Hania Bitar is director-general of the Palestinian youth association Pyalara (Palestinian Youth Association for Leadership and Rights Activation).
Hania Bitar: “We try to challenge what cannot be challenged.”
When the whole story of the Wall started I was somehow dealing with it in disbelief. It was something that was about to happen, but at the time I was pushing it away, or I dealt with it from a journalistic or political point of view. It was being built in this area or that area, but still it was far away. It was not part of my life. But when they started constructing the Wall in Ar-Ram area where I cross, where I work and live, suddenly this thing forced itself upon my existence, my daily life, upon my day and night. Every time I looked out of the window I saw the Wall. It was really shocking. Suddenly this wall of concrete cement became very scary. I try to be and present myself as a courageous woman, but to tell you the truth: sometimes when I am driving and it is evening, this Wall really looks cold, long and winding, like a snake. When I am driving alongside it, it is an endless road. Although I am not claustrophobic, that Wall looks like as if I am in a bottle. I want to shatter it into pieces. Then I feel like I can’t wait until I reach the end of this road. All the time I am driving the Wall is either on my left hand side or on my right hand side. It really gives me a feeling of suffocation. I just want somebody beside me sitting in the car, to make jokes on the Wall, to laugh, to sing aloud. We are trying to avoid looking at it directly. We try to continue with our lives, but it is always there.
The Wall and checkpoints isolate me from many things in my life. My social life is composed of many elements, it is not Hania alone. I have my parents, my sisters, my brother, my work, my colleagues, the members of Pyalara. Step by step, the separation started with the checkpoints and then it was combined with the Wall. Being cut off from one another has a big toll on how a person views his or her life, connections, relationships.
I remember I was living with my family in Jerusalem proper, in Wadi Joz. We lived in a rented house, and then the landlord wanted our house. All the time my parents were dreaming of owning their own house. For financial reasons we were never able to buy a real nice house, but we worked hard to buy an apartment. After hard working, we were able five years ago to buy it in the Kufr ‘Aqab area, which is part of Jerusalem. My new house was just a five-minute drive from my work. It was so convenient; it was in the middle between Jerusalem and Ramallah. We were very happy with it. A few months afterwards, checkpoint Kalandia was constructed. Then the new apartment became a nightmare. Suddenly all our dreams were shattered. Now the family accused itself that they made the most stupid decision in their lives. All the savings were put in this house, and as we are not a rich family, we could not buy or rent another house in Jerusalem.
We are Jerusalemites but we live on the other side of the checkpoints and within the Walls. As a Jerusalemite you are entitled to health coverage inside Israel. But how to go there? So many things are separating you from what is really yours. I remember that when a few years ago my father was sick that all the time we had to go to the hospital in Jerusalem, to Hadassa. All the time we were in my car. It was winter. When we would reach a checkpoint, we didn’t know whether they would let us pass. The checkpoint closed at nine in the evening. But it happened several times that we wanted to reach hospital as soon as possible, and then they had to do all their searches, all the checks, all the stupid questions - and all this while we are Jerusalemites. When my father died, he was in the ambulance, stuck at the checkpoint.
My mom is generally fine but she has some difficulties. She cannot walk easily, because of back problems. She now feels paralyzed because she cannot walk the three hundred meters needed to cross the checkpoint and to go wherever she wants. If I don’t take her, she cannot move. You cannot enjoy going anywhere because you are at least one hour or two hours stuck at the checkpoint. Any event you want to go to is already destroyed by this feeling that you need to cross a checkpoint as if you are going to another country but then also with all these humiliations and problems. If something urgent happens to my mom and I want to take her to hospital, I now have not only to cross the checkpoint but also to face the problem of the Wall. We are being really separated from going to wherever we want. Even our social life became a disaster. I remember my birthday; it was just a while ago. None of my sisters, nephews and nieces to whom I am very close could make it. We turned from a very busy family where all came to see each other very often, having all those big lunches and dinners and so on, into a family where the phone replaces the face to face meeting of each other and the social events. Having good social connections characterizes us as Arabs or Palestinians. But now we have to become realistic, and you cannot waste all your time by going through checkpoints.
