For those of us with family in Gaza, the past couple of months have been a blur — of phone calls, news, tweets and waking to check for names we recognize on the health ministry’s list of deaths, one eye open, one eye closed. And for Palestinians everywhere, it has been agony to watch again, for the umpteenth time, a part of our community decimated, and more lives taken by Israeli bombardment and ground attack.
In the diaspora, we experience these moments with a painful distance that takes its toll, no matter how much we try to rally together to ease the dread. For some new to the diaspora, it is a heart wrenching experience to learn what it is to wait for phone calls with baited breath and re-evaluate the circumstances that surround you in the midst of Israeli assaults on your home.
It is more difficult still when those circumstances involve being surrounded by the forced facade of “eye-opening first experiences” through “dialogue” between young Palestinians and Israelis.
The conversation around “normalization” programs — attempts to build “harmony” between Palestinians and Israeli Jews, without addressing the underlying inequalities — is not lacking in commentary that deals with the emotional toll on Palestinians. Everything from opinion pieces to brilliant creative graphic novellas (that both admit participation, as well as pledge to refuse taking part) have been produced on these programs.
“Dignity of my entire nation”
It is common and often easier for many who find themselves in situations or programs they regret taking part in to complain, to rant, to apologize (and I would add here for the rest of us, to blame, and stop there). It is, I think, more difficult to stand up and tell the truth, and eloquently so, about your life and your struggle and to explain how these nonsense programs “work” to a group of people or place who you’ve come to realize were largely unworthy of your participation.
Earlier this month, Nisreen Zaqout, a Palestinian student from Gaza studying at Illinois College, did just that. Watch the video above, and you can see how she told the audience at the closing session of this year’s New Story Leadership normalization program that she “wanted to quit” while in Washington, DC for the summer.
Nisreen described being part of NSL at such a time as “absolute torture.” Unlike the Israeli participants, her “firsts” were not of meeting someone new or going sailing for the first time, but instead, the first time she heard fear in her mother’s voice, the first time she heard her brother cry over the death of a young friend, the first time her grandfather said “no” to evacuation, “not again.” The ethnic cleansing and dispossession Palestinians experienced in 1948 — the year of Israel’s establishment — was enough.
She takes normalization’s beloved rhetoric of hope and turns it on its head, reminding us that there is no hope to tout when we start talking about human lives in numbers, and when we are so willing to focus only on the hundreds of women and children — as if every Palestinian man in Gaza is a legitimate target.
Hope, Nisreen reminds us, comes when the will of Palestinians is respected and their rights affirmed and granted. Hope is derived from Gaza’s fight to live.