A Sensitive Topic. March 6, 2003.
A sensitive topic that I dislike to discuss is suicide bombings, or martyr attacks as they are sometimes referred to. Even thought I’m spending time in the Palestinian Territories and Israel trying to learn about the political realities here, I feel reticent to ask people what they think about the attacks. I suppose I find it such a surreal event that I’m not really sure how to approach it. I feel much the same way talking to people about difficult or sad events, such as a loved one’s death, how someone became handicapped or how they survived the Holocaust. I feel it’s none of my business, plus I wouldn’t know how to react.
Yesterday a suicide bomber attack took place in Haifa, killing 15 Israelis and wounding tens of others. I was at home listening to music and had no idea of the world around me. In the afternoon I went to a nearby Internet café. Everything around me seemed normal. The café that I go to is close to a checkpoint; there was a long line of cars and taxis waiting to pass, but that is nothing surprising here. My phone rang and a friend of mine asked me if I’d hear about the attack. “What attack?” I said.
Later in the afternoon I went to buy some groceries. The local grocer refers to me by name now and knows what I usually buy without my even having to ask him. Yesterday his brother and nephew were visiting him from Jerusalem. The nephew, a 2 year-old, was standing on the counter making a mess of the chocolate bar display. The grocer introduced me to his brother: “she’s the girl from America doing research here.” The brother said hello and immediately asked me if I’d heard about the attack. I said yes, he waited for more. “I get sad every time I hear of an attack happening because I know that the Palestinians will eat shit afterwards as retaliation” I whispered. He was about to respond, but someone walked in. The woman walked up to the counter, squeezed the kid’s cheeks, and asked him “did you hear about the attack?” The kid was still busy rearranging the chocolates. I paid and left, not wanting to give my opinion.
As I walked home it was hard to ignore the hearsay around me. People were talking: “I’m going home to watch the attack on TV. We haven’t had an attack in two months... He (the suicide bomber) must have been from Jenin because the attack was in Haifa and killed more than ten people, ‘cause you know those Jeninies always carry out the largest attacks... They’re going to get their asses kicked in Gaza tonight... Here we go again…” Thoughts were swimming in my head. I know that the Palestinians can’t be generalized into a collective group of people that all think alike, instead they hold a spectrum of thoughts. I’ve met many that are opposed to suicide attacks, many that are indifferent to them, and many that are in favor of them. I’ve come to understand the two opposing views – not by asking people, since I have reservations about it, but because people like to talk (thankfully for me).
Perhaps there is no need to get into great detail about why people are opposed to suicide attacks, so a brief explanation will suffice. Such people recognize that suicide attacks do not help the larger political cause, and instead allow Israel to carry out even more attacks against the Palestinians. Every time there is a suicide attack things get worse in the Territories: checkpoints are closed, military Jeeps swarm everywhere, air bombings happen night and day, homes get bulldozed, targeted killings of wanted terrorists take place and with them civilian casualties.
Those who are in favor of the attacks think it’s a strategic defensive – or perhaps even offensive – against the “Zionist Entity” – i.e. Israel. In the name of religion they rationalize that every Israeli citizen (a non-Muslim ‘infidel’) firstly is occupying Muslim land, and secondly is not to be regarded as a civilian since every citizen must serve in the military (except Hassidic Jews, Bedouins and Israeli Arabs, the latter two on a voluntary basis). So claiming that the suicide bombers are killing civilians becomes a matter of more than just semantics, but rather a recognition that every Israeli has at one time been or will be part of the occupier’s military. The larger strategy may be warped, but it relies on the fact that many Israelis are immigrants and quite a few of them hold citizenships elsewhere, or have the option to take up citizenship in the countries from which their parents or grandparents fled. As it is, about 300,000 Israelis already hold passports of one European nation or another; close to one million Israelis are eligible for European citizenship – especially as the EU expands to include Eastern European countries. About 100,000 Israelis hold U.S. passports. And countless others have or are eligible for citizenship in other countries from Latin America to the Caucauses. Hamas, and to some extent Islamic Jihad, thinks that by attacking Israelis in their cities and towns, instilling a sense of fear in the average people, and ruining the economic prospects of Israel, will lead many Israelis to wonder whether in fact they really want to stay in Israel, or perhaps act on the option of “returning” to their countries of origin. Hamas’ attacks are specifically targeted at the middle class of Israeli society, the economic hot bed of activity and hope for the financial security and growth of the nation. Make the people scared to ride the bus or hang out at a fast food joint, make a parent worry about the safety of a kid’s journey to school (as was the case yesterday), and eventually the parent will opt for a safer future for his child, which is possible back in France, England, the U.S. or Poland. This is already happening, many middle class Israelis are sending their college-age kids to study abroad – and Jewish immigration is at a fourteen-year low; although Hamas’ dream of emptying the land of Jews is a long way off, if not a completely unrealizable – and un-humanitarian – dream.
