Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Normality Under Occupation

IDF watchtower at Checkpoint 300, Bethlehem

When I first arrived in Palestine, some of the earliest advice I received on how to make the most of the trip was to engage with the  people I met on a ‘human level’. Of course, the ongoing conflict and tension in the region was something with which we and not least the Palestinians themselves were well acquainted with. The challenge of the trip was therefore to dig beyond the bluster of politics and war to discover the human stories that were often lost behind it.

    While the occupation was a preeminent part of Palestinian life, especially given the ongoing Gaza conflict at the time I was there, we had to remind ourselves that our host families and volunteer colleagues had careers, ambitions and hopes beyond the immediate political problems. 

      Indeed, a consistent request from many of the people we met was to go back home and tell people how ‘normal’ Palestinians actually are; they want to study and work and party just like me. The occupation, the war and the fighting was all just by the by, life goes on.

    However, the more time I spent hearing about daily life in Palestine it dawned on me that it cannot perhaps be so neatly separated from the issues that derive from the Arab-Israeli conflict. This was nowhere more true than in my conversation with my host mum Dana. She was in her late 50s and had lived all her life in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Dana confessed that life there was hard. In a wider conversation about the current atmosphere, she gave a fleeting glimpse into how the conflict has and indeed was affecting her personally. 
Separation wall in East Jerusalem

Dana made the most beautiful embroidery, personally stitching all manner of items from pillowcases to purses. She made her living out of selling these gifts at various exhibitions or markets in the local area. She told me that one such event was due to be held later that month in Nazareth, the biblical town just north of the West Bank in Israel ‘proper’.

However, Dana’s livelihood, like that of so many of her fellow Palestinians, lies squarely at the mercy of the Israeli authorities who in this case had flatly refused her a permit to travel to Nazareth (with no explanation). In such a way, it appeared to me that Dana’s ‘normal’ life cannot be clearly distinguished from the complexities of the conflict. When someone’s very opportunity to earn a living is reduced to a piece of necessary documentation sparingly given out, what chance is there for a ‘normal’ life?

This is a story which even after only 24 hours on Palestinian soil revealed itself as far from unique. The West Bank is peppered with Israeli checkpoints which regulate entry to and exit from various Palestinian towns entangled within them. The only way this tactic of Israeli occupation can be explained is to imagine the Palestinian run towns as islands floating in some kind of archipelago of ethnic tension. In between them lie the ever encroaching Israeli settlements which (illegally) take up previously Palestinian land.

As a result, Palestinians cannot approach certain land without the proper documents. The Palestinian towns are essentially walled off and entry/exit is strictly controlled by Israeli army checkpoints. Meanwhile roads only allowed for the Israeli settlers criss cross the disputed land freely, under protection from the Israeli Army. Should a Palestinian car want to travel to another town in the West Bank however, they must circumnavigate the areas closed off to them, often doubling or tripling the journey time they previously enjoyed. 

Al Shuhada street, Hebron: a net protects Palestinians below from excrement and rubbish thrown by Israeli settlers living above them
This makes for a bizarre juxtaposition of freedom and control, where the opposite life is frustratingly close. To drive under the very roads restricted to only Israeli cars with a Palestinian is an almost inexplicable experience. I got the feeling of such a psychological distance existing between the two communities, living such different lives while also frustratingly close to one another. When Palestinians must endure this testing dichotomy, what hope is there of a ‘normal’ life?

An Israeli settler's lookout watches over a young Palestinian boy's house in Hebron. The two communities are so closely intertwined in this area that tension is consistently high. The boy told us that he had to watch Israeli settlers storm their house and beat their baby brother with a fire extinguisher.

       Aside from the lack of freedom to work or even to move carried by Palestinians, no other restraint was more shocking than the politics of the water supply to West Bank homes. The scarcity of water was a key theme throughout my time in the region but it is particularly important to mention here. Since Israel controls the supply, Bethlehem residents receive water one out of every seventeen days and must therefore carefully conserve it in between these times. This can therefore lead to poor sanitation in West Bank towns but more than this, contributes to the psychological attrition that comes with having to remember how scarce something as basic as water is.

To constantly live in the fear of a shortage of water must be exasperating and unimaginable for the luckier amongst us. This is made worse by the fact that Palestinians experience this reality in full knowledge of how green the grass is on the other side, quite literally. The average Israeli settler receives and consumes 4 times more water than their Palestinian equivalent, enjoyed at a subsidised price.

A controversialist may say that this is a deliberate tactic employed to wear down an already deflated Palestinian population. I’d like to think that the Israeli regime has more humanity than that, but then again, stranger things have happened. So finally, when exposed to this water apartheid, how can a ‘normal’ life ever be possible?

The grouping here of Dana’s story, entry and exit issues and the problem of water supply is not coincidental but presented in such a way because they made me think about basic humanity in such inhumane conditions. All these observations made in the West Bank represent things I take for granted in the UK. Freedom to work, freedom to move around and even just to have a consistent and indeed apolitical water supply. 

To me, these issues are overwhelming evidence to show how, in fact, that ‘human level’ cannot be separated from a conflict that shapes the very social fabric that Palestinians experience. So if you talk about the hope of peace, a cynic could quite justifiably ask how it is possible when human lives are, even at their most fundamental level, moulded by war. What chance is there for a basic humanity in a place where there is so little respect for it?

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