A Window on Palestine

Twisting History

Zionists and others claim that Israel became a nation in 1312 B.C.E., two thousand years before the rise of Islam, and therefore present day Israelis have merely reoccupied their own land to which, as the original inhabitants, they have a greater right than those who have actually lived on the land this past three thousand years.

Mazin Zumsiyeh, of Yale University states that Israel did not “become a nation” in 1312 B.C.E. Israel of today has little to do with “Israel” of 3000 years ago. It is like comparing apples to oranges. Illene Beatty, in Arab and Jew in the Land of Canaan writes: “The extended kingdoms of David and Solomon, on which the Zionists base their territorial demands, endured for only about 73 years . . .Then it fell apart . . . [Even] if we allow independence to the entire life of the ancient Jewish kingdoms, from David’s conquest of Canaan in 1000 B.C. to the wiping out of Judah in 586 B.C. we arrive at [only] a 414 year Jewish rule.”

Even if this ancient period of Jewish rule gives present day Israel historic rights to rule the land, the present Israeli occupation of Palestine is the only occupation where the natives did not survive and where they could not continue to live. Qumsiyeh writes that archaeologists at Tel Aviv University have shown that cities-states and kingdoms were routinely made and obliterated in the ancient land of Canaan while the natives survived and continued to live. In more recent times, the five hundred year occupation of Palestine by the Turks, the British and the Jordanians never involved expulsion of Palestinians from their lands.

Another take on ancient history is that the Israelites evolved from the local Canaanites and thrived. This is based on archaeological evidence, not the stories of the bibles which were never intended to be taken literally. Even if one is to take the stores of the bible literally, there is plenty of “evidence” in the bible that Hebrews prospered with Adomite and other Canaanites.

The argument has been made, most famously by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir that there never were any Palestinians, just nomads wandering in the desert. Edward Said in the “The Question of Palestine” states: “Palestine became a predominately Arab and Islamic country by the end of the seventh century. Throughout the years, these people believed themselves to belong in a land called Palestine, despite their feelings that they were also members of a large Arab nation. Despite the steady arrival in Palestine of Jewish colonists after 1882, it is important to realize that not until the few weeks immediately preceding the establishment of Israel in the spring of 1948 was there ever anything other than a huge Arab majority. For example, the Jewish population in 1931 was 174,606 against a total of 1,033,314.”

In the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, over 700,000 Palestinian refugees were created, there were massacres and 500 villages were destroyed. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Israel is not and has never been interested in a negotiated diplomatic solution that is reached with secular moderate Palestinians. According to Noam Chompsky “Israel’s purpose is to integrate the Occupied territories, to reduce or eliminate the Arab/Palestinian population and eliminate any manifestation of Palestinian nationalism or culture.” This has always been the case: J. Weitz head of the Jewish Agency’s Colonization Department wrote in his diary in 1940: “There is no room for both peoples together in this country . . . We shall not achieve our goal of being an independent people with the Arabs in this small country. The only solution is Palestine, at least Western Palestine (west of the Jordon River) without Arabs . . . And there is no other way but to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries, to transfer all of them, not one village, not one tribe should be left.”

The Palestinian refugee Right to Return is a pivotal issue. First, it is important to note that, under any conditions, confiscation of land is against the laws governing wars as well as various rulings by the UN. A common argument against the Right to Return is that there is not enough room in present day Israel to accommodate large numbers of returning Palestinian refugees.

Dr. Abu Sitta has shown that room for returning refugees is not the problem. 78% of Israelis live on 14% of the land. Therefore, states Dr. Abu Sitta, 86% of Israel is controlled by 160,000 rural Jews who exploit the land and heritage of over 5 million refugees packed in refugee camps and denied the right to return. For example: the refugees in Gaza are crammed at a density of 4,200 persons per sq. km. Dr. Abu Sitta asks: “If you were one of those refugees, and you look across the barbed wire to your land in Israel, and you see it almost empty, at 5 persons/sq. km. (almost one thousand times less density than Gaza!!) what would you feel? Peaceful? Content? This striking contrast is the root of all the suffering. It can only be eliminated with the return of the refugees.”

