Image forming 2: suffering in layers

Continuation of image forming 1: confusion

In Palestine you will be confronted with suffering when you listen to the stories people tell, when you watch the news, etc.  Those stories are mainly about suffering caused by the occupation. You can’t escape from it. But for somebody who is from the West it´s rather difficult to understand what Palestinian suffering exactly is. I was often inclined to connect Palestinian suffering with stereotype images: Palestine is a tense warlike area where people walk around with guns and Israelis and Palestinians give each other a hard time and that’s why they suffer. It’s simple! But if you stay a bit longer, that image turns out to be too simple and therefore incorrect.

So I discovered that I had to adjust my image of Palestine. Palestinians are suffering, but not all day long. Or are they? Sometimes they go into town to do some nice shopping. Whether they have to sell grandmas golden ring to be able to pay for the bare necessities remains unknown, but they try to make the best out of it. Sometimes they get arrested and sometimes they put their efforts into peace projects. Sometimes they drive around in expensive cars. Or sometimes they are questioned at checkpoints by the Israeli army. Like the two Palestinian young men. Israeli soldiers took them out of the service taxi van at a checkpoint between Ramallah and Bethlehem. The van drove on. Everybody was silent. I didn’t dare ask the remaining passengers what would happen to those men. 

If you are a volunteer,  like me, with the purpose of doing something positive in a society where people are suffering, you will attempt to understand that society and the suffering. At the end of my stay I had to consider for a long time as to how to interpret everything I had seen and had gone through. In that thinking, my experience in Hebron became a symbol for the fact that you constantly have to shift between total opposites. That confusion has also been the reason for the delay in writing this post, simply because it took me a long time until the following image – however logical it may seem – of Palestinian suffering remained. 

The burden that all Palestinians share is the feeling of being prisoners in their own country. Imprisoned behind the Apartheid Wall and imprisoned by many checkpoints. The thought of not being able to travel to Israel to visit family or to find a job. That feeling of captivity makes their life hopeless and deprives them of the feeling of being human. That imprisonment is slowly killing a people that are so rich in diversity, culture and tradition. I think this is a first red line in Palestinian suffering. It’s also the first and only thing Palestinians told me about when we were talking about the occupation: “I haven’t seen my brother, aunt, uncle, for years and years” or “Don’t you think it’s ridiculous that they don’t even let us visit the Al Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem?”

The second red line is the traumas that the greater part of the Palestinians sustained during the second Intifada. Lost family members, friends, lost properties and goods, enduring fear. Everybody can tell his or her own story about the Intifada. Often heard are the stories about adults who are still having nightmares and about teenagers who are still bedwetting because of traumas.

Close to these red lines are the situations in which any Palestinian can end up in every day: the arrest of a family member (or yourself) and not knowing what’s going to happen with the arrested person. 

Palestinians in the Old City in Hebron constantly run the risk of being bullied, kicked, evicted or getting stuff thrown at them by Jewish settlers, sometimes before the eyes of Israeli soldiers.

Other Palestinians are shopkeepers and wake up one day to find the Wall right in front of their shops. Their customers stay away, they lose their earnings and they have to struggle to make ends meet.

Some Palestinians have lived their whole life in a peaceful little village and worked on land that was family property for centuries. They never interfered with politics. But then, under supervision of the Israeli army, Israeli bulldozers entered their village to uproot their olive trees (and with the olive trees their hearts and souls) or to pull down their houses. Those who refused to leave started a non-violent battle and in that battle the silent farmer forcibly becomes a peace activist who desperately but heroically stands in front of a bulldozer. And Westerners don’t understand him, because they are still struggling with the image of all Palestinians being terrorists.

Some Palestinians are lucky and stay out of harm’s way. They have a prosperous business and perhaps children that study abroad. Others are refugees in their own country, with a camp as their home, an exceptional status and a desperate hope to return to a village that was razed to the ground 60 years ago.

Beside that constant feeling of being a prisoner and the traumas, these are examples of events that could happen to every Palestinian. Just another day in Palestine…. Steadfastness and dignity has become the motto of many Palestinians. If you have lost everything already or if you could lose everything tomorrow, the only thing to cling to is your dignity, because nobody can take that away from you. They call that steadfastness “Sumud”, a word that’s on the lips of many Palestinians.

So the suffering takes place in different layers. The one Palestinian goes down deeper in those layers than the other, but however deep the troubles are that you’re in, sometimes you have to go to the city to buy clothes. The image of nice shopping streets conceals the fact that, if present developments continue, it will turn out badly for Palestine.

If a Westerner or a volunteer doesn’t take the time to discover the layers, he or she will run the risk of losing track of the relationships. So as a volunteer you constantly need to redefine the world around you in order to realize what you’re here for exactly, for whom you’re doing it and what your place is.

I would like to give one more example of image forming and adapting one’s images. When I was in Jenin, I wrote the blog “Palestinian Solidarity” about Palestinians living in solidarity.  In Bethlehem I told a Palestinian colleague how two young men were taken out of a service taxi and led away. “Do you think they will mislead the soldiers when they are being questioned?”, I asked. That colleague explained to me that a Palestinian had better tell the truth to Israeli soldiers. ”If the army wants to be sure about what you’re saying, they can always turn to a Palestinian informer who will confirm your story in return for money”.

But should these informers be considered as cheap telltales or inevitable products of a sick occupation? A desperate father who has lost everything and needs every cent to feed his family? Or does the exception prove the rule? Just another day in Palestine…

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1 Response to “Image forming 2: suffering in layers”


  1. 1 Hendrik van der Plas August 16, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Ontzettend boeiend geschreven stuk, mijn complimenten!


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