This article originally appeared in The Berggruen Institute on Governance and The Huffington Post’s WorldPost during the Gaza conflict of 2014
“He fell in front of my eyes,” Marwan Fararjeh tells me, his voice breaking.
A veteran nonviolent activist and former political prisoner, Marwan is used to witnessing lethal force from the Israeli army. But seeing a defenseless child shot dead inflicts a level of horror too much for almost anyone, even when you have lived and campaigned through two intifadas.
Unlike the victims of the Gaza conflict, whose charred bodies fill the feeds of social media in Western countries, these dead are part of a war you don’t see. Whether it’s anti-Hamas protesters shot in Gaza or Israeli peace activists beaten by right-wing thugs in Tel Aviv, nonviolent protest is a dangerous business in Israel/Palestine. And nowhere is this felt more acutely than in the West Bank.
These dead are part of a war you don’t see.
“Sadly, there are those on both sides who simply don’t want peace,” Sami Awad, a leading Palestinian nonviolent activist and director of the Holy Land Trust peace NGO tells me. “We’ve had people who are part of our nonviolent work, fully committed to nonviolence, [who] have had their homes raided and every piece of furniture turned over or destroyed.”
Sami’s own work has earned him numerous arrests and beatings, not to mention vitriolic attacks in the press — including accusations of Hamas links.
Sitting in his office in an antiquated stone building in Bethlehem, I ask him about these allegations. Unflinching, he tells me: “Some senior members of Hamas came to us and said, ‘we want to know what this nonviolence thing you’re talking about is.’ And we were happy to train them.”
For activists like Sami, a willingness to engage persuasively with hard-liners shows a commitment to real change in the Territories — facing head-on the anger and mistrust that has fermented after such a long and bloody conflict. But such willingness to talk to all parties has made him enemies on both sides of the Green Line.
Israeli peace activist and comrade-in-arms Marcia Kreisel-Schwartz tells me: “For probably the majority of Israelis, (and) for many Palestinians… any cooperation with Israelis — even friendly Israelis — is seen as something that is against the Palestinian interests. (So) people like Sami and the people that he’s working with actually are in some danger, because the extreme right, or the extreme terrorist organizations, they do kill people.”
The night I met her, Marcia had come to the West Bank for a peace conference, the evening’s journey merely the latest in a string of excursions into Palestinian territory since the First Intifada. Excursions that have seen this tiny 76-year-old lady put on an Israeli government watch list, interrogated repeatedly and tear-gassed by the military.
While the world monitors the latest ceasefire anxiously, we don’t talk about the Israeli anti-war activists chased into a Tel Aviv alley and set upon by fascists.
“I know that the world doesn’t know about the Israeli left,” Marcia tells me sadly.
We don’t talk, either, about the latest West Bank marchers killed over the past weekend. Or the 11 year-old Palestinian boy shot dead last Sunday whilst playing outside his house, as advancing Israeli forces pursued protesters.
But we must. Not least because fates like these provide tinder for today’s war in Gaza, as Hamas lobs thousands of ineffective rockets into Israel that serve a symbolic purpose more than anything. The current Gaza conflict has much of its roots in West Bank grievances. Likewise, “we are all Gaza” is a phrase you hear often in the Occupied Territories these days.
For in-the-trenches activists like Marcia and Sami, real, lasting Israel-Palestine peace will be achieved not simply through treaties signed by a few men behind big desks. It will be wrought through popular protest and open, grassroots dialogue between communities. It must come from a cultural shift, in which both sides can be “rehumanized.”
“Every Israeli is afraid,” Marcia tells me. “People are afraid of the Palestinians. They are afraid of war. They are afraid of the hatred. Most of them don’t realize that it’s us that are creating the hatred…I’m trying to figure out ways to bring out the facts of the Occupation into the Israeli consciousness, in a way that it won’t be blocked out and denied.
They are afraid of the hatred. Most of them don’t realise that it’s us that are creating the hatred.
“Politicians have failed us enough times,” Sami insists. “We can develop a movement of resistance from within. We don’t need to wait for anybody. We can mobilize ourselves. We can organize ourselves. We can become proactively engaged in nonviolence.”
But as the body count for protesters continues to rise, the question is: how much longer will raising a voice mean risking a life?
Perhaps the answer lies in a recent statement made by Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East division at Human Rights Watch:
The Israeli military is responsible not only for reckless and unlawful killings in Gaza, but also for unlawfully killing Palestinian protesters in the West Bank. Because of (its) long history of operating with virtual impunity, more unlawful killings are predictable — unless Israel’s allies apply meaningful pressure.
Obama, Cameron, et al, you have your marching orders.