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In Your Eyes a Sandstorm
Ways of Being Palestinian
By Arthur Neslen
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 Arthur Neslen
All rights reserved.
The Disengaged Generation
Most Palestinians today are under the age of seventeen. There are several reasons for the population bulge: the political optimism of the Oslo days, the economic facts of life under occupation, even the dawn-to-dusk curfews of the Second Intifada. But one result is that this generation may not be as amenable to peace processes as previous ones. Fewer of them speak Hebrew, know Israel, or have met friendly Jews. Many of those who can will use international contacts to emigrate. The people interviewed in this chapter are mostly just above this age group, but they share a separation from Israeli Jews and the Oslo dream, as well as a weakening of bonds to Palestinian national parties, institutions, and traditions.
If the West Bank Wall and disengagement from Gaza marked an Israeli shift to unilateral separation from all things Arab, the lack of a coherent national response inspired a different kind of detachment among young Palestinians. By early 2011 the Palestinian Authority (PA) had come to be seen largely as a bureaucratic source of largesse (at best) and Gaza's government as a religious police state. Families and clans were traumatized and impoverished, while paternal authority had been severely undermined by national failure, military humiliation, and the encroaching cultures of individualism and DIY buddy capitalism. A minority of Palestinians reacted, according to Eyad Sarraj, by "identifying with the aggressor." The West Bank factions that spearheaded the resistance were mostly languishing, smashed on the rocks of espionage, repression, and their own fatalistic heroism. Public support for them had also fallen off due to their perceived military naïveté and economic gangsterism.
The continued humiliations of occupation had ensured a steady stream of young recruits. But the Gaza blockade attested to a powerlessness that Hamas—the last redoubt of armed resistance—shared with Fatah. As the onetime Fedayeen of the PLO governed the West Bank, the Israeli wall—and Jewish settlements—expanded. When the thirteen-year-old son of a Palestinian friend told us that he loved an especially violent video game because it allowed him to "break the arms" of other characters, his mother winced at me. "Break their arms" was Yitzhak Rabin's famous instruction to his troops during the First Intifada. When young Palestinians look westward, they inevitably pick up on echoes of their own oppression.
Since the international community transformed its aid to Palestinians into a mechanism of "divide and rule," it had become linked in the popular imagination with Fatah cronyism. This had been a matter of national disgust ever since former Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia's family company was found to have shipped cement used in building the separation wall from Israel in 2004. Young Palestinians felt badly let down by the "Tunis generation," just as young Algerians felt let down by their secular nationalist parents in the early 1990s. They had watched the international community reward Fatah with the equivalent of ceremonial feathers—and Israel with grotesquely generous trade and aid packages. They had seen their brethren in Gaza punished with ever more debilitating sanctions. Many had experienced war trauma, and some might yet bite the Western hand that has fed them, if nothing more.
In Gaza, Israel's "disengagement"—that is, withdrawal of settlements—from the Strip in 2005 was followed by several shocks: an election that Hamas won, a bout of fratricidal fighting that banished Fatah as a military force, a grievous blockade that reduced daily life to a bare minimum, and, finally, a war waged by an advanced army against the Gazan people as a whole. At the time of writing, more than half of Gazans were unemployed, 70 percent lived on less than $1 a day, and 80 percent depended on UNRWA for food. This had combined with a lack of existential security in disastrous ways. The American academic Sara Roy, who lived in Gaza for many years, wrote in her book Failing Peace:
Thirty 15-year-old boys were asked, "What does authority mean?" All answered that "Authority means the enemy." When told, "But authority could mean your teacher as well," several of them replied, "You mean our teacher is a collaborator?" "Do you have authority at home?" was another question. "Yes," they replied, "the authorities have entered our homes many times." Children in the Gaza Strip are increasingly incapable of conceptualizing authority in traditional terms since parents and teachers, unable to protect the young from constant abuse and threat, have ceased to exist as authority figures. Authority is now the enemy and it is inherently evil.
Studies in Gaza indicate that 85 percent of children have seen their homes raided by the Israeli army, 42 percent have been beaten, and 55 percent have witnessed their fathers being beaten. A twenty-four-year-old friend on the Strip had experienced all three. He described a beating by soldiers in which two teeth were broken and a humiliation in which soldiers forced his father to clean feces off a jeep as "incidents that make me laugh."
The inability of family and clan networks to shield their young from Israeli army attacks led many of Gaza's children to seek protection in factions and militias before 2000. Hamas's failure to shelter civilians during Israel's last invasion led to trauma on a frightening scale. According to a Gaza Community Mental Health Program study, in 2009 more than 60 percent of Gaza's children were suffering severe to very severe posttraumatic stress reactions, and 30 percent were experiencing moderate posttraumatic stress. This generation does not have the emotional space to process its war wounds, its siege pains, or the more general despair that being a teenager in a walled camp engenders.
