Palestine

MY truth about Palestine – Exploring the Emotional Complexities of Stepping into the West Bank as a Foreigner

I have poured my entire soul into this piece of writing; it was emotional to revisit these points which will never be removed from my heart. We are living through an abomination in world history, ironically during the information age we are trying to be silenced. With some hesitation, but determination to share, this is my most controversial commentary; This is MY TRUTH about Palestine.  

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The ‘truth’ is relative to perspective; this is why I call this, ‘MY’ truth based on my travels to the West Bank, Palestine. My journey formulated from very naive beginnings, I had no idea of the plethora of emotions which would bombard me as a result of my experiences. I learnt so much from absorbing the atmosphere, simply by just being there and I can tell you many things were not said with words, but were felt by behavior and expressions.

I debunked many misconceptions. The first thing I learnt in contrary to popular belief was that not all Palestinians are Muslims. I met many Christian and even Atheist Palestinians. There are a high majority of Muslims who reside in Palestine, but it is not a Muslim state. In fact what blew my mind and I felt very ignorant for not realizing was that the Holy city of Bethlehem (birthplace of Jesus pbup) is actually in Palestine. Jesus was Palestinian, this was profound to me as the theme of persecution prevails. Christians speak Arabic and Muslims can speak Hebrew, language and ethnicity is all interchangeable to beliefs.  There were also different degrees to which each individual chose to practice their religion, everyone is given the choice to follow religious doctrine however strictly they want, hence there were Atheists living in the Holy Land. Meeting people from both Israel and Palestine all I really saw was people – men, women and children, all human beings. Religion was never mentioned to me as part of the struggle, not by a single person I talked too. I was in a place where people believed in different things but it was never a reason to not be someone’s neighbor or friend, this was only due to one thing – the enforced occupation. I felt the saturation of religious individuals meant there was a much deeper understanding of each other e.g. everyone knew the streets may be quiet because it was Shabbat, and it was common knowledge mosques painted onto houses means that family had been on Hajj to Mecca. To me in general this seemed like a lot of respect for each other’s faith if left alone to its own devices because there was unification in the belief in the higher power of God. Religion was not something that divided the people, in fact it was something they held onto, to unify them. I personally did not see faith as the cause of rivalry, but in fact a pillar of hope.

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I learnt a lot about myself as a person by spending time in Palestine. I saw the occupation taking its toll on vulnerable communities, indiscriminate of whether they were elderly, women or children, Palestinians were not regarded or treated like fellow human beings. This broke my heart. It made me angry, VERY angry, I felt hate. I didn’t know whom I hated exactly, probably the institution. I didn’t know how to deal with my mixed emotions, – disbelief, disgust, anger, shame, helplessness and sadness. At no point did I feel hatred towards the Jewish people I know this is far more complicated than that of religion which I have already stated. I have stood beside many Jewish organizations such as, ‘Jews for Justice’ shoulder to shoulder on rallies for justice of equality. I have many Jewish friends whom I love and respect, to generalize them would be the same as someone labeling me a terrorist for being a Muslim, it does not make sense, those that fall into these categories do not represent the majority of both religions. I felt that these ‘differences’ in communities were being exploited to fuel the fire of disagreements. It is a sad fact that religion is often exploited by political even colonial agendas and used to wedge a divide between the people which never existed, and of course the media is right then often fueling it.

People born in to this environment had been conditioned, which comes back to the point of perception. If children are raised to believe a group of people are the enemy the seed of animosity is implanted in them from a young age and they do not question this because of the constructs of society. I clearly saw this in the young Israeli military personnel I spoke to, they had a God Complex given such power over all things and people. Even young Israeli civilians proudly carried semi-automatic weapons through the streets as though they were invincible and couldn’t be touched. Simultaneously Palestinians have had their land taken, education and livelihood destroyed, family members and friends tortured and murdered, they felt demoralized. I spoke to a young Palestinian lady who managed to study abroad and she told me she never knew what freedom was until she left Palestine, she had been so used to living under the occupation she thought it was normal. I was immediately overcome by a sense of shock at what a privileged life I was living, this really put a lot of things into perspective for me. I realized how fortunate I was for my freedom, I was grateful and asked myself why we should allow their society be governed in such an unethical way? But those who do speak up against actions of the institution of Israel are instantly labeled as Anti-Semitic and this is used to close any dialogue before it’s even started. Similarly anyone supporting the human rights of Palestinians are labelled terrorist sympathizers, it’s a catch 22 situation.