This is not to say that the suicide attacks are not in part a retaliation for attacks against Palestinians, they are that too. In the past week tens of Palestinians have been killed, many of whom were innocent civilians and indeed children. The day before the suicide attacks, the Israeli military stormed into an Internet café in Jenin and killed three people; in the Gaza Strip homes were demolished and another five people lost their lives. Since the last suicide bombing attack on January 5th (in the market of Tel Aviv where mostly migrant workers were killed), 154 Palestinians have lost their lives, over a hundred homes have demolished, dozens of metal workshops and small businesses have been aerially bombed. So the Haifa suicide attack was in part retaliation for the events of the past two months.
As of yet, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack. It is assumed that the suicide bomber was a 21 year-old from Hebron. I can imagine that his life was not much to live for. Hebron is perhaps one of the worst places to be living in as a Palestinian. A microcosm of the larger conflict, Hebron is one of the most contested, violent and depressing places, where the Israeli Occupation is at its most tangible. A population of over 400,000 Palestinians has been subjugated to tight curfews for the past year; the checkpoints around Hebron are known to be the roughest and most dangerous, with people often getting killed, tortured, subjugated to the “lottery system” (see report in January) or humiliated. Unlike in other areas where Palestinians are the majority of the population, and settlers sensibly live on nearby hills, in Hebron the few thousand settlers live in the middle of city’s center, under the protection of as many soldiers; and are known to be the most hard-liners of all settlers, mostly American-born Jews. Their city-center settlements have expanded at rates faster than other places in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In the meantime, the economic and social center of the city has been made off limits to the Palestinians. Unemployment rates among the Palestinians of the area hovers around 75%. The military is in the process of expanding a colossal brick wall (mis-leadlingly referred to as a “fence”) in the middle of the main street; as well as bulldozing and confiscating homes all around the city in order to extend the wall, along with electrified wire-fencing, closed-circuit cameras and reams of razor wire. Hebron boasts a degree of turbulence that’s remarkable even by local standards; as well as a degree of destitution by the Palestinians that’s unmatched in most other areas. The contrast between the living conditions of the settlers and the local villagers is more blatant than elsewhere. One group lives in modern, comfortable housing, enjoys cheap rent and other financial benefits, has a reliable power source, priority access to the limited fresh water supply, their own immaculately maintained road and transport network. The Palestinian group, to put it simply, does not, yet lives within full view of the luxuries of the settlers.
I can’t say that I relate to the strategy or tactics of Hamas or the suicide bombers in general. In fact I can’t say that I am in favor of any violent attacks at all. But I try to understand the reasoning behind people’s opinions, or indeed the reasoning behind people’s actions. What I find most disturbing however is listening to those who are indifferent to the suicide bombings. When I repeated my line to such a person yesterday about the Israelis now retaliating against the Palestinians for the attacks, the reaction was “what difference does it make. Tens of Palestinians are dying every day. So now they will kill ten more. It’s no different when there is a suicide attack or when there isn’t. We still get killed, no matter what.” Walking along the main street in town, another person told me “so let a few of them die. We’re dying every day. Eight people died yesterday. You think it’s going to be different tomorrow because of a suicide attack?” What was I suppose to respond? I mustered up some courage: “But… you’re not getting any sympathy from the rest of the world when a Palestinian suicide bomber kills Israelis. You will continuously be called terrorists…” We stopped walking, he looked me and said “World opinion? It’s already against us. No one cares about the Palestinians. No one makes our deaths headline news. When was the last time you saw one of those CNN or BBC reporters go to the scene of Palestinian deaths? It doesn’t matter what we do. We take Israel’s shit everyday and we get killed. We make peace and we get killed. We kill, we also get killed. So what.” I tried to interrupt, but he continued “and all this time we still get called terrorists. That’s the way the world wants to see us… So another ten Palestinians will get killed tonight, and another ten tomorrow. This is something new?”
Back at home that evening, it struck me how cheap lives have become. Perhaps those who are indifferent have a point. Eleven people were killed overnight in Gaza, hundreds wounded. The military is back inside the old city of Nablus, having moved to the outskirts only two days ago. I know the Palestinian death-toll will be more than eleven by day’s end. Perhaps if there had not been a suicide attack, only eight Palestinians would have died. The Israeli government just issued a statement that the attacks on Gaza last night were not part of the retaliation but a separate issue. So the retaliation will still come. In the meantime, Palestinians are still getting killed everyday. Since I’ve been here the Palestinian death-toll has nearly reached 200, that’s an average of a little over 4 a day. This is ordinary, even I’ve gotten used to it, thinking of the deaths in terms of totals and averages, in terms of statistics rather than human beings.
The humanity is all but gone in this conflict, whether one looks at the suicide bombings, the Palestinian deaths, whether one listens to the words espoused by those in favor of the attacks, or those who are indifferent to it, whether one listens to the dwindling peaceniks on the Israeli side or the political hawks. No one seems to recognize anymore that these are human beings we’re talking about – on both sides. Daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, students, laborers… dreamers, budding artists, future doctors, lovers, craftsmen, regular human beings with fears, hopes and dreams.
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