the same story line continues in real life, with the apparent plans for displacement of the Bedouins and Palestinians from Area C in the West Bank. Seen up close and personal, it’s not entertainment — unless you like a horror show. Not a movie or a Broadway musical, this is a real-life repetition of Anatevka, except moreso. Instead of just being driven away, the Bedouins get to watch their homes get leveled by bulldozers first. And in a supremely ironic historic twist, it is the Israeli military doing the displacing, this time around.
Area C is over 60 percent of the West Bank. Under the Oslo Accords, Area C was supposed to be administered by Israel for just a few years, and then was to revert to the Palestinian Authority. But now the area has many Israeli settlements (490,000 settlers at last count in the West Bank, and growing), and there is not the slightest hint that Israel has any intention of allowing the land to return to Palestinian control. In fact, instead the military keeps a very tight hold on the area, bulldozing shut Palestinian roads, bulldozing down Palestinian electric poles and houses, doing random flying checkpoints, and threatening the basic fabric of everyday life for the Palestinians living in the area.
It’s worth taking a moment to recall that according to international law, it is forbidden for an occupying power to move its civilian population onto the occupied land. It is further clearly forbidden for the occupier to remove or displace the local civilian population, unless a temporary evacuation is necessary to protect them.
I got to go to see a demolition in a Bedouin village just outside of Jerusalem one day. The village is called Jaba’. The demolitions were over when we got there. Two homes for people and five homes for sheep had been destroyed. Children milled around anxiously as they replayed in their minds what they had just witnessed. Some of the elders sat silently, staring into space, too traumatized to say much after giving us the facts.
Several more demolitions took place as I was worshipping on Thanksgiving day. My team and I interviewed some of the communities after the fact. In the village of Susiya, a home and an animal shelter were destroyed. In the village of Um Fagara, homes and a mosque, this time, were bulldozed to the ground. Young women who cried out and tried to rescue belongings from their homes were pepper sprayed at close range, arrested and held without representation for a week in a military prison.
In the southeast part of the West Bank, in the desert, the village of Dkaika is a modern-day Anatevka. Situated on land the Israeli government wants, it has a demolition order against nearly every structure, except the Ottoman-era cemetery. (Apparently its more acceptable to stay in Dkaika if you are dead than if you are alive.) The people, however, do not have any intention of leaving. This is the only home they have ever had, the only home they want.
Like Anatevka, it’s no picnic living in Dkaika. It’s off the electric grid, outside cell phone range, and without local water, so the Bedouins have to truck it in for themselves and their livestock. Every day they put some water out for the camels that wander into Dkaika and out again at will, available to carry burdens if the people need them. Maybe they’ll help women carry bundles of thorn bushes for a cooking fire. It’s about as remote an existence as you can possibly imagine in Dkaika, kind of the way North Dakota must have seemed, or Nebraska, or Wyoming, to the land-hungry conquerors from the east. But just like the settling of the American West (where there was already a people on the ground, living a way of life the conquerors did not understand or respect), Jaba’ and Um Fagara and Dkaika and the other villages in Area C have a way of life. The moment you arrive, the teapot goes on the fire, for the people here are renowned for their hospitality. Destroy their home, and they will build a thorn-bush fire and make you tea on the rubble. You are welcome, no matter what. It is the custom of the people of the desert, the legendary Palestinian hospitality.
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In the USA, we profess to believe everyone has a right to these things. Self-determination is the way these rights are described when we speak of groups of people and international law. Does history have to repeat itself over and over and over again? We all know that we can’t go home again. But must we continually create conditions in which our fellow human beings are driven away from their homes because the victor sees their land as more valuable than they are?
What else can we do? Well, we don’t have to be silently complicit. We don’t have to be fatalists. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can imagine being better than this. We can object.
For instance, we can write letters of objection to Defense Minister Ehud Barak and to Quartet representative Tony Blair. We can say that the destruction of Bedouin homes and villages is not in line with our values as members of a humane and democratic society. For Americans: we have a special relationship with the government of Israel. We can demand that international law be respected. We can object to our elected officials (just google them; they are easy to find.). We can say that if we are to continue giving 3 billion dollars a year to Israel, we insist on a standard of human rights in that government’s actions. All of us can boycott products made in illegal Israeli settlements, which steal land and resources from the Palestinian people in the West Bank, and ask retailers not to carry such products. We can become better informed: go to www.eappi.org and read eyewitness reports about what is happening.
And we can go and see. Those of us who are able can go and visit our Bedouin and Palestinian brothers and sisters in Area C. They are very welcoming. Talk with them. Go to their homes. Eat with them. Drink tea with them. Learn about their lives. Bake bread with them. Hold their baby lambs in your arms. Play soccer with their children. I guarantee that if you do these things, you will learn that these people deserve a home just like your own children do.
Or we can tune up the violin and get ready to write a new tragic musical.
Minister of Defence Ehud Barak
Ministry of Defence
37 Kaplan Street, Hakirya
Tel Aviv 61909, Israel
Fax: +972 3 691 6940/ 696 2757
Email: email@example.com (Salutation: Dear Minister)
Quartet Representative to the Middle East
The Office of Tony Blair
P.O. Box 60519
London, W2 7JU
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org (Salutation: Dear Mr Blair)