Last weekend I was at a family reunion where I had been invited to show pictures from my sabbatical in the Middle East last spring. I focused the presentation on Israel and Palestine where I had done freelance photojournalism for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). I was a little nervous, knowing that my relatives have a wide range of awareness and perspectives on the conflict. I also didn't want to bore them with too much detail.
The first and last questions my relatives asked illustrated that spectrum. The first question, at the beginning: "What are they fighting over?" The other, at the end of the presentation: If MCC supports clinics for children injured by Israeli bombs, do they also support clinics in Israel for victims of Palestinian attacks?
I spent the 40 or so minutes in between those questions showing pictures and telling stories in an attempt to accessibly summarize and hopefully humanize the conflict. For the latter goal, I could have saved everyone about 10 minutes and shown them the short documentary film, This Palestinian Life, by God's Politics blogger Philip Rizk.
As Philip makes clear in the film's introduction, he does not attempt to summarize the conflict, nor present the "severest cases," but offers the stories most rarely told: "Because violence makes news, the everyday stories of real people barely reach the outside world."
Mainstream media coverage, and perhaps even my own slide show last weekend, like to focus on the most dramatic examples of violence and oppression, but the tapestry that Philip has woven out of the lives of rural Palestinians is perhaps more compelling because of its simplicity. With sparse narration, this film lets Palestinians speak for themselves.
Watching it after returning home Sunday evening, I wondered what my farmer cousins would have thought of footage of Gaza farmer Abu Eid Salah throwing dust on his head and collapsing in grief over the destruction of his crops by Israeli forces. This film does not preach, but rather allows the plain meaning and potent symbolism of actual events to say what words can't: Olive branches are ground into the dirt as entire olive groves are uprooted by Israeli armored bulldozers and tanks that crush and tear everything in their path.
The rationale for such an action: militants have fired rockets from Gaza's border areas. Most of the young men of this farmer's family have been arrested and imprisoned without evidence of individual wrongdoing, but simply because their neighborhood is known for such attacks. But when have mass arrests and collective punishment for the acts of a few ever resulted in anything other than an overwhelming sense of injustice and outrage against the punisher? How does destroying the livelihood of this family guarantee Israel's security? But rather than take up arms as others have, this family takes up the portraits of their imprisoned sons to regular protests against their detention without charge.
As I've written recently, I am glad that such nonviolent activism by Palestinians is gaining prominence. I think it's the only hope for any kind of progress in ending the occupation because it removes any pretense for Israel's consistently disproportionate use of force. However, This Palestinian Life focuses much more on nonviolent resistance of a distinctive and perhaps more profound sort than marches or rallies -- that of sumoud, or "steadfastness." The concept is perhaps most eloquently explained by the elderly Abu Sagr of the village of Al-Hadidya in the West Bank's Jordan Valley:
First of all, we reject the use of violence, we reject it completely. First, we are not as powerful as Israel, nor is our military strength that of Israel's. Second, we are not politicians or experts in military strategy. We are a people, we want to raise our children and we demand to live in peace and quiet. We are staying on our land until they get frustrated and leave us alone. We won't consider any other options.
Indeed, when Israeli policy gives all manner of incentives for Jews to settle on Palestinian land in the West Bank, yet denies Palestinians access to basic necessities such as water and threatens demolition of any new home construction -- including even repairs to existing homes -- one can only marvel at the will to remain under such circumstances. As Abu Musa of the village of Ghwein states, "Israel can take any house it wants, even the house of President Mahmound Abbas. We will remain." Amid scenes of makeshift tents and crumbling homes, he continues, "But we are living in a way no one would deem acceptable."
Back to my cousin's question about whether MCC supports medical clinics in Israel. It's a fair concern for an evenhanded approach to the conflict. He had recently returned home after two weeks in Israel with a Jimmy DeYoung Prophecy Today tour. I don't know if my answer was satisfying to him: No, MCC doesn't have any clinics in Israel because Israel has a world class nationalized health-care system like many European countries (and unlike the U.S.), while Palestine has far less infrastructure and very limited medical facilities, and therefore requires more assistance.
As that example and the realities in Philip's film illustrate, daily life in Palestine is anything but evenhanded or "balanced." Just this week, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports in an editorial (emphasis added):
A new military order will take effect this week, enabling the army to deport tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank and prosecute them on infiltration charges, which carry long prison terms. The order's vague language will allow army officers to exploit it arbitrarily to carry out mass expulsions, in accordance with military orders which were issued under unclear circumstances. ...
Implementing this new military order is not only likely to spark a new conflagration in the territories, it is liable to give the world clear-cut proof that Israel's aim is a mass deportation of Palestinians from the West Bank. While all Jews can settle wherever they wish, in Israel or in the territories, Israel is trying to deprive the Palestinians of even the minimal right to choose where to live in the West Bank or Gaza.
So while pundits and spokespeople quibble over the appropriateness of the term "apartheid" to describe the disparity of treatment between Jews and Arabs under Israeli control, the facts on the ground tell their own story. Maybe this conflict needs its own word for such discrimination.
This Palestinian Life, meanwhile, does not affix labels, it tells stories -- or rather, has Palestinians tell their own story. And as I contemplate doing more of my own presentations on this conflict in other settings, I am more and more convinced that it will be a combination of sharing stories, acting in solidarity, and persisting in the spirit of sumoud that will end this occupation.
Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners and a photographer whose work can be seen at www.ryanrodrickbeiler.com.