Impelled by the murders of women in their hometown of Lyd, the Palestinian hip-hop group DAM has got together with Amal Murkus and Jackie Salloum to release a rap against honour killings. Sung in Arabic, as with most of DAM’s music, it has generated a critique by two academics living in the USA, written in a particularly obscure kind of academickese (the better to give the impression that they’re making a sophisticated point when really they’re not). Stripped of its frills, the main complaint of Lila Abu Lughod and Maya Mikdashi is this: DAM rapped about the murders of Palestinian women by Palestinian men without also mentioning Israel’s military occupation and systematic discrimination against Palestinians as a whole. And this makes Palestinians look bad.
Earlier today this picture appeared on the Facebook page of the Israeli Embassy in Ireland. It is an image of the Sacred and Immaculate Heart, with the festive caption, “A thought for Christmas…If Jesus and mother Mary were alive today, they would, as Jews without security, probably end up being lynched in Bethlehem by hostile Palestinians. Just a thought…”
My initial reaction was, “Smooth move, directing this picture and caption at a country where the population is a.) predominantly Catholic and b.) generally sympathetic to Palestine. PR skillz, u no have any.” Then I thought of something else.
This image of the Holy Hearts is hanging on the wall of my host family’s house in Bethlehem (only ours is kitschier and better). When I saw the embassy’s Christmas message, I thought of the family’s experiences during the Intifada, when the house was constantly being requisitioned by Israeli troops. They used to corral everyone into one corner, and my landlady was never allowed to be the one to wake her children: the soldiers pulled them out of bed at gunpoint. When the soldiers got thirsty my landlady used to give them water. Occasionally some of them became distressed and she and her husband would try to comfort them. There were times when the curfew lasted so long that the family ran out of food. Soldiers would bring their own meals into the house (sometimes hot pizza, with its appetising smell) and the kids just had to sit there and try to bear the hunger until such time as curfew was lifted and they could go to the shop.
Last year I ended up bringing an Israeli friend who was then performing his own military service into the house. (He was off-duty at the time, obviously, and before you ask – it’s a long story. I may tell it some day.) I was worried about how the family would react to him. Sure enough, my landlady wasn’t best pleased – but not because he was an Israeli Jew and a soldier to boot, but because, “If the army find out he has been here they can hurt him. You need to look after your friends, Vicky, he is a good boy.” She sat in the living room and talked with him, underneath the Holy Hearts image and the equally kitschy representation of the Last Supper.
That picture on the wall of one Bethlehem family home has witnessed a lot of things, but never hate of the sort that was exhibited by the embassy this afternoon. Just a thought.
It was only half-eight in the morning, but it was already too warm for comfort. I could feel the acrid salty heat rising from the tarmac as I headed up the hill. The chapel was going to feel like an oven. Once again I caught myself fantasising about air conditioning, which not many people have in Palestine. Just imagine walking into a building and being met by a beautiful blast of cold air, and getting some iced grapefruit juice, and…
The order was issued in an American accent and preceded by an earsplitting whistle. I didn’t stop for the whistle. I never do. If people want to talk to me, they can start by addressing me as though I’m a person too and not an errant sheepdog who needs to be brought to heel. At “Stop!” I reluctantly obeyed. I hadn’t eaten any breakfast yet, and you don’t pick fights with M16-wielding men without at least having had a cup of tea beforehand.
He was not a soldier, but a civilian employee from the company that has been contracted to manage this particular checkpoint. (Military occupation is big business.) The sun glinted on his dark glasses and the barrel of his rifle. Behind him was a female guard who was gazing up at him adoringly from beneath her baseball cap. I know that look, and it’s never pretty. The way some guys start parading around the checkpoint like peacocks in flak jackets if there happens to be a female colleague anywhere in the vicinity is like something out of a David Attenborough zoological documentary on mating rituals. And what better way to demonstrate power, manliness, and general desirability than by harassing the odd passer-by? Frankly I don’t know how the female soldiers and guards manage to keep their legs together.
“I don’t want to go through the machsom,” I called out wearily, resigning myself to the game. I tried to step forward so that I could talk to him in my normal voice, but he gave another shrill blast of the whistle (ow) and held up the palm of his hand.
