A social media post I recently saw said: “I used to think Israel controlled Palestine. Now I know Palestine is the only Arab country Israel does not control.”
That testimony to Palestinian resistance resonated with me as I read Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Lives Under Occupation (McSweeney’s, 2014).
Although the voices recorded in this book vividly describe the matrix of control that Israel attempts to exercise over virtually every facet of Palestinian life, these same voices also tell of lifelong struggles involving incredible sacrifice and heroism. And the impression that one is left with is that the Palestinians have never been under Israel’s control.
Palestine Speaks is one of a series of books from Voice of Witness, a not-for-profit organization co-founded by writer Dave Eggers and human rights activist Lola Vollen.
Voice of Witness says it strives to “illuminate contemporary human rights crises” in the United States and worldwide by depicting human rights abuses “through the oral histories of the men and women who experience them.”
This is the thirteenth book in the series, which also includes accounts of undocumented workers in the US, people persecuted under the Patriot Act, human rights violations in US women’s prisons and life in Chicago’s segregated, high-rise, low-income housing.
The oral histories in Palestine Speaks attempt to convey a person’s life from birth to the present in novel-like detail. Editors Cate Malek and Mateo Hoke succeed admirably in undertaking this task.
The fifteen people interviewed in this book are presented in a more rounded way than one would generally find in case studies undertaken by human rights organizations. Each person interviewed gets final approval over his or her story, with the narratives carefully fact-checked.
Among the Palestinians interviewed are a journalist, a farmer, a lawyer, a chemistry professor, a fisherman, a homemaker, a computer technician, an artist, a community center volunteer and a semi-professional runner.
For anyone looking to learn what daily life under occupation is like, this book is invaluable. The reader becomes familiar with the impact of Israel’s repressive laws, military checkpoints, home demolitions, mass incarceration and torture, settler attacks and the difficulty of simply making a living, not to mention dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, racist treatment and life under the Palestinian Authority’s “security” regime.
But the stories that overpower all of these crimes against human rights are the ones of steadfast resistance.
The interviews paint a portrait of Israeli rule, which includes its determination to eliminate even the concept of a Palestinian people.
Ibtisam Ilzghayyer, a cultural center director in Bethlehem, encounters two signs at a checkpoint: one sign is “for ‘Israelis and foreigners,’ and the other just said, ‘others,’” she explains. “You know, it’s like they want us to feel that we belong to nothing. They could write ‘Palestinians,’ they could write ‘Arabs.’ But ‘others?’”
Muhannad al-Azzah, an artist, was tortured and sentenced to three years imprisonment for being a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a secular political party. He was not charged with taking any action against the Israeli state. Simply belonging to a political party is a crime, the purpose being to crush all forms of resistance — not just armed struggle, but even the mindset of resistance.
“Every day I expect to be killed”
What if the profession one pursues suddenly becomes a target for Israel’s authoritarian repression?
A fisherman in Gaza, Jamal Baker, who has spent his life on the sea, can no longer make a living because of Israel’s collective punishment against the people of Gaza. The Israeli navy destroyed his boat and killed his cousin, who was also a fisherman.
Baker tells his interviewers: “Every single day, I expect to be killed.”
Then there is Abdelrahman al-Ahmar, who has spent most of his life in Israeli prisons and is now a human rights attorney appearing before the very judges who routinely extended his imprisonment without trial or charges under Israel’s policy of administrative detention.
Al-Ahmar describes an early radicalizing experience at the age of fourteen when he got a backpack for the first time in his life to carry his books to school.
One day on his way to school, an Israeli settler, protected by six soldiers, grabbed his backpack and threw it into the sewer. “Of course, the soldiers knew the backpack was important to me because they could see how impoverished we all were and that we were deprived of everything.”
“I could taste the bullet”
Other encounters with settlers are instantly life-altering. Ahmed Al-Qurain tries to intervene one day when he sees a settler point his M-16 rifle at his son, Asif. The settler shoots Ahmed.
“I felt like someone stabbed me with a knife,” Al-Qurain says. “I had this taste in my body. When you get shot, you sense the smoke inside you. I felt it, and I smelled it in my body. I could taste the bullet in my blood.”
The settler comes back and shoots him again, this time in the knee. Al-Qurain’s life as a mover, driving a truck and hauling furniture, is instantly over.
Again and again, stories of utter cruelty are told. Tali Shapiro, an Israeli activist who now lives in Ramallah and supports the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, describes her past experience as a soldier in Gaza — prior to the 2005 troop withdrawal — when an officer receives a year-end report of home demolitions in Khan Younis.
The number of demolitions undertaken is 297. She overhears the officer say, “Let’s do a few more and round it up to a nice, even 300.”
Anecdotes like these convey the psychological mindset of people who hold absolute power over another. Yet underneath this portrait, another image emerges.
The artist, al-Azzah, tells about how Israeli soldiers entering a refugee camp in Bethlehem would “go crazy” when they found resistance graffiti in the camp. Why? No matter how well armed the Israelis were, no matter how much control they exercised, no matter how they tried to even erase the idea of a Palestinian people, no matter how close they came to totalitarianism, they could not control the Palestinian mind, and it enraged them.
It will also defeat them. That’s the conclusion I reached after reading Palestine Speaks.
Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is active with Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace-Portland Chapter and the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign.