Editor’s note: Ross Fenter is a Seattle-based film maker who has been documenting the Israel-Palestine conflict for years now. Fenter has returned to the region to visit some old friends, the Palestinian Maria family, which include community leaders in the movement opposing the Israeli occupation of their lands. One family member, 46-year-old Hashem Abu Maria, who worked on children’s issues, was killed July 25 by an Israeli sniper. Fenter returns to visit the family in a community torn by decades of conflict and oppression – a community that remains surprisingly defiant against overwhelming odds. A cease-fire has gone into effect as of today, but the seeds of this long-festering, volatile conflict remain entrenched.
By Ross Fenter
“They have nothing left to lose. They and their families have been robbed of their dignity and their futures as a result of this occupation.”
Beit Ommar, West Bank – As we approach the town from the north I tell my driver Maneer to slow down before we reach the main entrance and let me out, having already seen pictures from my friend Mousa’s Facebook posts earlier that morning of the heavy Army activity around the front gate. Given the circumstances, I plan on avoiding it entirely and sneaking up through one of two back entrances into this town just north of Hebron.
I shake hands with Maneer and wish him well, then grab my bags and head up towards the cemetery to work my way around the main back entrance but I only make it about 75 yards before I run into two local men who wave me off and tell me that there are more soldiers up ahead on the road.
These two men are standing guard on the side of the road for the sole purpose of guiding the villagers (and me) away from the soldiers hiding around the corner, they send me up through the large farmers market to the road that will take me on up the hill to Mousa’s house.
This cat and mouse game of making your way in and out of Beit Ommar is something of a daily occurrence, if not every other day. For the 18,000 residents of this town the idea that they cannot come and go freely for work, shopping, doctors appointments or just to see their friends and relatives is mind numbing, not to mention a flagrant violation of Article 27 of the Geneva Convention pertaining to Freedom of Movement.
Three years earlier I was driving back to Beit Ommar from Bethlehem with Mousa in the passenger seat, as I turned up towards the front gate and around the corner we rolled up on a group of young soldiers blocking the road for no particular reason.
Not knowing what to do I looked over at Mousa for help but before I could say anything he reached over and hit the horn and shouted at them in Arabic to get the hell out of the way.
This didn’t sit well with one of the soldiers who came running over to the car waiving his M-16 and shouting at us in Hebrew and just like that, he jammed the gun in through the passenger window and pointed it at my head.
Much to my surprise my friend grabbed the barrel of the gun with one hand and shoved it straight into the dashboard, holding it rigidly with that vice-like grip of his. The soldier could neither push the gun forward or pull it back so I dropped the car into reverse and wheeled around backwards to the right, dislodging our young angry friend in the process as I sped off in the opposite direction headed for the back entrance.
Once we made our way into town I looked over at Mousa and we both just started laughing, the sight of that soldier in the rearview mirror trying to regain his military composer was one that I’ll cherish forever.
The Maria family compound is about an acre of land, (their farm land is further out), with three houses on each corner shaped like an L, one house per brother and a large garden in the middle where they grow everything from tomatoes to large green grapes hanging from the vine. Mousa’s family lives in the big house on the far side with his father’s home built directly underneath.
I walk up with my bags in hand to Yousef’s home first, one of the two older brothers’, and I shout out his name. Once inside, Yousef recognizes me and comes over and gives me a big bear hug and immediately tells me to sit down and relax and have some coffee with him and his friends.
Yousef Abu Maria is 40 years old and built like a college linebacker with his big shoulders, short cropped black hair, perpetual five o’clock shadow and hands the size of catcher’s mitts. When Yousef goes to the demonstrations his sheer presence makes the soldiers nervous. It’s good to see him again.
We catch up on small talk about the family, what he’s been doing with the farm and with his new organization that he’s currently building and the recent upswing of military activity in the area following the murder of the 3 settlers on June 12th of this year. After a while I head up to the main house to see Mousa.
This is my fourth trip back into the West Bank and I’m here to resume work on a documentary film that I started 3 years ago, the first time I met Mousa and the Maria family.
