The Meaning of Home

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Home is the thing that is lost, the awaited return. Home is not a map, nor a birth certificate. It’s, as Mahmud Darwish, the famous Palestinian poet wrote, “your life and your cause bound up together. And before and after all of that, it’s the essence of who you are.” It is the essence of being a Palestinian.

I grew up in the West, born out of a Palestinian background, living two cultures, watching injustice from far away, but feeling close to the land and its people. An inherent identity crisis. A strange name, coming from a land, of which name you pronounce stir debate, questions, and accusations. Growing up in the West, the need to explain and portray the collective memory of your roots is a struggle in itself. Frustrations of watching your brothers and sisters resist, but being stuck in a country that is complicit to the injustice that the occupation inflicted upon your background. Longing for home, but it’s not there.

Living in Europe, with no contact with any political movement, yet with deep feelings about injustice, the Palestinian collective memory became part of me. It was part of me. Still without finding home. This rendering of Palestine was an intensely felt dilemma at the same time as it provided a genius loci for my Palestinian identity. The articulation of home necessitated its abstraction and objectification. The search for home, inherently became a struggle. A struggle against injustice inflicted upon Palestine and its native Arab inhabitants, my family, my identity. The search for home is within me. I carry it with me wherever I go. The history of my people is the road in front of me, the land beneath me.

“Who are you?”, “where do you come from?”, asked when I introduce myself. Having a Dutch, Christian first name, and an Arab, Muslim, surname. I didn’t choose my identity, it couldn’t chose me. I have my own definition and live by it. My life was mixed with times of not knowing who I was, what I was about, but discovered that I was not alone, and I always could turn to my ancestors and family to gain a reassurance of where I belong.

In my mind I answered the easy question. What does it mean to be Palestinian? What is this collective memory. What is the meaning of home? To be Palestinian today means to have been deprived of the elementary right to live in one’s own country. It means having been displaced, from one place to another, and under conditions of complete destitution. It means having lost one’s property, the plot of land which was cultivated, and the home. To be Palestinian means belonging to a family which has been broken up and scattered to all corners of the world. My family, for example, lives in three different continents. Those who have been able to remain in the country feel unwanted there. They are subjected to daily harassment, living under repression and occupation, and otherwise as second-class citizens.

Suppose, for a second, you were born in Palestine. You were born on the land of your father and forefathers, since time immemorial. You were not an emigrant nor were you an alien to the land, a stranger to its people, or a settler, who came to the country. Your family and culture were rooted to its soil. Their homes, farms were their own. You planted your orchards. You established the mosques and the churches. The towns and villages were their toil and the sweet of your ancestors.

Your life all revolves around this one place. You love for the land and its people. It might not be perfect, but it’s the place you call home. And then, suddenly, your entire life is ripped away from you.

Perhaps you were living in Jaffa and you remember the orange groves. It’s the city you can see but not return to. It is so near but yet so far, you’re now outside its borders, lost in a limitless exile.

Perhaps you’re a farmer. Your family have tilled the same soil for six generations. You’ve got a small herd of cows, some goats, a few chickens and a couple of fields that provide wheat for flour and straw for animal feed.

You’re afraid of the attacks and violence. You heard of what they had done in Qazaza, Sa’sa, Deir Yassin, and they continued in Lajjun, Saris, and Tiberias. Your choice was between saving your life or die. They targeted the whole area where you live for an ‘ethnic cleansing’ programm. Basically, this meant emptying the land of its people.

The neighbors were saying that they were going to do to us what they had done in Deir Yassin. They had surrounded the village and were about to enter it. You were frightened, terribly frightened.

You lie on your belly watching helplessly as scores of heavily armed men fan out across your field. They burn your wheat crop to the ground. They kill all your livestock. They take your sons captive and took them away. There were bodies scattered on the road and between the homes and down the side-streets. No one, not even women or children, had been spared if they were out in the street.

They round up all the local men -those who aren’t killed defending their homes and families, drive them to the outskirts of town and shoot them into an open trench.

And then – silence. Except for the sound of your own breathing. Your own heartbeat.

They went on towards town and village, systematically searching each and every home. Anybody they find was dragged outside, beaten, and forced to flee.

