Jerusalem, Palestine – “Yes, Israel does violate international law and is far from perfect,” concedes the “enlightened liberal Zionist, “But it is nowhere near as brutal or contemptible as the Assad regime.” The notion that Israel is somehow more tolerable than Arab tyrannies just because it does not bomb Palestinians in the West Bank or (gasp!) does not mass-murder demonstrators is virtually universal. This assumption, however, underlines a disturbing lack of understanding of the Israeli military occupation and the system of racial segregation governing the occupied west Bank. It goes without saying that those repeating this mantra have never lived under military occupation and have never experienced the constant fear of being abducted from their bedrooms and arrested without warrant, charges or trial.
In an attempt at refuting this notion, it’s necessary to explain the reasons for this shockingly pervasive ignorance. The vast majority of Israelis consistently and unashamedly clasp the charade that Israel is a democracy even if that means living in perpetual frugality, shrugging off horrendous crimes as singular incidents that do not represent the “most moral army in the world” and defending the indefensible under the guise of security. For a colonial society that thrives on a counterfeit sense of moral, intellectual and cultural superiority over an “invented” people, admitting culpability or complicity in the systematic annihilation of a defenseless, far less privileged community is unthinkable. So profound is the sense of denial enveloping Israelis that they take great offence at the very labeling of Israel as an apartheid state or, God forbid, condemning it in the same breath as Arab dictatorships. There is little to no outrage by Israelis about Israel’s atrocities because, remember, they are unrepresentative, rare – and for many they do not exist – no state is “perfect” and because human rights organizations are “biased” against Israel and want to wipe away the island of democracy surrounded by an ocean of oppressive, vulgar third world tribes.
The maligned genius of the Israeli occupation lies in its success to squeeze the lifeblood out of entire communities silently, gradually but brutally. Practices such as the rapidly increasing home demolitions; ceaseless construction and expansion of illegal settlements; blocking access to schools and agricultural fields; the frequent destruction of basic infrastructure like water wells and solar power plants; and the theft of land, identity and collective memory are hardly reported in the mainstream media. The discriminatory legal system and the racist bureaucracy that controls the tiniest minutiae of Palestinians’ daily life, including traveling to neighboring villages and even marriage, murder the soul of Palestinian society, but will never capture the headlines of the New York Times or CNN. The silent, invisible ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian population does not possess the flash of missiles and explosions or the booming sound of mortar shells, but it is even more devastating and effective.
Such is the regularity of Israel’s human rights abuses that even Palestinians have normalized them, at times to the extent of desensitization. When asked whether she would like to write about her experience as a prisoner’s wife, a woman from Beit Ummar said no-one would be interested to read about it, likening the experience to cooking chicken.
The Palestinian victims of the Israeli occupation are often nameless and faceless. We read that there are over 4500 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli occupation jails but very few of us recognize their names, their faces or their stories. If it were not for the heroic hunger-strikes, the suffering of thousands of prisoners languishing in Israel’s dungeons would remain untold. We only heard of Khader Adnan because of his inspiring 66-day huger-strike. If it were not for her incredible 43-day hunger-strike, we would never know that Hana Shalabi spent the best years of her life detained in Israel without charges or trial. It is only thanks to his astonishing 78-day hunger-strike that we knew about Thaer Halahleh who, prior to his release on 5 June, had never kissed his beloved daughter Lamar. Even Palestinian national team footballer Mahmoud Sarsak, who has been detained in Israel without trial or charge since July 2009, would have never gained the support of FIFA and world renowned footballers it had not been for a miraculous 92 days without food. Mind you, even that was not sufficient for the Palestinian Football Association to raise an eyebrow. All of us, on the other hand, are familiar with the Israeli occupation soldier who was captured by Palestinian resistance 6 years ago today. He did not have to go on for days without food to garner the world’s attention and sympathy.
We might scroll through news about demolition of Palestinian-owned houses, tents, huts and animal shelters while drinking our morning coffee, but little do we know about the actual victims, the hundreds who are forcibly displaced every month for the crime of being Palestinian.
Have you ever heard of Sawsan Hamamdeh? She does not blog nor does she have a Twitter account; she does not introduce herself as an “activist” but she perfectly personifies the Palestinian struggle. Born in the cave-dweller village of Mfaggara in South Hebron Hills, Sawsan became the first girl from her village to attend collage in the city of Yatta. Denied access to electricity or running water like the overwhelming majority of South Hebron Hills’ residents, Sawsan studied for her Tawjihi exams under the light of an old lantern she inherited from her grandfather. On a dreary, rainy November afternoon last year, private Israeli contractors, hired by the “civil” administration, came to demolish her home. The pretext, as usual, is building without permit. Israel sweepingly and systematically refuses to grant residents of Area C, which comprises 60% of the West Bank, permits to build homes or tents to accommodate the natural growth. Sawsan’s father Mahmoud put up two rooms on top of his cave in 2002 after applying and failing to get a permit. Needless to say that the residents of the illegal, Jewish-only nearby settlement of Avigail face no such problems. Settlers can expand, build parks and enjoy all the privileges that the indigenous Palestinians can only dream of. As this video shows, Sawsan’s punishment for trying to nonviolently prevent the demolition of the cave, wherein the best memories of her childhood reside, was brutal arrest, pepper-spray and a week in the infamous “Russian Compound”, a detention camp in occupied Jerusalem. “I’ve always dreamt of visiting Jerusalem,” Sawsan told me, “But not like that. They dragged me to the vehicle along with my 17-year-old cousin Amal. We were hand-cuffed and blindfolded. The week I spent in detention in Jerusalem was the worst in my life.”
Fighting back the tears, Sawsan showed me the rubble of her demolished home. “I felt like an olive tree that was violently uprooted.” She said with agony. “The Israelis want all of us to leave Mfaggara and go to Yatta, but I would never leave my village even if I had sleep on the street.”
Budour Hassan, originally from Nazareth, is a Palestinian anarchist and Law student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. You can follow her on Twitter here.