Between victory and defeat

I have not written for quite some time. I was busy protecting myself and my family the last few days before the Israeli army left the area around the presidential compound near our house. The area had been a frightening theatre for several nights. I always considered myself lucky not to have been visited by the IDF, but after seeing all that they did I wonder whether a personal visit might have been easier to cope with in the long run.

For three successive nights we could not get even a moment of sleep. Stun grenades were thrown under the windows of our bedrooms, you just see flames reflecting on your windows and hear loud and reverberating sounds, but now they are gone, hopefully forever.

The night they left and President Arafat was set free, I went with my three children and my sister-in-law Zalina to see the presidential compound. Such a painful and sad scene; the devastation was enormous. Dust covered everything. The walls of the houses around the compound had all crumbled onto the ground. Smashed cars were used as barricades. Looking at it, I found it hard to breathe. But at the far end of the area, we saw cheerful faces coming from inside the building, smelling like they needed a bath, certainly, but very happy. Soldiers were kissing each other, the international protection group members were telling their stories to every one and we saw a lot of journalists.

One of the Palestinian soldiers came over and shyly asked me to move a bit from where I was standing. “Here my colleague was killed,” he said. “Do you have a candle to put it in this place?”, he asked. “Unfortunately, I don’t,” I said while I gazing at the space around us, imagining many spirits hovering around me, a place full of death on one hand, but full of steadfastness and joy on the other. I decided to leave, full of emotion yet torn by divided feelings, joy and sadness all at once. We could not see President Arafat. He was so angry at journalists, they jumped on his meeting’s table, they were invading his office, until a few minutes ago.

Returning to normal life was hard for me. Nothing was functioning. I called the ministry of higher education to see if they had chosen the candidates for scholarships to France. My daughter was one of the applicants. “Sorry sister, no one is in the offices. I am the guard, they have no offices, all is in ruins, it will take some time to fix them,” said the guard. “What am I supposed to do?”, I asked. “You have to wait or call the French Consulate, they probably have the names,” he said.

On 7 May, my three children went back to Bir Zeit with my husband. I am not teaching this semester. It is really horrible. “I am so tired, and now we have to walk about one kilometer and a half, the road is covered with dust, and it is so humiliating!”, said my daughter Yassmine. “Our teachers from Jerusalem could not enter the checkpoint of Kalandia to enter Ramallah, our history teacher from Jenin could not come to class because of the so many checkpoints along the way, the same thing for the students coming from other cities. Students suspended classes for two hours to commemorate one of the university students who was killed in the Israeli military invasion to the city, that is why I am back home so early, we did not take any classes. I don’t know how we are going to finish this semester, in addition the university cancelled the summer semester, so we have to make up for the lost time in this semester! That means that instead of ending in late June, we have to go on with classes until mid August to finish this semester! I am so tired, I will go to sleep, don’t wake me up for lunch,” said Yassmine.

I make a call to Youssef, my computer man, to see if he can clean the many viruses I received from some hackers after I became cyber active. Youssef was one of the distinguished students in electric engineering at Bir Zeit university. He came from Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion of 1990. His father was a designer. He had to leave everything he built in Kuwait after long years of hard work. “My father lost everything; we had to start from zero in Tulkarem, our town,” said Youssef.

Youssef started a small business with another partner while he was a still a student. He opened a shop for computer chips and spare parts, then it developed to the point that he could deliver the whole computer system and provide all maintenance. It took Youssef 10 years to graduate from Bir Zeit University this week. Many interruptions occurred, some because of his major involvement in the flourishing business and some because of his detention in Israeli prisons for several months. But in spite of all these interruptions, he managed to underwrite the studies of his brothers and sisters, get married, and graduated from his university.

“What is wrong with you Youssef, you look pale and skinny!”, I asked him. “No, nothing, I am just ruined! I am 33,000 US dollars in debt to my Israeli computer dealer, I have 25 thousands dollars debts I need to collect from some Palestinian customers, and all my stock was robbed while we were under curfew, including systems for maintenance. The customers yell at me to get their computers maintained, the Israeli dealer keeps calling me every day to pay back my debt, the Palestinian customers are not paying me their debts, and I have no stock to sell. I have fights with my wife every day; I have become very tense,” said Youssef.

“Did you go to the Palestinian police to seek some help?” I asked. “It seems that you are one of the few cases of a shop robbed by Palestinians.”

“Yes, every day I go to the police, to the preventive police, to anyone I think might help. They are all fed up with me now, they don’t want to see my face anymore. I went to the chamber of commerce to see if they can pay any compensations for small businesses like mine, but they said they have nothing to offer people like me, all international institutions including the World Bank only help governmental institutions, not people like me. I am not a martyr. I am not injured, nor was my house demolished. I am just a bankrupt person who is now afraid to answer my phone, to open my door, or even to come to the shop. I have no equipment to fix and I just keep getting threatening calls from my clients or my debtors.”

