April 22, 2019

Lessons From a Life Under Occupation

Witnessing Palestinian resistance first-hand is an invaluable learning opportunity— one that cannot be matched in the lecture hall.

Many of us would recognize early-1947 Lifta.

It was coffee shops for first dates, first neighborhood chess games, first jobs.

It was an elementary school for students to meet lifetime friends.

It was a spiritual oasis, the Athan’s reverberations melting into miles of verdant hills.

It was childhood. Teenagehood. Adulthood.

It brought life. And it took life.  

Yet, today, Lifta is unrecognizable.

Today, Lifta does not exist.

During spring break, I traveled with other students to Palestine to understand, or at least attempt to understand, the realities of life under occupation for Palestinians. Though I’m enrolled in the law school here, I am really an anthropologist at heart. I learn through observance. People are my teachers; their stories are my books. This article is my attempt to share some stories from my time in Palestine with you, in hopes of bringing you a little closer to not only the struggles there, but also the resilience of a people under illegal occupation.

My first lesson was in the airport: minimize yourself.

While being questioned (or detained?) for nearly 4 hours, I met a Palestinian from Canada in a “special” waiting room. He was coming to visit his family in the West Bank. This was not his first time in the room. He tells me he has memorized the process of waiting (first, there is general questioning; then, further questioning; then, just idle waiting) over the years and, since this was my first time, he told me what to expect. “Just don’t be so proud of your Arab roots…and definitely don’t talk about Palestine,” he tells me in Arabic. I jokingly tell him I’ve had good experience in America. I could tell he was not convinced I was ready. He was right. From asking me why I wrote my undergraduate thesis on refugees to making me call my mother to get the street address of my deceased grandfather (whom I never met), the interviewer forced me to answer questions I’ve honestly never had to contemplate, at least not recently. Repercussions of answering incorrectly? Getting denied entry. In fact, it happened to an American Palestinian student while I was there.

When I finally received my passport back to leave, I couldn’t help but think of my new airport friend, who had been in questioning for nearly an hour. How much minimizing and erasing of himself was he doing, all to just see his family?

My second lesson was in Hebron: be confident.

Early in my trip, I took a tour of Hebron, one of the largest Palestinian cities in the West Bank. It was cold and wet. An uptake of settlements—and thus, soldiers—has transformed Hebron’s city center into a wasteland. Apart from roads being very eerily empty, they also clearly delineated where Palestinians are permitted to walk—and not walk. The occupation manifests as a long festering wound, especially for children. In Hebron’s city center, boys and girls live in one enclosed block. They go to school by using roofs and ladders to cross the restricted roads. Just one week before my visit, a 4-year-old and an 18-month infant died in a fire in this enclosed block. Military checkpoints had prevented firetrucks and ambulances from arriving quickly to the scene—an area under complete Israeli control.

Towards the end of the tour, an armed soldier approached us. Naturally, my instinct was to keep walking. American horror stories of gun violence taught me at least that. Yet, our guide did not waver. When asked who we were, our guide proudly told him “Ana Khalili” or “I am a Hebronite.” Next, he told the man that we were his new American friends, wanting to learn about his hometown. The soldier lingered with us for several minutes before driving off in the rain. When I later asked the guide why we were approached, and why he replied the way he did, he explained that intimidation is another tool of occupation. “But, we must remain confident. And always smile. We may be physically beat, but our spirits will never break.”

Third lesson: women lead movements.

Powerful women are leading movements all over the world, and those powerful women are in no shortage in Palestine. There are two women I distinctly remember. I never met the first, but her story was told by a former soldier who now works with Breaking the Silence, an organization of veterans who have served in the Israeli military and have made it their mission to share their military experiences and expose the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. The soldier recounted a mission he led in Hebron. After throwing a tear gas canister in a house, he entered and saw a pregnant woman choking. He called on the elderly mother to cut an onion to help her breathe. When she brought out a knife, he realized he had trapped the woman. Brandishing any sort of “weapon” in front of soldiers warrants, at best, arrest, and, at worst, death. With other soldiers watching, the soldier aimed his gun at the woman and yelled until she dropped the knife. Rather than abdicating her efforts, the woman teared open an onion with her hands. She proceeded to help her daughter and her husband, who had also started choking on the tear gas. The soldier, who was at the time protected by a mask, admitted that, at that point, he realized, “There’s no such thing as a humane or enlightened occupation or anything of the sort.” When he shared this story, I realized the Palestinian woman’s strength is on a different spectrum than what most of us know.

The second woman etched in my memories is Manal Tamimi, a proud Palestinian woman from the village of Nabi Saleh. I really do not know how to describe her other than as a force of nature. In addition to being shot and arrested, she is also a leader in her village’s non-violent resistance movement. When soldiers attack her village, her house becomes a refuge for those fleeing danger. She is on the frontlines of protests, and is the last to leave the house if it is being tear-gassed. She currently cannot run due to a gunshot wound on the bottom of her foot. When asked why she continues, despite fear of retaliation, she said in an interview: “I don’t want to die, but if I do, I want everyone to know why we are resisting. My resistance is about life, about hope, about dreams, about beautiful futures. My resistance is not about dying.”

While in Lifta, I took a few photos to share with Palestinian friends back home who had never, or who have rarely, visited Palestine. Immediately, I received messages:

“That is Lifta, where my mom’s family is from. I am happy you are there. Insha’allah I can visit one day.”

Another friend said: “This is where my grandmother is from…I have never been. Insha’allah when you come back you can tell me about it. Lifta is how my family became refugees, through sitti, my grandmother.”

I can’t help but feel a sense of guilt in sharing memories and reflections of someone else’s home, one which they will likely never have the chance to visit. Lifta is gone now, houses, mosques, and cemeteries reduced to rubble and ruins. But the flowers that resist destruction and peer through the cracks remind me of the Palestinian identity that has resisted the tenacious grip of a military occupation.  

So, my fourth lesson from my trip to Palestine is this: be grateful for Palestinians.

They have taught us how to write about occupation: “A poem in a difficult time/is beautiful flowers in a cemetery.”

They have taught us to dance and sing out occupation: “I belong to my people, I sacrifice my soul for them . . .My blood is Palestinian, Palestinian, Palestinian.”

They have taught us to love in occupation.

To nourish, celebrate, educate, and hope in occupation.

To resist in occupation.

I am grateful to Palestinians for affording me and so many of my peers the space to lead ourselves in the pursuit of education. I learned more about the lived consequences of occupation than I could ever learn in a University of Chicago classroom. This experience taught me that, while my law school professors may be training me to be a technically-competent lawyer, witnessing and interacting with realities such as the occupation is a teacher that a myriad of political and legal experts could never be to me. This sort of people-centered approach to learning is what is missing today in crucial discussions, whether it be in Palestine or Ferguson. And until we witness and experience for ourselves these human deprivations, we will forever be forced to depend on the powerfully unbalanced narratives sold to us by third parties.

So, I thank the people of Palestine for allowing me and my fellow travelers to learn from their experiences under occupation. I pray in earnest that a life of liberation is near, and I pray that no one sees the likes of this military occupation again.

Leena El-Sadek is a student at the University of Chicago Law School. 

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