I have never seen anything like it. Well, maybe it is better to say I’ve never felt anything like it. When you first land in a place surrounded by desert and you see the sea on one side, and the vast Middle East on the other, it is both stunning and peaceful. From the plane, you fly through clouds that resemble big choleric fists being thrown to the sky, demanding mercy and justice.
Then, you get off the plane and all your senses suddenly change. It is difficult to explain but you feel the history in every corner. You get a sense of war, conflict, and suffering but also of peace, love, and hope. You can feel the true meaning of the Holy Land. It gets to you; it gets to every single corner of your body and soul.
I first landed in Tel Aviv’s airport – named Ben Gurion after a famous Zionist, at the beginning of November. At the time, in Europe, all you could hear about Israel and Palestine was that the conflict was reactivated, it was dangerous, and the Third Intifada was about to explode. So I landed simply hoping I could get to my destination safely.
It was exciting; I was chosen to be part of a study trip organized by a Dutch NGO called Horizons. A bunch of young people from all over Europe were gathering in Bethlehem to get a hint of what the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was all about. The funny thing is we didn’t get only a hint, but we got to experience everything in a much deeper way.
The first thing you should know is everything we’ve heard so far in the media about the conflict is misleading, biased, and depending on the country, manipulated by the State of Israel. I am talking about politics, government, bureaucracy, and not the population itself. I’m not saying this out of judgment or preconceived notions, but as the result of eight days traveling around Palestine, visiting Israel, and meeting and talking to locals. Moreover, my current point of view comes from everything I’ve seen and experienced during the most intense week of my life. And I think all my mates from Horizons who travelled with me can vouch for these assertions, from the smiles and spontaneous tea welcomings, to checkpoints and cold military stares.
Secondly, we should stop talking about the situation as a conflict in the way we commonly understand that word. It is easy to be confused by the term conflict as most of the times, it is understood as war or having to do with war. This puts Israelis and Palestinians at the same level. But we just can’t do this. This is not about an army fighting another army, nor civilians confronting other civilians. It is not what they are trying to sell us about a state protecting its citizens from terrorists – which is a huge misconception because, really, who are the actual terrorists here? This is bigger and older than all of that.
What is going on right now in Palestine has been happening for the past sixty years, and it is as simple as an old-fashion occupation. A recognized state called Israel is unlawfully occupying the land, lives, and heritage of Palestinians, and that’s why it is called Palestinian Occupied Territories. We are not talking about two equal sides, but an occupier and the occupied. We have to keep in mind we are talking about colonization and that’s what most of Western media, politicians and people in general, forget.
Imagine living under occupation, under a constant threat to your life, and those you love. Everybody you care about is under a menace, coexisting with an occupation in the broad meaning of the word. Israelis have occupied every single aspect of Palestinians’ lives, sometimes in a subtle way, and sometimes in an obvious way. They are prisoners in their own land, literally separated from their families, friends, schools, workplaces, and so on and so forth, by an apartheid wall, and by checkpoints. Palestinians, it doesn’t matter if they are women, men, elders or children, are humiliated everyday by rather young IDF soldiers pointing guns at them.
Did you know that in (an alleged) democratic state such as Israel there are people in their twenties and even in their sixties that have never been to their capital (Jerusalem)? Did you know that there are Palestinians that have never showered in a real shower? Something as routine as showering, doing laundry or switching on the lights becomes a struggle. Israelis claim there is water shortage while they rationalize Palestinian’s supply so Israel’s citizens can have an above average life at the Palestinians’ expense. Moreover, Israel controls over 80% of the water supply in the country and the West Bank, and around 60% of the whole Jordan Valley region. But Palestinians keep smiling and living and fighting for freedom, dignity and the right to return to their rightful and legally owned lands.
A notable observation from the West Bank is the huge black tanks on rooftops, this designates that the building belongs to Palestinians. Another astonishing thing is the lack of garbage pick-up services in Palestinian territories, where wastes have to be burned outside the villages. East Jerusalem is a special case, where Israeli authorities collect trash taxes but the service is never deployed, so rubbish is just randomly stacked in sidewalks.
When you walk through all of this awful reality, anger and frustration grow in you. It is exhausting to think how easy it would be to live peacefully and respectfully, and how bad and inhuman this situation is, a situation that has been like this for the last sixty years. As one of my fellows from Horizons said, “this is the (un)Holy Land”, and I think he was completely right. How can we talk about holiness while there is pain, harm, tear gas, canister bombs, landmines, death, orphans, widows, widowers, and mothers and fathers, that have to see their sons and daughters taken to jail or worse, assassinated.
During our trip, we met a lot of people. We went to Bedouins’ lands and talked to them, heard them as they sharing stories of home demolition and detentions. We went to An Najah University in Nablus and talked to students and professors, men and women, about their lives and homeland. Also, contrary to what people usually think, the women outnumbered their men during our stay and our engagements with people in these institutions.
We learned of nonviolent resistance in Nabi Saleh, Battir, and other villages. We also learned about organizations that bring the community back together such as Sumud House in Bethlehem, as well as tear gas attacks to dismiss demonstrations as happens on a daily basis in Aida Camp. We learned about refugee camps that have become near cities, administrative detentions of even minors, and infrastructures and house demolitions.
We learned, touched, experienced, and screamed at the shameful apartheid wall that divides Palestinians lives and souls. We saw how some houses are completely blocked by a wall full of graffiti, drawn for the sake of freedom. We saw many things done by men and women that are not supposed to happen in a 21st century democracy. We saw the humiliation of having to leave a bus in order to walk through a checkpoint just because you are Palestinian and not Israeli or foreigners.
Frustration. Rage. Pain. Disgust. Anger. All of those feelings are provoked by the situation in Palestine. But still, despite all of the evil, cruelty, and madness there is still hope. Hope for freedom, hope for life, and hope for the future.
“Hope is the last thing we lose”, they say and, in fact, that’s the only thing Israel has not colonized yet. Palestinians are full of hope, they are eager to be free; they are eager to reach freedom. They are grateful every time foreigners go there and listen to their stories – that side of the story that most times is forgotten.
They just want life, rights, equality, equity, water, electricity, and health care. Those are not crazy things, and those are not things terrorists would ask for. Simply going from home to school without a checkpoint, without soldiers pointing their guns, is as human want. No gun shots, no bombings, no arbitrary and administrative detentions, and no collective punishment. No pain, and no unnecessary suffering. They want these things like you and I.
While the whole world criticizes, and the peace processes continue to fail, Palestinians keep living and surviving. They keep fighting and protesting no matter how many tear gas bombs are dropped or detentions they have to face.
We keep on talking about a two-states solution while there are not two viable states to build. The only solution right now is the shift into a one-peaceful-state solution: a state where Israelis and Palestinians – Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-religious, and atheists – could live together in peace and cohabitate with equal rights as in any other modern state. Even Palestinians activists said so during the visit, but are Israeli right-wing (ruling) politicians and radicalized citizens going to accept it?
So, if I have to come with a conclusion of my experience in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it is that Palestinians cultivate hope in the rest of the world. Those brave men and women, girls and boys, teach us a really important lesson everyday the sun rises. “Never give up”, the Palestinian wind whispers, “Hold on there. Keep on fighting. Never give up. Keep on walking so someday our sons and daughters are finally free.” As the poet Rafee Ziada puts it: “[We] Palestinians teach life, sir.”
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