Monday, 23 July 2012

2 Sides to Every Story and 12 Versions of Every Song

(Joint Advocacy Initiative Intern in Palestine)

What it feels like to live here you ask? It’s like being a shadow of your own, caught on the ground not being able to break out and see yourself lying there, but you cannot fill the shadow with life. 
Child detainee aged 17

Recently I watched 70 adults partaking in activities such as: Dunking for Apples, Apple on a String, Bring Me and other such games fit for at a child’s Halloween party. While this was occurring, hundreds of Palestinians were on hunger strike some reaching to over 70 days, (if you have ever fasted for one day imagine multiplying that feeling by 70!) These 2 oxymoron events are examples of what is going on simultaneously in Palestine all the time.  The first event described was a team building day at the YMCA – what might be considered a fairly normal event in any work place across the world yet everything in Palestine has a dark cloud hanging over it. The occupation and effects of it are never far away from people’s minds especially when nearly the entire population (adults and children) have experienced time in prison. Imagine 2/3 of the population of your country, your classmates or work friends, have been or are in prison, this is an extraordinary figure.

As of June 2012 there were 4600 Palestinian prisoners and at least 303 administrative detainees in Israeli prisons. Administrative detention is a procedure under which detainees are held without charge or trial. No charges are filed and there is no intention of bringing a detainee to trial. The term of the order is a maximum 6 months yet on or before the expiry of the term, the detention order is frequently renewed. This process can be continued indefinitely which is a punishment in itself. Imagine being in prison, not knowing why, thinking you will get out tomorrow and then you are told you have another 6 months and this process has been known to go on for up to 8 years. This was the reason behind 2500 prisoners who went on hunger strike in April of this year. This figure also included several hundred children and was one of the longest mass hunger strikes the world has ever seen.

Tear gas being shot at protesters at a weekly demonstration 
Another constant reminder of the occupation are the weekly demonstrations that take place on Fridays after mid-day prayers in villages near the wall or settlements (areas of West Bank land that are built on and inhabited by Israelis which is illegal under international law). Having spoken to Palestinians at the protests I have attended they have acknowledged that they feel protests are more symbolical as a fight of resistance to keep hope alive rather than having a belief that these protests alone will really make a difference and yet every week for many years the village comes together along with many internationals to demonstrate. These demonstrations are usually met with teargas and rubber bullets from the Israeli military. I admire them for their strength and courage and yet unfortunately these acts alone, although there have been some success stories, have brought little change or attention from the international community.

I have also witnessed and experienced in a small way the daily struggle of many Palestinians who have to queue at checkpoints because of arbitrary ID checks or in the early hours of the morning before checkpoints open in order to get through on time for work in another area of the West Bank or East Jerusalem. Many have suffered at these checkpoints. I have, in my short time here visited Jerusalem a mere 10 kilometres away from Bethlehem, more times than all of the Palestinians I know here put together. Palestinians living in the West Bank are not allowed to go to Jerusalem or anywhere else in the state of Israel unless they apply for permission which is often only granted during religious holidays such as Ramadan, Christmas or Easter. Even when the permission is granted, they may be denied entry at the checkpoint. There have also even been reports of people not being allowed through to go to hospital when needing important surgery and women who have given birth at checkpoints while waiting to be allowed to get to hospital.  

Settlement on a hilltop in the West Bank
Talk of the occupation therefore occurs every day and the impacts of it ripple through daily activities for many Palestinians. Yet somehow life must go on, people have jobs, children, want to go on holiday etc and so normal life and life under occupation do unfortunately coexist but the struggle is to remain hopeful that they are not one of the same. Unfortunately sometimes the fight can become too much. I emphasise with the Palestinian people but I am not naive enough to say that they all want peace and to love one another. Many do, yes, but others are tired of the so called peace process, the negotiations about negotiations. They are growing weary, people start fighting among themselves, they throw rocks at demonstrations and use other violent measures to provoke the soldiers while others simply don’t have the energy anymore to fight it and want to focus on taking care as best they can of their children and families. Despite this I have witnessed many determined people in Palestine determined to remain.

