Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and its native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.
AS MIGHT BE EXPECTED, I'VE POSTPONED MY RETURN TO PALESTINE-ISRAEL TO THE FALL, two months beginning around early September 2020. This depends obviously on the coronavirus spread and how well global communities meet it. As I write this, March 20, 2020, the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, no one knows that future. My wishes and prayers flow to those most affected by this calamity—Palestinians in Gaza and elderly survivors in crowded refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank. May we all do our best. Keep the faith, Stay human.
I welcome donations to further my project to photograph internally expelled Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and—once I can enter—Gaza. Photographs in four parts: portraits of refugees and their descendants, how and where they live now (often in refugee camps), their original villages (in Israel), and life before expulsion (before the Nakba).
I thank those many who've contributed, financial gifts and, more importantly, spirit.
Zakiyya Mohammad Hamad with Fareed Taamallah (my colleague)-lives in Kalandia Camp-originally from Saress village
Omar Hajhajleh-lives in reduced Al Walaja-from the original, much larger Al Walaja
· A third trip (final in the series?) for two months in 2020, mainly to find people from key villages like Lifta and Deir Yassin, and explore the village sites I failed to locate during my last trip.
· Gain access to Gaza.
· Find colleagues to introduce me to refugees and help me find village sites.
· Find a sponsoring organization.
· Most importantly, work with the photo, video, and audio files I’ve made during my first two trips, which means select, edit, transform, and use.
· Maintain my website and blog.
· Develop exhibits and slideshows.
· Confirm the locations of sites I’ve already photographed.
· Interview and photograph people with Nakba history in the New England area.
· Do more research.
· Raise more money.
· Begin assessment of multi-platform books.
Since September 2018, I have traveled, lived, and worked in Palestine- Israel on my refugee photographic project for 4 months. Initially, I titled it “On Our Way Home,” referring to the Great March of Return in Gaza that was one of my motivations for this project, but, after meeting people who seemed securely situated but were universally fearful of further expulsion, I retitled it, “The Ongoing Nakba.” I have met no Palestinians living in Palestine who feel safe from forced removal by the Israelis.
WHAT IS THE NAKBA AND MY PROJECT?
In 1948, Israel expelled some 750,000 indigenous Arabs to clear the land for Jewish settlement, leading to the foundation of the state of Israel. Thus the Nakba (in Arabic), or Catastrophe. Some 5 million Palestinians now live in the West Bank and Gaza—the “internally expelled.” And, with few exceptions, they are not permitted to return to any of their original 400 villages and towns, even for short visits. With help from many others, I meet the refugees, now often living in refugee camps in Palestine, interview and photograph them, return to their ancestral homes (now in Israel) to photograph. I include photos of where and how they live currently in internal diaspora to contrast with their earlier, often pastoral lives, in destroyed villages—in contrast to how Israelis are privileged to live. Eventually, I’ll add archival photos of their regions before the expulsion.
Many times in the entire region, many photos, writing, and movies later, I now attempt to broaden the constricted picture many North Americans have of the overall Palestine-Israel situation. Major questions: what happened during the expulsions? What were the lives of the refugees before the Nakba? How did people travel to sites of refuge, what could they bring with them, have they ever returned to visit? How do people forced from their homelands presently live compared with Israelis in those former Palestinian homelands? How are the stories transmitted thru the generations? Do people wish to return, under what conditions? And generally, how might the right of return for Palestinians work?
On my first trip for this project, September and October 2018—my overarching photographic work began in October 2003, in part inspired by the martyrdom of Rachel Corrie that spring—I photographed 14 Palestinians, mostly first-generation refugees (expelled during the Nakba); 4 were second and third-generation refugees. I also located all the destroyed villages they’d lived in, 8 of them, an arduous process because of deliberate erasure and displacement by Israeli communities and parks, and because of their new names—the process of Judaization.
On my second and most recent trip, mid-May thru mid-July 2019, I interviewed and made portraits of 24 more Palestinians forcibly removed or threatened with removal, all but 4 first-generation. In addition, I plan to photograph another 10 or so Palestinians living in New England who I know personally and who come from Nakba-suffering origins. I will also photograph where and how they live currently, as well as their destroyed villages.
