Saturday, February 26, 2005

Reflections on Armed Attacks Against Israel

Last night as my colleague Renée and I were finishing up our work at midnight we received a phone text message that read, “Have you heard the news?” We called the sender and a woman explained frantically that there had just been a bombing in Tel Aviv. She was terrified of how the army would react the next day, and she prayed that the perpetrator was not from Nablus, where she lived.

As we hung up, a silence fell over us. We checked online and learned that at least four Israelis had been killed and many more injured by the attack as they waited in line to dance in a nightclub. We could no longer concentrate, so we climbed to the roof of our apartment to get some fresh air.

Outside, the night was quiet and peaceful, nothing like the chaos only 30 minutes away in downtown Tel Aviv. I felt overcome with sadness for all the Israelis who had lost someone dear to them. The silence was striking in comparison to the violent collective punishment that we knew from experience was to come over the next days in retaliation. I was filled with fear for all the innocent Palestinians whose lives would be made even harder. There would be new checkpoints, longer lines, imposed curfews. For some families, there would be state-sponsored incursions and searches, detention and interrogation, and perhaps torture and murder.

We thought about what it must have been like to witness the explosion, the terror and fear it must have evoked. We also thought about the young man who had killed himself, what he was thinking as he walked through downtown Tel Aviv, and whether he saw the faces of those he was about to kill. We thought about the anger and despair it must have taken to push that button and end his life and the lives of those around him.

It seems odd to me that the question of where and how this anger and despair originate never seems to be addressed in the media. Perpetrators of suicide attacks on Israel aren’t even considered people anymore. First they’re “bombers,” and then simply “the terrorists.” But these people, these humans of flesh and blood that once felt joy and pain, why did they choose to leave their families and lives and blow themselves into bits and pieces on a downtown sidewalk? Even if we avidly oppose what they did, we cannot ignore these questions.

Renée stayed up all night writing about her reaction to the bombing, in light of a Checkpoint Watch incident 2 days ago at Huwwara checkpoint, where metal turnstiles have been installed to keep waiting Palestinians in a controlled line. I find her words poignant and illuminating:

We stood for an hour in a mass of waiting people, slowly edging our way forward towards four turnstiles activated by a button which the soldiers controlled.… When the soldiers pressed the button, the metal doors turned and there was a sudden push forward to allow the next person through. The turnstiles would stop at a half-turn and someone would be left stranded between two doors and the side, completely encaged. There he or she would wait patiently until a soldier turned his or her attention back to the gate again. Sometimes the soldiers went for cigarette breaks and left people stranded. One woman holding a baby was stuck between the bars for 30 minutes….

The young boys were undaunted as ever by the humiliating situation and passed the time talking and laughing, but I sensed that their bravado was tinged with anxiety and anger, anger at the humiliation and the injustice of their position. Many of them ended up in the “pen” to wait for their ID to be checked and when I asked the officer why he kept them so long when it only took a moment to ring up about each, he said “They jumped the line, they must learn to wait.” I asked “Is this your purpose, to teach the boys to be patient?” and he replied with a sentence that has puzzled me ever since: “If women holding babies can wait for an hour, then the young boys can too.”

I wondered how he could recognize the patience of the women and yet remain an instrument in their daily suffering. I was frightened by his reasoning.... Of course the mothers will continue to cradle their babies! They will wait forever if need be, but that is not going to stop the young boys from continuing to test the boundaries, and from trying to establish their right to live as equals with the young soldiers who are occupying their country.

For some, perhaps this means having to fight with force, stones or otherwise. But when we see how they live and how they are daily humiliated and threatened by Israeli forces, who are we to condemn them for taking up the only weapon that they have left—their bodies? It is their way of telling the world that the ceasefire had no effect on the lives of people it was supposed to help. The tragedy in Tel Aviv didn’t end a “time of calm” at all! There hasn’t been a moment of calm in the West Bank since the summit. Nearly every other day a Palestinian has been killed by the Israeli army. There have been internationals beaten by settlers, Palestinians beaten by soldiers at peaceful demonstrations, and old men overcome by tear gas. This has been daily life for the Palestinians… How long must Palestinians continue to be subjected to daily humiliation and injustice without retaliating?

I accept that it has been quiet in Israel, but only for those who choose not to listen to and look at what their government is doing to Palestinians. Officials can talk about “reining in the terrorists” but nothing will change unless the fundamental issues of inequality are addressed.

Checkpoints are only one element of the injustice. Renée’s journal doesn’t even touch upon the arrests and deaths that follow when people stand up to authority by organizing protests or refusing to treat soldiers as a legitimate authority. The systematic imprisonment or assassination of anyone actively involved in resisting the Occupation, even nonviolently, makes it a wonder that resistance continues at all.

Many people say that the entire Palestinian population should join together to denounce last night’s attack as violent and cruel. Violent and cruel it certainly is; but is it surprising? How far must people be pushed before they lose it? Can we really expect the entire Palestinian population to mobilize against their extremists and make apologies to their oppressor as the grip around their necks tightens? It is delusional to expect Palestinians to devote their dwindling energy and resources towards fighting other Palestinians in an effort to ensure the security of a nation that has been collectively humiliating, robbing, imprisoning, and killing them for 40+ years.[1]

The past week has been very hard for me. I feel tired. I feel frustrated. I feel disgusted. I’ve become cranky and rude, and sometimes I wish I could spend the whole day in my room under the covers, pretending that none of this is happening. It never lets up. How can I expect Palestinians to act reasonably when I, a foreigner who has been here for less than one month, cannot even keep it together?

It’s true that strapping a bomb to my body is the furthest thing from my mind. So why shouldn’t I expect the same of all Palestinians? The answer is simple: I have a choice. I can leave. This isn’t my life, and anytime I want to, I can go back to my comfortable home in the United States. But for Palestinians, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

[1] Palestinian-American Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh articulates the crookedness of such expectations in his book Sharing the Land of Canaan, p. 107:

“Such is the matrix of logic of the outside world in this day that the onus always falls on the oppressed to explain his position, to prove his sincerity, to justify his platform, to articulate his vision of the future and to truly, truly convince his oppressor (whose napalm and military occupation, whose racist excesses and sadistic regressions have crushed his very soul and reduced him to a fragment) that he is motivated by love and not hate.”

1 comment:

Roadie in Vancouver said...