Ten years ago, I spent my 21st birthday in Palestine. As Palestinians mourn the Nakba (the catastrophe) of the birth of Israel today, today’s post gives you a personal account of what it means to live under Israeli occupation.
Seeing For Yourself
When I was approaching my 21st birthday, a group of socialist students at my University held a talk. They had been in Ramallah on the West Bank in April 2002. They spoke about an Intifada and Oppression and Massacres. I’d heard almost nothing about this issue before. I couldn’t have pointed to Israel on a map.
They showed tanks rolling through residential streets, exploding cars, acres of flattened homes and mile long queues of human beings in the beating sun at military checkpoints while young men and women with guns randomly pushed, shoved and arrested them.
I could not believe my eyes. At the end of the talk, they announced a delegation would be going to the Occupied Territories in June and asked people to register their interest.
Weeks later, I was on a plane with a group of other students, heading to Israel.
The West Bank – Our Common Humanity
Al Manara Square, Ramallah, 2008 (c) Scriptonite
Though this sounds naïve now, it’s important to tell the truth of one’s experience even at the risk of looking rather foolish in retrospect. My first realisation on getting into Ramallah was – hang on, this isn’t a sand pit! I had clearly been given the impression that this was some sort of ‘backward’ place full of crazy savages, best kept away from the civilised world. I want to say clearly here, it doesn’t today make a difference to me if an oppressed person talks like me, thinks how I think about the world, or has the same access to technology as me. But the thing that struck me as a 20 year old was ‘But…these are just regular human beings like me’. There were cinemas, coffee shops, the odd bar (dancing late into the night at Stones Bar in Ramallah remains one of the best nights of my life). There were schools, human rights organisations, medical centres, theatres. There was a society. A clear, unmistakable society. These people weren’t running around frothing at the mouth killing each other. They were just going about their lives. But their lives were limited. Their lives were limited by an Occupation by the world’s fourth most powerful military.
Witness to Devastation
Over the week we visited many Palestinian towns.
Warehouse destroyed in Nablus Old Town
Nablus, a beautiful old town with parts that make you feel like you are walking through the bible. We didn’t have to look far to see the damage left by the Israeli Defensive Forces (IDF). We visited a house which had been demolished. The warnings had come when the Father of the family had gone across the street to his brothers to share some supplies. He had watched as a shell razed his family home to the ground, with four generations inside. Not one member of the family inside the house had lived.
We also spent time in Jenin, where pretty much the entire town had been flattened that April. It was mile after mile of rubble. The birds weren’t singing.
One family, who were living in what was left of their ground floor apartment (it had only three walls, the fourth exposed like a studio set) took the time to tell us their story. First came the bombs, then came the tanks, then the men of the town were asked to circle in the demolished centre. They were handcuffed with plastic ties (like those you’d use on a bag of peas) and the women & children were taken away elsewhere. Both groups thought they would never see the other again.
After several hours and some symbolic shootings, most were released back into the devastated homes.
The thing that struck me most was the quiet dignity of the people moving through the dust and rubble, working together to rebuild. This was the site of a disaster. Hundreds of people had died in these piles of rubble. Too many to count, too many stories to retell.
But it was not simply the people that were being killed. I was stunned to see hospitals, schools, roads and an airport destroyed. I realised that what the IDF was committed to in the Occupied Territories, was not killing terrorists, it was about killing a society. It was about breaking down the institutions, facilities and people that make up a society.
Watch a documentary on the Jenin Massacre here.
The Night the Sky Burned
Footage taken in Ramallah, 2002 (c) YouTube User: RamallahFirst
On our final night in Ramallah, we held a concert with our friends. We each performed a song or some little act. We smoked, we drank a little, and we rolled up into our sleeping bags and thought about going home.
All of a sudden, we were woken up and told that the IDF were coming into Ramallah. We could stay in the youth centre or we could distribute ourselves among key buildings in the area to help prevent them being blown to bits. It was a no brainer for me. I ended up rotating between the Health Ministry and a media centre called the PARC building in Ramallah.
I don’t think it’s possible to recreate in words the absolute horror that ensued that night. The sky looked as if it was on fire, and it sort of was. Although it was the middle of the night, the sky was lit up in reds and oranges by the sheer amount of munitions soaring through it. IDF tanks went past, shaking the building to its foundations. The windows rattled in their frames. The sound landscape was full of whooshes, bangs, sirens, deep rumbling, thudding, and popping.
One of our delegation disappeared into the bathroom to throw up. I stood looking out of the windows of the high PARC building at a skyline I had never seen, a skyline of an invasion. We had the idea to turn on the news so we could see it being reported. We went from channel to channel among the English speaking news outlets, but there was nothing on this invasion.
Then we got to the BBC, and a reporter based in Jerusalem said ‘And it is a quiet night in Ramallah, with Israeli forces returned to the city gates’. These words have never left me. I was in the middle of a complete military onslaught, with tanks and helicopters firing into a residential are full of civilians and realised that if I had not been there, I would not have known it was happening.
