The days go by, the years have gone by and we are still held prisoner by hope and tanks.
This is my fifth day of curfew, a new experience for me having left here last October and not being subjected to this new form of occupation. I came back to co-lead a delegation of Americans interested in learning about the conflict, hosted by the American human rights organisation Global Exchange (http://www.globalexchange.org/). It was more of a shock than I had imagined it would be, walking through the cities of Nablus, Gaza, Bethlehem, Ramallah, seeing first hand the destruction of the last year, destruction perpetrated by an occupying army with the equipment and support of one of the greatest powers in the world.
Visiting a family in Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus whose home was completely destroyed, speaking to the mother who lost her child in the destruction, who lost her husband to arbitrary arrest, watching in Gaza as Israeli Apache attack helicopters attacked civilian areas, talking to Israeli settlers who tell me that they have more right to the land my family has owned for generations, conversations with soldiers who agree that settlements are wrong, but who cannot see that violence breeds violence, that their mere presence in a place they should not be breeds violence…my words to describe all of these experiences will have to come at another time, if they come at all.
Now I am consumed by the vacuum of curfew, struggling to wake up each day when there is no apparent reason to wake up. Never knowing what time it is, as time becomes irrelevant when you are held prisoner in your home. My mind and my hand struggle to not reflexively start etching lines on the wall to mark the days that go by. We are locked up, without knowing what is happening outside our four walls, whether or not there are even tanks outside or not. Then we are reminded by the rumble of the APC that, yes, indeed, ‘they’ are still here.
When a door slams, we all jump. Our senses are finely attuned to every sound, every movement. We differentiate between the sound of an Armoured Personnel Carrier and a tank, the sound of a helicopter and a small plane, the sound of an F16 and a commercial plane, the sound of an M16 and an Uzi. We all know this, children more so than the adults. The education of military equipment is part of military occupation; it is a result of a safety mechanism for all human beings to know how to react both physically and mentally to potential danger. But it is a false mechanism of protection, the belief that being able to identify the source of the sound will allow you to protect yourself in the standard, yet ineffective, ways that we have all learned to do. It’s the reason we run to the window when we hear a loud, unidentified noise…to be able to identify in our minds whether there is danger or not, while at the same time not allowing our minds to process the fact that the same running to the window is a danger in itself, has killed numerous innocent civilians also held prisoner in their homes and to the false safety mechanisms we have created under occupation.
There is no safety; there is no safe place. The purpose of curfews and military incursions is to reinforce that. That wherever you are, whoever you are, you are a target, whether you are the target of a barrel of a rifle, or sitting in your home prevented from leaving for food, medical supplies or the often neglected necessity of human interaction. We forget that this is one of the necessities of life, to be able to visit family and friends, to talk to other people, to laugh about something that happened at work with co-workers. Such a simple thing overlooked. But then we have all become accustomed to overlooked lives.
You have to sit in your house and wonder why people don’t do anything, why people don’t take to the streets and refuse this imprisonment. They have, and they have been shot at, they have been killed for trying. And then you get the bizarre stories, like the children from the nearby refugee camp who break the curfew to go out and play soccer, are tear gassed and shot at by nearby Israeli soldiers, who then rush into their homes for protection, then come out half an hour later to resume their game, and go through the same process over and over again.
Yet what disturbs me more is watching people rush home during the half hour before the curfew is re-imposed, watching as the streets become part of an uninhabited ghost town five minutes before the curfew is meant to be in effect again, when often there are no soldiers or tanks re-enforcing the curfew. How can it be that a people have become so compliant to military rule, so accustomed to occupation and its ensuing oppression?
Yet everything that is occurring here has a parallel law prohibiting that particular action from being undertaken. Every action. The international community established all of these laws in order to protect innocent civilians. It always astounds me that Palestinians, regardless of their continued persistence in addressing this issue within the framework of law, continue to hold an ounce of hope in the international system. Why else would all of these organisations invest so much time, resources and money into the endless committee meetings and resolutions on Palestine/Israel? Yet they do, a fact that is often overshadowed by the acts of individuals against Israeli civilians. A people again held prisoner to hope, despite the hopeless situation they find themselves in. The question that most people do not ask, and which continues to shock me, is why do more Palestinians NOT resort to violence in the face of continued violence and despair, day after day, month after month, year after year, decade after decade?
What would happen in my lovely home town of Vanouver, BC, Canada, if neighbourhoods were suddenly placed under military occupation, people not allowed to leave their homes for days on end, with the threat of being shot if they dared to try to leave, the mad bursts for the few hours of lifted curfew to get supplies, tanks and APCs digging up roads, knocking down telephone and electricity poles, etc. Would this peaceful Canadian town rise up against this? Would the same humanity that still exists amongst Palestinians still exist amongst Canadians while they are fighting for food in the local markets, with the threat that it will run out? Would we say that 11-year-old Johnny, who was shot and killed while his family was shopping for food in Vancouver’s Granville Island market during the lifting of the curfew, was ‘collateral damage’? Would we say that the demolition and total destruction of Bob’s house, located on Main Street, Vancouver, BC, was justified as a necessary act in the ‘war against terrorism’? Would we justify it all, and take it all as a necessary evil?
We all must ask these questions of ourselves, in the safety of our homes outside of occupation. We all must put ourselves in the same situation, before passing judgement. This is what has been lacking. We, as human beings, are so quick to judge our fellow human beings. To judge, when we have not lived through the same, when we have not struggled for everything in our lives, when we have not lost on the same scale as others. Why?
Because we as a human community have succeeded in dehumanising parts of the world population that appear so far away from us. We have succeeded in making the ‘other’ somehow not like us, of justifying brutal acts against other human beings through this distancing. We have failed our own humanity when we are able to do this without batting an eyelid.
I cry at night and in my heart, not for the many killed, not for the injustices perpetrated, and not only for Palestine and Israel, but for the world. I cry not at the immediate results of injustice, but at the loss of humanity in our world. I cry at night because we as an international community have ceased to perceive the rest of the inhabitants of the world as individuals like us, as people who cry and laugh, as people who fear and hope, as people who seek to live their lives in freedom, but rather as ‘others’, not like us. We have ceased to be human.
This morning I received a phone call while under curfew from a well-known human rights organisation to participate in a speaking tour. The focus of the speaking tour was to ‘de-politicise’ the conflict, to give it a human face, to bring Palestinians and Israelis together to talk about the problem and to share their pain, to give their personal experiences. These tours inherently fail in assisting to educate the people of the world about the situation, because they work on the basis that the gross and systematic violations of a 35-year military occupation are a political issue.
Occupation is not political.
In all its forms, it is one of the largest human rights violations in the world, wherever it may take place. It offers a clean and protective blanket to the world, whether it is through the justification of self-defence or security. When a system can place 700,000 people under continuous curfew; when it can implement collective punishments without any protest from international bodies; when it can explode, destroy, invade civilian homes under the pretence of self defence; when it can arrest en masse members of another population, hold them without charge or trial, and torture; when it denies the education of hundreds of thousands of students daily through checkpoints and curfews; when it can separate one home from another through checkpoint and settlements; when it can separate family members through a racist and arbitrary ID card and permit system; when it can usurp the land of another people illegally, without impunity; when it can steal the hope and lives of children every day that this system is in force…it is no longer political.
Addressing only parts of the larger human rights violation of military occupation is like giving Tylenol to a cancer patient. It might help alleviate the headache the patient has, but in the end, the patient is going to die without the necessary treatment for the disease eating away at the rest of the body. Under curfew, even the Tylenol is becoming less and less accessible, and the days go by without hope for a new remedy.