Palestinian solidarity

Palestinians live in solidarity with each other. That’s logical, because they have a common problem, namely the occupation by Israel.

In recent years this solidarity has not been present at all in politics. Fatah and Hamas, the two principal political parties are very divided. But among normal men that solidarity can still be seen, at least, that’s what I experience when I observe the society around me. I shall mention a few examples.

Everybody has heard of the Israeli checkpoints. The situation at these checkpoints is sometimes poignant. Waiting for hours in the burning sun (even when there’s no queue in front of you) is not an exception. Well, as to appointments it doesn’t come up to the minute in Palestine, but you shouldn’t let someone wait for hours, unless………the reason of the few hours delay was that you were held up at a checkpoint. In cases like that, the Israelis are always to blame and your host won’t be annoyed at all. A while ago a colleague from Jerusalem visited the centre. A ride of 1.5 hours took her 4 hours because of stopovers at various checkpoints. After she left, I said: “Gee, why didn’t she take a different route?” My colleagues informed me calmly: “It was not her fault.” With a lack of understanding I continued: “but nevertheless, if she had taken a service taxi (a type of cheap taxi van) instead of her own car, she might not have been noticed.” And again I was told calmly: “Ruben, the Israelis are always to blame for a delay at a checkpoint, however long it may be. We will never be angry with a guest who went through such a delay.”

I stay in a guesthouse. That guesthouse is part of a renovation project and the volunteers who participate in the project stay there for free. I’m a guest so I just have to pay. When I had to take care of the bill the managers conferred briefly and then I suddenly got a considerable discount I didn’t even bargain for. I never asked why, but probably because they know I’m a volunteer too and because they see me leaving every day at nine in the morning to return no sooner than four or five o’clock in the afternoon. And even though I don’t work for their project, we all work in solidarity for Palestine. The appreciation for my effort translates itself into a discount.

If you stay somewhere long enough you get to know the local people and they will share their stories with you. It happened to me when a colleague suddenly began to tell about her experience during the Battle of Jenin (a two-week battle in 2002 during the second Intifada between the Israeli army and Palestinian resistance fighters in the refugee camp “Jenin camp”, in the middle of the city). She lives in a district on a hill overlooking the camp. She said she had to stay inside for two weeks and all that time she had to go on all fours. As soon as she or one of her family members stood up they ran the risk of being hit by a bullet, because Israeli soldiers as well as Palestinian fighters were shooting at everything that moved. Her brother once ducked just in time, because a fraction of a second later a bullet struck the wall behind him. She said she saw how Israeli helicopters and tanks randomly fired rockets and grenades into the camp and how the ramshackle houses were swept away by huge explosions, leaving black smoke behind. She said how horrible the maddening fear was to get struck by a stray rocket or grenade. “You only realize what that fear is like, if you have felt it yourself, Ruben,” she said. Difficult to react to if you’re from a safe country like the Netherlands.

A few days later I had a lesson with young students. One of them was a young man from the refugee camp. The theme was “houses and other buildings”. I avoid politics, intifada, etc. like the plague in my lessons unless students come up with it themselves. And so the young man did. Once arrived at the topic “districts” he began to talk about the camp and later on about the Battle of Jenin.

He told us how with his own eyes he saw Israeli armoured bulldozers crushing houses, in some cases houses with people still in them. He told us that he saw corpses that were laid in rows on the streets. He said: ”I have seen much more, I could tell you much more, but perhaps it’s better if I don’t.” He was smiling but through his smile I could see painful lines in his face. Then he said: “In the camp we only have each other. We cannot trust the people from outside the camp, because they didn’t do anything for us during the battle. They were only watching, just like the rest of the world.”

Another (female) student (from outside the camp) then looked a bit grim. So I thought: “Oh my, obviously she feels addressed.” So I immediately said to the young man: “I find your story very serious, but yesterday I spoke to someone who had to go on all fours in her house for two weeks, otherwise she might have been shot. So it was impossible for her to do anything for you and I think the same thing goes for many people in Jenin.” The female student looked down and nodded her head approvingly, but didn’t make a sound.

I used the moment of silence that followed to say to him: “Only you know how bad it was, I can only try to imagine things.” “I am trying to read something about the battle in order to know some of the facts. That’s all I can do. I appreciate your story and I would like to thank you for telling it, but if you don’t mind I’d like to return to the theme.” He agreed with that and I felt the female student was relieved.

After the lesson I told the whole story to the colleague from the centre. She suddenly said: “And we are angry with the people in villages around Jenin!!!” So I said: “Huh, what do you mean? What had they got to do with it?” “Well”, she said, “everybody was angry with somebody during the battle. The refugees from the camp were angry with Jenin, because Jenin didn’t do anything for the camp. But Jenin was angry with the surrounding villages, because the villages didn’t do anything for Jenin. And the surrounding villages were angry because they couldn’t help it either.”

Well, this story might cast doubts on the solidarity among Palestinians, but what can actually be read between the lines is the enormous powerlessness that the people of Jenin must have felt when they saw how their fellow citizens in the camp were shot, pounded and bulldozed.

The Battle of Jenin has become a sort of collective trauma. Not visible or noticeable, but it’s still alive here. Eight years later, you still can’t live and work in this city without – sooner or later – being faced with this trauma. Perhaps because of the great frustration the citizens feel for not having been able to live in solidarity with each other during the battle.

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