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An Interview with Alex Krales

On the Ground in Palestine

by EDWIN KRALES

“To promote a homogeneous collective in modern times, it was necessary to provide, among other things, a long narrative suggesting a connection in time and space between the fathers and the “forefathers” of all the members of the present community. Since such a close connection, supposedly pulsing within the body of the nation, has never actually existed in any society, the agents of memory worked hard to invent it. With the help of archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists, a variety of findings were collected. These were subjected to major cosmetic improvements carried out by essayists, journalists, and the authors of historic novels. From this surgically improved past emerged the proud and handsome portrait of the nation.”

– The Invention of the Jewish People, Shlomo Sand

EK How did you get interested in Palestine support work? Were you a student at Hampshire College when divestment from Israel was adopted? 

AK I am a white cisfemale 24 years of age from New York City, currently working as a farm hand. I graduated with a BA from Hampshire College after four years of studying visual arts and political philosophy. I believe that I inherited an investment in Palestine solidarity through the work of my father, who has been involved in Palestine solidarity work for as long as I can remember. The discussions of our Jewish heritage and the United States support of fascism throughout history led me to questions about Zionism and the illegal occupation of Palestine. I was a student when Hampshire College divested from Israel. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) were incredibly active. SJP consistently organized lectures, screenings and rallies. I attended their activities but was not a member.

EK Were you with any particular group in Palestine? How did you find out about it? How many internationalists were involved? Did you encounter any sexism, racism, etc.? In what town did you live and for how long?

AK I went to Palestine to work with the International Women’s Peace Service (IWPS). I was there for about four months in 2013. I was encouraged to apply by a fellow organizer I met through the Direct Action Working Group during the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park in 2011. The group is entirely international women. In fact, women with Israeli/Palestinian citizenship can be involved but cannot be members of IWPS. While I was a part of the house team in the West Bank, IWPS consisted of two to eight women from all over the world. There are two kinds of IWPS memberships with different responsibilities: short-term volunteers and long-term volunteers who then participate in various working groups.

Sexism is incredibly challenging to deal with, especially for a white, western, non-Muslim woman. Gender roles are ingrained in tradition, social interaction and so many facets of life that there is no simple way to address patriarchy. I had to be careful to strike a balance between cultural sensitivity and working in line with my values. The vast majority of the people I worked with were very respectful, yet sexual harassment and rape culture are pervasive everywhere, including occupied Palestine and activist communities.

To describe the extent of racism is a challenge. I am a non-Muslim white person who can pass as Jewish, so the privilege that I experienced when interacting with the military, crossing borders, etc. is a product of a racist hierarchy that favors European whiteness and oppresses Palestinians and those of African descent. It was racism that enabled me to cross checkpoints where Palestinians were stopped, questioned and searched. If Palestinians were arrested, their treatment was atrocious. They could expect countless acts of torture and complete disregard of the law whereas those internationals or Israelis arrested, once identified as such, received more humane treatment.

I lived in a village called Deir Istiya in the Salfit district for four months. This area, known as the Ariel Finger, was chosen by IWPS because of the number of illegal settlements there. The villages in this area are plagued by settler attacks, night raids by the military and encroaching settlements whose populations are continuously expanding. The illegal settlement industrial zones manufacture goods for export internationally. These industrial zones dispose of their waste on Palestinian land as a form of biological warfare. The illegal settlements of Ariel’s industrial zone are polluting the agricultural land of the Salfit district, causing various illnesses including cancer. After I left Deir Istitya, I spent my last few weeks living in the city of Nablus.

EK What were your duties on a daily basis? Were there any political or social restrictions placed on you as a woman or non-Palestinian? What role did your art play?

AK My daily duties varied based on personal connections, day of the week, what was going on in the area and the calls that we received. If there were arrests, we would go and meet with the family and write a human rights report or incident report for our website, iwps.info. Not using names, we would document any material damages, physical abuses and arrests. The reports, organized by topics such as human rights, prisoners’ rights, minors and agriculture, would be sent to various contacts. If someone was arrested, efforts would be made to track their processing. A lot of time was dedicated to coordinating locals, solidarity groups, legal aid and media.

