There is a Palestinian village in the West Bank called Bil’in. Several years ago, the barrier built by Israel to separate itself from Palestinians illegally encroached onto land belonging to the people of Bil’in, cutting them off from their land and livelihoods. Soon, villagers began weekly nonviolent demonstrations against the barrier to voice their objections to the barrier and the occupation that gave birth to it. The story of Bil’in is powerfully told in the Academy Award-nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras.
Nowadays, villagers are often joined in the demonstration by activists from around the world and often by Israeli Jews who go to Bil’in illegally to support Palestinian resistance. I joined the demonstration on two occasions. As we walked together along the dirt and gravel pathway from the village toward the barrier, we crested a small rise. About 200 meters ahead, at the crest of another small hill, arrayed in front of the barrier were several military vehicles and soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). It was difficult to estimate the number of soldiers – perhaps 20-25 – as they wandered among the vehicles and broke off into groups, some taking positions behind trees and rocks on our right flank. The soldiers were in full combat array with helmets, body armor, weapons, and grenades. We wore kufiyahs.
As we crested the hill and became visible to the soldiers, they immediately began shooting canisters of tear gas. We walked on but as the tear gas became more intense, we began to disperse. Some villagers walked on to the line of soldiers, exhorting them to leave and take their barrier with them. Not on these two occasions, but on many over the years, soldiers beat and arrest some demonstrators. If some of the village youth throw stones – as they sometimes will because they are young and desperate for a piece of life – the soldiers may switch to live ammunition and shoot to kill. A recent regulation now makes this longstanding practice legal, even though it was never prosecuted anyway.
This militarized response to resistance from the people of Bil’in is replicated nearly every day throughout the West Bank and Jerusalem against people who have been labeled as enemy but are in fact neighbors on the land.
Americans who neither know about Bil’in or care about it should nevertheless take note, because police forces around this country have been traveling to Israel to be trained in these very same militarized tactics that have terrorized the people of Bil’in for years. Police forces from Maine to San Diego are among the many clients for Israel’s big business – its highly lucrative business – of weaponizing and militarizing the world.
Those who might see this at first blush as enhancing security and a good thing are missing critical context, for Israel’s advertised expertise is not in security or well-being but in iron-grip, draconian oppression, honed over decades of maintaining an illegal, brutal and lethal occupation and dispossession of 12 million Palestinians. Americans will want to pause and carefully reflect about this as they sit in their homes and watch video images of police forces in full-on military mode on the streets of Oakland, Miami, Ferguson, and dozens of other American cities. As an Israeli general once said, “We don’t do Gandhi well.”
Indeed, not. Community law enforcement around the country has been sold a package by Israel that is disguised and attractively re-wrapped as “thwarting terrorism and safeguarding citizens,” but it is in fact a graduate-level course in combatting its own citizenry. Some American police forces look more and more like good stewards of a well-taught process of oppression: identify and categorize Us versus the Other; create barriers, tangible and psychological, between Us and the Other; then objectify, dehumanize, and demonize the Other in order to finally “neutralize” the Other without compunction. How else believe that a 14 year-old poses a threat to armed soldiers? How else remorselessly shoot-to-kill unarmed innocents in the street, then take a victory lap in the press? How else shamelessly create and maintain the open air prison called Gaza?
These are not the lessons for our times. This is not law enforcement; it is enforcement of oppression. This is not security; it is enforcing a barricade against undoing oppression. It is criminalizing communities, where to simply exist is a criminal act. Driving while black. Holding a cell phone while Palestinian.
We are not terrorists and we do not need to be safeguarded against. We are not the enemy. We are neighbors who are concerned about the racism and power inequities we see around us. We are co-workers and in-laws who object to the barriers placed against a justice that was promised in the very first threads that wove the fabric of our nationhood. So we exercise our fully legal right, indeed our responsibility under the founding principles, to nonviolently voice our concerns and our objections, and to take our voices to where we want them to be heard and believe they may have effect.
And, let it be said clearly, nor are police the enemy. The point is, none of us is the enemy; we are not enemies of each other. We stand in line together at the grocery store and sit next to each other at PTA meetings. Let us not allow good intentions to protect and serve be misdirected by venal leaders who are eager to deploy in our streets the same strong-arm tactics of Zionist colonialism exemplified in Bil’in that seeks to enforce exceptionalism, then cynically portray it as self-defense and security. Let us demand that our leaders confront the uncomfortable truth that one of our greatest allies enforces a brutal, violent oppression.
In America’s headlong frenzied dash to find “security” and act out an irrational fear of the Other, egged on by irresponsible voices of power and privilege, too many have failed to see the real threat hiding behind the curtain. Our uncritical enabling and extravagant financial support of Israel’s continuous violation of international law has blackened the soul of our republic and now entered our streets and into our homes to threaten us personally.
Our next choices will create the climate for a generation. As we work our way out of these fraught times, who do we want to lead us and where do we want to go? More thoughts and prayers, more town hall conversations will not work. Palestinian friends will immediately recognize this as “haki fadi”, empty talk. Let us have some truth, let us show some courage and humility, and let us take action to give justice at last to those who were dis-privileged by our past mistakes.
In the end, will we be led by exemplars of violence further into a war against our neighbors, or by prophetic voices of justice toward a citizenship that will finally match our lofty rhetoric?