Of the second group’s 15 destroyed Arab villages, I found about half, mostly along the Mediterranean coast. Many sites are now major Israeli cities and towns like Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jaffa, Ramle and Lydda, their Arab history virtually completely erased. A few are parks where I’ve discovered remnants like rubble, cacti, and rock walls. I’ve not seen any markers on either trip indicating prior Arab habitation.
Please see my website and blog for elements of my project.
Directory of names and places from the first trip.
Directory from the second trip.
Aisha Al Azza & Issa Younis Al Azza, aka Abu Ahmed-live in Deheshe camp-originally from Beit Jibrin (married)
Aisha at Beit Jibrin, her original village, interviewed on Jordanian television
MAJOR THEMES EXPRESSED BY THE REFUGEES
· Their original lands were idyllic, owned by their families for many generations.
· Growing grains and produce, shepherding animals, the people were self-sufficient.
· Jews often lived nearby with a wide variety of relationships— trade and mutual help, avoidance and conflict as well.
· During the Nakba, some local Jews attacked their neighboring Arabs, betraying them.
· Militias, Jewish and Arab, fought.
· There were massacres from a variety of fighters.
· Many wish to be buried in their original homelands, possibly not aware of how the graves would be treated, if even allowed.
· Some have returned for brief visits (if older than 65); some descendants as well (surreptitiously)
· Grief continues, as do stories passed thru the generations.
· Some claim their grief exacerbates their health problems.
· Many second and third-generation refugees are angry and often politically active.
· Some understand that Jews were dominant because of superior organization, leadership, weapons, strategy, international support (especially British), and motivation.
· Many ask me what I, as a United States citizen, will do to help.
WHAT HAVE I DONE WITH THE PHOTOS I’VE MADE?
Mainly small exhibits or presentations at places like the Palestine Museum in Connecticut (January 2020), New England Yearly Meeting of Quakers in Vermont (August 2019), Social Documentary Network (July 2019), Whitelight (a photographers’ group, 2018 and 2020), events hosted at Friends Meeting at Cambridge, various small gatherings with friends, and my website and blog. Upcoming are more opportunities like this, many to gain feedback and provide others a small sense of what I’m doing.
The Ongoing Nakba photo exhibition at New England Yearly Meeting of Quakers, Castleton Vermont, August 2019
The cost so far for the two trips, fall 2018 and spring 2019, totals nearly $11,000. Major expenses have been airfare, housing and transport in the region, payment to colleagues, food, and car rental. Major funding comes from savings, private donations, and crowdfunding (GoFundMe). I anticipate further expenses for my upcoming third trip and for the postproduction I’m doing now, approximately $9,400.
BUDGET FOR THE THIRD PHASE: $9,400
· Airfare -$1200
· Transport in country - $700
· Compensation and donations to colleagues - $2000
· Contributions to organizations working for Palestinian refugee rights in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel- $1000
· Food and lodging - $1500
· Photographic equipment and supplies - $1000
· Post-production—developing, editing, printing, slideshow making, etc - $2000
I desperately need a professional fixer or colleague who I’d hire to travel with me in Israel. Someone who knows where these villages are—and where in the village sites are the remains like cemeteries, mosques, other buildings, wells, cisterns, cacti, rock walls, rock debris, and remnants of buildings, the usual telltale signs I search for. To prepare for this, I've created another directory of sites to discover.
I’ve been graced with several excellent Palestinian colleagues, Nidal Al Azraq, Fareed Taamallah, Ayed Al Azeh, Musa Al Azeh, Murad Abusrour, Eman Wawi, Amos Gvirtz, David Nir, Sahar, Meras Al Azza, Linda Dittmar, and a few others. But two organizations, natural fits with my project, BADIL, and Zochrot, have mostly failed to fully respond to my inquiries for assistance. (I mention this mainly because I believe it is a major factor impeding progress in activist circles generally). BADIL, the Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, and Zochrot (to remember in Hebrew), an Israeli NGO that, among other tasks, leads tours to destroyed Arab villages, for various understandable reasons, have been disappointments. They failed to fulfill their promises in the first case or didn’t fully respond to my phone and email requests in the second. Likewise with individuals who might have helped with the project—no response. Sure: general busyness, a crisis within the organization, or people not knowing or trusting me could all help explain the silence. That Deep Dark Pit that good intentions often disappear into.
