Al-Bireh, Ramallah. “Oh God, please tell Sharon to end the curfew by this Saturday so I can go to school.” This is how my secular, eight year old daughter, Areen, has put herself to sleep for the last two weeks. Areen, like so many others here, have turned to the divine powers to intervene in ending the five-month Israeli military curfew that is imposed on Palestinian cities, villages and refugee camps in the West Bank. As post 9-11 global diplomacy patiently deliberates about how to proceed after the failure of the Oslo Peace Accords, Israel is systematically destroying Palestinian livelihood, and with it, any hopes for a future reconciliation between the two peoples.
Israel’s systematic destruction of everything Palestinian is not new, at least not to the Palestinians who have survived, thus far, decades of Israeli destruction. What is disturbing, however, is that this destruction is being done in full view of the world community. To add insult to injury, the destruction of our lives is openly discussed and agreed to by Israeli judicial and political institutions.
Setting aside the political assassinations, the military onslaught that took place when Israel violated the Oslo Accords by invading Palestinian-controlled areas, the F-16’s and the 60-ton Merkava battle tanks that have rampaged Palestinian cities for two years now, the thousands of Palestinian civilians and some elected officials that have been imprisoned without charge or trial, the acres of olive groves that have been bulldozed, the Israeli settlements that have never ever stopped growing, setting aside all of this and much more, I would like to focus on a less visible aspect of this systematic Israeli destruction of Palestinian livelihood.
It is casually termed in an Israeli military euphemism as curfew. It is better described as military curfew. In a more legal, human rights terminology it is called collective punishment, and as a pen-pal recently pointed out to me, it is more accurately described to a western audience as a lockdown. Call it what you will, the continuous policy of forcing, at gunpoint and tank barrel, 1.5 million Palestinians to remain in their homes is one of the most sophisticated forms of violence around, only to be outdone by the occupation itself.
Some who attempt to justify Israeli occupation will say curfew is much less brutal than other means the Israeli army regularly uses, and thus should not be spoken about in such harsh terms. For the sake of argument, let me explain in a personal sense, especially to my Israeli neighbors, what curfew does to individuals, families, businesses, and schools. I will let each reader reach their own conclusions on what the world should expect from Palestinians, let alone Palestinian refugees, in the coming years.
First, an Israeli military curfew is not a limited curfew that is sometimes applied to minors in various American cities. When Israel applies a curfew upon Palestinians it is total, comprehensive and unannounced. Businesses close, schools dismiss, government offices lock their doors, pharmacies are closed, and medical services are, for all intent and purpose, inaccessible to the public. How is this so? This total closure is accomplished by Israeli jeeps, tanks and armored personnel carries roaming the narrow Palestinian streets with loud speakers notifying all, in an awful Arabic accent, to go home. This announcement is regularly accompanied by rapid machine gun fire in the air and the exploding of tear gas canisters and stun grenades in the open markets to make sure people get the message. If the closure takes place in midday, within a maximum of sixty minutes the city will turn into a ghost town. If the closure is announced during early morning hours (5am-7am), as has increasingly been the case, the city never wakes up.
While under curfew/lockdown families are confined to their homes. With 50% of Palestinians living in households averaging 7 persons, of which 91% of the households live in overcrowded conditions — more than 1 person per room (source: ) — parents and children alike become quickly agitated. Add to this that after nearly two years of continuous Israeli destruction, the Palestinian economy is in severe recession and thousands of families are not able to stockpile enough basic food stuffs to get them through until the next lifting of the curfew. Per capita real income declined by 12 percent for year 2000 as a whole, and by a further 19 percent in year 2001. Additionally, the share of the Palestinian population now living below the poverty line (US$2 per person per day) is currently estimated at 45-50 percent (source: )! These startling numbers don’t faze the Israeli leaders, who continue to send their soldiers to wreak havoc on our lives. Israelis, soldiers and citizens alike, have come to the ludicrous belief that the more Palestinians are battered the more Israeli cities and civilians will be safe. It is a sad state of mind, just as sad as thinking that bombing Iraq will promote U.S. interests at home and abroad.
