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Live from Ramallah

by Lori Allen

It’s noon on a Monday in the second week of March
and I’m going mad. Mad from frustration, anger, anxiety, worry,
fear–every possible negative response in my emotional cauldron…

Despite a promise to myself that I would
follow everyone’s advice to stop watching the news, I find myself,
once again, sitting in front of the television, tuned to Bethlehem
TV. It is showing groups of men and boys from Daheisha refugee
camp being rounded up, stuffing their jackets into plastic bags,
presenting their IDs to the heavily armed Israeli soldiers, pulling
up their shirts to bare their stomachs and backs, the older men
with their love-handles and the prominent ribs of underfed teenagers
equally exposed to the cameras, equally powerless in the face
of the M-16s pointed at them. Then one by one I watch as their
hands are bound with tight plastic strips, as they are blindfolded
and prodded ahead to be processed and imprisoned. It is impossible
not to be reminded of similar scenes that I know of only from
pictures, books, and movies. I hear the echoes of the voices
of those who said then: “I didn’t know what was happening,
I didn’t think it would be this bad, I didn’t know what to do”

And while I see what is happening, and fear only that
it will get unimaginably worse, I, in fact, do not know what
to do. No one here knows what to do. Protest? There is
no press. What effect could it have? Write articles? They probably
won’t be published, and even if they are, the news seems merely
to slide in and out of the consciousness of the indifferent and/or
powerless readers. The overwhelming force of state power is such
a heavy anchor on the spirit, on the sense that something could
be done. Yet something compels me to at least persist in writing,
recording, witnessing, fretting, whether the impulse is youth,
naiveté, or perhaps a fear that two weeks from now, or
two years from now, or twenty years from now I will still be
hating myself for not having made some effort, however slight,
to obstruct this increasingly barbarous and lethal system.

The question is, what can be done? People
here like to tell me, with that grim resignation that Palestinians
have been forced to perfect, “Our fate is written by God,
and if it’s your time to go it’s your time to go.” I’m
not terribly worried about my time for going, nor do I put much
stock in religious fatalism. I am, however, worried about what’s
happening right here, right now, just a ten minute drive away
in the little town that is said to have shielded Jesus in his
fragile first days. Bethlehem, a town so happy to receive pilgrims
and tourists praising the saints in peaceful times, now lacks
the protection of pious communities, unable to save the living,
breathing people who have done nothing to warrant this treatment;
nothing, that is, other than having been born the wrong nationality,
and in the wrong place.

I’m worried about what’s going to happen in the next few days
when the same brutal measures are taken against the refugee camps
that are only two minutes away in Ramallah. But at this minute
I’m especially worried about my friends in the Bethlehem refugee
camps, the camps that are, right now, having their guts pulled
out through their noses while the residents wait for their turn
to have their house torn apart while trying to keep their children
calm and away from the windows, out of range of snipers’ bullets.
I was comforted to learn that the house of a family I know has
not yet been searched. They think the Israelis have purposefully
skipped their house, believing them to be Christians, a different
kind of pass-over.

And all I can do is sit here and watch
the news and listen to the burping grumbles of the tanks, the
high pitched buzz of the unmanned drones, and the lung-rattling
thunder of the F-16s as they fly over Ramallah.

A friend in the US recently remarked, “How can we hear about
what’s happening to people in refugee camps and not be shocked?
We’re taught to feel sorry for refugees.” But it seems
that Israeli propaganda has been singularly successful, so much
so that the Palestinians are denied even the world’s pity. American
policy seems content to follow the belief, as Israeli propaganda
implies and its policy assumes, that every Palestinian is a potential
or actual gunman or terrorist or suicide bomber. That every
Palestinian warrants the suspicion or torture or death that the
Israeli soldiers deal out to him or her.

Certainly the young man, Samer Awis, deserved his death by disintegration
two days ago. He was a Palestinian man, after all, a refugee,
a member of an organization that actively opposes the occupation,
and the brother of another Palestinian activist whom the Israelis
have had their sights on for quite some time. That’s more than
reason enough to melt his body into the charred remains of the
little blue car he had been driving past a refugee camp in Ramallah,
isn’t it? Certainly the security of the Israeli state and the
security of its Jewish citizens warrants the taking of this,
surely satanic, life. (Never mind the fact that Israel had already
made an attempt or two on his elder brother’s life, never mind
the fact that his sister-in-law miscarried when shelling started
in their town some months ago, never mind his uncle’s years as
a political prisoner and demolished home, and never mind what
were surely his long-held dreams to return to the land stolen
from his family in what has now become Israel. Clearly, none
of that was punishment enough.)

But what of others, like the women and children of the Kweik
family, recently turned to bloody charcoal by a missile fired
from a US Apache helicopter in front of that same camp where
Samer lost his life? Well, maybe they didn’t deserve it as much
as this young man. But still, they are Palestinian, after
all, and they are probably related to someone the Israelis feel
threatened by. And anyway, we said we were sorry Maybe we won’t
do anything for all those traumatized teenage girls weeping and
fainting from grief for their classmates who died that grizzly
missile death, but a belligerent military occupation can really
only do so much

I woke up two nights ago when that missile was fired at Samer
sometime after midnight, and went smoothly back to sleep, comforted
by the fact that I heard no ambulance sirens. I assumed it was
just an attack at yet another already-destroyed PA building.
I was horrified to read the morning news and discover that,
no, the missiles had actually destroyed yet another human being.
While the large sums of (mostly EU) money going up in smoke
and coming down as rubble as Israeli F-16s and tank shells demolish
PA infrastructure does seem like something of a waste, an immoderate
effort at demonstrating to the PA who, really, is boss. But
aren’t human beings supposed to be sacred somehow, less dispensable
than the contents of state coffers and the probably poorly organized
PA filing cabinets? Aren’t we all supposed to distinguish between
the metal of Samer’s car or the Kweik family’s truck and the
flesh and blood and potential futures they contained? That humanitarian,
enlightenment philosophy apparently hasn’t yet shone upon Sharon
and Ben-Eliezer, Israel’s War Minister. Nor has it brightened
the dim bulb of President Bush or his administration, who are
content to fiddle and watch while people’s homes, hearts, and
murdered bodies are blazing in Palestine.

I finally did turn off the TV, unable to continue watching the
rows of men being herded around like dumb animals, only to be
interrupted by a call from a friend in Bethlehem. It happens
that he was at his brother’s house, outside the refugee camp
where he lives, when Israeli soldiers invaded the camp, put it
under curfew, and proceeded to trash the place, gather up all
the male residents-and, of course, kill some people. At his
brother’s house, stranded now, he had no milk for his four-month-old
baby girl. He had no pampers. He told me, with a voice strained
by exhaustion and frustration, that the Israelis permitted no
one to leave their houses, and his baby was going hungry.

I’ve met and held this baby, whose name seems to fit her calm
and philosophical countenance. They call her Sophia, which
means “wisdom”. I wonder what that little girl will
make of the stories her parents will surely tell her as she grows
up, about the time they were hiding from the occupation army
without any food. I wonder what effect growing up under a brutal
regime that corrals you, and brands you as suspect, a potential
target, simply by virtue of your nationality, will have on her
placid, smart demeanor. And I wonder how many more people are
going to be murdered and driven mad from grief and worry before
people start protesting effectively against this insanity.

Lori Allen
is a University of Chicago graduate student, currently conducting
research in the West Bank under the auspices of an SSRC grant.
She is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch.

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