We arrived at the house of the Burnat family in the village Bil’in last night and given the most warm, hospitable welcome imaginable. Iyad, Tasaheel and their five children are fantastic people; Majd is 16 and slowly recovering from IDF gunshot wounds while studying in school, Abdul Khaleik is 14 and very thoughtful and helpful around the house, Muhammad is 13 and super bubbly and good at English, Mayar is 10 and super sweet and studying hard for her exams, and baby Muhaddin is one of the most adorable and cuddly babies I’ve ever met. The kids immediately became friends with Elijah and Isabella and they’ve been playing together ever since we got here. On Monday, Isabella will be going to school with Mayar (despite the ever-present myth that Palestinian schools and textbooks teach the hatred/killing of Jews.) Later in the evening, they made a fire in the backyard and some of the dads from the village brought their toddlers over for an impromptu playgroup. Palestinian culture is very warm and friendly to begin with, and people have gone out of their way to make us feel at home. In light of this, I can’t even wrap my mind around all of the racist stereotypes to the tune of “Palestinians want to drive the Jews into the sea; Palestinian spaces are dangerous for Jews”, “terrorism and hatred are cultivated elements of Palestinian culture”, etc. etc. etc. etc.
This afternoon, we went to a protest. These nonviolent demonstrations have been held in Bil’in every Friday since the Wall went up 10 years ago (because the Wall cut off the villagers’ access to their own farmland, families and jobs and erased their freedom of movement. It also brought in a huge amount of unprompted violence and militarization from the IDF into Bil’in) There are often dozens of Palestinians who protest, and international supporters like us come to stand with them in solidarity. Despite the fact that the demonstrations are nonviolent, the Israeli soldiers respond by firing teargas and rubber bullets with no discretion. They fire at kids, people in wheelchairs, the elderly, etc., sometimes resulting in injuries and deaths. (Don’t worry Mom, Iyad has been to every one of these protests and he knew exactly when to tell us to get our asses back to the house in order to stay safe.)
This was my first experience with teargas. As expected, it’s way more intense and painful than it sounds. It burns your eyes, throat and lungs. You have to be careful not to get hit with a teargas canister, as they’re shot out of huge guns and can be fatal. One man from the village had his hands up and shouted in Hebrew “Don’t shoot! I want to talk! I want peace!” and in return, the soldiers shot directly at him. As the soldiers could see, none of us had weapons. We ran away from the teargas, but they drove their armored jeeps right up to people (driving up to where kids were) to shoot from a closer distance.
What I didn’t know is that the tear gas often comes right into the village and into people’s homes. Because of this, even sleeping babies aren’t safe from tear gas, which is known to have long-term health repercussions as well as be very painful in the moment.
After the protest, we went to a community meeting to address a project concerning education in the village. Bil’in’s school system used to have incredibly high success rates with student learning and matriculation to universities, but those success rates have dropped dramatically in the last 10 years. This is due to various facets of the Occupation: the Wall went up; the soldiers regularly come into the village to shoot tear gas, illegally arrest and detain children; some children get shot and have to spend extended time in the hospital (if Israel lets them go through to the hospital in the first place), etc. Children’s time and energy are spent more on healing, resisting the Occupation, dealing with trauma and helping their families do all of the above and as a result, their grades are suffering. This concerns their parents and teachers, who want them to learn, succeed and study at universities. Education has always been a critically important and highly valued facet of Palestinian culture. But since Israel has a multi-faceted chokehold of the Palestinian economy (destroying farmland and olive trees that are the main source of Palestinian livelihood), many university students and their families are having trouble paying tuition. 20 students from Bil’in are currently in danger of having to drop out of their Universities due to inability to pay. The meeting we attended was called to address all of these issues.
At the meeting were some teachers, some parents, four of the 20 university students- two young women and two young men- trying to fundraise their education, us, and President/CEO of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, Steve Sosebee. The program they discussed will provide tuition funds for the university students and in return, the university students will tutor younger students from Bil’in grade schools. The program will be based in and run by the community, so that community members can be the ones to evaluate its success and future evolution. The teachers and parents discussed innovative tutoring/teaching techniques and incentives to make learning more effective for the young students, as well as include community service. If anyone is interested in learning more about this project or contribute to it, please contact me or Ariel. It is very much in the works, and the goal is that the program will spread to more villages throughout Palestine (as these needs and issues exist everywhere here.)
We’re so happy and lucky to be here in Palestine. Thank you to everyone who has welcomed us here, encouraged us from back home and is standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people for justice, peace and human rights.