Thursday 12 March 2015

Grave 1375

Grave 1375
Back in the first or second week we were asked to help some women from the university with some presentations they would do in London in a few weeks. We were imagining tweaking some grammatical errors and maybe a few slide layouts. What we got was more extraordinary than I personally was prepared for. Presentation after presentation from these 20 year old girls featured cousin upon brother upon neighbour upon friend who had been killed by the Israelis - a jaw dropping anthology of tragedies. The last presentation I heard was from a student called Isra. She talked about her cousin Mutassim being shot as he poked his head out of his door to make sure the soldiers had gone. It featured an interview with his family that nearly brought us to tears and probably would have if we weren’t so emotionally exhausted from the last few PowerPoints. The title of Isra’s presentation was “stop talking about the Palestinians as numbers”. It would prove an eerie prophecy of the next few months as the people around us, our friends and people who had been kind to us were being reduced to numbers, as they have been for 80 years and as they will continue to be for long after we leave unless the fate of Palestine is reversed.

Grave 1375 – the number is just speculation: While Hosam Oraiba was in prison for something he did not do his friends Shareef and Khaled kept us company and helped us a lot. One time when we were sat in the guest house and talking about what Hosam might be doing or feeling that night Khaled said that his uncle was also in prison at that moment. Maybe he was trying to be encouraging about this situation Hosam was in but he contrasted it with that of his uncle. His uncle had been given a sentence of around 150 years. When he will die he will be buried on the premises in a grave with no name, just a number. When generation upon generation of his family come to see him they will see earth and a small plaque with a number, maybe 1375, maybe 42896, it doesn’t really matter does it? For all eternity he will be remembered as a Palestinian, a Palestinian, not the Israeli who will live in his home.

Everything around the Palestinians is designed to dehumanise them. The checkpoints are designed like cattle pens with the beasts herded through them. The very image of the Apartheid Wall speaks for itself. The discrimination between white visitors and Arab Palestinians is not just abominable, it’s humiliating, like for the people of Hebron to see Jews and Christians waltz through their mosque that they can’t even go into or down a street they can’t walk across. An Israeli commandant after retiring said to a human rights organisation that he wasn’t sure if they put blindfolds on child prisoners to stop them seeing or so that the soldiers didn’t have to see their eyes.

This dehumanisation has defiantly worked for the Israelis. The soldiers can watch from their ramparts as coffins of murdered Palestinians are carried through the streets and go out and kill again the next night. So much of the population is so proud to be complicit, even supportive of the occupation. It defiantly has worked for the international community; I saw scores of American, European and East Asian tourists wandering through Bethlehem two weeks ago completely indifferent or oblivious to the fact that two nights ago a nineteen year old had been murdered 100 metres or so away from the KFC they piled into. Hundreds of Palestinian deaths can’t turn as many heads as that of one white person.

But what about the Palestinians themselves. Hardly any two people we have met agree on anything except for one thing, that this is not the real Palestine. Abu Dis is not the real Palestine. It’s always somewhere else, a place they maybe haven’t even been. Some have said Jerusalem, some Gaza, some Jenin or Hebron, the Jordan valley, but it’s never here; and I suspect if our twinning was anywhere else there would be people who would say the same. Maybe it’s that it’s just too dystopic to be his/her homeland. Maybe they have a dream of what it should be like that they project onto a different place, maybe it’s an idea of the struggle that they don’t see here. The reality is that while the dehumanisation Israel imposes on Palestine will never work properly on such a proud and dignified nation, it may have caused an identity crisis – it’s like they don’t realise that they live in Palestine! What they love about their nation has been taken from them: Al Aqsa, The Sepulchre, freedom, dignity and the lives of friends and family. Maybe the truth, that this dystopia really is what has become of them, is too much for a Palestinian heart to bear. It is too much for me to bear.

Sunday 8 March 2015

"We will all get arrested together"

I spent the early afternoon with four boys from Abu Dis boys’ school of 13 and 14 years old two Saturdays ago and they were kind enough to answer several questions I had about the occupation and their life in the West Bank.

1.      Do you enjoy school?

All four students replied no, when I asked what in particular they thought was wrong with it the prominent thesis was “everything”. But when I asked about how they found the teachers they said that they were good which surprised me. After more elaboration, Hosam, who was translating for me said that it was the system that they did not like.

2.      Do you think your education is useful?

All four replied “yes” with some degree of enthusiasm but when Hosam asked on my behalf why they thought it was useful or more specifically what they thought it was doing for them they all fell silent for a few moments. I then ask what they planned to do for work – three said Doctor and one dreamt of driving the service busses around Palestine.

3.      Do any of you throw stones?

They all unanimously and with no small degree of pride claimed that they threw stones regularly and that they would carry on throwing stones until the day they die (although they reluctantly admitted they had never actually hit a soldier.

4.      What effect do you think stone throwing has?

Their answer was that it was an act of resistance but there was little evidence of a particularly comprehensive view of how they effected the conflict. I then asked if they thought the soldiers were scared of them or their comrades. They thought some of the soldiers were.

5.      Do any of you have friends or family in prison?

One of the kids had a cousin of 17 years old, another had three cousins of (16, 20, 24). I then asked if any of them would end up in prison and they said, grinning, that they would all get arrested together. They also said it might be scary for them at first but that they were sure that after the initial arrest, prison would not be too bad for them.

