My first trip in Israel is coming to an end after three weeks. I am based in East Jerusalem and spend half of my days in the West Bank. My name is Filippo Bozotti, I m a socially conscious filmmaker. Thanks to my job, I have the opportunity to travel the globe and document its injustices and success stories, from Sierra Leone to Haiti, from the US to Rwanda from Northern Ireland to here, working on a documentary on reconciliation and justice.
The experience has been eye-opening. Palestinians are the most hospitable people I have ever met. When I visited a refugee camp in Tul Karem, I met Ahmed, who like most Palestinians was born a refugee and lives in extreme poverty. He welcomed me by opening bottles of Coke, offered me narghile’ to smoke, invited me into his home for chicken and rice and gave me freshly grounded coffee as a gift, but would not hear of taking any money in return.
Ahmed, like the other 4 Million Palestinian living in the West Bank and Gaza, lives under a system of apartheid similar to that in South Africa before 1994. The wall that Israel is building for “security” reasons is in fact a whole series of walls surrounding most Palestinian homes and cities, separating village from village, and causing every Palestinian to have to go through numerous check points and daily threats and humiliation in order to move from one West Bank town to another.
Bassam, one of our main characters in the documentary, a former combatant and political prisoner turned non violent activist, lives 50 feet from one of these walls. He has to cross two checkpoints in order to go to work. His cousin’s house has been destroyed to make space for the wall. His wife and kids cannot cross most checkpoints; they don’t have the right ID card. Two years ago, at one of these checkpoints, his 8-year-old daughter was killed by an Israeli sniper with a single rubber bullet to the head on her way home from school. These are the daily realities in the West Bank.
Israel is perfectly happy with the current status quo. The wall helps to secure land— land that soon more settlers will inhabit illegally. The settlers will come with huge army protection; they will use most of the Palestinian’s water and electricity, so that various locations in the West Bank receive water only two days a week in the scorching summer and electricity two days a week in the winter. Their goal is to steadily push the Palestinians out of their land, until they will be confined to reservations. In 1948, when Israel was created, they took 55% of Palestine, the fertile half, but not the religious half. Now, under pressure from extremely religious (and extremely racist) orthodox Jews, they intend to complete their operation and have already occupied over 75% of the country. Moderate Palestinians are told that soon they will suffer the same fate as Native American Indians.
The large majority of the Palestinians I speak to want peace, an end to occupation, non violent resistance; they want a two state solution based on the 1967 border prior to the Six Day War, when Jerusalem was occupied. They want the settlers out of the West Bank, and they want east Jerusalem back (which even now is still almost entirely inhabited by Palestinians). They want to be able to control their own water supplies, their own electricity. They are discouraged and hopeless. Unemployment is skyrocketing as it becomes more and more difficult for any of them to enter Israel, and they do not believe Israel will ever give up an inch without international pressure.
I met Independent Palestinian leader Mustafa Barghouthi, an honest and secular doctor, founder of the Palestinian Initiative, who won 20% of the votes in the last presidential election. An American educated family man, progressive and well spoken, who recognizes Israel’s right to exist and campaigns for non violence and a two state solution, Barghouthi would benefit Palestine the most. But unfortunately, when he tries to campaign, he is not allowed to enter Jerusalem and he is arrested at checkpoints. Once, while in prison, his knee was broken by the butts of Israeli guns. Another time, while attending an injured Palestinian after a demonstration, he was shot in the leg.
The Israeli government doesn’t want the western-appealing Barghouthi to have any power; they are perfectly content in their “we don’t talk to terrorists” policy applied to Hamas. In Hamas they find a perfect enemy. From the time Hamas was democratically elected, Israel labeled them a terrorist organization and pinched Gaza shut, transforming it in the world’s biggest ghetto. Hamas, naively, instead of promoting non violence and showing the world they are not all terrorists, retaliated with sporadic home made rocket launches, a field day for the western media. Hamas’s victory and popularity in Gaza is a symptom of the people’s distrust of Fatah, which they see as openly corrupted and financed by the US and Israeli governments. Doctor Barghouthi has often been the intermediary between the two parties.
He has asked us for three things:
First: To change the narrative in the western media and show to the world that Palestinians are not terrorists. They are victims of an illegal occupation and apartheid. Israel is not a victim; they are occupiers who are oppressing millions of civilians.
Second: The only way to make any real change is to focus on what will affect Israel the most: economic sanctions. Under international law occupied people have the right to resist, even violently, to protect themselves, but most Palestinians understand that this is futile. Israel, financed by the US, has the 5th strongest army in the world. Palestinians instead have stones and a few homemade rockets. The only hope for the Palestinian people is that the Obama administration leads the way in carving out a very concrete timeframe to remove settlements, end the occupation, and grant Palestine independence based on the borders prior to 1967. If this timeframe is not met, the US should withhold economic aid and weapons it supplies to Israel.
Third: The world must understand that supporting an end to occupation and a free Palestine does not mean being against Israel’s right to exist, it does not mean being anti-Semitic.
Most Israeli citizens are peace-loving people who favor a two state solution. The problem is that they are not represented in the right wing extremist government of Netanyahu and Lieberman (who once said minorities are the biggest problem in the world). The Prime Minister states that settlements in the West Bank have the right to exist because Jews have the right to live anywhere, from Paris to Rome to Hebron. Yet he denies the same right to five million Palestinians. The Israeli government is lobbying to outlaw the remembrance of the Nakba, the 1948 Exodus of 750,000 Palestinians at the hands of Israel. It would be similar to telling Israel they cannot commemorate the Holocaust. Israel has the right to protect themselves, but must do so in accordance to International law.
With an extremist government in Israel, an extremist leader in Hamas, and little aid from the international community and neighboring Arab states, things do not look good for the Palestinians. They could be stuck for decades living behind apartheid walls as second-class citizens, humiliated daily, or even worst, suffer the same fate as Native Americans. The International community and western media have so far failed. Just like we witnessed genocides during Holocaust and Rwanda, we said “never again”, but we let it happen in Sudan; we witnessed Apartheid is South Africa, we said “never again”, but we are letting it happen in Palestine. The power to make change is in the hands of the international community, in our hands. Change the narrative, ask your government to push for sanctions against Israel and if you can, visit Palestine, it will open your eyes too.
PS. When I left the country, I was questioned for hours from Israeli security on why I was carrying pamphlets from Barghouthi’s Palestinian Initiative…