When occupation is the least of your worries. Report 6, June 2005.
Every society has its hierarchies, the wealthy, the poor, the urban, the rural, and so on. But often times in the face of a common enemy differences are put aside and a sense of collectiveness and unity prevails. Not so here, it seems.
Palestinians have long had social classes and their ensuing hierarchies, whether it be the land owners and the farmers, the educated and the illiterate, the Muslim and the Christian, the merchants and the teachers. When referring to the "catastrophe" of 1948, it's the loss of land, lives and nation that is most mourned for, the forced exile, the foreign domination, the disruption of life. The numbers vary, but hundreds of thousands of refugees were forced to flee, and a large number of them fled into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The same happened again in 1967 when the "official" Israeli occupation began forcing more Palestinians into the refugee camps that litter the holy land's landscape. Many of these refugees were land owners themselves, wealthy merchants, sailors and traders, educators, from different socio economic strata, but they were all equal in the face of exile and expulsion and arrived in the refugee camps with not much more than the clothes on their backs. Undoubtedly they were helped by the locals, but hospitality waned quickly when the refugees were forced to survive, took on employment, started their own businesses, tried to integrate into the disrupted society, and essentially competed over the scarce resources.
Almost 60 years after their initial expulsion, many of the elder generation and their offspring still live in camps. As individuals some have claimed success, whether that means amassing wealth, gaining an advanced education, setting up profitable businesses, becoming artists and film-makers, educators and medical doctors, government officials and bankers. But the majority haven't fared so well, even though one is hard-pressed to say that the Palestinian people as a whole have fared well over the past decades. The occupation has played a huge role in preventing collective progress, of that there is no doubt. But when a Palestinian admits that he wants to leave his homeland because of internal problems and that the occupation is the least of his troubles, it's disconcerning.
"Of course the checkpoints and the wall are a pain in the ass. But it's not because of them that I want to leave… It's because of social problems that we have." So claims one young man whose story is representative of the deep-seeded internal problems and discrimination that exist in Palestinian society.
B is what we would call in the West a self-made man, or at the least on the way to becoming one. He comes from a poor farming family, the youngest of fourteen children. His father, originally a Bedouin, was kicked out of his home in 1948 and grew up in a refugee camp in the Southern part of the West Bank. B grew up raising sheep, finding entertainment in climbing trees. He never imagined as a child the things that he has so far achieved. As with many Palestinians B felt early on that education was an important part of his individual national struggle. He gained a scholarship to the premiere university in the Territories, and graduated top of his class. It was during his time in university that he first experienced class differentiation and discrimination, when kids from wealthier urban families would be upset that B had scored better grades than they, making claims that poor village kids from the South and from refugee camps couldn't possibly be smart enough to be in college, let alone score the highest grades. He saw some of his classmates from similar backgrounds dismiss their origins, pretending to be something they were not, trying at any expense to belong to the elite cliques at school. B didn't feel that forsaking one's familial background was justification for any cause, until he fell in love with a girl from an urban family. He fought hard to win his family's support to accept a marriage with a young woman from a different background, but when her turn to fight for B arrived, she froze before her parents' discrimination. How could she find anything to love in a villager, a refugee, a Southerner? It mattered not that B was educated and now working at a prestigious NGO, making enough money to buy a nice apartment in a good neighborhood; it only mattered that his background was from a lower standard.
In the midst of the Second Intifada, one of B's close friends from his refugee camp was shot by an Israeli soldier. At the time every person shot, no matter how, was given a large funeral procession through the streets of the city he lived in. But B's friend, being considered a "foreigner" in the city he had resided in for more than twelve years was only afforded a small turnout for his funeral. During the public procession, a man sitting at a coffee ship asked, "is he a local? No. Then forget it," and went back to playing cards. The next week, when a local man died from his gun shot wounds after having been in the hospital for a few days, the whole city turned out in respect for its local martyr. Even in death it seems, discrimination would follow those from villages and refugee camps.
After struggling to overcome unrequited love and working in various places for a few years, B went abroad, gaining a scholarship for further studies. Among the few dozens Palestinians who were awarded the scholarship, it is well known that B ended up with a graduate degree from a leading university in the West. While abroad, B went broke. He went around the city he lived in hoping to find some menial part-time work and figured he'd rely on the support of fellow Palestinians and Arabs. Not a single one offered to help him, claiming that they weren't in need or weren't hiring - although when he'd return the next week he'd notice a new face behind the cashier, serving food, weighing the produce, whatever it was. It would not be an Arab or a Palestinian that would lend a helping hand, but a total stranger.
He returned to Palestine eager to be back home, close to his family, serving his nation, sharing his newfound knowledge with his fellow citizens. He was shunned by the private sector and the NGOs, because of his background. He's been back for a couple of years now, not able to find an employer that will look beyond his modest past, not able to find a partner who will accept him for who he is, rather than who his parents are.
B is definitely not alone. Jokes about Southerner or refugees are common; and as with Polish jokes in Germany and the U.S., or Belgian jokes in the Netherlands, they hint at a discrimination that exists. Stereotypes about the refugee camps are the rule of law around here; they're disgusting places, filled with people not to be trusted, thieves and drug dealers, not well-established or educated families, the list goes on. I see the looks of disgust on faces when the taxi cab stops by a refugee camp entrance and a family gets in or out; I notice that a tiny minority working in universities, NGOs, modest-sized businesses are from refugee camps – they're often relegated to be the taxi drivers and delivery boys, the construction workers and those who sweep the floors or serve at the hands of the elites. The comments masking the discriminatory structures are not unlike the ones in Western countries against immigrants or inner-city "ethnic" groups. As if these people have no brain power, as if they're not capable of the same achievements, as if the structures in place aren't holding them back, sometimes it's as if those ahead in society forget that these are human beings too, and that it's most probably on their backs that they themselves have risen.
The unequal structures exist between Palestinians and Israelis: the Palestinians formerly hired as the cheap labor for the advancing Israeli economy, talked about as cockroaches and rats, as a people too stupid to know how to read, as nothing but a bunch of child-bearing terrorists. Certainly treated as lower-class non-citizens. But within Palestinian society the discrimination is just as stifling. Rather than work together as a collective, as a national unity, society here is further fragmenting itself into oppositional groups – it exists in the political realm, but it is also present and obvious in every other realm, from the social to the economic. At some point in our conversation, B exasperates: "yes, we have this segregation wall (the euphemism for the security fence), but we have these transparent walls of segregation that are much more harmful." His plan now is to try to find work abroad, where he feels he'll be appreciated for his knowledge, skills and abilities. It was never his idea to leave, but being given little opportunity to play a role in Palestinian national improvement, B is bound to be a factor in the brain-drain that Palestinian society is experience. Rather than support B, the society around him shuns him. It's certainly not the Palestinian "nation" that is going to benefit from his exclusion.
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