Fareed Taamallah (R) with Skip Schiel, on the road, June 30, 2019 (photo by Fareed Taamallah)
GOALS AND PURPOSE
A multi-platform book, pages of photographs with some text written by me and others, linking via the internet with my videos, audio recordings, and supplementary information including maps. As far as I know, this is the first photographic project about internally expelled Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. And one of the first multi-platform books. By presenting powerful and contrasting images of people and life in the current and original sites of internally expelled Palestinian refugees, I hope to build awareness and inspire action. Early step: the right of return for Palestinians. The end result: beyond coexistence to a breath-taking sharing of the region, its resources, histories, luminaries, and potential. Freedom, self-determination. equal rights, security. A truly Holy, Just, and Peaceful Land.
The international refugee issue currently is massive, and the suffering of internally displaced Palestinian refugees is a small detail often overlooked. I hope the project effectively helps argue for the Palestinian right of return, as declared by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, established in 1948 (and subsequent UN resolutions).
BACKGROUND OF THE PROJECT
The issues erupting from Palestine-Israel have troubled me for decades, as they have the world community. Mainstream media tends to justify Israel's positions. Currently and alarmingly the United States’ president and Israel's prime minister are particularly close, heading largely right-wing governments. In inflaming the conflict, our president has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and supported Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights and the annexation of much of the West Bank. He has also cut all funding for UNRWA, the UN Refugee Works Administration responsible for refugee services. Many think this is a prelude to ending the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Most of the international community rejects these decisions. Policies of my administration and much of the congress are counterproductive to fostering justice, peace, and security for the region.
Since 2003 I’ve visited the region to witness and interpret conditions, making many friends and colleagues among both Palestinians and Israelis. And I’ve photographed Palestinian refugees in camps in Gaza and the West Bank, but their diaspora extends worldwide, forming the largest and longest-lasting case of displaced persons in the world today.
I have been deeply inspired by the largely nonviolent, ongoing Great March of Return in Gaza. (Please scroll down for more information.)
I hope to contribute my small effort to resolving the conflict, fostering justice, security, equality, and freedom for all human beings in that troubled region.
I've been a photographer, filmmaker, and writer for most of my adult life. Struggles for justice and peace in different parts of the world have been one of my main concentrations.
While in South Africa in 1990 and then again 8 years later during one of several of my international pilgrimages, I began to understand the parallels between conflicts in South Africa and Palestine-Israel. Apartheid, an Afrikaner word meaning separation—which I interpret as Separation with Hate—operates in various forms in both regions. In Auschwitz in 1995 I learned more directly about the holocaust, which helped propel the creation of the Israeli state. I was raised Catholic and imagined Jesus walking thru the dusty Holy Land with his disciplines. Thus grew my curiosity, leading to my concern about that region. And then finally in 2003, during the end of the Second Intifada (Palestinian Uprising), the year an Israeli soldier driving a Caterpillar D9 bulldozer crushed and killed Rachel Corrie as she protected a Palestinian home, I was on my way to the so-called Holy Land. This began one of the most meaningful journeys of my life.
I’ve photographed widely in Israel and Palestine, many different populations, many different activities: Israelis training as first responders, Palestinians living in tents, Israelis walking and shopping in Jerusalem and Haifa, Palestinians studying at various levels and ages, and Israeli middle school students investigating local archeology. I’ve explored all the areas of Israel, West Bank, and Gaza (except for the Sinai which is currently too dangerous to enter). For this project, I sharpen my focus: refugees inside Palestine-Israel.
WHAT MOTIVATES ME?