In 2011 my dad and I took a trip to Israel with the goal of spending the majority of our time traveling through the West Bank while I film, working our way from Nablus to Hebron and living with the Palestinian people along the way.
Since that time the story has changed slightly, but the end goal remains the same, to try and convey the true nature of what life is like living under “military occupation” and the US/Israeli policies that helps perpetuate this ongoing human rights disaster.
This conflict is very difficult to understand, let alone try to explain to a domestic audience that has been feeding off of a single narrative for over 46 years now. That narrative has been defined by a number of parties with the most powerful of those voices coming from the state of Israel and their lobby AIPAC, the mainstream media and the religious right.
The problem with this narrative is that there are some gaping holes in the history that we’re being taught and moreover, the reality of life on the ground in terms of illegal settlements and settlement expansion throughout the west bank based on religious beliefs is rarely addressed.
As my friend and Israeli activist Fred Schlomka once said: “This is the 21st century, we base land ownership and land title on a modern chain of ownership. At some point every piece of land in the world was conquered or taken or stolen by somebody. At the end of the road, in a modern civilized democratic society, we have a system of rules and laws and we certainly don’t include God as being a real estate agent.”
The night is young so Mousa and I head up the road to buy some food for dinner.
Along the way we run into the Mayor of Beit Ommar, a good friend of Mousa’s who I’ve spent a little time with on my last trip and he insists that we come up to his rooftop patio for some coffee.
On the mayor’s patio we sip coffee and eat fresh cut vegetables that his wife sets out for us and we talk about Gaza, of course, and the events leading up to this current military engagement.
The TV on the patio is set on Al Jazeera, which runs through scene after scene of the ongoing damage and destruction in Gaza, complete with graphic images of children being pulled from the rubble or families lying dead in the street.
The news in this part of the world looks much different than Wolf Blitzer exploring tunnels on CNN.
As we’re talking we start to hear the sounds of concussion grenades off in the distance to the south so I get up to have a look. The two men come over to the edge of the roof with me and point out the army jeeps on the far side of the hill near Kami Tzur, a large illegal settlement that is the main source of problems for this town.
The Israelis on the hillside are standing next to a jeep launching tear gas canisters at some kids on top of the hill who are most likely throwing stones. The distance between the two groups is so great, the whole thing seems pointless.
We sit back down and resume drinking coffee and Mousa begins to tell me what life has been like since the settlers were kidnapped and killed.
Mousa Abu Maria is a very serious man when it comes to fighting the occupation. When he talks about it, his facial expression changes as well as his demeanor; he becomes laser focused.
Like his older brother Yousef, Mousa is powerfully built but smaller, and always clean-shaven. If he and his brother grew up playing football, Yousef would most likely be the Middle Line Backer and Mousa would play strong safety.
The ongoing patrols, house searches and harassment by the IDF increased dramatically since news of the settlers came out. That coupled with the omnipresent news stream of buildings and houses being blown up and chaotic, bloody scenes from hospital emergency rooms in Gaza has put this entire region on a knifes edge.
The previous weekend saw the biggest demonstrations in the West Bank in over a decade, including the one here in Beit Ommar. It was at this demonstration 6 days earlier when dozens of locals were injured or shot in the legs with rubber coated bullets and two men were shot through the stomach with live ammo, killing them both. A third man was killed by live ammo in another area up the road. One of those two men was Mousa’s cousin,Hashem Abu Maria, a 46-year-old father of three and the head of a local children’s foundation.
I ask the two men the question foremost on my mind – “Is this the beginning of the Third Intifada?”
Almost on cue we hear more concussion grenades off in the distance. Mousa is skeptical but he does admit that this time around things are different, the major crackdown across the West Bank this summer and the increased use of live ammo at demonstrations is not a good sign. A couple of weeks before the Israeli settlers were murdered, two Palestinian boys were throwing stones at a demonstration when they both were murdered by Israeli soldiers firing live ammo and targeting them specifically.