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I felt ashamed of being British, the situation today is due to the actions of the colonial regime by the British Empire, or perhaps I was just ashamed to have led such a privileged life and to had not done anything with that privilege to help others. In contrast I was not treated as a British citizen on arrival at the airport because of my Pakistani heritage, which also made me question my own identity, something that I often struggle with. This identity crisis is something the Palestinians also must deal with on top of dealing with the occupation, culture is also contributing factor to their daily lives. I understood the situation a very complex one, and one which cannot be discussed without addressed each factor. I also acknowledged I was merely a visitor to this hell on Earth, and that I would be leaving but the families I met would have to face this reality every day, that was also very difficult to deal with.

By the end of the week something changed within me. I realized the Palestinian people have to adapt to this environment, they live it without escape and cannot let hate consume them, it was wasted time and energy. As humans we can build great resilience through challenging times and hardships, but to impose such burdens onto children with developing minds and little room to create a physiological baseline before trauma is not right, it’s not fair. These families are made up of civilians, not military personal trained to resist mental and physical torture, every day is psychologically and emotionally suffocating. I thought years of desensitization through watching violent movies and music would have prepared me for my experiences but, it was one thing after another, layers and layers of oppression, disrespect and unnecessary violence and humiliation. There was no way my mind or heart could justify any of it. Living under a very complex and heavy occupation, coupled with religious and cultural expectations, they only wanted equal rights and the opportunity to co-exist in peace. I was completely blown away that they insisted on using methods of non-violent resistance and I could not comprehend that this was even needed for their basic human rights in the 21st century, where are all the International organizations and laws to protect them?

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The many layers of oppression have been used to manipulate divides within the Palestinian communities as well as unite them. As a result, they are some of the most hospitable people I have ever met, I received a very warm welcome into Palestine. I had lunch at many homes where I felt like I was visiting family, it reminded me of my childhood memories. I couldn’t even speak the same language as a few people I met but we made an instant connection on being human, first and foremost we all knew what pain and suffering felt like but we also knew love. I recognized they were suffering and they fully appreciated the fact I was there to experience what they were going through in the flesh. I was here to take their stories back to the rest of the world. I don’t believe the media is representing the situation in a non-biased format, the extent of the suffering I saw with my own eyes is not being shown by the media.

Why should we care in the West? If empathy for our fellow human beings is not enough, and I understand everyone has their own issues and would rather focus on their own lives than those across the world, but we need to acknowledge globalization is bringing us closer to cause and effect. Injustices will slowly globalize. We are living through an abomination in world history in the information age we are trying to be silenced, it does not matter who you are, your race, gender, sex, religion or sexuality if you were a victim of the oppression then we are all in it together, we are family and we must fight for our freedom together.

 

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Palestine

Resistance in Ramallah, Palestine

Unofficially recognized as the capital of Palestine, Ramallah is a city in central West Bank,  controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) with a population of predominantly Muslim Palestinians. I was aware of this when asked where I would be going by Israeli security, upon entry into Israel, but I still stated ‘Ramallah’, and it wasn’t received very well, there was hostility. I wanted to be honest and see the reaction, it wasn’t until I read up on the history and actually visited that I understood the reasons why. I was very interested to visit what I came to assume was the political capital of Palestine.  On entering I could see it’s the business district, very modern buildings, men in business suits, it feels very different from what I had seen so far, almost like a bubble. There is also a very strong feeling of academia and professional heritage here. and Usually I love the city but this time I don’t feel like it represents the Palestine I’ve come to know and love, the fields, farmlands and the children. Despite the modern buildings and city feel, I’m instantly approached by people asking me to contribute money towards local schools and orphans, clearly the occupation was still affecting people greatly here too, and it makes me think once again how Palestine as a state could be thriving and independent if allowed to be so.

We visited the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) negotiations office. I didn’t know what to expect but we are given a warm welcome and everyone is very friendly, the atmosphere is fairly relaxed, which you wouldn’t expect as the PLO has been painted as a ‘terrorist organisation’ in Western media. Rooted from their original belief in achieving results through armed struggle BUT as with any revolution this all changed in 1993 after the Oslo Accords where signed, they now believe only in non-violent resistance. Formed in 1964, their objectives have no reference to religion, but are anti-Zionist in nature dedicated to the, ‘restoration of the Palestinian homeland’. Zionism can be defined as a nationalist, colonial political ideology which is NOT the same as Judaism. These points are very important and clearly dictate this is not a struggle based on religion but political movements. You can read more about Zionism here. I was looking forward to hearing their perspective on the situation, I knew it would be slightly different to other Palestinians I had spoken too up until this point.

