Life Under Occupation
For the last three days I have spent much of my time doing one of three things: First, I have been watching Bethlehem Television as the lines of breaking news flashed on the screen. (We announce the death of ... Citizens: Beware when walking in the streets or in your homes, there are Israeli snipers in the hills. We announce the death of our sister ... Citizens: Stay away from the area of Bab AL-Ziqaq, Israeli tanks are headed there. We announce the death of 16-year-old ... There are a large number of wounded, area hospitals request doctors who are able to come assist. We announce the death of ... ) This is just part of the succession of announcements that occurred in the space of about two hours.
Second, I have been talking to a friend in a refugee camp in the Bethlehem area. He is a human rights worker, unable to reach his Ramallah office since the tanks invaded his town. Over the phone he fills me in on the latest death count, tells me where the tanks have reached, how bad the shelling is, listing off the neighborhoods and refugee camps that are under heavy attack, mentioning people I know and how close the tanks are to where they live. He tells me that he moved to his mother's with his family because his house is not safe. "I didn't know where to hide my daughter," he said in a voice more helpless than I've ever heard from him. "Nowhere is safe."
And the third thing I have been doing is, when the phone line suddenly goes dead, or I hear the shelling crashing loud enough to startle me over the phone, and my friend's panic-distracted voice talking to family as he hangs up, I open my email in something close to tears and terror and write desperate notes asking him to let me know he's OK, stay close to the ground, not walk past windows, not go outside, I don't know. How should I know how to stay safe from tank shelling, helicopter missiles firing and snipers aiming? He writes me back, "A friend has been injured. An ambulance driver. He had surgery but he should be OK. I'm OK."
I asked him, when he told me about the TV announcement asking residents to beware of the snipers (snipers who killed a woman walking in the street, snipers who killed a woman in her home), I asked him, bewildered, outraged and terrified, "How are you supposed to take precautions against snipers?!?" "I don't know," he said. "Stay low, don't go outside, don't stay in your house, don't breathe."
Life under occupation. Don't move, don't stay still, don't breathe. "Is this life?" has been a constant refrain uttered by Palestinians over the past year, a question they ask me in frustration, a question that is becoming harder to answer with any kind of foreigner optimism. "We're just sitting here counting the martyrs," my friend said. Fourteen over the weekend of Oct. 19-20, at least 20 since the assassination of Rahavam Ze'evi, over 700 in the past year. "They just want to kill a lot," is his analysis. "And they don't care who."
Things seem to be out of control, but the mental panic is unbearable. I try to calm down, concentrate, but I cannot think straight; I cannot analyze the possible strategies, plans and scenarios that could be guiding what seems to be simply unbridled murder and mayhem. I have been writing to my friends in the U.S., describing the situation, hoping some outside perspective will help me put my thoughts and emotions in order. All they can tell me is, "Get out. Leave. Take a vacation. Escape. Now." But that is impossible. Leave my friends to tread these troubled waters alone, leave these tragedies unwitnessed, unrecorded, because I am the lucky holder of a U.S. passport, the golden document, the get out of jail free card, pass go if you feel like it, avoid it if you don't. (We announce the death of ... )
I spoke with another friend, also a human rights worker, a patient language teacher and insightful research assistant. He has been caught in his home village outside Ramallah, and our lessons will have to wait. The road from his home into Ramallah has been under curfew since the tanks rolled in. Earlier in the day a friend had snuck into her office located on that street, to grab her computer and files, and scurried out when the soldiers announced over a loudspeaker, "Movement is Forbidden!"
I called another friend, a human rights worker from Jenin, to ask her about the situation. She says it's calm, the tanks are at the perimeter of the town, there is no shooting, but the closure is tight. No one can get out. They don't want to invade after what happened a couple days ago, she reasoned, when they attacked a girl's school and killed a 10-year-old Palestinian child. It made them look bad.
I tell her what she already knows: how many killed today, the tanks are still encircling my town, where the shelling is in Bethlehem, what colleagues have been unable to reach the office. "And," I exclaimed in indignation, "and now the PA is throwing political prisoners in jail!" She laughed with affectionate mockery of my near-hysteria and said, "Well, at least it's better than the Israelis getting a hold of them." Everyone knows what happens to Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails. But I found little comfort in her reassurance. Then she reminded me, "This, what is happening now, this is normal. What happened in Hebron a week ago, what happened the last time they invaded Jenin, what happened throughout 10 years of the first intifada, what happened in Sabra and Shatilla." It is a recurrent history of murder, massacres, resistance and resilience. I protested, repeating what someone had told me, "But the people are tired. And the Israelis want to wipe out any Palestinian who will continue the resistance." "Kill every Palestinian?!" was her interpretation of that statement. "For every one that falls, one hundred will spring up in their place."
I realized, after this succession of telephone calls, how much like a Palestinian I am acting. Calling all one's friends and relatives to make sure they're OK, get an update on the local situation, joke and complain and repeat, "We're used to this. This is normal."
But I'm still not Palestinian enough to know that this is not normal, no one should have to get used to this and I need a break. Everyone needs a break. So a group of friends -- all ex-pats -- organize a movie night. But the shooting from the Pisigot settlement, or perhaps it is from the tanks encircling the town, has just started. It's best to stay inside when the shooting starts, move away from the windows, go to a room out of the line of fire, if you're lucky enough to have such a room. But I need a break, to see my friends, a mental escape. I consider the path I have to take to catch a taxi. I live about 1 km. from the settlement, and I have to walk in front of it, right past where a bullet entered my neighbor's house not two weeks ago, shattering their veranda window as she slept. At least the taxi stand is only a couple of blocks away; I won't have to walk down the street where a 40-year-old mother of three was shot as she was carrying groceries home to her family. There is a lull in the shooting, and I scurry out my front door, my body involuntarily crouching down in a half-duck. I think to myself, "Is getting out to see friends and a movie worth risking a stray bullet?"
I catch my taxi. Upon arrival the hosts tell us a guest who lives in another Ramallah neighborhood will not be coming. There is heavy shooting and he's afraid to leave his house. He shows up a bit later, apologizing for his cowardice, but assures us, it was really heavy tonight. After the movie, a bad comedy about religion and the loss of faith, we leave, turning down the radio to listen for shooting as we approach a road running past the Pisigot settlement. We drop off our friend, a lawyer who pays attention to details, who tells us to pull up right next to the garbage can that marks a safe parking spot, as the house across the street will partially shield us from the settlement. His building has been shot up repeatedly over the past several months. Windows, doors, water tanks, electricity lines, phone lines shattered, pierced, severed. He gets out, not waiting to make sure he's gotten inside, we speed off, me still crouching low.
And this morning, another call from my friend. Eight-thirty in the morning and the fighting continues. The tanks have withdrawn a little bit from their location in the center of town, but not very far. Yesterday people thought, "That's it, they are reoccupying Bethlehem." Yesterday the attack helicopters fired missiles. Two of his relatives were injured, and are still in surgery.
The people are angry. The human rights workers are stuck in their towns. And my back hurts from crouching. But no matter who tries to forbid it, movement will continue.
Lori A. Allen is a University of Chicago anthropology graduate student currently conducting research in the West Bank under the auspices of a Social Sciences Research Council-Global Security and Cooperation Grant.