Thursday, 25 September 2014

Bus 21

A quick internet search reveals the definition of racism to be ‘’the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race.’’ I wanted to include that here, at the top of this entry, to frame what I’m about to write. It may seem disjointed and abstract, but this piece is as much to help me figure out if an event I saw in Israel/Palestine is best covered by that definition as it is to make people aware that it happened at all.

I’m writing this using a scruffy set of notes I quickly scribbled down in Bethlehem on 9th August 2014. Up until this day, albeit about 3 weeks in to my time in Palestine, whenever anyone had said they had been affected to the point of sobbing by what they saw in the West Bank I was immensely sceptical. I found it hard to imagine how anything could ever affect me in such a way and I managed to keep an emotional distance from what I was seeing and hearing.

Of course, you don’t have to be in Palestine for 3 weeks to see sights worthy of tears. Even after only a few days it was clear there were plenty of hardships for people living there. Indeed, the very programme I was on often centred on hearing countless stories of tragic events. Yet one of the most inexplicable experiences of my time there was the way these stories  all seemed to blur into one very sad but easy to ‘package’ narrative.

Put in plain English, in hindsight it was all too easy to shut off from what I was hearing. Recollections of death, misery and discrimination became routine for me to hear and thus became less and less cutting. Talk of rockets and ceasefires became the regular currency of conversation in our spare time when back home it would just be football scores or something equally trivial.

Perhaps my lack of feeling was just a natural reaction to this sort of experience, an uncanny ability of the human mind to just box off depressing items to be reopened at owners risk another day.

Whatever was happening in my mind throughout my visit, one day in August seems to have changed it irreversibly. For it is one thing to be regaled with stories of discrimination and another to see it, and not least feel complicit in it. I will attempt to recall here what I saw that Saturday morning.

I had decided, with an American friend of mine, to take Bus 21 from where we lived in Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Bus 21 is peculiar in that rather than picking up Palestinian passengers who had already cleared Israeli security at Bethlehem’s Checkpoint 300 as other services do, it ferries (unchecked) customers through later checkpoints in between the two cities.

The fact Bus 21 would be stopped by Israeli security further down the route was therefore no surprise to us. We got used to being prepared for security checks everywhere we went and this journey was no exception. As it neared Jerusalem the bus, as expected, was signalled to pull over at a military checkpoint by a waiting female IDF soldier and a male dressed in all black protective body gear. As it came to a stop, the Palestinians on the bus stood up and headed for the exits.

*Not my photo*, sourced from Example of vehicle stop searches by Israel

Knowing no better, with our passports and ID in hand, we mimicked our fellow travellers and jostled in our seats to follow them off the bus. I felt a hand on my shoulder, turning as I did so I saw a Palestinian man with something of a dejected smile. I’ll never forget his almost accusatory tone as he said ‘’you don’t have to get off.’’

We got back into our seats and watched on from our elevated position (an all too powerful metaphor) as the Palestinians formed a line by the side of the bus. The soldier scrutinised the permits they held, weaving in and out between the queue. The Palestinians seemed at pains not to make eye contact with the security personnel as they were inspected, their faces scoured for signs of guilt or wrongdoing.

The soldiers then authoritatively boarded the bus making their presence known with their burly guns hanging from their necks, as they looked under the seats. As they made eye contact with us, we offered our passports for inspection, blissfully ignorant of what was really going on. They returned the gesture with a signal to put them away before they then got off the bus, ushering the Palestinians back on.

That was it. That’s all that happened on the 9th August. To the Palestinians around me, the events were unremarkable, what had just happened was a daily ritual, a way of life in the West Bank. For me, I was awash with hundreds of different emotions all in the space of just a couple of minutes of rolling away from that checkpoint. Confusion, shock, regret, guilt. Why didn’t I have to get off the bus?

As the bus rolled away, I replayed in my head what I’d just seen over and over in split seconds. I had no other reaction to give than to cry. I sat, with a blank mind, sobbing under my breath to hide my tears. This wasn’t me. No other episode on the trip, or even in life to date, had made me cry in any circumstance that could be likened to this. That emotional distance I’d managed to establish so well in Palestine was, in the space of around 5 minutes, completely subsumed.

Perhaps it was the shock of seeing the security process up close and personal for the first time, to actually see people no less than forced off their commute to work to be inspected by a soldier. To see their bus searched for explosives, the whole bus degraded into being potential terrorists. More likely, I think it was my clumsy role in the midst of that episode that really hit me hard.

Questioning why I had been allowed to stay on the bus disturbed me. It was quite clear, even from just the tone of that Palestinian man’s comment why I had been allowed to stay, quite literally looking down on the inspected below. I was a white man holding a little maroon rectangle of British privilege. There is no way on earth I could have possessed the ‘’characteristics, abilities or qualities’’ necessary to want to harm Israeli civilians in Jerusalem. The Palestinian passengers on the other hand were indisputably security risks, guilty before proven innocent.

This cut me up more than I ever thought it could. I watched Palestinians get taken off a bus, lined up, inspected and made to feel like criminals. But maybe that was the problem, I just watched. I was all too happy to sit pretty and wait for it to pass, my white skin and unprovocative documentation a universal safety blanket. The harsh juxtaposition of my privilege and passivity despite the prejudice on display through the window of that bus will always stick with me.

Even now, I find it frustratingly difficult to find the words profound enough to get across just how devastating it was to see one group of people physically separated from another on the basis of what I can only assume was their appearance as, even misfortune to be, Palestinian.

*Not my photo*, sourced from as an example of a walking checkpoint

Reflecting on those feelings weeks after they first emerged, I now think that those tears were as much caused by my inaction as events unfolded around me. I think I started to sob out of an immeasurable feeling of guilt, never before exposed to such a stark display of discrimination. I was sad that even as someone who imagined himself to have a passion for helping the underdog, when it came down to it I was powerless or indeed selfish enough to sit and let it happen.

I can only imagine that if I’d asked the Israeli soldier why this process of separation had to happen, why only some people came under inspection and not others, the justification thrown back would almost certainly have centred on ‘national security’.

The impression I got of Israeli society was one of a community brought up to be so desperately conscious of the threat from the country’s enemies, both real and perceived. No matter how much at least some of the Israeli population may be uncomfortable with the treatment of Palestinians, the line that security has to be the priority is all too often regurgitated.

If this means that separation, preventing freedom of movement and inspecting permits has to happen, it is an unfortunate but necessary process. The narrative of ‘unfortunate but necessary’ was also familiar to those of us following events in Gaza this summer- as regrettable as the loss of civilian life was, the decision to use the full force of the military in a densely populated area was an inescapable feature of the war against Hamas.

Yet whatever the justification, motivation or excuse for what I saw on Bus 21, one thing is absolutely clear- it was fundamentally not right. It may sound like a story that belongs in the history books alongside segregationist USA or apartheid South Africa. Yet this collective punishment of average Palestinians, differential and second-class treatment on the basis of no more than certain characteristics, happened this summer and it is still happening as you read this.

I can’t go back and change what happened on August 9th or solve the issues like it that happen every day in Palestine. But the least I can do is implore you to just read that bit more about what’s going on in Israel/Palestine. Discuss, debate and even disagree about what it all means for the people there and around the world. Go and see it if you can. And then, perhaps one day, stories like Bus 21 will only be known for their place in history books.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

What War Can Do

From the bedroom, I could hear loud bangs from the open window. On looking outside, the sky occasionally lit up with whitish light. Car horns honked in symphony in the distance. I heard movement in the front room and found myself drawn to the circle of my host family that had gathered around the TV set. I asked Dana, the mother of the house, whether she’d heard the fireworks, ‘’yes, you know why?’’, a smile beaming from ear to ear. She told me that an Israeli soldier had been kidnapped by Hamas close to the border with Gaza, ‘’maybe even two!’’ she joyously exclaimed. Meanwhile, in the distance, the news channel had exploded into a slideshow of images showing charred Gazan bodies, framed with the graphics of the missing soldier’s ID.

In something of a muted enthusiasm, the family dragged chairs onto their balcony. We watched in anticipation as Palestinian Authority police lined up on a nearby street corner, preparing to quell the inevitable group of youth protesters. Cars drove excitedly through the dusty street below. An old sedan sped past our vantage point with children hanging out of its window, cheering in celebration. The internationals amongst us stood confused, watching on as the West Bank spiraled into a hurtling frenzy of macabre celebration.

