“The bloody cycle in which I live…is a vicious circle that is sustained by the choice of both sides to engage in violence. I refuse to take part in this choice.”
Sahar Vardi is an outspoken peace activist from Jerusalem who bravely started protesting against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people at a very young age.
Activism has always been a part of her family’s life. Sahar’s father refused to do his obligatory military service in the first intifada. During the second intifada he became active with Ta’ayush, a coexistence group of Israelis and Palestinians that mostly work in the occupied territories. When Sahar was a young girl she would join her father to do agricultural work with Palestinian villagers, mainly planting trees.
Sahar witnessed first-hand the impact the occupation had on the livelihoods of the villagers. Sahar recalls that “[t]he shock was not from the brutality of the occupation or of a specific soldier, but from witnessing the ordinary day to day situation of going through checkpoints, fearing the demolition of their homes and knowing that every 18-year old soldier has the power to control their life.”
At age 14, Sahar began to go to demonstrations against the Israeli separation wall, mostly in the village of Bil’in in the West Bank. Against her parent’s will, Sahar went to the village up to four times a week. Her father pleaded with her to wait until she was 16 to become an activist. However, Sahar continued to demonstrate, even as her classmates in high school bullied her and called her the “crazy left wing”. Sahar’s outspoken stance against the occupation has also affected her relationship with her brother, who is in the army.
When Israelis turn 18 it is their legal duty to enlist in the army: boys for three years, and girls for two years. In high school, Sahar handed out brochures to her classmates with information on how to become a sarvanim—a conscientious objector. In August of 2008, Sahar made public her decision to refuse the call to mandatory military service. Indeed, she insisted on wearing a T-shirt that said, “I refuse to occupy”.
In a letter to the ministry of defense declaring her refusal, Sahar wrote: “I realize that the soldier at the checkpoint is not responsible for the wretched policy of oppression of Palestinian civilians, and yet I am unable to relieve that soldier of the responsibility for his own actions … I mean the human responsibility of not causing suffering to another human being.” Sahar served three prison sentences for her refusal to be conscripted into Israel’s military service. She was released from military prison in January 2009.
Sahar is now 21-years-old. In addition to her on-going work as a conscientious objector to military service, Sahar now also actively protests the eviction of Arab Israeli families from their homes in order to make way for Jewish settlements. She is working with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement.
In the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, about 200 Israelis and Palestinians join together every week to protest the eviction of Arab Israeli families. Families who lose their homes are effectively forced to become refugees with no compensation or new housing given to them. About 24 families are currently under threat of eviction in Sheikh Jarrah, but protestors such as Sahar hope to stop the bulldozers.
Such courageous activism is not without its consequences. In addition to losing friends, Sahar has been spat on, pushed, sworn at, and occasionally physically assaulted for her political views. But even in the face of such challenges, Sahar’s resolve remains steadfast.
Young activists such as Sahar Vardi gives us hope that in the midst of hate and war, love and peace is possible.
Watch Home Front: Portraits from Sheikh Jarrah -- four mini-documentaries by Just Vision about house evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem.