Just over one year ago, photos and videos of Israeli border police violently arresting a young Palestinian woman went viral. She appeared to be screaming as they ripped her hijab off and wrestled her to the ground.
It captured a moment of crisis on July 4, 2018 when Israeli forces arrived with bulldozers in Khan al-Amar, poised to expel and demolish the tiny Palestinian village at gunpoint. It was an indelible scene in a theater of cruelty that has defined the beleaguered village. Army and police were met by hundreds of Palestinian, Israeli and international activists who mobilized to put their bodies on the line. Together with clergy, journalists, diplomats, educators and politicians, they ate, slept, strategized and sustained nonviolent resistance against the impending demolition.
Immediately after police arrested the young woman in the photo and other activists, residents filed a Supreme Court petition to stop the demolition. An emergency injunction was issued to halt it temporarily. The Supreme Court asked the parties to come up with an “agreement” to resolve the situation. Then, the court declared that Khan al-Amar residents must agree to forcible relocation to a site adjacent a garbage dump in East Jerusalem. They refused to accept these conditions and re-asserted their right to stay in their homes. Finally, on September 5, 2018, judges dismissed the previous petitions and ruled that the demolition could move forward.
Communities in occupied Palestinian territory are used to forced displacement, especially in Area C, which is under full Israeli military and administrative control. Frequent demolitions are a defining tactic of the Israeli government’s declared plans to annex all of Palestinian territory. Khan al-Amar straddles a uniquely pivotal location termed the “E1” area by Israel, lying between two massive Israeli settlements which are illegal under international law. If Khan al-Amar is destroyed, the government will succeed in engineering contiguous Israeli territory in the West Bank and cutting Palestinian society off from Jerusalem.
International condemnation of the Israeli government’s plan to demolish the village was unprecedented. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court issued a statement that “extensive destruction of property without military necessity and population transfers in an occupied territory constitute war crimes.” The European Union warned that the consequences of the demolition would be “very serious.” Round-the-clock mass nonviolent protests kept vigil over Khan al-Amar until late October 2018, when the Israeli government declared the “evacuation” would be delayed, blaming election-year uncertainty. When the protests finally waned, hundreds of Israelis, Palestinians and internationals had protected the village for four months.
Over a year after the demolition was given the green light, Khan al-Amar lives and breathes a sigh of relief. Its people remain in their homes. They are resolute, determined to stay there until physically removed. The young woman in the photo, Sarah, has become another icon of women-led resistance.
What went right?
In June 2019, I sat in Khan al-Amar drinking tea with sage and snacking on pretzels with Sarah Abu Dahouk, the woman in the viral photo, and her mother, Um Ismael (her full name cannot be used due to privacy concerns). At the entrance to the village, men reclined in plastic chairs and smoked shisha, while children played with a ball. There was a sense of welcome but hesitant calm in this isolated community buttressed by vast swaths of bare desert. We chatted about last summer’s existential crisis, euphemistically calling it mushkileh, or problems in Arabic.
Located just meters from a busy highway frequented by Israeli settlers, I wouldn’t have been able to find Khan al-Amar if I wasn’t with Sharona Weiss, a seasoned American human rights activist who spent weeks there last summer. We took a sharp turn off the highway and off-roaded several rocky meters to the village entrance. It felt absurd that even the most right-wing Kahanist supremacist could consider this community — comprised of dozens of families living in tents, or wooden and tin shacks — a threat to the state of Israel.
Sarah is only 19 years old, much younger than I would’ve guessed from her self-possessed and confident demeanor. We giggled over the coincidence that we are both Sarahs married to, or marrying, Mohammeds. We both want a bunch of kids, boys and girls. Um Ismael played with my three-month-old baby, as Sharona’s six-year-old son lost himself among the shacks. “We just want to live here in peace, and live normal lives,” Um Ismael said repeatedly, passionately. Sarah echoed the sentiment, “We are happy for now. We just want to be left alone.”
There is no insidious political calculus behind their sumud, or steadfastness. They were displaced twice by the state of Israel, and they don’t want to be refugees yet again. It is that simple. This is a common refrain in Palestinian communities, if only the world would bother to listen.