We also kept a database of “village profiles” that document standards of living, land use, income and various social, economic and political statistics as well as a shorter but broader look at the land stolen or not in use due to Israeli settlers, arrests, attacks and human rights abuses. These profiles have multiple purposes beyond documentation. Keeping this information updated ensures that local contacts are preserved. This could easily be the most important aspect. Local participation and individual connections are what makes organizations like IWPS function. The vast majority of the activities and work that I participated in was at the request of local Palestinian contacts and leadership seeking support. Attending rallies and demonstrations, accompanying farmers to their land and participating in conferences, demolition defense and damage documentation would not be possible without the action of local Palestinians who are working every day to survive under occupation.

From my limited understanding, the reaction of the Israeli military to the presence of foreigners has changed immensely since the second intifada. Where the presence of a European descendant used to have the ability to raise caution in the soldiers’ actions, this is no longer as pronounced.

In order to play a productive, useful role supporting the people of Palestine, I had to forge my own connections. Visual art is one skill that encourages social and political development because of the time spent collaborating on an image and executing a mural, for example. While working on mural projects, I was able to meet a lot of young people and spend time in public painting and discussing life. I am always trying to use skills I have, but I wanted the direction and leadership of the mural projects to come from the local people, since I was aware of my position as an outsider and as someone who would eventually leave Palestine.

EK Did you have any political duties? What were they? Did you work with any Jewish-Israeli supporters of Palestine?

AK Your question concerning political duties is challenging to answer because of course everything we do is political, and most people that I worked with are affiliated with various political parties. Individuals’ membership and political affiliation are none of my concern. My concern is to support the Palestinian people, their human rights and the right of self-determination. I met many people of Jewish  descent and identity, as well as Israelis who disagree with the occupation of Palestine from groups such as Anarchists Against the Wall, Combatants for Peace, Taayush and Students for Justice in Palestine.

EK Did you have any interactions of any sort with Jewish settlers, police or the army? How many were US born? Did they respect your non-violent status? 

AK While I was in the West Bank, there were Jewish settler attacks on the Palestinians weekly, if not daily. Settlers were usually easy to recognize because of their dress. They came in groups accompanied by the Israeli military. There were a few incidents when they were harder to recognize, such as on May 30th, when a group of 30 young settlers masked their faces with T-shirts and attacked homes bare-chested with stones and slingshots. After the attack, I watched them jog back to the illegal outpost and fall into a formation before loading into a truck with the efficiency that I associate only with military training. With the protection of the armed Israeli military using tear gas, the mob of settlers was able to inflict injuries with stones, damage homes and set fire to the land. On other days, I saw hate graffiti, destruction of olive trees and agricultural land, livestock harassed or stolen and many other atrocities. The Israeli army usually accompanies settlers during these attacks and helps them by tear-gassing Palestinians and their supporters who come to put out fires and defend families, homes or a village. The Israeli army serves as protection for the settlers by setting up checkpoints on the roads and not letting Palestinians or their supporters pass. They fire rubber-coated steel bullets and obscene amounts of tear gas to enforce their rule. There was often a tangible tension between the settlers and the Israeli military. I heard soldiers say things like “I don’t want to be here” or “There is nothing we can do” when asked to remove settlers or prevent violent attacks in villages. Although there were exceptions, it was clearly observable that the settlers were more extremist than the soldiers. Border police were often present during interactions between Palestinians and settlers or during settler attacks and demonstrations, adding immediate deportation to my personal risk assessment.

The Israeli military did not respect our non-violent status. I, along with local villagers and whoever else happened to be present, was suffocated to the point of dry gagging or losing consciousness. They fired tear gas, and excessive amounts of skunk water without warning and with the clear intention of inflicting injury. Others I knew suffered worse injuries after being shot with rubber-coated steel bullets. The soldiers showed no concern for the elderly or children present who would be badly injured and sustain permanent injuries during their attacks. It was hard to tell if and how many soldiers were born in the United States because many of them spoke English. However, it was consistently confirmed through accent or in conversation that one or two were indeed US citizens.

