Finding 1954 in 2014

In late October 2014, Interfaith Peace-Builders led its third African Heritage Delegation to Palestine. In his first article about the trip, delegation member Dele Balogun described the background to the journey. Here, he describes the delegation's arrival in Israel--and its shock at the dehumanizing conditions that Palestinians face across the region.

Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem (Dele Balogun | SW)Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem (Dele Balogun | SW)

PREPARING FOR entry into Tel Aviv airport in a group with people from various ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds is not like many other ordinary airport experiences. Before boarding your flight, you are aware that this isn't going to be just any educational tour--much less is it like the experience of those who go on the Israeli government's carefully crafted birthright and propaganda trips.

You're going to occupied land to learn from Palestinians firsthand.

For a few in our group, we didn't have to step out of the airport to experience occupation and apartheid. Our delegation's welcome to Israel saw three of our delegates detained, harassed and questioned for up to nine hours. One of the delegates was a Palestinian-American, the next was Iranian-American, and the other was targeted for political reasons.

Israel targets almost all Arabs for humiliating and dehumanizing rounds of questioning and, in some cases, deportation or denial of entry. At the top of their target list are Palestinians, as was true for the only Palestinian-American on our delegation. Hours of questioning about the trip and whether there was a political nature to the visit eventually led to her deportation. As our delegate explained:

By now, it was around midnight or so, but my return flight [that the Israeli authorities booked immediately after the deportation order was issued] wasn't until 7:30 a.m., so two young men escorted me to a van outside and drove me to a dingy nearby detention center. They had me put my bags in a room and then took me to a room that reeked of urine and old sweat, with 10 empty bunk beds. The stained, crumpled sheets upon them revealed that they had all been slept in by who knows how many other people before me. They told me they would get me in the morning when it was time for my flight, and they shut and locked the heavy iron door for the night. I was alone in the room, locked in a cell.

After another, but shorter, humiliating period in the morning, our delegate explained that she "boarded the flight to reverse my journey to complete 48 hours straight of traveling." This was going to be her first visit to her family's homeland. In the end, the only explanation she received for being denied entry was that she, along with the other delegate being deported, was being "taught a lesson."

In fact, there were a few lessons we learned from those deportations.

The main lesson was that in a state that is currently--and for most of the 20th century has been--engaging in ethnic cleansing, Israel not only does not want any Palestinians to visit this "democracy." But it doesn't even want to allow personal communications or small acts of solidarity between the Palestinian diaspora and Palestinians under occupation. Israel is acutely aware of its ethnic cleansing and is genuinely afraid of outside groups, especially the Palestinian diaspora, bearing witness to Israel's regime of oppression, occupation and apartheid.

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SO OUR group began its first full day in Palestine without our now-deported delegation co-leader and with a decision to rename the delegation in her honor.

The Zaynah Hindi African Heritage Delegation consisted of 15 people with a wide range of political experiences. We had some delegates relatively new to learning about the occupation, we had veterans of the Black Power and civil rights movements, as well as the struggle against South African apartheid. And we had student solidarity activists and delegates from different faith traditions. Our mission was to get a firsthand account of the occupation from Palestinian groups and individuals as well as some Israeli groups working to end the occupation.

Occupying and dominating powers, after suppressing and wiping away entire histories and cultures, proceed to tell the story from a set of "facts" that they themselves fabricated in order to maintain their legitimacy. And after these new "facts" have been established and some time passes, these same occupying powers then ask that we absorb these facts "objectively." They demand that we take into account "both sides of the issue."

But we understand, because of the power relation between the oppressor and the oppressed, that the latter will always have their history defined for them. Palestinians, in the midst of a state that exercises control over historical "facts" with the utmost precision, rarely get the chance to tell their story. And so our delegation wanted nothing to do with this false "objectivity."

When darkness had fallen, our bus finally took those of us who hadn't been deported to East Jerusalem, where we would spend most of our nights. Halfway to our destination, the darkness began to be interrupted by the faint silhouettes of rolling hills and increasingly dense street lights illuminating a beautiful landscape and relatively new housing units and neighborhoods.

The Israeli state devotes a large amount of its resources to birthright trips and other carefully crafted tours to present Israel as an oasis of democracy in the Middle East, but as our delegation saw, even briefly straying from the typical destinations of West Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the holy sites reveals the raw wounds of occupation of apartheid.

At times, Israeli tour buses on some roads in West Jerusalem probably made up a quarter of the traffic. But only one main road divides West and East Jerusalem, and the latter is a place where those buses would never be found. In fact, it's likely that those who take these tours will never talk to or see a Palestinian.

This is how it's possible for tourists to Israel to head home insisting that they "never saw any oppression" in Israel. Palestinians were pushed out of West Jerusalem long ago, their homes and neighborhoods long ago demolished and built over so as to cover up any evidence of their existence. In this part of Jerusalem, Palestinians are basically not allowed to live. Instead, they live in a constant state of siege in East Jerusalem.

