issue 25 Winter/Spring 05
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Solidarity not separation

Lokabandhu and a group of activists visited Palestine to protest against Israel's occupation and infamous Wall

At first glance it was a road like any other road. It was smooth, and new, with yellow lines on either side and crash barriers outside them, an impressive piece of engineering which ran through a big, broad cutting and on over an embankment to the small settlement on the hill. Road signs pointed the way and informed motorists of their duties. It was a textbook example of a nice, new road.

Yet when we stumbled across it unexpectedly, I found myself both fascinated and curiously disturbed. For one thing it was alien, a product of another world on the traditional landscape of terraces and olive trees that make up the Palestinian countryside. For another, I knew it was the cause of great suffering. For my hosts, the villagers of Beit Awwa near Hebron, it was effectively a new border, a no-go sliver of Israel cutting through their land, running from the main road - also a no-go area - a few miles into Palestine to link the tiny, illegal West Bank settlement on the hill with its many similar neighbours. As one of the Israeli government's 'bypass roads', it was off-limits to Palestinians; they weren't allowed even to cross it, let alone drive on it.

Why was I so fascinated and disturbed? What troubled me most, I realised later, was that it looked like a road built by someone who was 'only doing their job'. And yet it had made life a misery for the villagers - as similar roads have made life a misery for almost every Palestinian in the whole of the West Bank and Gaza, lacerating the territory and crippling the life of its inhabitants. I wondered if the highway engineers responsible had known what they were doing when they built that nice new road.

I was travelling with four other UK Buddhists and people from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a non-violent direct action group dedicated to supporting the Palestinian people. We were there that day to discuss how to support the villagers in a protest against a new and much greater threat to their way of life - Israel's Wall, or Separation Barrier, that is even now being built around the whole of Palestine.

The Wall is sometimes a fence, often an 8m-high concrete monolith that weaves its way 400km across the land, not along Israel's border but snaking many kilometres beyond it to take in and 'protect' all the illegal settlements in the West Bank that Israel has established over the years. Most of these are strategically positioned adjacent to Palestinian towns, which of course have naturally grown up around the best farmland and water sources. Building the Wall therefore amounts to a giant and audacious land grab, a textbook example of 'structural violence'.

We had come to see what was happening for ourselves, to offer what support we could, and to seek answers to the question, should Buddhists come to places like this? What could or should we do once here?

We walked along to the construction site, our group strolling along the road. For the local youths this was clearly an act of bravado, something they'd never have dared to do alone. The other group shouted at us, but we kept on. Soon we saw why - two jeeploads of soldiers, all armed with machine guns, sped up to challenge us. Seeing internationals present, they let us go after a warning. In Palestine soldiers are never far away, everything is done at the point of a gun.

The demonstration, when it came a few days later, was relatively peaceful, marked only by scuffles, tear gas and percussion grenades fired by the army. Work by the bulldozers was halted for two hours, no-one was badly hurt. The villagers counted it a victory, it made the front page of all the Arabic newspapers, and we celebrated afterwards with grapes, bitter coffee and sweet black tea.

We knew we hadn't stopped the Wall: work resumed the next day and further peaceful demonstrations were quickly met by an escalated army response: rubber bullets and arrests. People were taken to hospital needing surgery. Israel's Wall, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice, was clearly being built regardless.

So what were we five Buddhists doing there, failing to stop the Wall being built? It's not an easy question to answer, for the whole situation is attended by the powerlessness one feels in the face of brute force and wilful disregard for law. And yet it seemed very right to go there.

In my two weeks with the ism I saw many things: curfew, detentions, the barbarous punishment of house demolitions, economic strangulation, a population under violent occupation. Things were fairly quiet while I was there, but everyone we met had tales of tragedy and violence: children killed by snipers, families unable to visit relatives because they lived the other side of the checkpoint, indefinite detentions without trial, Israeli assassination of local leaders, revenge attacks by either side ... The stories were told with remarkable equanimity and cheerfulness, yet with no feeling of hope that things might improve. The awful finality of the Wall seemed to shut out any hope of justice or restitution.

Israel's war on Palestine is not only waged with tanks and machine guns, it includes unremitting economic warfare, destruction of infrastructure and society, and psychological torment of the whole civilian population. Certainly the Palestinians have been violent, too, but the whole situation is shockingly asymmetrical, one armed with the weight of modern weaponry, one only with stones and occasionally suicide belts.

