by Hannah Mermelstein
July 20, 2009
"The war is with the Arabs."
I saw this sign as I was entering Nablus last week, again on my way to Ramallah, and again near Bethlehem. The phrase is printed in Hebrew, presumably by Israeli settlers, on huge signs throughout the West Bank. Israeli racism rarely shocks me anymore, but its blatant display still makes me stop and catch my breath as I translate it into other contexts. Imagine driving through the middle of a predominantly black neighborhood in a US city or town and seeing a humongous sign that says, "The war is with the Blacks."
I think about security. Israel's abuse of the word has rendered the concept almost meaningless in the region, but the importance of security on individual and communal levels cannot be underestimated. However, most discussions I see in the media about security ignore the Palestinian people's right to security. "The war is with the Arabs" is a new sign, as far as I know, but for years in the West Bank I have seen stars of David scrawled on Palestinian shops and homes, and signs like "Death to Arabs" and "Kahane was right" (Kahane was an extremist political leader who promoted ethnic cleansing of Palestinian people; this sign is essentially equivalent to "Hitler was right" in the middle of a Jewish neighborhood).
But signs are not only created; they are also destroyed. Since 1948, Palestinian people inside Israel have experienced erasure and denial of their identities that is perhaps stronger than that of any other group of Palestinian people. I visited a friend in Lyd last week who lives on Giborai Yisrael ("Heroes of Israel") Street. Driving around the Palestinian neighborhoods in Lyd, we passed roads bearing the names of Herzl, Jabotinsky, and other Zionist leaders. None of the old Arabic street names remain. Even the large cities with considerable Palestinian populations are now seeing the Arabic names officially erased from the signs. In Arabic script, "Yaffa" will become "Yafo," "Nasra" will become "Natzeret," and "Al Quds" will become "Yerushalayim."
Lack of security goes beyond denial of identity and history as visually expressed through signs. A Palestinian friend with Israeli citizenship told me he has heard a rumor that a huge piece of land in Jordan is being cleared and built up for the eventual arrival of the Palestinian population of Israel after they are transferred from their homes. "It may be conspiracy theory," he said, "but I don't know."
"I'd like to think that Israel couldn't get away with that," I responded.
"Of course they can," another friend from Lyd said, "and if the conditions are right, they will."
Imagine living day to day thinking you might be expelled from your country in the near future. Or in Gaza, wondering if you will be killed tomorrow, or if you will ever be able to come in and out of your country at will. Or in the West Bank, if your son will be arrested, or if you will be able to get through the checkpoint in the morning to get to work. Or in Jerusalem, if your residency will be stripped or your house destroyed.
Imagine little correlation between choice and consequence, an arbitrary relationship between cause and effect. If you are just as likely to get shot and killed sipping tea in your doorway, or sitting in your fourth grade classroom, or participating in a demonstration, or joining the armed resistance, is it any surprise that some choose each?
A friend of mine from the West Bank once told me that she never feels safe, so safety is not a consideration for her in making decisions. As much as I may try, I cannot truly imagine this lack of control.
I met a woman in Jerusalem who was displaced from her home by settlers, physically removed from her house by dozens of Israeli soldiers in the middle of the night. Twice a refugee (1948 and 2008), Um Kamel currently lives in a tent near her house that has been destroyed and re-pitched six times in the past six months. This is perhaps the height of insecurity, and yet Um Kamel stays strong and determined. Many in Palestine would call it sumoud, or steadfastness.
This kind of strength is seen remarkably often in Palestine, and indicates a deeper security that comes in part from faith. Faith in God, sometimes, but also faith in each other, in the justice of one's cause, in the tide of history that has shown that no single occupation in Palestine lasts forever. This, of course, is also Israel's deepest fear. That no matter how many walls they build, how many people they imprison, how many homes they destroy, how many signs they erase, and how many people they expel, true security will remain elusive, and eventually, Zionism will fail. As many older Palestinian people have said to me, with security, "We have lived through many occupations. This too shall pass."
Hannah Mermelstein is an activist and aspiring radical librarian based in Brooklyn, NY. She is co-creator of Birthright Unplugged and Students Boycott Apartheid, and works with the New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel and the Palestine Education Project.
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