Mosque in a  Palestinian community in East Jerusalem
On the other side of the wall things are very different.  East Jerusalem was captured by Israel in the 1967 war but it is still mainly Palestinians living here and because of this it has retained the hustle and bustle of markets and friendly atmosphere that is present within the West Bank.  However just a short walk away is West Jerusalem – a very different place altogether. The places here include clothes shops such as Topshop and Mango with some overpriced cafes thrown in with a mix of people of different races and nationalities filling the clean and tidy streets. When I visited recently the already clean spot of ground outside the cafe I was in was swept twice in the half hour I sat there whereas just a short walk away within Palestinian communities of East Jerusalem, the Israeli municipality refuses to collect the rubbish.  

Yet  my perceptions of Israel were challenged. Israelis here do not have to deal with the impacts of the occupation in the way Palestinians do, they have other issues yes but they do not see the wall as they go shopping or go for lunch. It made me wonder if I was Israeli how much would I fight the occupation.  I doubt they know the full extent of it unless they have specifically taken the time to go and educate themselves about it and so they only know what their government wants them to know...“All Arabs are terrorists and the ‘security fence’ is to protect us from them”. When I entered a synagogue one day I was asked was I carrying any guns or knives on my person. How safe do people really feel if they feel the need to carry around weapons? Do they genuinely see Palestinians as a terrorist threat? Many of the Israelis I have met in my travels in Israel say they want peace, yet they do simultaneously however appear to see Palestinians as exactly that – a security threat. From being here for several months this seems ridiculous and to tar a whole group of any nationality as terrorists is absurd yet is it that crazy that they believe what their government tells them?

Mediterranean Coastline in Tel Aviv
How many of us know the policies our governments have in place about refugees or conditions for prisoners etc? Unless we have taken a particular interest because we are studying it or someone has told us about their own experience, I would say not many of us do. Not because we don’t care but simply because we are busy with our own lives and it does not directly affect us and so we eventually forget about it. This is why I greatly admire the few Israeli activists who join Palestinian demonstrations; they are taking a risk to even come in to the West Bank let alone the risk of being targeted with tear gas and rubber bullets by their own Israeli peers. Other organisations such as the Boycott from Within and Breaking the Silence (Soldiers who give tours around the West Bank explaining what orders they were told to carry out there) are starting to appear from within Israel showing that the conflict is not all Israelis against all Palestinians (although the statement presented the other way around may not be true).

And so the conflict is complicated, it is not simply Palestinians against Israelis or Arabs against Jews. When the Israeli activists came to demonstrations many Palestinians were initially shocked and found it hard to believe not all Israelis hated them. Many of the Jews living in Israel are from Europe, America, Ethiopia and India as they were promised a cheaper and better life, some I would not be surprised to believe, know nothing of the occupation and of course there are many who do but I believe it is only a small amount of extreme Zionists (a secular and very powerful movement, many of whom are not orthodox Jews) who believe peace cannot occur until all Palestinians leave their homeland.

It is therefore much more complex than it is often made out to be when talks of the peace process are discussed in the media. If a solution was simple it would not have taken 64 years to find it. The argument of the 1 state solution v 2 state solution seems more and more obsolete the longer I stay here. Ironically Israel is actually ensuring that the 2 state solution will never be a viable option because of the expanding settlements into areas of the West Bank as it is making the total area for Palestinians to live in smaller and smaller by the day and completely unviable as a state.  I don’t know what the solution will be but Palestinians, although they know that moving to another country could be an easier way of life, know it is what Israel wants and so they are not giving up on the land of their ancestors. The Palestinians still here have lasted 64 years and many show every effort of continuing to do so, let’s hope their livelihoods do not remain threatened by the occupation for another 64 years!