The villages west of Ramallah are full of prickly pear cactus. Many years ago these villages were known for their many residents who, while picking the fruit, had become blinded in one eye from the barbed cactus, when the inflammation went untreated, became infected, and eventually blinded the eye. That was the story told by a Fatah member last week on his way from Ramallah to the village of Budrus, to take part in a protest march against the separation fence. That activist had also joined a renewed initiative of a group of Palestinians seeking ways of returning to a mass unarmed struggle against the occupation.
Talking about this and that, he also told the tale about a villager, blind in one eye, who came home after an absence of many years and found that all the other villagers had become blind in both eyes, and were worshiping a tree in the village as if it were Allah. He tried to explain their mistake to them, but they rejected his efforts. Finally they told him, "If you want to be a son of this village, accept the tree as your god. If you don't, then leave." The man wanted to stay, and so he blinded himself in the other eye.
This story can be a universal parable for the power of socialization. But the man who told it, who had spent more than 10 years in Israeli jails, was addressing his own society. He pointed out the difficulty for him and other like-minded Palestinians in swimming against the tide, against traditional internal behavior in Fatah and against conventions that have become rooted in the struggle against the Israeli occupation.
One convention, for example, is that the number of those killed (on both sides) is a measure of the struggle's success. Another is that a weapon makes he who wields it into a fighter. To earn this title, it is enough to be photographed holding the weapon at a public event in the refugee camp and shooting it in the air, or using it to threaten merchants to close their stores. The all-embracing violence of the Israeli occupation, and the willingness of the weapon-wielders to die, are enough to make people ashamed of criticizing them publicly.
What is interesting is that the Palestinians are used to mass unarmed resistance to the occupation, more than they tend to believe of themselves and more than the Israelis are willing to admit. And not just when it comes to mass, stubborn demonstrations, which the residents of Budrus began and through which they even managed to save a grand old olive grove from the maws of the bulldozers.
Many types of resilience can be learned from the Palestinians. After all, the Israeli occupation after and before September 2000 is as invasive as can be. It invades and suffocates every aspect of people's lives, until one can blow up from fury and frustration: trees and greenhouses uprooted using a million excuses (within spitting distance from the ever-expanding outposts); a toilet that may not be built in a school because it is in Area C; a new water pipe the width of which is limited by the Israelis; construction prohibitions in East Jerusalem; the paternalistic comments of an officer in the civil administration, or a young soldier at a reception window; authorization given or denied to travel for cancer treatment; or permission to visit first-degree relatives in Gaza only if they are dying or already dead.
People invent thousands of solutions. They obtain false documents, build without permits, send pictures of the grandchildren by email, bring water from distant wells, care for the children of an imprisoned brother, walk for hours through the mountains to circumvent roadblocks, tell jokes about themselves, send their kids to karate and debka dance lessons, establish an endless number of local committees to debate everything, and sneak into Israel to earn a livelihood to support their families in spite of the dangers.
But the personal creative resilience of the masses has not translated into a strategy of popular resistance. That was to have been the task of the creative leadership, which is non existent.
It is difficult to know if the renewed initiative of the grass-roots struggle will succeed this time. But it is another expression of the fact that an ever-increasing number of Palestinians refuses to be blinded in the other eye.
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