Observations, Frustrations, Hope. February 19, 2003.


It's been around 6 weeks or so since I've been here. Much of the time feels incredibly boring, essentially having to hang out at home and suffer through incredibly crappy television shows or inane conversations with my roommate. I think I've watched more TV here than I have in the past ten years put together, from Friends to Buffy, from Dynasty to Full House, movies ranging from Miller's Crossing and Last Action Hero to Sleepless in Seattle and Scream 2. As well as the range of crappy Arabic programming (content-wise and technically) like Arabic versions of Who Wants to be a Millionaire (or a similar show called Your Weight in Gold), to interviews with Arab singers and movie stars, Arab music videos, incredibly stupid Egyptian comedy shows or incredibly badly-acted Syrian drama series. And of course news, usually on Al-Jazeera or sometimes a competing satellite channel called MBC (can't stand the sight of CNN), all of which is War on Iraq, deaths in Palestine and occassionally other stories like anti-war demonstrations, deaths in the underground in South Korea or snowstorms on the US East Coast. I occassionally buy the newspaper (the International Herald Tribune, bundled with Ha'aretz, the most "liberal" Israeli paper) and after I get through it, I wonder why I've bothered to spend the $1.80, as it frustrates me to no end to read news that doesn't at all jive with the realities on the ground here. If I have to read one more time that what Israel does is because of "security measures" I think I'll go insane!


I have to admit some narrow-mindedness on my part, which I'm quite ashamed of... Although I tried to come here with no pre-conceived notions, I did expect to be confronted with violence all the time, every where I go (although also recognize that I've been in the "safer" parts). I guess I internalized the images I'd seen on TV and in the papers for all those years, thinking that Palestinians (at least the young men or boys) spend all of their time throwing stones at military jeeps. And instead I find myself quite surprised that their lives are so "ordinary" in so many ways. Yeah it's true that they suffer interminably, that they have to go through checkpoints, get used to having their cars and taxis pulled over by soldiers and get arrested, that their houses get demolished, that an average of 7 people a day have been killed since I've gotten here, unemployment is over 70%, they don't have enough water to flush the toilets, their electricity gets cut off regularly, they live in the shadows of settlements; but it's equally true that they go to school, go to work, cook at home, dry their laundry outside for three days, drink tons of Coca Cola and eat Israeli-made chocolate bars, hang out with their families, hang out in the streets doing nothing violent or dangerous... At the same time I wonder how they can go on so normally with their lives. At this point I've grown incredibly frustrated at having to go through checkpoints, at waiting for 30 minutes while the soldier check the IDs of everyone in the cab (leaving the cab door open so that we all freeze), at reading or watching the news of yet more dead. I feel like I'm ready to explode sometimes, although fully recognizing that there isn't much I can do to change things - perhaps that's why I feel like I'll explode. But the people around me have just gotten used to these things and don't complain much; they take all of this in stride, sometimes even laughing about it. And I just stare in amazement that they're not all "martyrs"...

I am amazed that no matter how many new roadblocks and checkpoints go up, some still find means to hike through the muddy hills in a rainstorm to get to work or visit their wife and kids, sometimes getting killed or arrested on the way as a tank rolling through the hills catches them; I am amazed that no matter what economic hardships they suffer (no one at home has had income for over two years) they still serve me tea, coffee, juice and something to eat. I am amazed to see young couples in love spending their time together escaping in their embrace; I am amazed to see people cracking jokes and smiles. It's beautiful and sad at once - beautiful that human beings can be so strong, so steadfast in their desire to not only exist and survive, but to enjoy their lives; sad that their standards of hope and happiness are lowered every day. I feel like such an incredibly weak person next to some of the people I've met. I may be more educated, more well-traveled, wealthy, and certainly more free, but I don't have an ounce of the same resolve that they possess.

And yet sometimes I wish to shake them to awaken them to the reality that no one "out there" cares about them - as Palestinians - no one is coming to their rescue, the other Arab countries are impotent and paralyzed, the US is busy waging its wars trying to secure its empirical status, Israel is in complete denial as to the status of what it's doing to the Palestinians. I wish to shake them and scream at them "where is the hope? what is it that you think you will gain in the future? Can't you see that for the history of the Palestinian people, it's gotten progressively worse and worse? You've gotten poorer, your people are more and more dispersed, you've gotten less educated, you have no money, you have less and less freedom every year, you can't even get your store because of the wall that's built in front of your house?"... I think they know that, I must give them credit for it, they just don't like to admit it. For what would be the psychological impact of admitting the hopeless and disdainful status they're living in? Instead they all tell me - and each other - of the hope they have that the future will be better, although have no clue how that will happen (although having eight kids per couple is one way to at least increase the population, and "if two our kids get killed, then we'll still have six left"). Most of them admit the failures of their leadership yet don't want to see Arafat go; most of them will tell me, when they see me with a camera, that pictures and films won't help them, yet then ask me to photograph and film everything. They know that their history is depressing, has been one of less and less freedom, yet they still hope and claim that they are still fighting (although don't look like they are, instead are tucked away at home watching Hollywood programming).


