It is 45 years since Israel invaded the West Bank, including my hometown of Bethlehem; practically the whole of my lifetime. I have not known my city under any state except Israeli occupation.
A year ago, looking at a photo album of an old friend and neighbor, I became acutely aware of how alien his experience of Middle Eastern geography was to me. In the mid-Fifties, he would spend Saturday nights jitterbugging at the Everest, a restaurant coolly positioned on top of the highest hill in Bethlehem, and, at dawn, would drive to Beirut to continue the party.
Today, this experience is unimaginable. The Middle East of his youth no longer exists. For those under 30, the Middle East I once knew does not exist, either. So much has changed in these 45 years.
I first became aware of the political reality of the occupation in the early 1970s. I was a child at the time, but you grow up quickly when you are entrusted with burning all the political books in your father’s library whenever there is an Israeli raid on the neighborhood. I had to do this on two occasions; the second time causing a blockage to the entire sewage system of the building as I zealously flushed the ashes of many important thoughts down the drains.
At the time, Bethlehem and other Palestinian towns were mobilizing to run municipal elections, a seemingly basic right for any population. However, the right to democracy wasn’t what Israel had in mind for the Palestinians, and those who threw themselves into community organizing and election campaigns quickly found themselves locked behind bars. Accounts of their torture and ordeals in Israeli jails are well documented by human rights lawyers, activists and journalists. Everyone knew someone in prison. I knew plenty.
Put simply, occupation means that we were ruled by a hostile foreign power, one that was determined to deny us the right to self determination. Of course, denying people this right is never a simple undertaking. It requires perpetual use of force and coercion which permeated every aspect of our lives. Demanding the right to education was the crime that finally landed my father in jail. He was determined to build Bethlehem University.
Today, after 45 years of international efforts to end the occupation, Bethlehem’s residents are confined to less than 13% of their original territory with no prospect of a future. The densely populated pockets are surrounded by walls and ring-fenced by more than forty Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land. Contrary to popular perception, in the majority of cases this land was confiscated from Christian and not Muslim Palestinians.
The compact geography reveals at a glance the nature of the Israeli government project and its commitment to territorial expansion at the expense of the Palestinians. The message is always clear: Should we get in the way, we will be subjugated or supplanted altogether. This is why all attempts at collective organizing on our part were always met with such violence.
The failure of the international community to move decisively to impose international resolutions that would secure the creation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders has taught the Israeli government that they can get away with ever greater crimes. The hermetic isolation imposed on the Palestinian population, today, allows most Israelis to live in complete oblivion to the tragedy they are causing.
Sadly, this also means that, unlike me, the latest generation of Palestinians will grow up with no real experience of their occupiers, rendering them even less capable of imagining how to act as with a real political agency. A good number of Palestinian youth, along with many activists operating remotely from the Diaspora, have already started promoting alternative blueprints that have little bearing to the reality on the ground. They have never had the chance to experience in a robust, hands-on way the massive force of the settlement project. Equally, they have never heard the best of the Israelis admit to their nation’s crimes while also making the case for their own right to self-determination and their dream of a national home.
Today, 45 years on, we stand at a truly crucial juncture. Should Palestinians fail to establish a state in the near future, the poison from this tragedy will spread deeper and further than we could possibly imagine.
Contrary to the dreams of most wishful thinkers, those on the Israeli side who think they can establish Israel from the river to the sea, or those who dream of the possibility of an alternative, original new arrangement where the entire land of Israel and Palestine is shared, what will emerge from the collapse of the Palestinian national project is more likely to be a more bloody, ever more insolvable conflict that will last to the end of time. One can only hope that this will not be allowed to happen.
Leila Sansour is a Palestinian film director and the founder of Open Bethlehem, an organization that works to preserve the heritage of the city. Her latest film, “The Road to Bethlehem” will be released in December 2012.
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