Water rights form another crucial issue that is not commonly discussed. In the various “peace” accords of the past decade, the Palestinians have not gained back their rights over water. When I was in the Occupied Territories I saw lush lawns of the settlements that were in stark contrast to the much more highly populated refugee camps that sometimes had no water at all for days on end. Dr. Abu Sitta writes about Israeli water consumption and agriculture: “Irrigation takes up about 60-80% of the water in Israel, 2/3 of it is Arab water. Agriculture in the southern district alone uses 500 million cubic meters of water per year. This is equal to the entire water resources of the West Bank now confiscated by Israel. This is equal to the entire resources of upper Jordan including lake Tiberias for which Israel is obstructing peace with Syria. Total irrigation water, a very likely cause of war, produces agricultural products worth only 1.8% of Israel’s GDP. Such waste, such extravagance, such disregard for the suffering of the refugees, and such denial of their rights is exercised by 8,600 Kibbutzniks who depend on agriculture for their livelihood. When the refugees return to their land, they can pursue their traditional agricultural pursuits, and no doubt this will take up the slack in GDP. More importantly, peace will be a real possibility.”

The late Israel Shahak, an Israeli Holocaust survivor who spent his childhood in a concentration camp, has written extensively on Zionism and Israel. He notes that: “The main danger which Israel, as ‘Jewish state,’ poses to its own people, to other Jews and its neighbors, is its ideologically motivated pursuit of territorial expansion and the inevitable series of wars resulting from this aim.”

Many believe that irreconcilable religious differences between Jews and Muslims are the root of the problems Palestine. In my travels to Palestine I have met many elderly Palestinian refugees who told of the Jewish neighbors they had before they were expelled from their land. Sometimes these elders would weep at the memory of their old friends, their land and previous life. The Palestinian elders said that since the Nakba (the 1948 expulsion by Israeli forces), the only Jews they see are soldiers who beat and humiliate them. I have personally experienced a range of responses from Palestinians to my being a Jew; ranging from the enthusiastic emotional responses mentioned above to a complete nonplussed response, as the only thing that truly matters is if one is against the occupation or not.

In summary, I whole heartedly agree with Dr. Abu Sitta when he states: “In practical terms, it is entirely feasible to plan the return in such a way and in such phases that the Jewish residents will not feel any effect, except the pleasant feeling that a true peace is a reality at last.”

Something out of Nothing

The four-story stairwell of the Ibdaa Center in Dheisheh Refugee Camp, town of Bethlehem, Occupied Palestine was the site of the Break the Silence Mural Project (BTS). The Ibdaa cultural center provides a safe haven for the people, especially the young people, of Dheisheh refugee camp. There are many classes offered, a computer center, a dance troupe (also called Ibdaa), which tours internationally (when travel permits can be acquired), sports teams, and a place to hang out. On the top floor is a restaurant where adults gather daily. There is a guesthouse on the second floor that is mostly used by international people who are coming to witness the occupation, do research projects or conduct civil disobedience actions. The Middle East Children’s Alliance and Palestinians from Dheisheh administer the Ibdaa Center.

The BTS/Ibdaa Mural Project was created by youth who have all grown up under the increasingly brutal occupation. Since the Oslo Accords in 1991, settlement building that was supposed to cease actually has increased by 25%. Palestinian land is now separated into Cantons, from which people cannot leave. Therefore, Palestinians are essential incarcerated in outdoor prisons. I met people who had not been outside of an area of 2 or 3 square miles in many years. Newly built bypass roads that only the Israeli settlers are allowed to use crisis-cross the land. Palestinians, when allowed to travel, must use indirect, dangerous roads that are in great disrepair. Their travel times have tripled or quadrupled. Roadblocks that are erected capriciously make passage by car impossible. Checkpoints, where Palestinians are typically made to wait for hours in the searing sun only to be turned back by rude soldiers, delay travel or make it impossible. People have literally died begging for passage at checkpoints, unable to reach medical assistance.

The incarceration of Palestinian people, especially of males is pervasive. One can be held up to six months without being charged under ‘administrative detention.’ Every male and every male child we met had been arrested or beaten by the soldiers. Every Palestinian knows someone who has been killed by Israeli soldiers in the context of the occupation. Each child’s father had been to prison and tortured, and often the family has witnessed the arrest.