The Wall has a big impact upon a youth organization like Pyalara. I remember the time when we started this organization, back in 1999. It was a melting point. Whenever we had a training or workshop, we had the kids coming from different areas, from Hebron, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah. All would come and meet at our office. As an organization we brought these kids closer. Now this cannot happen anymore. Now, if you want something to happen, we have to go to Nablus ourselves. We now have no connections with Hebron even though this was one of the first places we started working in. I have a press card so I can travel to Gaza. A few days ago I came back from Gaza and I literally cried. Ossama is the guy who is running our office in Gaza. All the time he is on the phone with his colleagues in Ramallah. He thinks that I have the key to bring him to Ramallah. Each time, he says: “Please try, please try. Maybe they allow me. I just want to spend one day with my colleagues in Ramallah.” I feel that the toll of separation is the biggest on the people of Gaza.
As an organization you always want to challenge tough challenges, to be stronger even than the Wall or the barriers. We really try to overcome whatever measures the Israelis take. We try to make the people connected despite the fact that they are disconnected. Our kids in Nablus sometimes leave at four in the morning and stand in long queues in order to come here in time. It sometimes happens that after they reach us, they get stuck because of a sudden closure of Nablus or another area and then they have to sleep over. It’s a financial burden. But the young people are ready to cross the barriers just to be together. Sometimes it is not feasible. We have so many youngsters who are below eighteen, and for them it is risky because somebody has to bear the responsibility for their traveling. If we go there we can just see them, or otherwise we have to work through the Internet and the phone.
The Wall has an impact upon how people view each other. It has its negative impact even among us as Palestinians. People ask themselves: Who is enjoying more freedom than the other? People start looking at each other, categorizing each other: Who is the least to suffer, who more? Thank God, the younger generation is a little more vibrant. They are still hopeful, they want to challenge the world; they want to escape, to run away, to have a fresh start. The older generation really looks like zombies sometimes, without spirits. This is really scary. We are thankful that we are working with the young generation but we are always afraid about what would happen with them in the future when the situation continues to be like this.
What I feel is also important is the psychological impact of the Wall upon the Palestinian nation vis-à-vis the Israeli nation. Already we have been disconnected for so many years from the Israeli side. We think that the Israeli side really bought the story or the myth that this Wall protects them as a nation from invasions or suicide bombings of the Palestinians. They didn’t really calculate the long-time effects of the Wall. Maybe you can save some lives in the short run, but on the long run I don’t know what the effect of the Wall will be. I don’t know what happens when you feel so much far away from each other. As Palestinians you feel that anybody living outside this Wall just doesn’t care; you feel that they don’t want to see what is going on inside the Wall. If we as two nations are destined to share one land, and if we care about the future generations, I don’t know how this Wall will help in really realizing a better future.
The whole issue of the Wall reminds me of an article I read and responded to almost ten years ago. It was written by Susan Hattis Rolef in the Jerusalem Post. She advised the Israeli government to imprison what she termed the terrorists inside nets, just like what you do with musquitos that bother you. You should keep them away by making a net around them. And this is really what her government is doing. For the Israeli government the Palestinian people are not real human beings with rights. You can just imprison those troublemakers and then live on your life as Israelis peacefully. You may gain whatever tranquility on the short run, but if you don’t find a real settlement, a real just solution, all the time those musquitos will tear the screen and come and bother you again. Whatever barriers or Walls are built, they will never preserve tranquility or peace in the long run.
There is a big difference between how I used to view freedom before and how I live or feel it now. Years ago, freedom was for me tranquility, nature, no borders, traveling, green things, sea - all those things represented freedom for me. So whenever I was traveling and high in the sky or when I was swimming in the sea, I felt like I owned the world. Freedom was always connected with large landscapes, with vistas, a big view. Maybe it was because of the fact that where we live we almost never enjoy a big view. Only few have the luck to live at a place which is a little bit high. Where you live or work there are many things that are obstructing the view. It’s because houses are so much jammed here, close to each other, and now because of the Wall. So for me freedom was the eyesight.
