The nonviolent intifada: part 1

IMG_6486Our first month in Ramallah went from bleak midwinter to blazing midsummer. Weather in the UK, by contrast, is pleasantly predictable.

Normal routine centred around working in the basement office and eating in a campus canteen, and I now can’t remember why we decided to change this up on one of the rainiest days of the trip and take a bus into Birzeit village for lunch. After the food, we joined the crowd gathered under the awning. Freezing grey sheets of rain fell off it in curtains. One man had parked his car right on the doorstep, but he didn’t want to get his tailored suit wet walking around to the driver’s side. His passenger, a much less slickly-dressed man, didn’t seem to mind getting wet. Lotty offered the suit her umbrella to make the 5-step journey, and in return he offered a lift to whoever could fit in the back.

On the short drive to the university he asked us what we were doing there. His English was good. He translated our answer – we’re researching how the occupation affects education – to his passenger, who perked up. He mimed handcuffs. He was a student who had been in prison, and the suited driver was his lawyer.

“How long were you in prison, why?”

He held up seven fingers – seven years – enthusiastically. “Ana-“, he mimed firing a gun a few times, “yehudi”.

I got the pronoun and the noun, but wasn’t sure how to translate the mimed verb. I hoped it was past tense. “He says he shot Jews.”

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A car fire at Birzeit – actually a demonstration by the fire service.

Math and unfamiliar conversation topics are two things I’m bad at. I didn’t ask him any more questions. Later I managed to do the subtraction. The seven years in jail made him a likely member of the second intifada. So he was a freedom fighter, not a terrorist – phew.

Back in our office, we joke that we have been radicalised. MI5 will be tapping our calls. The immersion method might not have done much for my Arabic, but it’s done a lot for my mindset. On our short car ride we didn’t bother to ask the passenger what had driven him to try to gun down strangers; we could simply insert into his past one of the dozens of stories we’d heard already about his grandparents’ lost land, or his friend who died in an ambulance held at a checkpoint, or his sister who was beaten at a protest. Killing civilians is never justifiable, I think. But I only think that because my friends and family are unlikely to ever become collateral damage. I have the luxury of never having to rethink my morals.

He was a civilian attempting to kill people he didn’t know a thing about, beyond their nationality and assumed religion. I don’t approve of it, but I spend most of my life tacitly accepting that soldiers kill people in my name as a UK citizen. The passenger may not have been handed down the authority to kill by a government, but what difference does it make? For him, his authority was whatever struggle he, or his family, or his friends, had endured on a daily basis since the occupation began.

Even if I accept that much, coming back to the UK with a story like that is incredibly daunting. I’m not good enough at explaining what it’s like to live in Palestine to convince people that they should accept it too, to understand that these things happen when people feel like they have no way out. It’s a struggle to write about it now. When the only thing I can really do to change the situation is to raise awareness, and to do so in a way that undoes some of the demonisation Palestinians face, it’s so tempting to pretend I never heard an angry word spoken in the West Bank. It would be easier to write only about friendly market stall vendors giving out free oranges and “Welcome to Palestine”s to us stumbling Westerners.

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Bathroom graffiti, Jerusalem

It would be simpler to pretend that all the people I met in Palestine were angels of peace, but it wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny. It’s pointless to hide an instance of Palestinian violence towards Israelis when the media parades whichever scraps they can get. Today a Palestinian teenager was killed in Ramallah, outside Qalandia checkpoint, after he threw stones at a patrol vehicle. “The moral of the story is, don’t bring a rock to a gunfight,” says a comment on the Daily Mail. The Guardian has yet to report it.

Luckily, some angels do exist. There is a nonviolent side to the resistance, and it is flourishing. In one day, I met three different groups who had never hit out in anger at Israel, despite being struck first – repeatedly. The next three blogs will look at the scale of these three projects: one house, one village, and one city.