A Funeral in Bethlehem

A visit to the West Bank reveals the everyday brutality of the Israeli occupation.

Groups of Korean and Indian tourists shuffle across Manger Square, but Nativity tourism is suffering, and, all across town, the stores of Bethlehem are closed to honor the funeral of yet another Palestinian martyr.

Almost inevitably, the young martyr, Srur Abu Srur, is from the Aida refugee camp, which directly abuts the separation wall and lies on the frontline of daily clashes with Israeli soldiers armed with “shoot to kill” orders. The cement has barely been applied to Abu Srur’s grave before clouds of tear gas begin to drift through the cemetery. Clashes between the camp’s militant youth and the occupation forces continue through the evening.

I am here to help with the making of a film, and Fouad, my translator, is assisting me in interviewing workers crossing the Green Line to work in Israel. Fouad is also the cousin of Abu Srur. Shortly after we finished our work at the Qalandiya checkpoint in Ramallah, he learns of the shooting (Israeli soldiers had been raiding houses in Beit Zahour and Beit Jala all morning). High-tailing it back to Bethlehem, we note the stepped-up military presence all along the road.

Crowds have gathered at Beit Jala hospital to prevent the new martyr’s body from being taken away by soldiers (the Israeli military does not like autopsies), and, shortly after we arrive, they are parading the body around the courtyard. Lamentations and prayers quickly morph into protest and solidarity chants as the body is carried aloft, through the throng, to the mortuary. The next day’s funeral is preceded by a full procession — with flags from across the political spectrum — through Bethlehem’s main streets.

As Fouad put it, his cousin had been “in the right place at the wrong time.” On his way home from classes at Bethlehem University, he ran into the soldiers carrying out the raids. The city is in Area A, the 18 percent portion of the West Bank that is supposed to be under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority (PA), but that makes little difference.

“We can get shot anytime and anywhere for no reason at all,” observes Fouad, expressing disgust at the PA’s “weakness,” a sentiment that will be echoed by many at the funeral and the three-day wake that follows. Indeed, Palestinians routinely say now that if the current intifada-like situation becomes a full-blown insurgency, then they will have to throw rocks at the PA as well as the Israeli military.

Despite its security coordination agreement with the Israeli authorities, the PA has been unable to protect Area A city residents from nightly (and increasingly, daily) incursions by occupation forces, and the recurrent spectacle of PA officers arresting Palestinians has decimated whatever popular respect it once commanded as a steward of self-reliance. Why is it still alive? Not only because it governs by decree (there have been no elections for years), and is the primary source of stable employment in the West Bank, but also because of the fear of a Palestinian civil war.

Abu Srur’s father was a venerated figure — he had been the first to fire his AK-47 during the second intifada, which began in 2000 — and so the funeral and the wake drew attendees from all over Palestine, including the prime minister himself. Based on the volume of food and beverages consumed, the camp’s Fatah youth chief estimated that as many as forty thousand had come to pay their respects.

These funerals, which are not only public but also highly political occasions, are coming thick and fast — five youth were killed in the Bethlehem-Hebron corridor the same week — and the time and resources that whole families devote to attending these events is a massive drain on their limited means.

Yet each addition to the tally of martyrs tests the community’s tolerance for sumud, the “steadfastness” that is often cited as a core quality of Palestinian endurance under the occupation. When it first aired, during the intifada of 1987, sumud was hailed as the principle of tireless commitment, against all the odds, to Palestinian land and identity.

Over the years, specific practitioners — samidin — have been singled out for their heroic examples, sometimes for even the smallest acts of daily resistance. As the suffering intensifies, and the metallic decree of Israeli bullets take their toll on young lives, this established understanding of “standing fast” or “rootedness” is being questioned.

The most grievous killings are at the hands of settlers, who, in response to the recent spate of stabbings by apparently desperate Palestinian youth, feel quite free to use their weapons with impunity. While settler violence is often condemned by leading Israeli officials, it is the logical extension of the numerous acts of degradation through which the occupation is maintained: from the policy of administrative detention, which has generated a prisoners movement around samidin hunger strikers like Khader Adnan, to the daily, soul-crushing waits at checkpoints for laborers dependent on a precarious Israeli wage.

Whether the violence is driven by race hatred, or by messianic fervor, it is ultimately targeted at the steady seizure of Palestinian land and the completion of ethnic cleansing that began in 1948.

