There is no such place

Today I heard from my close friend Sameeha that her two young cousins, who live in the house next door, have been killed by an artillery shell that hit their bedroom. (My immediate, selfish mental reaction forcing its way through fear: “Oh, thank God it wasn’t you!”) Their names were Qasem and Imad. They were aged seven and four.

Sameeha’s parents have had to flee their house next door to the killing site, but they’re uninjured. Her younger sister Najla is pregnant and said, “I don’t want to have my baby now. I wouldn’t know where to hide her.” At this, an older mother helpfully volunteered, “I used to move my two little boys from room to room to try and find the safest place.”

In Gaza tonight there is no such place, as patients at Wafa Geriatric Hospital have also been reminded. Their hospital was under fire for days, with international activists trying to act as human shields for people who were too sick to survive away from hospital – people dependent on oxygen, people who are paralysed, people who were terrified as their walls trembled and who clung to the hands of their nurses hoping for reassurance that the nurses couldn’t give. I’ve done a bit of work on a dementia ward. Reading the updates from El-Wafa, which has now been destroyed in the bombing (the last patients were removed in time, although how much longer they can last like this is a question that I am having to leave with God), I think of the elderly people I worked with, one of whom even found being taken from her room to the toilet an anxiety-provoking experience. I wrote about Sarah here. How would I tell such a patient that I need to wheel her bed into the hospital corridor with dozens of other sick frightened people, as it’s the safest place to sleep? How would I tell her that she really needs to get out of here, but I don’t know where? That there isn’t anywhere?

As a healthcare worker, I think I can’t imagine anything worse than not being able to provide care to those under my responsibility. I think. Until I look at the photos from El-Wafa again and I realise that many of the patients were probably expelled from Majdal, Asqalan, and the surrounding areas during the Nakba. This has been their whole life. These old people have never, in all their existence, had a safe place to call home – something they have in common with Sameeha’s two little neighbours, who took only four and seven years respectively to make the same discovery.

Occupation’s abacus

While mobs roamed up and down Jaffa Road (a major thoroughfare in Jerusalem, for people who don’t know the place) shouting ‘Death to Arabs’, a Palestinian teenager from Shuafat has been murdered and his body dumped in a woodland near Givat Shaul. The body was partly burnt and showed signs of torture.

“If the government doesn’t do it, we will,” an activist wearing a T-shirt from Lehava (an organisation that fights against ‘assimilation’, more specifically miscegenation) told a reporter on Jaffa Road yesterday. Staring at it, I thought to myself weakly, “Do what? Bombs that turn night into day over Gaza aren’t enough? Home demolitions aren’t enough? Five hundred arrests under military law?” Regarding the murder, the mayor of Jerusalem has stated, “This is not our way” and called for calm.

On average, one Palestinian child has been killed every three days for the past thirteen years. Their death toll is around 1500. Does it matter so much whether soldiers do it or vigilantes do it? What would ‘our way’ be? To leave it to the army, whose killing is clean and clinical and always excusable?

In Shuafat, where today’s murdered teenager was from, police have moved in with tear gas and sound bombs. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once wrote that parts of East Jerusalem look like what was once District Six in Cape Town. The resemblance is never sharper than on days like today. The killers of Muhammad Abu Khdair won’t have their family homes demolished in punishment for his murder. In fact, they’re unlikely to be caught at all. The police and legal system don’t have a sterling track record for responding to anti-Palestinian violence, even when it’s directed against citizens; when seventeen-year-old Jamal Julani was nearly murdered in a widely publicised attack in Zion Square two summer ago, in what even the Israeli police described as a lynch, the only three members of the mob to be convicted received sentences of eight months, three months, and one month respectively. A kid in the West Bank who throws stones at a military jeep is likely to get more. Today’s dead boy will be lucky if he’s worth one arrest, let alone five hundred. The teenagers hurling bottles at police and army in Shuafat refugee camp understand that. The army has now taken over rooftops of houses in the camp and guns are pointing down almost every street and alleyway. “Are they raiding the settlements now, to find suspects?” one Shuafat resident asked bitterly. From vigilante attacks on Palestinians to state-ordered home demolitions, from the unjust government policies that make it possible to detain a Palestinian indefinitely without charge to Lehava’s enterprising grassroots hotline for reporting ‘mixed’ relationships – they click together like beads on an abacus, making clear the value of Palestinian life under apartheid.

Yesterday my friend Stefana, having finished her exams, went to the beach. “I heard that ‘death to Arabs’ on Jaffa Road with my own ears, but tried not to listen to it.” She has three Arab flatmates, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. They decided to stay in all day.

What we do with dead kids

This afternoon reports broke that the bodies of the three missing Israeli teenagers Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali have been found in the West Bank. They were uncovered near Halhul.

This follows a wave of army raids, arrests, and killings across the West Bank and Gaza, with over four hundred Palestinians detained (most without being accused of any crime or given access to a lawyer) and eight people dead. Hebron was sealed off entirely, with the city’s residents being prevented from entering or exiting.  “If this is what happened when those teenagers were missing,” one friend said worriedly, “God knows what they’ll do to us now they’re dead.” During the night raids, when we heard the honking of jeeps in Beit Jala and the army was going from house to house, she and I were both seized with an urge to tidy our belongings just in case soldiers should come bursting in and notice that we had not washed up our breakfast bowls. The next morning, looking at photos from the night raids – furniture smashed in, food pulled out of fridges and trampled underfoot – we concluded that perhaps our fear of judgmental houseproud soldiers arriving to conduct an episode of How Clean is Your House? had been a little misplaced, but at least it had given us something to do.

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For the honour of the nation: silencing victims of domestic violence

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.

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When in crisis, drink tea

I am very tired after a couple of nights without sleep. Precipitated by the assault on Gaza and helped along by the chain-drinking of tea (when in crisis, drink tea – it is the British way), this bout of insomnia isn’t exactly wild fun.

This autumn Sameeha’s course of study in England drew to its close. We travelled to the Lake District together (I didn’t think she should leave England without seeing it) for what would be our last visit together for neither of us knows how long. Her house in Gaza City is barely a three-hour drive from me in Bethlehem, but getting into Gaza is still so hard, even with the easing on Rafah, that the best way for us to see one another is to jump on a plane.

“I need to do something radical with you before I go back home,” was her greeting.

I felt nervous. The last time she decided we needed to do something radical she attacked me with her makeup bag and tried to drag me into a nightclub. My toenails bore traces of scarlet nail polish for months. (It looked exactly like blood.) Fortunately this time she was content to hire a boat and row it out on Windermere. Considering that she can’t swim and I have a disability that means my arms and legs sometimes like to act autonomously of my brain, you would have thought that bobbing about in the middle of one of Britain’s largest and deepest lakes would have been an alarming experience. After the makeover it was positively relaxing.

Once we were far enough from shore, I laid down my oars. We sat in silence (an unusual condition for Sameeha). The lake swelled and sighed beneath us, cradling the boat. There was no sound apart from the waves on the wood and the occasional creak as an oar shifted in a rowlock. It was hard to believe that we only met in person just over a year ago; before that our friendship was based around our blogs and our Twitter accounts and the late-night Facebook chats that took place when both of us were being prevented from sleep (by drone strikes in her case, caffeine in mine). Levinas and Derrida, radical versus liberal feminism, inconvenient crushes on political Zionists (“Clarify that was you, not me!” I can hear her saying indignantly), the size of our backsides – you name it, and we have probably discussed it in the middle of the night. She feels like one of those people I’ve known forever.

“I’m OK,” she wrote. “I’m with family, all staring at the TV to anticipate what’s next. Habibti, this has been a hell of a week. I can’t sleep.”

“Probably just as well. It would hardly be reasonable for your family to have to cope with your snoring on top of everything else.”

