Palestine Part 2: Our existence is our resistance
This is part two in our four part series on Palestine. These reflective thoughts are written by Adhila Mayet. Thank you for the courage to share your thoughts.
Jerusalem - referred to as the old city - is a bustling market place, tourist destination and holy land all wrapped into one. Every square centimeter is rich with history - Jesus walked the streets, the prophet Ebrahim built a mosque, the Jewish faith celebrates one of their famous artifacts- the wailing wall. The old city is clearly separated from the modern city by a towering stone wall and gates. If you're a game of thrones fan, picture the streets of kings landing and you won't be too far off. Jerusalem is divided into four quarters - the Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian quarters - but the the distinctions are not obvious, and you could easily wonder from one to the other without knowing. The streets are narrow, cobbled and barely accommodate small vehicles. Our lodge was based in the heart of the Muslim quarter, a five minute walk from the first mosque in Islam - Al Aqsa.
Although the area is peaceful, heavily armed (I'm talking machine gun and bullet proof vest kind of armed) Israeli defense force guards and police stand at every corner. They stand in pairs and watch eerily as tourists shop for t-shirts and trinkets. We devised different strategies for coexisting with this strange phenomenon during our seven day stay - some would avoid their gazes and scurry past, my sister would smile gently at the guards to see if she could soften their stony gazes. My preferred method was to look them boldly in the eye as if to say "What?!"
Their presence was as confusing as it was disturbing. Jerusalem is so comfortably shared by people of religions whose histories are deeply intertwined. Every street name is said thrice - once in Arabic, once in English and once in Hebrew. On one of our tours, we heard how the imam of one of the mosques would look after the keys to the church when the priest was away. Coexistence and peace in such a deeply spiritual area seems natural.
Yet the guards showed up every day, uniformed and armed, their purpose unknown to us.
This little factor reminded me of stories I hear of our South African apartheid. It made me realize the slow but steady and strong frustration that must be harboured by the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and must surely have been the case in SA as well. The Palestinians must have incredible patience and endurance, I thought. Throughout our time there, I found this to be true beyond words. This is not to say there aren’t violent responses to the apartheid-cum-war state that is Palestine; we heard stories of a few Palestinians stabbing Israelis in recent times, which although inexcusable, could be understood in the context of a permanent army presence and extreme tension.
As we met and spoke to Palestinians - mostly shop owners and waiters at restaurants, I started to slowly piece together the conflict in my mind. The locals all mentioned that living in Jerusalem was extremely expensive - taxes and rent were high, power cuts were common. A particular shop owner recognized us as South African and called out "howzit" proudly - he had lived and worked in South Africa for 12 years and thought life here was easy and good. Our question to him of why he would leave SA and return to his home was answered with no hesitation- he returned to defend his home land. His son is in jail for political protest, he struggles to keep his daughter in university, and many of his friends died in the conflict. He acknowledged that he and his children were in danger at all times. But he refuses to move. “Our existence is our resistance”, he related proudly. I realised then that this system - the guards, the taxes, and the tension - was carefully designed to make life unliveable, and naturally force any reasonable Palestinian to leave. This is the crux of the current Israeli Palestinian situation as I saw it.
We soon learnt that there was much more to the difficult living situation - but more on that later.
The ex-SA-based family connected with our family, perhaps through our common ground. We were introduced to the man’s brother and heard more stories from him. Once, we were shopping in the brother’s store when a steaming pot of a chicken stew was carried in by one of his sons, balanced with a bag of fresh pita bread. The family immediately invited us to join their impromptu lunch, shared using their hands from the single vessel. The uncles (as I began to call them) went so far as to make little bites for us to ensure we weren’t too “shy” to join in. The cheerful mood of the meal was interrupted by sombre scenes on the TV screen in the store – at the time that we visited Palestine, roughly 130 Palestinians had died during warfare and conflict in various areas over the previous 3 months. During our stay, news channels were filled with reports on the refusal of the Israelis to release the bodies of the deceased back to the families of the bereaved, and the peaceful protests that were being held all over the country in objection. The news story prompted our new friend to wipe a tear from his eye and show us photos of a dear friend who was one of the deceased. The language barrier seemed more evident as he retold the story of his friend, and I struggled to understand the emotional account of what had happened to his friend. His grief and frustration with not being able to grant his friend a proper burial was evident. Again, I was confronted with seemingly illogical ways to make life in Palestine yet more difficult for the Palestinian.
Watching the news in Palestine was a revelation on its own – although the medium was Arabic, which I do not understand, the images and videos being broadcast were not like any I’ve seen in mainstream media. Typically, I’ve found Pro-Palestinian media to show emotive images of injured children and despondent parents; although these are important images, I struggle to find fact-based reports of the daily news events in Palestine. Whilst there, I was treated to daily accounts and details not typically known to the outside world. The majority included peaceful protests and videos of groups of young Palestinians who choose to fight back in some way. One of the most delightful news stories I saw was a group of Palestinians who dressed in Father Christmas outfits and handed out sweets to the Israeli soldiers in Bethlehem. The reaction of the soldiers was almost comical, remaining armed and ready for action. It’s funny how people react to repressive states in different ways, and I applaud those Palestinians for their peaceful and cheery response.
1. If it is true that observing a subject alters the actions & behaviour of the observed, how is the constant armed gaze affecting people's psyche & therefore behaviour in Jerusalem?
2. Is it possible to foster growth in a state of fear? Can you flourish and thrive if you're constantly worried about your safety (and life)? How can you possibly have capacity to fully engage in things which will lead to personal, economic growth etc?
3. Should societies always favour the peaceful higher ground, or do oppressive states always call for violent demands for change?