Yet despite being a foreign observer, it was difficult to not share in this buzz of excitement. In fact, it took this piece of news to bring all of my host family together in the same room, and with it a unique atmosphere of camaraderie and togetherness. However, when the heady atmosphere began to fade, only then did I begin to think about exactly what had stimulated this reaction. When a soldier is kidnapped, he immediately becomes a trophy of war, nothing more than a bargaining chip. However, somewhere a family was grieving while mine celebrated. The euphoria of both those in the living room and on the streets outside only came at the expense of another human being- someone else’s misery and grief was fuelling the party.  That soldier was perhaps a father, a husband or someone’s son.  The hangover from that initial excitement I felt deteriorated into feelings of guilt and nausea.

Israeli soldiers at a demonstration in Al Masra, perhaps a similar age to the kidnapped soldier. Interestingly some engaged in conversation with protesters, showing glimpses of human understanding too often hidden underneath their combat dress. Considering Israel's compulsory national service, how many actually want to be there and agree with the IDF at large?

Momentarily I had found myself sharing in that party, seduced by the tribalism that the conflict around me was reinvigorating. What was it inside all of us there that allowed us to at least temporarily forget the humans behind all these headlines? I tried to find justification for that intense feeling of celebration. I had seen Palestinian homes demolished by the Israeli army, children disabled as a consequence of conflict and I had even been moved to tears at seeing state-backed discrimination first hand. 

Yet no amount of horrendous anecdotes of Israeli oppression could shift those feelings of regret for the taken soldier. The oft-used Gandhi quote ‘’an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’’ felt eerily fitting in the circumstances. For just a moment, I had forgotten who I thought I was, had indulged in taking sides and was ultimately blind to the devastation unfolding. More worrying than all of that was the ease at which I could let it happen.

However, this made me think about a true tragedy of the conflict. Such is the complexity of the situation that people there see themselves in distinctly ‘’them’’ and ‘us’’ terms. Each side can sometimes dehumanize an ‘’other’’ to the extent that their enemy’s misfortune is reason to celebrate. The hatred and fear surrounding this ‘’other’’ draws stark and seemingly everlasting divisions between sets of people, so much so that they appear desensitized to stories of their suffering. For me, it had happened only temporarily but it was easy to see why this attitude could become embedded in this apparently Holy Land.

Indeed, there seems to be a particularly stubborn quality to identity in the context of this war. Conflict allows a cover for the relegation of common humanity, to make way for exaggerated priorities given to, for instance, nationality. Instead of considering the human in the soldier’s uniform, by applying a label of ‘’Israeli’’, it becomes easier to shut off natural compassion and keep on fighting them. Likewise, those Israelis who reportedly dragged sofas to hillsides in order to watch air strikes pummel Gaza in some kind of open-air cinema can be seen as doing a similar thing. The Palestinians they saw dying before them were considered enemies deserving of punishment before they were humans just like themselves.

More than this, the kidnapping episode seemed to irradiate the sheer anger and frustration just under the surface of those around me. While those I spoke to were often respectful and balanced in telling their humbling stories of tragic loss, that night provided an undisguised glimpse of how people can respond to conflict in a different way. Like many of my other experiences in Palestine, this event acted as another turn of the kaleidoscope through which to view people in conflict. Essentially, the many inspiring stories of human sacrifice, friendship and resilience were only ever one turn away from themes of retribution and the normalisation of violence.

In a way, I feel privileged to have been privy to such raw emotions on a night like this. It brought into a sharp and unforgiving focus the effects of conflict at the (in)human level. Whether one can blame the Palestinians for such a reaction given the context to that night is, of course, a debate for another time. Indeed, I recognise the generalisations and sweeping opinions I have had to make to try to articulate the feelings I experienced on that occasion.

For the vast number of emotions and complicated thoughts that night stirred within me, I won’t ever forget it. This is admittedly a wholly inadequate and biased attempt to at least report some of those feelings back. Most importantly, I don’t aim to pass judgment here on the attitudes or behavior of a particular set of people, for ultimately I will never be able to fully understand their experience or motivations.

Instead, I think it’s important to recognize the devastating effect that war can have on the human condition. The phenomenon of conflict can undoubtedly bring out some of the best aspects to humanity we will probably ever see. Yet of course paradoxically it can also encourage some of the worst. In a region where one people are driven to revel in the torment and torture of another, on both sides of the bloody division, humanity along with even the slimmest chance of peace appears lost to the chaotic abyss of war with which people in this area are all too familiar.