Discovering the Truth in Palestine

Revolutionary Worker #1226, January 25, 2004, posted at

Phil O. is a 21-year-old college student in a major U.S. city. He grew up, he says, thinking that Israel was a righteous country. "I learned about the ancient Israelites and how they'd been enslaved in Egypt, and then of course the holocaust, when the Nazis tried to wipe them out--all I thought or learned was in terms of Jews being persecuted. I just didn't think they could be in the wrong at all, based on what they had gone through."

In fact Phil wasn't really thinking about the broader world, he says, until 9/11. But then, "I started to wonder, why would something like this happen? But I didn't really start to become political until the buildup to the war against Iraq. When I became part of the antiwar movement, people started to challenge me about Israel, and I had to look into it."

So last summer, along with several other students, Phil traveled to Palestine--to the West Bank, the occupied territories.

" Occupation ," Phil says, "was just a word to me. It meant nothing. I had no idea how it doesn't just affect particular people, it affects every single person inside Palestine. They can't just do the normal everyday things, like going to school, or visiting someone in the next village. I think one of the most graphic pictures of this was in a video I saw before I went--a woman talks about how she was forced to give birth at an Israeli checkpoint. Hundreds and hundreds of people were waiting, and the Palestinians were entreating the soldiers to let her pass. The soldiers didn't, and after a couple hours she had the baby. I guess they were never allowed to pass, and they had to go back and find a route through the mountains to get to the hospital. And the baby ended up dying. That really got to me. I didn't think people could be so cold.

"Before I went I was still very unclear as to where I stood. But I think that's what made me want to go--because I have a huge problem, especially growing up in America, believing what people tell me. You know, hearing one thing from the press every day, and then something completely different from the people I was coming around, the antiwar movement. I just had to go there and see for myself before I could take my stand on the matter."

After his return to the U.S., Phil talked to an RW correspondent about what he saw and learned in the West Bank.

The Apartheid Wall at Qalqilia

Q: I understand that one thing you wanted to investigate is the wall that Israel is building--the apartheid wall, it's been called--that intrudes far into the West Bank.

A: Yes. In fact, one of the first places we tried to go was Qalqilia, which is on the edge of Israel, on the "green line"--which is where they have the wall that encloses it. They really have been wanting internationals [activists from various countries around the world who come to Palestine to stand with the Palestinian people-- RW ] to get to Qalqilia, because of all the attention that the wall is starting to get. But the Israelis shut it down completely. The only way you can get in or out is through a checkpoint, and right outside is a big military base which the wall comes all the way up to. And if you look on the right side, you can see the complete loop that the wall makes. It's a huge circle that you're there at the small opening of.

We got to that checkpoint, and it was open. But just then one of the Israeli army commanders got a call saying it was supposed to be closed. So it was open for about 15 minutes, and right then they closed it. People were shocked, because they separated the men and women into two lines, and they were letting each in at different times. One man I talked to, he didn't know what to do--his wife had just got let through the checkpoint when they closed it down. So he was stuck on the other side, not knowing when he would be able to be reunited with his wife. He pleaded with the soldiers, but they didn't even listen. When a Palestinian would talk to them, they would just say, "Get back, get back, don't even talk to us," and point their guns at them if they start saying too much. He waited there for a few hours, at least, while I was still there. What was he supposed to do? He needed to get to his wife.

We waited there with all the people--a couple hundred people, families, some women with their babies crying, people trying to get through, get to their homes. Even if you lived there, they weren't letting you pass. It was a hundred degrees out that day. No water, no bathroom for miles, no shade. They had one little place where people are supposed to wait that provided some shade, but you couldn't even fit 20 people under there.

Then the day after that we tried to go to Jayous and Azzun Atma, which are two villages that are also affected by the wall because they're right outside Qalqilia. But the entryway into these villages, which is right off the main highway, was blocked off by huge mounds of rubble and debris. You have to get out of a taxi on one side and climb over and get a taxi on the other side.

So we went there and started talking, and met one man who invited us to his home and wanted to tell us about his family and how they'd been affected by the wall. I think he raised olives--he had an olive-oil business. But he was no longer able to get to his land because the wall cut him off from basically all of it. There are little gates in the wall, but the nearest one is miles away, and he would have to go there and probably wait for hours--there was no way he could actually work or farm that land. The big thing is that all their water--all the wells--are on the other side of the wall.

We asked how the Israelis had confiscated their land. They said that right before they started bulldozing, they drove around among these villages along the path of the wall. They threw thousands of flyers along the streets saying that the people had to get off their land, or they were going to be removed or arrested--hand-written flyers that they had photocopied. A week later the machines came in, and they were bulldozing their olive trees and so forth, making room for the wall and also roads for the settlers that go along the wall.

Q: So the wall has a road alongside it?

A: Yeah, on the outside of the wall, for the Israeli settlers or the army. It's mainly used by the army--they just drive along it and patrol it all day.

