Willow Heske

Willow Heske (Democracy and Workers’ Rights Center – DWRC): Willow graduated from Rutgers University-Newark with a BA in history. As the daughter of two union workers, Willow strongly believes that labor organizations play a crucial role in forming modern democracies and that unions can provide an important first step towards socio-economic development. At the time of her fellowship, Willow was pursuing a Master’s degree in International Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Her concentration was on international security policy with a focus on conflict resolution and modern state formation in Africa and the Middle East. She was also studying the Arabic language.


14 Jun

This week I am working on a video project for the DWRC to be presented at the 8th Annual Civicus Assembly in Glasgow on June 21st. The theme of this year’s assembly is People, Participation, and Power. Dr. Hamdi Khawaja, who will be representing DWRC at Civicus, asked me to help him prepare a presentation highlighting social movements in Palestine resisting poverty and unemployment.

We decided on a brief documentary video about Ni’lin, which is a topic near and dear to Dr. Hamdi’s heart, since Ni’lin is his family village. As I have told you before, Ni’lin is also Hindi’s (Eliza’s old roommate) village. I have become quite attached to Ni’lin, not only because it is the place Hindi and Dr. Hamdi call home, not only because it has adopted one of the most innovative and momentous struggles against the effects of occupation, but also because Ni’lin has the cutest kids in the world. I have seriously never encountered this many adorable, funny, melt-your-heart kind of kids in one place. They all speak English better than I speak Arabic, they all want to talk to you, and will do almost anything to get your attention. Once they have your attention, they will attempt to impress you with their ability to read and write in English, ask you all about your life, where you live, why you are here, how long you are staying, and when you will come back to visit them. The whole time they never stop smiling and laughing. I could spend my whole summer just hanging out with the kids in Ni’lin.

Ni’lin organizes at least 2 weekly demonstrations against the building of the wall, which has already started despite legal appeals. Yesterday, the demonstration was set to start at 6:30, so Hindi and I planned to get there around 3:00 to interview people for the video project before heading to the demonstration. Dr. Hamdi had arranged 2 interviews for me, and Hindi had arranged 3 more, but we only had time to complete 2. Between playing with the kids and the endless cups of coffee and tea that their parents thrust on you, it is hard to stick to a strict schedule when in Ni’lin.

But we did manage to get an interview with Ayman Nafi, The Municpality President of Ni’lin. When the interview was over and the camera was turned off he turned to Hindi and spoke quickly in Arabic. When he was finished Hindi turned to me and said “He wants you to know that the people of Ni’lin count on people like you coming here to tell their story. He said we count on you because our own media is very weak and the international media that does come often depicts a bias towards Israel, it does not get our message heard. He said he wants you to know that we do not hate Americans, we do not hate anyone, we are only against the Israeli policies that have oppressed us and have threatened our standard of living. He says we are happy you are here and we need your support, we count on you, we need you to go home and help bring attention to our struggle.”

It is indeed hard to imagine this struggle and understand what is at stake if you have never seen it with your own eyes. But really, the problem here is not so different from historical problems at home. I have been thinking a lot about the creation of cities and suburbs in the U.S., and how federal programs segregated public spaces, thus controlling how different populations of Americans lived. Inequalities are never accidental. It is no accident that in the 1950s American suburbs were lily-white, while African Americans were segregated and confined in inner cities separated by the construction of federal highways. It is no accident that white Americans became the primary recipients of modern wealth, through access to federally backed credit markets and home loans that black Americans were systematically denied access to. 60 years later, Americans are still challenging the ramifications of federal policies that separated how Americans live, the policies that have created vast inequalities in American life. The difference is the realization of rights. Today, 60 years later, Palestinians are still struggling for equal rights.

So visualize this, you walk up a dirt road lined with stones and cactuses. There are goats grazing, kids playing. As you walk further you can see the olive trees, they are exceptionally important to the economics of the village. Then you see a valley full of fertile land, a stream of water runs through the middle of the valley. The first time I was in Ni’lin I thought, oh what a nice little stream, until I was told it was raw sewage that runs from the settlement.

Straight across the valley you see the settlement. You know it is a settlement because it has McMansions with satellite dishes and paved roads. It is protected by a military post and you can see the tanks parked in the road. Through the zoom of my video camera, or if you have binoculars, you can see the settler kids playing on their lush green lawns. They have jungle gyms. The kids in Ni’lin are their neighbors, but they couldn’t be further apart. Not unlike America in the 1950s, the settlements are a suburban oasis of privilege, and not unlike the white Americans who fought to keep the suburbs white, who believed that the suburbs belonged solely to them, Israeli federal policies of segregation have created a sense of settler entitlement.

But Ni’lin is determined to challenge this space. Lately, the demonstrations have been all about making noise for Ni’lin. Yesterday, in addition to flying Palestinian flags/kites over the settlement, people beat drums, blew kazoos, and used loudspeakers to make the settlers aware of the fact that wall or no wall, the people in Ni’lin are still their neighbors. Despite the presence of the Israeli military, it was mostly peaceful. The last time I was in Ni’lin, this wasn’t the case. Although the villagers held another noise demo and remained non-violent, the Israeli Army fired at least twenty rounds of teargas. However, no one really left, and so the soldiers crossed the sewage, came up the hill, and eventually dispersed everyone by firing rubber bullets and bombarding non-violent noisemakers with twenty more rounds of teargas at close range. That night, while the people of Ni’lin slept, the Israeli Army drove through the village with an industrial noise machine from 2:00 AM to 4:30 AM. The next day, the Ni’lin Non-Violent Coordinating Committee got a letter from the settlers that if the villagers of Ni’lin did not stop bothering them with their noise demonstrations they could expect regular military incursions into the village of Ni’lin.

This is life under occupation. Ni’lin has drums, kites, and kazoos. The settlers have the Israeli army. If there is a more disproportionate situation, I cannot think of what it might be.

Posted By Willow Heske

Posted Jun 14th, 2014

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