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A Firsthand Account of Israel’s Siege on a Palestinian University

Palestinian resilience is an everyday form of heroism.

Israeli borderguards stand outside Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, a West Bank suburb of Jerusalem, close to the Israeli controversial separation wall during clashes with Palestinian demonstrators on November 2, 2015.

Each Friday, starting on March 30, 2018, the Israeli Army has opened fire on and used drones to teargas Palestinians in proximity to the Gaza border. During this fifth week of protest, on April 27, thus far, three Palestinians have been shot dead, and 833 wounded, 174 of them by live Israeli fire. Those shot include medical staff and journalists. This latest outbreak of Israeli violence — which continues to gather force with each passing week — only makes clear the need for the Palestinians’ Great March of Return that is said to have triggered it.

The Great March of Return is a six-week campaign that includes the setup of five tent camps near the Gaza border and a series of marches that began on March 30, or Land Day, a day commemorating Israel’s expropriation of Palestinian land. The Great March will culminate on Nakba Day, May 15, 2018. This date marks the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the catastrophe that expelled more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes with the establishment of the Israeli state.

The 30,000 people participating in the Great March — many of them refugees as the Nakba continues — are gathered near the Gaza border to assert their UN-guaranteed right to return to their homes. They also are protesting 11 years of blockade and siege, during which Israel has killed more than 3,700 people, injured over 17,000 and decimated Gaza’s infrastructure.

I experienced the ripple effects of the Israeli Army’s crackdown on Palestinian protesters firsthand this month during my two-week residency at the Al-Quds University English Department in Abu Dis, a suburb of occupied Jerusalem.

During the start of Israel’s most recent killing spree in Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison, I followed reports of the campaign from Abu Dis with the perspective of someone on the ground in the occupied territories (albeit temporarily). I read about Israel’s deployment of snipers on Land Day — also the first day of Passover — who, with cold deliberation, killed 19 Palestinians in proximity of the Gaza border, and injured more than 1,400 — numbers that continue to rise on each successive Friday.

I also witnessed the lesser-known ways the violence of occupation permeates all of Palestine, including Al-Quds. The Israeli Army regularly invades the Al-Quds campus I was visiting. Tear gassings are frequent enough that, upon arrival at the campus guesthouse — about a kilometer from campus, and on the eighth floor of the Al-Quds medical clinic — the other residents advised me to leave town by Friday night, when the army deploys tear gas. They also cautioned me not to dry my clothes outdoors to avoid itching caused by the tear gas’s residual presence.

Those of us staying in the guesthouse, all visiting students and faculty, often gathered in the common kitchen for meals. As Land Day and Passover approached, we realized over breakfast that a number of us were having increasingly violent dreams, populated by drones and soldiers.

I would not call these nightmares premonitions but rather a response to the daily violence we were witnessing, albeit from a position of privilege, as European and American visitors. Indeed, I felt my own privilege as a white Jewish woman particularly keenly when I breezed through Ben Gurion Airport — which West Bank and Gaza Palestinians cannot access to begin with. Though I feared interrogation and a ban for my vocal support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, the young man at Passport Control only questioned if I was there to visit family as, pointing at my face and then at his own, he insisted that we must be related.

Among those of us staying in the guesthouse, our dread of impending terror materialized on March 30, when Israeli snipers opened fire on Palestinians approaching the Gaza border, shooting and killing farmers, protesters and journalists. I received this news via Facebook postings, and from Palestinians in cafes and cabs.

The Palestinians I talked with connected the siege on Gaza to their own experiences of life under occupation. One student, reporting on the sniper fire, related this assault to the Israeli government’s violence against her father. She described to me how her father was imprisoned for nine years for political organizing during the First Intifada. After he was released in a prisoners exchange, he was harassed for decades by the military. Finally, no longer able to withstand this constant assault on his very existence, he abruptly left Ramallah for New Jersey.

On March 31 came the general strike organized throughout Palestine in solidarity with the Palestinians gathered along the Gaza border and in protest over their own subjection to colonial violence. And on April 1, Al-Quds students organized an additional strike. They marched through campus and delivered speeches protesting the Gaza massacre. At midday, the Israeli Army responded by tear gassing the students. As this began, the English Department chair ushered me quickly into the Faculty of Arts building. Once inside, we closed the windows, but we still could feel our eyes burning as the gas entered our lungs. Soon, too, we heard sounds of gunfire that my office mates identified as live ammunition.

When I wanted to leave, the building’s security guard let me know how I might exit campus through one of the side gates. As I hurried across lower campus toward the guesthouse, following the road hemmed in by the Apartheid Wall, I could hear shots being fired. Near the main gate of campus, I did a quick about-face. Debris from the army was everywhere, and people were running in the streets away from the sound of gunfire. I ran back through the lower gate, crossing campus to the Faculty of Arts Building, to wait out the military’s invasion in an office where some students were attempting to make up a test. Moments later, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (akin to the Red Cross) ordered a mandatory evacuation because the army had shot one student in the head and another in the chest. We left the office, the students and their teacher upset over the disrupted exam.

The exit from campus was calm but congested with people on foot and in cars. A faculty member drove me back to the guesthouse. A few hours later, I ventured out to the grocery store a half-kilometer from campus. The streets were quiet, and in the store, all seemed normal. Once back in the guesthouse, as the sun set, I could hear honking, followed by the sounds of what I thought to be gunfire. Panicked, I pounded on the door of my neighbor, asking him what was happening. He laughed and told me a wedding was underway and I was hearing fireworks.

That night, I searched for an update on the Al-Quds students. I found the military incursion reported only in one brief account that noted the shootings and the injury of 98 students.

When I went as usual to campus the next day, all was unnervingly normal until, suddenly, I heard students shouting. I asked the students I was sitting with on the benches outside the English department if this was a protest over yesterday’s violence. They laughed and told me no, students were celebrating classmates who had just completed their law degrees. Soon I saw several young men in suits, hoisted in the air by friends who marched them through campus, as their parents distributed sweets to everyone assembled.

I remain struck by how, as I was feeling shaken and overwhelmed by the violence I had witnessed, the Palestinians around me were engaging in celebrations — be they weddings or graduation — and daily routines like grocery shopping and taking an English language test.

Palestinian resistance and resilience in the face of colonial violence is an everyday form of heroism, even as the need for such bravery is an affront and an outrage. I know that the violent dreams that have persisted for me since my return from Palestine provide only the tiniest taste of the toll-taking trauma and chronic stress that Palestinians experience as “normal.”

As I write these words back home in Honolulu, I read that once more, just three weeks later on April 23, the army invaded the Al-Quds campus and once again tear-gassed and shot students with rubber bullets and live ammunition. This story appeared in my Facebook feed on April 24, amid a stream of photos of Al-Quds students celebrating the completion of their graduation seminars with family members, faculty and friends on their last day of classes.

Those of us fortunate enough not to have Israel’s violence be part of our everyday reality have a responsibility to help end it. As Palestinians put their lives on the line to participate in the March of Return — and indeed, simply to survive in their homeland — people of conscience can support them through participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

BDS, a nonviolent Palestinian-led movement, offers the best avenue for exerting pressure on Israel to comply with international law and to end its ongoing practices of settler colonialism, apartheid and occupation. Its three demands are that Israel end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, that Israel grant equal rights to Palestinian Israelis and that it recognize Palestinian refugees’ right of return. What is, for visitors like me, an occasional nightmare, is for Palestinians the daily reality of Israeli setter colonialism — a form of violence that must and can be overcome.

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