Israel wields a considerable degree of control over nearly every aspect of Palestinian life, while at same time thoroughly dehumanizing and devaluing that life. One of the first visible signs of this constriction was the sight of black water tanks atop Palestinian housing units. These serve either as a reserve or as the main source of water because of periodic and sometimes months-long municipal water shutoffs to Palestinian homes. Many Palestinian homes have been cut off from the municipal water supply completely.

Freedom of movement for Palestinians is also drastically curtailed. There are entire roads and freeways that they aren't allowed to travel. Daily closures of other roads may further restrict travel for Palestinians. In addition to the massive--and permanent--checkpoint infrastructure, Israeli "security" forces routinely set up up rolling checkpoints around East Jerusalem and the West Bank, further restricting the movement of Palestinians.

One morning during the height of the tension surrounding the forced closure of the Al Aqsa Mosque, Israeli forces had closed an entire strip of the main road in East Jerusalem. As we walked out of our hotel to board our bus, we were immediately stopped at a rolling checkpoint. Palestinians were not allowed out onto the main street. In fact, one member of the Olive Harvest Delegation was immediately stopped at the checkpoint and singled out for being Arab. After having to prove to the barely 20-year-old soldier that he was not Palestinian, he was let through.

The occupation in East Jerusalem gives the city a prison-like atmosphere--except here, the prison guards are the police and military presence almost every few blocks, with automatic weapons always at the ready. The confluence of these and many more elements of the occupation of Palestinian life form the pillars of an overall infrastructure of siege.

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ONE OF the central pillars of this siege infrastructure is the rapid construction and expansion of settlements. All across the West Bank and East Jerusalem, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been uprooted and forcibly displaced from their homes, which are either demolished or converted into settler dwellings.

The sight of settlements is imposing and overwhelming at times across Palestine. Almost everywhere you look, in every direction, cranes and construction equipment are ever-present. This equipment is never dismantled. It is only relocated to the next construction site.

All of the policies that oppress Palestinians are designed to maximize territory for Israeli settlers and force Palestinians into ever-shrinking spaces. For instance, in the city of Jericho in the Jordan Valley, the Palestinian population numbered around 300,000 about 40 years ago. Today, that number stands at 40,000, and the entire area is filled with settlements. What this amounts to is incremental ethnic cleansing, designed to be slow enough to not rouse international attention.

Compounding the situation is how Israel carries out its settlement expansion. Settlements aren't placed just anywhere. Initial settlement sites are strategically chosen in order to economically and materially starve the Palestinians out and force them to move. This is done, for instance, by building settlements on water aquifers and land that Palestinians use to harvest crops.

One of the issues that our delegation grappled with is the viability of a two-state solution. The actions of Israel--such as continued settlement construction, almost-daily home demolitions and all of the mechanisms Israel uses to suppress Palestinian life and struggle--left many of us with the impression that Israel wants nothing to do with even a two-state solution. The only solution they're working toward is complete elimination of the Palestinian population from Israel, from the territories eventually and especially East Jerusalem. Every experience that our delegation had points to this.

Seeing the settlement expansion program firsthand demonstrates the shockingly urgent situation that Palestinians face. As we work for Palestinian liberation in different parts of the world, we must have a sober assessment of the reality that Israel has basically made a two-state solution extremely difficult at this point.

Of course, the two-state solution comes with its own set of problems even without the settlement issue. What would happen to the rights of Palestinians living in a purely Jewish state? Would they be forced to move to the newly created Palestinian state? What about the power relations between both of these states, one of which would have a considerably smaller land area?

It's safe to say that Israel would dominate a future Palestinian state to nearly the same degree that it dominates the Palestinian territories today. Then, add the settlements to the equation. The outcome is a comparatively tiny Palestinian "statelet" with Israeli settlements punching through huge sections of the statelet's territory like holes in Swiss cheese, linked together by a network of roads that Palestinians wouldn't be allowed to travel.

This is not a just solution, but a recipe for disaster for Palestinians.

Coupled with the settlement expansion program is the precarious status of Palestinian residency, especially in East Jerusalem. From the time of the beginning of the residency laws in the late 1960s, the Minister of Interior Affairs, accompanied by Israeli police, would launch midnight raids on Palestinian homes. As one Palestinian put it:

They would come at any hour after midnight, knock on your door and test you. "Are you sleeping in the house? Do you have cheese and salami in the refrigerator? Is your underwear in your closet? Is your bed warm? Is your family here with you?" And if you fail any of these conditions, you will have your residency jeopardized because you have failed to prove that your home is your center of life.