It’s time to escape. You’re going to leave behind your home, your family, your friends, your career, your country. Everything you’ve ever known. Throw yourself on the mercy of some strangers in a far off distant land. Far away from the violence, the murder, the destruction. By the thousands they fled. North to Lebanon and Syria. South to Gaza. East to Arab Palestine or on to Jordan. Your life was turned upside down. You were faced with disease, lack of food and water, life in unfamiliar places and overcrowding. With all, you lost your homes, farms, family, and lives. Many crowded into refugee camps in tents. Others lived in caves or in the open. All hoped that they would soon be able to return.

Or perhaps you had a choice seeking refuge or remaining fearing occupation and oppression. You may have been forced to flee a second time. You were scared when they came to occupy and colonize the remaining lands of your beloved country. And then again you were among the mass fight when you and your family were forced to flee Jordan where you found refuge in 1948 but ended up in Lebanon after Black September. Or you already found refuge in Lebanon but were uprooted again when the occupiers invaded Lebanon in June 1982. Perhaps you found yourself there vulnerable to attack, poverty and travel restrictions. If you were lucky you may have survived the massacres in Sabra and Shatila. These massacres shocked the international conscience as few events in international history have done. However, these massacres were only the culmination of a pattern of warfare carried on against the Palestinian and Lebanese people in Lebanon, especially those resident in the refugee camps.

Your parents might have fled Palestine in 1948, eventually settling as refugees in Kuwait, where you, after the Gulf War were expelled and forced to leave, when armed civilians and military personnel roamed the streets of Kuwait hunting down Palestinians.

Perhaps, you were among the 46,000 internally displaced Palestinians, who were forced out of their original homes and villages, and found shelter in neighboring towns and villages or in makeshift refugee camps not far from your original home. You might have remained within the “borders” of what became known as Israel, either in your original village being put under a military rule for twenty-two years, after which you found yourself being discriminated and treated as a second-class citizen or a twentieth century slave, you found a temporary home in voluntary alternatives, living in a site not recognized by the new Israeli administration. You might have lived in an “unrecognized village”, excluded from water, electricity, health, education and infrastructure and became subject to frequent eviction and home demolitions.

Perhaps you didn’t fled but had to live under occupation. Suppose you were a journalist. You write a newspaper article criticizing the oppression of your people. And you’re immediately branded a criminal.

The occupation forces kick down your door at 2am and arrest you. They take you to a cell where you are held for a week, without trial, without access to a solicitor, without the right to even one phone call.

How are you treated? Every four hours they beat you. Or maybe they whip you with electric flex. Or maybe they just won’t let you sleep. Or maybe they administer electric shocks to your lips, tongue, eyelids and genitals. “What are the names of your friends?” You say there aren’t any. They don’t believe you. They torture you. You say there aren’t any. They don’t believe you. They torture you. You say there aren’t any. They don’t believe you. They torture you. You black out from the pain.

Perhaps you awoke from a restless sleep, the wounds of yesterday’s interrogation session still burning. In all, you counted thirteen deep cuts, seven electricity burns and four large blue-colored bruises. And all this because you did not talk. “Who were you working with? What is your code name? From whom did you receive your orders?”

A million questions but no answers. A slap for each unanswered query, a kick for every group of ten, and something special for every fifty moments of silent fear. You perhaps think “solitary confinement is better than the interrogation cell, at least it is quieter”. Your interrogators didn’t want to kill you, they just wanted to see you dead.

Or maybe, just maybe, your torturers decide to let you go. On one condition: You must report to the police station once a week. And once a week, when you show up, you’re beaten again. Or they pay somebody else to beat you up. Or they follow you everywhere. Or you and your family start to receive death threats, by post and phone. When does the torture stop? It doesn’t. They could kill you at any time, but they don’t. First they want to make an example of you. Torture you psychologically, terrorize your children, harass your family, threaten your friends. Make your life a living hell.

Imagine the hunger and suffering with which you would have to contend. How does it feel to have the pangs of hunger mix with the fear of a lunatic soldier with his finger on the trigger. When he shoots, the media would claim that he was mentally unstable and his victims would be forgotten. What about the endless “security” procedures, such as the prisoner count, designed to crush your dignity to dust every day.

Can you imagine that you would have brothers who would be also imprisoned, whom are sick and sentenced for life? Would this suffering be worth of media coverage? Perhaps you would feel the dying of a thousand deaths during your mother’s visit as tears run down her face like knives cutting into your heart?

