Our Way to Fight: Israeli and Palestinian Activists for Peaceby Michael Riordon
The news coming out of the Israel-Palestine conflict remains grim. The region remains a symbol of instability fueled by violence and hatred.
In Our Way to Fight, journalist and author Michael Riordon offers a different perspective, exploring the conflict through local Israeli and/i>
The news coming out of the Israel-Palestine conflict remains grim. The region remains a symbol of instability fueled by violence and hatred.
In Our Way to Fight, journalist and author Michael Riordon offers a different perspective, exploring the conflict through local Israeli and Palestinian peace activists who break all stereotypes. Riordon travels to thousand-year-old olive groves, besieged villages, refugee camps, checkpoints, and barracks, talking with people on both sides of the Wall who fight violence and war through creative resistance. He uncovers the crises that stirred them to act, the risks they face in working for peace, and the small victories that sustain them.
In the face of deepening conflict, Our Way to Fight is a portrait of courageous grassroots action that provides hope for a livable future and inspiration to peace activists in all nations.
"A book like a pocket lamp that contests darkness: the darkness fabricated by those who have promoted a global blindness concerning what has happened in Palestine and Israel during the last sixty years. The battery of this remarkable lamp is true observation, and with it you discover exemplary courage in the most unexpected places. Pocket it!" --John Berger, author of Ways of Seeing and About Looking
“Riordon’s portraits reveal what it means to be a courageous person, a seeker of truth. This is a vital intervention for all who care about peace and justice.” --Neve Gordon, author of Israel's Occupation
"Riordon offers an important corrective to the standard tale of an intractable conflict." --Publishers Weekly, starred review
"An important asset for those with advanced knowledge of Israel's apartheid. It adds clarity and most importantly--humanity--to such a complex situation in which the repressors portray themselves and even see themselves as the victims, that is valuable for even the most experienced activist." --Shir Hever, author of The Political Economy of Israel's Occupation
"Sensitive interviewing and careful attention to detail." —IllumeMagazine.com
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Our Way to Fight
Israeli and Palestinian Activists for Peace
By Michael Riordon
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2011 Michael Riordon
All rights reserved.
A Day in the Country
From Jerusalem the train winds slowly north through the olive and cypress-pillared Soreq River valley, dust-dry in late summer. The track follows a late nineteenth-century Ottoman route, one of countless marks left by earlier empires on this land.
Facing me sit two soldiers in olive green. With buds in ears, he nods to music in his head; she dozes behind high-fashion sunglasses. Across the aisle, three soldiers play cards, sleeves rolled neatly to the elbow. All have assault rifles propped beside them or nestled in laps.
We pass a hillside village, children in dark blue uniforms walking to school; a sand quarry, orchards, towns, a forest of construction cranes, crimson bougainvillea spilling over a wall, one gaunt cow grazing in a field of rubble.
The train terminates at Tel Aviv, Israel's metropolis. In the Central Station hall, more soldiers sprawl among their packs. Outside, the city quavers under a blanket of humid heat. Through ranks of buses I see an older-model green Volkswagen Passat, a woman waving, short grey hair – this would be Dorothy Naor.
Introductions done, I launch into small talk about the weather, a Canadian habit. But Dorothy interrupts, "I want to get on the road right away. We have a long day ahead of us." She doesn't seem so much rude as driven.
She lives up the Mediterranean coast in Herzliya, named for Theodor Herzl, a revered founder of Zionism. Dorothy was born in San Francisco in 1932. At 18 she flew to the new state of Israel, then only two years old, for a Zionist leadership training course. "Like many of us who grew up during the Holocaust, I was convinced that the only place where Jews could be safe would be in a country of our own. And now suddenly here it was! Of course I was quickly enamoured with lots of Israelis I met, including the one I married." They met at university in California.
With help from a Hungarian uncle, Eric Naor had slipped out of Austria at age ten with an older brother, after the Nazi coup in 1938. They made their way to Palestine, then under British rule. Of their immediate family, Eric and his brother were the only survivors; the others died in concentration camps.
