…There are ten measures of hypocrisy in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world…
—Avot D’Rabbi Natan
Popular Achievement training session at Birzeit University, a program of the American Friends Service committee in the West Bank and Gaza
Landfill in the Jordan Valley, nominally Palestinian Territory in the West Bank, operated by Veolia, a corporation under sanctions by Jewish Voice for Peace, the American Friends Service Committee, and other BDS (Boycott-Divest-Sanction) movement organizations
At a protest by Bedouins in the Negev and their Israeli supporters in opposition to land confiscation and village destruction
On May 28, 2012, my last day of seventy in the land of promise and trouble I wrote to my dear friend and partner, M:
i sit on the floor of the ben gurion airport after a night of relatively solid sleep in my car. in the parking lot of the rental agency no one bothered me. i rocked the seat back, cracked the windows open, put on my mosquito lotion, and slept well. a bit dazed when i awoke at 5:30—like you early to enjoy a bird chorus—i struggled to remember where i was, what i needed to pack and do, and how to formulate my story when confronted by airport security. trucks delivering airport construction materials lumbered by as I groggily checked out at the Avis rental office. now i wait until the airport check-in opens for my flight, three hours prior.
my last full day was monumental—mainly with bedouins in the negev desert and their israeli supporters. it was a fit finale to my ten-week journey of discovery. i photographed a long discussion about strategy to stop the land confiscation and forced removal from homelands (reminding me of american indians of course), followed by a fairly large demonstration at a major highway intersection. a bus pulled up and disgorged about thirty bedouin youth who then drummed, chanted, clapped, and smiled at the passing motorists.
i’d hoped to photograph bedouin communities, which i did earlier during the discussion (i couldn’t follow the hebrew of course). instead what i showed were mostly buildings, tents, toilets, animal pens, solar panels, fences, a cemetery and goats, sheep, and horses—not people. the demonstration provided the people, most vitally the women who usually don’t allow their photos to be made. the demo is public; thus they’re more willing.
so that was the kernel of my last day. i’m eager to prepare the photos. i have much to do when home as follow up. i’ve made many promises and received some praise. the work now continues, in many ways harder than while traveling because of other paths, not necessarily conflicting paths, but hopefully always mutually supporting ones.
Near Bethlehem, in the shadow of surrounding settlements-colonies, the weekly protest Catholic Mass at the Cremisan Monastery
As Martin Luther King Jr claimed, those with nothing they’re willing to die for are not fit to live. A harsh statement perhaps but, to me, convincing. The question of Palestine and Israel is my issue, I am fortunate to engage.
This was one of my best trips of seven. Why? Mainly because my nine-year-long accruing experience in Palestine-Israel generates insights, trust, motivation, ability to anticipate, navigational skills, multiple and often contradictory perspectives, and a clearer sense of what is best to show and how best to show it. As I wrote M, I know not to photograph traditional Muslim women unless they are in public situations like the demonstration or if I’ve been invited into their homes. Contacts have led to contacts. David N, an Israeli activist who I met on my first trip in 2003, led me to Haya N and the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, which in turn led to the Bedouins. Gilat B from Friends of the Earth Middle East led me to Tal H and not only the community garden project near southern Gaza but to the party at the swimming pool in a settlement to celebrate Shavuot. My many months in Gaza during previous trips generated a desire to explore the militarized perimeter from the Israeli side—a personal highlight, dangerous, delicate, revealing, a theme rarely photographed. Quakers in Palestine-Israel and at home continue to be a huge help. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Ramallah Friends School, Ramallah Friends Meeting, Friends International Center in Ramallah (FICR), my home meeting of Friends Meeting at Cambridge, etc. provided prayers, guidance, leads, and much appreciated financial backing.
On the Israeli side of the militarized barrier between Gaza and southern Israel
I am also slowly learning how to confront my anxieties. A list from this trip might inspire laughter: denied entry at the airport arrested, detained, deported or shot by the Israeli army; run out of gas; lose the car keys; fillings fall out or need a root canal; heart attack; misplace my passport; money and cards stolen; computer breaks or is lost; camera equipment malfunctions; etc. Some of this actually happened—my laptop’s hard drive failed, my credit card inexplicably stopped charging, my memory cards suffered corrupted files, and I had minor problems with a lens. However, I never ran out of gas, I never lost my car keys, I was not injured or arrested, and I experienced no thefts. As Mark Twain said, I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.
