Reflections on being detained in Hebron; privilege and identity in anti-Occupation activism

By Oriel Eisner

A few weeks ago I was detained along with 5 other Israeli citizens* during an action in Hebron with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, Youth Against Settlements and All That’s Left (*several Palestinians were held in the YAS house for several hours). I had never been detained before, but I felt pretty casual about it beforehand. Conversations and briefings I had had with others leading up to the action made me feel pretty comfortable and confident about what the process would entail. I also knew the immense privilege I hold as a Jewish Israeli in Israel/Palestine would carry into the detainment process, so I didn’t feel like I had much to worry about.

Photo by A. Daniel Roth Photo by A. Daniel Roth

This turned out to be true as my detainment, from the moment of arrest to the moment of release, was harm-free and fairly comfortable. At no point was I physically assaulted or harassed, nor had my hands tied or a blindfold put on me. I was never even yelled at. During my detainment I sat around a table with the 5 others in an air-conditioned room, was given food and water, and was able to use my phone.

Even still, something in me changed during or since my detainment. It affected me more than I had expected it to. In the days after my detainment I noticed that I reacted differently when I saw military and police vehicles and officers, or checkpoints, or even when I’d been in West Jerusalem around mostly Israelis. There was a tenseness or an anxiety in these moments that didn’t used to be there.

Before I was detained I would see military vehicles and police officers and understand that they are symbols and actors of the Israeli military rule over the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In that regard, in my work and my activism, I was to some degree in opposition to them and what they represented. I would go into the West Bank, visit with Palestinians who were suffering under occupation, see its cruel effects in the roadblocks, flying checkpoints, and military patrols, and learn about the structural inequalities manifested in home demolitions in Area C and the segregation and displacement in Hebron. I would stroll through West Jerusalem, to the movies for example, and see ways of living that are embedded and therefore complicit or at least overlooking of the Occupation. I saw these things, lived with them daily, and knew that I was seeing the systems, structures and actors of the Occupation.

But since being detained these encounters happen differently. I still see a military vehicle and know that it is an actor and symbol of occupation, but I also feel that moment differently. These moments now include a tightness and discomfort in my body that wasn’t there before. I now have an awareness of how the military vehicle, the soldier or the police officer can have power over me. They can take me and move me somewhere, put me somewhere and keep me there, decide how long I must stay and when I can be released. In my detainment the conceptual structures of occupation were made physical, made felt.

This physicality has made me viscerally aware of a distance that I hadn’t fully acknowledged before. I knew I had immense privilege in Israel/Palestine, and I would, quite literally, visit the West Bank when I went to an action or worksite, but I didn’t fully understand how much of a visitor I was to the experiences and injustices around me. I worked against them and I think that I understood their workings well, but I never personally felt them in any way. I never experienced occupation and its power of control; I just knew what it was and how it worked.

To be absolutely clear, my experience being detained was a tiny and fractional experiencing of the Occupation. It was unbelievably comfortable and friendly and pleasant, massively disconnected from the way that Palestinians experience detainment by Israeli forces. I did not experience physical harm, or blindfolding, or handcuffing, or a lack of food and water—all of which are regularly experienced by Palestinians detained by Israeli forces. But I did, to whatever miniscule degree, experience a loss of control and a loss of privilege. For 7 hours on Friday the forces of occupation controlled me, and in that way I got a tiny glimpse of what life under occupation feels like.

In this process the distance or visitor complex mentioned above in some ways disappeared, or at least shifted. If in the equations of the Occupation there is a divide between being Israeli (specifically Jewish Israeli) and being Palestinian, that divide has now been muddied for me. I am still a visitor, entering as a Jewish Israeli, to Hebron and other areas of the West Bank, but I also now find myself somewhat apart from that Israeliness.

Before, when I opposed the forces of occupation, I was in control of how that opposition happened. I chose what I wanted to get involved in (which protest to join, which action to oppose, which home to rebuild) and I chose how involved I was in whatever was going on around me. I also chose when I left and returned home.

I was therefore in some way always still acting from within the forces I was opposing, actively choosing when I wanted to ‘step outside’ of them and struggle against them. While detained, those forces chose for me. They actively positioned me apart from themselves, if even for just a few hours. In doing so, the frameworks of opposition which uphold the Occupation (Jewish-Israelis in opposition to Palestinians), of which I was/am complicit in and ignorant of because of my privileged position, were, however briefly, confused.

For 7 hours it was not Jewish-Israelis against Palestinians, but rather the forces of occupation against those who are opposing it. This is something I knew before, thought I understood and truly believed in, but again had never felt or experienced.

This is what has shifted when I see a police officer, a military vehicle or a checkpoint; I am somewhat on the other side from them, even though we carry the same citizenship and state-approved ethnicity.

To be sure, this shift is far from total. Day-to-day I still very much experience Israel/Palestine as a Jewish Israeli; I am afforded full freedom of movement, I am never stopped or harassed to see any papers or permits, and I am never looked at suspiciously by civilians or security officials.

But, at the very least, there is a dissonance internally. I am a Jewish-Israeli and am treated as such but/and I am also an oppositional actor to the occupying forces of the Israeli state and therefore more closely aligned with Palestinians in the ‘Jewish-Israelis against Palestinians’ framework of the Occupation. I am in the system and against it at the same time. The oppositional frameworks set in place by the forces of occupation are therefore disrupted, internally to me and externally in the systems of relations.

The internal disruption makes me more aware of my privilege and the tensions around choosing to enter into a space of resistance. In having been put, ever so briefly, under the control of the forces of the Occupation, I can now tangibly feel the distance between my daily life and life under occupation. I therefore can also feel the freedom of choice I have when entering into spaces of resistance; a freedom my Palestinian partners do not have. This visceral awareness brings a strange mix of responsibility and guilt.

The external disruption shuffles the equation and the system is exposed as malleable. The frameworks of relationship asserted by the forces of occupation, that of ‘Jewish-Israelis in opposition to Palestinians’, are not total, and by detaining me the border police proved that. The framework shifted to ‘those in support of occupation against those who oppose it’, and I came to see how I can be a part of solidifying that shift. Such a shift is much harder for the forces of occupation to deal with and is much less ethnically bound or nationally divisive.

Oriel Eisner is an activist, writer, and educator based in Colorado. He is dedicated to creating a more just reality for all peoples in Israel/Palestine, and he seeks to promote and contribute to a progressive Jewish voice on this issue as well as on racial and social justice issues affecting local communities in the US. He is currently organizing with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and he is affiliated with the Bend the Arc chapter based in Denver. In the past Oriel has advocated for affordable housing and cooperative living in Boulder, CO. You can read more of his work at http://orieleisner.blogspot.co.il/ and at Huck magazine.

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