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My Surprisingly Inspiring Trip to the West Bank: Echoes of Our Civil Rights Movement

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Headlined to H4 8/27/13

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EAST JERUSALEM:  One of the most powerful and educational movies on Israel/Palestine is the 25-minute documentary, " My Neighborhood " -- which exposes the Judaization of  East Jerusalem  by focusing on a Palestinian family facing eviction from their home of 47 years in the middle-class neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. We sat down with the "stars" of the movie, the al-Kurd family, outside the part of the house they still can live in. Absurdly, zealous and aggressive Jewish settlers occupy the front part of the house.  As we approached, I caught a glimpse of the settlers behind their Israeli flag. (Watch the movie  here .) 

Middle-aged mom Maysa al-Kurd and her 94-year-old mother told us they've lived in their East Jerusalem house since 1956, having been forced to flee Haifa during the 1948 "War of Independence."  Settlers are now using intimidation in hope of forcing them to flee again. With half a home, the al-Kurd family is luckier than dozens of others in Sheikh Jarrah who've been driven out of the neighborhood completely. (Many Palestinians are refugees two or three times over.)

With the help of Israeli and international activists, the al-Kurd family has fought for years to live in peace and dignity in what's left of their house.  If you watch "My Neighborhood," you'll see grandson Mohammed, then in the 7th-grade, announcing that he wants to be a lawyer or journalist battling for human rights when he grows up.  Two years later, he holds to that dream. 

Maysa al-Kurd asked us to tell her family's story to President Obama -- and, if we can't reach him, to tell their story in social media.  She wants to ask Obama "if it would be acceptable to him if his own kids were harassed in their home; if not acceptable for his kids, then he shouldn't be silent" when Palestinian children are suffering.

HEBRON HILLS:  Near the end of our tour of the West Bank, we visited the beleaguered but unbowed village of Al Tuwani in the South Hebron hills, where expansion-minded ("God gave us this land") Israelis in nearby settlements have terrorized the village and sabotaged their fields and water. For "lack of a building permit," Israeli soldiers demolished their village school and mosque. It struck me that being Palestinian in some of these remote locations was akin to being black in rural Mississippi in the 1950s, facing continuous intimidation from lawless Klansmen (like these armed and sometimes-masked settlers) backed up by state power. 

But Al Tuwani has resisted -- with women taking new roles in the economic sustenance of the village, with young Italian solidarity activists ( Operation Dove ) accompanying the men into the field as a " protective presence" and videotaping any confrontations, and with Israeli human rights lawyers defending their right to rebuild their community. 

A woman leader in the village, like so many Palestinians, begged us to return home to contest media portrayals of Palestinians as terrorists: "You've seen the true Palestine, not what you see in news media . . . Tell the world the truth."

*  *

While it was inspiring to see nonviolent "popular resistance" groups persisting across the West Bank, I felt ashamed and angry as a Jew to hear Palestinians document the relentless drive by the "Jewish State" to Judaize East Jerusalem and intimidate and humiliate West Bankers into leaving their cities, towns and villages.  Everywhere we went, we heard complaints about day-to-day hardship -- checkpoints, Jewish-only highways, blocked Palestinian roads and how drives to work or school or neighbors that once took 15 minutes now take several hours.

Seeing these "facts on the ground," I kept asking myself NOT "Why have many Palestinians turned to violence and terrorism?" -- but rather, "Why so few?"

I'm not the first or only one to think that thought.  In a moment of candor in 1998, hawkish Israeli politician Ehud Barak admitted to Haaretz reporter Gideon Levy: "If I were a young Palestinian of the right age, I'd eventually join one of the terrorist organizations." (Barak wasn't punished for his candor -- Israelis elected him prime minister a year later.)

As hard as we tried, it was difficult to find a single Palestinian (or Israeli peace and justice activist) with much hope for the Kerry-led peace process; they fear that talks will again be a pretext for continued Israeli expansion into Palestinian land.  We were repeatedly reminded that at the beginning of the Oslo "peace process" in 1993, there were about 260,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- and that number increased to 365,000 by the time Oslo fell apart seven years later.  Today, there are well over  525,000 settlers .

Everywhere you travel in the West Bank, you can see Palestinian villages on hillsides or in valleys -- and newer, gleaming Israeli settlements on the hilltops above, startlingly green thanks to abundant, diverted water.  During the Oslo talks, then-Israeli foreign minister Ariel Sharon was quoted as telling a rightwing party to "run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements."

Many in the nonviolent Palestinian resistance also have little faith in the Palestinian Authority -- seen variously as weak, corrupt, "an Authority with no authority," and a junior partner in administering the occupation.  "We want a third Intifada, the Palestinian Authority wants to prevent it," an activist told us.

Their faith is in spreading the grassroots resistance within Palestine, and gaining international support.  We were told over and over: Without outside pressure on Israel, there will be no end to the occupation and no justice.  Which is why every Palestinian nonviolent activist urged us to support the  boycott of Israel aimed at ending the occupation  -- and they emphasized that boycotting is a supremely nonviolent tactic.

All drew parallels to the successful, international boycott that forced South Africa's apartheid regime to the bargaining table.  And some mentioned another success -- the boycott of Montgomery buses led by Martin Luther King. 

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www.jeffcohen.org

Jeff Cohen is the founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. He founded the media watch group FAIR in 1986.

For years he was an on-air pundit on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC-- as well as senior producer of MSNBC's primetime Donahue show, until it was terminated three weeks before the Iraq war. This is adapted from his new book, Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.

Jeff Cohen www.jeffcohen.org is also former board member of Progressive Democrats of America and founder of the media watch group FAIR.


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