6.      Will you support any political parties in the future?

In fact three of the four had already chosen their allegiances, two to Fatah and one to DFLP. Another opted instead for CADFA. They also felt that the government in Ramallah was on their side and supported them which differed from other comments I had heard from youths in Palestine.

7.      How do you feel about Israelis?

Their answer to this slightly flammable question impressed me. Immediately they distinguished between Israeli people and government, they also were very quick to acknowledge the fact that many Israelis support Palestine/Palestinians and are against the occupation. At the mention of Netanyahu however, they adopted a less equivocal tone stretching their obscene vocabulary to the limit. They all agreed they would kill him if they got the chance.

It was at this point one said to Hosam that “when the interview is over the soldiers will be at the door”. All the kids started laughing.

8.      How does the occupation affect you?

The response showed how infections the oppression of the occupation is. Already at only 14 the kids knew that the occupation would have a profound effect of the rest of their lives. They talked about healthcare, education and work knowing that the economy of all of Palestine and especially Abu Dis was being strangled. Some of their parents had worked in Jerusalem before the wall went up and anywhere else in the world, a suburb or commuter town like Abu Dis would be strengthened by it’s proximity to Jerusalem. We talked more about employment soon after.

9.      Do you think it will end? How?

All four had the optimism of youth about them and quickly said yes. They didn’t seem to have a clear idea of how it could be ended saying only that it would be solved by violent resistance against the soldiers. I mentioned that this had not seemed to work in Gaza but this did not seem to shake their confidence. In a rare glimmer of English one proudly declared “we will fight all the soldiers!”

10.   What do you think of other Arab countries?

There was a very mixed reaction. Countries like Egypt got scathing criticism for not supporting Palestine, they even said it was as bad as Israel. Jordan got a better reaction and they said it was more like Palestine. In the Iran/ Saudi divide three said Saudi Arabia was their preference but cited economic reasons, nothing political. One (this was the first time there was any disagreement between the four friends, not that it was much of one) said he respected Iran and preferred it to Saudi Arabia because of their support for Palestine.

11.   Views on religion.

The first thing I asked was about Sunni/Shia divides. I think something was lost in translation here because initially two said there was a problem and two said no. When I asked about the problem they then said there was none. They said they respected Shia Islam and Christianity saying that they were just religions. Judaism did not receive quite as positive a review but they did distinguish between the religion and Israel/ the forces of occupation. They said not a word of anti-Semitism in the entire interview.

12.   Would you ever work in a settlement?

All four said no. Interestingly Hosam, who had worked in a settlement, then started speaking to them, I think defending his decision but he did not translate this exchange.

13.   Will you live in Abu Dis for your whole life?

They all said yes but then went onto discuss how they felt they needed to leave as there was no work. I couldn’t tell if they were revising their response when they talked about their plans to move or if it was more of a day dream amid the realisation of being stuck here. All four had set their sights on different places. Germany and Dubai for two of them – they seemed to have more of a plan. One said Ramallah and another said Afghanistan as a joke. They all wanted to leave Palestine if they could.

14.   I then asked if there was anything else they wanted to add.

One just shouted out “Free Palestine!” in English.


So that was the end. They then stayed for a few minutes while Hosam took pictures of them posing together. They put their arms one each other’s shoulders and stared proudly and defiantly back at the camera. Just after thanking me for talking to them they went off to play football and I was left alone to reflect on the discussion before my flight.

A few things sprang to mind for me. Firstly, that friendship here in Palestine is a completely different phenomena to what it is in England. The word tribal springs to mind but I certainly don’t want to make it seem as though there was anything hostile about these cheerful and accommodating lads. It’s just that they acted (and it’s not the first time I’ve seen this in Palestine) as more of a unit. They always agreed on almost everything. They didn’t really debate with each other but all seemed to be reading off the same hymn sheet. Many of the people we have befriended here have acted much more devoted and genuine at best, maybe a touch clingy at worst but you can see that they all have each other as their refuge from the occupation and the difficult circumstances of their lives. Friends are treasured more here and I could imagine these boys, as they said, all going to prison together, not willing to let one of them be arrested alone.

Another thing was the mild but prevalent assertion of masculinity. Where in England this may be done sexually or through alcohol, for these kids they revelled in their acts of defiance. The stone throwing for example is I think an essential part of them not feeling powerless in the face of Israel (or even to each other).

My experience with the state school boys has been very different to the private school ones. Without meaning to make a general point about education, the private school pupils who I see twice a week are extremely resistant to political questions. They are not rude or hostile but they just won’t answer them. From Abu Dis Boys School, the state school kids as young as these 14 year olds are in their element talking about the occupation, their resistance and on political parties. With the private school kids, one 16 year old came in one day with Nikki Minaj written on his hand next to a heart, with my state school class, one girl of the same age (who won’t stop giggling during our sessions) showed me a video she took on her phone of the DFLP rally that she attended.

Palestinian spirit is something I will never forget. It’s extraordinary to see them singing and dancing at Gate Jerusalem one day after and before the demolition of the camp. To see the celebration at Hosam Oraiba’s release from prison and these kids saying with beaming smiles how they will throw stones until they die is an inspiration. Everywhere you go people smile and laugh. If you didn’t speak English or Arabic you may have thought we were just having a laugh not talking about a century of occupation because the kids just laughed about everything, the Israelis, the stones, the occupation. They do have an indomitable spirit and it gives me hope that even if the wall stands for another 50 years, there will still be joy and resistance in its shadow.