“Where are you going?”
“To church.” I pointed at the road that sloped off to my right, skirting the separation wall. The guard turned away and said something to his colleague. I took this as permission to move. I was wrong. The resulting whistle was loud enough to make my heart jump skittishly. “Wait!”
As I wrote in the aftermath of Mustafa al-Tamimi’s murder, many Palestinians have become jaded with the concept of pacifist resistance, as it is often conflated with passivity. Acquiescing to the State of Israel’s insistence on retaining all of Jerusalem is needed to demonstrate ‘openness’; abandoning the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign is a sign of being ‘reasonable’; renouncing the one-state solution and accepting Israel’s right to exist as an ethno-religious state reveals a willingness to be ‘tolerant’. Without these things, Palestinians are told, you cannot be truly non-violent; and non-violence is your duty. We demand it of you. You won’t deserve even a sliver of the cake until you are on your best behaviour.
These things are not true. An unwavering commitment to justice ought to lie at the heart of all pacifist resistance. In surrendering their most basic rights in order to try and buy that crumbling slice of cake, Palestinians would become accessories to the state-sponsored violence that is being waged against their communities – the carving up of the West Bank into impoverished cantonments, the water shortages, the ongoing isolation of Gaza, the home demolitions, the destruction of hundreds of years of Palestinian culture in Jerusalem and beyond. This meek acceptance of the status quo is not non-violence; you can’t have true non-violence without self-respect.
One evening late last summer, as I walked home from a day spent in Dheisheh refugee camp, I was stopped at a flying checkpoint. (These are blockades that pop up unexpectedly for a few days, or even a few hours, as opposed to the permanent checkpoints.) I took off my jacket so that they could search the pockets and waited patiently. This wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. What was unusual was the age and appearance of the ‘soldiers’. The eldest of them was nine. She is a little girl who lives just round the corner.
“Shoes!” she said imperiously, in a magnificent imitation of our local IDF, and I removed my shoes. She had a long wooden stick slung across her body in the manner of a gun. She made the motions of scanning my shoes, and then demanded, “ID!” To my horror, I didn’t have my ID on me. I stood and waited while they discussed what to do with me – would they just refuse to let me pass, or would I have to be interrogated first? Should I be arrested? In the end, needing the toilet rather badly, I bribed the occupation army by proffering a squashed packet of Oreos that I may or may not have sat on at some point. They accepted cheerfully. After I had dashed in to the bathroom, I came back out to them, and we spent a happy evening playing tag and hide-and-seek.
I have had an interesting few days of it. On Saturday I travelled to Hebron, an overcrowded Palestinian town that contains four illegal settlements known for their extremism, and I have spent the following forty-eight hours trying to pull myself out of the miserable numb daze that the visit created in me.
At the heart of Hebron is the Ibrahimi Mosque, said to be the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah. As such it is holy to all three of the Abrahamic faiths. As I stepped into the majlis (gracefully pausing to allow a mosque attendant to bundle me up in a long brown cloak that made me look like something out of J.R.R. Tolkein) I remembered with a nasty jolt that it was Purim. Seventeen years ago, on this same festival, the settler Baruch Goldstein strolled into the mosque and opened fire on the Muslim worshippers. Twenty-nine people died. One hundred and twenty-five others were injured. The killing spree ended with Goldstein’s own death: one worshipper hurled a fire extinguisher at him and others surged forward to beat him to death.
Today militant settlers celebrate Goldstein’s memory by dressing up to look like him at Purim and singing songs in his honour. His grave is venerated. In response to the massacre, the city of Hebron was placed under curfew for a month while the Cave of the Patriarchs was divided into two sections – one for Jewish settlers, one for Palestinian Muslims. As I made my way through the mosque, heading for Abraham’s tomb, I could hear the swell of Shabbat songs flowing from the adjacent synagogue.
I paused to pray at the tomb, but already the numbness had set in and I could not manage anything beyond a murmured Gloria Patri, which I offered for the girl I saw behind the glass. It is at times like this that I am grateful for the steady comforting routine of the traditional prayers; I can offer them even when my own supply of speech has run out.
