Life is harsh in Beit Ummar.

Here, the face of the Israeli Occupation has no soft edges.

Here, the face of the Israeli Occupation has no soft edges. The target of frequent Israeli raids and arrests, Beit Ummar is a West Bank town of 18,000 people seven miles north of Hebron. [Surrounded by Israeli settlements, it has a 60% unemployment rate and is subject to almost daily raids. Of the 900 children in Israeli prisons today, about one-third come from this town[1]. News of daily harassment and repression is, unfortunately, all too common.

Beit Ummar 2

Home being destroyed by the Israeli army

In June 2017, Joe Drexler, a Colorado retired trade unionist with extensive experience both domestically and internationally, took a trip to Israel and Palestine. What he saw in the West Bank shook him, especially while visiting Beit Ummar. Upon returning to Colorado, committed to addressing the plight of the Palestinians, he met with a few other like-minded people. Thus, the “Friends of CFJ-Colorado” took shape.

The acronym “CFJ” stands for the Center for Freedom and Justice which is a local Palestinian non-violent social justice organization. Formed to make life more tolerable in a nearly unlivable situation, it concentrates on small development projects: water capture, public facilities improvement, and help with educational opportunities to the town’s youth.

Drexler described the realities of the Israeli Occupation of Beit Ummar in vivid emails he sent back to friends in the United States.

Writing on June 16th, 2017:

“Spending a few days in a small Palestinian town. . . . On April 29 the Israeli army attacked [the] home where I am staying. [A] neighbor is celebrating today [the]release of his son from prison after two years. Just talked to someone who described his torture in direct violation of Geneva convention. They held a peaceful march in the town a few weeks back that was met with tear gas and spraying houses with skunk water. . . .”

“Israeli settlements surround the village. [Settlers from a nearby radical Jewish group] killed two villagers without punishment, cut down the olive trees of Palestinian farmers and poisoned the ground so nothing will grow. Today is my fifth day on the West Bank.  I have experienced nothing but kindness from the Palestinian people. . . .”

Beit Ummar 1

Israeli soldiers looking on as home destruction goes on

The next day, he continues…

“People need to come to Palestine to bear witness to what is happening here. As someone who participated in the struggle against apartheid, freedom and justice for the Palestinian people is more than possible if we lend a hand.”

“Every day new revelations of more atrocities. Today, [I]visited another camp and caves where refugees live. Israel cut off water supply for one month to the camp to make life harder. At the caves where people tried to build more permanent structures, the military tore them down and extremist settlers attacked. . . . One old man about 80 talked of the beating by Israeli soldiers. He never found out what his so-called crime was. Staying with Hasan M. [2] and his extended family in Beit Ummar. Arrested at age 17 for protesting the killing of two boys at his school, he was put in a tunnel under the old city of Jerusalem for three months and was tortured. He never saw the light. He spent seven years in jail without a charge and trial. He was imprisoned again for 18 months after refusing to stop leading nonviolent protests.”

The cruelties committed by the Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli settlers Drexler described in his eyewitness accounts two years ago, continue.

The cruelties committed by the Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli settlers Drexler described in his eyewitness accounts two years ago, continue.

Returning to Denver, Drexler wasted no time. A small group met and explored how to proceed. What to put together? How to express solidarity without re-inventing the wheel? How to broaden the base of involvement and understanding on the issue? How to break through “the bubble” insulating so many from the Palestinian narrative? Not unusual questions.

The core idea that emerged from the initial discussions was to create and sustain an enduring connection between people in Denver and in Beit Ummar – a particular place – centered around concrete projects on a people-to-people basis, and through that relationship tell the story of the Israeli Occupation, and of the plight and aspirations of the Palestinian people. Besides introducing the public in Colorado to the realities of life under Israeli occupation, such a long-term, project-centered, solidarity connection will, over time, result in a richer, greater understanding between peoples. It is hoped this will ultimately contribute to the resolution of the conflict. So the logic goes.

Although only 2 1/2 years old, Friends of CFJ – Colorado has been engaged in a number of educational and development projects in conjunction with the Center for Freedom and Justice in Beit Ummar.

  • A year ago, funds were raised to provide three hundred book bags for school age kids.
  • More recently another campaign helped support a children’s summer camp where local kids were taught computer skills. They had fun where daily life is so stressful, including for children.
  • CFJ – Colorado also has held forums about the general situation and challenges facing the town. It has already started to draw in people who previously stayed away from the issue out of ignorance or fear.

The core group of Friends of CFJ – Colorado is a mix of people with different backgrounds. It includes those who have visited Beit Ummar on trips to the West bank and several others with long experience in social justice movements, including on Middle East issues. Included are people with different Christian backgrounds; some trade union experience; someone of Palestinian heritage; a retired college teacher; a Jewish author; a water engineer and a retired nurse. Nice mix.

The realities of life in Beit Ummar and the activities of Friends of CFJ – Colorado can be followed on Facebook at “Center for Freedom and Justice – Colorado Team” (webpage to follow).

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[1] There is a bill before the U.S. Congress, H.R. 2407 “Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act,” introduced by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN 4th District).

[2] Name changed to protect the family.