How community-based media sparked international activism for Palestinian water rights

Activism
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Here in Boston, we are celebrating the tenth season of the Boston Palestine Film Festival. Watching films that inform, delight, and inspire, we feel proud of and grateful for this local resource. Even seeing the ads for the festival on the T (our mass transit system) feels transformative. This is also a time to celebrate Palestinian community-based media, which make up a part of each year’s festival. Community-based media does not just provide a different perspective from the “mainstream” or “corporate” media—though certainly does that. It can also be a means to linking grassroots voices with grassroots action.

What can community-based media do? A lot, it turns out, when it sparks international research and activism, and when a local organization backs up a video with local resources, creativity, and old-fashioned organizing. (Full disclosure: I’ve been peripherally involved as a facilitator of many of the initiatives described below, and I’m a scholar of media with my eye out for a good story about community-based media.)

In early 2011, Mohammad Al-Azza, director of the Lajee Center Media Unit, was asked to make a video about Aida that would represent his community to the world, potentially in film festivals. Aida Refugee Camp, established in 1951, is home to about 6,000 Palestinian refugees on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It is surrounded on two sides by the separation wall, and an Israeli military base looms over it. Unemployment levels are high. Yet, for this particular video, Al-Azza decided to focus on something less obvious: the water crisis that hits Aida every summer. There have been times when water does not flow through the pipes for sixty days. People store water on rooftop tanks—but it inevitably runs out. This may not be the first problem outsiders notice when they visit Aida Refugee Camp. But as Al-Azza’s documentary, Everyday Nakba, so aptly shows, the water shortages mean that people cannot do their laundry, wash their dishes, or give adequate water to plants or rooftop rabbit hutches. A shower too often feels like a luxury.

And all of this, as Everyday Nakba also makes clear, is not a result of the environment or an accident of negligent policy. Highlighting the political analysis of Aida’s residents, Al-Azza shows that this water crisis is part of the ongoing “Nakba”—part of the catastrophic process of dispossessing Palestinians that catalyzed in 1948. Israelis use the vast majority of water available from the West Bank, leaving little for Palestinian use. The documentary screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and at the Boston Palestine Film Festival, among other locations. Director Al-Azza hoped from the beginning that the documentary would mobilize action: “I wanted the documentary to describe life in the camp and Palestine in general. But also, the goal was to inspire people and organizations to work on these issues.” The video has done just this.

When engineers at Tufts University in Massachusetts saw the documentary, they were motivated to take a group of students to Aida Refugee Camp to examine the effects of water shortages on water quality in the spring of 2012. In Aida, these young scientists and policy experts were welcomed with enthusiasm: Rarely do people come to the camp to talk about water filters and bacteria. Since then, four teams of students from the Tufts program Water: Systems, Science & Society (WSSS) have gone to Aida. They have established a water-testing program in Aida as well as in nearby Al-Azza Refugee Camp and Al-Walaja village.

The documentary also attracted the attention of Boston-based philanthropists Andrew and Gina Caligiuri Kurban, founders of 1for3.org. They were motivated to envision even larger scale fixes to the water crisis. Following the lead of Everyday Nakba, they also saw the water crisis as a component of larger humanitarian and environmental crises. As Gina Caligiuri Kurban said, “We have seen many environmentally based films, but Everyday Nakba reached us on a different level. It was filmed, edited, and directed by someone living it. That made a difference to us and ultimately caused us to change our focus from African villages to refugee camps in Palestine. We have not looked back. Our support now includes the Lajee Media Unit because we see the value and impact a community-based program provides.” To date, 1for3.org has built six rooftop gardens that have provided a source of nutrition and also of personal fulfillment to families in the camp. They have also built a cistern that has increased the capacity of Lajee Center to serve the community and that serves as a model for how to creatively deal with water shortages. 1for3.org and the Tufts students helped to start a new Environment Unit at Lajee Center, through which middle school children learn basic science and see its hands-on applications in agriculture.

The documentary also attracted the attention of the Alliance for Water Justice in Palestine. Since 2013, they have successfully advocated to stop a partnership around water between the state of Massachusetts and Israel, educated state senators about Israel’s exploitative water policies in an effort to prevent senators from going on junkets there, and advocated successfully (for now) against anti-BDS legislation. The documentary was an early source of education for members of the coalition.

The partnership with Lajee Center has enriched their activism as well. In the summer of 2014, youth at Lajee wrote public letters to the governor of Massachusetts, then Deval Patrick, asking him to halt the partnership with Israel. As Sarah, a young refugee originally from the village of Beit Jibreen, wrote “All what we need is some equality in distributing the water that Israel controls. Instead of stealing our water and giving it to Jewish settlements and leaving almost nothing for us in the summer, Israeli settlements should be removed and we should control our own water. I know that Israel with a full support from the US will keep stealing our water and land, but that doesn’t mean we should keep quiet and you should support these violations of human rights by coming here to collaborate with Israel on water technology.”

According to Alliance for Water Justice member Nancy Murray, both the video and the letters were important tools in the campaign against the Israel-Massachusetts Water Partnership. “Hearing directly from young Palestinians about the impact on their lives of Israel’s discriminatory water practices gave the campaign real traction,” she said. “Their stories of being without water for sometimes weeks at a time while nearby settlements kept their swimming pools full got the message across to people in a way a presentation of facts and statistics could not have done.”

This organizing is the result of so many people’s energy and dedication and of a shared vision for justice that stretches from Palestine to Boston and beyond. Still, this story is also evidence that a video—especially one created in a community-based organization that knows how to do a lot with a little—can inspire and inform activism. What are the next steps? Director Al-Azza suggests an even bigger cistern that would serve all of Aida’s community members. Activists are also doing their best—through media and through face-to-face solidarity work—to draw connections between environmental justice in Palestine and in Standing Rock in the United States. In any case, media will be a key tool in education and advocacy for these efforts.

About Amahl A. Bishara

Amahl A. Bishara is an associate professor of anthropology at Tufts University. She is the author of Back Stories: U.S. News Production and Palestinian Politics (Stanford University Press, 2013), and the co-director of the documentaries Degrees of Incarceration (2010) and Take My Pictures For Me (2016).

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One Response

  1. Annie Robbins
    October 28, 2016, 3:08 pm

    this is a fantastic documentary. we featured it here a few years ago in an article called “Targeting talent”: http://mondoweiss.net/2013/04/targeting-talent/

    i’ve watched it at least 30 times, i love it. thank you so much Amahl. btw, are you by chance the daughter of Ghassan and June Bishara?

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