Sometimes I’m reminded of my early beginnings in this conflict, when a dear friend sends me an email.–Lilly
Breaking down barriers in the South Hebron Hills by Michael Omer-Man*
West Bank/Jaffa – On an otherwise serene Saturday morning in late March, in the southern Hebron Hills, over 30 activists – mostly Jews – non-violently confronted a platoon of Israeli soldiers guarding the hilltop settlement of Ma’on. In an act of solidarity and civil disobedience protesting discriminatory policies often used to deny Palestinians access to their lands, 16 members of the group were arrested by the army.
Calmly speaking through a megaphone as the activists were being led away, one young member of the group, a former soldier herself, challenged the soldiers to “think about the different sets of laws that Palestinians and settlers live under the next time they swear [their oath] to protect Israeli democracy.”
Many Israelis – 62 per cent – think that Israel should do more to achieve peace, according to a Brookings [Institution] poll from late last year, and a majority back a two-state solution. Yet, very few Jewish Israelis have
witnessed first-hand the day-to-day realities of Palestinian life in the West Bank.While masses are disturbed by scenes on television and newspaper reports of Palestinian suffering under military occupation, only a small number interact and form relationships with Palestinians, a necessary element for achieving lasting peaceful coexistence.
Several small groups of Jewish Israelis take time from their lives to forge relationships with Palestinians and join them in struggling to end the more tangible aspects of their day-to-day hardship. These groups do not seek to advance a political solution but simply work to improve individual lives and protest against injustice. In doing so, they simultaneously break down artificial national and racial barriers.
Ta’ayush (Arabic for living together) is one such group carrying out grassroots actions in the West Bank. Its members – Jewish Israelis and Arabs – have worked fields, helped dig wells and repair damage caused by the army and extremist settlers, and subjected themselves to violence and arrest alongside the Palestinian residents of the southern Hebron Hills for over a decade.
Using their hands as well as their privileged status, which among other things allows them freedom of movement in the West Bank, the Jewish members of the group persistently attempt to prevent, mitigate and reverse the harm caused by land theft, violence and the military presence that enables it.
Embracing ideals of equality, empathy, friendship, cooperation and coexistence, these small numbers of Israeli activists – together with the Palestinians that they work closely and form relationships with – break down barriers that not only prevent the two groups from reaching peace but also prevent individual members of their societies from living their daily lives in peace.
The actions undertaken by Ta’ayush and similar direct action cooperation-based groups, like Rabbis for Human Rights, are not a substitute for a peace process or a political solution to the conflict that for decades has caused both Israelis and Palestinians enormous suffering. They do, however, serve as an important foundation for building coexistence and a spirit of cooperation in two societies that all too often see their fates through a zero-sum lens.
In close coordination with Palestinians, with whom meaningful relationships have been forged over the years, Ta’ayush activists go wherever their assistance is needed in different parts of the West Bank several times a week.
On a recent Saturday, a Ta’ayush contingent hiked through the rocky arid hills of the southern West Bank to evade military checkpoints. The day’s mission was to sit in solidarity with a Palestinian family, offering them whatever protection their presence could provide. Two weeks before, a member of the family had been stabbed. On another occasion when this reporter accompanied Ta’ayush, its activists escorted Palestinian shepherds to protect them from the violent attacks they regularly endure. Other times, the group joins local Palestinian farmers in preparing fields for planting and helping restore water cisterns that have been destroyed by extremist settlers.
Groups like Ta’ayush and their members provide a glimmer of hope for coexistence in a place where the majority’s desire to live in peace with one’s neighbours rarely exhibits itself beyond political discussions in cafes or the occasional political rally. They also exhibit the need for coexistence and to work for the common good irrespective of the need to achieve political peace.
* Michael Omer-Man is a writer living in Jaffa and has a degree in Conflict Resolution and Middle East Studies from the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 5 April 2011. Copyright permission is granted for publication.