I've learned a lot in these six weeks. I've learned that many of my questions do not apply only to Palestinians, but to humanity in general - wondering what the relationship is between normal everyday life and political change, wondering how political hope can be placed in the middle class when their only concern is economic prosperity, wondering how exposure to Western media and American culture combined with infrastructures still fifty years behind don't make people frustrated...


Some of the specific things I've learned have been to recognize the many contradictions that exist in Palestinian society and Palestinian consciousness. I try sometimes try to analyze them, with the tools I'm equipped with, like social theory, and I feel like I can do a good enough job of painting the picture, of explaining things, of recognizing all the inter-connected parts; but many times I still don't get it... Perhaps my biggest unanswerable question to date is: what is it that Israel wants? I understand what the Palestinians want, I've uncovered some of their problems and limitations (internally and beyond), I recognize America's strength and its will to maintain it, I know why the US is pro-Israel, I know about the lobbies, the guilt of not having gone to the rescue of Jews massacred in the Holocaust, of the mistakes the Arab regimes have made since the US has gained world-domination (and before), of the division that exists between East and West, of the limited understanding - or will to understand - the Arab and Muslim world... but I still don't get what Israel wants. I laugh at the Palestinians that I've met that ramble on about the conspiracy against them - whether they call it US-Israel, Christian-Zionist, the West, capitalism or whatnot - but I'm increasingly wondering what it is if it's not a conspiracy... The 16th Knesset (Israeli Parliament) convened on Monday with all new and returning Members of Knesset swearing in their loyalty to the State of Israel. Ehud Olmert (the previous mayor of Jerusalem and an outspoken anti-Palestinian racist) may have a seat in Sharon's new cabinet; the new mayor of Jerusalem is an ultra-right winger... The Israeli government claims that its presence in the West Bank is not technically an "occupation"- thereby it does not have to take responsibility for the actions its military takes in the area, nor for the lack of human rights, economic suffering or extra-judicial killings. I don't understand how the presence of checkpoints every mile or two; how soldiers stopping cars randomly, checking IDs and sending people to jail; how preventing anyone under the age of 35 from traveling around; how bombing neighborhoods, demolishing houses, building a 9 meter-high wall around Palestinian areas; how monitoring every media or Internet outlet; how preventing kids from going to school is not "occupation." What is it then if it's not a military occupation over an entire population?


They're handing out gas masks in Israel like they're hot cakes, "Saddam tape" is going at the rate of $10 a roll (ordinary thick tape for people to put around their windows and doors), Israelis are stocking up on water on toilet paper. Their government is looking forward to the war with Iraq - I'm not joking. Some American politician is in town this week, and the Israeli government is trying to urge him to attack Iraq (now damn it!) no matter world public opinion, no matter what France and Germany say, no matter what the UN says. And while the US is at it, won't it also please "take care of" Syria, Iran and Libya - for they too pose a threat to Israeli security? And why aren't those damned Europeans stopping financial aid to the Palestinians? Meanwhile, the Arab towns within Israel aren't getting their supply of gas masks and neither are the Bedouins (they are afterall Arab too). Forget about the Palestinians inside whatever is left of their territories. The Israeli government is not responsible to hand out gas masks to them, for all health and police matters dealing with the Palestinians fall to the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority. You know that governing body that's holed up in building surrounded by more rubble than is imaginable? Yeah, they are responsible for the well being of their people - although let's remind you that they weren't democratically placed there (but we do have one more request for you, put a Prime Minister in place, and don't bother about having him democratically elected so that later we can say that we don't want to deal with him either since he was placed there by none other than that stubble-wearing, lisp-speaking, shriveling old dictator Arafat). How exactly is the PA supposed to hand-out gas masks when its officials aren't even allowed to leave the shelled building, when the revenue from their taxes has been withheld for over two years now, when they're deemed a terrorist organization that should be abolished from the face of the earth, when they've become completely impotent, when the only hospitals that are still operating are under the rubrick of European donations and financing (and when will those damn Europeans stop supporting such terrorist activity as financing hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza Strip?) It's really hard not to see a conspiracy at hand.


What is it that Israel wants? I see its flag and remember that the two blue lines are representative of the Rivers Nile and Euphrates - is that it? A wish to expand its borders farther West and East? Obliterate Libya, since it's Egypt's neighbor, obliterate Iraq since that's where the Euphrates lies, and obliterate Syria since it's Israel's neighbor to the North (oh, the Golan Heights? We've built a ski resort up there! We not only make the desert bloom, but we turn mountains into Aspen-rivals!)... Meanwhile Palestinians and a lot of Arabs talk about a pan-Arab/Muslim awakening, in the face of American's crusade against Islam: Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine... I can't take them seriously. I think Arabs have talked of pan-nationalism of different sorts since well before Abdel-Nasser verbalized it. Such talk is crap. The Arabs' hands are tied, dictatorships being fed by the US, both knowing full well the impotency of the man on the street, of Arab public opinion. Instead, the masses are kept busy trying to survive and make ends meet, wondering where their next meal will come from, and meanwhile are bombarded with senseless Hollywood movies and "Radio Sawa" (the American radio station newly available throughout the Middle East, with stronger FM and AM signals than any other broadcaster around). In the end, the opinions of the masses don't matter, they're largely uneducated, narrow-minded, holding out for hope only in a growingly conversative interpretation of Islam, completely impotent, and anyone with half a brain immigrates to the West.


I visited the national radio broadcasting station yesterday in Ramallah - fully funded and supported by the Palestinian Authority. When Ramallah was attacked in the Spring of 2002, the second building to be bombed (all five floors wiped out entirely) was theirs (the first being the police station); there are no signs of the building except for a pile of rubble that I could not distinguish from the other piles around (a full square-kilometer of rubble on the outskirts of downtown). For 6 weeks the radio and TV stations could not broadcast, having lost all of their equipment; for 3 months after that the radio station would intermittently broadcast, depending on whether or not there were curfews, whether or not its employees could cross checkpoints, whether or not they were allowed to broadcast according to Israeli military censors. Today they're in operation again, on the air from 6am until 10pm daily. They have a small studio that they rent in downtown Ramallah, no more than 1000 square feet. Four or five people work there, on minimal pay (around 1000 NIS/month, about $240, or in the words of the news director "barely enough for rent and cigarettes"); often times the employees have been stuck in the office for days on end when curfews started in the middle of the day, or conversely stuck at home with no ability to get to work. They have one computer - whose Internet connection is monitored - no photocopy machine, no other electronics equipment, they try to recycle paper by writing down their news on the margins of paper that's already been used. Their programming has been almost completely been taken over by news; even the programs that deal with women's, children's, health or cultural issues have become outlets for "news" in not so clear forms, dealing with the problems of the occupation, military presence, economic hardship, lack of water and food, etc. I remember passing the national broadcasting corporation office in Amman, Jordan - a huge building, complete with a portrait of the king (previous and current), Jordanian flag flapping in the wind. Like most of the other Arab nations' national broadcasting corporations, Jordan's is full of ceremonial and unmeaningful programming about the leadership's excursions of the day; freedom of the press doesn't really exist over there, but certainly its physical presence is magnanimous. Extra-ordinarely, it's quite the opposite here. There is no longer a showing-off of wealth, but despite all the limitations the station has to survive with, one can certainly claim more freedom of expression and thought here - and it's dwindled since the start of the current Intifada. I was surprised to find that the head of news programming (remember, he's payed by Arafat through the PA) was quite willing to tell me of the limitations of freedom he must operate under - and he was not only referring to the limitations imposed by Israel. I was surprised to find out, that even though one may not consider the previous operation of the station fully "free", that they frequently broadcasted interviews and perspectives opposed to Arafat - whether Israeli, Hamas or other.


I'm not sure how I can explain such freedom of thought and expression among Palestinian institutions and people. There may be a number of factors, ranging from an exposure to a variety of media over the past 50-some years that have not always been pro-Palestinian; from the global presence of Palestinians that has impacted those still here; to having lived under various forms of domination (even before Israeli occupation) and having hence accepted to be collectively "disobedient" - forming more political parties than other Arab nations, indeed more than some Western nations, and being weary of media and politics in general; to being religously different...


Sitting in the broadcasting office, seeing its pathetically small existence, learning of its hardships, I couldn't help but relate its story to what I had seen in the Jenin refugee camp, the stories I've been hearing the whole time I've been here, what I've been learning by observing life here and talking to people. There is a steadfastness to keep going, no will to give up anywhere. Smash the building to smithereens and they will continue to operate on a minimal budget and limited funds and equipment. Raze half the camp and the people will clean up the mess and rebuild. Install checkpoints and people will hike through the mountains or buy cell phones to keep in touch with their families. Kill Hamas leaders and the people will still hold a mass funeral and vow to keep sending Qassam rockets over the Gaza border. No matter how small their "revolutionary" efforts are (blowing up a tank and killing four soldiers earlier this week) and no matter the retaliations, they still try hold on to the hope of a better future. No matter how illogical it sounds, the Palestinian people have taught me that I shouldn't give up on hope either - even if I too don't know what solutions are in store - that one should keep going, living, struggling, surviving in the face of unlimited and endless difficulty. There used to be a Japanese proverb that I used to like: fall seven times, get up eight. Multiply that to the power of ten and you've got a great description of Palestinian consciousness...

 

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