The Absurdity of Waiting for the Unknown. March 18, 2003.
Read an American newspaper: the war is starting, hundreds of thousands of troops are prepared to invade Iraq and surround Baghdad. Watch Israeli news: people are sealing up their rooms and have already picked up their emergency kits. Read between the lines: war will happen regardless of public opinion, French stubbornness or whether or not Saddam really has weapons of mass destruction. Talk to Palestinians: you get an array of responses.
Palestinians seem to live in a delusional world, rarely confronting reality the way an outsider would expect them to. It’s difficult to understand. One must look back at their historical situation to perhaps get into their psychology. “The world will eventually wake up and help us.” “Justice is on our side.” “God is on our side.” It’s a common belief among Palestinians that eventually their political situation will be solved, indeed more often than not, by the larger political forces outside. It’s seldom seen as a possibility to change the system of occupation from within. Israeli public opinion needs to change, American political pressure needs to be applied… Even those who blame Arafat for the failures of the past argue that he has absolutely no negotiating or compromising power left. He’s trapped in his compound, he’s losing his mind to old age and his surrounding clan is rudderless.
With the war looming in Iraq, it’s common to hear Palestinians think that this may be a good thing. You’d think it’s because of the rhetoric that democracy will spread to the Middle East. Well that’s not the case in the eyes of some Palestinians. War is good because Saddam may really have weapons (of mass destruction, biological or chemical, traditional, whatnot) hidden below the sand in the wide desert areas of Iraq. And he’s going to use them. He’s going to attack Israel, he will hit Dimona (Israel’s nuclear power center in the Negev), he will bomb Tel Aviv. Oh he will attack Israel and that’s a good thing. A large war will start and somehow the Palestinians will come out on top. They don’t seem to recognize that Israel this time around is plugged in to American military sources so that if a missile were to be launched from Baghdad, the Israelis would not have a three-minute delay like in the first Gulf War, but would be able to retaliate right away. They don’t seem to recognize the powerful array of weapons the U.S. has at hand, such as their microwave technologies that might very well stop all electronic transmission. No, the Palestinians are convinced that Iraq is on their side, that the Iraqi people are the only Arabs left that care about the plight of the Palestinians, and that Saddam Hussein, no matter how insane and dictatorial and dangerous he is, has the Palestinians in mind. Some even wish for the war to break out and Palestinians to get killed as well. “It’ll solve our problem once and for all.” It’s delusional to say the least.
But the Palestinians hang on to every bit of hope, no matter how absurd it seems. It’s as if they have no choice but to hope, for their daily reality is quite destitute. But what seems more absurd is waiting for the war to happen. Not sure when it will happen, how, for how long, or what the consequences here will be.
No one knows what will happen in the Palestinian Territories. There are many scenarios at play. One: nothing. The usual business of clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian children and militants will go on; the roads between cities and villages will still be closed; pseudo-occupation will continue as is. Two: sealing off cities, towns and villages by closing down the checkpoints and forbidding any traffic from going in between towns – not that different from the current situation but a bit more difficult to get around. Three: Sealing off cities and enforcing curfews, whether for 23 hours a day, for 5 days in a row or an unknown period of time. Four: strict curfews with almost complete military occupation of the Territories. If one looks out the window he will be shot by a sniper. Five: military incursion, which would include all of the above, but be accompanied by more severe attacks against the Palestinian population and whatever is left of the infrastructure. Six: throwing out Arafat from the Territories into exile along with the 8000 or so political prisoners held in Israeli jails to be dispersed around the world, leading to mass chaos, protests and demonstrations among the Palestinians – along with manifold deaths. Seven: Saddam really does attack Israel with biological or chemical weapons and hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians die. No one knows what he/she is supposed to if this scenario comes to fruition.
All non-essential foreigners have been evacuated from Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Most of them will be out of the country by Wednesday. A few remain behind, at their own risk and with no guarantee of being escorted out. The Israeli-Jordanian border has been closed on and off over the past week. The Israeli-Egyptian border has been closed for a while already. The foreigners are scared; their loved ones call them from France and the UK and tell them that on the national news it was reported that the Palestinian Territories are to be locked down, closed off and tight curfews. “Get out” they say, and so they do. Some may feel like traitors leaving their Palestinian friends, students and co-workers behind; but in the end they choose to leave. Maybe they watch too much foreign media and are instilled with a sense of fear. No matter how long they have worked and lived here, they don’t seem to have internalized the Palestinian approach to the unknown.
