I just came back from a short trip to Palestine and Israel. It felt good going home to Ramallah where I grew up and lived the first (and best) 17 years of my life. I also visited my extended family in Ramleh who stayed after 1948. The last time I was back was in 2003 in the midst of the 2nd intifada to see my grandmother for the last time. Things have changed since then. There are now fewer checkpoints but more security surrounding them. There is of course the eight meter separation wall built around towns and villages, cutting through streets, neighbourhoods and olive groves. Settlements surrounding Palestinian towns and villages are dotted all around the West Bank in full view. There are roads only used by settlers to reach their settlements and bypass Palestinian towns and villages. Palestinian homes now get water once or twice a week – I was very surprised that people run out of water and have to pay money to buy it.
Going back home brought back memories of the occupation while growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s in Ramallah – the army Jeeps streaming through the streets, announcing curfews through the speakers, bloody demonstrations, smell of burning tyres, young boys dragged into the army Jeeps and the bizarre behaviour (that’s what I used to think anyway) by the soldiers when they see the Palestinian flag being raised at demonstrations (The good news that after 25 years the Palestinian flag is now flying on every building, street lights, inside cars and people’s homes. We now have progress. At least the demonstrations achieved something!)
Despite the insecurity, life with family and friends and living in a close community was beautiful. I was fortunate to have loyal and loving family, friends and neighbours. Everyone looked out for each other and despite the hardship of the surrounding occupation, we were relatively happy despite the international news that portrayed otherwise. My big family – my parents and 5 children – lived together in a small 2br apartment, five siblings slept in one small room on a double bed, and we ate and shared from the same plate on a small table in the kitchen that we also used to study on. We didn’t have the comforts of everything but we were happy and made sure we looked out for each other.
As a young girl I was not aware of why we had demonstrations and curfews all the time. My family made sure we didn’t talk about politics and I grew up illiterate about the Israel/Palestine conflict (except my grandmothers 1948 stories of course). My parents wanted us to know that Israelis were normal just like us and made sure that we visited my dad’s many Jewish friends in West Jerusalem and my mum made them Palestinian food (stuffed chicken with rice mince and pine nuts – very yummy – kobbe, tabouli, stuffed zucchini and eggplant) every time they came to Ramallah to visit on Saturdays. I knew the soldiers were the same as my dad’s friends but back then could never reconcile how they could be the same guys beating young boys and taking them away in their Jeeps.
My family packed up and left in 1986 to Australia due to the constant occupation and lack of future opportunities for five bright and talented children. It took me some time to adjust to a quiet and at times “boring” life without the constant curfews and demonstrations. My curiosity to understand what is happening in Palestine started then and I devoured books that explained the conflict. The books I read were more political and historical in nature of course.
But a chance encounter with an Israeli woman in 1996 at a personal development course in Sydney changed the way I thought about the political conflict. Batsheva heard me speak and asked me where I came from, I said “Palestine”. She stared at me for a while. I realised that she was Israeli because of her accent. I was concerned that she was going to scream or swear at me. But then she came close to me and said “I am sorry for what my people did to your people”. The long hug and cathartic cries followed. I could not let go of her. She became my second mum and we became good friends. Inviting her over my place for a taste of Palestinian food was a sign that she became family.
The experience made a difference in how I viewed the conflict. Political and historical narratives are dwarfed when people see each other as human beings. I was still young then to understand the importance of this chance encounter. Batsheva was on my mind last week as I was going through the streets of Bethlehem surrounded by the separation wall; as I was going through Kalandia checkpoint waiting my turn to get through the turnstiles to be scanned and asked why I was going to Jerusalem; as I saw the settlements surrounding Palestinian towns and wondering whether its inhabitants were just like Batsheva.
Batsheva is not your average person but she is like every other human being. We all have the capacity to open our hearts to see and hear each other’s narrative and source of suffering. Once we do, the separation wall will surely fall and the checkpoints will melt and disappear. That’s when Israel and Palestine will deserve to be called the “Holy Land”. Maybe then we will let go of labels, flags, checkpoints and borders. Who needs them when their neighbour is just like Batsheva?