The whole thing was caught on two different cameras from two different angles, one angle from the demonstrator’s perspective (on CCTV) showing the first boy drop as the bullet ripped through him, the second angle came from a news team that actually showed the soldier who fired the shot. That soldier was merely disciplined for the misuse of his weapon when in fact he should be brought up on murder charges, but that rarely happens in the West Bank even with such damning evidence that could easily convict him in the real world. The IDF later ordered all closed circuit cameras to be removed from this area.
The mayor’s opinion on the current situation takes me a little bit by surprise. He talks about Gaza and Hamas’ fight to end the siege and the naval blockade, to open the borders and allow people in the Gaza Strip access to the outside world. Gaza is like the largest open air prison on the planet with no control over their own resources (especially water), and the surrounding borders with Israel and Egypt are guarded as well as access to the sea beyond three miles. They are completely boxed in.
The Mayor seems to be indicating that armed struggle is the only thing left for Gaza, and he equates their efforts to the Lebanese fight to take back southern Lebanon in 2006.
In essence what he’s saying is that it finally worked for the Lebanese because they made Israel withdraw from southern Lebanon, so it may work for the people in Gaza and, who knows, that might be what it takes for the West Bank to achieve some level of freedom.
The next day, Friday, is the day of protest. Mousa and I head up to Ma’asara, a small village on the outskirts of Bethlehem for a demonstration that sort of fizzles out shortly after things gets started.
We are joined by three Israeli Jews in their twenties, two guys and a girl all from Jerusalem. As the demonstration dies down Mousa asks them for a ride back to the main road so we can make our way back down to Beit Ommar, where a protest is only just getting started.
One of the Israelis knows Mousa, having spent the night at Mousa’s house a few years earlier with a large group of foreigners and he offers to drive us all the way back to Beit Ommar.
Along the way I ask them what the situation is like for peaceful Jewish protestors in Jerusalem and they all tell stories of the right-wing fascist groups roaming the streets at night and attacking people. They’re all genuinely scared and they tell me that they’ve never seen things this bad before, so much racism and hatred which makes me admire them even more for taking a stand with their own personal safety at risk out here as well as in their own neighborhoods.
In Beit Ommar the war rages on! I’m standing on the rooftop of Mousa’s house in the late afternoon filming and from this unique vantage point we can see most of the action, as a dozen heavily armed soldiers push their way up the main road shooting dozens of tear gas canisters, lobbing concussion grenades and the occasional crackle of gun fire, but I’m guessing only rubber coated bullets for now.
Suddenly the tide shifts and the Beit Ommar boys, maybe 50 in all, re-emerge on multiple rooftops and begin to pummel the soldiers with stones and they retreat back towards the main gate.
It is absolutely fascinating to watch this battle unfold and I’ll admit, having been in the fray before it can be a pretty exhilarating experience although I’ve never been caught up in something like this. Not yet at least.
The boys move quickly, they know every short cut, every alley, every secret passage between the buildings and the houses and they exploit these soldier’s efforts with great ease. The release of years and years of frustrations and fear is palpable, you can see it in their eyes and you can hear it in their battle cries.
These young men are at a point where they have nothing left to lose. They and their families have been robbed of their dignity and their futures as a result of this occupation.
The economy is non-existent and every year the settlers get more violent, steal more of their farmland, block access to their fields and burn down their olive trees. The occupation is getting worse with each passing year. They have no control over their lives and they live in constant fear of lengthy incarcerations without charges, beatings or worse, being killed by the IDF or by rogue settlers.
At this moment in time, on those rooftops, these boys own the neighborhood and they know it. Beit Ommar belongs to them and they’re not going down without a fight.
Mousa and his daughter Rafeef are standing beside and I can see a small grin on his face, you can tell that he’s proud of his boys and there’s no doubt in my mind that he once led the charge when he was a younger man.
I’ve also watched Mousa take a stand and directly stop young men from throwing stones in the past to prevent any kind of unnecessary escalations.
