By Madronna Holden
“Whenever something makes us happy, something else makes us sad again.”
–Palestinian girl growing up under Israeli Occupation
“If you have been enlightened enough to take the side of the Palestinians – oh bless your hearts – take our sides, because for once you will be on the right side, right? But if taking our side would mean to become one-sided against my Jewish brothers and sisters, backup. We do not need such friendship. We need one more common friend. We do not need one more enemy, for God’s sake.”
–Abuna Elias Chacour, Palestinian bishop of Galilee
In 1982-1983, I taught at BirZeit University and lived among the Palestinians at Ramallah under the Israeli Occupation.In spring of 1983 I wrote these words in my journal:
Spring has come to the mountains of Palestine, drying out the winter rains that dampened everything in our stone house. We are warm for the first time in months, but I feel vulnerable in the dazzling sunlight, as if I were made of glass and the ever- present wind of Occupation could blow right through me. How good it would be to surrender to the exuberance of the Palestinian earth bursting with green. How good it would be to live a predictable life, not threatened with deportation by the Occupation forces because I am among the foreign teachers who have refused to sign a statement declaring the PLO a terrorist organization.
By mid-April the land is in full bloom and my husband and daughter and I are invited to dinner in Jerusalem by a Palestinian-American who teaches with us at BirZeit. I do not want to go. I want only to hide away behind walls with my daughter at my side. But my husband coaxes me into accepting.
The taxis are slow because the road is crowded. It seems everyone is going to Jerusalem on this lovely day, even as I wonder if this will be the day when the West Bank explodes from the tension pressed on it by occupation. In my mind the houses, the stores, the fields at the side of the road enflame and turn to ash.
“Why did we leave?” asked our elder Palestinian neighbor, referring to those who fled the Arab quarter of Jerusalem in 1964. “There were soldiers, there were guns, and when there are soldiers and guns, something may happen. Our neighbor’s houses were drilled with bullets. We do not blame the soldiers. But when there are soldiers it is best to leave.”
The slow tears thickened on his cheeks as he spoke of the wife and children he never had, since as a refugee he had no house for them. Still he will not allow his story to be “used by someone against someone else. I will not enter politics. Politics divides up everything, politics always lies.”
Our Palestinian-American colleague tells us there is a saying among his people, “Politicians should be sent to the moon to see how small the world is”.
On the way to the Mount of Olives where his brother lives, he points out the ways the streets of the old city of Jerusalem are engineered to take advantage of convection currents that yield heat in the winter, cooling in the summer.
“Arab architecture is very practical. Like Arab burial.” After two hours, his mother was in the ground, before he could get his money out of a bank in Illinois and come back for the funeral. It is practical for a number of reasons: “Why all this fuss and expense on a dead body? And who wants to see your loved one like that?”
He missed his mother’s funeral but he came back to live with his relatives on the Mount of Olives and teach at BirZeit.
At his brother’s house we are offered a roomful of food for five people: stuffed fish, chicken, rolled grape leaves, soup, delicate cucumber and tomato salad, wide meat patties baked with potatoes and other vegetables, heaps of steamed yellow rice: a Friday meal. We are told guests who do not eat it all offend their hosts.
Afterwards, we walk in the cool garden, a tiny space lush with trees of every kind: almond, fig, pomegranate, lemon, orange, olive, mulberry, apple, plum—bordered with the inevitable grape vine and a row of bee houses to pollinate the trees and yield honey from the flowers. All this exists in perhaps a quarter of an acre. The leaves of the trees crowd onto one another, but they are lush and heavy, tended by a traditional Palestinian gardener who knows how to use grafting to strengthen their limbs.
Here there is no garbage caught up and blown in the wind as in other parts of the land. Here every inch of land is carefully, lovingly, tended and it responds in kind.
“It is nice here in summer to take a chair and sit,” he says, as we linger in the shade of trees as loved by this man as they are by the sun and wind.
“These are simple people”, our Palestinian-American host tells us on the way back to Ramallah. He obtained a PhD in mathematics in the States and is having difficulty re-adjusting to life here. But the “simple people” he cannot fault. “I like them best, though they are too easy going. Just smile and you win their hearts. Everyone takes advantage of the simple people of the world.”
After an afternoon with these simple people of Palestine, the helmets and machine guns are at bay in my mind and the spring in Palestine blooms for me once again. I am in a buoyant mood, the sun sparking the sails of the wind that curved up under the Mount of Olives.