Afterwards we dropped by the apartment that is shared by members of Christian Peacemaker Teams. Protective wire mesh is stretched over the top of the alleway that leads to their door, clogged with rubbish and filth. It was strung up to protect the Palestinian passers-by from the various missiles being hurled by at them by the settlers – stones, broken furniture, glass bottles, knives. Since the mesh went up they have contented themselves by pouring liquids down instead. The alleyway smells strongly of urine.
One of the CPTers welcomed us into their apartment and led us out onto the roof so that we could have a good view of the city. Shehadeh Street runs right past their building. I know Shehadeh Street. It’s sometimes referred to as Hate Street. I know that Palestinians are forbidden from using it. I know that its silence is eerie, that it was once full of bustle, scene of a lively marketplace. Only settlers can use it now. I knew all that, but the full implications hadn’t sunk in.
That’s when I saw the ladders.
The front doors of the Shehadeh Street houses have been welded shut by the Israeli military. People have to clamber in and out of their back windows. For residents who live on the ground floor, it’s quite straightforward; but for others it involves an adventurous scramble over the rooftops. There are elderly people living in these houses who don’t go outside any more. Gymnastics isn’t their thing.
Standing on the CPT roof, I had a fine view of the settlements, bedecked in blue and white. Even the water cisterns are painted with Israeli flags. I lifted my arm to point out a yeshiva to another volunteer, only for a Palestinian resident to leap in hastily with, “No, no, don’t point, the soldiers will see and we will be in trouble.” He kept eyeing our cameras nervously. “Do not take pictures of the settlements. Do not take pictures of the soldiers.” It was a relief to get back inside the house, if only to see his anxiety drop.
The CPT apartment is sparsely furnished. The peacemakers sleep on the floor, for example; and they use plastic garden chairs for the living room. However, it was a comforting kind of starkness. This was simplicity freely chosen, and not the degradation of poverty. Perched on one of those chairs, a Catholic priest and long-term CPTer described the ethos that drives the organisation: “We see that thousands of people are ready to risk their lives for war. So why don’t we have thousands of people getting in the way, risking their lives for peace? That’s what we’re here to do – to get in the way.”
Father has been ‘getting in the way’ for a long time; he’s been in Hebron since 1995. “How have you managed to get a visa to stay for this long?” I asked, fascinated. He smiled. “I come in wearing my clerical collar and say nothing about CPT. I get given a three-month tourist visa every time. I have to keep crossing the border to renew it. If the authorities knew what I was doing here, I’d be on the next plane home.”
“Of course, it means we have to be careful about the kind of activities that we do,” he continued. “In the old days, we’d be out there dismantling checkpoints, and the soldiers would come and say, ‘If you do that we’ll have to arrest you.’ So we’d say, ‘Then arrest me.’ But the rules have got tougher and now that kind of behaviour would get you deported. So now our job is to just be with the Palestinians, to offer them what protection we can, to pray and to share what goes on over here.”
I can do that, I thought. I can’t do much else, but I can put pen to paper.
If only certain sights didn’t keep robbing me of my words.
I was in a foul mood when I got back to Bethlehem. When something happens to upset me, my temper suffers (and so do the people around me). After resolving to stay in isolation until I was no longer behaving like a mangrove alligator, I brewed a huge vat of tea, opened up my laptop, and wrote to an Israeli friend.
I had been with him in Jerusalem the previous day. I’ve known him online for quite a while, but that was the first time we had met. It was a refreshingly ordinary day. I wanted to remember it – sitting on a pavement in Sheikh Jarrah, drinking freshly pulped orange juice and discussing pacifism; browsing in the Educational Bookshop; arguing over the role of civil disobedience in challenging injustice. (He is a little too law-abiding for my taste.) At three o’clock we joined the weekly protest in Sheikh Jarrah, his first time there. A settler was standing in front of one of the stolen houses, quietly watching the drummers. Shai approached and spoke to him. To my astonishment, the conversation stayed pleasant and the connection seemed genuine. It gave me hope that it might be possible to reach the settlers somehow. I remembered that, and the normalcy of orange juice in the sun, and I felt better. I wrote to Shai, subject line ‘Thank you’, said my prayers, and went to sleep.