After fighting in the 1948 war of independence, and proudly taking the name of his new country, Israel Naor went to California to study water engineering. There he met Dorothy, working on a PhD in English. They married in 1952, and four years later they emigrated, or made aliyah – Hebrew for "ascending" – to the promised land.
"I thought it would be the perfect place to raise our kids," says Dorothy, "a place of our own where Jewish customs, holidays and culture would be the norm." Working for an Israeli engineering company, Israel Naor specialized in international waterworks, dams and canals. Dorothy raised the kids, completed her PhD at Tel Aviv University, and taught English in several countries where they went for Israel's work.
East of Tel Aviv the air clears visibly, as if the windshield had been washed. Under a cloudless sky, the land here looks hard and white, scraped bare.
THE GREEN LINE
"Now pay attention here," Dorothy says with pointed emphasis – I can hear the teacher. "We've just crossed the so-called Green Line. That means we have left Israel and are now in the Palestinian territories. But do you see any sign to that effect, 'Welcome to the West Bank?' Of course not, the Israeli government would never allow it. This is psychological expansion. We're meant to regard all of this land as part of Israel."
The "Green Line" refers to the truce line between Israel and its older neighbours – Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria – after the 1948 war. It left the new state with almost 80 per cent of the land that had constituted the British colony of Palestine.
As Israel expands, the Green Line has become little more than a historical footnote, a myth. Dorothy tells me that Israel is the only country in the world that refuses to define its borders.
We're flying east on newly built Road 5, wide and smooth. It links Tel Aviv to massive Israeli settlements deep in the northern West Bank. "This used to be Palestinian farmland," my guide explains, "but hardly any of the colonists are farmers. They all work in the city – morning and afternoon you'll see long lines of commuters on this road. Not only are we stealing the land, we're also urbanizing it, the way we've done with so much of Israel."
Why does she say "colonists" instead of the usual "settlers"? "I prefer to call them what they are", Dorothy replies crisply. "The distortion of words is another form of occupation, one that should offend anyone who cares about language. 'Settlement' sounds much nicer, especially to Americans who did exactly the same thing. But when you occupy other people's land and build towns on it, that's a colony."
I watch her as she drives, face set, a little fierce, but with enough laugh lines to imply the delight she takes in her eight grandchildren. She wears sturdy sandals, jeans and a white shirt, long-sleeved for modesty because we'll be visiting Palestinians during Ramadan, the holiest time of the year. To respect our hosts who will be fasting dawn to dusk, we won't eat or drink.
Dorothy makes this journey often, either to educate foreigners like me or to transport Palestinians from the West Bank, often children with serious illness, to hospital in Israel. I suspect this formidable grandmother would not be easy for young Israeli soldiers to turn back at the checkpoints.
How did she first encounter Palestinians? "For many years I never met any. We weren't supposed to, you know, except maybe the occasional gardener. Of course there were things that bothered me, but with the kids, the PTA [Parent-Teacher Association], teaching and everything, who had time to ask questions?"
What things bothered her? "Oh, lots of things, things you have to work harder each time to ignore. Probably the first big shock I couldn't ignore was when Goldstein murdered all those people in the mosque." On 25 February 1994, American-Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein entered a mosque in the West Bank city of Hebron, in army uniform and carrying an assault rifle. Unimpeded by Israeli soldiers on duty there, he opened fire on the worshippers, killing 29–52 (Israeli and Palestinian sources differ on the count), and wounding more than 100, before survivors beat him to death.
Dorothy says, "What disturbed me almost as much as the massacre was the fact that, instead of removing the colonists from Kiryat Arba, Rabin locked up the Palestinians." On orders from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, the army imposed a two-week curfew, 24 hours a day, on the 120,000 Palestinian residents of Hebron. Caught outside their homes they could be shot on sight. The 400 Jewish residents of Kiryat Arba remained free to move about at will. "Sadly, the injustice of that wouldn't surprise me now," says Dorothy, "but at the time it shocked me deeply. It's like being rudely awakened from a long sleep."
