The transformation of Palestinians into objects and the attempt to undermine the relationships they have with one another form the context in which this latest assault on Gaza must be understood.
By Vicky Hosker
Although less than three hours away from Bethlehem, Gaza often feels like another world to me. The distinguishing feature of Israel’s long-term policy towards Palestinians is not simply displacement, but dismemberment: separate ID cards for West Bank and Gaza residents have forced married couples to choose between leaving the country entirely or living apart, while economic, educational, and cultural ties have been severed with clinical efficiency. My Bethlehem neighbours jokingly refer to the 1.6 million people sealed hermetically inside Gaza as the aliens. One night, at half-past one in the morning, one such alien landed in my world (via Twitter).
“You’re awake late, why’s that?”
“Period pain. My uterus feels as though it is being put through a cheese-grater. You?”
Sameeha and I developed a close friendship. When she won a scholarship to study in England, I travelled to meet her. Our first encounter involved her trying to persuade me to go to a nightclub, which produced an alarming flashback to an identical incident in an Eilat hostel. Unwilling to allow a be-hijabed Palestinian Muslim to succeed where six Russian Israeli girls in silver spandex had failed, I fought her off, and watched as she replaced her headscarf with a large black snood.
“Err, is there any special reason why you’re trying to look like a settler from Modi’in Illit?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Vicky, I can’t go to a nightclub in my SCARF.”
Spending time with Sameeha and participating in activism alongside her, I began to see more clearly how the steady dismemberment of Palestinian society and subsequent isolation of Gaza has created a climate in which large-scale assaults like Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense can take place. At the invitation of various Palestinian solidarity groups, Sameeha led a lively conference with four other women from Hebron, Aida refugee camp, and Nazareth. Afterwards they wrote to the couple who had hosted them: “Thank you for making a small Palestine for us in your home.” Each of the five new friends signed with her name and her hometown. Currently they cannot meet in any of those towns. The rigid permit and ID card system is a tacit denial of the friendships and family ties that exist between Palestinians, their community links, their right to love. This denial is nothing new. After Israel was established, the Palestinians of Majdal Asqalan spent two years in the new state before being forcibly transferred to Gaza. The truckloads of people were described as “deliveries.” Tonight the children of that cargo are being bombed. The transformation of Palestinians into objects and the steady methodical attempt to undermine the relationships they have with one another form the context in which this latest assault must be understood.
In England, Sameeha was delighted to find Palestinians from Nazareth. There were other first-time encounters that she found more unsettling. “Vicky, I met one,” excitedly. “Today, at a student activist meeting. I was waiting for it to begin and she just sat down next to me and started talking on her phone in Hebrew.”
“What did you say to her?”
“Nothing. I kind of froze. My dad will be so disappointed in me. You know, my family jokes that the worst thing about the siege for him is that he can’t see them at all. In Cast Lead we were sitting in the dark and the house was shaking and he was calling out over the bombs” – she assumed a firm paternal tone – “‘You mustn’t think they’re all like this, Sameeha, there are good people over there’.” She laughed, then paused. “But I wonder, what would I say?”
Curled up on my bed one evening, she was looking through photos and videos I had taken in Bethlehem. Neighborhood kids playing in front of the separation wall. Sunrise on the olives. Then suddenly an appalled exclamation of, “Fuck, they’re young!” I peered over her shoulder and saw the women’s choir performing in our street, with a curious soldier looking down from the watchtower. Sameeha was staring at him. “They’re too young,” she repeated. She looked at me. “Are they all like this?”
All these memories and more poured pell-mell into my mind when the assault on Gaza began. Today, anxious for news, I heard from her. “Habibti, this is a hell of a week.” I could have deduced that much without assistance, but thought it would be unreasonable to demand a detailed account of what was going on when her hands were shaking so much that her typing was muddled. Feeling helpless and far too far away, I tried to contain all my questions, not wanting to create any more stress for her. Now that her electricity has gone down and we can no longer communicate at all, the silence and the sense of not-knowing seem to exaggerate the separation, the terrible distance, and the questions fill it with their clamour: You’re awake late, why is that? What’s happening? Why? Are you OK? What can I say? Are they all like this?
Vicky Hosker works with a Bethlehem NGO focusing on peace education. She has a background in special needs education and mental health, and is interested in how creative arts can be used therapeutically with traumatised children. Her doctoral research explores how literature and storytelling can enable people to access taboo history, with emphasis on the Nakba and the Holocaust.