‘Freedom School’ in Abu Dis
Bob Traer from the United States
11 April 2005
Forty years ago I was teaching Freedom School in rural black churches in Mississippi. The public schools were about to be desegregated, and a court order had struck down unreasonable requirements for those trying to register to vote (such as explaining selected paragraphs from the U.S. Constitution). In Freedom School we talked about how to overcome segregation and white racism in Mississippi, and we helped local black people, some of whom were barely literate, understand and prepare to advocate for their civil rights.
On Thursday of last week I accompanied Helle Preisler, a young Danish woman in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, as she went to Abu Dis (a 40-minute walk from the Mount of Olives on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem) and taught English to professors at Al Quds University and then volunteers at the Jerusalem Center for Democracy and Human Rights (JCDHR). As I listened to her lead a discussion with each group in English about the Israeli Occupation and what it was doing to their personal lives and their communities, I was reminded of being in Mississippi. Helle doesn’t call her classes “Freedom School,” but I felt that she was doing here very much what I had done in Mississippi 40 years ago.
There were differences, of course. Those involved in asserting their civil rights in rural Mississippi were black Christian Americans, who already spoke English, whereas participants in Helle’s classes in Abu Dis are Muslim Palestinians, who are fluent in Arabic and are trying to learn and improve their English skills. Yet, in Abu Dis as in rural Mississippi, those taking part in the classes were trying to learn how best to assert their fundamental human rights in the face of discrimination and brutality at the hands of the power brokers and their armed enforcers.
Helle had come to Israel to use her skills in teaching English to help Palestinians. When she went to Al Quds University to inquire about teaching students, professors in the law school told her they wanted her help in improving their skills. These men were well informed about the Israeli Occupation, and had no trouble advocating the Palestinian position in Arabic. Moreover, they were able to read difficult material in English. But they lacked skill in conversation, and they saw what Helle was offering as a way to learn how to argue their case more effectively with the English speaking audience they want to reach.
Helle’s method is very straightforward, but I think effective. She asks questions about the Occupation. In the class I attended she asked about the confiscation of water resources, about the settlements that have been constructed contrary to international law on Palestinian land, and about the “Separation Wall” that Israel is building despite the judgment by the International Court of Justice that it, too, violates international law.
In response to her questions, the Al Quds professors explained to her, in English, their understanding of the various strategies used by the Israeli government to deprive Palestinians of their property and their civil rights. As they spoke, I could see them concentrating on saying clearly in English what they were thinking in Arabic. Helle would write on a whiteboard with a marker any word or phrase that they had difficulty thinking of, or that some of them didn’t understand. She also wrote in simple sentences and phrases the various points they made.
In the class I visited she began by asking, “How are the settlements related to the water resources?” She chose this question, because in the previous class the topic for discussion had been the limited amount of water available to Israelis and Palestinians, and the strategy that the Israeli government had used to control more than its fair share of this precious resource. The Al Quds professors described how the settlements had been built to gain control over the water, and how pipelines had been laid deep in the ground to prevent Palestinians from damaging these lines or tapping into them to obtain water for West Bank villages.
The professors also explained that settlements had first been built near the Green Line, which has been recognized internationally after 1967 as the boundary between Israel and the Occupied Territories. Then additional settlements were built closer to Palestinian cities and around Jerusalem. All of the professors agreed that the settlements built illegally by the Israeli government effectively deprive the Palestinians of the water resources, the best agricultural land, and the contiguity of territory required for a viable Palestinian state.
As they talked more about land confiscation, the professors distinguished between the taking of land for security reasons and for a “public purpose.” In the latter case, Israeli courts have upheld land confiscation by the government, ostensibly for purposes such as parks and roads, even when the government then built settlements and roads on this land that only Jewish settlers could use.
After the class was over, Helle wrote down on a sheet of paper the words and phrases she had written on the whiteboard during the discussion. She will type this up and bring it to the next class, so the men will have in written English some of the comments they made in the class.
The afternoon English class in Abu Dis was held in a very different environment. At the university the professors met in a library, where the walls were filled with volumes in Arabic. At the JCDHR office, we met in a small room with a few posters against the “Separation Wall” tacked up on one wall. The office environment reflected the lack of funding for the Center, and the students who came for the class were wearing jeans and open shirts rather than suits.
These men were between 25 and 45, and their English was less polished than the speech of the professors. A young Jewish photojournalist joined us for this class, as he was interested to hear how the men would describe their lives in Abu Dis.
The topic for discussion in this class was the experience the men had with the checkpoints that create obstacles for Palestinian movement within the West Bank. Helle asked what had led up to the present system of checkpoints. In halting phrases, the men began to describe how bulldozers had first pushed dirt into mounds that blocked certain roads, which made travel more difficult. Then the Israelis began to use mobile checkpoints, with movable barriers. These would appear on some roads, and then be moved to other roads. Soon identification cards were issued that allowed the bearer of the I.D. card to be in one section of the West Bank, but not in another.
The next step was to construct major checkpoints and block all the other roads, so there was no moving between, say, East Jerusalem and Ramallah, without going through the checkpoint. The final step has been to build the “Separation Barrier,” which is a high fence in many places, but an 8- or 9-meter Wall separating Jerusalem from Abu Dis, and surrounding Bethlehem.
When this Wall is completed around Abu Dis, it will block those who live in Abu Dis from going directly to Jerusalem, requiring that they travel first to Ramallah and then come through the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. But the “Separation Wall” will also make it impossible to go from Abu Dis to Bethlehem or to Ramallah, without going through a checkpoint. Also, with large Jewish settlements to the east, the Wall will prevent travel to Jericho without going through a checkpoint. Abu Dis will be completely surrounded and cut off.