I’ve blogged (in 4 parts) extensively about my motivations, but a new thought is the following from my journal of July 23, 2019:
I recently realized that native Indians and what I wasn’t able to do to help them historically is part of why I’m able to do what I can do now. I had not yet been born during the last phase of so-called American-Indian Wars, that period of roughly 1840 to 1890, climaxing with the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890— fifty years before my birth. I was 8 when the Nakba occurred, and probably in my 60s when I learned about it, and then precisely 77 when I decided to begin my current project. Time and timing matter. Because of an accident of my birth (I could do nothing about Indians then), and because of this same accident I can do something about Palestinian refugees now—and shall. Often too late, rarely too early, occasionally on time. Time is elastic.
Please see my blog for more about my motivations for this project.
Many families are from villages and rural areas now in Israel. This includes regions in southern Israel, where some 75% now imprisoned in Gaza once lived, like Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Jaffa; where many now in the West Bank once lived, their original homes now in Israel’s central region, Lod and Ramla, for instance; and internally displaced persons in northern Israel, Ein Hawd, now the Israeli art colony, Ein Hod, and Safad. Those from the north often fled to refugee camps in Lebanon and other countries. According to the latest estimates from BADIL, the Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights, in 2015 there were 334,600 internally expelled Palestinian refugees in the Palestinian occupied territories. With an additional 384,200 internally displaced persons in Israel, which I hope to further explore. (A person is an internally displaced refugee if expelled from one’s original home and not allowed return, otherwise an internally displaced person.)
Gaza Untold Story, from displacement to death, VizualizePalestine (Click for full view of this graphic )
As of March 1, 2020 about 260 Palestinians have died, mostly from Israeli sniper fire. (as usual, such figures are disputed)
Palestinians are one of the longest colonized populations— in 1948 and again in 1967 during the Six-Day War by Israel, meaning the occupation of the West Bank and later the siege of Gaza—and still living in the diaspora. I have shown the reality of the matrix of control, walls and fences, checkpoints, permits, home demolitions, restricted roads, inordinate fines, deportations, targeted assassinations, leveling of entire neighborhoods, violent repression of nonviolent demonstrations, etc. As well as survival mechanisms, the family, faith communities, organizations, political action, etc. Now I have the opportunity, thanks to contacts in Gaza and the West Bank, to show more widely the consequences of colonization and expulsion.
One in three refugees in the world is Palestinian. Nearly seven million Palestinian refugees live in some 14 countries. (UN Refugee Works Administration and UN High Commission on Refugees)
THE GREAT MARCH OF RETURN
The plea of refugees in Gaza to return to their ancestral villages now in Israel is the central focus of the Great March of Return. It began on April 2, 2018, was planned to end on May 15, 2018, but as of this writing (September 13, 2019) is ongoing every Friday. These dates mark two important historical events, Land Day when 6 Palestinians were killed as they attempted to return to their villages in 1976, and Nakba Day marking the beginning of The Catastrophe, or the Grand Dispossession in 1948.
Between March 30, 2018 and March 1, 2020 Israeli army snipers have killed at least 260 Palestinians, mostly unarmed, with approximately 29,187 wounded, including 25% wounded by live ammunition, many with life-threatening injuries often caused by exploding bullets. Nearly 5,000 of the injuries and 41 of the fatalities were children. This overwhelms the already stressed medical system. Compared with 2 Israeli deaths and 56 injuries. (UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) Because of the ongoing violence, I may need to postpone entering Gaza until violence abates. In that case, I will be mostly in the West Bank and Israel.
Here precisely is why entering Gaza is now nearly impossible (but we keep trying), partly a result of Israel's alleged use of exploding bullets:
...Many of the injured suffered extensive bone and tissue damage from gunshot wounds, requiring very complex surgeries. Between 30 March 2018 and 28 February 2019, 120 amputations took place as the result of injuries sustained during demonstrations, including 21 children, with 22 people paralyzed due to spinal cord injuries and nine people suffering permanent sight loss. The Health Cluster estimated that by the end of 2018, over 1,200 patients with limb injuries would require complex and timely limb reconstructive surgery; these are highly complex injuries that, if not treated, may heighten the risk of secondary amputations.