But right now I see freedom differently. Freedom has become more an emotional state of mine. In order to feel free I cannot make a connection with how I am living objectively, with where I can go or cannot go. It’s more like what I can do vs. what I cannot do. Not in terms of traveling but with regard to what emotionally sustains and fulfils me. In order to reach a level of emotional satisfaction, I have to concentrate on small things that make me happy and make me feel free. Like when I am helping someone and I feel that I succeeded. For instance last night, I came home at nine p.m. As I was driving along the Wall, someone was walking, a man, along the road. I knew that at such a time he could not find a taxi. He was walking along this endless road. I stopped and gave him a ride. The feeling of helping someone gave me a sense of fulfillment and freedom. So I have to find my freedom in very small things that maybe don’t count on a general level. But for me as a person I feel that with each step I take, with something that I do, I am liberating something inside me. This gives me a sense of freedom which is lacking around me, and at the same time it gives me a sense of resilience. In order to be able to continue I have to realize myself. I realize myself through helping others, through being needed, through giving hope to others. I have to reach tangible results; if not, I don’t feel satisfied. For me hope is not just an abstract term. Hope has to be linked to something concrete. I have to divide hope into phases to make it realistic. When you achieve a certain phase, you move to the next level, and further up. This is how I relate to the people around me. So many young people are frustrated because they want to achieve something much higher; they want freedom, get rid of occupation. They want to find excellent jobs, to fulfill their status in society. We cannot fulfill all those goals right now. How can you divide them into something smaller? How can you find a role for young people, whereby they can achieve part of who they are, where they can help themselves and others in the society? There should always be a comparative approach. When you compare you can reach a level of satisfaction. Even when you are in a very bad situation you can find people who are worse. And because you are better, you can help them. If you bring those who are in a worse situation to your bad situation, it is a fulfillment. Until you can reach a level of doing something much better.
As a Jerusalemite, as a representative of a youth organization and as a journalist, I usually have the opportunity to travel. And we do our best to make our young people travel. But it’s funny: If I am in another country - let’s say Holland, Germany or the US – and I am enjoying whatever those countries give, believe me, I don’t feel relieved and relaxed until I reach Kalandia checkpoint. Only then I am back home [laughs]. It reminds me of Kundera’s book title “The unbearable lightness of being.” I know what is awaiting me. Whenever I want, I can be somewhere else, and I could do many other things in the world. The easiest thing is just to escape. But somehow you want to face the challenge. Other nations can live disasters or epidemics. But in our case we face not just a “regular disaster” like an economic burden or even a regular Wall, but a convergence of factors that are all designed to continuously degrade the human being, to deprive one of one’s dignity. You can be a Palestinian subjected to daily experiences that drive you crazy. But still we manage to overcome whatever experiences we go through, and somehow to challenge the things that cannot be challenged. The fact that we really have to get rid of the occupation became a challenge. Of course we are entitled to get rid of the occupation according to all the international laws. But you have to keep strong in order to maintain your ability to challenge the occupation until you get your rights. Meanwhile, in order to continue and be strong, your soul has to be feeded, nourished.
I nourish my soul by things that I manage to fulfill on the personal or on the organizational level. I feel that we at Pyalara are impacting young people’s lives. Sometimes you are amazed at the comments you get. When you hear some people talking about how we influenced their lives, it made us say: “Oh, my God.” Sometimes we can’t believe how much a small thing can help, how it can rescue people. You do something small – let’s say giving youth an opportunity to speak on a youth TV program - and you yourself don’t appreciate its value. But it might come at a certain point in a person’s life when self-esteem is so low that your support or your ability to engage them in something rescues their lives. They get a feeling that they get meaning in their lives, that they’re doing something valuable. That there is a reason that they should continue to live, and look for the future.
When we recently were in Holland with a group of youths, I wasn’t talking, it were the young people who were narrating their stories. When the Dutch young people were clapping and were embracing the Palestinians, I looked at those young people. They felt they liberated the world; they won a million dollars. I really felt they had a mission accomplished. They worked from their heart, and they delivered something. Those young people felt they had played a big role for their peers, for their community and for their cause. Those moments are like a treasure. You can always lean back on those moments.
Toine van Teeffelen is development director at the Arab Educational Institute (AEI) in Bethlehem. This interview is part of a series made for United Civilians for Peace. The interview has been printed on EI with permission of the author.