Going to Palestine regularly, I’ve seen the landscape change, and with each trip, the shifts are depressingly obvious. Every year there is another line of catalog-style settlement buildings spilled over the hills, another patch of land cleared, another road widened and another row of olive trees cut, all to accommodate the needs of a fast commute and what is called the “natural growth” of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Traveling to the region for over a decade with the International Women’s Peace Service (the only all-female, all-volunteer activist organization peacefully supporting Palestinian resistance to the occupation), I have seen this process over and over again.
We always go to the same rural area in the Salfit region in the central West Bank, year after year. Our Palestinian neighbors and contacts on these trips have become to us, the IWPS long-term volunteers, a second family. Thanks to technology, we are in touch daily and have constant updates. Though our lives are very different, they have become intertwined and for me, now inseparable. Children that used to follow us with big smiles shouting “Sourini! Sourini,” which means Take a picture of me in Arabic, are now adults who study and work, and some even have their own families. Some have sadly died.
Some, like the Haris Boys, five of the sweetest boys who all lived and played near where IWPS was staying in the village of Haris, are serving 15 years in an Israeli prison. They are victims of the occupation’s rough justice, doling out hefty sentences almost randomly in this instance.
We in IWPS also strive to be a constant in their lives, which like them, will never move on and give up, until Palestine is free.
Like other international activists in Palestine, such as the International Solidarity Movement or the UK Friends of Madama and Burin, at IWPS we know that our main role in the struggle for Palestine is to break what is a de facto information embargo on the reality in Palestine.
IWPS women come from many countries all over the world. The great majority of us, who at some point volunteered in Palestine, stay in touch with our Palestinian friends and with each other, doing what we can to spread their stories and solidarity.
When on the ground IWPS teams post daily on our social media and through our wide networks, but our real work begins when we return to our countries, where we post stories, write articles, and hold talks.
This year the coronavirus caused us to cancel our in-person event in March, “Reporting Back from Olive Harvest 2019.” The plan was for my activist friend Jim Cohen and me to tell our neighbors what we saw. Jim picked olives with the UK Friends of Madama and Burin and was one of a dozen Palestinian and international harvesters injured by fanatical settlers from Yitzhar who were kept safe by Israeli soldiers during the assault. Thanks to another skilled and determined activist friend, Caroline Barton, we managed to pack my two-months-long olive harvest in 2019 in a 12-minute video. Jim’s video is in its final stages and when it is finished, we hope to share it as widely as possible.
Nowadays, our trips are for shorter and shorter periods of time, because Israel has all but sealed the borders of occupied Palestine to international activists. We want to be there, to see it for ourselves and to share what we witness to the world.
Understandably, Israel would rather carry out its horrendous endeavors without witnesses. Israel’s rich and powerful friends, such as the U.S., EU and UK, pay lip service to international law and nowadays, even less than lip service. Shamefully, mainstream media falls into line, wiping out and fogging the issues. A common narrative is that there is a conflict “from time immemorial,” which is to be resolved by negotiations. Yet all the while a slow annexation in the West Bank is well underway.
Visiting Palestine is essential for understanding what is happening there. No amount of reading prepared me for what I saw during my first visit in 2009. A friend of mine called going to Palestine an epiphany, a moment of great realization, which shattered their beliefs about Israel as a socialist paradise struggling to survive in a hostile environment.
When I arrived last year, gazing out the window of the service from Ramallah, I hardly recognized the area around the villages of Bruqin, Kuf ad-Dik and Haris, even though I have picked olives there so many times. The illegal settlements used to be somewhere over the horizon. Now they stretch down to the road. The massive Barkan Industrial Zone near the Ariel settlement expanded so much that it made the whole area unrecognizable.
Close by, the Israeli military had extended a hold over swaths of land belonging to Palestinians from Deir Istiya village. The owners of the land found out about it from newspapers. It was a grim reminder of what would await next time I come to Palestine.
None of this goes unnoticed or is accepted by the Palestinians. After all these years, no Palestinian I have ever met said, “Well this is how things are and we can do nothing about it.”
Our amazing friends and role models go to courts, cling on to their title deeds, protest, continue picking olives in the areas where there is so much settler and military violence that only heroes would venture there.
Not an inch of Palestine is given without a struggle.