I’ve just returned from a two-week visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories, a land dear to me. As a Jewish person, it is a part of the world that I have long felt an inherent connection to, a connection that has only been strengthened through many wonderful experiences and friendships that arose during my time spent living and working on a kibbutz and studying there. I can say the same of this most recent visit, perhaps far more than before, although under very different circumstances.
I went as part of a Canadian delegation sent by Alternatives, a Montreal-based NGO, to monitor and assess the living conditions for the 3.1 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, now in their 35th year under Israeli military occupation. The consequences on the ground have not gone unnoticed in Israel, where Michael Ben Yar, Israel’s Attorney General from 1993-1996, writing in the countryâ€™s leading newspaper, can lament that “we enthusiastically chose to become a colonial society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the occupied territories, engaging in theft”, effectively establishing an “oppressive regime [that] exists to this day.â€
Indeed, these conditions have only endured throughout the Oslo “peace process” pursued over the past decade, and not incidentally. The 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization “were founded on a neo-colonialist basis” as Israeli scholar Schlomo Ben Ami wrote in a book in 1998, before he joined the Israeli government. Its “economonic protocol,” he explained, “imposed almost total dependence on Israel”, ensuring that “when there will finally be peace between us and the Palestinians, there will still be a situation of dependence, of a structured lack of equality between the two entities.” Ben Amiâ€™s (uncritical) view, by no means unique, is particularly noteworthy given his later role as Ehud Barakâ€™s Foreign Minister and chief negotiator at the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at Camp David in July 2000, whose failure has been widely blamed on the Palestinian leadership that refused to consummate the basis that had been established at Oslo.
The experience of seeing an entire people subjected to the rule of an oppressive regime is a deeply disturbing one; so much so, in fact, that it can feel simply unfathomable, impossible to understand. There were so many moments where what I saw in front of me, what I heard in countless stories of humiliation and loss, did not seem real; not possible to have been carried out and endured by fellow human beings.
This feeling stayed with me throughout our visit. A few hours after Israeli troops withdrew from a five-day siege of Nablus, which kept 250,000 residents locked inside their homes under twenty-four hour curfew, we visited Balata, a refugee camp on the outskirts of the historic city. There we saw an elderly woman lying amidst the ruins of her home, destroyed the previous day by an Apache helicopter, sobbing and mourning for lost family members, occasionally attempting to recover some lost possession that might have been buried somewhere beneath her. The neighbouring lot was an even larger pile of chaos, bits of clothes and furniture scattered indiscriminately, smoke and dust rising over the ruins. The desolation and debris made it almost unimaginable to believe that it had been the home of a family of seven, who were killed all together as they sat in their living room, now only a crevace beneath the mountain of rubble upon which we stood.
A few blocks away, the youth center of the camp had been totally pillaged, its windows broken, its walls smashed in. A large trophy case was kicked over, the ground awash with shards of glass and the medals and trophies once proudly displayed, stacks of little soccer uniforms buried beneath them. The computers where children had done their homework or sent e-mails to each other now smashed to pieces, desk chairs piled over on top of them.
The assault on Palestinians, the interference and destruction of their daily lives, is not achieved with outright violence alone. We saw this even before entering inside their cities and villages, which must be entered through Israeli-manned checkpoints. It is there that Palestinians, be they on their way to work, to school, to visit family members, to do their shopping — trying to go anywhere outside their towns — are kept in long lines, often for hours on end, sometimes even days. There are no guarantees that the long waits in the hot sun will be worth it, as the soliders may refuse people at their discretion, or arbitrarily close the checkpoint down altogether.
Our visit to the Gaza Strip felt like entering a giant prison, where over a million Palestinians are confined to the most densely-populated area in the world, much of it refugee camps that lack running water and sewage systems all of it walled off and heavily guarded to ensure that no one can leave or enter. Often these camps lie only a few feet away from sprawling and ever-expanding Israeli settlements, their well-kept agricultural tents more sturdy than the living quarters of neighbouring Palestinians, their plants and fields receiving far more water in a day than a camp could see in a month.
I would leave these experiences consumed with feelings of such rage, such sadness, made all the worse by the paralyzing feeling of not being able to do anything about what I was seeing.. I also felt deeply ashamed. It was embarassing to hear almost every Palestinian that I met having to explain to me that their people really do love life, that their mothers really do love their children, that their struggle was only against Israeli occupation, not the Jewish people. Their nearly automatic need to disavow what are essentially racist assumptions — that they do not value life as much as we do, that the intifada is not a struggle for national liberation, for a state of their own but a jihad to drive the Jews into the sea — is, I think, a sad reflection of the discourse that occurs over here on their plight. Although it is right to condemn the terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, we have chosen to stereotype an entire community based on the actions of its extremists, ignoring the deplorable and humiliating conditions that could possibly help us understand why human beings could commit such atrocities.
While only a few days of seeing these conditions in their cities and towns had me consumed with rage, consumed with a guilt and sadness that I could not reconcile, I was deeply moved and touched by the way in which those that had been enduring this all their lives had chosen to cope. I would have expected an entire people’s collective psyche to be broken down, just as had happened to mine, crushed and demoralized by the cruelty of their surroundings. This is not to say that I did not find any anger or sadness, far from it: but it is an anger that is not consuming — recognized, but not internalized to the point of losing one’s sense of self, one’s sense of dignity, one’s desire for freedom. It is anger that recognizes the limits to which one is responsible for the suffering around them, and a dignity and a spirit that maintains a self-identity in the face of that suffering.
As I found from my own experience, to be able to do this requires a great deal of emotional strength, a self-awareness and identity that is able to live through an endless campaign to break your spirit. I can think of no better example than the family of my friend Mutaz Khaeber, who invited me to stay with them while I was in Ramallah. On my first night, the Israeli army invaded the city, imposing a twenty-four curfew that would last for three days.
While no one was happy, particularly the family’s youngest daughter, Rand, whose last day of school before summer would have to be postponed — there was not a sense of self-defeat, of wallowing in the frustration of being locked indoors as tanks and helicopters roared outside, their loud gunfire interrupting all moments of the day and night. Instead, the family initiated several tasks: taking out the floor carpet, remodelling the living room, cutting down an entire tree in the back-yard, playing games and chatting with neighbours. “We live under this all the time,” the youngest brother, Ma`moun, 18, explained, pointing out that the current seige was nothing like the last, which had lasted for thirty days. “But we try not to let it get to us…we just continue with our lives as best we can.”
I left with a heavy heart, but also with no illusions. No matter how powerful the Palestinian self-identity and their determination to preserve it, their efforts require the support of those of us lucky not to have to worry about military checkpoints, curfews and invasions; of those of us who can recognize that the rights and privileges that we enjoy here can never fully be celebrated until they have been achieved elsewhere, like in Palestine, whose people have had to endure far too much suffering, and have had to show far too much courage and strength, in their ongoing struggle for freedom.