Last year, Sarah’s hijab was ripped off by heavily armed male police as she attempted to defend her uncle from arrest. As she scrambled to get away, they forced her to the ground to arrest her as well. This particularly brutal and gendered violence drew the world’s attention to the village. The incident was deeply violating on numerous levels. Her personal exposure to the authorities, activists, and village residents was now amplified to the world as the photo was rapidly shared across social media. Even those professing to support the struggle of Khan al-Amar felt no qualms in circulating this photo. In a previous account written by Amira Hass, a family friend explained the deep shock and humiliation that the incident inspired: “To place a hand on a mandil [headscarf] is to harm a woman’s identity.”
But her family didn’t want her to be a “hero.” Her arrest was seen as shameful and unacceptable by the village leaders, who deeply care about the safety and privacy of their families. They were distraught by the idea of a young woman being detained and imprisoned. In a brazen act, a group of men from Khan al-Amar presented themselves to the court to be arrested in Sarah’s place. Unsurprisingly, their offer was denied and she remained in custody.
Sarah was jailed at the same military prison as Ahed Tamimi, a Palestinian teenager convicted for slapping a soldier, and her mother Nariman, who was imprisoned for filming the incident. Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian writer with Israeli citizenship, was also imprisoned alongside them for publishing a poem on Facebook deemed as “incitement.” They all provided much-needed emotional support. Nariman was her protector, graciously offering her bed when the cell was too crowded. At the military hearing, authorities announced that Sarah was the only individual from Khan al-Amar indicted for “security offenses” and she remained in custody. The dubious charge against her was that she had tried to hit a soldier.
The blood of your neighbor
Um Ismael, Sarah’s mother, is known as a pillar of the community. She kept the village’s women informed throughout the demolition crisis. This was partly because of her home’s convenient position on top of the hill, which meant that her family was often first to face police and army incursions. She was also a liaison to activists bringing supplies and donations for children. She is known to make jokes and keep spirits high, even when bulldozers were moving in to destroy her home.
Sharona, Sarah and Um Ismael showed me around the village, including a small school covered in colorful art that was slated for demolition. It was rescued by becoming a live-in protest site, hosting activists for months. More children appeared and greeted us enthusiastically with a chorus of “Hello, how are you?” They played with my baby girl, showing her how to slide for the first time on a donated playground.
As we toured the school and a large permanent tent, Sharona summarized the nonviolent resistance routine last summer, and why it was so effective. “Between July and October, every night there were surveillance shifts and a sit-in protest tent in the school around the clock,” she explained. “The Bedouin women didn’t stay in the main protest tent, but Um Ismael told female activists that they were welcome to sleep in her home.”
Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists gathered in the school every night for a strategy discussion and shared a huge meal together, which was prepared by a local woman, Mariam. Political parties and leaders who normally wouldn’t work together because of ideological differences coalesced around the common cause in Khan al-Amar. Mariam also made sure everyone always had a mat to sleep on, and that they were comfortable despite the circumstances.
Women often have a uniquely powerful role to play in “de-arresting” Palestinians.
Many nights saw around 100 activists, journalists and diplomats arrive in order to be present with residents, with more or less depending on expectations of demolition or Friday prayers. This powerful solidarity brings to mind the commandment of Leviticus 19:16: Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. The risk of normalization between Israelis and Palestinians initially made locals uncomfortable, but it became less of an issue once Israelis got arrested and showed they were willing to take risks for the village. These acts of co-resistance were welcomed by remarkable hospitality from the community whose very existence is under threat.
Women stood steadfast on the front lines against police aggression and pepper spray, while ideas of possible women’s actions percolated. They often sat together, linking arms. There were some disagreements on tactics. Some women, including Bedouin women, wanted to form a ring around the eviction site and sing, stand strong, and cover their faces in tandem because they didn’t want to be in photos. But the men would often insist that the women go to a neighborhood that was not being threatened on the other side of the road, so they would be protected from violence.
Across Area C, where army and settler violence is a frequent experience, women can often have a uniquely powerful role to play in “de-arresting” Palestinians. The army simply doesn’t know what to do when women jump in and start yelling in their faces. This direct action often prevents activists from being arrested and removed from the scene by interrupting their detention.
The ‘Pretty Dolls’ of Khan al-Amar
During the protests, international and Israeli women noticed that the local women didn’t come to the public protest tent due to local norms of privacy and gender separation. Yael Moaz from Friends of Jahalin, a local nonprofit, asked what can be done to support and include them. Eid Jahalin, a leader of the village, said, “you should do something with the women.” At first, they didn’t know what this “something” could look like. But during the mushkileh, residents often expressed frustration over their economic marginalization. Nearby settlements used to hire them in the past, and the government used to give them work permits to enter Israel, but this was all halted in retaliation for their activism. When they do work, it’s for almost no money.
Activists asked the women a simple question: “What do you know how to do?” There was one elderly woman who remembered how to create tents, but embroidery is a cultural skill that most women had lost. First, the women said they didn’t know how to embroider. But then some of them remembered — they emulated their own embroidered clothes and came up with their own designs for dolls. Some of the women had learned as teenagers, and started telling Galya Chai — a designer and one of the Israeli women helping to keep the vigil over Khan al-Amar last summer — what kind of embroidery thread to bring.
A new project called “Lueba Heluwa,” or Pretty Doll, grew out of this effort, and it now brings in a few hundred shekels each month from visitors, tourists, activists and their friends — making a significant positive impact on residents’ quality of life. The dolls are also sold across Israel, in progressive activist spaces like Imbala Cafe in Jerusalem. They’re now looking to sell the dolls in other places, like Bethlehem and internationally, as the supply has exceeded the local demand.
In a village close to being wiped off the map by the Israeli government, Chai explained how they approached the obvious power imbalance. “We earned trust with long, hard work,” she said. “There were so many people last summer, coming once and twice, but it’s hard to be part of something all the time. We are the only ones who actually do that. We are there two, three, four times a month. They know that we didn’t forget about them, that we are there. We are there because we are friends. They are happy to see us, and it’s personal now.”
The project has been unexpectedly successful without any formal funding. They have started an Instagram account on the women’s own terms — they don’t feel comfortable being photographed, but the village itself, the children, and their hands working can be. They hosted one event that 150 visitors attended, and are thinking about holding more large-scale events. “It’s important for them because they feel so remote,” Chai explained. “Each doll carries a message that it’s telling about the village. They have the name of the maker on it.”
The women are thinking of bringing more groups to the village to learn the art of embroidery. No two dolls are alike. “The dolls started looking like the people who make them,” Chai said with a laugh. “There is something about the doll and its identity. We have younger girls, like 15 year olds, who are very talented, and the dolls look younger. They start looking like their maker.”
The project is growing, and anyone is welcome to join. There are currently around 30 dollmakers, including teenage girls. They work on their own, but there are collective gatherings several times a month. The project has evolved into a larger endeavor of no-nonsense problem solving, resource redistribution, and self-guided liberatory organizing. For example, the older women have vision problems, so the Israeli women are driving them to see an optometrist in Jerusalem who is offering free services. The women are now interested in learning how to sew on sewing machines. Sometimes they want to do ceramics, so the Israelis will bring clay. Sometimes they say, come with cars and let’s have a picnic.
Chai is careful to state that “we don’t only bring and do, they do for us as well. They always want to give us something. Sometimes they make us bread, sometimes they make us tea. Last time we were there, a woman made a doll for her with her name, Ghazala, on it.” Her name is Yael, which sounds like ghazala, meaning gazelle in Arabic. When some Israelis learn about the project, they suggest things to teach the women. But Chai is firm about the justice lens of the project — she is not there to initiate, or make things look a certain way, but to co-design. “You have to think a lot about everything you do and not to be pushy, not to be ‘Israeli.’”
Next year, inshallah
Running my hands over one of the doll’s intricate stitches, I inhaled the scent of the hard-packed earth that long predates and will long outlive military occupation. I was reminded that cultural memory and revival are a crucial form of resistance, just as important as Sarah straining to free her body from the grip of policemen, or hundreds of activists maintaining a four-month sit-in in Khan al-Amar’s besieged school.
The family clearly misses the reassuring presence and solidarity of international visitors. As we were preparing to leave, Um Ismael told me I had to come back to visit Khan al-Amar soon, and to bring my husband. “Next year, inshallah,” was the most honest answer I could give. We both knew it’s entirely possible that the Israeli government would follow through on its promise, and destroy Khan al-Amar before next year. But for now, people power has prevailed. I asked Sarah and her mother if they thought the mushkileh would continue — if the armed forces, bulldozers and demolitions would return. “Of course,” Um Ismael stated wistfully. “We are Palestinians.” We all managed sad smiles, sipping our tea in silence. Together we watched the swelling sunset dip into the seemingly infinite desert hills.