Memories from Palestine: Victims of a map

Published May 21, 2021
Palestinians inspect their destroyed houses following overnight Israeli airstrikes in town of Beit Hanoun on May 14. — AP
Palestinians inspect their destroyed houses following overnight Israeli airstrikes in town of Beit Hanoun on May 14. — AP

Standing at the back of a compound in Tel Aviv, I heard Arial Sharon declare united Jerusalem ‘the eternal capital of the Jewish people.’ Earlier he had gone into the Al Aqsa compound with hundreds of Israeli police officers. The youth of Jewish seminaries in attendance broke into applause with chants of ‘death to Arabs.’ Sharon had won the elections on a pledge to crush the Palestinian uprising. I was there for BBC to cover the second Intifada.

This time, I watch on television as another prime minister plays with fire.

Another election. Another aftermath.

Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to form a government after recent polls and faces charges of corruption and fraud and possibly prison if he falls from power. Over the past two weeks, he has consolidated the right wing as a support base, vowing to continue air strikes in Gaza resulting in over 200 deaths already and intense, spiralling destruction.

“The security escalation serves Netanyahu and Hamas both for internal political interests,” tweeted Moshe Ya’alon, former minister of defense and chief of staff of the armed forces — and now a Netanyahu critic.

I look at the evictions of Palestinians from Shiekh Jarrah, the latest in the sustained campaign of colonial settlements. I’m reminded of the house Arial Sharon claimed in the heart of the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem, draped with the Israeli flag.

“He doesn’t live here, has never even spent a single night here,” the locals told me. “He got this house to make the point that he can, that Jews have a right to live wherever they want in Jerusalem, that its theirs to do whatever they want.”

As a student of history, I’ve been fascinated with how the past is reconstructed into a source of identity, morality, claim to resources, even mined for propaganda. In Jerusalem though, I saw it become a weapon of destruction; gun-totting young Israeli men and women wearing goggles, bulletproof vests, sophisticated communication devices and weapons, dragging protesters, blindfolding Palestinian youth, lining them against the wall for body searches, check-posts with unending queues, differentiated identity cards, evictions and bombardment.

I remember an old Palestinian woman yelling at a young Israeli soldier at a checkpoint ignoring his automatic rifle.

“This is our land for centuries. My father, his father, his father all lived here. Why should I ask for a permission to enter my own home where we have been living for generations?”

“It’s ours. It was ours before it was theirs,” I was told later in response by an Israeli man at Ben Yehuda Street in downtown Jerusalem, on a street full of sidewalk cafes and live performances by street musicians.

Every site has a history and religious significance that goes back centuries. Palestinians, Jews, Christians, all turn to them. Al Aqsa, for example: for Muslims, this is from where the holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) journeyed to heaven. For Jewish people, it is immensely significant as Temple Mount. For Christians, it’s where Jesus was crucified and resurrected.

There is a processional route in the old city of Jerusalem through which Christian pilgrims retrace Jesus’ path to crucifixion. It’s called the Via Dolorosa, meaning ‘Sorrowful Way’ or the ‘Way of Suffering.’

My Palestinian interpreter said to me: “We relive it every day. Under Israeli occupation, we Palestinians constantly walk through suffering, our lives are the Via Dolorosa.”

The Palestinians say that for them the Al-Nakba never ended. Referring to ‘The Great Catastrophe’ of 1948 when hundreds of thousands were forced out of their homes by Israeli authorities.

“Israel is carved out of our body. It’s not just a line on a map. Every line is like a cut on our own body. There are always fresh wounds,” said an elderly Palestinian, Khaled Yousef.

I sat with a group of young and old Palestinians in Ramallah, some of who participated in the movement during both uprisings. There are always tears, they told me. In joy one day, while a feast is arranged because someone has been released from an Israeli prison. In grief the next day, when someone is killed by the Israeli forces. “This is all we constantly do,” the youngsters involved in the struggle said. “We arrange funerals.”

I had not heard of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish before, but his poetry was everywhere in Palestine. They recited his lines, which I scribbled down and lost, but found later on the Internet, “Don’t ask the trees for their names/ Don’t ask the valleys who their mother is/ … All the hearts of the people are my identity/ So take away my passport!”

During the first Intifada from 1987-1993, poetry and musical theater was used as a means for bringing people together. Artists became an integral part of the freedom movement; many were imprisoned and sent into exile. But during my visit, a new development was clearly gaining strength.

A militant struggle was emerging, operating within a religious framework. Hamas was ascendant as Yasser Arafat’s Fateh group weakened. Israel Defence Forces’ siege of Arafat and his confinement to Ramallah was still some time away. The suicide bombings meanwhile had started in Israeli neighborhoods. Cafes and a night-club hangout of Israeli teens were targeted by Palestinian militants, killing civilians and leading to brutal retaliation by Israeli forces.

The violent struggle, the non-violent struggle, and relying on intervention by global powers, all three forms of struggle in different phases seem to have yielded no successes for the Palestinians. The youth seems to now have turned to yet another form – the decentralised struggle. The current conflict has reached a scale that was not seen 20 years ago. Instead of lobbing stones and slingshots at Israeli tanks, Palestinian youth are now relying on lobbing phone recorded video evidence on social media.

They are changing the language of their narrative, pointing toward the state’s apartheid policies. It seems like the unannounced beginning of a third intifada.

Remaining without a central leadership is risky for any movement. The Palestinians have been split, divided and enclosed. Fateh, which rules West Bank, is internationally recognised, but dwarfed after Arafat. The Gaza strip which has been a constant target of Israeli attacks, is under the rule of Hamas. Every act of aggression by Israelis further strengthens Hamas, which is then used by Israel as justification for its use of force.

When I look back at my journey, peace was not in sight then, nor does it seem possible in the near future. The two-state solution seems to be as good as dead because of continuing Israeli occupation. Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have increased manifold, as forced evictions of Palestinians continues. Discriminatory laws such as issuance of separate number plates and identity cards, barbed wire fences between Jewish settlements and Palestinian neighborhoods and now a 25 feet high wall separates Israel’s cities from the West Bank.

Its been 20 years since I visited the occupied holy land. With bloodshed and the land turning into a battlefield once again, I turn for solace to Mahmoud Darwish’s lyrical depiction: “Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time/ Close to the gardens of broken shadows/ … We do what prisoners do/ We cultivate hope.”

Owais Tohid is a leading Pakistani journalist/writer. His email address is owaistohid@gmail.com. He tweets @OwaisTohid.


This article originally appeared on Arab News and has been reproduced with permission.

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