Welcome to reality: Life in occupation

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By Sive O Connor

My decision to travel to the West Bank and get a glimpse of life in Palestine was mainly based on a chance to enhance my own learning experience. Having just begun part time studies in an MA in Anthropology and Development, it seemed like a great chance to see first-hand what it is like to be Palestinian and how this word “occupation” impacts on daily life

The word “Palestine” in my world evokes various ideas of conflict, oppression, hardship and terrorism. In my head, the ideas were very illusive and perplexing and a chance to put some meaning to them was one too good to be missed.

Before setting out on my trip, I made an effort to learn more about the history of the West Bank, Gaza and the Israeli occupation. I tried to break it down to get some clarity on what was going on and why, but the more I discovered the more complicated it got. So putting on my anthropologist hat, I decided to wait and find it out from the ground in Palestine myself.

The airport

I have travelled to many countries in all parts of the world but the tension and hostility I experienced on arriving in Tel Aviv was something I’ve never witnessed before. A mix of highly paranoid and intolerant Israelis led to an unpleasant and edgy first impression. One of my first sights, and one that will stick with me for a long time, is that of very young boy and girl soldiers carrying huge guns like handbags walking side by side with people in the street. Coming from a country where guns are a rare sight made this quite a shocking image for me. On top of that, as a secondary school teacher, I am very used to dealing with teenagers but also know how they behave and think and giving them responsibility for such arms was something I felt very nervy about. I later found out the extent of the power these young soldiers hold over Palestinians which made me angrier every time I encountered it and found it very hard to believe.

Arriving in the West Bank was a strange experience and of course the Wall was the main feature of this strangeness. It brings with it an immediate sense of tension. How can people live like this? An immediate question that crossed my mind every time I walked in the streets shadowed by this grey reminder of the occupation. The answers to this question would serve to be a conflicting source of inspiration and hopelessness throughout my visit.

Humans from Palestine

The projects I was involved in, particularly the Humans of Palestine, gave great scope for talking with and getting to know Palestinians. The aim of this project is to give an insight into the daily life of people living in Palestine. The work involved interviewing people from all walks of life and finding out more about them. The photos and stories will be put together on a blog eventually. This work really allowed me to get to know people, how they live, and what they think. It struck me several times when looking for candidates for this project how willing people were to sit down and talk. In all the people interviewed, I never experienced hostility or a sense of aggression from anyone. What I did experience were very open people with huge burdens in their lives that they wanted people to know about. It was very clear that telling stories and unveiling the truth was a source of comfort to these people.

Worries about misrepresentation of Palestinians in the Western media were concerns I encountered repeatedly in these conversations. An opportunity to let people know of how this occupation affects daily life in Palestine was greatly welcomed. The stories I heard during my stay were quite shocking. Like most people I imagine, outside of Palestine, we have no real idea of the daily reality of the occupation on people’s lives. No clue of the unnecessary barriers put in place by Israel, of the misery these cause and of the severe discrimination they encounter on a daily basis. No part of Palestinian life is left unaffected by the occupation, whether financial, psychological, emotional or physiological. Here are just a sample of some of the stories;

An elderly lady looking back on her life in a nostalgic and forgiving way.

-        A successful business woman who built up a life and fortune from hard work to have it taken away after the Intifada. House lost, business lost, livelihoods lost all due to the occupation. Yet she forgives, all she wants is justice in her home.

-        A man who has suffered severe discrimination, jailed for opposing this discrimination, now hopes for peace and resolution. His son and wife raided several times in his absence, scared and harassed. Yet he is not hopeless, he is determined: “This wall will fall”, cautiously hopeful for a resolution.

-       A young mother scared on a daily basis that on her return home her brothers will be gone. Arrested (kidnapped) based on no evidence of anything except age. Apparently being between the age of 18 -30 makes you guilty of Hamas involvement in Israel’s eye. This was a daily worry for many families during my stay.

-    A bright young student recalling the bullying tactics of soldiers at the checkpoints..Taunting her and holding her for 5 hours when all she was doing was returning home. No reason, no logic, just power.

-        A young student who cannot imagine what freedom is..Cannot envisage in his dreams what freedom might be, how it would feel. He has never known it so how can he imagine it!

-        A mother recalling the absence of her husband at the birth of her child and on her graduation due to restricted access enforced by Israel. He has been involved in a peaceful protest in university, was arrested, jailed and now he cannot leave the West Bank.

-       A story of a family who have just had their olive trees burned by Jewish settlers. Devastated and shocked but yet the lady of the family is smiling. She says Palestinians have to smile, if not - what is the alternative.

