As I prepared for a grueling fact-finding trip to Israel and the Palestinian West Bank (occupied for 46 years), Secretary of State Kerry announced that Israel and the Palestinian Authority had agreed to resume peace talks without preconditions.
On the day my delegation flew to the region, Israel announced that it had approved still more housing for Israeli settlers: "Israel has issued tenders for the construction of nearly 1,200 housing units in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank," reported London's Financial Times, "defying U.S. and Palestinian opposition to expansion of Jewish settlements three days before the scheduled start of peace talks."
It's the same old depressing story, with Israel showing little interest in making peace.
So before I turn to what's surprising and inspiring in the West Bank, let's acknowledge the bad news: Palestinians are slowly being squeezed out of their homes, deprived of their water and centuries-old olive groves, humiliated on a daily basis by Israeli settlers and the Israeli state in a relentless violation of their human rights that gets worse as much of the world looks away. But here's the good news: Across the West Bank, Israel's occupation has given rise in recent years to a nonviolent "popular resistance" movement that should be an inspiration to people across the globe. This unarmed resistance has persisted in the face of Israeli state violence (aided by U.S.-supplied weapons and tear gas), lengthy jail sentences for nonviolent protesters and widespread detention and abuse of children.
It was fitting to return to the U.S. on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington because Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy of militant nonviolence were invoked by Palestinian activists in virtually every village and town I visited as part of the fact-finding delegation.
Like King, leaders of the Palestinian popular resistance -- from intellectuals to grassroots villagers who'd been repeatedly jailed -- spoke to us about universal human rights, about a human family in which all deserve equal rights regardless of religion or nationality. "We are against the occupation, not against the Jews," was the refrain among Palestinian activists. "We have many Jews and Israelis who support us."
It was indeed inspiring to meet several of the brave Israelis who've supported the nonviolent resistance, often putting themselves in the frontline of marches (their jail sentences are tiny compared to what's dished out to Palestinians). They are admittedly a small minority, thoroughly ostracized within Israel -- a society that seems as paranoid and militaristic today as our country during the McCarthyite Fifties.
NABI SALEH: In this village near Ramallah that's being squeezed by settlers, a leader of the local popular resistance waxed poetic about Israelis who've supported their struggle: "After we started the popular resistance in 2009, we saw a different kind of Israeli, our partner. We see them as our cousin -- a different view than the Israeli as soldier shooting at us, or the settler stealing, or the jailer shutting the cell on us." The story of Nabi Saleh was compellingly told in an atypical New York Times Magazine article by Ben Ehrenreich, "Is This Where the Third Intifada Will Start?"
"It's not easy to be nonviolent, but no soldier has been killed by a stone," said activist leader Manal Tamimi. "We want to show the world we are not terrorists. On CNN, Fox News, we're just terrorists, suicide bombers. I was in the states; you never hear of settlers attacking Palestinians."
As we were leaving her house, Manal added: "You need to be our messengers because your tax money is killing us. You are our brothers in humanity, but you are part of the killing."
BIL'IN: If you saw the Oscar-nominated documentary "5 Broken Cameras," then you know of the seven-year-long, partly-successful battle by the villagers of Bil'in to drive back Israel's "separation wall" (aka the "Apartheid Wall") -- which was positioned to confiscate nearly 60 percent of their land, separating farmers from their fields and olive trees. It's an inspiring story of courageous nonviolence, with international activists (and Israelis) flocking to Bil'in to support the villagers' resistance.
"Internationals" who live in the West Bank and put their bodies on the line in support of nonviolent Palestinian struggles remind me of the U.S. students and others who "headed south" in the 1960s to support the civil rights movement.
We stayed overnight in the homes of Bil'in residents. Iyad Burnat, the brother of "5 Broken Cameras" director Emad Burnat, talked with us past midnight about the importance of media coverage, international support, and creative, surprise tactics in a successful nonviolent movement (like using their bodies to close an Israeli "settlers-only" road). "In Bil'in we don't use stones. The Israeli soldiers use that -- kids throwing stones -- to attack our people."
Iyad was one of a dozen Palestinians we met who bristled at their lack of mobility now that their communities are ringed by the wall, settlements, checkpoints and Israeli-only highways. "It's easier for me to get to the U.S. or the U.K. than to Jerusalem, 25 kilometers away."
EAST JERUSALEM: One of the most powerful and educational movies on Israel/Palestine is the 25-minute documentary, "My Neighborhood" -- which exposes the Judaization of East Jerusalem by focusing on a Palestinian family facing eviction from their home of 47 years in the middle-class neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. We sat down with the "stars" of the movie, the al-Kurd family, outside the part of the house they still can live in. Absurdly, zealous and aggressive Jewish settlers occupy the front part of the house. As we approached, I caught a glimpse of the settlers behind their Israeli flag. (Watch the movie here.)
