The resistance to the Wall I saw in Jayyous was very encouraging and brave, but what I witnessed in Biddu was nothing less than inspiring. On the 7th of January an olive tree planting action was planned. Several ISM activists came to join in the event which was organised by Palestinians from the area and was also attended by other internationals and Israelis, including a group called Rabbis for Human Rights. Popular committees are very actively resisting the Wall in this area, and have had some successes. Mohammed Mansour (a local Palestinian activist whose court hearing I covered in my first report) told me that the reason for this was that they, the Israelis and the internationals had acted together “as one”. He reminded me that “we don’t hate the Israeli people, only the Israeli government”.
Some of us arrived the night before the action and went to a rally for Tayseer Khalid – the leftist DFLP’s candidate for President. His platform was more or less what you might expect – social justice, rights for women, continue the intifada (both peaceful and armed) etc. etc. At the end, he even mentioned Hugo Chavez as a good example of standing up to foreign imperialism. It was an extremely interesting experience – very unlike political rallies in the UK. It was a much freer forum, for a start. Although somewhat stage-managed, the Q&A session at the end was pretty open, with Fatah supporters present being highly critical of what they saw as the contradictions and problems in his platform. Amongst the issues debated was armed struggle, corruption in the Palestinian Authority (and Khalid’s failure to address it while he was part of the PA) and the shortcomings of the Oslo accords. The funniest bit of the night for me was when the orange drink reappeared.
While they were setting up the speaker’s table, his people had brought out bottles of an Israeli orange drink, clearly identified by its Hebrew labels. This was criticised straight away and the bottles were removed – but they reappeared later with the labels removed! That made me laugh, especially when Khalid critisised the PA because it does not do enough to support and encourage local Palestinian goods, importing too much from other countries. Overall, the event stuck me as much more grassroots than other political meetings I have been to here. This popular spirit was evident at the action the next day.
That night we were guests in the house of the local ISM coordinator, who made us feel very welcome. In the morning we were provided with the best breakfast I have eaten for years. Other ISMers visiting from Nablus joined us, and we left together for the local office of the PPP (another leftist political party). It was more like a community centre than a party political office – there is a genuine spirit of cooperation between members and supporters of all the political parties in Biddu. While we were waiting for the bus of people to come from Jerusalem, the local PPP representative told us about efforts to encourage farmers of the region and local produce. The Village Development Society for North-West Jerusalem helps farmers sell their own produce at a loss to the Society. They subsidise land, tree and equipment purchases. This is all funded by international donors, such as the MPA in Norway. The Society distributes trees to farmers according to how much land they cultivate. It also seems that there is some sort of communal ownership of land in the region. Whether this is traditional for the area or a more modern political development, I’m not sure.
The PPP man, the ISM coordinator and other Palestinians there filled us in on the problems there. In that area the problems caused by the wall are not yet as severe as Jayyous because of the successful non-violent resistance there. However, there are still grave problems, with the threat of increased oppression and land confiscation. The Wall is planned there because it is a key strategic area for the Israeli state to grab. Two to two-and-a-half thousand olive trees have been destroyed in that region in order to clear the ground for the Wall. Houses have been demolished, rebuilt and destroyed again. One was rebuilt two times. Almost all of the six or seven thousand villagers here are farmers who depend on the olive trees for income and so have the same dire threat to their very existence hanging over their heads as in Jayyous.
This much has become clear to me: the gradual annexation of land to Israel via the mechanism of the Wall is very much a State project. Extremist Zionist settlers do exist and are a very real threat, but ultimately they are manipulated by the government. Also, they are not the mainstream of settlers. Settlements in the Occupied Territories are a government project. Housing subsidies and lots of other very real government incentives for the poorer classes of Israeli society encourage movement to settlements. A few of the settlers near Biddu have actually supported the people of Biddu in one of their court cases against the wall, saying that they have had no problems from them.
The Wall has nothing to do with security and everything to do with expanding Israel. In Biddu, the site currently being cleared of olive trees and homes is 6 KM away from the nearest settlement. The PPP man himself made the point that if the Wall is really supposed to provide security to settlers, why is it not being built near the settlements? The answer is obvious. The people of the area know from the past experiences of other Palestinians that these plans mean that new settlements will soon be built in the confiscated land. This is not even addressing the issue that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are an illegal act of colonialism (international law forbids an occupying power from moving civilians into the occupied regions).
We went up to the olive grove and saw the destruction there – it had been turned into a construction site. A huge swathe of land had been cleared and plenty of trees removed to make way for the planned Wall. Caterpillar machines were parked in a sort of building site adorned with the Israeli flag and guarded by private security (i.e. mercenaries) who I assume later called the Border Police. A funny moment came when their truck got stuck in the mud and they jokingly tried to convince us to come and help them move it!
The most moving part of the day was when we came across a poor woman who lived right next to the olive groves. Her family had started to build a garden to grow food in the small patch of land near to her daughter’s grave. Israeli soldiers told them that they would have to dismantle it themselves or be charged for the cost of the bulldozer to destroy it. Hearing such a story made me feel pretty helpless in the face of such oppression, so it was good to move on to action right after that.
Palestinians had brought up olive tree saplings from the town and we started to plant them on the land which will become effectively annexed to Israeli should the Wall be built there, which was a very strong statement that the people will not allow their land and livelihood to be aggressively ceased by the state. Eventually we moved onto the path actual cleared on which the Wall will be built and started planting them there too. At this point, the Border Police finally tuned up. They did not start trouble, but restricted the planting from coming too close to the Caterpillar site. We had been doing this for about 2 hours by then anyway, so we after we had planted a few trees in the wake of the destruction, had some short speeches from Palestinians and ISMers and a short prayer from a Rabbi we headed back.