It was not that the situation in Ramallah was not being reported, it was the fact that it was being misreported that angered me most.
The following morning, we were given the choice to go home via the British Consul, or stay. It was our due day to leave. About half the delegation left, but I felt it would be, for me, the highest order of hypocrisy and cowardice to leave then. We had come on a delegation to show solidarity with the Palestinians, to better understand the situation on the ground and report back to the UK. So, what on earth were people doing leaving the moment the Israeli’s invaded? Given it was now clear the BBC were not going to inform people at home know what our taxes were being spent on, it was on us to tell that story.
We stayed for a further ten days before we needed to return to Britain. It was the best and worst time of my young life. I met incredible people, I travelled through beautiful landscape, I ate incredible food, I heard stories, I felt at one with the world, I felt like I was becoming an adult. I also genuinely thought I would die at several points, in explosions, and being shot at near a checkpoint. I had my heart broken several times over by stories of suffering I could hardly bear.
A Duty to Report Back
Since then I have been back to the place several times, sometimes for a month, sometimes for a few days. But it remains a special place for me, not simply for some geo-political reason. It is special because I count Palestinians among my friends, and I have been inspired by Israelis working for peace in their own society where it is not seen as cool or popular, but akin to treasonous. In particular, I spent some time in Gaza -in Khan Younis, Jabaliyah camp and Gaza City.
Gaza is different. Gaza and Ramallah are about as different as Gaza and London. Even then it was more religiously observant than Ramallah, it was more conservative. The UN accurately describes Gaza as the world’s largest open prison. 1.7 million Palestinians have been confined within the borders of their town. The Israeli’s simply built prison walls around it. You even get a separate passport stamp when you go into Gaza so you can’t lie about it when you get back to Ben Gurion airport and try to leave. The one constant was the quite incredible hospitality of the Palestinians, keeping us safe, fed and sharing their stories.
We were smoking hobbly bobbly and talking into the night with a group of Palestinians on the beach one night, and suddenly the sky was full of a sound I’d never heard. The only similar thing I’d heard was a NASA space launch, a deep whooshing bassy sound so loud it made it impossible to speak as we couldn’t hear each other.
The sky was entirely black but the sound came in from the sea and over our heads. Finally I heard what Nabeel was shouting in my ear ‘Apache! Apache!’
People didn’t go running in all directions like in the movies. We all simply looked up at the sky in complete shock. Then a small blue-white light appeared out of the guts of one of the Apache helicopters that we could hear but not see, so it seemed simply to appear in the sky like a shooting star. It made an arc in the sky. The apaches already out of range, there was utter silence. We watched the light in silence from the beach, bodies turning in sync to see the light dip finally into the skyline. Uncomfortable seconds later, an explosion shook the air and the skyline burned red. It wasn’t until the following morning that we could get to the site and see a destroyed residential building, and a new family bereft with their grief.
It Has Continued Ever Since
The ‘Apartheid’ Wall which Israel has built around Palestinian towns and cities
Every day of every year since my 21st birthday, the people I met have lived under that occupation. Their homes have been bulldozed by IDF bulldozers to make way for Israeli settlements, their olive groves and farms have been destroyed or simply stolen, their families remain segregated in separate areas of the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
Each city and town of Palestine has since been confined behind an Apartheid Wall. Israel has literally, in defiance of several UN resolutions, built a wall around Palestinian cities. This wall is permeated in spots by inhuman checkpoints, controlled by the IDF, that resemble the control gates in farms used for cattle. A floor to ceiling steel turnstile which people queue behind, present their credentials to a camera and receive either a green light, or a red light. No human being is seen. It is, even as a visitor, knowing you are going home, knowing that you are not the target, the most dehumanising experience.
So when I turn on the news and see people shooting rockets out of Gaza. I think ‘That’s horrible, but it is not irrational. It’s not psychotic, mindless violence’. It is the most rational thing in the world, in context. You know how I know this? Because if Israel has the right to defend itself from rockets, then Palestine has the right to defend itself from occupation.
The solution is clear; it has been clear for decades and is the stated policy of Israel, the US, Europe, The Arab League (including Iran) and Hamas. A two state solution based on the 1967 borders, a free Palestine. Yet, not one day since 2001 has Palestine been free from occupation. When ceasefires are in place, which they have been for extended periods, Israel gets peace. But Palestine doesn’t get freedom. The bulldozers, the settlement building, the farm destructions, the checkpoints, the wall, the blockade of Gaza’s supply lines – these all remain. There will be no peace, and there cannot be peace, until the Israeli Occupation is over. To call for a cessation of arms, without a cessation of the occupation is to call for order over justice. You cannot have peace without justice, because oppressed people will simply not tolerate oppression, they will always seek to overcome. The single best thing Israel can do to secure its peace, is give justice to the Palestinians. Many on the ground in Israel realised this long ago and work tirelessly to impact their government and their fellow Israelis. The day their voice is heard and heeded, is the beginning of the end for this on going crisis.