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Life in prison, on both sides of the walls
By: Ilana Hammerman
Haaretz
12 April 2012

Original Hebrew: http://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/1.1684894

Life in prison, on both sides of the walls

A few years ago I got to know a family in a village in the West Bank, and we became friends. I began to travel to their village regularly to visit them, I learned Arabic from them, I heard about their lives and I told them about mine, and a real friendship developed between us. We have come a long and dramatic way together since then, with arrests and illness in their family and catastrophes in mine. We supported each other. Their house in the village became a second home to me. Always open, warm and inviting.

Most of the time I travel alone to their village. At first I was repeatedly warned by friends: Have you lost your mind? You`re risking your life! And indeed, on one occasion I did regret that I had not heeded their advice: on one of my first trips, in the middle of the village, people signalled for me to stop. I was afraid, and kept driving. But the steering-wheel was not responding: a tire was punctured. I stopped. The car was immediately surrounded by men, women and children. I thought to myself: this is it – the disaster I was warned against. It was during a time of unrest, stone-throwing, attempted kidnappings. Yes, I was afraid. Lacking any choice, I got out of the car. They pointed to the flat tire and asked for the keys. I handed them over in silence. They opened the trunk and took out the spare tire and the necessary tools and within a few minutes the tire was changed and the keys were returned to me. I smiled in embarrassment and held out some banknotes. No one wanted the money. Meanwhile a tray with glasses of juice and cups of coffee had been brought from a nearby house and a conversation began. In Hebrew. I did not yet know Arabic.

Years have passed since then, the Wall has closed off the village, and settlements have been unceasingly built and expanded on its land. The Right has consolidated its grip on power in Israel and bought with it new and belligerent laws and the threat of wars worse than all previous wars. I decided to commit a small act of civil disobedience: in disregard of the checkpoints and fences and armed guards and soldiers who courteously send the Jews on their way while detaining the Arabs for inspection or turning them back, I transported Palestinian women and children in my car on expeditions in Israel. I had been their guest; they would now be mine.

After I publicly stated what I had done and a complaint was lodged against me with the police, I was asked with irony: `Tell me, are you sure that those women are not terrorists?` `Yes`, I replied. `Tell me, shouldn`t you check their underwear to make sure they`re not transporting explosives?` `No`, I replied. On the other hand, many ordinary Israelis who saw the women and children with me at the beach or places of entertainment, said `Good for you! They’re people too. Don’t worry, we won’t inform on you.` And there have also been places were service in Arabic was provided especially for us. Since then dozens of Israeli women have joined us, and we have been guests and hosts and gone on expeditions and organized joyous events that have undermined barriers and fears, both in people`s hearts and in reality. And that is what we yearn to communicate with our acts: we are dealing with human beings, not terrorists. Yes, over two and a half million human beings live on the other side of the fences and the walls: families with children and old people, and most of them want above all to have normal lives, like us: decent jobs, schools, healthcare and places of recreation. And for the most part, they don`t have them.

But most Israelis do not see them, and the government and the authorities do all in their power to make sure they do not see them. Their country is an unknown one, a hostile one. From the highways on which Israelis zoom to the settlements, the villages are concealed behind walls and checkpoints and only a few of their names are written on the highway signs. The media do very little to document their lives under military rule: the nightly incursions of soldiers onto their streets and into their homes; the arrests accompanied by humiliation and abuse; the ludicrous muttered proceedings at military trials where the freedom of thousands is taken and money is stolen from the pockets of tens of thousands by means of inflated fines; the enclosures and the narrow passageways at the crossing-points where people along with their children and their belongings are herded like cattle on their way to the turnstiles that are randomly opened and closed to them at the push of an electric button.

Israelis think: Splendid: first they suppressed terrorism with Operation Defensive Wall, and now we have permanent defensive walls, the `Separation Fence`. We are here and they are there and there is order and security. But it’s not true: we are here and they are here too, in a shared prison of eternal war. Because not only did the Wall annex to the State of Israel and above all to Jerusalem entire Palestinian neighbourhoods and communities, not separating them from us but from their own people, but this as well; every day thousands of workers are smuggled or smuggle themselves through openings to which the army turns a blind eye, and through large areas where for political reasons the Separation Fence has not been built.

And why does the army generally turn a blind eye, only occasionally hunting down a handful of people in search of a living? Because policy-makers know that there is not enough work in the West Bank. Israel never built an industrial infrastructure there for the residents, and even now Israel does not allow free construction. They know that hundreds of thousands of hungry families will become an even bigger `security problem` than the suicide bombers were. The workers come in search of life, not to commit suicide; but those who want to kill and be killed will not be stopped by the `separation barrier`. Go and see for yourselves. It`s all clearly visible: the neighbourhoods and communities that have been annexed, the workers who gather at certain spots in order to go to work in Israel and workplaces with `persons illegally present` (Hebrew: `shohim bilti-huqiyim` - literally, `illegal stayers`). But most of you close your eyes and cling to the lies they’re feeding you.

An unknown country. A hostile country. The land of the enemy. `First of all we had to vanquish ourselves`, I recently read from one of the commanders who took part in Operation Defensive Wall. We had to `overcome the barrier of fear and enter the densely-populated area saturated with explosive devices and enemies. We took the whole battalion to the Tulkarem refugee camp, to come down hard on them before they attacked us.` And he also related that his wife, who once accompanied him to the city of Nablus, told him: `Take care. Make sure you don`t miss any suiciders. Everything is so close` - the refugee camps, the casbahs and the narrow alleys of Nablus and Jenin: all of that is not a place where people live, but an area `saturated` with explosive devices and enemies.

And what are we to them? Not an area full of explosive devices and enemies? Not an enemy armed from head to toe, that has been killing them from land and air for decades now? Why is the killing and wounding of so many civilians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip always defensive action and not acts of terror in our eyes? Is not the history of humanity replete with state terror?

The difference between us and them, they tell us, is that we, unlike them, do not harm civilians unless it’s by necessity or accident. But even if we set aside the abundant testimony of soldiers and Palestinians, as well as the videos and photos that tell a different story – all the land-confiscations, the tearing apart of families, denial of residency rights, all that, under the auspices of permanent military rule – are they not acts of terror? And what do we call the demolition of huts and tents and paddocks in the Jordan Valley and the South Hebron Hills that is going on these days – about an arrow-shot from the flourishing and expanding settlements – if not acts of terror? Is this not a policy of terror against unarmed civilians who are not involved in any conflict?

Yes: not terrorists, but mainly millions of human beings are on the other side. But we don`t see them, because of our `defensive wall`, walls of enmity and fear. We choose to look at them only through the sights of rifles and cannons and warplanes – and to shoot. And with that choice we are doomed, because it has never happened in history that asymmetry of that kind has provided a life of quiet and security.

The consignment of Marwan Barghouti to solitary confinement in prison as punishment for having called for a nonviolent popular uprising symbolizes our helplessness on the path we have chosen. We cannot put into isolation cells all the people who live in the big prison that is the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They will rise up again one of these days. They will kill us and we will kill them seven times over. And with the passage of time, long-range missiles carrying various kinds of explosives will come our way and kill us sevenfold. And one day there will be no more rebirths for us.

So maybe, before that happens, look and see the people who live there, and overcome, together with them – not with the army – the barrier of fear, and recognize that the area is `saturated` with mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts and grandmothers and grandfathers; not explosives and bombs. And until that happens, my friends and I will continue to bring over women and children from the other side of the wall, as a symbolic and modest human action on the way that is in our eyes the right one to defend our lives here.

Translated from Hebrew for Occupation Magazine by George Malent

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