Photo courtesy of Sahar Vardi
Sahar Vardi has been reinventing the toolbox of anti-occupation activism for the past 20 years. Now, after returning from two years in the UK as a Rotary Peace Fellow, she is joining the Shatil team to rethink what it means to support the grassroots actors defending Palestinians from encroaching settlers and the army in the occupied territories.
Sahar first joined the world of anti-occupation activism in 2002. Since then, she was part of the early development of the weekly protests in Sheikh Jarrah against house demolitions, co-founded Imbala, an activist cooperative space in Jerusalem, coordinated the Israel program for American Friends Service Committee, completed a master’s degree in Peace, Conflict, and Development, and currently sits on the board of NIF grantee Human Rights Defenders Fund. And this is only a partial list of what she’s been up to.
“The reason I keep doing this work is that I believe there is a moral responsibility to act, even if we’re not sure it will create change.”
As an organizer at Shatil, Sahar is first mapping the needs of activists on the ground in the Jordan Valley, South Hebron Hills, and the Jerusalem area. These activists are on the frontline of the conflict, and often perform dangerous work, such as walking Palestinian children to their schools or accompanying shepherds while their animals graze, to ward off settler violence. The very presence of Israelis or internationals often deescalates situations and therefore is crucial for preserving fundamental parts of Palestinians’ daily lives in Area C.
“I’ve found that in activism there is a gap between the resources and the people, despite the resources existing.” Sahar says. “I think my strength is bridging that gap — and this is what drew me to this position at Shatil.”
In addition to short-term needs, Sahar is hoping to address a core underlying issue for the sustainability of activist presence. “The overall goal,” she explained, “is to build a sustainable toolkit for activists – making it so the activists can continue what they are doing, financially and emotionally, while also improving their skills.” The project is still in its early stages, but it is clear that Sahar’s capacity for bridging is addressing a serious gap in the field.
Sahar’s work in the occupied territories is one element in a larger push within NIF and Shatil to support frontline activists as tensions escalate between activists and the new far-right government. As part of its emergency response plan to the government’s anti-democratic agenda, NIF recently launched the Civil Society Protection Hub. The Hub serves as a strategic and tactical center for matters regarding the safety of grassroots activists and ensuring the protection of civil liberties for civil society. This expansion of protection is crucial for adapting to new threats and making sure all members of civil society are supported, especially the most vulnerable.
Being an activist for so long has provided Sahar a bird’s eye view for analyzing changes in the field. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, was a turning point for the worse for Palestinians in the West Bank, she explains. While the rest of the country, including the army, was focused on internal civilian issues, the settlers set about establishing a new de-facto status-quo of impunity in the West Bank – acting without regard for Palestinians, police, or the army. However, she cautioned, just because things have deteriorated even further, it is not cause for giving up. “We must understand that change is always an opportunity.”
“We are in a time of shifting dynamics,” Sahar elaborated, referring to the expansion of the settler agenda into suppressing more general liberal concepts. “These right wing organizations used to be able to hide out in the ‘untouchable’ conversations about occupation. Now they’ve marked themselves publicly on much more hot topics, such as the judicial reform and suppression of LGBTQ rights.” In short, as these organizations continue exposing themselves as threatening to Israeli society at large, real change could develop, she says.
“And of course,” Sahar concluded, “it is important to remember that every occupation ends. The question is not if, rather when.”