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A First-Hand Report on the Lives of Palestinians

“Israel’s occupation of Palestine is the longest and one of the most deadly military occupations in the world. For decades it has been characterized by widespread and systematic human rights violations against Palestinians. The occupation has also enabled and entrenched Israel’s system of apartheid imposed on Palestinians,” said Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General on February 19, 2024.

Note: Stephanie Gilstrom is an Olympia resident who participated in a 12-day “Stones Cry Out” Christian peace delegation from Palestine to Washington D.C. in March 2024. They met with Jewish, Christian and Muslim peacemakers, human rights activists and practitioners of non-violence in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Hebron. They returned to Washington DC for a series of meetings with 60 congressional representatives to advocate for peace and for improvement in conditions for Palestinians. For more information on the peace delegation, go to Stephanie’s article in the April 2024 issue of WIP at https://olywip.org/a-christian-cry-for-peace-in-palestine/

In this article Stephanie continues reporting on this experience. However, she focuses on some of her opportunities to meet Palestinians and to listen to their descriptions of their lives.

South Hebron Hills in the West Bank

Hafez Huraini picked us up from our hotel and took us on a tour of three villages in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank, one-hour south of Bethlehem. This area is located in the firing range of Zone C which is under military control, and the Palestinians have no civil rights. They are surrounded on all sides by illegal Israeli settlements and hostile settlers. We visited Mr. Huraini’s home in Al Twani where his wife served us breakfast and hot tea.

He said that on October 8, 2023, he witnessed his 19-year-old nephew getting shot in the stomach by Israeli settlers while his nephew was bringing his sheep home from pasture. The young man is now permanently disabled. About a half block from his home, a villager was shot dead by settlers and his body was never returned to his family.

In another village, many homes have been demolished, and people have been forced to live in nearby caves that have no electricity or running water. We were invited into one of these cave homes by a family who had white-washed the walls and tiled the floor to make it more habitable. Some people have generators, solar panels and cisterns, but these are constantly being destroyed or stolen by the settlers.

We visited a Bedouin camp of displaced people who lived in shanties, and we saw hungry children running around in the cold without shoes. The village elder told us that in December 2023 the settlers rounded up ten men in the middle of the night and forced them to sit on the floor facing a wall while they pointed loaded guns at their heads. They made them say demeaning things about themselves while being filmed on cameras.

Interestingly enough, there was a modern illegal Israeli settlement less than fifty yards from the camp. These ultra-modern homes had red-tiled roofs, air conditioners and grass lawns. We saw uniformed settlers pointing their assault rifles at us as we walked to our car.

Mr. Huraini, who is in his mid-60’s, told us that he has been repeatedly assaulted and arrested over the years for trying to protect his land. The first time was when he was 17 years old, and Israeli soldiers had beaten and kicked him to the ground. His mother intervened and threw her body over his to protect him. The soldiers kicked her in the head, which blinded her in one eye. No one has as ever been held accountable for any of these crimes.

Mr Huraini’s clashes with the IDF and Israeli settlers were recently documented on the television network Al Jazeera: https://youtu.be/cTe0i50dtVo

Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem

I also met Samiha, the 24-year-old assistant director of the Alrowwad Cultural Arts Youth Center, in the Aida Refugee camp in Bethlehem. She has a degree in English literature and so do I, so we spoke at length about books. We also discussed her job and her life as a third-generation refugee. She said that residents face staggering rates of joblessness, poverty and violence.

The israeli Defense Force (IDF) makes life in Aida unlivable; conditions are overcrowded and the camp lacks basic infrastructure such as roads, sanitation and electricity. The IDF strategy entails the constant use of tear gas and sound bombs (with Aida being the most tear-gassed place in the world), nightly raids on Palestinian homes, drones flying over the camp at all hours of the day and night, and “knee capping”, where soldiers aim at the knees of Palestinians to disable them.

Samiha indicated that it’s nearly impossible to visit friends and family in the West Bank or Gaza due to visa restrictions and hundreds of roadblocks. Samiha has never seen the Mediterranean Sea, despite living just three hours away, because she is prohibited from entering the state of Israel to get there.

In November 2023 her 17-year-old neighbor, a senior in high school, was shot dead in his room by an Israeli sniper while he was studying for his final exams. His body was never returned to his parents. She said children as young as five years old can tell the difference by the sound between tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and live ammunition.

Her grandparents, parents, and extended family have been terrorized for decades, and she’s constantly afraid that someone she knows will be wounded or killed at any moment. There is no luxury of time or safety to heal from ongoing trauma

The Opportunity to Witness and Become a Better Advocate

My trip to Palestine was invaluable in helping me gain first-hand insight into Israeli-Palestinian relations, but many of my most indelible memories are of meeting Palestinians and listening to their stories. These experiences helped me to become a more effective activist and change agent.

There are many opportunities to visit the the occupied West Bank in Palestine, including FOSNA (Friends of Sabeel North America), an interdenominational Christian organization seeking justice and peace in the Holy Land. See https://www.fosna.org/come-see-visit-the-holy-land

Through this organization you can have the chance to see the separation wall, illegal settlements, checkpoints, confiscated and demolished homes, and refugee camps. You can also make friends with local Palestinians. Like me, you can “Come and See; Go and Tell.”

Olympia resident Stephanie Gilstrom is active in a Christian church, has lived in Egypt, and volunteers with the American Red Cross at natural disaster sites as a mental health clinician.

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