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Staring into the eyes of the occupation

After taking part in a protest action challenging the checkpoint and permit regime in Bethlehem, one activist finds herself in a home where the reality of the occupation comes to life in a way that ‘breaks your heart while punching you in the stomach as you stare at it.’

By Leehee Rothschild

Palestinian protesters attempt to pass through a checkpoint in Bethlehem, June 22, 2013, (Photo: Haim Schwarczenberg)

We went to Bethlehem yesterday for a direct action where a group comprised mostly of Palestinians, along with several Israelis and internationals, tried to walk across the Bethlehem checkpoint and visit Jerusalem. The Israeli army stopped us as we reached the checkpoint and prevented us from continuing on our way. Some of the soldiers engaged in some form of dialogue with us, while shoving the Palestinian activists away from the checkpoint. Most of them kept repeating that they were “just following orders.”

One female soldier asked her commander if she could use “reasonable force” against us, adding, “look at them, they look like animals.” She also stood there mockingly chanting “El el, Israel,” at the Palestinians, and became extremely agitated as I started to videotape her.

‘Look at them, they look like animals,’ the female soldier said as demonstrators tried to pass through the checkpoint, June 22, 2013 (Photo: Haim Schwarczenberg)

The soldiers quickly called for reinforcements, and eventually we found ourselves surrounded by dozens of soldiers and cops who looked like they were preparing to make arrests. At that point, three Palestinian activists declared that since they were not allowed to go pray in Al Aqsa (Jerusalem), they would pray right then and there at the checkpoint. They started praying, with Palestinian flags serving as their prayer rugs.

Praying at a checkpoint in Bethlehem, June 22, 2013 (Photo: Haim Schwarczenberg)

The soldiers, who assumed that the rest of the people present were journalists and foreigners, decided to refrain from arrests, since “it wouldn’t look good.” They did, however, follow us back to our cars to make sure we were really leaving. We did, but the Palestinian protestors voiced a promise: “Next time, we will pray in Jerusalem.”

It was an opportunity to see the reality of checkpoints and permits that reign over Palestinian lives under occupation, determining who can go where and when, separating Palestinians living in the West Bank from those in East Jerusalem, severing family ties and friendships, controlling movement and dictating professional and academic choices. It was also an opportunity to see apartheid in action, as settler cars drove by us throughout the entire encounter; the soldiers allowed them to pass through the checkpoint with hardly a second thought. At times, they complained about the inconvenience the Palestinian protestors caused them by blocking their road, while the protesters were demanding the  right to travel on it. It was also one more opportunity to challenge the checkpoint regime, to expose its abnormality, cruelty and arbitrariness.

That said, the most meaningful and saddest moment of the day was later on when photojournalist Haim Schwarzcenberg took us to visit Claire’s house. Located just across from Rachel’s Tomb and not far from the Nativity Church, Claire and her family, Bethlehem natives, used to make their living from a gift shop and guesthouse catering to Christian tourists. Nowadays, the house is separated from Rachel’s Tomb by the wall, which encloses it from three directions, its huge form casting its shadow over the pavement. Claire told us yesterday, “no one comes this way, not even the alternative tour groups.”

Claire’s house, click to enlarge (Photo: Haim Schwarczenberg). For a fuller description of the home, click here.

Like Shuhada street in Hebron, Claire’s house is one of those places in which all the horrors of the occupation come to life in a way that breaks your heart while punching you in the stomach as you stand there, looking at the house, surrounded by the wall. I have seen many things in my years as an activist: evils and wrongdoing, big and small. As I stood by Claire’s house, feeling the entire weight of the occupation in the grey concrete staring at me, I simply wanted to cry.

Leehee Rothschild has been active in the Palestinian struggle for over a decade. She currently works with Anarchists Against the Wall and Boycott From Within. She writes about activism and political struggle on her blog, Radically Blonde and other publications.

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    1. Claire is a good friend and my former landlady. When I was still living with her, a friend visited who was serving in the army at the time. I had no idea how she would react to having a currently serving soldier in the house, especially given everything that happened to them in the Intifada years. I thought she might be angry. She told me that I shouldn’t have allowed him to come, ‘because if they find out he has been here they will hurt him, and this is a good boy. Take more care of your friends’. Then she sat and talked to him for a long time. I wasn’t a pacifist when I came to Palestine but I was when I left that house, because it’s impossible to live with her and not be one.

      It’s good you went to visit her. She’s having a very hard time at the present. That makes me so angry, because she’s the last person on earth to deserve what has been done to her family.

