Before leaving the United States for Israel-Palestine on 1 April, I had the privilege of hearing Representative John Lewis, leader of the Black Caucus in the US Congress. During his interview at the Washington Cathedral, which was part of a series of week-long events commemorating Martin Luther King, Congressman Lewis was asked how, in the face of the violence and persecution he suffered during the Civil Rights movement, he was able to practice non-violent resistance. He responded, “For me, non-violence resistance was never a technique I pulled out of my pocket when I needed it. Rather, it is a deeply held belief I have adopted as a way of life.”
During my recent visit to the Israeli-occupied West Bank I thought often of this incredible man who, despite being imprisoned and beaten to within an inch of his life, decided that hatred was too heavy a burden to carry. Visiting the cities in the West Bank under Israeli occupation I see the image of John Lewis everywhere I look. I see him in the Palestinians who are obliged to walk through checkpoints on a daily basis to get to work or school, in those same individuals who are forbidden access to Israeli-only highways because they are not Israeli citizens, and those who are separated from their family by a Separation Barrier and have now to drive several hours over tortuous, unpaved roads to visit them. I see John Lewis in every Palestinian who has been thrown off his land, had his house demolished and his three-hundred year old olive trees uprooted to make room for illegal Israeli settlements. I see him, too, in the faces of the Palestinian people who maintain their dignity, their humanity and most importantly their sense of humor in the face of daily humiliations.
When I recently went through the Qalandia checkpoint, at the entrance to Jerusalem from Ramallah, I encountered an angry Israeli soldier. When she demanded my papers in the harshest manner possible and refused to understand that it was the metal in my knees that made the alarm go off, my first instinct was to respond to her crassness by screaming back at her. I quickly realized that those Palestinians around me simply shrugged off such treatment. Outside the checkpoint terminal I asked one woman how she managed to stay so calm. “It is very simple,” she replied. “No matter how badly the Israeli soldiers treat us they will never be able to defeat us. Knowing that gives me my strength.”
The West Bank is fragmented by checkpoints, settler-only roads, closed military zones and Israeli-declared “nature reserves.” The road barriers come in many forms — barbed wire, metal fences, cement blocks, dirt mounds, trenches and permanent border crossings or terminals like Qalandia around every Palestinian city. The one at Qalandia actually says “Welcome to Israel,” as though it was an international border. Such obstructions and limitations place some 40 percent of the West Bank off limits to the Palestinians living there. In real terms this actually means 40 percent of the 22 percent of the West Bank, the portion of historic Palestine Yasser Arafat agreed to settle for when he signed off on the Oslo Accords, leaving the West Bank completely fragmented and disjointed and Arab East Jerusalem totally surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements.
Tenders for new housing units in these settlements are approved by the Israeli government on a daily basis while Palestinian-owned buildings in East Jerusalem, even if they have been owned for generations, are under demolition orders. According to Jeff Halper, Director of ICAHD, the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, 22,000 homes in East Jerusalem have demolition orders. The director of Sabeel, a Christian Ecumenical Center in East Jerusalem, told me that the Israeli government no longer issues visas for their clergy to enter Israel. This has lead to a critical shortage of priests in an already under-served Christian community. Palestinian universities are unable to hire faculty because Israeli authorities refuse foreign faculty work permits. If visas are issued they are only good for three months at which time the faculty member must leave Israel, re-apply outside all the while unsure if a re-entry visa will be given.
In the face of such challenges I am humbled in the realization that I have much to learn about patience, fortitude and hope if ever I aspire to walk on the path of non-violent resistance with the likes of John Lewis and the Palestinian people, both of whom understood long ago that hatred was too heavy a burden to carry through life.
Cathy Sultan is the author of Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War, Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with Both Sides and Tragedy in South Lebanon: The Israeli-Palestinian War of 2006. She can be reached at cgsultan A T charter D O T net.