Solidarity and humility

IssueSeptember 2011
Feature by Michael Pooler

It took over 100 days but in the end we did it. After passing through spectacul-ar landscapes from lush forest to barren desert, experiencing unbounded human warmth and pushing ourselves to our physical and mental limits while cycling 7,000km – we finally arrived in our destination: Palestine.

“PEDAL: 100 Days to Palestine” was conceived as a solidarity cycle ride based on the idea of linking people and groups struggling against different forms of oppression, with the goal of strengthening social movements by sharing our stories and tactics of resistance. The genesis of the project was in May 2010 following the attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla by Israeli forces. Several of our members were on a solidarity cycle ride between two communities engaged in struggles against fossil fuel extraction and from the sense of outrage sprang the idea of a similar journey from the UK to the West Bank in solidarity with Palestinians against the occupation.

We decided early on that rather than simply embark on a nominal “peace” cycle, whose impact in terms of actual solidarity we were doubtful of, we would make the journey an explicitly political project addressing a variety of issues linked to the occupation of Palestine. Thus PEDAL had three themes providing points of reference for our politics and actions along the way: responding to the Palestinian call-out for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel; linking communities and cultures of resistance; and environmental justice, specifically access to land, water and seeds.

Four months

So what did all of this mean in practice? During the four months before reaching Palestine we visited over a dozen communities ranging from a migrant solidarity centre in Calais to a collective organic farm in Austria; from Europe’s largest squatted site in Slovenia to a threatened 700-year-old community garden in Istanbul; from a Roma cultural space in Kosovo to a permacultural seed bank in the mountains of Greece, and many others.

At an initial glance it may be difficult to see the thread which links these seemingly disparate locations. True, all operate at the margins of the system; but the powerful potential as we saw it is that all challenge, in different ways, the dominant processes of capitalism and form part of a broader “movement of movements”, to borrow a phrase from the alter-globalisation movement.

While personally I knew – at least in theory – of the structural links between different forms of human and environmental exploitation, it was the human encounters which brought it home. For example, while obviously different in magnitude of violence, the predicament of pensioners’ food-growing allotments in Slovenia threatened by gentrification is not that far removed from the confiscation of farmers’ land in Palestine in terms of the process of expansion behind it.

Similarly, on speaking to anti-racist activists in Bosnia you realise that the fascist ideology which led to war and ethnic cleansing in the region is analogous to that which intellectually underpins dispossession and displacement in Palestine. This was crystallised by a Palestinian boycott co-ordinator who pointed out to us that we should not view the occupation as something isolated or a single issue, as “many of the companies involved in the occupation are complicit in injustices elsewhere”.

Starting from this analysis, in each community we held discussions and workshops on how to share tactics and build networks, as well as supporting each other from a distance. We found that this intersection of political analysis and human experience was fertile ground for solidarity and mutual aid.

Two lessons

From my experiences in Palestine I can distil two lessons. The first is in the meaning of solidarity activism – and humility. This came after being told by a young male student who had spent three years in an Israeli prison “you have travelled here, you see everything and then you will just go home and forget about it. But we have to live in this”. The lesson was best encapsulated in the words of an Israeli comrade: “if you want to show solidarity to a Palestinian then you stand beside her and offer help; you follow her lead and take her instruction; you do not direct, criticise or attempt to lead. You cannot stand in her shoes, for it is her struggle and not yours to take over”.

Experiencing the Israeli occupation of Palestine in the flesh leaves an indelible mark on your mind and heart, and faced with the enormity and sophistication of the occupation it is easy to succumb to despondency. Yet the hope and courage of people is infectious; as one man in the village of Al-Walajah told me: “for Palestinians this is a battle for existence. Just by living we are resisting”.

This echoed the sentiment of many Palestinians we spoke to who taught me the important second lesson: that the reason many prefer to use the term “popular” resistance over “nonviolent” is because it implies embracing a wide spectrum of tactics that have popular support, as well as reclaiming control over perception of the occupation rather than accepting a negative definition of their own struggle.

“The kids throw stones,” said one man to me at a demonstration. “But we know it will not hurt soldiers. How can stone-throwing be violent when they have tanks, guns, electric fences, walls and checkpoints separating us from our land and subject us to violence every day?”.

The most memorable piece of wisdom I heard in my journey came from an elderly woman, made a refugee in 1948 and now living in Aida refugee camp. It applies not only to Palestine, but to the struggles and resistance that we all encounter: “You must tell the story, pass it on to the younger generations so that justice is achieved; so that this will end and never happen again”.