Before last night I had foolishly imagined him a sagely, age-wizened man in a flowing robe. I was surprised when Mousa Abu Maria, Palestinian rights activist and founder of the Palestine Solidarity Project was a tall, youthful man in a pullover and jeans. He didn’t look like a man who had been shot in the head and had spent four years in the Israeli prison system; the last fourteen months of which were spent in Orwellian ‘administrative detention.’ His English wasn’t perfect, and he spoke occasionally of ‘Israelian solders’, but the audience (really squeezed in the Nuffield, Lecture Room C) hung onto every wrongly-conjugated verb with real respect.
His hometown, Beit Ummar is in the West Bank, just 25 kilometres from Jerusalem, a figure Israeli settlers are increasing inch by inch. He spoke of children from his village languishing in Israeli prisons, cherry-picked out of schools as possible terrorist suspects. They are also, as Mousa’s photos demonstrate, encouraged to inform on the activities of their parents whilst held at the barrel of American machineguns. He shows us a video of a midnight abduction in his village. The video starts with hurried whispers as a volley of muffled explosions take place, possibly soldiers attempting to demolish the door. This is the house of Ahmed Abu Hashem, and the target is his son Hamza, 14. A choked cry of Allah-hu-Akbar is heard as the videographer heads to the roof, where he finds out that the military have been successful. Mousa tells us he was severely beaten overnight, and released inexplicably the next d ay.
One of the problems Palestinian villages like Beit Ummar face is the destruction of their crops at harvest time. Particularly insidious is the settler tactic of pumping raw sewage laced with salts and chemicals onto the olive tree orchards and plots of grape vines, rendering the fruit inedible and poisoning the earth. The method of protest Mousa and other villagers resorted to was to hurl bunches of grapes and olives onto the road dividing Hebron and Jerusalem and used by both Palestinians and Israelis. It strikes a chord with Mousa’s hunger strikes: in the same way as prisoners’ refusal of food is the only control they can exert over their own bodies, the only option the farmers have is to choose the method in which their crops are destroyed.
When settlers take more violent and direct action to expel the villagers from their land, Mousa laments that often the IDF side with the villagers. In the face of damning video evidence which is sent to them following incidents of violence, judges turn a blind eye and a deaf ear.
Bouts of laughter almost borne out of despair punctuated the sombre evening. I asked Mousa what other Arab governments can do to aid the Palestinian cause, and laughter followed his exasperated reply. As if speaking to a child for the thousandth time, he stated, ‘there is no hope for us from other Arab countries.’ Another member of the audience asked what he thought of the right of Palestinians to physically defend themselves against Israeli aggression and Mousa brushed away the question. ‘In Palestine we don’t need any weapons. We don’t have an army, we don’t have people who know how to shoot.’ Mousa stated that Palestine’s hope lay in the international community – one of the reasons for his foundation of the Palestine Solidarity Project, an international non-violent resistance organisation.
Mousa was introduced to the idea of non-violent resistance during his years in Askelon prison. In the early 2000s he met Khader Adnan, an activist familiar with the prison system who led classes about Palestinian history and the uprising. Though politely declining to answer questions regarding his incarceration, it is clear that Mousa gained the positive influence his friend had engendered: in an interview with Electronic Intifada he stated that ‘prison was like a university in those times and [Adnan] was one of the professors.’