A very ordinary occupation

first_imgOn nights spent lounging on the balcony with Maher and Nisreen, sippingon mint tea, drawing apple-infused smoke through the nargila andexchanging conversation – partly in my tentative Arabic – I find myselfforgetting entirely  where I am. Where I am is Bait Sahour, in theIsraeli-occupied West Bank, but the adjective ‘occupied’ tends to lapsefrom my consciousness with disturbing regularity. And it’s not as ifthere’s a dearth of visual reminders; there’s the eight metre highconcrete monstrosity of the separation wall snaking its way throughPalestinian land; there are the Israeli soldiers lugging M16s around;there are the illegal settlements with their thousands of houses, eachone a bland and soulless replica of every other; there are theomnipresent checkpoints, erecting barriers between every point of note.I felt deeply unsettled the first time I saw an armed soldier – thecasual way in which he held his gun jarring with its sinisterpotential. The first time I saw the wall, my eyes struggled to take inits size and its ugliness. My first experience of being held up at acheckpoint left me furious and frustrated with impatience. Butfamiliarity breeds desensitization. You begin to dissassociate: thewall from the land it confiscates and the communities it splinters; thesoldiers’ presence from the humiliation of military occupation; thesettlements from how they appropriate and carve up another people’sland. Words become devoid of any meaning deeper than their respectiveOED definitions. A wall becomes just a wall, a settlement just asettlement, a checkpoint just another checkpoint. The real tragedy ofoccupation does not manifest itself in the visible but in the lives andminds of the occupied; so as an outsider it is easy to be blinded tothe sorrows of occupation.Moments of poignancy then take you by surprise. Tragedy slips easilyinto what would otherwise be the most ordinary of dialogues andsituations: Maher interrupts the peace of an evening on his balcony torecall a memory from the first intifada, when, aged 14, he was shot inthe leg with a rubber bullet, knocked unconscious and then beatenbecause he threw a stone at a soldier. Manar’s tour of her universitytakes in the auditorium, the faculties, the monument to students killedby the Israeli army, and the view onto the hill from which the armyshelled buildings, as if each landmark were as run of the mill as theothers. My Arabic teacher oscillates between merry anecdotes of herGerman students to tearful recollections of encounters with the army –feeling “like a sheep” when she nervously crossed the checkpoint intoEast Jerusalem, walking away from a soldier so he wouldn’t see her crywhen he came to inform her that the army had taken her land. Theparallel running of the trappings of a ‘normal’ life alongside themisery of occupation is tragically expressive of the fact that here themisery of occupation is normal life.It wasn’t until I heard Amjad Rfaie (Director of the Social DevelopmentCentre in New Aska Camp, Nablus) verbalise it that the meaning fullyresonated with me: “Everyone here has a sad story. Sometimes it’s asmall sad story, sometimes it’s a big one, but everybody has a sadstory”. The statement has since stood out in my mind for being eloquentin its simplicity, yet ineffable in its implications: as aninternational, you can never fully fathom the grief of a societycrumbling under the burden of 4 million sad stories, big and small. Theclosest you can get is reading the stories, with all their layers ofmeaning, as they unravel before you every day.Like the 27th July 2005, when three houses in the village of Al-Khaderwere demolished by the Israeli army. Last year Israel demolished thehomes of 1,471 families, mostly for “administrative” purposes. Thebuildings in Al-Khader are being cleared because they are too close tothe settler bypass road; the army use the excuse that the residents donot have a building permit. Whatever the reason the action is contraryto international law: the Fourth Geneva Convention strictly prohibitsany destruction of property by the Occupying Power “except where suchdestruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations”.The day after the demolitions I journey to the ruins with a group ofinternationals. By asking “ween?”(where?), while miming out destructionto every villager we pass, we finally accumulate the directions to thesite of the demolitions and meander our way through Al-Khader to theill-fated destination. There we are confronted with the sprawlingconcrete and metal corpse of the bulldozed homes. The houses have beenripped out from their very foundations, bleeding a tangle of metalarteries onto the earth.Metres from this wreckage a newly homeless family sit on theirhurriedly salvaged furniture in the cooling shade of an olive tree. Thesmall children, who number twelve and one on its way, shyly eye theirinternational visitors with excited curiosity, immuned by the bliss ofyouthful ignorance. The farmer and his two wives rest in near silence,possibly reflecting, maybe contemplating, perhaps forcing off themoment of realisation and the inevitable question, “What now?” Theirsombre tranquillity is momentarily broken when a settler deceleratespast the scene, orange anti-disengagement ribbon trailing from hisaerial, car horn blaring to signal out his glee.In the face of the wretched combination of Israeli bureaucracy andbulldozers I feel drained of every semblance of utility. Still, thefamily thank us, in apples, for our solidarity, explaining that thepresence of internationals brings hope when it seems like the wholeworld is deaf and blind to the situation here. Their words – translatedthrough a local – provide some comfort for a Westerner selfishlyseeking her validation. Before we leave, the family amble onto therubble remains to strike a disorientated pose, captured on our camerasand allied with a promise to show and tell people back home. The difficulties the Israeli army impose on attempts to move from A toB, saturate any journey with innumerable sad stories. Restri0ctions onmovement in Nablus – the largest city in the West Bank – wringespecially tight. Four checkpoints control movement in and out of thecity. Each of these is an internal checkpoint, impeding movement fromone Palestinian area to another. The Huwara checkpoint, restrictsmovement to the south of Nablus, and is the biggest in the West Bank –an average of 6,000 people pass through daily. But the production lineof the Huwara checkpoint churns out the perverse