Few Palestinians seem scared. There are some – usually the women – who have gone on shopping sprees in order to buy provisions for the worse scenarios. Their lists are huge: bread, flour, sugar, salt, water, rice, pasta, canned foods, extra gas tanks, crackers, cookies, batteries, battery-operated radios, candles, lighters, matches, a deck of cards, books, coloring books for the kids, antibiotics, extra blankets, band aids and gauze. Charcoal and salt – in order to crush and put inside a bandana for a make shift gas mask. Onions in order to sustain tear gas attacks. Some have even bought sand to put in bags, others bricks to line up around the outside of the house. Most however are un-phased by talk of curfews, incursions and wars. “Even if there was a war in Japan, we would be affected” yet at the same time they’re used to living in the world of unknown. The young men have no fear. If there are curfews they will still find means to get out of the house and buy food and cigarettes, they’ll just have to avoid the main streets and time how long the tanks take to circle the town and go out behind them. They won’t go to work and are upset that they may not see their girlfriends for a while, but they’re not worried. The little kids have even less fear, thinking instead that any military presence will give them more opportunities to throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the soldiers – much to the dismay of their mothers.
It’s the first time I get confronted with decisions as to whether or not I should evacuate the country, whether I should head out of the Territories into Jerusalem or Israel, whether I should be out buying water and bread and a slew of other things. I talk to my friends and I get an array of responses. “Get out, go to the Jordanian border and get on a plane tomorrow out of the Middle East.” “Stay and experience Palestinian lifestyle during war.” I try to plan, but it feels absurd. I try to think, but my mind just wanders in circles to no end. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or tonight, so I just go on planning an hour at a time. I can’t think beyond a few hours from now. It drove me crazy at first. Now I think I’ve learned part of the Palestinian method of survival: don’t think too far ahead, don’t plan, don’t strategize, just take it one step at a time. If there are no curfews consider yourself lucky. If there are curfews and incursions, you’ll manage to get through them. It’s the Palestinian approach to everything.
Impending war on Iraq; the possibility of Israel getting attacked; the possibility of Israel increasing occupation and military presence in the Palestinian Territories… It doesn’t matter what it is that’s happening in the world around us, we can only survive day by day. And such has been the entire history of Palestinians it seems. Feeling like they can’t ever plan ahead, whether individually or collectively. Maybe a young man has a date tomorrow, but he’s not sure if he’s going to be able to make it because the military will occupy his building. Maybe a father wants to go to work tomorrow, and he’ll find the checkpoint closed and the escape route through the hills filled with military tanks and jeeps and he’ll be stuck at home. Maybe a mother wants to go to the dentist and she’ll find out that the dentist was held up at the checkpoint and couldn’t get through. Maybe a group of girls want to go shopping to buy some Spring-time sweaters, and there would have been a suicide attack in Israel somewhere and the military would start retaliating and in course of bombing a suspected militant would have blown the shop to pieces as well. Maybe a young woman wants to go to University next year, but the Intifada would be in full force, the University will be locked down and a new checkpoint would have come up right in front of her house. Maybe a group of women want to gather at a friend’s house to chit chat and it was decided years ago that the home of the woman is in Israeli territory and will be demolished in the middle of the night. Maybe there would be talk of a peace process, of a new road map, of new negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, and war with Iraq happens.
Palestinian lives are filled with a sense of unknown, not quite oblivion, but a sense that to plan is worthless since the forces outside are what control the facts on the ground in the Palestinian Territories. Things can change tomorrow and no one knows to what extent or to which scenario. So instead people go on a step a time. Palestinian politicians seem to have internalized the same approach, feeling like thinking a few months or decades ahead is absurd. And so the cycle of the unknown and the indefinite continues for everyone. Palestinians are not waiting for Godot, they have no idea what they’re waiting for.
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