Some may ask how a Palestinian could fail to prove their residency in the city. It's important to understand that life is being made so hard that they prefer sometimes to go outside to Ramallah or Bethlehem to actually have a normal life.

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AS IT continues its program of ethnic cleansing and repression, Israel is aware of the need to crush the will of Palestinians to resist. This is done in a number of extraordinarily dehumanizing ways, and during our visit with activists in the Deheishe refugee camp, we learned the depths Israel will go to dehumanize and devalue Palestinian life.

One such form of dehumanization comes with the holding of a body, sometimes for years after death, in an Israeli prison or detention center. For instance, if a Palestinian is arrested during a protest and sentenced to 10 years in prison, and they were to die while in custody, Israel can and has held the deceased in their custody until the end of the sentence, instead of returning the body to the family.

Our delegation learned that there are at least six residents from the Deheishe refugee camp whose bodies are being held by the Israelis. As one Palestinian put it, "They want us to lose our dignity." As we saw throughout our trip, however, dignity and strength are the last things Palestinians will ever lose.

One of the more encouraging things our delegation experienced in Palestine was this overall culture of resistance. Everywhere you go, whether it's East Jerusalem or elsewhere in the West Bank, there is a sense that the experience of struggle and occupation is what binds them together. Even in Ramallah, the largest city in the West Bank where Palestinians are able to largely escape the brutal occupation of most other places and have a semblance of a normal life and fun, this feeling permeates the air.

Palestinians don't all agree on a set way forward, politically speaking. Politics in Palestine are uneven because of the different experiences of Palestinians in different places, the actions of the Palestinian Authority, and attempts by Israel to foster division.

Nonetheless, what unites them is struggle, and when called upon in joint action, Palestinians do so in impressive fashion. On a few occasions during the height of the tensions surrounding the closing of the mosque, Palestinian shops, schools and other social venues closed for most of a given day. These daylong strikes show the power of Palestinian unity, and they happen much more often than reported.

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OUR DELEGATION came at a time of dramatic and momentous events. The pressure on Israel to come to a negotiated "solution" is mounting, especially in the wake of a particularly vicious episode this past summer of Israel's recurring assaults on Gaza. Their "precision" air strikes and "moral" military left nearly 2,200 Palestinians dead, 70 percent of them civilians.

It appears as though this is causing Israel to act in an even more hurried fashion as far as settlement construction is concerned. After the kidnapping and death of three Israeli teens this past spring, Israel launched a horrendous campaign of terror, arresting thousands, many of them children.

All of the methods Israel uses to oppress Palestinians were put into overdrive in 2014. During Israel's air strikes and the invasion in Gaza this past summer, the West Bank and East Jerusalem saw waves of Palestinian protest and resistance. The experience of our delegation was conditioned by these events.

The atmosphere in Palestine is that of intense uncertainty, frustration, anger and rebellion. Some Palestinians we met with spoke about the prospects of a new Intifada, and even though there is disagreement as to exactly when the next one might take place, there is agreement that Palestinian life is being so constricted that some sort of a mass reaction is inevitable at some point.

The nature of the occupation makes East Jerusalem a likely flashpoint, however. As one Palestinian woman passionately expressed, "these are the days of the battle of Jerusalem."

One of the lasting impressions during our time in Palestine was that it felt as if we had traveled back in time to America in 1954. Although the U.S. is still a deeply racist society, it has also gone through many significant social struggles that have discarded the most egregious and naked forms of racial discrimination. Israel lacks a history of any such successful movements.

Although Palestinians have a long and proud history of courageous struggles, such as the First and Second Intifadas, these struggles were mostly confined to the West Bank, Gaza and other areas with a concentrated Palestinian population. The non-Palestinian Israeli public has never joined Palestinians in their struggle to overturn the occupation in a significant way, mostly because its citizens not only materially benefit from this occupation, but also because the Israeli working and middle classes were literally created from the foundations of settler-colonialism.

Compounding this is the fact that Israel is also a relatively young settler-colonial power. So the racism and oppression we saw there is raw and virtually under no pressure from the Israeli public to yield in any way. Even the seasoned activists among us were taken aback by the fact that such open discrimination is taking place in the 21st century, completely unchecked and unhinged.

Palestinians should serve as a beacon of strength for all oppressed peoples around the world. Besides being startled by the level of oppression we saw, we were also amazed at the level of strength the Palestinian people displayed. Palestinians will find a way to resist--and to mold that resistance in proportion to the oppression and the form such oppression takes--in creative ways.

With all of the stories of horror and terror that Palestinians live through on a daily basis, most of us agreed that Palestine will someday be free, because as long as Palestinians exist, they will never stop resisting. The power structures in the U.S. know this, they know it in Egypt, in Israel, and every other oppressive power understands that a complete Palestinian victory will threaten to break apart the foundations of imperialist projects the world over.