Palestinian Activists Who Are Inspired by Jesus, but Refuse to Turn the Other Cheek

Palestinian activists with the Salt of the Earth campaign are warning Mahmoud Abbas not to give up the Jordan Valley.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

A verse from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the inspiration for a new series of popular Palestinian activities against the negotiations being mediated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

The campaign is dubbed “Salt of the Earth,” and there’s no doubt that its conceivers do not know (and could not care less) that in Israeli folklore the same phrase – with its Christian roots – refers to the primarily Ashkenazi elite of soldiers and settlers – self-identified as self-sacrificing – from both before and after the state was founded.

On Friday, January 31, the first activity was launched. Erecting a camp at Ein Hijleh, north of the Dead Sea, on land belonging to the monastery of the same name (and also known as the St. Gerasimos Monastery). The protest was against the colonization of Palestinian lands, but the direct message was to the Palestinian Authority: You have no right to give up the Jordan Valley.

The name of the campaign derives from the New Testament (Matthew 5:13): “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men” (King James Version). The activists are translating the verse into today’s reality: The daughters and sons of Palestine are the salt of the earth, and they are called upon to preserve and restore the substance (the saltiness) that is endangered under the failing PA – connection to the land, resistance to the occupation and unity.

As these lines are being written (Saturday afternoon), dozens of young Palestinians who responded to the call of the Popular Resistance Committees and set up the camp were still celebrating their ascension to, or return to, the grounds of an ancient Canaanite village. The destroyed homes at the site are from a much later period.

The organizers believe that, until 1967, Palestinian Christians connected to the monastery lived there, but they don’t know for certain what happened to them – whether they abandoned the place, fled for fear of war or were expelled. There’s a military camp on the grounds of the monastery, and a small Israeli outpost nearby.

Those who continue to read through the Sermon on the Mount will find other phrases that have become part of global folklore. For example, “But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Blessed are the activists who refuse to adopt the problematic message of “turning the other cheek.”

On Saturday at noon, several soldiers entered on foot and told the activists that they had to leave the area, one of the activists told Haaretz by phone. But they couldn’t produce a written order. According to the activist, someone had said that the radio had reported that at 5 P.M. the army would raid the camp and forcefully expel the activists. “The soldiers’ expected violence neither scares us nor deters us,” she said.

By Sunday evening, activists reported, the camp was still in place, but the soldiers had been preventing other activists from joining in. In the meantime, other activists erected a similar camp, “The Return,” in the north of the Jordan Valley.

Such initiatives do not draw thousands of people, despite the great tension prevailing in Palestinian society. Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, the founder of the Palestinian National Initiative movement who joined the camp activists, had, a few days earlier, summarized the reasons for this tension: There’s the unceasing escalation by the army and the settlers, of course, and the humiliation – a necessary by-product of the foreign rule under which all Palestinians live.

Economic distress is also a major factor. The cost of living is at Israeli standards, while local salaries are less than the Israeli minimum wage.

Another reason is the unresolved sociopolitical rift between Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Barghouti says that because of that rift, “the democratic process is dead.

“There’s no culture of accountability,” he says. “The power is concentrated in the executive level alone. That’s what infuriates people. There are a lot of lobbies, but whom can they lobby? The legislative council is paralyzed and disabled, and representatives elected by the public are the least likely to have their say. All decisions are made outside the ranks of the public will.”

The rift and the death of the democratic process are not just reasons for the tension, says Barghouti. Together with the uncertainty conveyed by the negotiations, they are the factors that paralyze people and dull their willingness to act.

Barghouti says the current negotiations are offering the Palestinians a Bantustan with some economic development. “It’s the Israeli solution to the demographic problem that leaves most of the settlers in the occupied area,” he says. Unlike other activists, however, Barghouti doesn’t believe PA President Mahmoud Abbas will sign such an agreement. “But I do fear the extension of the status quo,” he says.

In other words, he fears the PA will agree to another period of futile negotiations and the paralysis of popular activity.

The persistence of Palestinian field activists as demonstrated by Salt of the Earth is a source of optimism for Barghouti. Grass-root activism can channel the tension building in society into a popular uprising, and can define the boundaries that the official leadership should not cross.

There were two problems with the second intifada, Barghouti says and, as the indefatigable optimist that he is, hopes will not be repeated: There was no unified leadership; and the uprising became militarized. The number of supporters for an unarmed popular uprising is growing, he says. “Look at the sweeping global success of the BDS [boycott, divestment, sanctions] campaign, which is a nonviolent struggle that began with a handful of grass-roots activists.”

Isn’t it appropriate, then, to conclude with another verse from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”

A date palm orchard in the Jordan Valley. Palestinian farmers are not allowed onto their lands between the border fence and the Jordan River.Credit: Moti Milrod

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