I tried to say something—anything—to comfort him, but I could not. “So what you are going to do?”, I asked. “After nine years in a profession I loved, after all these successful relations with so many clients, and now, given this very unstable situation, I am afraid, even if I could to start again, they can come and ruin everything in a minute again, who can guarantee that they won’t?!” asked Youssef.

“Don’t tell me that you want to leave,” I said. “Of course not! This is exactly what they want, and after all, exile was no better for my father. I wish I were less educated and could easily go to work as a street vendor as so many people are doing now, but I think I will open a very small shop for cosmetics.”

I could not believe my ears: this computer maniac will run a cosmetic shop?! “No , no!”, I said, “This is unbelievable! I cannot see you in this profession!”

“Do you have any better ideas?” asked Youssef.

Since the Israelis left the city I have not ceased participating in meetings and debates to analyze what happened. All the people I know and saw in these meetings were smoking French cigarettes instead of the American brands. Everyone feels that something big has happened, but they don’t know what exactly.

“Are we defeated?”, asks one of the audience members at a recent meeting. The response was quite complex. President Arafat feels victorious. Sharon wanted to eliminate him and destroy all the Palestinian Authority, but he could not. Arafat is still in his office, and the PA will be rebuilt again.

Do the security forces and the militants feel defeated? No, who said that they can stop the strongest army in the region with their very old, light and poor weapons? We shall not be brought to the ground or dance to Israel’s tune and timing, rather, we will simply strain and weary them rather than confronting them. “We are not defeated. This is our country and we have to resist until we achieve our independence. They did not break us or our will,” said one of the militants.

As for me, I don’t feel defeated either. Like most in the audience in these meetings, I was not asked to resist or to participate. No one asked the people to do anything, not even to build shelters or stock food, no one talked to us to tell us what is going on or what will happen and what to do when it happens. We were just following the news and hearing the very contradictory statements from some Palestinian officials. So, as part of the people, I do not feel defeated. I am still living on my land, in my house and I am still rejecting the Israeli occupation and feel that we have to resist it by whatever means we have.

But, it is impossible, after such a brutal military attack and all the destruction it inflicted upon us, to say that nothing has changed. Yes, many changes have happened. We are no longer these ‘suspended’ citizens acting as if we are in our Œindependent‚ land, subjected to our authority or ‘half’ controlling our lives, as used to be the case before the re-occupation. Now we are ‘fully’‚ occupied; the Israeli army can come at any moment, arrest, destroy or kidnap anyone at any moment. I watch the T.V. and I see an Israeli tank in the middle of Nablus shelling a house and setting it on fire, killing two “wanted” people, and Nablus is supposedly a “liberated” city. And now President Bush is praising Ariel Sharon for “accelerating” his delayed withdrawal from Palestinian cities.

I also hear on the news that the Palestinian Authority has “approved” the “deportation” of 13 Palestinians to seven European countries. I could not believe my ears! How can any authority “deport” its own people, its own “citizens”? I remembered when I was very active in the first Uprising in a committee asking for the return of all the Palestinians deported by the Israeli authority. My father-in-law was then the mayor of the city of Al Bireh, elected by the overwhelming majority of his people, but was nonetheless deported for 20 years. All his sons had married without him assisting in their weddings. They were banned from traveling and he was not allowed to come back to his city or to his family. I remember when he met his son Nasser in Heathrow airport when he was on his way to America after many attempts to leave the country. He managed because he was married to an American citizen who asked some senators to convince the Israeli authorities to lift the travel ban on her husband. My father-in-law and his son were hugging each other and shouting through their tears in the airport: “Down with the Israeli occupation!” The passengers hurrying by did not understand the tragedy taking place.

These memories came back to me. I realize that no one is safe now. The feeble legal framework of Oslo is broken now. We are under “semi-direct” occupation despite the presence of the Palestinian Authority. I say “semi” because the Israeli orders are not directed at us directly, but at the Palestinian Authority, unless they want to arrest some one, or demolish a house, or kill a “targetted terrorist,” in this they do the “job” themselves.

That is why, at all the meetings I attended recently, people were asking for the reform of the Palestinian Authority, people were asking for a real rule of law, a genuine participation in the decision making process, an active Parliament, and new elections to renew the blood of the political system. All of these demands aim at bettering people’s lives, so that they can resist better, be steadfast longer, not to enable or facilitate or to better manage the occupation.