freedom at a painfullyslow rate: to exit the city you must pass through a sheltered areaencompassing a series of floor to roof turnstiles, metal detectors, bagsearches and questioning. Soldiers, many of them just teenagers,control passage: they can hold you up for hours, turn you back toNablus, at a button’s press they can command the opening and closing ofthe turnstile.I approach the checkpoint and filter into the line for women andchildren. As I wait to exit the incarcerated city I watch a soldierease his boredom by trapping a child between the cold metal bars of theturnstile. The imagery invokes memories of snippets of conversationfrom back in Bait Sahour: Maher imparting, “It feels like we’re livingin a prison”; Nisreen intoning, “See how they treat us? They treat uslike animals”. After a passport inspection and routine grilling fromthe 18 year old soldier at the end of the production line, I’m free totaxi back to Bait Sahour, with one checkpoint down and two to go.The day makes good preparation for my trip to the city of Tulkarm. Therecent Netanyu suicide bomber hailed from near Tulkarm, and so theresidents of the city are finding themselves subject to a range ofcollective punishments: floating checkpoints, road blocks, closures. Athree hour (there and back inclusive) journey stretches out into a 10hour road rageist’s nightmare. I count a total of 12 obstaclesobstructing our freedom of movement, including road blocks, and allmanifestations of checkpoints: at one point soldiers march down theaisle of our bus, inspecting papers; we wait in traffic jams to passthrough floating checkpoints, which are temporary and can appearanywhere, at any time. We are held up for two and a half hours at afour way checkpoint at a cross roads, where we observe a soldier trainhis gun at an elderly women while the sun scorches above. It’smonotonous travelling and it tires you out. We sit in buses, in taxis,and on the hot ground before the checkpoint, quiet with fatigue. Once,the silence is broken, by our guide, Mohammed, saying, “This is whathappens every day; all I want to do is go home and see my children.”His voice is heavy with weariness from countless repeats of the day I’mexperiencing now for the first and last time.When asked why the checkpoints, why the wall, why the imprisonmentswith no charge? Palestinians answer, “Security,” permeating the wordwith heart-rending sarcasm. The word sounds no less hollow when utteredby the Israeli soldiers. “Security” is perhaps the emptiest word herein the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). A quick look at a map ora day spent on the ground in the West Bank is enough for thatrealisation to dawn. It’s clear when you watch soldiers arbitrarilyturning cars back in the road, and then driving off and leaving theremaining traffic to its own devices. It’s clear when a soldier at aninternal checkpoint turns your taxi driver back because he happens tobe from a particular village, and it’s clearer still when the taxidriver is forced to take a long-cut (known to the Israelis) which putshim back on the road not a hundred metres past the original checkpoint.And it was clear when a recently retired Israeli general who led thecivil administration in the OPT said, “Of course the wall is not asecurity wall – it’s a political wall. Just look at the map.”The Wall is unnecessarily the author of a thousand sad stories. Itslices through the Ayda Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, leaving manyPalestinians on the “other side”. The wall separates these people fromtheir medical and educational facilities. Cars cannot pass through thecheckpoint in the wall, where people can be held up for many hours. Thechildren are always late for school, the emergency medical services arealways potentially too far out of reach. The tactic aims at drivingthese people off their land and to the other side of the wall.In July last year, the International Court of Justice, the principaljudicial organ of the United Nations ruled that “the construction ofthe wall being built by Israel, the occupying Power, in the OccupiedPalestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem, arecontrary to international law; Israel is under an obligation to ceaseforthwith the works of construction of the wall being built in theOccupied Palestinian Territory, to dismantle forthwith the structuretherein situated, and to make reparation for all damage caused by theconstruction of the wall.”  Yet, the damage continues unabated.Standing on the balcony of Issa’s house, near Tulkarm, I can see outonto his acres of olive tree groves. Each olive tree is imbued with itsown particular character. Their branches contort into the mosthuman-like of expressions; they demand anthropomorphising. ThePalestinian people oblige, referring to the trees as theirgrandfathers. An innocuous looking fence, barely discernable againstthe yellow hues of the desert land, runs across the horizon a fewmetres from the house. The fence is part of the planned 400 mile lengthof the separation wall and this section is severing Issa from hisfamily of trees. Issa can only access his olives through a gate in thefence, five kilometres distant from his house, which is just ten metresdistant from his land. For the olives to be harvested he must call asoldier to open a gate in the fence. Typically a teenager will saunterup to the gate three or four hours later. Issa is then permitted towork the land for two hours. He cannot bring vehicles onto his land: herelies on his own work power and that of his wife and donkey (whosenames the soldier mockingly interchanges). These constraints make itimpossible to harvest enough olives. Most go to rot, ten metres fromhis home. “They say this is for security, but where is our security?”he implores.Whatever your feelings about the Israel-Palestine issue, to materializean opinion on the above, there is no need for recourse to complicatedhistorical, religious, nationalist or political debate. There is noneed to construct arguments for or against why the wall should be torndown, the settlements dismantled, the checkpoints and house demolitionsconfined to the dustbin of history, and with immediate effect: it hasall be done for you. The collective punishment, the wall, the housedemolitions, the very occupation are all explicitly prohibited byinternational law. It seems then that the most extraordinary thingabout the occupation is how very ordinary it has become.ARCHIVE: 1st week MT 2005last_img

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *