by Joseph Dana
Beit Jala is a small city outside of Jerusalem. The wall that Israel is building in order to expropriate land and create a physical barrier between Israeli and Palestinian society is being built through the middle of this city. Palestinians have decided to begin a series of weekly demonstrations against the construction. The demonstrations are usually composed of Palestinians, international activists and a handful of Israelis. In the middle of last week’s protest, baking in the summer heat, I wondered how helpful the international activists were. Instead of maintaining a low profile and letting the Palestinians demonstrate, the internationals were at the front of the protest yelling slurs at the Israeli troops in the city. The Palestinian right to protest, resist and demonstrate is real, yet I am curious about the outcome when internationals to engage in the same actions, with their own style and individual behaviors. Israelis that want to assist and take on a supportive role often do so at the directive of the Palestinians. The Anarchists against the Wall are the most profound example of this movement in Israel. Are international activists who travel to Israel for short amounts of time part of the protest movement in Palestine? It is one thing to support a protest movement and another thing to join a protest movement.
It is wonderful to see an international effort to assist Palestinians in their struggle, however, the question remains: how can internationals help in the most effective way? Westerners have an incredible privilege in this conflict with their access to foreign press, social media networks and ability to travel throughout Israel and Palestine. Documenting events seems to be the clearest path of using this privilege in an effective way since the internet has opened a space of fast communication from the front lines. Rather than getting arrested in a small village, it may be that documenting and disseminating events from that village will provide more positive results. An arrest in Beit Jala or Bil’in is an event that often goes unnoticed by the Israeli and International media and only serves to reinforce negative images of the Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement in the West Bank. These actions can increase the damaging mechanism against the Palestinian population and the architecture of the occupation. Arrests of Israelis tend to carry more influence in the Israeli press than those of internationals.
The Palestinians are happy to welcome internationals to the front lines of their protests. I asked a number of Palestinians in Beit Jala what they felt about the international involvement in their struggle and they presented me with different responses. Generally, they were very happy to welcome foreigners to their villages and places of resistance. They welcome the kind of international media coverage that videos on YouTube can generate. On the other hand, they were unsure about the lasting effect that internationals can have in this conflict. Abu Nidal, a Palestinian who might lose a large amount of land and olive groves to the wall in Al Walleja, argued that the protests in his village served to ‘blow off steam’ from the relentless life of occupation. He did not want to dismiss the international participation in the protest movement, but he maintained a pessimistic view of the future. The general response was one of indifference towards internationals, suggesting that there may be a large gap between the ‘help’ that internationals are providing in their minds and the reality on the ground.
Through my own experiences I have realized that many international activists are often not interested in the stories of Israeli activists who are engaged in the protest movement. What does it mean to travel to a foreign land in order to assist a resistance movement? If in the middle of an action, cars full of citizens of the country that we were resisting show up in order to join the struggle, would I ask them about their story, their involvement in the protest, their opinion about the occupation?
One cannot dismiss the passion that internationals bring with their opposition to the Israeli occupation. On the day that I was in Beit Jala, a 65 year old Irish activist collapsed from heat stroke and tear gas inhalation while filming the hours long protest. After a stop in the hospital in Beit Jala, he was back on the front lines filming everything again. Everyone can assist in some way throughout this process, but it will also be helpful to continue looking at our own actions in a critical way.
A clip from the June 20 Beit Jala protest filmed by the Irish activist mentioned above:
Joseph Dana is an American-Israeli freelance journalist, photographer and videographer based in Tel Aviv. He is active in covering Israeli involvement with Palestinian nonviolent resistance movements in the West Bank. His work has been published in Haaretz, Mondoweiss and Global Voices.