By dint of their numbers, intense suffering, and forced absence from the world's eyes, young Gazans may well come to define what it means to be Palestinian in the future. The raw and pained power of the "Gaza Youth Break Out" statement in early 2011—"There is a revolution growing inside us, an immense dissatisfaction and frustration that will destroy us"—may retrospectively appear an unheeded wakeup call.
Israel's own Palestinian minority underwent contradictory experiences in the late 2000s. As the Second Intifada waned, Islamist ideas grew, and secular young Arabs tried to somehow fashion more personal life narratives. How to keep true to valued traditions while "becoming someone" in your own right was a typical preoccupation. Palestinian Israelis are wealthier than their cousins in the occupied territories, can travel, and have a growing sophistication, worldliness, and self-confidence that has so far not been reflected in Israel's political scene. They also understand Israeli Jews far better than their contemporaries in the occupied territories and, as a fruit of struggles over many years, expect equal citizenship rights in a way that their parents did not. But they have been deliberately isolated from Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Laws prevent contact with "enemy" Arabs, travel beyond much of the Green Line, and even, since 2003, living in Israel with spouses from the West Bank and Gaza. One Palestinian in Bethlehem complained to me that he could not even travel in a car with his Jerusalem-born wife. "We were so lucky to find a small rented house in a zone where I can reach her. We live together now, but nobody knows about it," he said. "It's not right."
Refugees have had to watch such developments from afar. In Lebanon, discrimination, insecurity, and war trauma sometimes compared to the norm in Gaza. But elsewhere, the primary travails were poverty, neglect, and abandonment, exacerbated by the incremental death of any hope for change or meaningful national relief. Talk on Palestinian street corners still gravitated toward a third Intifada, but it was unclear whether Palestinian society had the emotional strength, political strategy, or military ability to mount another revolt. The end result was a degree of wariness among the young, a trend to individualist and sometimes globalized solutions (complicated by ambivalent feelings toward the West), and an unhooking from established political parties and processes.
Previous Palestinian generations inherited vibrant liberation movements and international initiatives. Even after the Nakba, the hope of return remained. The coming generation seems to have been bequeathed a compromised political horizon, a divided polity, and two mirror image failed police states, neither of which can realize their aspirations or protect them from an aggressive neighbor that appears to wish their disappearance. One poll in 2009 indicated that 40 percent of Gazans and 25 percent of West Bankers wanted to escape from their homeland. In 2010 Palestinian youth workers reported up to 80 percent of some classes wishing to emigrate. But the drift to personal rather than national life narratives reflected a global trend as well as a weakening of traditional national identities.
The meaning of loaded concepts such as resistance, liberation, and identity continues to evolve in circumstances that do not favor universalistic conclusions. The disengaged generation has been let down by its political leaders and military factions. Clan networks and families have been unable to substitute for them, and the Western and Arab worlds have substantially betrayed them. New social, cultural, and political formulations, perhaps with deeper roots among Palestinian-Israelis, could blossom one day. But for now an old order atrophies while a new one cannot be born. If it ever arrives, it will have to chew its way through a formidable umbilical cord linking the apparatuses of Fatah and Hamas, the occupation, a traditional land-and-family-based self-image that can no longer sustain itself, and a national fragmentation, the healing of which may prove akin to piecing back together the shell of a shattered egg.
A bird flying over Palestine In a small house crunched into the maze of Jenin's refugee camp, Bisan and Abud lived with their parents and one younger brother. Sitting in the family's salon with their mother and a translator, Bisan said that she rarely saw Abud these days. He changed after the Israeli army's invasion of the camp in 2002 and was now always on the streets. During that invasion, at least fifty-two Palestinians were killed and the old refugee camp was demolished.
Bisan was named after the family's hometown, which now lies within Israel. In 1948, the Palmach, a standing army of Jewish troops, captured it and expelled its Arab residents, renaming the town Beth She'an as they went. The Fihad family were among those displaced.
Abud said he visited the town of Bisan once for a wedding and found it "a beautiful village, more beautiful than the Jenin camp." He would have liked to live there, he said, but could not "because of the occupation." Beth She'an is now a Jewish town in Israel, and no Arabs remain. Bisan has visited Jericho, Jerusalem, and Haifa only once, on a school excursion. "I prefer Jerusalem because of the holy places," she said. "It keeps me in contact with our Islamic origins. I love my religion, and insha'allah I will go to Mecca." Both children prayed regularly in order to satisfy God and so that they might reach heaven one day. "It's a way of feeling okay," Bisan explained. Her smile was often bright and precocious, but in a moment it could turn pale and expressionless. Abud was more fixedly hunched and sullen.
