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Silence & Security

JC Tordai / Panos / www.panos.co.uk

The clapping of the passengers startles me awake as we arrive at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I have returned to the grave reality of Occupied Palestine after a 20-day speaking tour in Finland and the United States.

‘We should do whatever it takes to prevent the Palestinians from coming back to their homes,’ were the words of David Ben Gurion, this airport’s namesake. ‘The old will die and the young will forget.’

I have a conditioned psychological reaction to this place. Nausea and anxiety overwhelm me even before my name is announced and I am commanded to drop my hand luggage, remove my jacket and walk with my papers to the security guards that are waiting at the stairs of the plane. I am acutely aware that I am the sole individual (and apparent Arab) led in the opposite direction from the airport arrival hall.

With the patience of a person who has endured 60 sleepless hours I begin to answer the infamous 100 questions usually posed by Israeli security. I was asked the same questions on my way out of Ben Gurion and at the Newark Airport, where I boarded my return flight to Tel Aviv. I know the answers I’m supposed to give by heart. I display before my interrogators all available papers that might give a sense of identity to my alien presence. I show my blue Jerusalemite identity card, two Israeli travel documents that refer to me as a Jordanian, my two flight tickets, an American and a Finnish visa, my physician’s ID card, a reporter’s press pass from the _Washington Report_ magazine, and a pile of invitation letters explaining the ‘whens’, ‘whys’ and ‘wheres’ of my journey. My foreign acquaintances are dismayed that I have to show so many papers and spend so much time to get through airports. But my Palestinian friends envy my access to the unusual and hard-to-come-by paperwork that legitimizes my need to travel. Without these papers I might not even be able to be here.

Finally I leave the airport that night, after a long investigation and tedious search that involved not only the ripping open of my gifts and emptying of my toiletries, but the reading of my diary and searching of my planner and address book. I know that the machines they have are capable of screening any suspicious objects, but it seems to me that it is also psychologically necessary for the security officials to expose people ‘like me’ to this special treatment.

I arrive home to a sad and gloomy East Jerusalem where depressed, inconsolable people suffocate at thoughts of death’s stench and the taste of grief coming from Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin and Nablus. The smell of graves, left after the Israeli army violated our towns and neighbouring villages, seems to have permeated Jerusalem’s less contaminated air. In the name of ‘security’ and ‘fighting terrorism’ the people of this world, the United Nations and the international community have allowed yet another human disaster to happen. The small gifts I bear are welcome, but the cries of delight do not cover the silence of drained emotions. This homecoming is like no other I’ve experienced in the past.

Silence is ominous for us. Jerusalem is silent. My family is silent. What is there to say? I know that many citizens around the world have spoken out on our behalf, but those who can stop our torment have been silent or even partners in the crimes against us. Will our old die and we young people forget, like Ben Gurion suggested? I came through Ben Gurion to see a world destroyed – the ancient city of Nablus, the new city of Ramallah, and then Jenin, where once there was a Refugee Camp.

Silence does not keep me from knowing about the two Palestinian young men, Mahmoud Salah and Izzat Durgham, who were hand-cuffed and restrained, then stripped of their clothes and executed at a Jerusalem checkpoint. Nor about the deaf boy who could not hear the instructions to stop and was shot dead at a Nablus checkpoint. This, also, in the name of ‘Israeli security’ which is always offered as more important than the humanity of my people.

One does not have to die at a checkpoint to be suffocated by them. Every day, we line up for hours in the hope that we will be allowed to get through and earn our bread for the day. In several kilometres one might encounter more than one barricade, controlled by armed Israeli soldiers, some of them backed by tanks and lookouts swathed in army brown on the hillside above.

No Palestinian can go through the day without travelling either through the checkpoint and all its rigors, or around on a hilly dirt road nearby fashioned by those who know they don’t have the right papers to pass. I, for example, can spend more time at checkpoints than I do sleeping if I am so bold as to try to go to work on the Mount of Olives and do my errands in Ramallah on the same day. They are no further than 18 kilometres or 12 miles apart. In this way we are exhausted and tormented and robbed of our time and productivity.

