One of the last individuals to give her life was an 18-year old young woman. She was from Dheisheh, a refugee camp near Jerusalem in the West Bank. I can remember a time a few years ago when I met with a man named Ziad who heads much of the activities that revolve around youth at the camp. He came to America asking me and others to help organize a tour for a number of Dheisheh’s young population. A few months later, Ziad returned with a group of about 30 children from Dheisheh aged anywhere from seven to about 16 years. They toured around the country putting on cultural art shows and performing traditional Palestinian dances. I can remember congregating with them backstage before their performance here in Michigan. We sang songs, about struggle, about love, about whatever we felt like. I got to know all their names, although I forget most of them now.
I can remember one girl in particular though. Her name is Manaar. She must have been 12 or 13 at the time. She was especially talented. She sang beautifully, and I can remember how she asked me to speak English with her. She wanted to practice, as it was one of her jobs in the cultural shows to recite a poem in English. I saw Manaar again at a rally in Washington in September of 2000. She performed there as well, and she served as an inspiration to many, including me. She was the first person I thought of when I heard that the young woman who had exploded herself in that market in Jerusalem was from Dheisheh.
I felt relief to learn that it had not been Manaar who decided to take her life that day. But my relief quickly turned to dejection when I came to the realization that it very well could have been. Not on that day, but perhaps on any other. Manaar lives a life all too similar to that of the young woman who committed such an act of horror and despair. We all too seldom hear of people like Ziad and Manaar. We forget about them, as we constantly hear Israeli officials and their supporters on this campus and elsewhere brushing over the fact that Ziad, Manaar and the other 3 million residents of the West Bank are living under the longest standing military occupation of our time. And now, more than ever, as their deficient and defunct leadership stays holed up in presidential compounds, speaking to television cameras and soaking up the spotlight, their plight seems more hopeless than ever.
It has become the strategy of our current American administration to lump the Palestinian question into the greater war on terror, much to the delight of Israel and its supporters. But this strategy, unfortunately, will only create more barriers to truly understanding the conflict. Although the maniacs of al-Qaida attempted to co-opt the Palestinian cause for their own political means, Palestinians remain committed to a legitimate goal of self-determination. This is not to say that some Palestinians do not commit acts of terrorism. They are human, like any other people and there will be some who will resort to illegitimate means of resistance. But not every act of violence is an act of terrorism, and not every act of violence is an illegitimate form of resistance. Palestinians, like any other people, are mostly averse to acts of violence against civilians. The Palestinian suicide bomber, however, is not the same creature that flies a plane into a New York City skyscraper. The latter is calculating, deliberate and has intent to murder. The former is dejected, impulsive and has intent to die. Understanding this and framing it in the context of an illegal military occupation leads to an understanding that can intelligently condemn the action of the individual while simultaneously understanding what circumstances could lead to such a horrific act. In other words, a Palestinian act of violence against civilians does not delegitimize the just struggle of a people trying to free itself from the shackles of military occupation – a form of terror itself.
Much of my commitment to the struggle of my fellow Palestinians comes not from the fact that I am Palestinian, but rather from a strong belief that our cause is just. My commitment also, however, comes from a shared history, a shared political experience. My personal family history is one of refuge, from Jaffa to Amman to America. It is sadly not uncommon to the Palestinian experience. Dheisheh’s residents are internal refugees, many of them coming from towns located only miles from their refugee camp. They, of course, are not allowed to return to their towns by virtue of their being Palestinian. In fact, in a sort of wicked irony, the Palestinian experience has come to mimic the Jewish experience. Palestinians and Jews now share more than just a political conflict that has stretched for much of the past century; they also share a history of refuge, discrimination, diaspora and powerlessness, the only difference being that the Palestinian experience is current. The Palestinian has inherited the Jewish political soul, made to feel like a foreigner in his own land, battered by his enemy and abandoned by his protectors, left to fend for himself against incredible odds.
In Dheisheh, this feeling is more prevalent than ever. Ziad and Manaar are aliens in their own land. Dheisheh is now under siege, and I do not imagine that they will ever read this column. I can only remember what Ziad once told me when I asked him what he truly wanted. His reply rings in my ears, “I was born in a refugee camp. My only goal is to not die in one.”
Amer G. Zahr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.