-       A young man in love and looking forward to his upcoming wedding. His fiancé lives in the next town. He has to give 8 hours to visit in case there is checkpoints..Sometimes he doesn’t get to see her.

-      A parent to bright young children who knows there future lies out of the West Bank. While he knows this is their home and he will never leave, he wishes more for his children, he wishes a life free from discrimination and fear, but that means a life away from their home.

-      A young girl desperate to tell me that her best friend and neighbour was shot dead by soldiers for throwing stones. Upset and torn apart by the loss of her best friend she wanted me to tell people this. Tell people that throwing a stone is reason enough to be shot and killed in the eyes of an Israeli soldier. Water shortages, closed checkpoints, workers queuing from 2am to make sure they get through to work for 9am in the morning; a journey which should take 30 minutes, sewage dumping, tear gas and rubber bullets, no jobs, no land, no way out, all of these reoccurring daily realities in this large open air prison.

Defenceless

This Occupation dominates every aspect of daily life, leaving people helpless and defenceless. People become dependent on the occupier in any area of life. From the scarcity of resources to demolished houses all of these come part of the understanding of occupation. This has been a reality for Palestinians since 1948.

Trying to get answers to the question how do people live like this was quickly followed by how can this happen? In a world that is becoming ever closer to a single place, where international agencies have knowledge and access to most parts of the world, how can this continue to happen? We know throughout history the horrific consequences of segregation in society and the effects of discrimination, so how are Israel allowed to, by international standards, carry out their daily discrimination of Palestinians. In the 1949 Geneva Convention, collective punishment was deemed a war crime and explained as No persons may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. So do mass arrests, restricting the right to movement, restricting water access, and the taking of land not come under the branch of collective punishment?

With no way to defend, no back up, very little ways out, still the question remains: how do people live like this? One of the answers: sumud. Like the olive trees that can be seen on Palestinian taken land, the people here are resilient. They are steadfast, they will not leave. There is hope for a resolution in many, there is hope for retribution among many, there is hope for change in all. The mental strength I seen in the people of Palestine was truly inspiring. To live in a land that is yours, that you have grown up in, but are not free in is not something many can imagine. But the most important thing to the people I met in the West Bank, it is their HOME. Both young and old, regardless of the immoral tactics of Israel, still have pride in their land, love their country, culture, heritage and this solidarity in the people is one of the most powerful weapons available to the people in the West Bank.

Questions

While my experiences with the people in the West Bank was truly inspirational the situation facing them is bleak. Without more involvement from the outside community it would seem a solution is unimaginable. Could there be resolution? Could a two state system work? Would there be acceptance from both sides of a two state system? Where could sufficient influence and pressure from outside parties come from? It needs to be conveyed that the troubles in Palestine are not just a problem for the people that live there. As citizens of the world, it is our responsibility to inform ourselves and take these problems as our own. Information and awareness are the key to this. In a present day world of instant knowledge and an array of communication tools people of the world need to know the truth and find it out themselves. Due to the nature of politics and the media, it can’t be taken for granted that these are the best means to true information. It is this everyday citizen in Palestine that bears the scars of the occupation and it is these citizens that need a voice.

These questions are unlikely to be answered in the near future but one thing is certain. The solidarity of the Palestinian people and their resilience to living under occupation is strong. If 66 years of living a life in occupation has not broken the people then it is unlikely to be dismantled in the future. Peace and justice may be in the far distant future but hope is in the everyday present. Like Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it is done.” Perhaps this hope and solidarity could turn the impossible into a reality. Inshallah.

Working with AEI

My work while in Bethlehem was with the Arab Educational Institute and the Sumud Story house. It included a Holy Places photography project with youths, poster work for the wall and heritage museum with youths, teacher idea exchange, English lessons for the Police and a Human of Palestine photo and story project. The creative and innovative work being carried out by the AEI was very impressive. The projects being developed are very real and useful for the people involved. AEI commitment to encouraging public participation, promoting peace and justice and the sharing of stories to wider audiences is a credit to their committed and hard working staff. Their vision to challenge the wall and use the space as a exposition of the truth could have far reaching impacts on the building of a strong and resilient Palestine.

I would like to sincerely thank everyone at the AEI for their warm welcome. From day one, I felt included in the work and am very grateful for the time given to me by everyone I met. Your work is extremely important and you have given me strong inspiration in the power of unity and faith. I will never forget my experience in Bethlehem and now hold a very special place in my mind and heart for Palestine and its people.

  

Sive O Connor : Volunteer AEI June 2014

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