Middle-aged mom Maysa al-Kurd and her 94-year-old mother told us they've lived in their East Jerusalem house since 1956, having been forced to flee Haifa during the 1948 "War of Independence." Settlers are now using intimidation in hope of forcing them to flee again. With half a home, the al-Kurd family is luckier than dozens of others in Sheikh Jarrah who've been driven out of the neighborhood completely. (Many Palestinians are refugees two or three times over.)
With the help of Israeli and international activists, the al-Kurd family has fought for years to live in peace and dignity in what's left of their house. If you watch "My Neighborhood," you'll see grandson Mohammed, then in the 7th-grade, announcing that he wants to be a lawyer or journalist battling for human rights when he grows up. Two years later, he holds to that dream.
Maysa al-Kurd asked us to tell her family's story to President Obama -- and, if we can't reach him, to tell their story in social media. She wants to ask Obama "if it would be acceptable to him if his own kids were harassed in their home; if not acceptable for his kids, then he shouldn't be silent" when Palestinian children are suffering.
HEBRON HILLS: Near the end of our tour of the West Bank, we visited the beleaguered but unbowed village of Al Tuwani in the South Hebron hills, where expansion-minded ("God gave us this land") Israelis in nearby settlements have terrorized the village and sabotaged their fields and water. For "lack of a building permit," Israeli soldiers demolished their village school and mosque. It struck me that being Palestinian in some of these remote locations was akin to being black in rural Mississippi in the 1950s, facing continuous intimidation from lawless Klansmen (like these armed and sometimes-masked settlers) backed up by state power. But Al Tuwani has resisted -- with women taking new roles in the economic sustenance of the village, with young Italian solidarity activists (Operation Dove) accompanying the men into the field as a " protective presence" and videotaping any confrontations, and with Israeli human rights lawyers defending their right to rebuild their community.
A woman leader in the village, like so many Palestinians, begged us to return home to contest media portrayals of Palestinians as terrorists: "You've seen the true Palestine, not what you see in news media ... Tell the world the truth." - - -
While it was inspiring to see nonviolent "popular resistance" groups persisting across the West Bank, I felt ashamed and angry as a Jew to hear Palestinians document the relentless drive by the "Jewish State" to Judaize East Jerusalem and intimidate and humiliate West Bankers into leaving their cities, towns and villages. Everywhere we went, we heard complaints about day-to-day hardship -- checkpoints, Jewish-only highways, blocked Palestinian roads and how drives to work or school or neighbors that once took 15 minutes now take several hours.
Seeing these "facts on the ground," I kept asking myself NOT "Why have many Palestinians turned to violence and terrorism?" -- but rather, "Why so few?"
I'm not the first or only one to think that thought. In a moment of candor in 1998, hawkish Israeli politician Ehud Barak admitted to Haaretz reporter Gideon Levy: "If I were a young Palestinian of the right age, I'd eventually join one of the terrorist organizations." (Barak wasn't punished for his candor -- Israelis elected him prime minister a year later.)
As hard as we tried, it was difficult to find a single Palestinian (or Israeli peace and justice activist) with much hope for the Kerry-led peace process; they fear that talks will again be a pretext for continued Israeli expansion into Palestinian land. We were repeatedly reminded that at the beginning of the Oslo "peace process" in 1993, there were about 260,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- and that number increased to 365,000 by the time Oslo fell apart seven years later. Today, there are well over 525,000 settlers.
Everywhere you travel in the West Bank, you can see Palestinian villages on hillsides or in valleys -- and newer, gleaming Israeli settlements on the hilltops above, startlingly green thanks to abundant, diverted water. During the Oslo talks, then-Israeli foreign minister Ariel Sharon was quoted as telling a rightwing party to "run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements."
Many in the nonviolent Palestinian resistance also have little faith in the Palestinian Authority -- seen variously as weak, corrupt, "an Authority with no authority," and a junior partner in administering the occupation. "We want a third Intifada, the Palestinian Authority wants to prevent it," an activist told us. Their faith is in spreading the grassroots resistance within Palestine, and gaining international support. We were told over and over: Without outside pressure on Israel, there will be no end to the occupation and no justice. Which is why every Palestinian nonviolent activist urged us to support the boycott of Israel aimed at ending the occupation -- and they emphasized that boycotting is a supremely nonviolent tactic.
All drew parallels to the successful, international boycott that forced South Africa's apartheid regime to the bargaining table. And some mentioned another success -- the boycott of Montgomery buses led by Martin Luther King. * * * Jeff Cohen toured Israel/Palestine as part of a delegation sponsored by Interfaith Peace-Builders and the American Friends Service Committee, but the views expressed here are his alone. He heads the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, where he is an associate professor of journalism. He launched the media watch group FAIR in 1986, and cofounded the online activism group RootsAction.org in 2011.