Though tawjihi, matriculation, celebrations seem light on the surface, they point to a bleak political reality in the West Bank.
I heard the first gunshots at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, 30 minutes before the “humanitarian ceasefire” went into effect.
My elderly landlady stuck her head out the window. “What’s going on?” she shouted to where I sat in the garden. She speculated that it could be clashes in Dheisheh refugee camp, which is within earshot of our house. But when we heard fireworks and horns honking, we figured it was a celebration. “Maybe,” I told her, “it’s because of the Israeli acceptance of the ceasefire. Maybe people see it as a Hamas victory?”
And then a neighbor, another elderly woman, arrived. On my street—and I would venture to say that this is true for much of Palestine—elderly women are consummate collectors of information. My landlady once ferreted out my partner’s cell phone number, knowing only his exceedingly common first name, his not-uncommon last name, and the village his family hails from.
Over the cracks of live fire, which echoed through the valley, our neighbor told my landlady that high school seniors had just gotten their tawjihi scores. Tawjihi are matriculation exams, and their scores determine what college or university one will be able to get into, as well as what departments they will be admitted to.
The noise went on for a couple more hours and resumed in the evening. After iftar, the sky lit up with fireworks. As I headed towards the neighborhood dukkan (bodega), a few men stood in the street, watching the display with awe and disgust.
A friend from Beit Jala put it simply that night, as we sat in the garden. “Shu malhom?” What’s their problem?
It might seem belated or curious that I’m writing about this on Saturday. But in the Bethlehem area, tawjihi celebrations are still a topic of discussion.
Last night, I visited some Palestinian friends in Beit Sahour. “Did you hear all that noise on Tuesday?” my host asked, shaking his head. “Unbelievable. There’s a massacre in Gaza and people are shooting off fireworks.”
“Okay, if you want to celebrate, fine,” he continued. “But be respectful of what’s happening. Take your celebrations inside.”
My host added that one of his brothers was so upset by the celebrations—he though they were so disrespectful of what Gaza is going through right now—that he threw eggs at honking cars.
While my host said that the young people’s parents should not have let them celebrate in the streets, he said that it pointed to a much larger problem.
“We have no leadership,” he said. He explained that a good political system—one that works for the Palestinian people and their freedom, one that cares about Gaza and sees no division between the territories—would have held the scores until this military escalation is over. Or they would have issued some sort of an announcement requesting that people keep the situation in Gaza in mind as they celebrate.
And that’s what this is really about. Leadership. That’s what I hear over and over and over again in the West Bank: we want to protest, we want to do something, anything, but we have no leaders.
This came up again in another troubling conversation, the day after Israel began its ground incursion into the Gaza Strip.
“What’s happening in Gaza makes me sick,” my friend Layla said. Layla used to be an activist. Now, she’s just trying to keep her head above water.
Layla is angry and sad, but she also feels powerless. We talked about how protesting seems increasingly futile in the West Bank. How the Palestinian Authority does Israel’s bidding by putting down demonstrations. And that, at this point, getting arrested at a protest would not be a provocative act of civil disobedience. It would just seem useless.
So rather than rallying for Gaza, the youth celebrate tawjihi.
“There are Dayton forces all over,” Layla said, referring to the American general who was in charge of training the Palestinian security forces—security forces that don’t make the people feel safe but, rather, oppressed and silenced. “Maybe we could do more if we were abroad.”