The next shock hit Dorothy and Israel – her husband and the country – in autumn 2000, when the second intifada erupted. Intifada translates as "awakening", or "shaking off". Essentially an uprising after four decades of military occupation, it spread quickly from East Jerusalem to Palestinian towns and villages across the West Bank and inside Israel. In October, during protests in northern Israel, 13 Palestinians – or Arab-Israelis as they are called here – were shot by Israeli police.
"For me this was a turning point", says Dorothy. "Until then, as far as we knew the police had never used live ammunition against Israeli citizens. I became obsessed, as did many of us – how did we come to this, what are we doing? I started searching, looking at the early Zionist works, the congresses, the history of Palestine, the UN partition. Did you know that the Jewish population, despite being less than a third of the total in 1947 and very few of them farmers, were given more than half the land by the UN, including the best farmland and nearly all the seafront? Just like that. The Palestinians, most of them farmers, got the leftovers. How could such a thing happen?"
We pass the Rosh Ha'ayin industrial zone, built on land that belonged to the village of Kafr Qassem, which figures in the story of the first Palestinian we'll meet today. Hani Amer's grandfather farmed there until 1948, when advancing Israeli forces killed him as he fled with his family. For ten years Hani's grandmother and her children lived as refugees under the trees by Mas'ha village, until they were able to build a house.
We turn off the multi-lane highway onto a narrower road, pitted and cracked. "Welcome to the West Bank", says Dorothy. "When you're barely surviving, road maintenance isn't a high priority."
With Israel's web of high-speed roads, everything seems next door; my friends in Jerusalem say it's five hours' drive, top to bottom. But here in the West Bank, geography is trumped by the dictates of the occupation. Though we are almost within shouting distance of Mas'ha, we will have to twist and bump through a tangle of small roads to get there.
After their rude awakening in the second intifada, Dorothy and her husband began to join protests against the occupation, in Israel and the West Bank. Now they would stand beside Palestinians, facing Israeli soldiers and border police. The stark boundaries, us versus them, began to blur.
In 2002, a series of Palestinian suicide bomber attacks within Israel were followed by a full-scale Israeli invasion and re-occupation of the West Bank. In the belligerent atmosphere of the time, Jewish protesters were denounced in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, as traitors and self-hating Jews. For Dorothy this was a time of deep questions. "At each step you have to decide, are you going to be intimidated, back down, keep quiet? It's tempting. But by then it felt as if we knew too much." A moment later she adds, with a sideways glance and a trace of smile, "In case you haven't noticed, Israelis aren't famous for backing down."
Early in 2003, she joined protesters in the village of Mas'ha. In February, military officers had notified villagers that the "Separation Fence" would soon arrive. Construction on the gigantic project had begun the year before. According to location and topography, its form varies from multiple layers of wire fence with electronic monitors and patrol roads to concrete slabs six to eight metres high. Supporters call it the security fence, and say it's designed to protect Israel from Palestinian terrorism. Opponents call it the segregation or apartheid wall, and say it's designed to imprison Palestinians in ghettos, to steal more of their remaining land, and to fragment Palestine, destroying any chance for a viable state. In 2004, the International Court of Justice declared that the barrier violates international law.
Dorothy has no illusions about it. "They say it's for security – nonsense. There are ways to get around it. For every Palestinian they catch in a spot-check on the road, there are hundreds who get into Israel without permits. Obviously they're not terrorists, they're desperate for work. A Palestinian friend said there are two types of force: one is the use of weapons, the other is the use of hunger. If you read first-hand accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto, it was the same thing, people would climb the wall – they were so hungry, they were willing to risk their lives. If you have seven or eight mouths to feed, you'll do whatever you have to."
As the wall cut deep into Palestinian territory to embrace the growing Israeli settlements, almost every village along the way has resisted its advance. In Mas'ha, resistance took the form of a tent camp in the path of the wall. Villagers were joined by supporters from abroad and from within Israel, including Dorothy. "In Mas'ha they've lost 92 per cent of their land, mostly olive groves, pretty much their only source of income. The villagers were told they'd be given permits to go to their groves. Bullshit. It never happened anywhere else, and it never happened here."
HOME IS PRISON
We arrive at the modest home that Hani Amer built for his family in 1972. Over it looms the wall and a mesh fence capped with razor wire. The only access to the house is through a narrow locked gate; there is no space for garden or yard.
