VJP Intern Amber Smith
VJP Intern Amber Smith
Amber Smith is a member for Voices for Justice in Palestine (VJP) who traveled to Palestine-Israel in October 2022 and shared what she witnessed in a VJP e-newsletter. She described the heavy militarization of the Israeli occupation forces, the way good quality water is diverted into settlements, and her encountering a “flying checkpoint”: “For no reason we could see, they threw up an armed barrier and held us and everyone up for over 2 hours.”

 

The interview was edited for clarity and accuracy. The interviewer was Rev. J. Mark Davidson, Executive Director, VJP:

Tell us, Amber, where you went on your trip, and some of the experiences that most affected you and your understanding of the situation there on the ground?

We went to Jerusalem, Sheik Jarrah, Wadi Foquin, Bethlehem, Biddu, Ramallah, Hebron, Battir and Nil’in. We also spent two days participating in the olive harvest. So many things stand out for me. I was delighted to join in the olive harvest. It was such a celebration of community. The Palestinians we were with told us stories and shared their traditions with us. They served us Maqluba, which was so delicious! There were many internationals there with us, including a woman from France, helping with the harvest. The olive trees themselves are an amazing symbol of resilience, surviving for hundreds of years even through times of drought.

You mentioned Hebron. What stood out for you during your time there?

The time in Hebron was haunting. We went through a section of the once-bustling commercial sector of this Palestinian city, and it was like a ghost town, storefronts soldered shut. Hebron was a city split in two. Our Palestinian guide was not permitted to enter Hebron by the main road which was controlled by the Israeli Occupation Forces. He alone in our group was separated out and had to take a long, circuitous detour to be able to rejoin our group at the Ibrahimi Mosque. Also in Hebron, we met with Youth Against Settlements, an inspiring Palestinian resistance group co-founded by Issa Amro, who had just that day been detained and blindfolded by the IOF. It was dystopian to see an Israeli Jewish settler family passing our group on the street, the father carrying a machine gun over his shoulder. Heavily armed IOF soldiers throughout the city. The militarization is everywhere.

I visited Wadi Foquin in 2013. It was eerie to see Bitar Illit, the massive Israeli settlement up on the hill looming over the little village in the valley.

Bitar Illit is moving down the hillside, gobbling up more Palestinian land, and they are still dumping their raw sewage down into the valley, spreading toxins on the village land. Their life seems more threatened and tenuous than ever, though from their friendliness and hospitality, you’d never know it. One of the things they were celebrating and so grateful for was a soccer pitch on village land built with funds from American NGOs. Playing soccer and having fun is a form of cultural resistance for them.

Did you have the chance to interact with any of the Palestinian NGOs which were recently smeared by the Israeli government, in an effort to shut down their vitally important human rights work?

Yes, we did. We heard about the work of the 6 Palestinian human rights organizations, among them Al-Haq, Addameer, and Defense of Children-Palestine. We also spent considerable time with the organization called “Al-Ard”, a group related to Union of Agricultural Work Committees.

What experiences of the occupation did you have?

On the road from Ramallah to Bethlehem, we encountered a “flying checkpoint.” For no reason we could see, they threw up an armed barrier and held us and everyone up for over 2 hours. During that time, we moved perhaps 30 ft. Then, inexplicably, we were let through. The effect was to demonstrate that the Israeli Occupation Forces have this power to control and intimidate and can exercise it randomly. We were left with the question, “How do you de-normalize this harassment?” It is everywhere. No one should have to go through this. But getting a little taste of what Palestinians deal with everyday showed me how I take freedom of movement for granted.

On a free day, a small group of us went back to Bethlehem to visit Banksy’s Walled-Off Museum. It was eye-opening to see the bizarre intrusion of the Wall. The museum also taught us about the way water, the most valuable natural resource in this arid region, is piped into the settlements with huge, new pipes made with the latest materials and well-maintained, while the pipe into Bethlehem is small and corroded.

The Palestinians have turned the Wall into a transnational solidarity zone, as well as a place of artistic expression. What did you see there?

A Palestinian activist-artist had spray-painted “From Durham to Palestine”, a saying from Demilitarize!Durham2Palestine on the Wall, which was incredible. There also were large paintings of Ahed Tamimi and paintings of George Floyd. There was also a painting of the Wall broken open and through the imagined opening you could see the hillsides. Amazing to see this massive Wall, this obstacle, this symbol of oppression, covered with art.

 What was your impression of Jerusalem?

It was so strange to see the Via Dolorosa crawling with heavily armed Israeli soldiers. You saw all the history and the culture and the beauty of the city, but always the militarization everywhere we went. There is routine harassment. We saw a Palestinian child detained in an unmarked car, by unmarked police officers in front of their station near our hotel.

After our visit to Yad Vashem, we took taxis to our hotel in Palestinian East Jerusalem. One of the taxi drivers was extremely fearful of going to East Jerusalem. He had lived his whole life in West Jerusalem and had rarely taken a fare into East Jerusalem. Our group had experienced such warmth and friendliness from Palestinians and felt safe everywhere we went, and yet this Jewish Jerusalemite trembled at the thought of traveling into the Palestinian part of the city.

What other observations and insights do you have?

We heard from a close friend of our guide about his experience going to the Al Aqsa Mosque for prayers. 5 years ago, he was stopped and questioned by Israeli soldiers. They asked him about his education, which was in computer programming. They banned him from Jerusalem for 5 years. They told him he could download an app on his phone that would update him on his status and when he was permitted to go to Jerusalem. Of course, he knew that this was a surveillance tactic, so he downloaded it onto his phone to find out what he needed to know, and then quickly deleted it. When he finally went to the Mosque, they stopped him and questioned him again, this time asking him, “Why are you here? Where is your knife?”

Palestinians want travelers to their country to go back and tell their story and work for change. What did you come back motivated to do?

We heard that from every Palestinian group. They asked us to pray for them and to tell their story. I remember that when we were with activists from Badil, some in our group asked them, “What can we do?”, and one of the Badil activists turned the tables on us and said, “Tell me what you can do.” She put it back in our court. Back in my court. That’s what’s staying with me.

From the first day we met you, we saw your heart for the Palestinian people and your commitment to their freedom and justice. What are the sources that shaped your passion?

While I had heard here and there a little bit about the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” from the media, after the May 2021 assault on Gaza, I realized how uneducated I was when it came to Palestine. I started with a simple google search about the history, which led to first-hand accounts of the Nakba. Researching Palestine from an unbiased perspective, it doesn’t take long to see who’s on the right side of history. My research also led me to the Palestine Museum US, their Saturday film series being an incredible source of documentaries and films about the Palestinian story. I also find it helpful to follow Palestinians on the ground on social media, which is how I was viewing the 2021 assault on Gaza. Seeing what is happening, as it’s happening, from the people it’s happening to, I feel is more impactful than hearing about it the next day online. The more I learn the more passionate and confident I become in speaking up for Palestinian Rights. And visiting Palestine, seeing all of this firsthand, has only fueled my fire.

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