Behind Israel's capacity to sustain such violence lies the shadow of America - her capitalisation of Israel and the immunity from effective censure she confers at the United Nations and elsewhere. It's not that I think the Palestinians are the 'good guys' - a cursory glance at history will debunk that idea. Nor that the Jews have not suffered horribly in the past and naturally wish a country of their own. I witnessed hatred on both sides, but right now, Israel's violent occupation of Palestine seems to be the graver crime. Yet much of the time the whole situation had a curious impersonality about it, as though no-one really wanted to be unpleasant, they'd just been given orders to be. I never felt angry with the soldiers, in a way like the road builders they too were 'only doing their job'. A dangerous rationale, mind you, if your job is shooting people.

What made me angry, though, was the propaganda and misinformation used to cover up and justify the grim reality of occupation. So much media comment seemed dedicated to preserving a 'big lie' - for instance, the view that the Israeli Army only responds defensively to Palestinian terrorism. The most ethical army in the world, we heard it called.

It seems not to occur to America's and Israel's leaders that they are not engaged in a War on Terror but a War of Terror. Instead of getting rid of the terrorists, their actions will create so much hatred and despair that far more will surely breed. 'Hatred never conquers hatred', said the Buddha, and it is doubtless true.

Which brings us back to a few internationals and Buddhists vainly attempting to stop the bulldozers. What were we doing there? For myself, remembering Shakespeare's Hamlet, I was in search of a 'middle way' to respond to the suffering I saw - between merely suffering 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' and the more violent alternative of 'taking arms against a sea of troubles'. Did we Buddhists have anything distinctive to contribute? A few answers came; it is certainly still work in progress.

First and foremost, we were able to offer friendship and practical support to an almost-forgotten people. Our watchword was 'de-escalation'; it did seem that soldiers behaved less violently with international witnesses present - though it also seems this was a temporary advantage one would be foolish to rely on. I saw that even when we're powerless to affect the overall situation we can help individuals: the villagers will remember us forever. They said we were the first civilian internationals to visit them 'in living memory'.

Secondly, we saw for ourselves something of what was going on, understanding in our bones the reality behind the misinformation in the media. I realised even more vividly just how much energy is needed to keep wrong views intact, and why ignorance is described in Buddhism as 'wilful'. We certainly became more aware - and from awareness comes freedom and independence of thought. It also brings responsibility, I realised more clearly as the days passed. How could I leave, knowing what I now knew?

Thirdly, we were saying, as loudly and clearly as we could: 'Not in our Name'. We were protesting the inaction of the international community and our own government. Why, after 50 years, are there still refugee camps in the West Bank? Why does Israel still go unchallenged when she refuses to honour the Geneva Convention? Why do we help her buy and sell so many weapons? The cycle of violence is fuelled by greed, hatred and ignorance. Because we are interconnected, we are all implicated.

Fourthly, real danger coupled with spiritual practice produces real self-awareness, and fast! Personally, I discovered my fear in crowds, yet I have a certain courage when acting alone. Each of us learnt a great deal about ourselves and the others in those two weeks; it was a cauldron in which we were stirred and shaken. In my 25 years of Buddhist practice I've done a great many retreats; this I called an 'advance'. It struck me that many of us would benefit from doing a few more 'advances'.

Coming home from Palestine was not easy - England seemed so safe and drab, people (even Buddhists) so wrapped up in subjective psychological miasma. It's hard to communicate with friends who haven't been there, hard knowing the violence continues after you've left. And you wonder what it all means.

Actually it's a wake-up call. 'The world is on fire,' said the Buddha. When one has seen that, nothing can be quite the same again. We each have to find our own response, even if that is simply to apply ourselves more wholeheartedly to our daily lives, re-making them meaningful in the light of new awareness.

Meanwhile the cycle of violence and spin goes on - the West Bank closed and under curfew, 50 civilians killed in the Gaza Strip this past week, three and a half million Palestinians under occupation. The road to peace will not be built as easily as that nice, new road we walked on.

Further information: contact the ISM at www.palsolidarity.org or www.buddhistsforpeace.net