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April 6, 2012

Activist Sightseeing in Israel and the West Bank

Reuel S. Amdur

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Sean Neil-Barron is a student in conflict studies at St. Paul University. His next goal is to study for the ministry. A couple summers ago he joined with a group from Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) on a trip to Israel and the West Bank to learn about conditions.

“Israel is actively pushing Palestinians out of East Jerusalem,” he said.  He gave Sheikh Jarrah, a village just outside the Old City, as an example.  Barron focused specifically on the situation of the “present absentees”. 

Yes, you read that correctly, “present absentees.”  This is the label given to people who left their home during Israel’s war of independence to another location within Israel, for whatever reason and however briefly. Some fled and others were expelled.  They became present absentees and the Israeli government was able to deprive them of their property. Some had ownership documents dating back to the time of the Ottoman Empire.  In a particularly strange case, one former member of the Knesset, Tewfik Tubi, was a present absentee, present even in the Knesset!

Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Sheikh Jarrah could receive notice, telling them that they would be evicted, perhaps that their house would be demolished.  Alternatively, they might wake up in the middle of the night and hear a bulldozer, giving them a matter of minutes to leave.  Then they would be billed for the demolition.

There are regular protests against the expulsions and demolitions, largely by left-wing Israelis and a group known as Women in Black.  The visiting Canadians took part in the protest.  According to Barron, “The settlers are trying to encircle Jerusalem.” 

Barron spoke of another section of Jerusalem, Sliwan, where there is an ongoing house-to-house takeover.  At the same time, there is archeological activity, as a result of which some houses are crumbling.  The archeological undertaking is supposed to be to locate King David’s village.  Other archeologists say that the site has nothing to do with King David, and people have argued that the dig is just another tool to drive the Palestinians out.

In the West Bank they visited Abu Dis, inside Palestinian territory but nevertheless divided in two by the separation wall.  While Israel has as right to build a wall on the 1967 border, in fact it is built in Palestinian territory, illegally according to the International Court of Justice.  The most fertile Abu Dis land and most of the water is on the Israeli side, occupied by settlers.  There are half a million settlers in the West Bank.

He spoke of roads in the West Bank.  Some are for Israeli citizens and others for West Bank Palestinians. You don’t have to ask which are in good condition and which are not.  If the Israeli road cuts a Palestinian farmer’s land, he cannot go over the road to work the land on the other side.  He must go around to a gate to get through, and the gate is not always open.

The IJV group visited Hebron, guided by Breaking the Silence, a group of former military who describe what they did to the Palestinians.  They used to conduct night raids, slamming doors and invading homes.  They made themselves at home and made tea, for example, just to disrupt their lives. 

Christian Peacemakers were accompanying Hebron Palestinian children to school because the children were being stoned and jeered at.  In some of the residences, Israelis lived on upper storey’s, with the Palestinians at ground level.  The Palestinians had to raise wire netting to catch debris showered down on them.  Barron found the Hebron situation to be a clear case of Apartheid.

The IJV group also took part in a weekly demonstration in Bil’in.  The wall took in a large part of the land of the village.  Israel’s Supreme Court ordered the wall to be moved to give some of it back, but two years later it remained unchanged, so locals took to holding demonstrations at the wall after Friday prayers in the mosque.  Barron reported that Israeli troops responded with tear gas.  The canisters caused fires in the olive groves as they struck. Since that time, the wall was finally moved.

“The settlers poison wells and burn olive trees.  I was impressed,” he said, “by the amount of restraint exhibited by the Palestinians.”

Barron declared that “an ethnic state cannot be a democracy.”  For him the notion of a Jewish and democratic state is an oxymoron.

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