My primary impressions about the Palestine-Israel situation are these: First, Israel is a laudable country, successful and innovative in so many ways such as agriculture, transport, art and science, image building, and yet the incontestable fact remains that its success is to some extent based on the oppression of another people who have equal if not greater rights to that land. Israel relies—not entirely—on the resources and labor of the Palestinians.
Israeli middle school students help excavate an ancient cistern in the heart of West Jerusalem, a project of Friends of the Earth Middle East and Emek Shaveh
Second, referring only to the West Bank (and not Gaza which I did not enter this time), conditions superficially seem improved—slightly expanded economy and slightly more freedom of movement with fewer internal checkpoints. However, settler violence has dramatically increased, the Israeli government has shifted rightward, the Palestinian Authority appears moribund, and settlement construction continues at a high rate. Impunity and futility reign supreme.
Construction of a dormitory at the Ariel University Center of Samaria, in the settlement-colony of Ariel, deep in the West Bank
Dormitory at the Ariel University funded by the controversial Irving Moskowitz
Third, Palestine’s Second or Al Aqsa Intifada (shaking off in Arabic, or uprising) has mostly transformed into nonviolent resistance. Some regard this as the Third Intifada, and much of my photographic work aims at support.
Nonviolent demonstration in the village of Al Masara near Bethlehem
After the demonstration, the commander of the Israeli unit with Palestinian media workers
And fourth is my growing conviction that much Palestinian-led resistance—and Israel’s responses—are formulaic, lack strategy, and prove useless and counterproductive. I witnessed much back and forth between tear gas and bullets responding to rocks and sometimes Molotov cocktails responding in turn to tear gas and bullets. As my colleague Mustafa said, one Molotov cocktail and you can expect five dead or injured Palestinians. In addition I observed that media, including myself, allows itself to be sucked into coverage because of the drama. I write extensively about this in my blogs.
Prisoners’ rights demonstration at Ofer Prison, Israel
My itinerary: one month in Bethlehem with the Palestine News Network, one week in Ramallah with the AFSC and FICR, two weeks in the Jenin refugee camp with the Freedom Theater, one week in Jerusalem with Friends of the Earth Middle East and a second week again with the AFSC, and my final week in the Negev desert. My photographic themes included non-violent resistance to the occupation, corporations benefitting from and sustaining the occupation (one photo assignment was to support a limited divestment campaign), youth, arts as resistance, the environment, Quaker activities, Bedouins in the Negev, ancient habitation sites, and Christians in Bethlehem. In Jenin, Bethlehem, and Ramallah I also taught photography to adults and high school students and helped establish photo archives. I volunteered these services with funding I’d raised privately from friends and the Quaker community.
Palestinian prisoners suffering in Israeli prisons conducted a massive hunger strike which at one point included some 1,600 prisoners, more than one-third the entire Palestinian prison population. The strike elicited Israeli promises to make its policies more humane, promises yet to be realized (as of June 2012). At demonstrations I was able to intersect this theme several times, once to include my Jenin high school photo students in what some might term “an appointment with tear gas and rubber-covered metal bullets”—or “real life photography.”
One of my students at the Ofer Prison demonstration
From 13,290 photos (56 separate folders, totaling 68 gigabytes) made with what I hope is my open heart, my central task now is to supply photos I’ve promised to various organizations, put together new collections for exhibitions, slide shows, and my blog and website, update my blog with excerpts from my copious journals, and seek audiences, most immediately on the west coast in the fall of 2012 from California to Alaska and British Columbia. One way you the reader can help would be to let me know of venues that might wish to host one of my photo presentations. I can supply tour details if asked.
Thanks for following the issues and my work.
You photograph not only with your eyes but with your heart.
—Fares Oda, West Bank AFSC staff
Boys and automatic rifles
Caterpillar at work building illegal settlement-colonies (Har Homa)
Nativity Church and full moon in Bethlehem
Palestine News Network (English)
(With gratitude to Maria Termini for help editing this blog.)