These challenges come on top of existing, systemic challenges to Gaza’s health sector in the context of more than eleven years of blockade. Since 2006-7, there has been a reduction in human resources for health, per head of the population; long-term shortages and depletion of essential medicines and medical supplies; and electricity shortages and power fluctuations causing dependence on emergency fuel for generators and resulting in damage and the reduced lifespan of sensitive hospital equipment. Since mid-2017, in the context of the intra-Palestinian divide between the Ramallah and Gaza authorities, medicines and other medical supplies, salaries for medical staff, funds for auxiliary medical services such as sterilization at hospitals, delays in countersigning of referrals, and fuel for energy that supports critical health facilities have been reduced, which has hampered the ability of the health system in Gaza to adequately respond to needs....
—UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
SAMPLES OF MY WORK
Book (Eyewitness Gaza)
Movie (same title as book, Eyewitness Gaza)
Skip Schiel has been documenting the Palestinian and Israeli reality through photographs and journal postings since 2003. They contribute a better feel for the detailed texture of life in Gaza and the West Bank than any appearing in US media. Schiel spends time where most journalists dare not tread, amidst ordinary Palestinians, sharing in the dangers and frustrations of their lives.
His work has been invaluable for my own. As a writer for a Buddhist publication whose parents were victims of the Holocaust, I try to convey a view of the conflict that differs from the US media's, which obfuscates the injustices and sufferings inflicted on the Palestinians by Israel. Through his portraits of Palestinian men, women, and children striving to maintain ordinary routines despite harassment and attacks by Israel's military, Skip reveals to us the true face of Palestinians.
—Annette Herskovits, Consulting Editor, Turning Wheel, the Journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Holocaust survivor
...a mighty man with
a camera, and a mighty
eye for injustice bleeding
endlessly in our midst...
You have a brilliant eye
The face of Palestine is
here. In Mr. Shayara’a [one of the refugees in my series],
I see more pain and sadness,
then anger and hatred. I
see the will to live, not
the end of all hope.
Am not too sure of this,
but I might also see a man
who, if given a chance, could
become a neighbor to those
who are suffocating him
and so many others.
You have captured a
Skip Schiel photographs not only with his eyes but with his heart.
—Fares Oda, former staff American Friends Service Committee, Ramallah, West Bank, Occupied Palestinian Territories
It saddens me to hear of the difficulties Skip is going through [finding an audience]. This is discouraging for us who are struggling in the situation. I never would have suspected that his pictures were not balanced. The first act of nonviolent resistance is to tell the truth. His pictures shared that. Let's pray our dear friend does not give up!
—Jean Zaru, Palestinian Quaker and activist, Ramallah, Palestine
My ability to think about and communicate the critical elements you have been moved to photograph and think about over these last 10-15 years has definitely declined—frustrating. I can understand the critical importance of seeing the situation as a whole—and the power of you as a photographer to catch bits of the whole in one blink—which the viewer may or may not see as the whole you do. To have some more coherent view than mine about all these parts of the situation in which you have been making dramatic photos of current life in Israel-Palestine is necessary. What a gift for the photographer—and the viewer! Onward,
—Andy Towl, one of my most important Quaker mentors
Skip's creative ministry has challenged, informed and inspired our [Quaker] Meeting for many years. His work is a visual reminder to us of the importance of remaining faithful to our peace and social justice testimonies.
—Cathy Whitmire, Former presiding clerk, Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Quaker)
You capture such powerful, symbolic moments in your work, that reach beyond the context they are in. I admire your brave tenacity and commitment to documentation of this struggle for justice.
—Marjorie Wright, filmmaker (Jews Step Forward) and activist
Your sensitivity to light and emotion is dramatic, the brilliant daylight framing the sad courageous eyes and brave determined expressions of our Gaza neighbors, as they face such a cruel, demented, and terrifying adversary.
I think you are very brave too, and I thank you deeply for shining a true light on [the situation].
- Anne Remley
- Jon Chase
- Carole Rein
- Phoebe Sinclair
- Bob Wegener
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