Eyewitness to Israeli occupation: 'Palestine will be free!'

Graffiti on Israel's Apartheid Wall.
August 8, 2014

Israel's latest military onslaught, Operation Protective Edge, resumed on August 8 with fresh bombings that killed a child and injured 15 other Palestinians, teleSUR's Gaza correspondent Noor Harazeen reported that day.

It came after Israel refused Palestinian demands to lift its crippling siege — an essential move to give the battered Gaza Strip any hope of recovery.

The ruins of Gaza were still smoldering from the weeks-long offensive when Israel resumed its attacks. Nearly 1900 Palestinians had already been killed, with UNICEF estimating at least 73% of the dead were civilians. It said at least 429 of the dead where children — about 30% of the civilian casualties.

About 10,000 Palestinians have been injured and the homes of about 60,000 people destroyed. About a quarter of all of Gaza's 1.8 million people have been displaced by Israel's brutal assault.

The conflict has worsened Israel's isolation internationally, with huge global protests and growing institutional support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against it. At least five Latin American governments have withdrawn their ambassadors in protest — joining Venezuela and Bolivia, who cut all ties in 2009.

Regardless of when the latest round of violence ends, its basic causes — the occupation of Palestinian land, denial of Palestinian rights and Israel's apartheid state structures — all remain.

While Gaza remains under siege, the West Bank remains militarily occupied, with growing numbers of illegal settlements stealing more Palestinian land.

Farrah Agha is a Palestinian-American who has just visited the Occupied Territories. Agha is now in Australia and spoke to Green Left Weekly's Tony Iltis about the trip and the situation in the West Bank.

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How did you end up visiting Palestine and what did you see?

I went on a program called “Know Thy Heritage” which is run by the Holy Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF), an American-Palestinian organisation. Like American kids with Jewish heritage can go on “Birthright” tours, this is like a Palestinian “Birthright”.

The program was made up of Palestinians between the age of 18 and 30 living in the diaspora from lots of different places: a lot of Americans, some Australians, a lot of South Americans, some Central Americans. There were a lot of people from Chile, some from Guatemala and Honduras. For some of us, it was our parents who were born In Palestine, for others it was their great grandparents.

We met in Jordan on June 12 and crossed the border together — I can only imagine crossing it alone! We left Palestine on June 29. We stayed in Bethlehem for the most part and took day trips around the West Bank, Jerusalem and into Israel.

We met with a lot of political figures and youth groups wherever we went and some NGOs. They tried to infuse in us Palestinian culture and teach us about Palestinian politics.

We saw the [Apartheid] wall and the checkpoints. We had to go through them, but we didn't face as much difficulty [as locals]. We were told that people who live in the West Bank and work in Jerusalem have to wake up at 3am and wait there for hours, then go to Jerusalem and come back at night and do the same thing. They might get to sleep for only two hours every night.

I met a girl who did that just to go to school. I complain about my commute — this girl had to sit on a bus for four hours every morning.

There's a lot of difficulties, obviously. Physically it looks like every Arab country I've been to and when you talk to people there, nothing seems amiss to them. This is how it always is. Talking to friends in Bethlehem, it's like “This is completely normal”.

When we were there, the three [teenage Israeli settlers] had already been kidnapped, so at night the IDF was coming in and raiding people's homes and shooting the town up, basically. They raided a refugee camp that we visited a few days later and saw the tear gas canisters on the ground.

But that sort of thing is normal to them. They don't find it odd at all.

Sometimes the settlers' presence is very obvious, sometimes not. I remember at the inn where we stayed in Bethlehem, we would sit on the roof and the view was mostly dark. There were not that many lights — they were scattered. It's not like a Western country.

But there was this one really big cluster of lights. On our first night we didn't know what it was and we all thought it looked beautiful. It was this huge settlement. At night it was very stark, this one bright cluster of lights.

Sometimes, the settlements are very obvious. In Hebron, on this main road, there's an Israeli settlement just above it. There's Arab shopkeepers all along this main road and the Israeli settlers would throw trash down onto people walking. They had to put up netting and if you walk under, you can see the trash thrown onto them.

So sometimes its very stark like that but most of the time you wouldn't notice. They've taken the land over completely and there's things like the wall.

If you look on the other side, you see settlements or whatever and you see settler roads, which are completely isolated. Sometimes the settlement's presence is very stark, but sometimes it's more sinister: they sneak them in and you don't even notice.

The crackdown because of the kidnapping was nothing new to people there, for the most part. In our inn at night, they were locking the doors and putting metal shutters over the windows.

But for Palestinians, that was completely normal. That's not to say they expected it every day, but these sort of events occur very regularly.

We did home-stays on the program we were on, and a few of my friends stayed in a refugee camp — Aida Refugee Camp. That night, the families they were staying with said: “You can't stay tonight because we know there's going to be a raid. We don't want you to be here.”