Then she lost either Internet or electricity or both, and I was left in my cold room in the middle of the night, staring at the screen and wondering what I could possibly do. Apart from boil the kettle for the sixth time in three hours.

Ever-resourceful and knowing that she would not be able to reach my mobile in England, she has communicated her safety and unflagging spirits to me by texting one of my Israeli friends and cheerfully asking him to ask me if she might have my permission to kidnap him for ransom. Ever-obliging, he has done so. (You might think that getting his permission would be the more pertinent thing to do, but Sameeha and I are working on the establishment of the matriarchy.) “She says that she loves you, despite the unpleasant reminder of her snoring at a time like this, and she promises to treat me well and not feed me to any crocodiles.”

That wasn’t much, but it made me smile and will give me a slightly better sleep. I wish I knew that she had enjoyed the same. One of the last things I read from her before she lost Internet: “The sky is burning tonight. They’ve gone insane.”

I hope she has a kettle to hand. And some means of boiling it.


Beware of my hunger

Write down!
I am an Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth will come after a summer
Will you be angry?

Roughly 1,600 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are on hunger strike. Just over a week ago, one of them collapsed during his court hearing after going for sixty-six days without food. He is Bilal Diab, and today marks the seventy-fourth day of his fight.

This wave of resistance from within the prison system itself began with Khader Adnan, a baker from the West Bank village of Arrabeh who started to refuse all food after he was arrested by the military and placed in what is euphemistically known as administrative detention. Prisoners are held without charge or trial, and their detention can be renewed indefinitely. Adnan had already been imprisoned multiple times. In a letter he gave to his lawyers during his hunger strike, he wrote, “The Israeli occupation has gone to extremes against our people, especially prisoners. I have been humiliated, beaten, and harassed by interrogators for no reason, and thus I swore to God I would fight the policy of administrative detention to which I and hundreds of my fellow prisoners fell prey.” His case captured international attention, with a close friend and co-activist of Bobby Sands writing from Ireland to offer support and call for Adnan’s immediate release.

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The least of these: a reflection on a bad choice

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.

The entrance to Bethlehem, viewed from inside the checkpoint complex.

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!”

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Syrian snacks, disability rights, and a simple act of kindness: what I’ve read this week

I’ve decided to create a weekly round-up post of the most interesting, thought-provoking, and urgent things I’ve come across during the week, especially if they haven’t received much attention in the blogosphere. All of the links will be relevant to peace and justice work in some way, although not always specifically to Palestine. Feel free to add your own reading suggestions.

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Love under apartheid: a colleague’s story

Love Under Apartheid is a collection of videos in which Palestinians talk about the effects that the occupation has on their ability to form romantic relationships and retain ties with their family and friends. Recently Israel’s Citizenship Law (which precludes Israelis from obtaining citizenship for Palestinian spouses who come from the Occupied Territories or the Diaspora) has received quite a lot of attention, as it specifically seeks to prevent the spouses of Israelis from receiving citizenship on the basis of their ethnicity and cultural identity alone. But this law is nothing new. Occupation and dispossession have intruded on the private lives of Palestinians for over sixty years now, including their loves.

This video was made by my colleague Toine. He describes his marriage to Mary (a Palestinian woman from Bethlehem) and the birth of their children.

For over ten years he had to leave the country every three months to get his visa renewed; the Israeli authorities wouldn’t grant him residency rights. (He still doesn’t have the right to reside, although he at least gets longer than three months before each renewal now.) When he flies out of the country, he has to ring the airport to let them know that he is coming. As a man married to a Palestinian, he is a security risk. As a man married to a Palestinian, he is not allowed to be unsupervised in the airport. An armed guard meets him at the entrance and escorts him to his flight. He once told me jokingly, “It’s quite nice. At least I don’t have to queue!”

I laughed. Perhaps there is a bright side to everything. Even love under apartheid. His family still can’t quite appreciate its advantages, though.

Non-violence in a nutshell

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.

The devouring lion: graffiti near Bethlehem checkpoint

The devouring lion: graffiti near Bethlehem checkpoint

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.

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