Mousa is eager to get out there and to get closer to the chaos so he asks me if I’ll watch Rafeef, he tells me that he wants to check on his neighbor across the way and I agree without hesitation. About 15 minutes later Mousa’s wife Bekah comes up on the roof and she laughs and says Mousa was worried that you’d want to get closer to the action so I guess he left you up here with Rafeef. I laugh and say ‘of course I do, do you mind?’
And with that I’m off to the main road, but I chose to take the low road and see if I can’t approach the soldiers down by the gate first.
The second I make it up to the main road I run into three soldiers and I’m hit by a wall of tear gas lofting down the street. One of the soldiers approaches me and I tell him that I’m a journalist and for fun I ask him if he’d like to do an interview, he dismissed me in Hebrew and continues to move back towards the armored vehicles to regroup.
I turn around and run into three heavily armed Israeli police and I get approached again and asked what I’m doing there, I give the same response which irritates him but he’s inhaled enough of his own tear gas by now that he needs to go back to the vehicles and regroup as well.
With this short break in the action I decide to go for it and make my way up the road towards the opposing force with my camera in hand. About a hundred yards up the road I run into a couple of teenagers who are holding stones and a bit surprised by my brazen walk towards the front lines.
One of the boys holding a stone in each hand shouts at me in Arabic and I hold up my camera and tell him I’m ok, I’m with Mousa, he then asks me to lift my shirt up to see if I have a weapon which makes me laugh and I lift my shirt and spin around and with that, the boy starts laughing with me. He waves me forward and I move further up the street, my eyes are watering now and I start to cough but I want to somehow get behind these guys and film from the rear in an effort to capture their perspective.
When I start filming I’m approached by a couple older men in their thirties who see me for the first time and are clearly concerned about who I am and why I’m filming. I stop filming immediately and try to explain that I’m Mousa’s friend (everyone knows Mousa and his brothers in this town) and that I’m a journalist, they understand the part about being Mousa’s friend which is good, but they could care less about my need to shoot pictures. Mousa’s friend good; but NO pictures!
Boom…. Boom, Boom! Just like that the battle resumes as the soldiers fire off a mobile tear gas launcher in our direction from the roof of their jeep that shoots at least 20 rounds at the same time, everyone suddenly starts running back in my direction.
With nowhere to go I jog back up a side street that also happens to be a dead end, I am joined by 15 others who are re-arming themselves with rocks and planning their next moves. The soldiers launch another 20 canisters that start coming down like artillery all around and I quickly take cover on somebody’s back patio looking for an escape route.
The man inside opens the door and tells me to run towards him, which I do and once I make it inside he quickly shuts the door and seals the windows.
I thank the man profusely and we’re both kind of laughing at the whole situation, his name is Wassef, he is 46 years old and owns a satellite dish company and he speaks pretty good English, so I am able to explainto him my story and how I found myself on his back porch. Outside the boys are all running between houses and shouting and Wassef tells me that it’s best if I stay inside with him for a while.
We sit down and watch the action unfold out the window and share stories, his wife comes out minutes later with more coffee and honey bread and for the next hour I find myself making a new friend.
We are joined by Wassef’s nephew ‘Ayman, a young boy who speaks really good English and whose father was killed by the IDF when he was 2 years old.
After a while there seems to be a break in the action so Wassef has his nephew escort me back down to the main road and from there I say goodbye, then dash across the street between two buildings and out into the fields where I make my way back to Mousa’s house. I’m exhausted from days of work without much sleep but I’m smiling all the way back thinking to myself that I cannot remember having had such a fun day at work in a long, long time.
Ross Fenter is a philanthropist and a film maker with over 18 years of experience working in film and television. After serving in the US Army overseas and earning a degree from the University of Montana, Ross moved to Los Angeles to embark on a career in film and tv with a focus on documentary film making. Ross has filmed in over a dozen countries, from the jungles of Thailand and Burma working with the Karen refugees and guerrilla fighters, to the occupied territories of The West Bank, Brazil, Peru, Laos and many more.