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What Really Matters

It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed since I wrote this piece, which was, at the time, an email update to friends and family. It’s even harder to believe it’s been a decade since the events this essay chronicles (the spate of bloody suicide bombings inside Israel, the large-scale invasion of much of the West Bank, and the flattening of a large section of Jenin Refugee Camp. 248 Palestinians and 53 Israelis were killed in April 2002.) But perhaps what’s hardest to believe is how little has truly changed in these last ten years. True, many details of the violence and occupation are different. But one essential element remains unchanged: it is human beings who are most impacted by the continuation of the conflict, and, as the possibility of a just peace grows more and more remote, it is their lives that are being utterly, and unforgiveably, disregarded. –JM

What Really Matters

Tuesday, May 7, 2002.

I woke up to the sound of an explosion.  I turned over to look at Amal, sleeping in the next bed.  She was still asleep.  Must be nothing big.

A few minutes later, the sound of shooting.

Amal was up now.  We moved to the window.

Amal’s house is high in the village, (her village, Silt il Daher, lies in between Jenin and Nablus) so it afforded a good view of the main road below.  Her sixteen year old brother’s school, off of the main road, could be seen in plain view from her window.

“Look!  There!  See, Jen?  They are running towards the school!”

There was an Israeli army jeep on the main road and a few soldiers.  I heard gunfire but I couldn’t see where it was coming from.

“Move away from the window!”  Hiba, Amal’s sister, urged.

“It’s OK, they’re shooting towards the school.  There, by the trees, going towards the school!”  I tracked where Amal was pointing.

I saw them—three young men in Israeli military uniforms running fast by the side of the school, crouching low, partially hidden from our view by a row of trees.  In a moment they were out of sight.  In a few more moments, they were running back the other direction, with two boys in tow.  The boys were pushed into the jeep, the soldiers jumped in and the jeep sped away.  The whole thing occurred in a span of less than three minutes.

I had no idea what I had witnessed and why.  From this distance, it had almost looked like a video game.  Amal had some more context to place the scene in.  Two Israeli settlements were located on the hill above Silt il Daher.  Every morning, at approximately the same time, a settler bus passed through the village, accompanied by army jeeps.  Most mornings, the bus was greeted by a volley of rocks chucked by boys on the side of the road.  The soldiers in the accompanying jeeps would often hurl either a “sound bomb” (otherwise known as stun grenade) in response, or sound-and-gas-bomb.  That much was routine; so much so, in fact, that Amal joked about the sound bombs serving as a pretty reliable alarm clock.

The shooting and arrests that followed were not quite as routine, although even that could not be labelled abnormal in Amal’s village.  Her brother’s school has been shot at several times and one time her brother himself had been shot in his ankle while inside his classroom.

“It will be hard for the boys to study  now,” Amal said.  “The bus will come back soon and when it does, something else might happen.  Everyone will be too excited.  Maybe they will close school early.”

We stayed by the window to wait for the bus to return.  While we were waiting, Amal’s sisters and little brother (Hiba, 12 years old, Salaam, 10 years old, and Mohammed, 6 years old) left the house to go to school, walking down the steep, rocky path that connected their house to the main road.  Little Mohammed’s backpack was almost half his size.

“Aren’t they afraid to go out into the street to school now?  What if the soldiers come back and shooting starts again?” I asked.

“They know this is the safe time to go.  Always we wait until the bus passes through before we leave the house.  After it passes, we leave quickly to get to school before it returns.”

The night before, Amal’s mother told us a story about Mohammed.  A little boy Mohammed’s age had been stopped a few days earlier by a soldier.

“Are you Fatah or Hamas?” the soldier asked the boy, naming the two largest Palestinian parties/factions.

“Fatah,” the little boy answered.  The soldier hit him.

When six-year-old Mohammed told Amal the story, she asked him how he would respond if a soldier asked him the same question.

Mohammed considered his options.  The other boy had said Fatah and had gotten hit.  “I’ll say Hamas,” he decided.

Amal laughed.  “If the boy got hit for saying Fatah, imagine what the soldier will do if you say Hamas?  He’ll shoot you!”