When I asked the children what their favorite lessons were at school, Bisan piped up, "I love English!" with a grin. Abud said nothing. Bisan told me that they played Intifada games in the Jenin camp by dividing themselves into two groups—Jews who shot, and Palestinians who threw stones. The Palestinians always won.
What do you want to be when you grow up, I asked Abud. "It's difficult to say," he replied. "I can't say." My translator suggested that Abud felt inhibited by his mother's presence in the room, and we asked her to leave. Finally Abud muttered that he was afraid. "I want to be a fighter," he said quietly. "I don't want to be with any political parties, just to be a fighter. I saw many people dying in the camp, and because of that I want to fight and die a shahid. I saw Abu Janda and Fady in my neighborhood killed and Mohammed Delal when he was a child. Mahmoud Afif, Abas Damaji ..." He reeled off the names as though pointing out graves. How did they die, I asked? "The Jews killed them," he said. The room felt very empty.
Ordinary Palestinians often refer to Israelis as Jews, and interpreters usually translate this back as "Israelis" or "Zionists." Some would call this anti-Semitism. Sometimes it is. But as far as it goes, it is usually accurate. Among older Palestinians, use of the word Yahud is sometimes associated with a reaction against the old Fatah saw, Sahiouni (Zionist). It denotes a certain kind of defiance, informality, rejection of accommodation with Israeli Jews, and religious affiliation. In Abud's case it is automatic, the language of the street he lives on and which lives in him.
"About three months ago I saw a guy who the Israeli soldiers had killed," he said, stuttering, "and his brain was outside his head. I was at the edge of the street, and I saw the jeeps stop. I heard the guns shoot, and then when they left, I went and saw the bodies. When the soldiers came to take them, one collapsed on the floor when he saw the guy's brains. I just ran away and told some friends and the fighters about it. I couldn't sleep that night."
But he did not pray either. "I was confused," he said. "I just walked around the neighborhood and returned to the house. I always have nightmares with people dying or silhouettes passing by my face quickly, one by one. You can only see their bodies. I'm scared of them. When it happens, I wake up and then cover myself with a blanket."
"One child died when I was with him. We saw some tanks, so we said to each other, 'Let's go and throw stones at them!' My friend Mohammed ran ahead about a hundred meters and started throwing stones. Then we heard shooting and I saw him collapse in the street. He was shot in the head. We went and looked at his body. I cried a lot." Mohammed was twelve years old, and his death left Abud with a kind of survivor guilt—the feeling of culpability for having survived that is common to Holocaust survivors and Palestinians alike. "I still feel guilty because we were all telling each other to go and throw stones," he affirmed.
The psychotherapist Abud saw did not help at all. "I just want to be a shahid," he said. "I want to die, because so many other people have died. I don't have a future. A group of children in my neighborhood have decided that we will all become fighters." A Gaza Mental Health Community Center study found that more than a third of Palestinian boys between the ages of eight and twelve wished to die in attacks on the Israeli army.
"I also saw many dead people in the camp!" Bisan chimed in, listing her roll call of local shahids. "I keep having flashbacks and feeling sad and afraid but also appreciating them because they died protecting the camp. I also saw some children whom the Jews killed in the streets." Unlike her brother, Bisan's experience of the occupation had left her hopeful for the future—she now wanted to open a pharmacy—but the route to her decision had been unconventional.
"We went to my grandmother's house when the invasion started," she remembered, "four families all living in one room. We just sat in the salon, staring at the tanks shooting and the rockets from the helicopters. When they were fired, the sky would light up. After a minute we'd hear a strong explosion, the house would start shaking, and then I'd hear a deafening sound in my ears."
"During the night we tried to sleep, but I couldn't because of the explosions. Then my cousin tried to wake me, but I couldn't. When my mother looked at my face she couldn't recognize me in the dark. My mouth and eyes were open wide and my heart was not beating. My body was cold. She started screaming, 'My daughter is dead!' My uncles and aunts came in from the other room to see what was happening ... "
While she was talking, Abud had started to cry. "I went to the corner of the room and started praying to God, 'Don't take my sister,'" he said. "She was lying there, and I went to touch her, but then I got scared. I started screaming and went back to the corner to pray again." Bisan continued, "My uncle ran over quickly and started giving me resuscitation—beating me on the chest and breathing into my mouth. Suddenly, I felt my body shaking and my heart beating first slowly, then fast. When I woke up I didn't know what had happened. Because my uncle helped me I decided to become a doctor so that maybe in the future I can help someone."
Abud thought that the Israelis treated Palestinians badly "because they want to kick us out of our land, like they did in '48." Bisan reasoned, "They are angry because we have fighters who want to protect us. They want to kill them, destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque, and then take our houses." The only Israelis either had ever met wore uniforms.
