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Knowing Becomes Understanding: 8 Days in Occupied Palestine

- by Christa Christaki, Australia - 

How can I express both the heartbreak and happiness I feel since spending eight days in occupied Palestine? How can I convey the paradoxical emotions of anger and joy? How do I depict the ugliness and the beauty? Talking about it to anyone who will listen has helped. Discussing our shared experiences with my daughter has helped. Perhaps writing about what I saw, heard, learnt and felt will help. I hope so.

I thought I was well prepared because I knew the history and was well versed in the myriad of Agreements and International Laws that Israel flouts daily. I knew that over one and a half million Palestinians were violently expelled and permanently displaced from their towns, villages and homes and that many are still living as refugees within and outside their country.

No amount of reading, lectures or news coverage could have prepared be for the bitter reality. Knowing is not the same as understanding. It took just eight days of seeing and listening to begin to understand the catastrophe that Palestine has suffered and that its people continue to endure. It only took a few days to understand the profoundly racist narrative and the blatant system of apartheid perpetrated by Israel. I came to despise the ever present Wall, the most obvious symbol of segregation. Even more insidious however is the strategic, systemic and institutionalised discrimination exercised against Palestinians in all spheres of their life - economic, political, legal, social and communal. I could only conclude that Israel intentionally creates unliveable conditions, violates human rights and overtly supports the illegal settlement of Israelis on Palestinian land so that Palestinians will give up and leave. As a taxi driver in Tel Aviv boasted "by the time you return we would have got rid of every single Arab from our country."

Most distressing of all, understanding came from listening to the stories of people who have experienced and continue to live with unimaginable injustices and indignities. Seared in my memory is a house in East Jerusalem where we sat under a loquat tree with a grandfather and his granddaughter. The house is his but the family now lives in a small flat behind the house. He quietly recounted the day, six years ago, when five Israeli men forced his family, at gunpoint, from their house. When he resisted, the Israeli army arrived. His 91 year old mother was badly beaten, as was he. A large wooden board, emblazoned with a Star of David, now stands at the entrance to his house. Court case after court case has been unsuccessful .As we received his generous hospitality, I understood that there are no controls and no repercussions for Israelis stealing houses that do not belong to them. Furthermore that this stealing is openly assisted by the Israeli army and state.

Understanding came from seeing, with my own eyes, the harassment and arrest of Palestinian teenagers for no reason other than to demonstrate naked Israeli power. At the majestic Damascus Gate I watched as Israeli soldiers descended from the grim watchtowers, a blight on this magnificent ancient entry to Jerusalem, swooped on some teenagers and at gunpoint took them away. These boys were sitting near us on the steps, eating dinner. In that most heart rending of cities, Hebron, I again watched helplessly as Israeli soldiers grabbed a teenage boy, threw him harshly against a wall and roughly searched him. I knew that this is a daily occurrence all over occupied Palestine, repeated many times over. But the full horror has to be seen to be understood and believed.

The vibrancy of Bethlehem, Nablus, Ramallah and Jericho with their exquisite old cities, bustling souqs and welcoming people was a delightful surprise. My spirits plummeted however when confronted with the disturbing realities of the Aida and Balata Refugee Camps where generations of Palestinians have spent their lives. More than anything in those eight days, the Refugee Camps brought into clear focus the inherent immorality and hardship of occupation. This brief but intensely personal experience also helped me to understand the resilience and passion of a people who are living under the cruellest of circumstances. Faced with the section of the apartheid Wall that runs through Aida, I was moved by the messages of defiance and hope and the more recent cultural and creative forms of resistance practiced in Aida.

Most poignant of all is the giant Key Of Return at the entrance to Aida , proudly declaring the right of return of refugees and their descendants to their homes. My own ceramic Key Of Return hangs proudly in my kitchen , a daily reminder of this vision and aspiration. 

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