Amal laughed, but Mohammed didn’t get the joke.  Now, his mother told us, Mohammed is constantly afraid of being stopped by a soldier and being asked to choose between Fatah and Hamas.  You give the wrong answer, you get hit.  You give the other wrong answer, maybe you get shot.

Jenin Camp. Photo: Jen Marlowe.

Excluding the brief morning excitement, life in Amal’s village felt sleepy and peaceful.  We spent the afternoon exploring the hills around her village, walking through a tunnel that cuts through the mountainside where the train used to run all the way from Damascus to Saudi Arabia in the times of the Ottoman Empire, picking apricots in a valley orchard.  At night we sat for hours listening to music, smoking nargilla, and drinking cup after cup of dark Arabic coffee and sweet sage tea.

The next day, we passed through Jenin to cross back into the north of Israel.  My friends Tamer and Mustafa met me near Jenin refugee camp.  Tamer’s uncle lived in camp.  Tamer wanted to show me his house, and what had happened to the camp during the massive invasion just weeks earlier.

Tamer’s uncle’s house had been expropriated by the army to be used as base during the incursion.  I expected that the house would be dirty after being used by a large group of soldiers during a military operation.  I expected there to be empty food cans, mud tracked through, examples of property not being treated with respect, the house not being treated with care.

I was unprepared, however, for the level of wanton vandalism that I faced.

In the bedroom: the bed, legs broken.  The closet: doors smashed in with huge holes.  The walls:  bullet holes.  The hallway:  graffitti drawn on the walls—pictures of an elephant and the name of the Israeli army troop, a few Stars of David.  The bathroom:  door ripped off, the toilet smashed with big chunks out of it.  The family room:  furniture broken, TV in pieces.  The kitchen—counters shattered, refrigerator broken.  Broken glass and chunks of plaster from the wall and ceiling all over the floors.

Mustafa tried to inject a bit of dark humor. “You see, they had to break the toilet,” he said.  “It was a Terrorist Toilet.  You see this?  A Terrorist Door!”

“It was even worse before,” Tamer told us.  “In this room, they crapped all over the place.”

After leaving the house of Tamer’s uncle, we began walking through the refugee camp.  The destruction I saw around us was on a comparable scale to what I have seen before, in other refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, after other invasions.  Burned out stores, broken windows, bullet holes and gauges from tanks in walls, smashed store fronts.

We were walking down an alley when it came into view.

“Holy shit.”  Those were the only words I could utter at that moment.  I had never seen anything like it.

CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera…all the networks had filmed it.  The area of the refugee camp completely levelled by bulldozers.  But no TV screen could do justice to the enormity of it.  An area the size of two or three football fields turned into a blanket of chunks of concrete and twisted metal bars with hints of clothes and personal objects sticking out here and there, a testimony to some of what was buried underneath.

A man from the camp invited us for coffee in his home, which was located right on the perimeter of the destruction.  We climbed inside through a missing front wall.  We sat in a circle in plastic chairs as the man poured us coffee, staring in silence through what used to be his wall at the complete devastation in front of us.

We were told this man’s story.  We were told how many former houses lay in front of us.  We were told about the fate of some of the folks whose homes were among the rubble.  We were told a lot more…I did not hold onto a word.  My brain was not capable of digesting information.

We left the man’s house and began to walk across the remains of people’s homes, picking our way through, pieces of concrete crunching beneath our feet as we tried to avoid the personal items that had partially surfaced from the rubble.  We came upon makeshift tents….blankets supported on four corners by wooden or metal poles.  Families squatted there where their home used to be, waiting…for what?  For their homes to magically reappear?  For the rubble to be cleared and rebuilding to begin?  For someone to help, for someone to listen, for someone to change the past and give a hope for the future?  Did they sleep there?  Did they have another place they could go at night?  Were they being brought food by friends or family members?  I didn’t ask.

One woman asked me to take a picture of her and the others under her blanket/tent.  At least, I had thought she asked me to take her picture.  But perhaps she didn’t, because she seemed to grow angry as I turned on my camera.

“You see this?  America did this!”  she was yelling and smiling at the same time.  “I studied English!  I worked with Americans!  I loved America!  Look what they did!  American tanks!  American bulldozers!  Bush gave Sharon the green light!  He gave the green light!”   She was laughing and joking at the same time.  I don’t remember what the jokes were.  I don’t know what she was laughing about.  “What will we do?  Who will help us?  You came to take our picture, to laugh at us?  Do you feel with us?  Do you?”

I crouched down next to her to look her in the eyes to try and truly listen to her words, and the words behind her words.  She gripped my arm tightly as she shouted in my face, asking me if I felt with her.  I stumbled, trying to answer.  I have no idea what I said.

We continued crunching along.  We passed more tents, more people.  We made it to the street on the other side of the sea of rubble and were approached by very small children with dirty faces and terrified eyes and silent voices and no homes.  Double refugees.

Graffitti was all around, on half collapsed walls, broken beams, on the perimeters of the destruction where houses remained partially standing.  “War crimes don’t bring peace.” And  “We will not forget.  We will not forgive.”

A few days later, I was having coffee in Jerusalem with Efrat, Noam and Matan, high-school aged Israelis.  Matan wanted to hear about what I saw in Jenin.  I tried to describe it.

Noam made a sarcastic remark about the “alleged massacre” that occurred in Jenin camp.  Noam didn’t feel much sympathy for Palestinians.  Noam said these days, he hates all Arabs.  Noam had been through a lot recently.

The previous summer, there had been a bus bombing near Jerusalem.  One of those killed had been an acquaintance of Noam’s.  It was on a bus line that Noam took regularly.

“It’s gonna be me one day, I know it!”  Noam was laughing when I called him from America to see how he was doing.

That fall, there was a bombing in the center of Jerusalem, in an area where teens hang out regularly.  Noam was there, and had been knocked off his feet by the force of the explosion.

“Are you staying away from down town?” I asked him a few days later.

“Hell, no!  My friends and I went back to the same café and sat in the exact same seats the next night!”

Three bombing/shooting attacks later, and it almost became a joke.  If you wanted to be safe in Jerusalem, it had nothing to do with staying away from crowded places or downtown or busses.  It was all about staying away from Noam.  If there was an attack, Noam would be nearby, sometimes closer than others.  Five out of the last seven attacks in Jerusalem he had witnessed.

Noam was not a witness when his best friend was killed.  His friend was doing a pre-army training and was based in Gaza.  The base was infiltrated by Palestinian gunmen.  Noam heard about the attack from a mutual friend shortly after it happened.  He had a bad feeling when he tried to contact his friend on his mobile and another guy on the base answered it.  The guy told Noam his friend was okay.  Noam knew he was being bullshitted.

Noam stopped sleeping.  The week before, he told me, he fell asleep two nights out of the week, for about three hours each time.  When he did sleep, he had nightmares.

There are people on all sides of this conflict, eager to defend why their side’s violence is justifiable, why the other sides’s violence is deplorable.  Many will jump to explain why their dead are the only victims.

I have grown increasingly intolerant of those claims over the years.  There is injustice, there is brutality, there is senseless killing.  I have my own strong opinions and perspectives about how the bloodshed started, what steps should be taken to stop it, what steps should have been taken to prevent it.

But the refugees in Jenin are not an opinion.  Noam’s sleepless nights are not a perspective.  Amal’s six year old brother walking to school in between  the bus coming and going with a backpack half his size afraid of being asked a question that he won’t know how to answer, is not a point of view.  The families of the victims in all the attacks that Noam was near and managed not to be a casualty of are not a political debate.

What will it take so that Amal, Noam, Mohammed and the millions of other people suffering to greater and lesser degrees are what matters most?

JEN MARLOWE is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, author, playwright, human rights advocate, and founder of donkeysaddle projects. Her current book is, The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker, (Nation Books) co-written with and about Palestinian peace activist Sami Al Jundi. Her previous book was Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival. You can follow her on twitter at @donkeysaddleorg or on Facebook at donkeysaddle projects.

 

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