Would you think that you would deserve at least the right to be heard? 

Would you keep silent? Would you defend your rights and your humanity? How would you feel knowing the utter disdain for human rights in the case of your people?

You know that to live under occupation is amongst the worst of fates. But what do you think of living under an occupation that lacks regard even for those laws governing occupation? Isn’t this to live under a regime that totally scorns human rights and denies the natural rights of a society to live according to its internal laws and traditions?

Wouldn’t you agree that any person living under occupation as the right to struggle for liberation? Don’t you think that the struggle for one’s freedom is a cause stemming from the inherent rights of every human being?

Would you go out and protest the occupation? Do you know that you might be shot by live ammunition, rubber coated metal bullets, teargas and that you might be beaten by clubs? You would hear shooting and shouting. You may see your neighbor, your friend, or even your relative lying prostrate on his right side with blood flowing from his mouth, nose and right eye. Blood would cover flow and cover his face. Remember what the universal declaration of human rights said? “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. What about the Convention? The one that covers the protection of civilians under occupation? Weren’t the following acts prohibited at any time and place whatsoever with respect to protected persons: violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture? Violations of these are grave breaches.

Have you ever been beaten? A former Prime Minister of Israel, who later was awarded with the Nobel Peace Price, announced in January 1988 that the Palestinian protests against the occupation would be quelled by the use of “force, might and beatings”. Did you watch the CBS in late February 1988, when it showed the brutal beating of four Palestinian youngsters by Israeli occupation forces? Did you see how they were trying to break their bones? Beatings have occurred randomly, on the limbs, the joints, and on the head. Did you know that they used clubs, wooden at first, and then, when the wooden ones were found to break, plastic or fiberglass truncheons, with the purpose of causing severe injury. Don’t you see that most if not all beatings take place when the person concerned was already in the hands of the occupier?

A million questions but no answers. Ever smelled tear gas? Of course this has been widely used internationally to disperse demonstrations. Do you know that the occupation used tear gas not only outdoor for which it is intended but also in confined areas, causing serious injuries and death? The US Federal Laboratories, Israel’s main supplier, explicitly cautioned that the product “can indeed cause death”.

Perhaps, following demonstrations in your village, soldiers forced you into your house, and shot a tear gas canister inside. Perhaps your 11-day old by was in the room where the canister landed. You may have had difficulty breathing as the gas spread. Perhaps your family tried to take you to a doctor, but were unable to take you to a hospital because the occupation subsequently imposed a curfew on your village. This may have not happened to you, but it did happen to Muhammad al-Sheikh from Beit Fajjar on 22 February 1988. The baby, Muhammad Samih, later died.

Imagine that your eight-room house was dynamited by the occupation forces. Even in times of so-called “peace” the occupation forces continue to demolish homes, not only in the territories occupied in 1967 but also within the Green line. Since the “peace process”, the secret deception, about 750 Palestinian homes were destroyed, over 400 since 1997, and 175 since Ehud Barak came in power.

Imagine that your home and its remaining contents, along with a number of goods placed within the vicinity, were destroyed or irreparably damaged. Just think about it. You would be left, including your family, on the street to fend for yourself.

Perhaps you experienced enforced isolation through measures such as curfews, closures, and sealings. Almost every Palestinian living under occupation has been confined to his or her home on at least a number of occasions. Almost every Palestinian living under occupation has also been subjected to prolonged curfew as well, in many cases repeatedly so. Did you know that the effect of closure and curfew has been not only a complete disruption of daily life and near-catastrophic economic losses, but also widespread hunger and medical emergency?

A million questions but no answers. And still you are labeled as terrorist. Yet, people don’t understand why there can’t be coexistence. Why people commit suicide and blew themselves up in crowded places. The struggle has been not to become a bomb and on some points the amazing thing is not the occurrence of suicide bombings, rather the rarity of them.

If people tell you that they understand, a culture-shock appears. It has been my understanding that the world out there will never understand. And who on earth in their right mind would understand terror and the killing of innocent people? Why do Palestinians kill themselves and Israelis in such an horrific way at the bus stop or in a crowded market? Does one really want to know? Do they want to come to agree that it is an act of absolute despair and a very serious stage of the seemingly perpetual conflict?

