A U.S. activist in occupied Palestine

October 6, 2010

Helena is a U.S. activist who traveled to the West Bank and East Jerusalem to participate in solidarity protests and be an international observer in the face of the annexation of Palestinian land by Israeli settlers. Helena is a pseudonym used to protect her from arrest and/or deportation by Israeli authorities.

She is currently staying in Ramallah and traveling to East Jerusalem to observe and protest settlement expansion. She spoke with Brian Lenzo about her experiences.

WHERE HAVE you traveled, and what have you seen so far?

I'VE BEEN attending various demonstrations: against the wall in Bil'lin; against the expansion of settlements and the arrest of members of the local "popular committee" in Beit Ommar; against the settlements and the electric fence that slice through the majority of the village of Al Ma'sara; against the wall in Nil'in; and against settler violence and settlements in Hebron. And I attended a demonstration with a large and powerful female presence in Sahen, where the IDF has a massive presence.

The demonstrations have zero resemblance to "protests" in the U.S. Not only do they demand very basic living conditions and the end of the occupation, they are also a form of tradition for lots of Palestinians. The passion is indescribable.

Another major difference is the amount of violence committed by the IOF (Israeli Offensive Force, instead of the Israel Defense Force, because it's just a more accurate way of explaining who they really are).

An Israeli military vehicle on patrol in the West Bank
An Israeli military vehicle on patrol in the West Bank

It's almost a given that you will be tear gassed, have sound grenades used against you, rubber bullets shot, sometimes live ammunition, and sometimes physical violence toward peaceful protesters.

Along with the demonstrations, I have been traveling to villages, meeting families and hearing their stories. Many tell me how the occupation has affected them personally and materially. I also spent some nights in Izbit Tabib, where Palestinian shops have been almost fully demolished by Israeli bulldozers.

WHERE ARE you now?

I'M CURRENTLY going back and forth between Ramallah and East Jerusalem. Basically, I go wherever I'm needed. If someone is being harassed at a checkpoint, we go. If a soldier or settler is attacking someone, we go. It changes every day depending on the political climate.

IN A previous conversation with me, you said you felt the threat of arrest every day. Why do you think you might be arrested?

IT'S NOT as if I step outside my house in Ramallah and think that Israeli soldiers are going to pop out and take me down, but when you're at a demonstration, there is always a massive military presence, hence much more of a chance to get arrested.

If you're an Israeli activist, an international or especially if you're Palestinian, you are a prime target for arrest at demonstrations, oftentimes for reasons unknown. Depending on the soldier, you can be arrested if you don't have a visa, or even if you talk back to a soldier--things like that.

If you are doing a night watch, such as in Sheikh Jarrah, and a settler calls the police and makes (most likely false) claims that internationals are harassing them, then you will face a possible arrest.

So why do I feel the threat fairly often? Mainly because I attend demonstrations, and I participate in de-arresting actions.

WHAT IS a "de-arresting action?"

WHEN ISRAELI soldiers attempt to arrest Palestinians, internationals and Israeli activists will get in between the soldier and Palestinian to prevent arrest. Once soldiers start getting familiar with your face, there is more of a risk of arrest. But unlike Palestinians, internationals are either only detained for three hours or will have a court case within 24 hours.

However, Palestinians face prison time and can be detained indefinitely sometimes, which is why we de-arrest.

DO YOU think the new "peace process" is affecting the situation inside Palestine

THE "PEACE process" is rather irrelevant here. Unless you watched the news, you wouldn't have a clue that anything was happening. Many believe it's just another way of accusing Palestinians of being violent and impossible to work with, because they are unwilling to compromise on their basic demands.

YOU SAID you spend some nights observing Palestinians houses in East Jerusalem in case of settler activity. Describe a typical night observing one of these houses.

FIRST, I advise you to read my blog on Sheikh Jarrah for a little more background on where we stay at night and why.

Basically, we arrive at the Rifka Al-Kurd house, where the front half of the home was taken over by settlers (it used to be a children's room), and in between there is a tent, blocking settlers from harassing the family and entering the second half of the home.

We are greeted by the families of Sheikh Jarrah, drink sweet tea and coffee, and discuss local happenings. When it starts to get late, we retreat into the tent, joined by several shabab (shabab are young Palestinian boys and men) where we play cards for hours on end. It's a really great time, it's just a shame that we aren't there for pure entertainment.

Often times around midnight or so, settlers will proudly walk near the tent to enter the stolen half of the house. In the past, they were very violent with Palestinians and internationals, carrying M16s, starting fights with any person they saw, calling the internationals Nazis.

My friends were in the tent one night, and while they were sleeping, settlers came in and poured vomit all over them. Recently, cameras were put all around the house that we stay around. This has decreased a lot of the settler violence.

Settlers still attempt to harass the internationals, if they are the only ones around. We take turns sleeping in shifts, but sometimes it's not possible to sleep if there is a threat of violence.

I can't tell you how much the families mean to me in Sheikh Jarrah. Their spirits remain high and alive, even under terrible circumstances. I manage to laugh to the point of tears every time I'm in Sheikh Jarrah.

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