Ahlam Najjar writes to us from Palestine about the way that survival under occupation requires a redefining of what is considered ‘normal’…
I entered Palestine with extensive knowledge of the dire situation it would be in due to the ongoing conflict with Israel, but no amount of research could have prepared me for what I was about to experience first-hand. As I started to work within the community, I began to realise that the manner in which I, a foreigner, experienced the occupation was significantly different to the Palestinian residents’ experience. For me, the military raids, arrests, checkpoints, requirements of permits, heavy military presence in the country, identification checks, restriction of movement and the general dehumanisation that is associated with all those experiences felt absurd. To Palestinians, however, it is nothing out of the ordinary; in fact, it is considered ‘normal’.
Not long ago, I visited the village of Burin, which is located seven kilometers southwest of Nablus. After visiting numerous families in the village and listening to their stories of what life is like under Israeli occupation, I noticed that each family shared a mutual suffering. A great majority of the families had experienced home raids by the Israeli military, and almost each had a relative arrested with no charge. Moreover, the families would be left with none of their questions answered after every arrest. They were provided with no information on where their loved ones would be taken nor on what the reasons were behind the arrests.
These experiences, given their prevalence, have become normalised within each Palestinian household, and the general sentiment expressed towards it is, “That’s just another day of life under occupation”. What struck me the most, however, was the immense strength that these individuals had to be able to continue on with their day-to-day lives. The main contributing factor to this strength, in my observation, was their ability to confide in one another. A majority of families have experienced or are experiencing what it’s like to have a relative – typically younger – imprisoned, and I felt that their bonding over the shared pain, loss and worry produced a solidarity that they mutually relied upon.
Military checkpoints restrict movement within the West Bank, and, as such, Palestinians cannot travel from place to another with ease. Families generally chose to stay in their villages and cities to avoid the difficult effort required to travel elsewhere, regardless of their need.
I personally experienced a checkpoint closure by heavily armed soldiers once when returning to the city of Nablus from the nearby village of Beit Dajan. The cause of that closure was unknown, but we were informed that it could take hours before movement would be again permitted. One of the families stalled at the checkpoint was on their way to receive medical treatment in a Nablus hospital. They tried to negotiate with the soldiers, showing them the relevant medical documentation to prove their case, but were still refused passage. The pile up of cars increased as we waited, causing disruption to many individuals trying to get along with their daily activities.
While I, in my inexperience, began to panic, the surrounding travellers remained very calm. This situation was one that they had all encountered previously, if not daily. Freedom of movement should be a basic human right, but for many Palestinians who are denied that right, it is unfortunately considered normal procedure to be subjected to these regular checkpoint closures.
Another experience I was introduced to during my stay were the routine military raids. On most nights throughout the week, the Israeli military would begin their raids in the nearby Refugee Camps. During my first few weeks there, I continuously felt a sense of fear whilst attempting to differentiate between the sounds of tear gas and fired bullets to the sound of fireworks. But, as the weeks passed, the sense of fear began to fade. I slowly became accustomed to the violent activity that surrounded me.
But is it not human nature to feel a sense of fear when one is in danger? And if that were true then why, over time, has it become ordinary for the residents of Palestine to no longer feel that way?
The conclusion I have arrived at during my time here in Palestine is simply this: after an individual is put into a dangerous situation – such as being shot by a rubber bullet or being tear-gassed – not once, but numerous times, it’s no longer considered out of the ordinary. It becomes a part of everyday life. Thus, the sense of fear is overridden by an overwhelming sense of the situation’s normalcy.
This shift in definition of what is ‘normal’ – or, at least, what should be perceived as ‘normal’ – is a consequence of living under Israeli occupation for 67 years. I wondered at first – how does one begin to explain to the future generations that military occupation and all that comes with it is an absolute norm? After a time, however, it became clear: there is no need to explain. Eventually, the norms become recognised and known without any need for explanation.
By Ahlam Najjar
Ahlam is an 18-year-old Palestinian-Australian. She is taking a gap year to learn Arabic in Palestine, observe the political situation and volunteer in the West Bank. During her time in Palestine, Ahlam is volunteering with Zajel International Youth Exchange at An Najah University, Nablus. Her volunteering activities include running courses for university students and teaching them basic employment skills, public speaking skills and English conversational skills. Ahlam has also visited a variety of refugee camps to distribute school supplies to children, and meet with families to discuss their current situation.