It has been many months since I last wrote anything that I believe would be a contribution toward the struggle of Palestinians for freedom, independence and most importantly justice. I found that my inability to write was part of both an inner and external struggle as a deep sadness has been rooted in my heart and for so many months weaved itself around me – body and soul. Since September 2000, the outbreak of the Palestinian struggle for independence, the Al-Aqsa Intifada, I have born witness to the rape of a nation, people and land. In my thirty-one years on this earth I have gone though many struggles — beginning as a young girl to womanhood to belonging to a ‘minority; and being a firm and strong believer and follower of feminism. However, nothing in my thirty-one years prepared me for witnessing the rape of a nation and what I truly believe is outright ethnic cleansing of a people – all in broad daylight and on prime time TV.
I first came to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) in June 1987, about a year before the outbreak of what is called the first intifada (uprising). It was then that my parents decided that it was time my sisters and brothers and I ‘understand’ the Palestinian culture, way of life and to learn Arabic. Being young and rebellious, I was adamant on not going back home. Daily – with the volume as high as it can go, I listened to Bruce Springstein’s ‘Born in the USA’ over and over again. It was funny how all the neighborhood children memorized the words and would gather around my bedroom window and sing – pretending to play guitar and drums in the air. It is sad to say that those activities were the highlight of my life at that time. However, because these were the summer months and time was spent mostly at home as relatives and neighbors came to see ‘the Americans’, I had yet to know and understand the meaning of living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
At the end of 1988 the first intifada broke out. By that time I had made friends at the Quaker run Friends Girls School (FGS) in Ramallah where I was studying and taking part in extracurricular activities that helped me ‘adapt’ to living here. However, in December 1988, at the outbreak of the Intifada, the Israeli government forced shut all the schools, including kindergartens and universities. That was my first taste at collective punishment and at the violation of basic rights such as the right to education. FGS decided on an alternative program to allow students to continue their education. Students would go to school and pick up homework and submit homework from the previous day – this went on for one year when my parents decided that this form of education is not suffice and decided to return to the US. Unlike my fellow classmates, I had the ‘opportunity’ to continue my education elsewhere.
It was during this time that I really began to understand what ‘occupation’ meant – basically someone else (in this case the Israeli government) controlled every aspect of your life. This meant that if the Israeli government decided to impose curfew – I was not allowed to go to school, to see my friends, to even go to the corner store. Curfew had a different meaning than that of what I was used to in the US – meaning that anyone under 18 years of age had to be home before 10:00pm for his or her own safety. Curfew imposed by the Israeli government only for Palestinian cities, towns and refugee camps meant that no one – adult, minor or child could step outside the door of their home even for medical emergencies and food. I learned what it meant to be a prisoner in your own home – under house arrest – just for being Palestinian. Whenever I had a chance to go to school, I would later follow my older sister to Al-Haq, a human rights organization in Ramallah. It was there that I discovered what had happened in South Africa, Sri Lanka, El Salvador and Guatemala. I think I was the youngest person there but I began to learn of my identity and developed a love for reading and poetry. I was introduced to the writings of Edward Said (I always had a dictionary next to me), Nawal El Saadawi and poets and literary writers such as Salma Khadra Jayyusi, Mahmoud Darwish, Fadwa Tuqan and Khalil Jubran Khalil. Those became the highlights of my days as I waited for the return to the US.
Upon returning to the US – I felt that I had a lot to say to my friends that I left behind – there were so many things that I lived through and witnessed. I felt that I had to tell the world what I saw and heard. Friends and classmates had their own lives and talking about Palestine did not interest them – it was a world away. I felt out of place – I was more serious, I had to read the daily papers and listen to the news so that I know what was happening in a far away land that had become such an important part of me. A place that helped me shape my identity – a place that played an integral part in the woman I was to become.
Less than ten years later I made one of the most important decisions in my life. In August 1996, I returned to Palestine to live. What I had been witness to in my real life crash course of illegal occupation in the late 1980’s had ingrained in me a need to see justice and see the Palestinian people live free and dignified lives. A few months after my return I again bore witness to horrific and repelling actions, again by the Israeli government against the Palestinian people in what is now called the Jerusalem Tunnel Massacre. Living in the city of Jerusalem, I actually heard the gunfire, saw the unhesitant fingers of Israeli soldiers continuously pressing the triggers of their M16 rifles aimed at Palestinian women, men and children running for their lives. I saw bodies covered with blood rushed out of the area – each body held by several young men because the Israeli’s prevented ambulances from reaching the injured, many of whom died of their wounds because of the inability to access medical assistance. Some bodies laid in public for sometime because people were afraid to assist them because of the trigger-happy Israeli soldiers and police. That is a day that I will never forget and still haunts me many years later.
Hoping and believing that things would get better, I began to make Israeli friends believing that one day we would live side by side – each of us in our state and each of us living in dignity. The hope began to slip away as daily violations against basic rights of Palestinians continued. The lack of action by the Israeli peace camp began to draw me away from some of the Israeli friends I had made – as I questioned their inaction to their government’s clear policies of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. However, those that I kept in touch with worked tirelessly, firmly believing and acting upon Dr. Martin Luther King’s saying, ‘There comes a time when silence is betrayal’.
Believing that the ‘situation’ cannot get any worse, I was struck with a hard and powerful blow on September 28, 2000, when Ariel Sharon’s infamous walk into one of the holiest Muslim sites created and uproar among Muslim and Christian Palestinians and led to what is now called the Al-Aqsa Intifada. For the past two years, from the Labor to the Likud governments, a kill to shoot policy against Palestinians was adopted. This of course is never said to the public, but with over 2000 Palestinians killed and over 20,000 injured with a high percentage targeted in the upper body parts – no words need to be said. Placing a whole population in an open prison, including children who are prevented from going to school or playing outside – no words need to be said. Assassinating at least 80 Palestinians and ‘by mistake’ or ‘unintentionally’ taking hundreds of lives of others including children in the process – no words need to be said. Re-displacing refugees from the 1948 (historical Palestine) that live in refugee camps again – like in Jenin Camp, Balata and Rafah no words need to be said.
I can’t help but feel that this inner sadness is a shared one with Holocaust survivors as they watched their family members, friends and neighbors perish one by one as I watch Palestinian children, women and men perish one by one. A mirror image of the Holocaust crosses my mind as Palestinian boys and men between the ages of 14 – 60 are rounded up in school yards or open grounds – some tied up and blindfolded and some with numbers written on their arms and foreheads. By orders from the government, men are also rounded up in buildings or outside their workplaces and killed execution style for just being Palestinian.
A mirror image also crosses my mind as we both shout and scream to the world for help – to interfere to stop the genocide. It is sad to say that all of this is happening as the world watches and as Americans we preach about civilized society and living in the 21st century – in a modern world. What right does the ‘modern world’ have to take away the life of Palestinians and by what right does Israel’s ‘democracy’ continue its genocide, ethnic cleansing, displacement and assassinations? As an American, I was taught that democracy means right to life, freedom of speech and due process – all of which lack in what Israel considers a ‘democracy’ as it continues the rape of a nation, a people and a land.
Salam Rahal, is a pseudonym for a Palestinian-American living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.