Q: And there are doors or openings every so often?

A: Yeah, every so many miles or kilometers, there is an opening or gate that they open sometimes. It may be a few hours a day, or it might not open at all during the day, or maybe 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes at night. But for farmers to get to their land, it's only practical if your land is right outside that gate. And even then you usually can't do much, because of how seldom they open the gate.

But in general, about two-thirds of that village had land confiscated by the wall. There was maybe 5% of the people who could still manage to get to their land, but they still couldn't use it in anything like the way they used to.

Q: You talked about going to the man's house in this village, and I know that during your time in Palestine you were invited to many homes. What is that like?

A: The rural Palestinian homes are pretty bare. Only the essentials--they'll have a few pieces of furniture, a table, a carpet. And they'll have a lot of embroidery on the chairs. Whenever you go in, they'll set up a big circle and welcome you. And any home you go in, they'll first bring you tea or coffee, and then fruit--they're just very welcoming. I've never experienced anything like that, just going into a place and being treated so well.

Q: That was the people. How about the Israeli army, what was their attitude?

A: You know, I really got an insight about the soldiers when we were first trying to get to Qalqilia and they told us we couldn't get in. They were very nice to us. We were talking to two or three of them who were talking to us about New York, and one of them had been to Chicago too. They seemed like decent people, they were laughing with us. We weren't really laughing with them, but they were treating us very well, treating us with respect at least. Immediately after we'd been talking to them, they went back to their job. And an old woman tried to pass, tried to talk to them. They began yelling at her, not speaking to her like she was a person, but yelling at her like she was a dog and demanding that she go back and get in line and just get away from them. The complete contrast..

Nablus Under Siege

Q: Where else did you go?

A: A few days later we decided to go to Nablus, which was really closed and under siege at the time. They had demolished a lot of homes, and there was a constant military presence there. We had met a cab driver who said he could get us in the back route, so we went with him up a mountain to a checkpoint that not very many people knew about.

When we entered Nablus, it was like chaos. We drove by a large apartment building, about five stories high, that was in ruins and smoking. I think it had been demolished the day before that. We went into a very cramped home where there was a family of ten people living with another family of ten who had had their home demolished the day before. And we saw where one home had been demolished in this building. We were standing in the rubble where it had been completely destroyed, and the four homes directly around it also had the walls broken in. And you could see a guy cooking on the stove, with the wall completely missing, and rubble in the kitchen so that he could barely walk.

Q: That's an incredible image.

A: Yeah, there's a lot of things I saw there that I'll never be able to get out of my mind.

The Israeli Checkpoint at Jenin

Q: You've already said a few things about them, but the Israeli army checkpoints are such a big part of Palestinian experience under occupation..

A: These checkpoints--some are permanent, like the ones I've talked about, but most are temporarily set up, just with jeeps pulling out into the middle of the street. You never know when or where they might throw one up. They'll set one up where there's a lot of traffic, like maybe between two villages that are right next to each other. All these people are trying to get by, go to work, do whatever they have to do, and they'll put up a checkpoint and just shut them down, basically.

When we were going to Jenin, we came to one in the middle of nowhere. Just this jeep pulled across the road, with three soldiers taking turns--one standing in the middle of the street and the other two sitting in the shade with their hats down, just relaxing. And cars are driving up, stopping, and waiting. An ambulance came up with four doctors. They had to do an operation in Nablus, and the Israelis wouldn't let them go by. The ambulance never got by--while we were there, at least. And these cars with yellow license plates--the Arabs have white license plates, so the yellow means they're Jewish--just fly right by. Sometimes the soldiers would try to stop them, but they would just zoom on by.

Our driver decided to go around the checkpoint. He circled around. It wasn't far really, and the soldiers could have seen us, which makes it clear that these checkpoints aren't for security, really, they're only to disrupt the people's lives. They want the Palestinians to have to spend hours going through the mountains--they'll laugh about it. And even going the longer route, up in the mountains, the army had blocked roads with big mounds of rubble that the bulldozers made, so there were all these bypasses the people had made around them. Every time you think you can go straight, there's another big pile of rubble. So we're going five miles per hour--we only went about three miles in 45 minutes.

Finally we got to a road--more checkpoints, everything closed off, all these children walking to school. This is the first day of school, and I'm sure a lot weren't allowed to get there because of all the checkpoints. I could see no reason, in fact, for all these checkpoints, other than it was the first day of school. There had been no bombing or anything, and we had traveled this route probably ten times before this and had not seen anything like this. They don't want these kids going to school.

Q: So you went to Jenin?

A: Yeah, they were trying to keep everybody out, and it was completely closed down. Anyway, we tried all these different ways. By this point we had picked up this boy who had to get into Jenin to go to the library. He spoke really good English.

