“I was trying to leave in July 2005 because I wanted to join a Spanish language course before starting university. But since I could not do that, my Spanish language ability was not [sufficient] enough to be able to join the PhD at the Complutense de Madrid and I had to look for another program that needed more English than Spanish. It took me two months to find a university that could accept me.”
Ismail had his bags packed, waiting for the unknown date that he would be granted permission leave Gaza in order to cross into Egypt. At that time, I was largely unaware of the issues that Palestinian people faced. I knew little more than the dominant pro-Israeli narrative that dominated the American airwaves. Now, standing in front of me, was a face to that stateless nation – the first one I had ever met. Occasionally Ismail and I would talk about the conflict, with him raising several points that I had never considered.
“Can you imagine not being able to leave your own home, even if you wanted to?” No I could not.
“Could you imagine living with constant fear of death?” No, not at all.
“Did you ever realize that Palestine’s territories are separated by land that Palestinians are generally not allowed to transverse?” Wow, really?
“What do you think there was before Israel and how did the formation of that state affect those individuals already living there?” I guess I never really thought about it. I figured it’s Israel now and that the people who were displaced no longer had a claim. That seemed like a reasonable answer to me – after all the US did nearly the same thing to the Native Americans, but let’s try to walk a mile in such peoples’ shoes. What follows is what I remember from the conversations I had with my Palestinian friend all those years ago.
Imagine that your great grandfather lived in his house on a piece of land that he owned. Then, one day, some other man came and took that house away from him. He pointed a gun at your great grandfather and told him to leave or he would be shot. That man didn’t offer your great granddad anything. No new house, no money, nothing. Or, if he did, it wasn’t fair value for what he took. What would that be? Just? No, you wouldn’t consider it just, you would consider it a robbery, a patently unjust action, wouldn’t you? If property is stolen and given to someone else, isn’t it still stolen, no matter how many different people were in possession of it?
If the land doesn’t seem like a good example, let’s think of a famous painting. Every now and then a painting by some renowned artist is found in somebody’s attic that had been stolen years ago. Every time this happens, there is a great effort to restore that painting to its rightful heirs. In both cases we are talking about property. The owners, however, are different. In one case, the painting, we are talking about the property of wealthy people, probably with some power or influence, and in the other case, we are talking about people who have been stripped of all of their power.
Thinking about the land again, as the generations have gone on, the man who took your granddad’s house away lived there and when he died, he willed that property to his son and so on. At the same time, your family was thrown into a cycle of uncertainty where no matter what it did, it was nowhere closer to having the stability that came with living at that house on that land. In fact, with every year that passed, the rights of your family became less and less. Your family could not and live as your ancestors once did. Every generation, however, knew that there was land, property that used to belong to you, that used to be the cornerstone of the family’s stability – is it unreasonable to fight for it?
After many generations this trend continues. Israel takes more and more from the Palestinians – look at their settlements; what is left of the Palestinian lands? The only way that there will be peace in this part of the world is if there is a two sided solution. You cannot expect the Palestinians to relinquish what was once theirs for nothing, only to be continually battered down. But there is no effort to look for that solution. The Israeli government has the power to work towards a solution, but they are not interested. They have their Zionist mission – not to be confused with any sort of "Jewish" mission particularly because it is one that is not shared by many Jews, by the way – that drives the violence.
Considering all of that, to say that somehow the Palestinians need to stop first, just because they are not an internationally state or for whatever other reason one might give, is like asking them to stand pat while the bullets hit them squarely in the head. It is clear that this is a two sided problem that needs a two sided solution is necessary and where extremism continues it will be met in kind, with whatever means are available to the actor responding. That means that Israelis will use their fancy jets and the Palestinians will use their simple rockets.
In all of this, the anger, the violence, the rhetoric, what we need to remember is that people are dying. Death has a face and it isn't that of anonymous people. Its face is made of people like Ismail’s family members who were sitting in their home, a place where they were told to be as a result of generations of progressively restrictive measures against their nation, and yet they were not safe or free. But without safety or freedom, what has anyone got left to live for? With that in mind, as any American will tell you, freedom is definitely worth fighting for.
For further reading about the roots of the issue have a look at The 1948 Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappé.