40 days and 40 nights: Building a new reality in Sumud Freedom Camp

For 40 days and 40 nights, Palestinians, diaspora Jews, and Israeli activists learned to speak a new language of nonviolence, empathy, and steadfastness as we put our bodies on the line to protect Sumud Freedom Camp.

By Sophie Schor

Sarura, South Hebron Hills. (Sophie Schor)
Sarura, South Hebron Hills. (Sophie Schor)

Plato is famous for his allegory of a cave. In it, he employs a metaphor that if you were born in a cave and lived in a cave your entire life, captive and unable to turn your head, only seeing shadows cast on the stone wall, you would know no other reality than that. But if you were to leave the cave and walk under the sun and see the real world outside—not the world of the shadows, rather the world of light and dark—how would you ever begin to describe it to those still sitting in the cave and watching the wall?

How can I even describe the last forty days of Sumud: Freedom Camp and living in Sarura?

Against a backdrop of desert hills, a terraced valley with newly planted olive trees, and the mountains of Jordan peering at us through the hazy distance, we built a movement.

Beginning on May 19th, a coalition of five groups launched Sumud Freedom Camp [Sumud is an Arabic term for steadfastness, resilience, and resoluteness, it is an often invoked term in Palestinian political discourse]. Members of the Popular Resistance Committee of the South Hebron Hills, Holy Land Trust, Combatants for Peace, All That’s Left: An Anti-Occupation Collective, and Center for Jewish Nonviolence came together in an unprecedented joint effort. Since then a community of activists have rehabilitated the ancestral caves of the villagers, flattened roads connecting Sarura to adjacent villages, planted gardens, maintained a constant presence on the land, and established the camp as a defiant embodiment of co-resistance to the Israeli occupation. (Read the full statement by the coalition here)

For 40 days and 40 nights, over 500 people passed through Sarura, an unrecognized village located in Area C of the West Bank in the South Hebron Hills. Palestinian, Israeli, Jewish, and international justice seekers joined together to carry out a direct act of civil disobedience and solidarity with the Palestinians who live in Firing Zone 918— a closed military zone of about 30 square miles that was established by the Israeli army in the late 1970s.

For 40 days and 40 nights, the Popular Resistance Committee of the South Hebron Hills held down the fort and put Sarura back on the map. Young men from the village of Atwani spent twenty-four hours a day in the caves and on the land, leading construction projects, leaning against rock walls smoking nargileh, and teaching us how to dance duhiyye.

Salim Smoking nargileh in Sarura. (Sophie Schor)
Salim Smoking nargileh in Sarura. (Sophie Schor)

For 40 days and 40 nights, local Palestinians from the nearby villages of Umm al-Khayr and Susiya (both of which are unrecognized by Israel, both are only meters away from settlements, and both currently have standing demolition orders on the majority of their homes) came to Sarura to stand in solidarity with the residents and would quickly set about to building fires and making sweet tea for everyone who visited.

For 40 days and 40 nights, Israeli and international activists, having been invited by the local Palestinians of Atwani and Sarura, took shifts to be present and to lend the privilege of their passports and their identity to protect the space.

For 40 days and 40 nights, we spoke a new language: a language of nonviolence, of empathy, of compassion, of commitment, of resolve, of steadfastness.

For 40 days and 40 nights, we were Sumud.

On the hillside of Sarura, we cleaned out the debris of 20 years since the families had last inhabited their homes. We rebuilt stone walls that had fallen, we built a new garden, we carved a new path into the ridge, we evened out the dirt road. On the hill of Sarura, we did our best to clean out the debris of hate, of anger, of trauma, of fear, of impotence, of stereotypes, of assumptions. On the hill of Sarura, we grew, we healed, we cared, we laughed, we connected, we loved, and we became the agents of change that we needed to become.

Fadel Al-Amer, a Palestinian elder from Sarura, prepares dinner in his cave which was rehabilitated by activists in order to bring people back to the village, May 24th, 2017. (Ahmad al-Bazz/Activestills.org)
Fadel Al-Amer, a Palestinian elder from Sarura, prepares dinner in his cave which was rehabilitated by activists in order to bring people back to the village, May 24th, 2017. (Ahmad al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

The hillside of the settlement Havat Ma’on was an unremitting reminder that we were not welcome there; the non-native trees on the crest of the desert hill seemed to be teasing us—a constant reminder of the quantity of water required for them to grow and which the settlement had in ample supply; the dogs barking at night seemed to be warning us; the flickering lights from the houses made the darkness that much darker; the interlacing antennae of the cell phone station was a reminder towering over us that those living on the opposite hill had access to everything and we had nothing.

One morning I joined Salim for a drive to Yatta to buy breakfast for the group. Salim was born and raised in Atwani, the village next door to the camp which had been hosting and supporting us in Sarura. Salim is 22-and-a-half (which he likes to add) and is kind, quick to laugh, and one of the most considerate individuals I have ever met. We began talking about life in Atwani, a village located in Area B of the occupied territories, about his experiences growing up in a village that had no water, no electricity, and no school. He told me about the community-led nonviolent resistance, which over 10 years acquired attention from the PLO and Arafat, and pressured the Israeli army into allowing them to build their homes and their school and be connected to the water and electricity systems. His parents are among the leaders in the community and he watched as his father was arrested almost monthly for disturbing the order and for challenging the system to provide basic necessities for his family. His mother, full of love and smiles and a talented cook beyond compare, is known for standing in a line of other women in front of Israeli bulldozers and preventing them from demolishing a school room.

Salim shared with me the time the Israeli army was looking for him to arrest him because he was supposedly at the scene of an attack on a settler from next door, and he joked about the three times they came to his house looking for him.

The first time, the army officers walked into his house and asked him, “Where is Salim?” to which he replied, “At work.” The second time, they came and asked his mother, “Where is Salim?” to which she told them, “At university” (he was in the house next door). The third time, he woke up to a gun to his head at 2AM and an officer asking him “Are you Salim?”

They detained him in Kiryat Arba detention center for three days with no access to a lawyer. He was driving us down a bumpy unpaved road to the nearby bakery to buy fresh pita while smiling and telling this story. “Then they roughed me up.” “What do you mean they roughed you up?” “They beat the shit out of me,” he said still smiling. He shrugged his shoulders and said in Arabic, “ ‘Awdeh — normal.”

This is the normal here.

My heart sank.

Israeli soldiers evacuate a Palestinian elder from the Sumud Freedom Camp in order to dismantle one of the protest camp’s tents, Sarura, West Bank, May 25, 2017. (Ahmed al-Bazz/Activestills.org)
Israeli soldiers evacuate a Palestinian elder from the Sumud Freedom Camp in order to dismantle one of the protest camp’s tents, Sarura, West Bank, May 25, 2017. (Ahmed al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

I have seen with my own eyes the ways in which the Israeli army prevents Palestinian life from growing and living. For one month I have lived it. That is nothing compared to Salim’s life where every single day for 22.5 years, he has lived it.

In the occupied territories, there are the de jure legal rulings that declare that there is a building freeze in Area C of the West Bank — an effect of Oslo Accords and the supposed freeze on settlements. So it is forbidden for Salim to even build a room on his own land next to his olive trees. Each time he begins stacking cinder blocks to build a wall, the army arrives and knocks them down. Then there is the de facto reality — the practice on the ground that enables Jews to build and live and thrive. Sarura is flanked by Ma’on, Havat Ma’on outpost and the nearby outpost Avigail which was built in 2001. Since the beginning of these settlements, some in the 1970s, they have continued to build and expand. Only three weeks ago Israel approved plans for 2,100 new settlement housing units in the West Bank.

However, for Sarura, it was illegal to build any new structures, even though it is private land and the Palestinian families have the original documents from the Ottoman Empire that give them a legitimate right to live there. It was illegal for us to put up a shade tent at Sarura because it is considered “building”; it was illegal for us to add a door to seal the second cave because that would be considered “building.” Any time a tent was erected, the army would come and dismantle it. Any time we put up the shade, the army would come and surveil us. Jeeps would arrive, tumbling over the rocky road and sit on the hillsides watching us. Once they came with a bulldozer in order to confiscate mattresses, blankets, and food—all the items that were enabling life in an “illegal outpost” according to the only military order that they ever arrived with. Meanwhile, the “illegal outpost” of the Israeli community in Avigail sits on the top of the other hill connected to water, connected to electricity, with a paved road lined with flowers.

International Jewish activists chant in front of an Israeli soldierduring a night raid on the Sumud Freedom Camp, Sarura, West Bank, May 20, 2017. (Ahmad al-Bazz/Activestills.org)
International Jewish activists chant in front of an Israeli soldier
during a night raid on the Sumud Freedom Camp, Sarura, West Bank, May 20, 2017. (Ahmad al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

Worse than the army was the Regavim security cars that would sit for hours haunting us. Regavim is a settler organization with the goal of “selective implementation of planning and construction laws, encouraging the state to demolish Palestinian homes or public buildings” (article about them here). They fly drones around the caves and the land, watching us, and would join the army each and every time that they arrived to force us to dismantle or leave. Their presence felt more threatening and controlling than that of the young Israeli soldiers who were driving by in their jeeps with the Israeli flag fluttering in the wind.

We had no access to running water. We had no electricity. And every night, we would sit staring at the hillside of Ma’on settlement and see their lights, their gardens with water, their safe gated and guarded community. I began to see through the eyes of Salim—someone almost my age who has grown up in the shadow of a settlement his entire life seeing that they have everything and knowing that he has to walk 45 minutes to a school in a nearby city, which may take him closer to two hours if the army decides to put up a floating checkpoint and harass him; seeing that they have water, and roads, and protection, and access to land for agriculture, which is actually Palestinian land.

I told Salim about the emotions that all this stirred in me, and asked him, “What do you do with your anger? How do you channel it into something good rather than something bad? How are you still smiling?”

He responded to me, “I’m still asking myself that question too,” and my eyes cloud over in memories that echo with the image of Salim scooping up his three-year-old sister Tasneem and throwing her high up in the air until she collapsed in a fit of giggles, of his face appearing in the morning and offering me a coffee as I rub the sleep out of my eyes, of his passing me a piece of pita without me even having to ask.

Activists listen to a speech given by a Palestinian elder from Sarura, West Bank, May 19, 2017. (Ahmad al-Bazz/Activestills.org)
Activists listen to a speech given by a Palestinian elder from Sarura, West Bank, May 19, 2017. (Ahmad al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

I am back in Jerusalem now, I am letting the experiences sit and settle like the desert dust: those moments where joy and celebration was quickly overshadowed by fear and uncertainty as the army came or a settler appeared on the hillside watching us. Those moments when I heard my heart in my ears and I had to remind myself to breathe and keep calm. Those moments when I would catch the eye of someone from our camp and remind myself that I trust that person with my life and we are in this together.

I have left the cave behind now; the locals from the Popular Resistance Committee are still there with the families of Sarura. We are on call if anything is to happen, and I know that if the army comes, we will gather our friends in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, in Bethlehem, in Hebron and drive south immediately. We are giving space and quiet for the families of Sarura to now settle into their homes and their own rhythms in the desert.

Palestinians, internationals, and Israelis dance together in Sarura, south Hebron Hills. (Rami Ben Ari)
Palestinians, internationals, and Israelis dance together in Sarura, south Hebron Hills. (Rami Ben Ari)

I have left the cave behind and am walking in the sun. The images I see are frightening and uncomfortable because I can no longer hide from the devastation of occupation or the blatant inequality and supremacy that exists in this land. I can no longer hold my head high as an Israeli-American and say that this is for the good of all. Throughout my three years of being here, I have engaged in this work, I have exposed myself to the lives of others; I have tried to understand the feeling of waking up at 3 a.m. to cross through Qalandiya checkpoint and be harassed only to get to Jerusalem to work a construction job that still doesn’t feed your family. I have driven past the concrete wall that separates and have tried to imagine what it feels like to wake up every single day and have that be your view. I have tried to breathe in the frustration at not being given a visa to travel or the utter inconvenience of not being allowed to use an airport that is thirty minutes away, rather having to cross a bridge into another country. Yet none of that truly captured what it is to live under the shadows of oppression.

Reality is bright, the sun hurts my eyes, but the people I have met and the bonds we have created strengthen my heart and tell me that we must go on. For a moment in time and space, we all walked outside of the cave and saw a world beyond the shadows. We saw a reality beyond what we ever could have imagined. And we built it together.

This may be the end of Ramadan in Resistance and the end of Sumud Camp as we know it at Sarura, but it is not a moment, it is a movement. Join us at the Combatants for Peace Freedom March next Friday, July 7th, as we celebrate together the lessons we learned at Sumud, follow Sumud Camp on Facebook to see where we go next, and spread the word. This is only the beginning.

Sophie Schor is a writer and photographer living in Jerusalem. She is a member of the Women’s Group of Combatants for Peace and will soon be starting her PhD at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver focusing on women, gender and conflict. For more writing and photos visit her website.