Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Five Mothers

A young Palestinian boy poses for my camera beside the occupation wall in East Jerusalem

At the time of writing I am due to fly to Tel Aviv in 15 days. It was always my intention to try to record at least some of my thoughts before my visit so as to aid the reflections and the write ups I plan to do on my return. Though I didn’t expect to be writing as early as this, given that the Israel/Palestine conflict has recently burst back onto our screens, I think now is as good a time as any to explain my thoughts and indeed fears before I go to live in the West Bank.

      The 6’o’clock news has provided some uncomfortable viewing at home in the last couple of days. In light of the apparent abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, and not least the subsequent revenge killing of a young Palestinian in the last week, the Western media has since decided that tear gas tinted bulletins are back on the agenda. 

      For Mum there is no worse sight. Knowing that I’ll be living and working around these areas of tension for four weeks later this month has sent her imagination into overdrive, and of course that maternal nagging asking whether I’ll be safe is now a daily ritual. Ultimately, she asks, why do I have to go there of all places this summer?

      But the latest events in Israel and the occupied territories, and importantly how they have affected other mothers now grieving for their sons have helped in articulating my answer to that same question.

     At the start of this week, a flurry of reports stated how tensions in the West Bank were mounting since the discovery of the bodies of three Israeli teenagers who had been abducted, shot and then buried in the village of Halhul. Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frankel were both sixteen years old, Eyal Yifrach was my age, nineteen years old. Their untimely deaths have since stoked a plethora of different reactions amongst Israelis. On the one hand, we’ve seen somber mourning at their joint funeral whilst at the other end of the reaction spectrum, air strikes have rained down on Gaza since Sunday night.

     Amidst the strong but somewhat predictable rhetoric of their Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel as a nation has closed ranks in light of what they perceive to have been a merciless attack on their people. Indeed, the killings have provided Netanyahu with an open goal with which to undermine the newly formed unity government between Fatah and Hamas in the Palestinian Authority. 

   In effect, the atrocities committed by those believed to be associated with Hamas act as a vindication of the Israeli government’s rhetoric. The oft quoted assertion that Abbas and the moderate Fatah are cooperating with unpredictable and bloodthirsty terrorists is now presented as immediately more conceivable.

Entangled by his various pressure groups, not least an Israeli public keen to see justice done, Netanyahu has himself tragically contributed to the cyclical surge of violence in the West Bank and Gaza. The air strikes are only one aspect of what seems to be a broader phenomenon of the collective punishment of Palestinians by Israel. Alongside the rioting that is so unfortunately familiar to the region, the IDF has this week continued its infamous tactic of house demolition. Houses disappear, civil liberties are restrained and lives are lost all for little more than simply being Palestinian. Human empathy seems like a distant concept in the West Bank.

Horrible enough in itself, this broader theme of collective punishment culminated in a more personal, tragic crescendo this morning. It has been reported that a Palestinian boy, Mohamed Abu Khadair has been found dead in a suspected revenge killing that has now added another worrying dimension to the fraught situation. Khadair was, like some of the Israeli victims, only 16 years old. What hope can there be for a region in which young boys like these are used as pawns, tragically caught up in a cyclone of nationalist paranoia and retribution?

Behind these harrowing stories, however, there lies a shred of humanity. Responding to the suspected revenge killing, the uncle of Naftali Frenkel, himself this week stricken with unimaginable grief has condemned the murder of Khadair. His words reflect an oasis of calm and tremendous humility in a week where ethnic and religious divisions have explicitly resurfaced:

‘’There is no difference between (Arab) blood and (Jewish) blood. Murder is murder’’

Reading this made me think that for all the bluster on this week’s news, behind the tear gas and the clunking of stone missiles, four mothers are waking up this morning without their sons- an emotional bond so basic to our human condition that no sentiment of nationalism or ethnicity could ever rival it. Grief is universal and all pervading; it does not stop at arbitrary borders or military checkpoints. People are mothers and sons before they are Arab or Jew.

So what do I tell my mum, a fifth mother, who unlike the others still has her son? I tell her that I have travel insurance. I have the support of the organisation I’ll be working with. Most of all, I have a plane ticket home. I can leave the West Bank and the problems it faces. I can come back to my peaceful Lancashire village and forget the burdens which all citizens of the West Bank have to carry every day, not least at this moment of tension. Yet where can fellow teenagers growing up in that region, like those found dead this week, escape to? That is how I explain to my mum why I want to go

Whether I can ever really connect with the experience of people in the West Bank is indeed doubtful, but this won’t stop me trying. If I can begin to understand even just a fragment of what it must be like to live in that most unique of areas, then my trip will be worthwhile.

**This entry was written before travelling to the West Bank. Reading this on my return, I recognize the potential inadequacies and half stories in light of all the insights I gained whilst away. However, it is included here as an example of how my perspective may have changed when compared with later writing.**

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