So far, checkpoints have failed to provide security to the Israeli occupation, for those who have nothing to hide are the ones who pass through them. Suicide bombers and gunmen don’t go through checkpoints, but find their own ways around them. In fact, checkpoints have backfired and have provided the fuel to the few Palestinians who have decided that life is not worth continuing.

Recently, special concrete search areas have been constructed to enable the army to undress people and, if need be, to beat them up away from the lens of an international camera. Women in labour deliver at checkpoints, patients with medical emergencies die because they are prevented from reaching the hospital. People are harassed, humiliated and some are just shot and left to die. No wonder people have named these barricades the ‘checkpoints of death’. A Rabbi told me that it is a cardinal sin in Judaism to cut a part off an animal and leave it to bleed to death, yet the Israeli army regularly shoots and leaves Palestinians to bleed to death at checkpoints. Are Palestinian lives worth less than those of animals? We are shown every day that our lives are worth less than Israelis.

What about Palestinian security? Every day Palestinians are killed and the world is silent. Silent too when our infrastructure and educational, health, cultural and welfare institutions are decimated, when American congress and Israeli Knesset members speak of ‘transferring’ the Palestinians to other Arab countries. In a farce, American President George W Bush declares that ‘Ariel Sharon is a man of peace’. I have to wonder if Ariel Sharon thinks so of himself.

We are described sometimes as the last colonized people, the last frontier of genocide, massacre and ethnic cleansing, words people fear to speak because they’ll be labelled anti-Semite. Always we must couch our horror with appreciation of what the Jews have suffered.

Now, all is silent. Is it the last human disaster? Israel’s security pathology is not a once-in-a-lifetime epidemic for unfortunate Palestinians. But it is the terminal illness of the whole Palestinian nation, it is the daily hammer that hits all of us equally in Palestine – men and women, old and young, rich and poor, educated and illiterate.

At home, I look out of the kitchen window to see that the Israeli flags have moved forward, closer to our neighbourhood, demarcating the new boundaries of the Pizgat Zi’ev settlement. For ‘security’ reasons the Israeli settlements keep expanding all the time, demanding a larger and larger buffer zone from the Palestinian land, no matter that many homes are demolished and countless trees uprooted in the process.

The Israeli warlords claim that they want peace after separation – they speak of establishing a wall on the green line, for ‘security’ reasons. They want separation, which will ensure that Palestinians are denied access to the land of their immediate fathers and forefathers, while they continue to have their settlements and their secure by-pass roads to those settlements, lying within the heart of the Palestinian territories. Would separation bring security or would it prevent the humanists and peace-loving on both sides from meeting and working together, all the time polarizing the moderates, emphasizing stereotypes and allowing the extremists to win their war?

Israel has tried everything; except ending their occupation and allowing the Palestinians to live in dignity

Over the last 54 years of occupation Israel has been trying to control, exhaust and terrify the Palestinians in the name of ‘security’. Recently they have chopped the Palestinian towns and villages into 69 Bantustans and cantons with their 264 permanent checkpoints. One cannot ignore the many more temporary checkpoints, the ditches, the iron gates and all the other colonization phenomena. Israel has waged several wars and perpetrated many massacres to end ‘Palestinian terrorism.’ But have they really gained security? Did they manage to stop suicide bombers on their way to causing a mass fatality? Or was the aggression and humiliation at the checkpoints just fuel for those who decided that life is not worth continuing? Israel has tried everything; except ending their occupation and allowing the Palestinians to live in dignity in the land of their ancestors.

When the Palestinians live as equals with the people of Israel, when the Israeli people stop following Ben Gurion’s advice, when not only ‘Israeli security’ matters, but ‘Palestinian security’ as well, when both of us take the same bus to work, then the last shall be first in keeping the peace. Our fighters will not sacrifice their lives of meaningful expectation to kill themselves or others. Then and only then we will stop fearing each other. Then and only then will we stand a chance of breaking the silence to speak for justice, equality, peace and real security. I hope I’m alive to hear the silence end.

*Samah Jabr* is a doctor and writer who lives on the edge of East Jerusalem. Her e-mail address is:

New Internationalist issue 348 magazine cover This article is from the August 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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