Entrance to the Palestinian Liberation Office and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Ramallah

Entrance to the PLO negotiations office together with the ministry of Women’s Affairs, which for me was very nice to see, once again a reminder that all struggles are being fought at the same time, human rights alongside women’s rights. Security is tight, there is a retina scanner on the door.

Xavier Abu Eid, PLO Communications Advisor

We sit at the negotiations conference table and have a talk by communications adviser Xavier Abu Eid, he was born in Chile but of Palestinian, this in itself is very interesting, a good reminder there are many Palestinians outside of Palestine, in fact there are 450,000 Palestinians in Chile. His accent is heavy and he speaks extremely passionately, I’m fully engaged in what he has to say. I see behind him is a photo of the Dome of the Rock, I make a quick reference to this in my head, it’s the same photo as I saw in the Security control office when I was interrogated at Ben Gurion airport, everyone respects this Holy Land.

Photo of the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem in the PLO office.

I had been in Palestine a few days now and I had seen families at the depths of despair, not being able to stand up other that acts of non-violent resistance, but for the first time I saw someone with a different energy, someone in the political area with a much stronger attitude not willing to actively accept how they were being treated because they did not want to accept that they have no choice. One statement which made me think was, how can there be a two state solution if Palestine has never been recognized as a state itself? A very valid question, consolidating that maybe we are being fed false dreams for a co-existing future, especially in the midst of the rapidly expanding Israeli settlements. It got me thinking, the amount of land that has been taken is insane and there is no sign of it stopping, are we to believe these false words until no Palestine is left? I completely understood their frustrations for me this talk was speaking out against the shadows. I also came to the conclusion that Palestinians themselves had different views on what the possible solution could / should be, or rather what they were willing to accept after so many years of foul treatment and illegal occupation. Palestinian refugees right to return to Palestine is a big debate in this aspect. If the Palestinian state was officially granted but no refugees could return, would this be an acceptable compromise to Israel? Extremely difficult questions, to which even I couldn’t decide what would be the ‘right’ thing to do.

Negotiations conference table at the office of the PLO.

We traveled to the village of Bi’llin Village in Ramallah. The sign outside the village gave this brief overview – Bil’in model in the Wall Resistance: ‘Bil’in is a small promising village surrounded by valleys and mountains, mediates the road between Jaffa and Jerusalem, it’s one of the west side villages of Ramallah city, with 16 km far away from it. It’s population 2000 people, most of whom work in agriculture, and it’s land area (4,000) acre. It’s people known with their simplicity, goodness and good neighborliness, where they love freedom and peace, and reject injustice and oppression.’

The documentary, ‘5 Broken Cameras’ was filmed here, co-directed by Palestinian Emad Burnad and Israeli Guy Davidi (yet another collaboration noted that this struggle is not about religion or race, but that of human rights). When I first saw this documentary I could not believe this was real and now I was actually standing in the very village it was filmed. Watching this I think is what partially compelled me to come here, I would recommend everyone to watch it to get a feel of the situation. The documentary is about Emad filming with 5 different cameras each with their own story, originally he got the camera to film the birth of his son but then used it to document the resistance against the Israeli occupation. 5 cameras were broken as the village tried to resist the bulldozers and construction of the Israeli West Bank Barrier Wall. Just like the Dheisheh refugee camp, the village of Bil’in is prone to military raids at night, where families are shot and children are taken. This struggle has not been a bloodless one, some have lost their lives which has been covered in the documentary, it’s very clear they were not acting violently at the time.

Award winning documentary filmed in the Bil’in Village

There is a very active ongoing battle here to preserve the right to their homes and land. The very ugly separation barrier wall in VERY close proximity, it feels like it is on the doorstep of the home I’m visiting, trees had been uprooted for it’s construction. I’ told this wall was even closer but due tot he regular protests which take place here, the wall was moved back 500 m. A little triumph in an ongoing struggle, small but significant in providing hope and that the resistance can and is indeed working.

