Israel has expropriated a natural spring in the occupied West Bank village of al-Walaja, making off-limits a site long used by Palestinian residents for picnicking and swimming.
I have only been to al-Walaja twice. On the first occasion, in 2006, I was a volunteer with the YMCA of Palestine, helping to harvest olives from fields that al-Walaja’s Palestinian farmers could no longer access without threat of arrest or worse due to their proximity to Israeli settlements.
On that occasion two soldiers from the Israeli army turned up. They were pleasant; they seemed amused at our presence – eccentric foreigner “do-gooders” come to help the undeserving. They stayed but 20 minutes and left with a smile and a laugh.
A week later the fields we had harvested were declared a “closed military zone” by arbitrary edict of the occupation. No one, except those who could obtain an authorized military permit, could now access them.
Effectively, the farmer we had helped with the harvest had his lands seized because we had helped him. The unofficial policy of keeping him off his lands was formalized into an official policy of keeping him off his lands.
Peaceful protest met with violence
The second occasion I was in al-Walaja had a similar outcome. In 2009, I, with other volunteers, attended a lone farmer’s protest at the checkpoint on the nearby bypass road built for the use of Israeli settlers. We, as internationals, were only there to observe, not participate.
The protest consisted of a Palestinian farmer whose lands were on the other side of the bypass road and who thus could no longer access them; three other Palestinians from the village, and maybe 10 Israelis from Anarchists Against the Wall.
It was a Friday afternoon and for 10 minutes this group stood alongside Highway 60 holding baskets of olives and grapes, a Palestinian flag and a couple of protest signs.
The vast majority of motorists – Israelis heading home for Shabbat – ignored them, or gazed at them as one would an unpleasant looking insect: harmless but unsavory.
The Israeli army, young conscripts mostly, stood amidst the protest, almost doubling its size. They lacked orders and peace reigned. Then the Israeli Border Police turned up.
The Palestinian farmer was brutally and without warning beaten unconscious; the lead protesters from Anarchists Against the Wall arrested. And now lying prone on the ground the police sought to carry off the farmer.
As a group we internationals protested. Some shielding the farmer, others remonstrating with the officer. Cameras recording, the police hesitated; a Red Crescent ambulance arrived. Against police wishes, the farmer – still unconscious – was hastily got into the back of it. And me too.
I went unwillingly – no hero me – pressed into it by the urgency of a plea from an accompanying Palestinian that some “international” must go too or the army would simply pull the farmer from the vehicle at the next checkpoint.
We sped off. We did not go far. Perhaps half a mile up the road and round a bend a group of Palestinian men from the village waved us down. The doors were flung open and the prone farmer removed; lifted on the shoulders of his fellow villagers he was carried off across the fields. I can still view them now running and stumbling over the uneven ground. And then I was alone.
I was shocked – violence, especially unprovoked, gratuitous and sadistic violence always does that to me. A passing Palestinian woman asked me in perfect English what had happened. I told her – she shrugged and continued on her way. What was shocking to me, was normal to her.
Later I heard the farmer had been taken to hospital by his friends – a little concussion and a broken collarbone the sole consequences of his daring to highlight the loss of his lands.
A Palestinian friend thanked me for what I did. Six months in prison, he suggested, was the likely outcome the farmer had faced – and yet I did nothing but be there. I was only a witness.
And yet to witness a crime; to feel the sorrow and shock of it; to feel the shame of culpable injustice – maybe that is something. Maybe it is not. Maybe it is just to be present in Palestine.
Richard Irvine teaches the Israel-Palestine Conflict at Queen’s University Belfast, has taught in UNRWA schools in Lebanon, and has participated in activism in Palestine. He was formerly Education Officer with the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign.