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Even picnics in Israel are political

Neve Gordon describes the growing criminalization in Israel of civil disobedience and the restriction of peaceful resistance to extremely passive modes of protest, such as “standing on the side of the road with some kind of placard”.

Redress, 26 May 2010

Our farewell picnic to Ezra Nawi before his prison term for peaceful protest carried a new message to most Israeli picnics

Picnics, like almost everything else in Israel, are often political. Oz Shelach underlines this point in his collection of short stories Picnic Grounds, where he describes how a history professor takes his family on a picnic in the pine forest near Givat Shaul, a Jerusalem neighborhood. The professor teaches his son some of the camping skills he learned while serving in the Israeli military, using old stones to block the wind and to protect the newly-lit fire. The stones, we are told, are the remains of a village known as Deir Yassin.

Although Shelach does not say as much, Deir Yassin was a Palestinian village located on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The Jewish neighborhood, which now stands in its place, was built not long after Israeli paramilitary forces evicted its Palestinian residents, while massacring an estimated 100 men, women and children out of a total population of 600. Shelach does not recount this history; he simply describes how the father builds a fire with his son and then ends the story by noting that the history professor “imagined that he and his family were having a picnic, unrelated to the village, enjoying its grounds, outside history”.

Many picnics in Israel take place in pine forests that were planted to cover the remains of hundreds of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948. Wittingly or unwittingly, these gatherings have a political effect, since the people enjoying their leisure time on these sites reenact the historical suppression of the Palestinian Nakba.

This past Saturday [22 May] I also went on a picnic with my family, but in stark opposition to most Israeli picnics it tried to enact a remembering by exposing the continued domination and expulsion of Palestinians. We joined a group of Jews and Palestinians from Ta’ayush in the South Hebron desert to break bread together and bid farewell to Ezra Nawi, who the following day began serving a jail sentence for resisting Israel’s occupation.

We chose this spot because almost a decade ago the Palestinian cave dwellers who lived there were expelled from their ancestral land by Jewish settlers from Susya; these settlers were supported by the Israeli government, military and courts. Nawi and other Ta’ayush activists have, over the years, aided the expelled Palestinians to return to the last swathe of land they can still call their own. Today there is a small village made up of over 10 tents, a few caves, several scores of sheep and chicken and a solar- and wind-based electricity system.

Located just a few kilometres from where we sat is Um el-Hir, another small Palestinian village where in 2007 Ezra Nawi was arrested for protesting against the demolition of a tin shack. While the entire protest was filmed, the border police officers claimed that Nawi attacked them during the few seconds that he ran into the shack and that consequently were not captured on video.

Two points need to be stressed. First, the movie clearly shows how a few minutes earlier Nawi took a rock out of the hands of a Palestinian woman and threw it on the ground so that she would not use it against the police. Second, anyone who is familiar with the Israeli border police knows that if Nawi had actually attacked the officers, it is quite unlikely that he would have been able to walk out of the shack.

Claims like these did not persuade judge Eilata Ziskind who convicted Nawi. Based solely on the officers’ testimonies, Ziskind sentenced Nawi to a month in jail and an additional three years probation, during which if he is caught insulting an officer, disturbing the public order, participating in an illegal protest, etc, he will immediately be imprisoned for six more months.

This sentence is not a minor matter. The Israeli court has basically decreed that the only legitimate way to oppose the occupation is by standing on the side of the road with some kind of placard. Any form of civil disobedience or direct action, like lying in front of a bulldozer that is building the annexation barrier or demolishing a house, picking olives in a grove or walking Palestinian children to school in an area that has been classified a closed military zone, is now subject to harsh punishment.

Thus, Nawi’s conviction points to a relatively recent development regarding the restriction of resistance to extremely passive modes of protest. And, in some cases, even these kinds of protests are prohibited, as in Sheikh Jarrah where activists are repeatedly arrested simply for demonstrating against the seizure of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem.

As Nawi put it during the picnic, in a country where laws are immoral, civil disobedience is obligatory; therefore, he continued, it will not be long before more of you will join me in jail. As he walked away, I looked towards the soldiers who stood gazing at us from a nearby hill, wondering whether soon picnics too will be considered acts of civil disobedience.

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