“What does this mean for you?” Helle asked. One of the men described how he used to work in Jerusalem, but now couldn’t enter the city because he didn’t have proper identification. He said many more people were unemployed now in Abu Dis, because Jerusalem had been the source of work for most of those living so close to the Old City. Another man, who was studying for a degree in Ramallah, was not permitted to go from Abu Dis through Jerusalem to Ramallah, because he only had a West Bank I.D. He had to take a longer route around Jerusalem to get to Ramallah.
“Describe an experience you have had at a checkpoint,” Helle said. The former student in Ramallah told how he’d been going back to school after a break, and had a large bag with him full of clothes, books, and other personal items. At the checkpoint, the Israeli soldiers took everything out of his bag, and then dumped all his stuff including his bag in the road. Then they made him stand there for two hours, while cars and trucks drove over his stuff and dirtied and destroyed everything.
The man who can no longer work in Jerusalem described taking his pregnant wife to the hospital, because she “wanted” to have a baby. “No, she had to give birth,” Helle corrected him. “Yes,” he repeated, “she had to give birth.” They were held up for over an hour, but were finally allowed through. He stayed with her for two days and then, despite having one leg that is shorter than the other, set out to walk the three miles back home. When he arrived at the checkpoint, the soldiers refused to let him pass. In frustration, he became angry and yelled at them, telling them he had to return home to take care of his other children, and showing them that he was not carrying anything. After waiting over an hour, he was finally allowed to walk home.
This man said he had been arrested once, and that meant he now had a “black file.” He had been arrested with several other men who were protesting the closure of a checkpoint. The men were taken into a room, and with their hands tied behind them were forced to lie on the floor for two days. They were not given any food or water, and soldiers often came in and walked over their backs. Finally, they were released and not charged with anything, yet now he has a “black file” and will never be able to work again in Jerusalem.
A fourth man in the group just shook his head when Helle invited him to describe an experience he’d had at a checkpoint. It seemed to be so upsetting that he didn’t want to talk about it. Another man said there was criminal activity at the Abu Dis checkpoint. People were moving drugs through the checkpoint at night, but the local Palestinians were too afraid to go there to try to stop this trafficking. They thought the drug smugglers were paying off the Israeli soldiers.
At the end of the class Helle gave the men an assignment to write up their experiences in English. She told them not to worry about the spelling or grammar, and to use Arabic words if they didn’t know the English word to say what they wanted to say. This would enable them to keep writing, rather than stopping to check a dictionary constantly. The Israeli who had sat in for the class explained to the men that in English their experience could be shared on the Internet with a wide audience, on a group’s web site, or in blogs they created for themselves. They could describe life in Abu Dis so others would know how it is affecting them and their families.
It was dark when we left the Center. Swirling winds were blowing dust everywhere, and so we drove slowly to where the “Separation Wall” meets a lower wall running perpendicular to it. The man giving us a ride in his old car took us first to where the main street of Abu Dis ends at the 8-meter Wall. On the other side of the Wall the road continues on to Jerusalem, but there is now no way to access this road directly. “This is the end of the world,” the man said.
We took a new, but narrow asphalt road that followed the “Separation Wall” to the north up to another street. But then we had to turn back into Abu Dis and take a winding route up a steep hill, in order to approach the place in the Wall where people can still get across.
As he drove, our friend said, “The Israelis don’t want to live with us. They don’t want the Palestinians to have their own state. The Israelis want us to leave.” It was hard to argue with his pessimism. “But this is our home,” he said in clear English, “and we will live here.” He smiled warmly, as we shook hands, and he told Helle that he would study hard before the next class.
He had dropped us at the intersection of a lower wall, which runs perpendicular to the “Separation Wall.” Here people have piled rocks below the intersection of these two barriers, so they can step up on the rocks and then onto the lower wall, which is about six inches wide. Walking carefully along the lower wall around the higher wall, they then step down onto another pile of rocks on the other side. One by one, we made the crossing from the Abu Dis side of the “Separation Wall” to the Jerusalem side of this barrier.
When Helle and I had walked into Abu Dis in the morning, we had walked past seven or eight Israeli soldiers standing in front of this illegal entrance and exit from Abu Dis. They had seen us and others climbing “around” the “Separation Wall,” but hadn’t paid any attention. Yet, there are many documented accounts of people being stopped at this crossing by soldiers and then hassled, or prevented from crossing, or even beaten.
Twice a day Israeli women from Machsom Watch (machsom means checkpoint in Hebrew), an organization that monitors checkpoints, come to Abu Dis to try to provide some protection for Palestinians by observing the soldiers as they monitor the human traffic in an out of Abu Dis. But these women, who were probably there earlier in the afternoon, had now gone home.
We walked back retracing the path we had taken in the morning. We passed the Church at Bethphage, where the Palm Sunday procession began, and up the eastern side of the Mount of Olives, then along the crest of the Mount of Olives to Mount Scopus and the guesthouse where we are staying. Helle wanted to know what I thought of the English classes, and I told her I was deeply moved by the stories of these men and by their dedication to learning English so they could more effectively be advocates for the human rights of their people.
I was reminded of the committed black men and women I had known in Mississippi and of their courage and endurance, despite the terrible suffering and injustice inflicted upon them.
The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) was launched in August 2002. Ecumenical accompaniers monitor and report violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, support acts of non-violent resistance alongside local Christian and Muslim Palestianians and Israeli peace activists, offer protection through non-violent presence, engage in public policy advocacy and stand in solidarity with the churches and all those struggling against the occupation. The programme is coordinated by the World Council of Churches (WCC).