Israeli barrier wall, you can see how close the illegal settlements actually are to the village of Bil’in, many protests are held here against their expansive over the village.
The documentary has bought much attention to the area and there is  much international support for the villagers of Bil’in regular protests are held here, often after Friday Prayers. Support from Irish supporters and Israeli’s is strong because of their own history. My internationals come here to show their solidarity with Palestine.
The magnitude of the wall can be seen from the hilltop, it seems endless.
As we walk outside I come across a tear gas canister on the grass next to the Blackspot Horn Poppy flower which is a symbol for Palestine. Tear gas is very commonly used, walking around
Child from the village of Bil’in, happy to meet visitors.

I saw many canisters and again there were many children. I naively thought these were harmless but I’m told in Palestine they are used with a much more sinister agenda – International Law states they should not be launched from less than 500 m, however there they are thrown from a little as 100 m which can and does result in death. They are quite simply used as murder weapons as is documented in, ‘5 Broken Cameras’. The cutest child breaks my chain of thought as he walks up to me and hugs my leg, what kind of life is this for him I thought. This struggle has been going on for over 10 years now and it will continue perhaps into his life as an adult and he wills stand on these front lines, the life of the struggle will be the only life he has known.

Tear gas canister next to Blackspot Horn Poppy a Palestinian flower.
We were invited to Iyad Burnat’s home for lunch, he is the leader of the non-violent resistance in Bil’in. I felt a great sense of determination and passion has we spoke to us in his Kuffieyah in front of a freedom sign. I could very much feel the suffering which goes on here, day after day I can just imagine how tired everyone will be but that is what they cannot succumb too, they can not give up.
Sitting in the house, it felt more like a bunker but without any protection as we watched a slide show on the types of weapons used on the civilians by the Israeli Military, I couldn’t believe I was actually sitting in someone’s kitchen. The monitor was above a kitchen sink we sat on mattresses. I wish I could stay here and resist with the people of the village, especially after the hospitality they showed us with cooking a traditional lunch for us.
Visiting the tomb of Yasser Arafat very surreal for me, he was a figure I prominently saw on the news as a child. Arafat was the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) from 1964 until his death in 2004. A very controversial revolutionary, love him or hate him, his face is recognized globally.
Portrait of Yasser Arafat on the wall of the PLO office
Arafat helped found Al-Fatah in 1958, an underground advocation for the armed resistance against Israel, he was accused of smuggling arms and staging raids for the freedom of Palestine as an independent state. However, 1998 marked changes in the PLO where Arafat gave a speech at the United Nations declaring all parties could live together in peace, this lead to the Oslo Accords in 1993, allowing Palestinian territory to be governed by Palestinian self rule. Arafat was the president here. he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Israel’s Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994.  Soon afterwards the Oslo II was writtien laying the foundation for number of peace treaties between the PLO and Israel, including the Hebron Protocol (1997), the Wye River Memorandum (1998), the Camp David Accords (2000) and the “roadmap for peace” (2002).
Despite all the peace talks, it was still a rocky road he was confined to his headquarters in Ramallah by Israel after the terrorist attacks in the US on 9/11. It is believed Arafat died due to being poisoned with radioactive polonium but this is a controversial belief.
A Palestinian in my group had refused to join this visit to his tomb as she did not agree Arafat was a great man due to all the bloodshed he caused, as indeed do many Palestinians who follow the mantra non-violent resistance. Regardless of the difference of opinion, it can not be denied, Yasser Arafat was a very influential force in the Israel-Palestine struggle and a very recognizable one globally as a symbol of Palestinian resistance.
Tomb of Yasser Arafat (Palestinian political leader) in the Mukata Compound in Ramallah, Palestine.
As we were leaving, two men came and patiently waited for us to leave, as I was walking out I looked back to see them taking photos at the tomb, jumping up and down, dancing with guns, they absolutely saw him as a great leader.
One thing I really wanted to see on my visit was the statue of Nelson Mandela in Ramallah, unfortunately I did not get time to see it, but in a way it’s yet another reason for me to return, inshallah.
20 ft bronze statue of Nelson Mandela in Ramallah, Palestine, symbolizing the shared suffering of the South Africans with the Palestinians.

As we tried to leave Ramallah by the Beit EL checkpoint we were turned away by the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint simply because our driver was Palestinian and he wanted to make a point, they smiled and waved as they made our lives difficult. What should have only been a 6 minute drive became an additional TWO hours onto our journey back home, but it was just a feel of what is now a daily occurrence for many Palestinians. Even after a very long day, the occupation does not stop, I thought about the Bil’in village and them not knowing if they would have a raid at night, trying to keep their children safe.