Behind the “green line” of Occupation where many non-settler Israelis feared to go because of the calculated publicity of the Occupation Administration, I often opened my door in the evenings to find a child’s smiling face as she proffered a handful of delicate sweets to my family. I walked by lines of Palestinian women who did not wish to remain strangers, calling out, “Come in, come in”, urging me to drink sweet mint tea as they bounced my daughter on their knees, passing her between them to make her laugh until she showed the first sign of a fuss and they handed her back to me. As I nursed her, they clapped their hands in delight. One woman exclaimed, “How nice for her!”
The children of Ramallah and El-Bireh trailed us through the streets calling out “Shalom”—using the Jewish rather than Arabic world for peace, since they took me for Jewish in my modern western clothes. They made a game out of asking my daughter’s name and repeating it back amidst peals of laughter.
“Simple people”, Palestinian peace activist Abuna Chacour, bishop of Galilee and several time Nobel peace prize nominee, also called those Palestinians he grew up among at Biram in his book, We Belong to the Land.He hastened to add that this did not mean they were isolated or politically naïve.They sought out and analyzed world news in a way that honored the Arab tradition that, like the Jewish one, holds scholarship and intellectual debate in high esteem.
This tradition is not neglected even after four generations in Palestinian refugee camps created by the Six Day War, where siblings still teach one another to read.
When Chacour’s family learned the news of the Nazi Holocaust, they prayed fervently that justice would come to the suffering Jewish people. Later Israelis bombed Biram to make room for a Jewish settlement. I do not think they understood they bombed the houses which held such prayers on their behalf.
Such “simple” people were responsible for the collection of keys and other shiny objects growing on our dresser in Ramallah, gifts proffered to entertain my daughter in shared taxi rides. When we introduced ourselves as BirZeit faculty in those taxis we would be thanked for not signing that statement declaring the PLO a terrorist organization. Then those who sat with us would express pride in the possibility of the democratic self-rule of Palestine.
It was the PLO that gave the word that the students should not demonstrate no matter what the provocation from the soldiers that year. There must be no excuse for the Occupation to close the university, since education was the road to the self-rule of the Palestinian people.
But under Occupation it was illegal to speak publicly in favor of a Palestinian state. My students sometimes straggled into my morning classes wet and shivering from having slept in the fields to avoid the soldiers going house to house to look for the colors of the Palestinian flag–and arrest the offenders who possessed them.
The simple people of Palestine have a long memory. They do not forget the thousand year old family olive tree even after it has been uprooted—the tree whose years parallel the genealogy of the family that cared for it. After the bombing of Biram, Chacour’s father stayed on to tend the family trees now in the Israeli settlers’ fields in order to ensure their well-being until he felt too much like a “slave” and could stay no longer. Until his death, he felt that soil calling to him to return, a right upheld by the UN, but refused by the Israeli government for unspecified “matters of state”.
Where there are such links to the land, there is the heart of the Palestinian people.
One day I passed by the elder refugee who refused to assign blame tenderly pulling weeds away from the roots of an unlikely looking tree, with the rubble of bombed out houses as the backdrop.
“It is a pear tree,” he announced as he looked up to greet me, “It deserves to live”.
If the violence between Jewish and Palestinian “blood brothers”, as Chacour rightly calls them, can be undone by any means, it is by supporting the heart of the Palestinian people in their links to their land. I know this much: a man in line for the responsibility of caretaking a thousand year old olive tree passed down in his family does not become a suicide bomber.
Indeed, refusing the right of return to their homes and land to uprooted Palestinians undermines the security of Israeli. If the Occupation ever does succeed in destroying the connection between Palestinians and their land, they will not only destroy the heart of the Palestinian people—but give themselves the daunting task of living beside a people without a heart.
It has not aided Israeli security that the Occupation consistently attacked the forces of moderation and education in Palestine, as it did the year I lived there. Nor has it served either Israeli security or basic human justice to punish civilian populations for the acts of a few , a policy I saw carried out twenty-five years ago even as it was most recently carried out in the blockade of Gaza. There is no better way to alienate one’s potential allies.
It has gained nothing to keep Israelis and Palestinians from meeting one another face to face as the Occupation did during the winter of 1983, when they stopped a bus load of students from Hebrew University who were coming to have lunch with their Palestinian peers and made them stand all day in the sleet before they turned them back to Jerusalem.
Certainly the security of Israel is bolstered by the actions of these students, who were those willing to cross the “green line” of occupation the current Israeli government is building into a wall, even as it is bolstered by those who organized a relief convoy of food and water filters during the recent Gaza blockade.
In the wake of failed Occupation policy, it is time for the Israeli government to support the heart of Palestine that lies in its people and their belonging to their land. A first step would be the acceptance of the cease fire offered by Hamas for the sake of the “simple people” who must manage their lives under the Occupation.
Admittedly, that decision will take courage, but it will set the Israelis on the side of both justice and hope.
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