“You must refuse to be in the army. Look into my eyes, we are all human,” declared Mahmoud Zwahre, popular committee leader in the West Bank Bethlehem district village of Al Ma’sarah, addressing dozens of M4 toting Israeli soldiers. “We are here to condemn what the Israeli government does against the Palestinian people. You must let us through.”
He was standing at the 3152 road that winds from his small village to the towering Efrat settlement, joined by 40 Al Ma’sarah villagers, Israeli, and international activists. The group had attempted to march to the settlement to protest the expropriation of Al Ma’sarah’s agricultural lands and flooding of their fields from settlement water drainage, but they were blocked by lines of soldiers wielding shields and weapons in front of parked IDF personnel carriers.
This march fell on Palestinian Children’s Day, an especially pertinent commemoration just two weeks after more than two dozen children between ages 7 and 15 were mass arrested by Israeli soldiers while they were en route to school in the West Bank town of Hebron/Al Khalil, an incident captured on video.
A handful of children from Al Ma’sarah peppered the demonstration as IDF snipers surveyed the crowd from a villager’s rooftop.
The Efrat settlement, built in 1983 on Palestinian agricultural lands, has swelled to a population of over 8,500. Efrat has been declared illegal under international law, like all Israeli settlements built on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, yet in 2011 the Israeli government granted this settlement permission for further expansion.
This is one of over 120 settlements officially recognized by the Israeli government, outposts of occupation that slice through the West Bank, isolating villages and farmlands, constricting movement, and aiding Israeli surveillance of Palestinians. When East Jerusalem is included, the Israeli settlers number over 650,000, according to the Israeli interior ministry.
Al Ma’sarah villagers have staged weekly protests since 2006 against this settlement, part of protests coordinated by Palestinian popular committees throughout the West Bank—mobilizations that have been growing since 2005. The Israeli Army sends soldiers into Al Ma’sarah to “protect” the settlements, as during this nonviolent demonstration.
At this children’s day mobilization, protesters chanted 'Occupation No More' and 'Refuse' standing face-to-face with soldiers, at a mobilization known for the close proximity that protesters have to Israeli Army forces sent to block their movement.
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When protesters attempted to nonviolently walk through the line of soldiers, Palestinians in the crowd were shoved by large riot shields, although some Israelis were allowed to pass. “They are blocking us 12 kilometers from the Green Line,” shouted Al Ma’sarah villager Hasan Briatya. “They will not let us go to the settlement because we are not Jewish. If we want to build there, we cannot, because we are Palestinian. We are different humans from their point of view. This is discrimination.”
Villagers raised their hands, in a show of nonviolence, and called for the crowd to sit on the ground in front of the soldiers.
“I come from South Africa,” said activist Colin Curkey addressing the sitting protesters. “I see injustices that were in South Africa, and my heart cries for the injustice.”
“It is an honor to stand with this struggle,” said Aaron Hughes, member of U.S.-based Iraq Veterans Against the War, who participated in the march. “I see a direct relationship between these people living in occupation and the absurdity of the occupation I participated in. This left me sad because I could not communicate that to the Israeli soldiers.”
During his recent visit to Israel, President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. friendship with Israel, with the largest overall recipient of U.S. aid since World War II according to congressional research service, with military financing hovering at $3 billion a year. Palestinians protested his visit by setting up tent encampments near Jerusalem.
“The purpose of the Al Ma’sarah mobilization is to exist,” says Sahar Vardi, Israeli anti-occupation activist and 2008 conscientious objector who went to prison for resisting the Army draft. “The show of resistance is important.”
As the Al Ma’sarah protest neared its end, the crowd held a moment of silence for all of the Palestinian children who have fallen at Israeli hands.
“You see the violence. You see this injustice,” said one villager gesturing towards the soldiers, his voice hoarse from chanting. “We don’t have anything. This is for the children who have been killed.”
“We will keep coming back.”