EK Were the Palestinians or you afraid of the settlers/Israeli army/police at any point, considering the death of Rachel Corrie, the sailors on the USS Liberty and the injuries to so many others like Tristan Anderson and Emily Henchowicz? Do you think the US allows the Israelis to attack or kill US citizens with impunity? Were Palestinians killed or wounded with impunity?

AK Whether or not I was afraid of the soldiers, settlers or police depended on the situation and what was happening. I was aware of their presence at all times, the way their bodies were positioned, how many of them there were, what they were doing and which one of them was holding the large gun that shot the tear gas.

During one olive tree planting session, a group of local Palestinians, IWPS and International Solidarity Movement (ISM) members had already completed most of the planting over the course of the morning when a dozen soldiers and one settler arrived in two jeeps and one white settlement security vehicle. They approached us all individually, telling us we had to stop. We continued to work while the Palestinian farmer who owned the land explained to them that it was his right to grow and tend his crops. Moments later, with little physical struggle, the soldiers grabbed our shovels and tools and put them in the jeeps. Everyone formed two huddled groups of conversation. I was aware of how young the soldiers were and how increasingly nervous they became while the villagers of Urif stated their right to work the land. An ISM member speaking to one of the higher-ranking soldiers in English concerning the return of the tools was detained and released an hour or so later. It is not that I would stand next to them or look at their faces and feel afraid, but what I felt was the rising tension in the group and the adrenaline from the rising threat of violence with the position of their hands on their weapons, the volume of the shouting and pushing and the detainment of people who pissed them off.

I became nervous immediately when the soldiers approached us from surrounding hills holding their weapons, keeping at a distance where they could only communicate by shooting their guns. This sort of incident occurred in the village of  Sabastiya when the villagers began to walk down to pray in the olive fields that were being polluted by waste water from a pipe from the illegal settlement of Shave Shomron. Sometimes the Israeli soldiers would begin shooting tear gas before the prayer, other times they began the tear gas attack after the prayer and discussion. The entire time it was known that the soldiers would decide when it was time to force everyone to leave, and you just had to keep your eyes open so as not to get hit when they opened fire. There was often a team of Red Crescent volunteers standing by with an ambulance long before a shot had been fired. The people of Sabastiya kept up this form of resistance by inviting people to congregate and have tea and then walking down to the fields to pray before getting attacked by soldiers who positioned themselves in the village hills surrounding the polluted fields. The villagers of Sabastiya invited the media, politicians and solidarity groups for this kind of demonstration every Friday. Months later, the sewage pipe ceased to pollute the fields. The threat is still there, but the community considered this to be a huge success.

Sometimes fear became closer to the anticipation of adrenaline like at Kufr Qaddum, where the main road had been closed because of the illegal settlement of Qedumin. Every Friday, people would arrive in the morning for coffee, conversation and prayer and then march down the main road, where the settlement blocks the only road to the city of Nablus. I attended rallies at Kufr Qaddum every Friday for four months. Every week, the soldiers would be in formation ready to charge, gas and shoot locals for walking down the road. In this setting, the locals of Kufr Qaddum were in good spirits, generous and looking forward to the day even though it would undoubtedly include choking on tear gas and running from the military. On one particular day in Kufr Qaddum, when numerous waves of gas and running soldiers had pushed the march back towards the entrance to the village, someone had bought boxes of ice cream. As the soldiers stood 100 feet away from the marchers eating ice cream, some villagers jokingly asked the soldiers why they weren’t enjoying this summer day on the beach in Tel Aviv.

Though people ran from the Israeli soldiers when they used their weapons, most did not appear afraid of their presence. If I had been injured or killed by a gas canister to the head, as many have been, I would not have expected any reaction from the US government. I never heard any international expect a reaction from their government if they were to sustain injuries. There were no repercussions for the Israeli soldiers who murdered Amer Nasser (17), Naji Abdul-Karim Balbisi (18) and countless others, or for the endless torture of Palestinian minors in Israeli military prisons. The Israeli state is largely an ethnic cleansing project where these tactics are a primary part of how it functions.