There was a tank perched on the side of a hill, and soldiers on top pointing their guns at all the cars as they passed, as if the barrel from the tank weren't enough. By the side of the road was an old building that used to be a community center but had been turned into a military base. The boy was telling us how he used to go there for activities, and now the military took it over and it was the main checkpoint for Jenin. So we got to the checkpoint, and the soldier said no way; you can't get in here. I said we have to, started giving him a story. And he says no, stop talking to me, go, leave!

We went back a ways, and we saw a big van taxi, carrying a bunch of medical supplies that needed to get into Jenin. So he was going to get in whatever way he could. We traveled up these rocky roads--this is where people really do need SUVs. It would look like there was no way to go, and this guy would go through some trees--he was playing some really loud Palestinian music and saying, "You see what it's like to be Palestinian. They try to do this to us, but we are very strong, we still find a way!"

Then we come to a large open field. And this tank is in the field, flying back and forth across the field--a huge tank, trying to prevent cars that were in the woods from getting to the road, going 40mph and chasing away these cars. We try to sneak up--he comes at us--we go back, try again. This goes on for half an hour. Then a car comes from Jenin, and the tank goes up and stops it, and the soldiers are yelling at it to go back. This gives our driver a chance to make a break for it, so we fly over where we'd gone before, huge bumps and everything, flying through the trees, missing trees by inches . And then the tank sees us and another taxi that are trying this and heads straight for us. We fly behind these homes and get a brief cover--the tank right on the other side--come out from behind. And the tank is only about 200 feet away--that's when I thought we were gonna get fired on--everything seemed to kind of freeze for a moment. And suddenly we were down this hill and away from the tank!

In that moment when I thought the tank was going to fire, I physically flinched. I jumped right across the seat away from the tank. Afterwards they were all kidding, making fun of me--but we were all happy and celebrating. It was great!

Making the Connection

Q: Obviously, this summer's experience had a very big influence on you. How would you describe the effects that it had on you and how you feel now about the people of Palestine and their struggle?

A: I do feel I have a real connection with them. I don't want to say that I understand what it's like for them, because they have to live through it in life, and I only went through it for a few weeks. But at first, I didn't think I had any connection with them, except that I'd read some things and learned something about the situation, and I wanted them to be free. But after going through all these things, I feel much closer to the people. When you're waiting at a checkpoint, all the people are pretty united and together--people that may not like each other before are brought together by their common situation and their hatred for the soldiers. When I was waiting with them, they looked at me and us, the Americans in my group, as one of them waiting with them at the checkpoint. It was good to feel that connection with them, as brief as it was.

And now--after I've seen what I have and met the people I did, and seen what they've gone through, and spoke with them and seen how they just want to be free-I feel that I'm responsible to help in whatever way I can. And this doesn't mean just little--I mean, I disagree with people who say that just by doing little things, like if you turn off a light to preserve energy, that if you do that you're doing something. I see actually "doing something" as being out in the streets, and writing, and showing pictures that can really have an impact, and really talking with people and trying to spread the message, outside of just your own life.

Before, I was feeling like I was starting to take a stand on an issue that I didn't feel like I could really understand, so I felt I had to go there so I could get that full perspective. And now--I want to share my experiences with people. I want to tell them what it's like. I consider myself a pretty common, ordinary person, and I think people can listen to me, really listen, because they can see that this could be them.

And now I feel that my goal in life is clear. Right now it's focused on Palestine, but I think I've realized that oppression will not end until--I mean, Israel is not going to stop, and the U.S. is not going to stop--there needs to be a revolution, and there needs to be a worldwide revolution, where all oppressed people, who are the majority in the world, need to link up and really do something. And now I've made this connection with the Palestinians, and they understand that we're sharing the same struggle, even though we're not part of it in the way they are.

Q: Do you mean that we in this country share the same basic struggle?

A: Yeah, because they know that it happens all over. They know that George Bush doesn't represent the people. They know a lot about what goes on in the U.S. They know about Ashcroft and the Patriot Act and all that, and they understand the bias of the press. They know that there are people out there from all over who care and that want them to be free. And that's what gives me the most hope. I know that living in America, and especially as a Jewish-American, I'm responsible if I don't do anything--but I have the power to speak out.

Q: Did you go through changes in how you feel about the U.S., through these experiences?

A: Well (laughs)--I began to hate this country. For two reasons. Because we are the reason the Palestinians are in the situation they're in, because of the billions and billions we've given Israel over the past 50 years. And also I hate it because I hate to see people so clueless as to what's going on over there and only worried about themselves and their own lives, and shopping and buying big cars. Because of their selfishness they're just feeding these big corporations that are linked to the government and have been responsible in a lot of ways for what's going on over there. I just really hate how much people here don't worry about any of this.

You know, I'd really like to leave this country and live in Palestine. But I know, and this is what a bunch of them over there told me, that being in the U.S., we have a lot more power to do something to really change things than I would over there.