Amir, a young man who also grew up in the Aida camp, described the state of siege in his adopted village, which lies to the south, on the way to Hebron. Surrounded by the settlement cluster of Gush Etzion, the villagers are increasingly thwarted from generating income from their small farms.

Settlers cut down their olive trees or plants, and try to confiscate their farms under a routinely exploited Area C military law that authorizes appropriation of land that has been “under-utilized” for five years. Some villagers accept monetary offers in return for the land, but the bigger bribe comes in the form of waged labor within the settlement, which, for all its indignities, pays out more than the farm.

For most Palestinians, taking work in a settlement — whether in construction, cleaning homes, or setting up for social events — is shameful and stigmatizing. But there are no other choices available to those in Amir’s position: “I force myself to go, I am disgusted at myself, and I want no relationship with any settler, but my family needs to eat.”

Unlike those who put in a long day (sixteen hours door to door is not uncommon) crossing over to construction sites in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it is relatively simple for him to pass through the checkpoint that leads to the settlement.

But getting to it might cost him his life. Settlers and soldiers are usually stationed around the traffic circle he has to cross en route. “You cannot get close to a settler or they will shoot you, and they decide when that is. I do not know if I am coming home when I leave in the morning.” Just the week before, three youths from neighboring Sa’ir were killed at the Gush Etzion junction, and a fourth, allegedly a stabber bent on revenge, was also gunned down and allowed to bleed to death.

Not all the settlers are religious zealots. Their numbers include families who are priced out of Israel’s increasingly unaffordable housing stock, and who jump at the offer to receive heavily subsidized accommodation in these West Bank colonies.

No doubt, the bigotry of their ultra-Zionist neighbors rubs off on some of these economic refugees. But the fact that there are no shared norms of conduct, let alone moral unity, among this employer class magnifies the uncertain plight of Palestinians, who have to second-guess which of the settlers who hires them is also likely to be trigger-happy.

Facing this stark intimidation on a daily basis sends a clear message to Amir. His labor is forced, not freely given; it is accompanied by the threat of physical violence, and it is linked to his giving up on the future of his family farm. Most humiliating of all, he is working to build and maintain an illegal settlement on land stolen from his own people.

The Palestinians who cross the Green Line have also been literally constructing the expansionist Israeli state, brick by brick, for the last three decades. Deprived of employment in the deliberately underdeveloped Palestinian economy, and unable to access an Israeli work permit, the only option for Palestinians like Amir is to lay the foundations, plaster the walls, and tile the roofs of the commuter suburbs and gated hilltop colonies that are supplanting their own olive orchards.

Under these circumstances, despair is not an option — for most Palestinians, this is seen as a self-indulgent response. That is why, in and around Abu Sur’s funeral, the sumud talk was joined by more open calls for direct action and for holding the Palestinian leadership to account.

As Raja Shehaheh puts it, “sumud is watching your home turned into a prison” and choosing “to stay in that prison because it is your home, and because you fear that if you leave, your jailer will not allow you to return. Living like this, you must constantly resist the twin temptations of either acquiescing on the jailer’s plan in numb despair, or becoming crazed by consuming hatred for your jailer and yourself, the prisoner.”

Does the recent upsurge in acts of confrontation, however decentralized, suggest that a new model of resistance to the occupation is in the offing? Internationally, the BDS movement goes from strength to strength, as new victories are recorded almost on a daily basis. The arguments for BDS are effective because they are fueled by clear moral reasoning. But the giddy momentum of BDS is not felt by ordinary Palestinians living in the shadow of the separation wall, waiting in the checkpoint queue, or watching settlers steal the land surrounding their villages.

On the face of it, the stabbings, and other attacks on Israeli soldiers, are nowhere near as articulate, and, officially at least, they are not authorized or condoned by any Palestinian faction. But they are by no means random, they enjoy widespread “popular” support, and their high profile generates the kind of international attention that is not wholly shaped by pro-Israel spin managers.

At the very least, we can say that these clashes and killings are no longer in the realm of “weapons of the weak” (subtle, and barely visible, acts of sabotage that are part of everyday resistance). Significantly, a knife is not a gun, but it is also more than a rock. Active Palestinians may be divided over whether to honor this moment with the label of the Third Intifada, but there is still a general expectation that, as in Yeats’s Bethlehem, something new is about to be born, “its hour come round at last.”