Talking from Heart on Palestine
Anna Baltzer witnessing the Occupation
A Jewish American woman visits Palestine and stays there for five months to document the ordinary hardships caused by the occupation. A review on her visual presentation “Life in Occupied Palestine” by M NOUSHAD
Anna went to Palestine. To see and believe what she never wanted to see and believe. Being a Jewish American whose Holocaust-fled grandma had always talked about their promised homeland in Israel, Anna Baltzer had had romantic pictures of the holy land, despite the stories of oppression being sneaked often into the American media. Then, while traveling in West Asia, during her full-bright scholarship days, she first encountered with the possibility of a different Israel and Palestine. From Turkey she had gone to Iran, Syria and south Lebanon, where she was taken in as a guest in Palestinian refugee families.
Arab hospitality has always had in its intrinsic nature something you can’t resist: warmth, credibility, profound fraternity. Anna says she enjoyed a kind of community feeling that she hadn’t experienced before even in her own locality. She befriended girls and boys, who knew how to love, though themselves victims of hatred. The families narrated stories of occupation, of unimaginable cruelties. She listened, being disturbed and alarmed. But praying in heart that let them be lies. She preferred to think that it’s all propaganda. However, the genuine sense of loss and pain in their narrations slowly led her to do her own research. And eventually to go to Palestine in association with an organization called International Women’s Peace Service and come up with an amazing presentation – “Life in Occupied Territories”, a painful realization of everything she wanted to disbelieve. A sensitive story of disillusionment, presented with original photographs and sensible perspectives.
Anna’s first impression of Palestine was that it’s beautiful. Contrary to the common understanding, she realized that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not an “age-old conflict between two religions called Jewish and Muslims”, but it’s about land, water and resources. By using still images, most of them taken by herself and a few by her colleagues at IWPS, she describes how the occupation affects the daily life in Palestine. She doesn’t pretend giving a sweeping analysis of the conflict; rather, “this is my version of the conflict as a Jewish American who worked in the occupied territories for five months”. However, as Noam Chomsky observes, Anna’s presentation gives a clear picture of the ordinary day-to-day human suffering of the Palestinians, as this is largely unknown even to those who are closely aware of the issue.
Anna shows us different instruments of occupation: the tools that the Israeli establishment has developed over decades in order to control Palestinians. The institutions include checkpoints, roadblocks, settlements, outposts, the wall and imprisonment. Israel is racist in its content and nature is a reality often censored from public knowledge. This documentary primarily aims at Americans, who, Anna reminds, give more than 10 million dollars to Israel every single day ($ 3 – 5 billion every year). She shows an example on how the US citizens are blacked out from what is going on in Israel even though everything is being conducted at their expense. A friend of Anna happened to buy an issue of Newsweek at a German airport on her way to Chicago. It had a story on top of the cover “Plight of the Palestinians”; however, for her surprise, when the friend reached Chicago, the entire story was censored out not only from the cover but from the magazine itself and was replaced on cover by a story on Olympics.
She emphasizes that being Jewish and being Israeli and being Zionist are three different things. There are certain overlaps, but they are not the same. “Jewish” means someone from the Jewish community or culture, like herself, “Israeli” means a citizen of the state of Israel and “Zionist” means someone who believes in the occupation. She says that the distinction between these categories is very important as people often mistake each other and take it for granted to be anti-Semitic if someone criticizes Israeli state. She introduces several Israeli activists who work against the apartheid of their nation. She says, such peace activists, whether internationals or Israelis, are many times beaten up by Zionists. There are refuseniks, young Israelis who refuse to serve in the army out of conviction and compassion.
There are economic settlers as well as ideological settlers. The first group is mostly lured by the State as they are offered better living conditions. Low income Jews from different parts of Israel, even from Africa and east Europe move towards occupied territories. They might be willing to leave if they are given financial compensation. They remain in the occupied territories for the government is paying them to do so. However, the ideological settlers believe that they have the right to occupy. They believe that Gaza and West Bank also belong to Jewish people, and Palestinians are occupying Israel!
Anna’s presentation – the film – has a few striking questions: in what way do the roadblocks ensure security? How much this is about control and how much this is about security? Why the ambulances shuttling between Palestinian towns, entirely in Palestinian area, are stopped for hours at checkpoints when they carry emergency patients? Aren’t people themselves responsible for their actions even if they are following orders? She quotes Israeli soldiers telling with apparent helplessness on every occasion of human rights abuse that “we are just following orders”. She asserts that people are responsible for their actions even if they are following orders.
In the western media, Palestinian resistance is largely associated with violence, of suicide bombings and attacks and ambushes. She says, yes, it is there. However, what we systematically fail to see and understand is the ongoing non-violent resistance at large scale that almost every Palestinian in Gaza and West Bank has been doing every day.
She explains several amazing incidents in which people refusing to obey Israeli soldiers and settlers to be colonized. For example, a friend of Anna, Mrs. Muneera, a mother to six children, refuses along with her husband Mr. Hani to move away from their home, even after being issued a “demolition order”. The apartheid wall has separated them from their village’s other houses. Still, they continue to live in a cage. There are people who had been forcefully evacuated from their ancestral village by armed settlers, but later the villagers decide to come back and live there with the support of international peace groups. There are women groups who set up embroidery cooperatives to help themselves and support their families, there are farmers who go on cultivating though their plants and trees are frequently uprooted. There are shepherds who risk losing their sheep by letting them graze in poison spread farms in order to save the land from settlers’ claim if it’s left uninhabited. Small boys set up their own roadblocks to prevent Israeli army jeeps from entering their village to raid; thousands of men and women regularly take to streets to protest peacefully. There are people who go to their lost lands and organize congregational prayers.
There are endless examples of courageous people trying to stand up against the racism and struggle aloud instead of giving up or leaving their land. And she shows pictures of peace demonstrations being dealt with great deal of violence by the Israeli army. “In my opinion any kind of activity by a Palestinian to attain normalcy or dignity against the occupation is a kind of non-violent resistance.”
Now comes our curious question: what about violence from the Palestinian side? She says, yes, it is there as a matter of fact. There are stone-throwing incidents in demonstrations. She has no doubt that a stone is a weapon with which one can even kill another. But what about the context of such incidents, she asks and shows a particular photograph in which a Palestinian boy is throwing stone to soldiers standing beside army vehicles. In her own passionate words, “this boy hasn’t gathered up a bunch of stones and has crossed the border to throw stones at as many Israelis as possible because he hates Jews. This boy is in his village, he is watching Israeli jeeps and bulldozers surround his village, uproot his trees and build a wall around his community. And he is picking up a stone and throwing it at those bulldozers, at those jeeps. And I guess I would just ask you, if someone wants to come to your home and takes out your television, and then your stereo, and then your computer, at one point, wouldn’t you pick up a lamp and throw it at them? You know it’s not about justifying, but it’s about being realistic. What would you expect in such a situation for yourselves and how would you compare it with what the Palestinians are doing?”
Anna’s touching presentation, with her pleasing expression and sensitive perspective, ends with warnings that the Palestinians no more want us to feel sorry for them. What Palestine requires is action. She offers a few possible ways through which we can contribute to the peace. Film aptly ends with a song written and performed by David Rovics, “in one world, in one village, in one home, let’s live together..” The film DVD is accompanied with a book of photographs and text on Anna’s experiences in West Bank and perspectives on every aspect of the occupation. You may visit her at www.annainthemiddleeast.com and order the book and DVD.