For example, one evening we had dinner at the home of one of the young painters, Khaled. His mother told several stories: “One time during a curfew Khaled, at age 7, wandered from the house. Some Israeli soldiers found Khaled and brought him back to the house and they said ‘Now we are going to beat him in front of you.’ I screamed ‘No-you can’t do this to my child.’ And I tried to stop them. They started to hit my child and I tried to grab him and they hit me and pushed me down. I couldn’t do anything . . . and I cried and cried. Finally they left and I held my child and I am crying and crying.”

Khaled’s mother also told us how the soldiers would come to their house every once in a while during dinnertime. “They came to the table where all the food was in bowls and they turned all the bowls upside down and dumped all the food onto the middle of the table. After breaking a few dishes they would leave, saying to us ‘Now-eat your dinner.’”

In spite of the conditions described above, the young people we worked with were enthusiastic, talented, courageous and extraordinarily funny and playful. The Palestinians are very resilient and were savvy about politics. The most important issue for the people we spent time with was a keen awareness that their situation is largely unknown to the world. They want to tell the world what has happened to them. Khaled’s mother told us that we could be a “window onto Palestine for the American people.” We agreed to do the best we could.

On our first day we met with the artists who were selected to work with us because of their interest and skills in art. These young people all spoke very little English, the BTS members spoke no Arabic, and without the translations of Khaled, the project would have been a veritable Tower of Babel. Also joining us that first day were the directors of the Ibdaa center. The agenda items were: the theme of the mural and where to paint the mural.

In a very short amount of time decisions were reached. The place for the mural was to be the stairwell and the theme was to be the history of Palestine, one era per floor. Floor one: Before the Nakba (Nakba means the “catastrophe” of 1948, when Israel was founded, refugees created etc.), the second floor was the Nakba, and the first Intifada (Uprising), the third floor was the Second Intifada, and a tribute to all who have lost their lives, and the fourth floor ends the mural with hopes and dreams for the future.

We spent the next week designing the mural in a collective process while the walls were primed. We often heard gunfire and this first week there was a particularly high incidence of it. There were several settlements, built since the Oslo Accords, whose residents bombed and shot at the Palestinian towns. Palestinians returned the fire. Some Palestinians were armed to varying levels of sophistication, however, no Palestinians were armed to the level of the Israeli settlers and military. There were always Israeli tanks in position, Apache helicopters hovering and machine gun toting soldiers at the check points. Weapons of destruction and their effects were always in evidence. The walls of the camp and of the town of Bethlehem were plastered with posters showing those who had been killed. Men and boys of all ages, from a German doctor who had lived in the West Bank for 20 years, shot on his way to help someone who was wounded, to 12 year old boys who had perhaps thrown a rock, or stood near someone who had.

Another evening during our first week the camp was shelled. We were eating in the restaurant on the fourth floor and there was a tremendous explosion. Everyone ran downstairs, and I found that my greatest concern was that I might not get to finish my dinner. I believed that nothing could go wrong. I realized later how I used a kind of manic denial in order to cope with the situation. Fifteen minutes later everyone went back up to the restaurant. For the Palestinians this was a common occurrence and a ‘normal’ part of everyday life.

We painted 12-15 hours a day on the mural for the following three weeks. It was a very intense process. We normally worked all night when it was cooler, and since most of the fighting took place at night it was too never-racking to sleep anyway. A total of 30 people participated in the mural painting, some painting for a week, some for an afternoon.Description of the Ibdaa Mural

The first section shows the land before the formation of the state of Israel. It has soft rolling hills, sheepherders and a poem that foreshadows the longing for home that soon will be reality.

A potent symbol included in this section is the cactus, whose name in Arabic means patience. When the 500 villages were destroyed in 1948, the root systems of the cactus survived. In the ensuing 54 years the cactus groves have grown back, like ghosts, showing where the villages once stood.

The Palestinian flower is in the first section of the mural. It is the anemone and has the colors of the Palestinian flag. During the first Intifada (1987-91) the flag was outlawed to the point where if a Palestinian was merely wearing the colors of the flag he or she was risking a confrontation with the Israeli military. An artist friend of ours said that an Israeli soldier told him to stop painting the Palestinian flower or he would be arrested. Our friend said that since that time he had painted thousands of them.

The mural depicts Handala on the second floor. Handala is a cartoon figure of a refugee boy drawn by the very popular political satirist Naji Al-Ali, who was assassinated in London in 1987. Everyone in Palestine knows Handala. Handala cartoons hung in most homes I visited, Handala t-shirts were commonly worn, and there was Handala graffiti on many walls of the camp.

Keys and barbed wire run throughout the mural. The keys are depictions of the literal keys that all refugees have to the homes from which they were expelled. Many people still have the deeds to their houses in addition to the keys. The barbed wire is a reference to the imprisonment that Palestinians experience and to the literal barbed wire that surrounded the refugee camps. The refugee camps have existed for a long 55 years and people have attempted to create as normal a life as possible. The camps are now towns, the tents replaced by cinder block houses, the sanitation facilities improved from an inadequate number of outhouses, etc.

The mural includes an olive tree, a very important symbol. Many people wear olive tree necklaces. They are a symbol of home and the land. As olive trees take so long to mature, they are a potent sign that Palestinians have been cultivating the land for a long time. The olive tree provides sustenance and many Palestinians made their living from olive trees, that is, before the Israelis destroyed 200,000 olive trees. I was reminded how when I was in elementary school in the 1960′s, we collected money to send to Israel to plant fir trees. We were told that there were no people there before Israel, maybe just a few nomads wandering around in the desert. I remember how I felt when I realized that those stories were very far from the truth, and that the trees were being planted on land that had been very much lived on.

On each landing of the stairwell is a 15-foot window around which we painted large stones like the ones Palestinian building are built of. On each stone is written the name of a Palestinian village or town that was destroyed. Everyone who came to the Ibdaa center looked for the stone that had the name of his or her village written on it.

The mural depicts the resistance of the first and second (current) Uprising. The spark for the current Uprising, now in its 15th month, with 805 Palestinians and 239 Israelis killed, was General Ariel Sharon’s visit to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the sacred day of Friday accompanied by a thousand soldiers. This was the last humiliating straw as conditions for the Palestinians had only become worse since the 1991 Oslo ‘Peace’ Accords.

There is a wall that honors those who have died in the Intifadas or Uprisings. It depicts a young man from Dheisheh camp who was assassinated by the Israelis. He was a popular youth and people came from all around to see his portrait, including his family members. Underneath the portrait are many lit candles that represent the others who have died. People said that those who have fallen light the way and the memories help those who are alive to not give up.

The hopes and dreams for the future are expressed by dancers from Ibdaa dance group dancing on the tops of the buildings of Dheisheh Camp. An old man holding an infant up to the sun – to the future and freedom follows this image.

Next to the sun is a poem by JoJo White in English and Arabic. In 1996, 23-year-old JoJo White was shot to death in cold blood. His parents helped to fund the BTS mural project as part of the JoJo White Solidarity Project, which helps to fund peace and justice programs. JoJo wrote this poem when he was 11 years old.


If I could change the world

I’d dismantle all the bombs

If I could change the world

I would feed all the hungry

If I could change the world

I would shelter all the homeless

If I could change the world

I would make all people free

I cannot dismantle all the bombs

I cannot feed all the hungry

I cannot shelter all the homeless

I cannot make all people free

I cannot because there is only One of me.

When I have grown and I am Strong

I will find many more of me.

We will dismantle all the bombs

We will feed the hungry

We will shelter all the homeless

We will make all the people Free.

We will change the world

Me and my friends All together, together At last

The last image in the mural is a six foot keyhole, through which can be seen a beautiful landscape – the land of Palestine.

The Break the Silence Mural Project is a developing new projects. We are available for slide presentations and discussions about our experiences producing public art in Palestine under the Israeli occupation. We have a video about murals BTS painted with Palestinians during the first Intifada, in 1989 available for purchase. Our website is under construction: www.break thesilencemuralproject.org Or we can be reached: Break_thesilence@yahoo.com