Hope, and How Not to Visit Palestine
My visit to Nablus coincided with the first Palestinian Human Rights Film Festival at an-Najah University. Even better than the films shown were the panel discussions afterwards, on issues such as refugees, resistance and women’s rights. The first film I saw was “To Shoot an Elephant” (watch it here), a brutal, highly-recommended documentary shot by International Solidarity Movement activists who happened to be in Gaza as the 2008/09 massacre unfolded. After the screening the audience communicated with director Alberto Arce via a video link-up to Spain. (Alberto is permanently banned from entry into Israeli-controlled territory.)
Alberto said this: “It is not my job to tell the Palestinians what to do. It’s my job to support the Palestinians and to witness what’s happening to them. The Palestinians have suffered so much from the actions of foreigners, and foreigners have no right to impose their beliefs on Palestinians.”
Later he argued that one factor behind changing Western attitudes to Israel-Palestine has been the great hospitality of Palestinians, who have welcomed thousands of foreign visitors and volunteers into their towns, camps and homes over the last decade. Once these foreigners have an opportunity to experience daily life in Palestine they become ambassadors of the Palestinian cause in their home countries. Alberto cautioned, however, that besieged Gaza has recently become less welcoming to non-Muslim outsiders. The understandably paranoid Hamas government fears the foreigners are spies calling in air strikes, and many of Gaza’s traumatised younger generation, who have seen the West joining wholeheartedly in Israel’s siege of the prison territory, are unwilling or unable to distinguish between Western governments and people.
On the comparatively less-stressed West Bank, foreigners are still very welcome (and tougher, more experienced activists will of course still be able to make themselves at home in Gaza, which needs more witnesses and helpers than ever). I met the volunteers at Nablus’s Project Hope, an NGO which brings foreigners (when I was there, from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, France, Japan, Singapore, Canada, the US) of all ages to teach Palestinian children and young adults in locations ranging from the university to the refugee camps. Volunteers pay their own way to Palestine, but are put up free in shared rooms in beautiful century-old buildings and are provided with basic Arabic tuition. They must have some teaching experience or qualifications. Subjects taught include English and European languages, sports skills, creative writing, music, art and drama. Project Hope recommends a work visit of three months, believing that less time would not be enough to find your feet, and that longer might exhaust you. I would certainly recommend Project Hope, place and people, and for the education that residence in beautiful, friendly Nablus can offer.
Some of the volunteers were activists, some curious travellers, some purposeful academics. They were all there to learn. They didn’t necessarily agree with or understand every aspect of garrisoned Palestinian culture, but they respected it and never assumed their own superiority.
But I met one foreigner (not a Project Hope person) who had come to Palestine with a chalk in one hand and a Sam Harris book in the other. When I asked him why he was here he launched into a long, thespian speech on the civilisational benefits he had to offer – modern educational methods, atheism, women’s rights, non-violence, individual liberty, rational thought. After submitting to ten minutes of the monologue I wandered off. Now, as an Arab and Muslim I have plenty of my own reservations on the rebirth of ‘tradition’ in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and sympathetic debate of the issue is always most welcome. But this speechmaker, who I’ll call C, was not sympathetic, and had no grasp of either context or practised reality. He didn’t speak a word of Arabic, for a start. Not to me but to a friend he announced, “The people here are not used to a sophisticated level of argumentation.” (The useless addition of a suffix to ‘argument’ tells us quite a lot about this intellectual wizard’s self-image.)
I wonder, I wondered, how long C would proclaim his militant atheism if a bombing raid started? If he saw his mother murdered in front of him? If he were forced to live in a box for six decades, under fire? Perhaps if that happened his beliefs would prove sufficiently rooted to survive such constant fear, although I doubt it. But if it happened to him he’d at least understand the tastelessness and the vanity of preaching comfortable-people’s assumptions to the suffering.
A Palestinian PACBI co-ordinator told me that a lot of foreign ‘peace activists’ arrive muttering the following mantra: ‘We don’t support the Palestinians; we support human rights.’ In other words, Palestinians are allowed to sing Bob Dylan songs at Israeli bulldozers. But as soon as they throw a stone they become, in the eyes of these young faux-liberals, no different from the occupier.
There was a great panel discussion after the screening of Budrus. Ayed Morrar and Muhammad Khatib, organisers of non-violent popular resistance in the villages of Budrus and Bil’in respectively, were sitting next to Jamal Hwayil, leader of the armed resistance in Jenin at the time of the 2002 massacre. Every speaker expressed the belief that the two forms of resistance, armed and unarmed, complement each other, that the question of which to employ in a given context is not a moral but a tactical question.
C was in the audience, and he clearly pitied the panel’s lack of sophisticated argumentation. He made the following intervention: “We’ve seen on the news these rockets, these missiles, coming from Gaza and killing innocent civilians, women and children. I’d like everybody on the panel to comment on that.” The tone of his voice was the worst thing. It was the same tone I use on my children when they’ve been playing up for hours and I’ve just had enough of their silliness. The panel put C in his place, I’m happy to say, and so did the audience, more forcefully. One made the essential point that the targetted town of Sderot is built over several bulldozed Palestinian villages, that the rightful owners of the land are still caged in refugee camps in Gaza, that so long as this situation obtains the settlers of Sderot remain a peculiar class of innocent civilian. One asked “Does he know what has happened to us? What does he think of the innocent people driven from their homes in 1948?”
Unfortunately time was running out, and a great deal of the Palestinian response to C could not be translated.