A million questions but no answers. Palestinians have tried everything. All they wanted was to go home. You are given an identity number and a permit to reside. Armed struggle, diplomacy, summits, resolutions, resistance, terrorism, resolutions, revolution, children of the stones, the intifada, summits, talks, declarations, strikes, demonstrations, standfastness, and apathy.

What else could we try? Oh yes, peace. When the news came that Arafat had signed a peace treaty in Washington Palestinians were jubilant. At last they thought they were to get rid of that miserable life of military occupation, at last. So they had hope. They were surprised to realise when there were no more curfews and they could actually spend an evening on the beach or wander in streets which were now ours after eight o’clock at night. There were even elections and thought they had a parliament, so they were told.

Soon, however, the occupiers refused to free Palestinians prisoners, to have a safe passage for them to move between the West Bank and Gaza. They even surrounded Palestinian towns and villages with tanks. They went after holy places and opened a tunnel under the holiest Mosque. Eighty-eight Palestinians and also nine Israeli soldiers were killed because of that tunnel, but they went on insulting and driving out sanity. All in the name of peace Palestinians were humiliated, even arrested and tortured by Palestinian forces to protect the peace. The authority was turning against its own people to please its Israeli patron. New officials were driving in big cars and building big villas. They have VIP cards and cross the check posts like human beings while we are left to rot.

Now, in the period of the Oslo process, that started in 1993, the Intifada has left a romantic revolutionary legacy. The famous handshake on the White House lawn on 13 September 1993 marked the hopeful beginning of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and created global optimism. Although it must be said that not everyone was happy with the agreement, the prospect of an end to the occupation, the recognition of the PLO and the return from exile of the leadership was widely welcomed by Palestinians. In Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank (not counting occupied East Jerusalem) people were hopeful. People were celebrating in the streets and singing national songs. They thought that the historical conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was coming to its end and that a better future was coming from the horizon.

However, Alaa, one of my best friends in Nablus, soon realised that the agreements were more ink on paper and even on paper, the agreements were bad for the Palestinians and good for the Israelis to the extent that it preserves Israeli domination in Palestine and the Middle East.

He realised that he had to guarantee Israeli security. “How can an occupied people guarantee the security of their occupiers? We were fighting for our freedom and our independent state but I realised that we would soon find our selves in microscopical cantons.” Alaa, like many others, thought that the signing of the Oslo Agreement meant no more bloodshed. But two months after the signing of the agreement, Jewish colonists killed three Palestinians in Turkumia and Hebron. On 25 February 1994, a Jewish colonist opened fire on praying Palestinians in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron under the protection of Israeli soldiers, killing 29 Palestinians and injuring 88 others. During the demonstrations, in the aftermath of this massacre, Israeli soldiers shot and killed 28 more Palestinians.

In September 1996, Israeli soldiers shot and killed 65 Palestinians and injured 1600 in various Palestinian cities. Cobra helicopters were used and many journalists and members of medical teams were among the victims.

Four years later, following a provocative visit by Israeli war criminal Ariel Sharon to the holy site of Al-Haram al-Sharif in occupied Jerusalem and Israel’s excessive and disproportionate violent agression against the Palestinian people, killing 350 Palestinians and wounding more some 10,000.

Do you really want to know how this insanity can be stopped? How could the Israeli imposed closure on the West Bank and Gaza, with the majority of villages isolated from one another, be lifted? How can the regular attacks by Israeli heavy machine gun and tank fire and helicopter missiles on residential areas be stopped? What needs to be done to prevent the killing of Palestinians with live ammunition, rubber coated metal bullets and high velocity bullets? What will save our children?

What could have prevented Samer, Youssef, Mohammad, Sarah and all the other Palestinians from being shot dead? What would have saved the thousands of Palestinians from being injured? Do you really want to know? Israel’s 33 year occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza is the all-encompassing violent reality that forms the backdrop to the current conflict. Israel has refused to live up to its obligations under UNSCR 242 and withdraw to its 1967 borders, even though its right to live in peace and in secure borders has been recognized by the Palestinians. An end to this violence will come when Israel fulfills its legal obligations according to UN resolutions 194, 242, and 338, or when the international community wakes up and enforces and end to this insanity.

* parts of this will be published in the forthcoming issue of the Journal Peace Review (Summer 2001).

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