Monday, June 25, 2012

Peaceful Resistance, One Pitcher at a Time

On a rocky hillside in the ancient village of Taybeh, the fragrant smell of roasting barley emanates from an inconspicuous factory.  Inside, the Khoury family is busily overseeing several tanks of brewing liquid which will eventually be bottled and packaged as the Middle East’s only microbrew.

The brewery occupies an interesting position in Palestinian politics, history, and economics. Its founders, David and Nadim Khoury had escaped the violence and instability of the West Bank to attend college in Boston, Massachusetts. There, David fell in love with brewing beer. When the Oslo Accords were signed in 1994, the brothers decided to move back to their home village of Taybeh and support Palestinian people by bringing business: beer business.

Alcohol is forbidden under Islam making Taybeh’s position in the majority-Muslim West Bank a precarious one. The beer is produced in Palestine’s last remaining entirely Christian town, but this fact alone has not dissuaded extremists from targeting the Khoury family and the town of Taybeh in acts of violent protest. David’s car has been torched, someone has shot at him, and the factory was nearly burned down in 2005 during a period of religious riots following the honor killing of a Muslim woman from a nearby town after it was discovered she had engaged in a relationship with a Taybeh villager. Fourteen homes were destroyed and the West Bank nearly lost its only brewery. 

Explicit violence is not the only challenge the family faces. The occupation of the West Bank results in stringent regulations and policies that dissuade business and make life particularly hard for beer brewers. The water for Taybeh comes from only two miles away, but this water source is under Israeli control. The water is prioritized for the Israeli settlements built on the hilltops surrounding Taybeh who receive a constant flow, while Palestinian villages in the region are pumped water half of the week, and only after they purchase it from Israel. After the production of the beer, it must be transported through several checkpoints to reach distribution sites within the West Bank, and particularly stringent checkpoints to enter Israel for local use and export abroad. Brew Master Madees Khoury explained that several times, shipments have spoiled while awaiting inspection or have been refused entry into Israel, impeding all foreign export.

Despite the many challenges facing the small operation, the family produces one terrific set of beers earning their moniker “The Finest in the Middle East” (my personal favorite is their “Dark,” a rich and smooth stout). The business remains viable, surviving its greatest challenge yet during the Second Intifada and becoming a point of Palestinian pride in more liberal cities where alcohol is legal. Their billboards often read: “Drink Palestinian, Taste the Revolution.” 

More than anything, the Khourys see their business as a form of civil resistance. Born in a moment of hope after the historic Oslo Agreements, the family dreams to someday see a free and prosperous Palestinian state.
“The Christians of Taybeh have lived through countless occupations since the time Jesus entered this town,” Maria Khoury explained to me, “and they have always responded through peaceful resistance. This is a matter of great pride in our village. We are not a violent people, and we will support Palestinian independence not by strapping on bombs, but by brewing beer, providing jobs, and investing in Palestine.” 

Cheers to that.

Apartheid’s Witnesses

 “When I was young, I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand seeing the injustice of apartheid in my home country of South Africa. It became so bad that my husband and I decided we had to leave. We didn’t want to be a part of a country that oppressed its own people. That was 1968,” Rosemary told me. 

“So you decided to come to Israel?” I asked.

“Well, we considered many places—the United States, Europe—but my husband thought it was important that Jews have a state to live peacefully and prosperously. Even then, we were pretty secular, and I felt less strongly about it than him, but we decided to give it a try for a year. We left South Africa, had our first daughter here, he started a law practice…and we stayed. Now, my grandchildren are here and I couldn’t even imagine leaving.”  

Rosemary and I sat on the porch of a Palestinian souvenir shop and sipped sweet tea the shop owner brought us. Across the street, we watched one of Hebron’s 16 urban checkpoints as Israeli soldiers repeatedly turned Palestinians away, forbidding them from crossing into the Israeli part of town where we now sat. Rosemary played with her glass with a forlorn face. 

“It’s awful,” she said, “It makes me sick. I came to Hebron today because I felt I had to see it for myself, and it’s even worse than I’d imagined. People in Israel just don’t know. They don’t allow themselves to know."
Rosemary was one of several Israelis I met during my time in Hebron who felt the military presence within the city, the presence of sometimes hostile settlers, and the imposition of road blocks and checkpoints unnecessarily oppressed Palestinians and infringed upon civil liberties. Another woman, Rebecca, played with the golden charms of the Star of David and Hamsa Hand dangling from her neck as she told me why she regularly visits Palestinian families in the city to check in on them and draw attention to abuses that occur. Despite her conservative religious and Zionist beliefs, she felt a moral obligation to bear witness to the violent abuses committed by Hebron’s settlers.  Her decision has drawn great criticism from her religious community in Jerusalem, yet she still visits Hebron twice per month, sometimes accompanied by a friend, often alone.
Rosemary and Rebecca are part of a larger movement by Jewish Israelis to oppose the most blatant abuses of Occupation. Several Israeli organizations work to draw attention to human rights abuses in the West Bank, including B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, yet the number of open Israeli dissenters still remains a minority. In many parts of the West Bank, Palestinians have still never met a Jewish person who wasn’t working for the Israeli Defense Forces or living in an illegal Israeli settlement,* perpetuating mischaracterizations of all Israelis as unjust aggressors.
As was the case in segregated America and apartheid South Africa, Occupied Palestine has created 2 distinct classes of people with different laws determining freedom or oppression. Resentment seethes in the archetypical city of Hebron, and patiently waits for the right moment to boil over.

*All Israeli settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes the International Court of Justice’s ruling.
Note: All names in this post have been changed.

Aisha, Alive and Well

Aisha watching a game of soccer belo
From behind a barred window, chained for added protection, seven year old Aisha watched outside. In the small sports gymnasium two stories below, young boys wearing kippa with face-long payot played a game of soccer, surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. 

The boys are children of Jewish settlers living in Hebron, a city with roots predating the biblical era and archaeological records as old as the Bronze Age. Their parents are some of the most extremist Zionists in the West Bank, choosing to live in the only Israeli settlement located in the heart of an Arab Palestinian city. In order to discourage violence between the 500 settlers and 165,000 Arab Palestinians living in Hebron, Israel maintains a presence of an estimated 4,000 soldiers who oversee 116 roadblocks, closures and checkpoints and man several military stations for each home inhabited by settlers (TIPH). The enforced segregation of the city has resulted in the closure of 1,829 Palestinian businesses located near settlements, 77% of the Old City’s Palestinian-owned markets (ACRI).

Aisha’s walk home through the Old City requires her to pass through two Israeli checkpoints where armed soldiers have the choice to question her extensively or allow her to pass. On this day, joined by her foreign friend, travel was a breeze. 

The Old City’s ancient corridors are full of life, with vendors beckoning passersby to buy their fresh produce, fragrant spices, colorful ceramics and tapestries. Above the open-air market, Palestinians have installed a roof of nets and fencing to protect themselves from propelled objects and waste thrown by settlers living in apartments above. 

Aisha running through a checkpoint
Aisha held my hand while flitting through the market, propelling me quickly through the ancient streets and tunnels, dodging food carts, donkeys, and pedestrians. 

As we neared Aisha’s house, her older sister Sundus pointed out their uncle’s home, located in the shadows of a Palestinian home illegally taken by Israeli settlers who have ignored Israeli eviction orders for months. Her uncle’s roof now serves as a permanent home for Israeli Defense Forces who have built a watch tower over the family room. Sundus whispered to me that two days ago, the soldier in the tower yelled explicit profanities at her. 

Without warning, little Aisha picked up a stone and threw it toward the tower.

“Aisha, what are you doing?!” I screamed, knowing how many children are shot and killed in the West Bank for throwing stones. 

For a moment, I thought she had understood the fear in my voice. Then, I saw her bend over again, pick up another stone and throw it. 

“Aisha!!” I yelled, as I saw the soldier turn toward us with his gun, “We have to go now!” 

 As we retreated from the soldier’s post, Aisha closed one eye and formed her arms in the shape of a rifle. “Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop,” she mimicked, pointing her arms back toward the soldier and the settler’s home behind.

When we finally made it to Aisha’s home, her mother greeted us, “alHamdu lillah,” “Praise God.” 

In Arabic, I later learned, Aisha means “alive and well.” Born during the Second Intifada and raised in an environment of incredible tension, everyday Aisha makes it home safely is a day worthy of giving thanks to Allah.