The Palestinian trek from dehumanization to defiance


Jerusalem – Sometimes you best understand big political issues through the lens of ordinary, everyday events. On a recent trip here, I was making my way by car from Ramallah, in Palestine, to the bridge over the Jordan River, via Israeli-occupied Arab East Jerusalem. As our car neared the small airport at Qalandiya, north of Jerusalem, we ran into a massive traffic jam, caused by one of the new checkpoints that the Israeli army had erected on the main road between Jerusalem and Ramallah. The Israeli army had placed several large concrete blocks in the middle of the road, forcing cars to slow down and wind their way through the checkpoint. The pressure of the traffic in both directions immediately caused a massive gridlock, bringing movement to a standstill. Traffic backed up in both directions for well over a kilometre, and the junction was virtually impassable. The Israeli soldiers were not checking for security or anything else; they just stood by and watched.

Most of the Palestinians who pass through this junction simply have to wait in their cars until the traffic pressure eases, often requiring an hour or two to make the Jerusalem-Ramallah trip that normally takes 20 minutes. Many people leave their cars on one side of the checkpoint and walk through the mess to the other side, where they get into other cars, buses or taxis and continue their trip. Having to get to the bridge before it closed, I left my taxi on the Ramallah side of the checkpoint and walked for about 25 minutes in the hot early afternoon sun until I reached the Jerusalem side, where I took another car to the bridge. Hundreds of Palestinians were making the same journey on foot across the checkpoint, finding this more efficient than waiting an hour or two.

The important thing is not the irritation and inconvenience that the Palestinians feel due to such petty obstructions by the Israeli army of occupation, but rather the political and emotional response that such irritation brings about in the minds of the Palestinians. I felt it myself that day and on other recent occasions when I shared the daily inconveniences that the Palestinians experience under occupation. The significant emotional-political sequence of events is as follows: when you first hit the massive traffic jam, you feel angry because your trip will be delayed. Then you get slightly concerned or worried because you might miss an appointment or a travel deadline (in my case, the closing of the bridge across the Jordan River). A few moments later, you start to adjust to the reality of the situation, realising that there is nothing you can do, for Israeli occupation troops are standing nearby with guns at the ready. You either have to wait, or walk the dusty streets in the hot afternoon sun, dragging your suitcase behind you.

You then feel dehumanised and degraded, having had your freedom as a human being totally curtailed and your rights of free travel in your own country totally disrupted. You feel very small, very vulnerable. So you start to walk, angry at the Israelis for causing you such an annoyance. You still largely focus on the material and logistical side of this encounter with the colonial reality of the Israeli occupation and its consequences. You feel bitter anger and outrage at Israel, as you walk in almost total helplessness.

But, as you walk more, and as you share the ordeal with hundreds or even thousands of other Palestinians who are also walking around the checkpoint traffic jam, your emotions and perceptions start to change quickly. After ten minutes or so, you realise that the walk is not such a problem; in fact, it is politically invigorating. Your anger against the Israelis changes to a kind of proud defiance. You realise that the Israeli occupation has inconvenienced you; but more important is your sense that you have digested and discounted the Israeli tactic, and you have continued your daily life in your own land. You feel strong solidarity with the other Palestinians who have to put up with these Israeli policies.

You soon also realise that your walk is not the despondent march of a defeated man whose head is down in humiliation; rather, you come to see your walk as the victory march of a proud human being who walks with head held high, who has taken the occupier’s every blow and humiliation and continues to struggle for his own freedom and dignity. The hot, dusty trek has been transformed from a symbol of Palestinian helplessness and pacification to a symbol of Palestinian defiance, resistance and pride. As you near the end of this forced walk, you feel the satisfaction of a small victory.

The Israeli occupation troops nearby in their cement bunkers, surrounded by their guns and communications equipment, suddenly seem like sad figures, alien to the landscape, fearful for their own lives and very much aware of their own vulnerability as soldiers of a colonial occupation whose days are numbered. The Palestinians waiting for hours in their cars, or trudging through the streets and fields, seem oddly much more at ease, more willing to endure the petty hardships and humiliations that the Israeli occupation forces upon them. The Israelis have to wear helmets and flak jackets; the Palestinians have to wear nothing more than their strong self-assurance.

This is a daily occurrence here and at other checkpoints and roadblocks set up by the Israeli occupation army. The Palestinians have long complained of the petty annoyances and irritating humiliations they feel from such practices, which seem totally devoid of any security issues. The aim seems to be primarily to make the Palestinians suffer the pain and humiliation of being occupied, with two possible goals in the minds of the Israelis: after the Palestiniaaleruffer enough, they will stop resisting the occupation and become politically docile, or they will give up and emigrate to other countries.

The important thing the Israelis should appreciate is that their policies seem to have exactly the opposite effect. The Palestinians are neither becoming more docile nor emigrating in large numbers. The net result of such daily encounters between the occupier and the occupied is to enhance the political determination of Palestinians to resist the occupation by all means, in order to achieve liberty, political independence and full human dignity.

What happens at these daily encounters is a major driving force for the current Intifada. Israelis would do well to delve into this matter more deeply if they seek keys to unlocking the current cycle of violence. They should realise several related things: That they have experienced two Intifadas largely because of the Palestinian determination to live in freedom and dignity; that this is a universal human sentiment, also glorified in history several times by Jewish episodes of equally impressive heroism by ordinary people determined to walk to freedom; and that increased Israeli displays of colonial humiliation and degradation of the Palestinians only strengthen the Palestinians’ will to stand fast and resist in their homeland.

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