4th of July reflections from Palestine

3 July 2003 — I arrived in Palestine two days ago with no problems or harrassment. It was a pleasant change from last year when I was interrogated by El Al security at New York’s Kennedy International for 1 hour and again for another hour by Israeli passport security at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International. This time, apart from a very bumpy trans-Atlantic flight, it all went very smoothly. Given the choice, I’ll take that kind of turbulence any day.

I spent yesterday getting over jet lag and reaccquainting myself with the Old City of Jerusalem. Today, Samar and I spent some time going over details about the new counseling project for Palestinian employees of various non-governmental organizations. With funding provided by the German humanitarian organization, Bread for the World, I will be working as the project’s clinical consultant and analyst. It’s an extremely important and innovative endeavor, aimed at addressing the traumatic stress to which employees of Palestinian NGOs are subjected stemming from the Israeli occupation. I will also be working with the social work staff of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund in Jenin and Nablus.

After our meeting, Samar and I drove to Ramallah for the opening of the Small Enterprise Center for Palestine. Of course, what should have only been a 10 minute drive was made much longer (and hotter, given the scorching temperatures today) by the infamous Qalandia checkpoint, an armed barricade designed not so much for security as for humiliation. The barricade separates Jerusalem from Ramallah, and is a vivid reminder that the so-called roadmap is blocked by the barbaric realities of the Israeli occupation.

We made it to the Al Bireh Tourist Hotel (very few tourists these days) in Ramallah in time for speeches by a variety of donors and supporters for the newly launched Small Enterprise Center of Palestine: Palestine’s Minister of National Economy, a representative to the Palestinian Authority from the Federal Republic of Germany, the director of the German Technical Cooperative of the Middle East, and the president of the Federation of Palestinian Chambers of Commerce.

Admittedly, I dozed through most of the speeches, but I perked up when the head of the Center, Ahmed Abubaker, began his presentation. I also gazed around the reception room and was shocked to see how it had filled up during my snooze. There were over 300 Palestinian men and women in attendance, all interested in learning about the work of the Small Enterprise Center and its vision of providing information, referral, and consulting services for their business development.

I couldn’t help but think that here is yet another aspect of Palestinian society about which we in the United States are deprived knowledge: small business owners who just want to be successful in life like the rest of us. In spite of the Qalandia checkpoint, closures, curfews, and countless impediments to business and family life, Palestinians are still eager to be normal, eager to make their lives better. While the Israelis stage a few made-for-CNN dismantlings of tents put up by transient settlers, and while there is a symbolic retreat of occupation forces to the outskirts of Bethlehem, the fact is that in Ramallah and elsewhere in Palestine, the brutal impact of an inhuman military occupation remains a harsh reality. But for those with eyes to see, there are also signs of humanity, signs of attempts to be normal, signs of men and women just trying to make a living.

Today, I was reminded of the relentlessness of the Palestinian people to be free in the face of such daunting obstacles imposed by Israel. I could only imagine what these Palestinian business and civic leaders would do with the same $3 billion in annual US aid that is granted without question to Israel. It’s a shame that today’s opening of the Small Enterprise Center will never make CNN headline news or be featured by the Washington Post. If it were to be covered by the US media, perhaps Americans would realize that 99.9% of Palestinians spend inordinate amounts of mental and physical energy just trying to take care of their children who live in constant fear of attacks by U.S.-supplied Apache helicopters and U.S. made Caterpillar bulldozers. The vast majority of Palestinians are too busy with the daunting tasks of daily life to think about blowing themselves up. They long to see a world that is not surrounded by tanks, soldiers, and barricades. Americans should recognize this as a struggle for freedom akin to our own. 1776: The American Intifada.

Tomorrow is America’s Independence Day. What I witnessed today at a simple reception for a group of small business owners was a greater demonstration of independence and a desire for freedom than any grand fireworks display or fife & drum parade could ever convey. Perhaps instead of waving flags, Americans should spend tomorrow reading our own Declaration of Independence. If we take out references made by Thomas Jefferson to “King George” and insert “Ariel Sharon,” we would find a document that Palestinians could easily adopt as their own.

The indignity and humiliating spectre of the Qalandia checkpoint reminded me of some lyrics depicting the quest of another people to be free, the French intifada popularized by the Broadway production of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables:

Do you hear the people sing
lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
who are climbing toward the light.

For the wretched of the earth
there is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
and the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
in the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the ploughshare;
they will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
and each man shall have his reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
is there a world you’ve longed to see?

Do you hear the people sing?
Say, can you hear the distant drum?
It is the future that they bring
when tomorrow comes.

Daniel Quinn is a licensed clinical social worker with a local public school system. Last summer, he lived and worked for 2 months in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, volunteering as a clinical consultant with the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.