After a day, or two, or three – or in the case of Nablus, 66 – of being locked down for 24-hours one’s nerves become on edge. Physically, the lack of exercise starts to set in and muscles become stiff. Even when the curfew is lifted for a few hours one does not have time to think about anything but stockpiling food for the next lockdown and rushing to work in an attempt to do a week’s tasks in 4 or 6 hours. Personally, I have two slipped discs that require me to regularly walk for exercise. For five months, we have been imprisoned every evening by Israeli curfew and thus walking the streets of Ramallah, absorbing the summer’s cool night breeze, is condemned to our memories. The physical price I pay is living with a continuous electric current that flares down the back of both of my legs and awaking many nights to painful leg cramps. My two girls, Areen and Nadine, 2 years old, are starting to show the lack of exercise in their physical build. My wife, Abeer, miraculously is able to stay fit as she holds together our family life by keeping up with the household chores, continuously playing with our girls in order to keep their attention off the occasional tank or jeep that comes rumbling down our street, and rationing our supplies just in case the intermittent lifting of the curfew is cancelled.
From a business perspective the situation is extremely bleak. Although we go through the motions of being employed when curfew is lifted, deep down inside we know better than to think we can sustain this pace for much longer. The great majority of companies have lost their business feasibilities and many have already lost their ability to keep employees onboard. The significant business concerns that remain active in the economy do so out of a national duty to their country and employees and with a progressively diminishing hope that the end of occupation is near. For those lucky enough to still have a job, the majority are having curfew days deducted from their salaries. This deduction amounts to workers getting paychecks that are cut by 10-50%, depending on the month. An increasing number of Palestinians who have the ability to do so have chosen, or were forced, to leave Palestine in search of employment elsewhere. In the beginning of the Intifada, this was limited to individuals; today entire companies are contemplating taking their operations elsewhere. For those of us remaining home, the natural aspiration of career-building has been replaced by a slow recognition that we are rapidly falling behind in our professions and may never be able to get back on track – a daunting personal realization, especially for those that have the luxury to leave.
For students, the nerve-racking reality that schools and universities will be disrupted for yet another year is inexplicable. Throughout thirty-six years of Israeli occupation, Palestinians prided themselves on having one asset that not even the harshest policies of the occupation could take away – their minds. Traditionally, education was second only to family in Palestinian life. Universities managed to hold classes and graduate students throughout many year of crisis. Day-cares, elementary schools and grade schools never faced conditions that caused their prolonged closures or forced sustained disruptions. But today, with the seemingly calm Israeli policy of curfew, all of this has changed. As the words of my daughter depict, even third-graders are feeling the structural damage that is being caused by the disruption of the educational system by the curfews. To add additional complexities to the policy of destruction, the curfews are accompanied by closures, which separate every Palestinian population center from the every other, thus putting Israeli military roadblocks and checkpoints between students and their school or university. Some villages have actually had Israeli Caterpillar bulldozers dig up the roads leading in and out of the village and replace them with mounds of dirt. These Palestinian villages, for the past 24 months, amount to open air prisons, worthy of using the word lockdown instead of curfew. In short, it is now common knowledge in Palestine that an entire generation has been sentenced by Sharon to illiteracy, or at best, ignorance.
Setting aside the fear instilled in every household by yet another Israeli military phenomenon of house-to-house searches, which take place day and night while the curfews are imposed, this is how we have lived for the last five months. If my youngest daughter exemplifies the effect of curfew on Palestinian children, then her first set of words – “dabbabeh” (tank), “naqelet jonnood” (personnel carrier), “tayyara” (fighter jet) – portray the challenge we face to rehabilitate an entire generation. A ray of hope may be that she sometimes refers to Israeli soldiers as, “Ammou” (uncle).
Those of us that have not lost any family members to this madness feel lucky. Those of us that still have all of our utilities intact cannot complain. Those of us that can claim to still be employed are thankful to those investors that remain engaged in Palestine. Those of us that are lucky, cannot complain and are thankful are rapidly becoming a minority in Palestine.
Word on the street has it that we will be under 24-hr curfew/lockdown throughout the upcoming Jewish holidays. As my Israeli neighbors prepare for their holiday season, I wonder if they would join my daughter’s nightly prayer for her school to open as scheduled. In the meantime, we will continue to build our state between curfews.
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman living in the besieged Palestinian City of Al-Bireh in the West Bank. He is co-author of HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994). He can be reached at: email@example.com.