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September 9, 2012

The Olive Tree Initiative states experiential learning as a major component of our mission statement.

For most students, the fifth day of the trip, to Bi’lin and the Ariel settlement, showcased the true potential of this teaching method.

Navigating the two situations threw the conditions of both population’s day-to-day lives in sharp contrast. Bi’lin remains one of the most resistant Palestinian villages to the Israeli occupation, while Ariel is a long-standing and well developed Israeli settlement.

In Bi’lin, members of the Bi’lin Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements screened videos of Palestinian protests at a local checkpoint.

Iyad Burnat, the director of the committee, explained that the protests began in December 2004 when Israeli bulldozers moved in to expanded the state’s control over the land and a a security barrier.

Iyad Burnat, director of the Bi’lin Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, described the protests that took place near the separation barrier. Credit: Tasha Locke

Since that day, residents as well as outsiders have come to protest every Friday at the same security barrier.

The group emphasizes peaceful protest as their core practice, adding that they hoped to emulate tactics used by Mohandas Ghandi in India. Specific strategies included protestors fitting themselves in metal barrels, forcing Israeli soldiers to pry them open and chaining themselves to fences, as well as mass marches and chants.

According to Burnat, approximately 1,300 protestors were injured during the clashes – many by rubber bullets and tear gas. Two Palestinians were killed by both the potency of the tear gas used on demonstrators and direct hits with the gas canisters.

Burnat then took the group outside to walk along the village to see where exactly the village protested every Friday. On the way there, we noticed a memorial that was situated on a hill in honor of one of the protestors who died from the tear gas.

As we walked on, we noticed a large line in the dirt crossing our path, and the director informed us that that particular line was where the security wall was originally located a few months ago.  The IDF was forced to move the wall back five hundred meters from that spot because an Israeli court ruled on the issue.

However, the director and the protestors took this as a sign that the protesting was in fact effective and that they would only continue with their cause, no matter what injury it may cause.

Finally, when we approached the wall, we noticed graffiti was scattered all over the gray dull concrete, and empty tear gas cans littered the land. As the wall towered over us, some of us pointed out that we could hear humming noises. We realized that among the silence, on the other side of the wall, houses were being built.

The Olive Tree Initiative’s next stop was the Israeli settlement of Ariel.

The group’s tour guide for the day was Mr. Avi Zimmerman, the director of American Friends of Ariel.

When Zimmerman met the group, he first stressed the importance of Ariel’s university, the Ariel University Center of Samaria, which is seeking recognition from the state of Israel. This move has drawn the institution into controversy surrounding its placement in the West Bank and the financial sense of recognizing an eighth university in the state.

In Zimmerman’s view, Ariel University was important for Israel for two reasons – the need for strong Israeli academia and for political reasons surrounding Israeli settlements.

Zimmerman then took the group to the university, where UC and Ariel University students mingled for a short question and answer period.

Following the discussion with Ariel’s students,  Zimmerman took the Olive Tree Initiative to one of Ariel’s many factories in its industrial park.

A worker at a plastics factory in Ariel meets with students of the Olive Tree Initiative. Credit: Tasha Locke

The factory, which produced plastics including toilet seats and other plumbing apparatus, employs more than fifty Palestinian residents of the area.

Winding their way through the facility, the group spoke to a Palestinian worker who recounted his experiences at the factory, which, despite being in the West Bank paid him a highly competitive wage.

The final stop in Ariel was the Habima theatre, famous since 2010 for 36 actors who boycotted the theatre’s location on a settlement. Zimmerman said the boycotts only served to help put Ariel on the map and that a group of 36 protestors was insignificant compared to almost 20,000 person population in Ariel.

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