Pluto author Alice Rothchild talks to Suha, a Palestinian student passionately concerned with development and human rights, about growing up under Israeli occupation and implementing the Palestinian right of return.
I thought my last day in Ramallah would be a reflective, low key day to catch up, finish blogging, look at my 700+ emails, and pack, when my host asks me to join him and the US student he is mentoring on an extraordinary visit to the village of Al Walajeh near Bethlehem. Soon we are in a taxi hurtling along Wadi El Nar Road, with hair-raising rollercoaster curves and more USAID road building projects. My friend reflects on the changes underway in the West Bank: in particular a huge NGO, donor, and governmental focus on security. I have noticed the PA forces in their fresh new uniforms standing on many corners. He tells me that under the guise of “law and order, justice, and building prisons,” there is now one Palestinian policeman, security agent, or intelligence officer for every 50 West Bankers. Prime Minister Fayyad, the World Bank trained technocrat, is getting everything under control. During Eid this year, my friend reports that every kid wanted a plastic gun, wanted to be powerful.
The village of Al Walajeh originally was 17,000 dunams in size. In 1948, the location of the Green Line split off 11,000 dunams for Israel. The settlement of Gilo took 152, and more has been seized for the expansion of Har Gilo and the separation wall which is being constructed through the village, leaving 2800 dunams for the original Palestinians. The local villagers had given land to a convent and when the placement of the wall was announced, the nuns did not protest and are now on the Israeli side, living on their donated land. We arrive at the home of a woman I will call Suha, her house perched on the edge of a rocky road, the separation wall under construction across the street.
Suha is spunky, energetic, smart, went to Najah University and holds a masters degree in peace and development and another masters in human rights. She was working for the UN on gender, race, and violence in Sudan, and is currently between jobs and working at the local children’s Ansar Center. The student wants to talk with her about justice and the right of return.
Suha tells us her family story while pouring tea and stuffing us with delicious spinach pies. After news of the Deir Yassin massacre which occurred close to this village, in 1947 the women and children went to Jericho for safety. Gradually they trickled back to the village, but then war broke out, they are forced to leave again and went back to Jericho, spending six months in the Alarroub Refugee Camp. She describes her grandmother as a “wild spirit” who married reluctantly at the age of 28 as a last resort. The grandmother left the refugee camp and returned back to the village which is mostly rocky uncultivated land used for sheep. After 1948 the family lived in a cave down in the valley for 12 years. Then her mother, another free spirited woman, decided to take her children to family in Jerusalem, renting a house in Beit Jala so the children could get a good education. In 1961, the grandfather started building two houses in the village for his two sons. During the 1967 war the family fled back to the cave as the adjacent land was a Jordanian army station.
During this conversation, cherubic young nieces and nephews keep popping in with their plastic back packs, looking for hugs and then running out. Suha explains that like all of her village, she has refugee status, but she also has a Jerusalem ID, and her Israeli travel document states that she is Jordanian. She is at risk of losing her Jerusalem ID by living in the village, but she uses her father’s and brother’s addresses in the Shafat Refugee Camp. As an unmarried woman who is not demanding any services, she is pretty invisible to the authorities.
So on to the question of justice. Suha explains that there is a word in Arabic that means: justice is purely give me what is mine at any cost, justice is undoing the injustice even if that means creating an injustice to someone who had nothing to do with the original offense. In this context, she argues that there is an individual and collective right of return for Palestinians and that what she does with that right is her problem. Having the right does not necessarily mean exercising it, “I do not think we can undo Israel but Israel does not have the right to exist on Palestinian land. They gained the right by the fact that they exist.”
She moves on to the question of compensation which she sees as not only payment for seized land, but also payment for suffering, both individual and collective. She states that Israelis used Palestinians for construction projects like the port of Haifa, that the British took Palestinian gold when they left. There are lots of questions that need to be addressed.
She continues saying, “There is an Israeli state. I do not want to fight all these fights and then be an Israeli.” She points out that Palestine does not exist on any official national or international form. “I want to exist.” She adds that symbolic gestures are important and that Israeli acknowledgement of the Nakba and the creation of the refugee crisis are critical. “Jews invented this concept. What applies to you, applies to us.” She is not sure an apology actually matters, “I don’t know if I will accept an apology.”
Suha says that she never lost a relative in the conflict, but she lost 12 friends in the Second Intifada. She describes the pain of erasing their numbers from her phone and her inability to attend their funerals because of lack of permits. “What is not natural is our daily life. I do not want to live this life.” She wants to be working on legislation, women’s rights, or just watching TV, but she cannot even decide where she will go tomorrow, if she can keep an appointment. “This is what I can’t forgive. I couldn’t study law, so Israel decided my life…I don’t think I can forgive for that. I even gained weight because of them,” she adds laughing. “If I am sad and angry, I need sugar. They made me angry all my life.”
Suha has thought extensively on how to actualize the right of return. She states that refugees need to be offered options and they need to be in control of the decision making. Firstly, “You are allowed to go back and you can get compensation.” She thinks this would be a gradual process, maybe 20,000 allowed per year on some time schedule. Those who choose to stay where they currently are would get more money. Those who choose to move to a different country would get less. She adds poignantly, “Coming back is another leaving.” Clearly she is thinking of a comprehensive and regional solution. She also explains that nobody wants to be a fighter all their lives, “This is burden.” She believes that the number who would choose to return would be minimal, mostly those who are fighters or people with deep emotional attachments to what they had, and experimental types who want to try it and will probably leave. This was also documented in research done by the Khalil Shikaki Center in approximately 2005. She feels that living in Israel will be too problematic for most Palestinians given the racism and economic hardship. People in refugee camps will most likely want to go to a better place like Canada or Australia. “Palestinians are exhausted.”
This solution needs to be funded by those who are responsible: Israel, the British, and the international community. She also blames the Palestinian leadership who have failed the refugees miserably. She thinks that the refugees themselves should come up with meaningful solutions, present these to the international community, and step out of the victim role. “We are lucky that Jews are news. Otherwise we would have been dead a long time ago.”
Suha also points out an interesting possibility for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. She explains that in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrar, the Israeli courts have established the precedent that a Jewish family can claim ownership of a house bought in the 1920s (many claim the documents are bogus) and throw out the current inhabitants. She proposes that Palestinians with Israeli citizenship use this precedent and go after their stolen property.
The interview is over and I am filled with more questions, but instead we discuss which checkpoints we can pass through, apparently some are not open to people with foreign passports, (another one of those weird unexpected quirks). Back in the cab, my friend continues the conversation about the new Palestinian security forces. Apparently Palestinian police working in Area A (Palestinian control) have to cover their flashing lights if they have to travel through Area B (“joint” control) to another Area A and get a permit from the Israeli DCO, thus the police are effectively emasculated by their occupiers. It seems that Fayyad is busy building a pretend state. As my friend explains, the prisoners are polishing their beds and folding their clothes, but they are still in prison.
Passing the Jalazon Refugee Camp and an UNRWA school on the left, we end up in a wealthy village outside Ramallah where Palestinians who emigrated to the US and did very well have come back and built huge Disneyland mansions. We are invited to a “barbeque” where a staff of four has prepared a magnificent and generous meal. I count five living rooms and one elevator but never got an official tour. I look out across the family land to the imposing Jewish settlement in direct view. I am told that the family has good relations with the settlers, they pay them to leave them alone.
Alice Rothchild is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience. She maintains a website at www.alicerothchild.com
Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience
New edition of this unique and honest account of the conflict seen through the eyes of a doctor, with personal accounts that bring the trauma to life.