Back to occupation, back to “normal”

It’s been awhile since I’ve written; I have needed some time to digest our new situation, one dominated by the presence of the Israeli army. Their presence has never been easy to accept, but what is harder to accept now is that we are back to “normal,” and this, apparently for us, means being in the continuous presence of an occupying army. Before the return of their very visible presence, though, our lives were not exactly proceeding as “normal”.

I used to leave my house to go to work, to my dear Bir Zeit University, and my three children and my husband used to leave together to go to the university, too. You leave, you intend to arrive somewhere, but you never reach your destination, since the army is always in your way, preventing you from going to study or to work or to shop, or to pay condolences or visit a friend. We end up doing everything to prepare for a normal working day but we never get to work. We return exhausted, tired of the constant humiliation we witness in our daily rounds, seeing our lovely students waiting in long lines under the searing sun, sometimes beaten, arrested or shot at, but most of the time cursed and insulted.

Soldiers the age of our students have the power to bring a whole academic community of 5000 students to its knees. They dare to call this “fighting terror,” but even a child could see that the aim is to “urge” people become so fed up that they will want to leave their country. Who can bear to see their children wasting their academic years doing nothing in front of their eyes? It is excruciating to watch. When I look to Maher, my eldest son, who still has one month to go before he graduates and who cannot finish his studies this month, I think about other students and how they spend their time, they are not allowed to go to their university, they are not allowed to be in the streets or they will be a choice target for the Israeli army. They have no escape, no parks, no theaters, no work and no place to go. What to do to make the world see this simple reality and stop talking incessantly about Palestinian “terror”?!

Yesterday, I woke up at 4 a.m., helicopters were hovering so close to the houses, tanks were roaring below in the streets. By 5 a.m., soldiers were announcing with their loud speakers: “You are forbidden to leave your houses; any one who does not follow orders will be severely punished or will be shot!” Then you realize that there will be no work today, no school, no newspaper, no plans will be implemented, by 6 a.m. I decided to go back to sleep again.

“My son’s wedding is supposed to be next week! What am I to do with all the invitation cards, with all the preparations?”, said Afaf, my neighbor, who has come over to visit me. “You are not afraid to go out of your house under curfew?” I ask, incredulous at her bravery.

“The tank just left; they did not come with as many tanks as in the first invasion [March-April 2002], instead of 400 tanks and APCs, this time they came with only 70, or so I heard. This means that they know there is no resistance, it is more than enough to come with two tanks. Who can stop them? We have no planes, no missiles and no rockets, so by the time the tank goes for a round, I will finish my coffee with you,” said Afaf.

We kept chatting for an hour, sharing our sorrow at all the effort and work of the high school students going in vain, this is the moment of their final exam, this is the moment of the most difficult bottle neck in their lives after which they have to apply to universities or go study abroad. And now they are prevented from taking the exams. A whole year is lost now. Yassmine, my youngest daughter, who is now stuck with all the other Bir Zeit students, reminded me of the stress she witnessed last year when she was studying under the tank shells and noise of explosions: “I was lucky last year, at least I managed to pass my exams, while these poor students cannot even take theirs. What they will do? What future awaits them? They try to do the right thing, prepare themselves for a good life, and they are stopped. And if they become suicide bombers they call them terrorists. Who is terrorizing who in our situation?!”

Today, at 6.30 a.m. I woke up to another loud speaker calling for lifting the curfew from 7 to 12 noon. I didn’t want to wake up, I did not feel like buying anything or leaving my house, I did not want to see them or see what they did to the city again but then I remembered my teeth ache, my daughter’s papers should be sent to get a US visa and then I remembered many other ‘plans’. I started to organize my thoughts to see what can I do and how can I implement my ‘plans’. My husband who left once he heard the call, came back running. “Don’t go out! They are shooting, they shot a Palestinian in the head and he is dying in the Red Crescent hospital!”, said Saleh.

“But they announced lifting the curfew!”, I said. “Yes, they did the same thing in Jenin three days ago, but then they fired a tank shell and killed four people including three children who were playing around, don’t listen to what they say, they want to ‘appear’ as if they are lifting the curfew, and we are ‘choosing’ not to leave our houses, stay where you are till we see to where this madness is taking us!”, said Saleh.

What my husband said made me think of another instance in which you are put in a situation in which you ‘choose’ not to do what you like to do. It reminds me of the case of Murad Awaissa, a young man of 17 years old, in his eleventh grade in down town Ramallah. In the first invasion, Murad was taken as a human shield for three hours and then released. The following day, they came to take him again, he was put with a crowd of other men. One of the hostages asked to go to urinate, so did Murad. They first took his colleague to an empty flat in their building. After a while he came back covered in his own blood. he was severely beaten in a bath tub and he then ‘advised’ Murad not to go otherwise he will have the same ‘treatment’. But the soldier insisted that Murad should go and so he was forced to go.

Murad had two operations on his head, involving the insertion of a tiny tube, which was fixed to enable some sort of liquid to get out. He pleaded with the soldiers’ not to beat him on the head, otherwise it will put his life in danger. But he made a mistake, said his uncle when I saw him in Ramallah hospital looking for Murad’s body in the mass grave, he should not tell them where is his weak point, they picked on his head till they killed him. “He should not do that, God forgives him,” said the uncle.

I kept thinking, are we going to reach this point that we want to leave our houses when curfew is lifted but ‘choose’ not to leave if we don’t want to be killed or injured. When I reached this point, I decided not to think, it is better not to think, if I want to keep my sanity it is better not to think about plans, needs, death, life or anything. When you control nothing in your life, why burden yourself by thinking of how your plans will be aborted, how your life can be lost for buying some food or sending some papers or worrying about what will happen tomorrow?

I decided that I will get my inner strength from my friends and neighbors who witnessed worse situations. I said to my self, look at Ali my colleague at Bir Zeit who lost his house and all his belongings in less than one hour. “They did not allow my children to get their books to prepare for their exams, they did not allow us to take anything from our house, 16 families became homeless in one hour in the middle of the night!” said Ali. Ali lives in Abu al Kassem building, a six-storey building built by an American Palestinian who came back from America to invest his money in this building. “They surrounded the building at 2 a.m. looking for one single wanted person, but when they did not find him, they evacuated all the building and shelled it by tanks from three directions,” said Ali. “One of the officers started crying when his wife called him on his cell phone. He did not like what was going on. But another officer who told us ‘I wish you are inside your houses while I am shelling the building!’ We did not know where to go or what to do, we are still sleeping in our neighbor’s houses. The owner of the building had a heart attack, as did Rawda’s husband, who just finished the renovation of his flat. He had spent more than $7,000 to refurbish his house after the mess caused by the soldiers when they used his house as a base in the first invasion, he had to start from zero again, but now everything is in rubble. His heart could not take it anymore, a man of 40 years old laying in bed with a heart attack with no place to go, with no money to start again and most importantly with no heart to grieve,” said Ali. “But you know what, I said to this officer who wanted to shell us in our houses, ‘You start counting from now, my son who you forbade from taking his books is now 9 years old, in 8 years time, I myself, his father will send him to kill you in your own city and maybe in your own house if he can, remember that!,’ said Ali.

It was funny then to hear President Bush talking about how Palestinian independence is hindered by corruption and lack of political reform. And that we should start by reforming our political system and changing our corrupt leaders. I just wished to answer him back by telling him, but Mr. President it is not Arafat who is killing our children, shelling our houses, causing despair to our children to go and kill themselves or making us homeless in a few hours, but rather it is your friend, your “man of peace” with his ‘moral’ but at least now visible, occupation army. Please, at least give us a break…