Middle East activism

Two local grandmothers return from three-week trip to the Palestinian West Bank and Israel

Sandra O’Neill (center, holding water bottle) joins the Women in Black—Israeli women in Haifa, Israel, who come together every Friday at a major intersection to protest the occupation of Palestinian territory by Israeli settlers.

Sandra O’Neill (center, holding water bottle) joins the Women in Black—Israeli women in Haifa, Israel, who come together every Friday at a major intersection to protest the occupation of Palestinian territory by Israeli settlers.

PHOTO courtesy of emily alma & sandra O’Neill

Learn more:
Emily Alma and Sandra O’Neill are available to give presentations on their Palestine experience—contact Alma at 893-3530. Find out more about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement at www.bdsmovement.net.

When asked to describe a situation they witnessed that best illustrated the plight of Palestinian residents of the West Bank, local grandmothers Emily Alma and Sandra O’Neill agreed that it was the story of one Palestinian family living in Hebron, in the West Bank’s southern end.

“The little girl’s arm had been broken by Israeli settler children,” said Alma, referring to the 10-year-old daughter of the couple who had welcomed her and O’Neill into their home during the pair’s recent trip to the Middle East.

“The Israelis have built a blockade in front of their house that they have to climb over to get in and out of their home,” Alma added. “The [mother of the girl] had miscarried as a result of the blockade.” Additionally, the family had to carry the girl’s grandfather’s body over the blockading wall when he died, in order to take him through the nearby checkpoint into Israel, where he was to be buried.

“He [the dead grandfather] was wearing a wristwatch,” continued Alma. “The soldier [at the checkpoint] took the butt of his rifle and broke the watch—and the grandfather’s wrist—after the watch set off the metal detector.”

“He’s an activist,” O’Neill said of the girl’s father, in an effort to make sense of the harsh treatment of the family. “The Israelis do these things just to make their lives difficult.”

Alma and O’Neill returned Nov. 1 from a three-week trip to the Palestinian West Bank, Israel and the Golan Heights. The primary focus of their trip was to participate in the annual Olive Picking Program organized by the Joint Advocacy Initiative of the East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA of Palestine, and the Alternative Tourism Group of Palestine.

“We went to harvest olives and learn as much about the Palestinian condition as we could,” said O’Neill. “For 10 days, we were part of this tour, harvesting olives on various farmers’ property.” The main point of helping with the harvest, O’Neill said, was to act as “witnesses and buffers” in case of harassment by Israeli soldiers and settlers.

“Sometimes the settlers actually go out and physically threaten the farmers,” she said.

“Or they are told they don’t have the right kind of permit and they have their olives taken away,” said Alma, referring to the draconian permit system the Palestinians are subject to under Israeli occupation (reminiscent of the pass system of South Africa under apartheid).

The pair also toured parts of Israel and the Golan Heights with a group of other international visitors after their olive-orchard duties were over.

While this was their first trip to the area, O’Neill and Alma are not newbies to the tense situation in Israel and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. They have long been involved with California’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, which aims, among other things, to persuade CalPERS and CalSTRS—the state’s two biggest retirement funds—to divest from companies (such as Caterpillar and French energy, transportation, waste-management and water company Veolia) that sell equipment and materials to Israel to build settlements in Palestinian territories and help maintain the Israeli occupation.

But this trip, they both agreed, was an eye-opener.

“[The Israelis] are taking garbage from Israel and dumping it in landfills in the West Bank, which is against international law,” Alma said.

“They’re not allowed to take over the land of someone they occupy and use it to dump garbage on,” O’Neill said. Along the same lines, she said, “Israelis are not allowed to live on land occupied by the Palestinians.” More than 500,000 Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank and Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.

Jews-only buses and highways; night raids and bulldozing of Palestinian homes; hours- or days-long waits at checkpoints for Palestinians entering Israel to go to work—these are some of the routine hardships that O’Neill and Alma either witnessed or heard stories of.

One Palestinian olive-farming family “lived in the West Bank, but their land was on the other side of the wall,” Alma said. “We helped pick their olives because they couldn’t get the necessary, hard-to-get permits for their workers to get through the checkpoint to harvest their olives.

“On the way back [into the West Bank], when the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint realized we had worked in the orchard, they wouldn’t let us back into the West Bank. We had to drive an extra 40 minutes to get back into the West Bank.”

“Just a little punishment for the internationals helping with the harvest,” offered O’Neill.

“I was raised in the Jewish culture; it’s part of the reason I’m passionately involved,” said Alma. “I want to say it’s not in my name that these things are done to the Palestinian people.”