Asher Kirchner / I have seen peace in Israel-Palestine, but apartheid tears us apart

I’m a member of IJV’s national steering committee, and I’m currently in the South Hebron Hills of the occupied West Bank in Palestine. I’m here with Hineinu (Hebrew for ‘here we are’), a project of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, consisting of five American Jewish volunteers, plus me, a Canadian Jew from Edmonton.

We are living in the South Hebron Hills, south of the city of Yatta, from February until May, 2022. This month, we are the guests of two Palestinian families in Tuwani. We escort Palestinian children on their way to and from school, past an outpost of extremist settlers who have attacked them repeatedly over the last twenty years.

We accompany Palestinians shepherds who face intimidation and physical attacks in the field from settlers as well, sometimes with the active or passive assistance of the army. We respond to emergency calls about settler attacks on villages, or home demolitions by the Israeli Civil Administration. We’re here to manifest a Judaism that’s about peace, justice and solidarity, not conquest and oppression of another people. For we were oppressed in the land of Egypt. We work closely with a network of Palestinian and Israeli Jewish activists here.

We’re here as junior partners: this is the Palestinians’ struggle; they understand the situation, and the risks they face, far better than we do. The right-wing media here accuse Jewish activists like us of instigating trouble, as though Palestinians are incapable of organizing on their own. But we don’t tell our partners what to do, nor do we take orders from them: we cooperate. We are here, at their invitation, to amplify their voices, to bear witness to what we see, to co-resist this regime of Jewish supremacy. Some of us are religiously observant, some are more secular. Most of us are in our twenties or early thirties. I’m the outlier, a retired professor, in my early sixties.

In the middle of the night on March 22nd, I witnessed Israeli occupation forces carrying out a violent raid in Tuwani. “Why are you here? There’s no problem here,” I shouted to the soldiers in Hebrew. Their guns were raised, pointed at us. My video camera was pointed at them. Zak, another volunteer on our delegation, began yelling at them, mostly in English, “Lower your weapons. This is a peaceful town. We’re American Jews; we’re guests here. People are trying to sleep, children are trying to sleep, this is their home. How would you feel if an army came marching into your home in the middle of the night, terrifying your children, or your little brothers and sisters?” The soldiers paid no attention to what we were saying. They ordered us, first in Hebrew, then in English, to get out of the street and stop filming them. “Are you declaring this a closed military zone?” we asked, “Show us a valid order.”

They produced no order, and so as I understand it we were under no legal obligation to withdraw. One of the soldiers countered that we were interfering with a military operation. “What operation?” Zak asked. “What’s your purpose here?” No response. The soldiers marched up the street and back down. At one point, they grabbed phones and cameras away from Maya, Zak and me, tackling me to the ground in the process. A soldier struck Zak with a rifle butt, bruising his forearm and leg. But they gave the phones and cameras back a few minutes later. For a moment, we feared they were going to arrest Hamudi, a 17-year-old Palestinian who was standing with us. When they released him, I hugged him and began crying. “Are you OK?” Zak asked me. “I’m fine; I’m crying for Hamudi,” I said, “he has an exam tomorrow morning.” The soldiers marched down the hill further, outside the town’s health clinic. Zak, Maya and I sang Hineh mah tov, from Psalm 133, about how good it is for brothers to dwell together in unity. Perhaps the irony was lost on them. We watched them. They watched us.

Eventually we realized from the sounds of shouting, and messages from Tommy (another Hineinu volunteer) that more was going on further up the hill to the west. A separate group of soldiers entered an activist’s house but he wasn’t at home. They did handcuff another one of our activist partners, and screamed at him a bit, but didn’t arrest him. By the time Zak and I got up there, it was mostly over. A small crowd of residents was forming in the street. Zak moved up above the crowd and soldiers onto a sort of terrace area, continuing his “we’re-American-Jews” mantra. “Come out where I can see you,” a soldier said, “or I will have to shoot you.” He ordered us to move back behind an imaginary line that nobody knew where he meant. The soldiers threw a few stun grenades at us. Then they marched back down to their jeeps and drove away. The night raid lasted about an hour and a half. We never did figure out what the purpose was. From the stories we hear from our Palestinian partners, they usually don’t get off so easy. On this occasion, no one was arrested or beaten. No homes were demolished. Several of us were assaulted, but there were no serious injuries.

Just a few hours before the raid, we were at a party. When our partner Awdah heard it was Zak’s birthday, he organized a grilled chicken feast for us in his nearby village of Um el-Kheir. We gathered in the village’s “tent of meeting”, Hineinu folks plus activists from Um el Kheir and other nearby villages. Then Awdah brought out a cake, purchased in Yatta, with a hilarious picture of Zak, fleeing from a flock of aggressive sheep, somehow printed on the icing. At Maya’s suggestion, we went around the circle offering good wishes to Zak, or sharing funny anecdotes about him. On this occasion, none of our Israeli activist partners happened to be around; but we’ve had many such gatherings over the last couple of months, with Israelis, Palestinians and diaspora Jews, all working, eating, laughing, grieving together. Conversations weave back and forth between English, Arabic and Hebrew.

This is why it drives me crazy when people wring their hands about the impossibility of peace in Israel-Palestine. Peace between Jews and Palestinians already exists: I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It’s present in the relationships of deep trust and solidarity that have been forged between Palestinian and Jewish activists. If the powers-that-be just sat back and made space for these activists to do their work, they could lead the rest of Israeli and Palestinian society into peace and justice for everybody.

Instead, the Israeli government singles out these very activists for punishment. The Palestinians are regularly arrested and imprisoned, often without charges. The Israeli activists are the object of smear campaigns, orchestrated by political figures and taken up enthusiastically by mainstream media, branding them as traitors and abettors of terrorism. The Israeli government-military-settler complex is therefore attempting to destroy the potential leaders of Palestinian and Israeli civil society who could bring peace to this land. This apartheid regime calls itself a Jewish state, yet it egregiously and systematically violates the core moral teachings of Judaism. The government’s goal does not appear to be peace; it’s not even a reluctant “management” of the tension, nor a greater security for Jewish Israelis. It is expansion of Jewish supremacy over Palestinians, and Jewish control of the land, at all costs.

Thank you, marie-noëlle, for reading this dispatch from occupied Palestine. If you want to continue following my dispatches, and the work of Hinenu and the Center for Jewish Non-Violence, you can do so on our blog here.

Shabbat shalom and warmest wishes from occupied Palestine,

Asher Kirchner

IJV national steering committee member