EK Since Palestinians are not allowed on the Jews-only roads, how do they get around inside Palestine? Are hospital or other medical visits done easily? Are they allowed to visit relatives or friends in Gaza or within the Green Line? What was life like for Palestinians on a daily basis: Food, water, school, athletic events, recreation, religious observance, checkpoints, house searches, etc.?

AK Transportation in Palestine is a combination of public buses, services (smaller buses) and taxis. Hitchhiking is as common as riding the buses, the driver accepting the same fee between distances. Many roads are permanently or sporadically closed by the Israeli military using gates that are installed at the entrances to villages or at checkpoints to cities. This enables the Israeli military to shut down transportation and access to hospitals and schools or movement of any kind. As in the case of Kufr Qaddum, to access a hospital or obtain medical care inside Israel (or, as it is called, ’48), individuals must have references and apply for a permit. The process is lengthy and difficult; there are organizations that will advocate and help obtain such paperwork. Some go to Jordan for care if it is available. Being able to go to Gaza or Israel to visit family and friends can be nearly impossible, especially if the individual is between 15 and 60 years old. Even children and the elderly do not obtain travel permits easily. If one has an Israeli ID or work permit, crossing the Green Line into the ’48 is easier. Work permits are rarely issued now and are often revoked as punishment or for intimidation purposes.

The Israeli military targets basic resources such as water in an attempt to force Palestinians off the land. This is the case with the attacks on the people of Asira. Every time the people of Asira would try to fix their water well, the settlers from Yitzhar would attack them by throwing stones. Restating statistics (for example, Palestinians use only 17% of the water in the West Bank) does not communicate the image of masked men throwing stones and shouting racial slurs, or ten-foot-tall fences flying Israeli flags in the middle of farm land or soldiers swimming naked in the spring and pissing in a family’s well, but this is how resource warfare plays out in the daily lives of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

Raids in the middle of the night happened frequently. Numerous families I spoke to described similar procedures. Soldiers would enter their homes by force in the early hours of the morning between 3AM and 5 AM. After they brought all the family members into one room of the house, the young men would be singled out, served with papers to appear for interrogation, blindfolded, arrested and often beaten. This is the case with the Hares boys, five minors from the village of Hares who have now been in prison for ten months after being tortured and coerced into giving false confessions.

Checkpoints are everywhere in the West Bank. They are used to control the movement of the people and as psychological warfare to continuously waste people’s time and demonstrate the extent of Israeli control.

EK Were people depressed, morose, disinterested or optimistic about their future? What did the young people want out of life?

AK I can’t speak for young Palestinians, and like any other group of young people, they all want different things. That being said, it’s fair to say they all want to be able to travel freely, to study where they wish, to sleep at night knowing they will be safe and that their families are safe. They want to get rid of Israeli Apartheid. Simply put, they want to be free.

EK What do Americans need to know about Palestine?

AK The US gives Israel over three billion dollars of aid per year despite all of the economic challenges we are facing within our own communities. The economic and social systems of the US and Israel are intertwined and so is the responsibility of their respective citizens. In Palestine, many would say things like “The US–love the people, hate the government.” Where the confusion comes in is why the people of the US have so little control over the bloated military budget and why so much racism goes unchallenged. If you go to the website whoprofits.org, a searchable database of the Israeli occupation industry, there are over one hundred companies who manufacture goods in the occupied Palestinian territories and whose businesses operate internationally, including in the USA. I think the people in the US need to understand that because of our government we have a negative impact on the Palestinian people. However, we can personally express our support of the Palestinians by participating in campaigns like “Free The Hares Boys!” in which we are demanding humane treatment and a fair trial for the five minors who have suffered immense brutality at the hands of the Israeli military. (To learn more, visit haresboys.wordpress.com.) Americans can also join the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement (BDS) and confront the racism, Zionism and Islamophobia we see at home every day.

Edwin Krales can be contacted at edwinkrales@hotmail.com