      Reply to Comment
    2. carl

      Moving article

      Reply to Comment
    3. rsgengland

      Since the wall and checkpoints started going up after the start of the second intfada, the rate of Jews dying from suicide attacks decreased dramatically.
      That massive barrier has saved Jewish lives, even though all the so called “left wing? peace groupies”, try to either ignore and/or deny that fact.
      When the Palestinians hold new elections to replace their “past the sell by date” administration, and then enter into meaningful peace negotiations, we can start to talk about changing the situation on the ground.

      Reply to Comment
      • SH

        The suicide attacks were bad and I do not condone them at all. That said, thinking that the wall is preventing you from those attacks is laughable…it only takes one person with explosives strapped to their chest to wreak havoc in a crowded area. Considering the number of people who cross over the wall illegally everyday you should have experienced many many more since then… why not? Because Palestinians are not evil people who want to kill all Israeli’s – they just want to provide for their families and lead normal lives with dignity and a provision of basic human rights – which is what Israel is denying them at this very moment (regardless of their administration, and you’d be kidding yourself and telling bald-faced lies if you think that any other administration would measure up to what Israel clearly thinks is its moral authority on good governance). One day that wall will go down and what has Israel done to normalise relations with its neighbours WHO WILL ALWAYS BE THERE?? Nothing. Palestinians are not violent people, they do not want to kill Israelis, they just want peace. But remember it just takes one suicide bomber to wreak havoc, just one individual who has been pushed too far by immature soldiers degrading them, just one individual who is sick of being treated as a second class citizen, just one young boy or girl who has witnessed too many injustices in their short lives.

        Israeli’s need to stop demonising Palestinians and Arabs at large and stop victimising themselves. You can fool yourselves into security with concrete walls or you can gain concrete security with a little diplomacy and humanity.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          >That said, thinking that the wall is preventing you from those attacks is laughable…it only takes one person with explosives strapped to their chest to wreak havoc in a crowded area.


          1 – It takes at least 4 people to commit a suicide attack. One to prepare the suicide belt (explosives stapped to chest mwahahaha. strap TNT bar to your chest and try to wreak some havoc), another one to ensure passage of payload, one more to brainwash the bomber and yet another one to carry the bomb and explode in designated area. Normally it takes few more – the belt should be passed from maker to the bomber, route should be secured to ensure that there would be no interferences, etc.

          2 – Defence from suicide bombers is multi-layered. Intelligence provides information regarding the making of the belt – explosives, detonators, etc.- and preparation of the bomber. Security wall provides bottle-necks which could be easily controlled. I wonder if there are many idiots out there who think that IDF does not have enough visint means to know how many people are crossing into Israel and back on daily basis…

          >and a provision of basic human rights

          More nonsense.

          “Basic human rights” are inherently alien to Arab tradition.

          >Palestinians are not violent people, they do not want to kill Israelis, they just want peace.

          Yet more nonsense.

          Not violent people would not kill their females for dating “wrong” males.

          Also, non-violent people would not perceive stone-throwing as their inherently legal right.

          Also, non-violent people would accept peace offers in 1919, 1948, 2000, 2002 and 2008.

          Also, non-violent people would not condone suicide bombings and other acts of violence.

          Et cetera, et cetera.

          P.S. I wish I had a leftist mind. Clean of facts and thought. So nice to live with.

          Reply to Comment
          • David T.

            “Basic human rights” are inherently alien to Arab tradition.”

            What about conquest, genocide and expulsion in your “tradition”?

            “Also, non-violent people would not perceive stone-throwing as their inherently legal right.”

            As non-violent people wouldn’t perceive occupation, expulsion, denationalization and dispossesion as their inherently legal right.

            “Also, non-violent people would accept peace offers in 1919, 1948, 2000, 2002 and 2008.”

            Non-violent people don’t need to offer peace because they don’t take over land beyond their private property through violence to declare a state.

            “Also, non-violent people would not condone suicide bombings and other acts of violence.”

            Non-violent people would not condone bombings in general and other acts of violence.

            Reply to Comment
    4. NIZ


      Reply to Comment
    5. NIZ

      All is suffering (dukkha)!

      Reply to Comment
    6. Hi

      Israel’s defensive barrier and checkpoints protect Israel from people who want to blow Jews up.

      Extreme-left radicals who think Israeli Jews deserve to be blown up dislike Israel’s defensive measures and their protective barrier and security checks.

      Reply to Comment