Excerpted from In Your Eyes a Sandstorm by Arthur Neslen. Copyright © 2011 Arthur Neslen. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|Introduction The Disengaged Generation Bisan and Abud Abdul Khadr FihadStudents, Jenin Camp, West Bank Sharif al-BasyuniUnemployed, Beit Hanun, Gaza Amira al-HaybSoldier, Wadi al-Hammam, Israel Niral KarantajiModel, Haifa, Israel Doha JabrDancer, Ramallah, West Bank Abdul Rahman KatananiArtist, Shatila Camp, Beirut, Lebanon “Nabil” Student, Ramallah, West Bank The Second Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|Intifada Generation Firaz Turkmen and Alla SubharinIslamic Jihad, Jenin, West Bank Ayman Nahas and Hanna ShamasComedians, Haifa, Israel Asmaa al-GouleJournalist, Gaza Citys Neriman al-JabariWidow, Jenin Camp, West Bank Tamer NafarRapper, Lyd, Israel Abu AbedTunnel Engineer, Rafah, Gaza “Omar” Drug Dealer, East Jerusalem, West Bank The Oslo Generation Diana ButtuLawyer, Ramallah, West Bank Haifa DwaikatStudent, Nablus, West Bank Hala SalemNGO Director, Amman, Jordan Sayed KashuaJournalist, Author, Screenwriter, West Jerusalem, IsraelTawfiq JabharinLawyer, Umm al-Fahem, Israel Fuad al-HofeshPsychologist, Mardah, West Bank Samer Azmi al-ZugayyarPoliceman, Ramallah, West Bank The First Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|Intifada Generation “Abu Ahmed”Hamas Activist and Teacher, West Bank Rania Dabak, Naima Abdul Razek, and Shaykha MahmudVillagers, al-Aqaba, West Bank Taghred JomaNGO Manager, Gaza City Huda NaimHamas MP, al-Bureij Camp, Gaza Amal MasriBusinesswoman, Ramallah, West Bank Fawsi BarhoumHamas Spokesman, Gaza City “Haidar”Taxi Driver, Gaza The Thawra GenerationDr. Nafez Rakfat Abu ShabhanPlastic Surgeon, Gaza City Fawaz DawoudChief of Police, Nablus, West Bank Mohammed DahlanFatah Leader, Ramallah, West Bank Nabila EspanyoliNGO Director, Nazareth, Israel Muna WakidDFLP Worker, Nahr el-Bared, Lebanon Nawal, Eshan, and Iman FareijiShatila Camp Residents, Beirut, Lebanon Marwan ShehadehWeb Manager, Amman, Jordan Sami Mahmoud KhaderZoo Curator, Qalqilya, West BankThe 1967 (Naksa) Generation Leila KhaledPFLP Fighter, Amman, Jordan Abu AdelSulha Committee Judge, East Jerusalem, West Bank Mustafa al-KurdMusician, East Jerusalem, West Bank Hanan AshrawiCivil Society Leader, Ramallah, West Bank Raleb MajadeleFormer Minister of Science and Technology, Jerusalem Ahmad YousefDeputy Foreign Minister, Rafah Camp, Gaza The Nakba Generation Gabi BaramkiFormer University President, Ramallah, West Bank Nuri al-UkbiBedouin Activist, al-Araquib, Israel Jamal FreijFormer Well Maintenance Worker, Kfar Kassem, Israel Aisha OdehWomen’s Center Founder, Deir Jarir, West Bank Eyad al-SarrajPsychiatrist, Gaza City Hassan al-KashifJournalist, Gaza City Rajab al-HiseFisherman, Beach Camp, Gaza The 1936 Generation Jalil Sharqawi FawadliRetired Teacher, Abud, West Bank Abdullah RashidRetired Farmer, al-Hussein Camp, Irbid, Jordan Postscript: Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In Your Eyes a Sandstorm Glossary Selected Bibliography and Further Reading Photo Captions
What People are Saying About This
In Your Eyes a Sandstorm will captivate its readers and is sure to shock and surprise even the most knowledgeable and/or radical (at either end of the spectrum) followers of these issues."Foreword
"Neslen has forged a collection of voices that forces us to rethink simplistic notions about the nature of Palestinian identity."Kirkus Reviews
"Neslen's queries are significant and probing, and the answers he gets are nuanced and, at times, heart-wrenching."Forward
"A gripping look at a society and people who are misrepresented by the mainstream media and misunderstood by much of the Western world. "The Palestinian question"never the "Jewish question" anymoreis generally posed in a way that omits Palestinian's own experiences from consideration. Through these carefully-crafted portraits, Neslen gives Palestinians the space to begin to answer it for themselves."Huffington Post
"A narrative that depicts a living and collective identity, one that emerges though multiple voices and contradictions."The National