So they sent them away, but obviously the families had nowhere to go. But for them that's very normal.

Plus, these people live with soldiers constantly around them. Weapons are constantly around them, they're constantly being threatened. So it's not a very big deal to them.

From what I saw, the behaviour of Israeli soldiers really varies. Most of the time, it can be like an everyday exchange, like what you go through at an airport. But it can be much more hostile. There's always a bit of derision.

But no matter what they're saying to you or what tone they speak in, there's a machine gun slung over their chest. And this person, who has no claim to the land, is asking someone to whom the land belongs to: “What are you doing here? Why do you want to go here? Where are you going? Tell us exactly where!” It's ludicrous.

Sometimes there's more extreme situations. For example, on the border. Some of my friends who'd gone previously had been given a very difficult time. Searched aggressively and mistreated — not treated like human beings.

When I went, I was held in this thing like an airport security section where you have to give them your passport before you go to the real windows. I was kept half an hour longer than everyone else — it could have been for various reasons.

While I was standing there, this one Arab woman came out of the security scanners and started screaming: “You don't treat people like humans! I am a human being, I don't deserve to be treated like this! You're monsters!”

She threw her shoes across the ground and this one Israeli woman who was running security started laughing at her and speaking in bad Arabic — very condescendingly, the woman was speaking in English — saying “Go away! Shut up! It's over!”

I don't think that kind of exchange is isolated so most people try to keep to themselves and get through unnoticed.

I met some young people who had almost embraced their situation. Like, “I will be part of this society, no matter what it is. We can live under this occupation.”

But there's a lot of people who are like: “We can fight this. We can reclaim our country, but it's going to be a very slow movement.”

I don't think anyone thinks it's going to happen tomorrow, but there are a lot of people who think it is going to happen and Palestine will be free again. But it's going to be difficult and take a very long time.

Palestinians with Israeli citizenship have equality in a way — they are citizens — but not really. Israel's a racist state and that's apparent wherever you go. It's different in different places.

The way it is in Jerusalem is different to how it is in Haifa, or Jaffa or Acre. Even Palestinians with Israeli citizenship have a lot of difficulty holding onto their land, [and those are] the people who aren't even displaced yet.

For example when I was in Acre, on the Arab side of town there were these big signs on the walls saying “My house is not for sale”. You'd see it on all the walls.

The Israelis had come in and offered people inflated prices for their houses, but all these people had got together and said “No, this is our country”.

But [Palestinians with Israeli citizenship] can't buy land.

A few times we would meet Arabs and they would be trying to say “No, we're not Arabs”.

We got to spray-paint on the [Apartheid] wall. When we were painting on the wall, just outside Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, there were some small kids following us around and they wanted to paint as well. A few people gave them their spray-cans.

There was this gate and these IDF soldiers opened this window and started watching everyone. The soldiers called over one of these children and the boy knew it was not going to be good.

The soldier put the barrel of his gun through the window, pointing it at this little boy who seems between five and 10 … Some of us saw this happening and started taking pictures of it. Then the window closes very abruptly and the gate opens and everyone's freaking out.

But when these two IDF soldiers come out, because they see [foreigners] taking pictures, they pick up the little boy and start trying to play with him.

The wall is definitely very prominent. There's graffiti all over it that is very beautiful. There's graffiti from when the Pope visited recently — I don't know whether the Pope did it.

The wall's such a literal example of what's happening, and it's so ugly too! But that's what's great about it — they can fix their words and their propaganda, but they cannot fix the wall. You look at it and you see the injustice.

We went to Bethlehem University and spoke to some students there. We went to this conference organised by HCF and some people were speaking on education. It's very interesting because people in the West Bank are very well educated for the most part. A lot of people have university degrees. Especially women — women are very well educated. But there's very, very high unemployment.

Israel controls all the industry. They control supplies. Everything that's going in, everything that's going out. So unemployment is very high but people are very well educated. It's a very sticky situation.

What is your view on the situation in Gaza?

Personally, it's very frustrating the way it is presented to the public. You have to understand the history of what's going on.

This is not two equal sides fighting against each other. Palestine is being occupied. In Gaza, they don't have water, or electricity. No one goes in, no one comes out, no supplies go in.

So these people are living locked up on this tiny piece of land. Most of these people have already been displaced. So it's no surprise that they'll be open to any sort of resistance. I think they are very strong people but they are living in desperate conditions.

Israel, however, is this huge force with all this money and weapons and the force of America behind it, so it's certainly not an equal situation. That's obvious by the body count!

What's happening is not war, it's genocide. So you can't make those sort of comments like both sides need to stop. Personally, I think non-violence is probably the best choice but I am not living in Gaza, I don't know the situation. I think they're entitled to be doing whatever they think they should be doing.

It's a very unequal situation, but maybe because of the way the media portrays it, or maybe people have a vested interest to keep believing this lie that is being told, people keep saying both sides should stop. But that's not how it is.

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