Construction began on the nearby Elkana settlement in the early 1980s. Soon it began to swallow Mas'ha village land. Still, Hani, his wife Munira and their four children built a plant nursery behind the house, growing olive and citrus saplings, grapevines, flowers and decorative trees for sale. Elkana continued to press closer.
In 2003, military officers arrived with two choices: hand over the house for demolition – they offered a token payment – or it would be cut off from Mas'ha by the advancing fence. The Amers refused to sell, refused to move. They had learned a fundamental lesson of modern Palestinian history: if you leave your land, you will never get it back. Now they would learn what happens if you don't.
Soldiers destroyed the plant nursery. When the Amers bought a small poultry farm in a neighbouring village, soldiers prevented him from getting there until he was forced to sell it. They also demolished the Amers' own chicken coop and goat shed. Settlers stoned their house, destroyed solar panels and water tanks, and stoned the children. Now Hani works a farm that should be ten minutes' drive from here, but due to military checkpoints it can take two hours.
All these assaults occurred before the wall was built. "Through all of it I never heard Hani cry, not once," says Dorothy. "But then one day he called me in tears, he said they're going to build the fence. It nearly finished him. But he goes on – what else can he do?"
She points at a car-sized boulder that juts through the wire fence. "You can see places where Palestinians have broken through. They keep trying, but the army comes and repairs it, or they block it with huge boulders like that. In Israel we have no money for Holocaust survivors, one in three children is hungry, but there is never a shortage of funds for the occupation."
Just before we leave, Dorothy mentions that Munira Amer is probably in the house right now. "She hardly ever leaves it, fearing that if she does, the colonists will come and take it."
To meet Hani where he farms, we pass through the checkpoint, unhindered. Dorothy says the soldiers don't like it when Israelis are friendly with Palestinians, but usually they don't harass Israeli cars, identifiable by their yellow licence plates. We drive down a cratered dirt road to a pile of rubble that the soldiers have bulldozed into a roadblock. A year later, this rough obstacle hardens into a guard tower.
We clamber over the barrier, continue on foot, then climb onto the roof of a small outbuilding surrounded by olive trees. At midday the air is still and baking hot. A sparse woody vine offers thin but welcome shade. Among the silver-grey olive leaves I see the precious fruit, still green but tinged with blue, a month before harvest. Then Hani arrives in a rusty Toyota that's burning oil.
He's broad and sturdy, walks heavily, supported by a stick. Black hair under a white cotton cap, moustache on a sun-browned face deeply etched by weather and history. Hard hands, a gentle grip. We set out three plastic chairs on the roof. Dorothy asks for an update on his attempts to get fuel for the diesel pump that draws water from his well. She explains, "There is no electricity here. Hani has been trying to get it for ten years now, he paid thousands of shekels to have the lines put in, but the army won't allow it. You see, there are many ways to choke people."
Hani replies in Hebrew, which he learned to negotiate with the occupier. Dorothy translates. "The fuel is available in Nablus, but to get it both the driver and the car need permits. I got both permits from the military adminstration, then they told me the driver needs a second permit to deliver here. I requested it a week ago. They said it would definitely be ready by Wednesday. Definitely", she repeats, with a short sardonic laugh. Hani sighs.
I ask how long he has farmed. "All my life," he says, "like my father, my grandfather and before. The Israelis make it harder all the time. I'm only 51, but I've seen more destruction in my lifetime than you would in 1,000 years living somewhere else. The only thing that doesn't change is the olive trees. They are still here, thanks to Allah."
What does he grow? "Olives, figs, apples, grapes, avocados, lemons, clementines, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes." Where does he sell them? "Nablus, Qalqilya. It's hard to get there – you need permits, and sometimes you get them, sometimes you don't, so transport is very expensive. With the fence it's also difficult to get workers for the farm, often they can't get here."
Excerpted from Our Way to Fight by Michael Riordon. Copyright © 2011 Michael Riordon. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
A writer and an award-winning documentary filmmaker, Michael Riordon is the author of An Unauthorized Biography of the World: Oral History on the Front Lines and three other books.
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