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Bethlehem: Michigan Peace Team Report

MPT August, 2007 Report #4

On Friday, August 10, Bill and Peter took a taxi to Al Walaja west of Bethlehem to join in the demonstration against the construction of the separation wall/fence and confiscation of the residents’ land by the Israeli military. When the wall is completed, it will entirely encircle the village, making it a walled prison.

This was the third demonstration held in Al Walaja, at the site of the fence being constructed. It was organized by Holy Land Trust (HLT) and the Popular Committee Against the Wall in Southern Bethlehem. There were not many from the village present. A number of Palestinians came from other communities in the Bethlehem district. Many Israelis and other internationals were present. About 100 demonstrators in all took part.

The Israeli military came in force, lined up along the fence. Before the demonstration began, one Palestinian leader spoke heatedly to the Israeli soldier apparently in command against the Israeli actions.

We met a young man from Ohio who said he had served in the U. S. military in Iraq for six months, and now has become an advocate of nonviolent civil disobedience against war and violence. He got involved last summer in the Palestine/Israel conflict, and decided to come here to see for himself the situation. He was there to protest the Wall and land confiscation.

An Imam sang the call to prayer. Sami Awad of Holy Land Trust (HLT), an organizer of the event, spoke briefly about the nonviolent nature of this demonstration. He spoke in English, addressing the Israeli soldiers as well as everyone gathered to demonstrate. The tone he set seemed to put the soldiers more at ease during the event. They did not act aggressively during this demonstration.

The mayor of the village then addressed the demonstrators in Arabic. After his talk, rows of Palestinian men then conducted the traditional Muslim prayer, some using prayer rugs.

The demonstrators as a group turned their backs to the lineup of Israeli soldiers, as a bodily gesture of rejection of the assault on their Palestinian lands. A village councilman then addressed the crowd in Arabic.

He was followed by a woman from the village who addressed the crowd in English. She gave a brief history of the suffering of Al Walaja, including how in 1948 they were driven out of their homes. Most went to Jordan at that time. People began to return to Al Walaja on their own (not in groups). Some lived in caves for 12 years. Beginning in the 1950s, houses started to be built. Now, much of the land has been annexed to Jerusalem, and as a result the people are living illegally in their own houses, according to Israeli law. The people have taken the case to the Israeli court. They have filed another case against the law that prohibits them from building anything. Israeli bulldozers even tear down chicken coops. More than 90 houses are scheduled to be demolished. The demonstration ended after her impassioned talk.

After the demonstration the two of us walked for about a half hour and arrived at the home of Omar (not his real name), an organizer in Al Walaja in resistance to the wall and confiscation of lands in Al Walaja. He shared the good news that his case was settled out of court and he can again go to Jerusalem to work.

He explained that during the demonstration a week ago, on Friday, the Israelis cut the water supply of Al Walaja. It was just restored last night. They allowed water for only a couple hours a day during that time. They told the villagers that they are putting in new water pipes, and that it was in the interest of the people.

There is no well where Omar lives. When his son Mohammed tried to get spring water a kilometer away from a well, the Israelis arrested him along with his friend, both 14 years old, then let them go two hours later.

About 50 homes have already been demolished in Al Walaja by the Israelis. Many have become poor. Some are using wood now rather than gas for cooking. Some are in Israeli jails for various reasons. For example, they may be ordered to pay a fine of perhaps 1,000 shekels. One neighbor refused to pay the fine for building his home, an illegal act. He is in jail for five months. Families now face the situation of having to buy things for their children’s school year, which will begin soon.

Al Walaja is building a school. The first floor is completed. Under the hardship of occupation, the people are unable to spare the money to complete the construction. There are about 350 families in Al Walaja. The cost to complete the school averages about 1,500 shekels per family ($350 U. S. dollars). Over 100 of the families are very poor.

Omar said that many don’t believe they can change anything. He told the story of one neighbor who believed that trying to do anything was useless. When he saw two homes being rebuilt (illegally, by Israeli law), he changed his mind and now agrees with Omar that it is a way to resist, and that if the Israelis demolish the homes, the people will rebuild them again.

This spirit in Omar and so many Palestinians is inspiring to us, who will continue to do what we can to end the injustice of the occupation in Palestine.