June 13, 2017 – By Bob Mason
Saturday night, May 22nd, canopied by a star-encrusted sky, I joined 90 activists (approximately 60 American, Australian, British, Canadian, and European Jews, 20 Palestinians, and 10 Israelis) in celebrating the re-establishment of the Palestinian agricultural village of Sapura in the South Hebron Hills.
Between 1980 and 1998 the people of Sarura and other nearby villages were expelled from their land by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in an act of ethnic cleansing. Even before the IDF applied military pressure, the families of Sarura were frequently harassed by the residents of the illegal Israeli settlement of Ma’on. Located only one fourth of a mile from the village, Ma’on’s settlers vandalized Palestinian property and contaminated the village wells. The IDF and police protected the settlers, not Palestinians.
This May, twenty years after leaving their homes, one family from Sarura decided to return. In support we established Sumud Freedom Camp–a Standing Rock-inspired encampment where we could use the privilege of international and Israeli Jews to provide some protection from harassment by settlers and the military. Sumud means “steadfastness” in Arabic and is a term Palestinian resistance activists use to describe their Sisyphean struggle to maintain their livelihoods and culture under Occupation. Four of the international Jewish activists at Sumud Freedom Camp were from Pittsburgh. One of them was Moriah Ella Mason, my daughter, a trip leader who had participated in last year’s delegation. She had inspired me to join this year’s trip.
Shortly before midnight, as we were celebrating two days of hard work rehabilitating one of the traditional homes in Sarura, twenty-five IDF soldiers rolled into camp. We were barbecuing, dancing to dubke (traditional Palestinian music) around the fire, and preparing to screen a movie. It was a sudden change of plans, but we had prepared and trained for this moment.
When the soldiers advanced we formed a human barrier to protect the camp and our Palestinian partners, who faced a much greater risk of assault, arrest, and imprisonment. Despite not producing an order for us to evacuate the area, the IDF commander demanded that we leave and threatened to unleash pepper spray. True to the name of the camp, we remained steadfast as the soldiers pushed us and roughed up several activists. Despite our discipline, the scene became chaotic once the soldiers cut the power from the generator that provided illumination. The landscape was rocky, difficult to walk even in daylight. For me the dramatic transformation from celebration to civil disobedience was surreal. As I witnessed my friends being abused I was frightened for them and worried about potential escalation by the IDF.
The soldiers succeeded in vandalizing the camp, destroying three tents, tossing our food on the sandy ground, and confiscating our generator, film projector, and screen. They didn’t succeed in evicting us. We vowed to sleep under the stars for what remained of a chilly night, guarded from potential settler reprisals by our hastily assembled Night’s Watch. I kept thinking about the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger as I and my partner, wearing t- shirts emblazoned with the statement “Occupation is not my Judaism”, circled the camp every twenty minutes.
Earlier that night we’d been inspired by one of the Palestinian leaders, internationally recognized human rights activist, Issa Amro. He invoked the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s persistent struggle for human rights at our Havdallah service marking the end of Shabbat.
On Sunday morning we rebuilt Sumud Freedom Camp in Sarura. As of June 13th, when this article was submitted, the camp remains in defiance of displacement and occupation. Smaller contingents of international activists for social justice continue to use their privilege to protect the courageous Palestinians. You can support their work by following the Sumud Freedom Camp Facebook page and the #WeAreSumud hashtag on social media. You can also donate much needed funds to “Sumud Freedom Camp: A Right to Remain” on generosity.com.
Late Sunday afternoon we arrived at our hotel in Bethlehem and were greeted by other delegation members with cheers, hugs, and a song from the South African anti-apartheid movement, “Courage my friends, you do not walk alone.” My daughter, who was responsible for media and worried about my safety, embraced me. Later that evening, those who engaged in the nonviolent direct action, shared the thoughts and feelings that had begun surfacing–anger, fear, worry, especially for the Palestinians still at the camp, and a mixture of relief and gratitude for our solidarity. I wept as I thought about the close and caring community of Palestinians, Israelis, and Diaspora Jews that we had formed. We had created, in microcosm, the world we longed for.
I helped in the establishment of Sumud Freedom Camp as a participant of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, a Jewish Diaspora anti-occupation group that girds its work with 3 principles”:
1) Active support for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza;
2) Commitment to nonviolent action;
3) Belief in the shared humanity and full equality of Palestinians and Israelis alike.
Bob Mason is a member of the Pittsburgh Chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, which opposes anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab bigotry & oppression.