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.

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