On the humanity of the grieving.

This morning a bomb went off in Jerusalem at a busy bus stop, killing at least one person and injuring 30.

I haven’t lived in Israel for a long time, since the summer of 1998. I go back a lot, and nearly every time we’re there, something awful happens, but all of my living-breathing knowledge of living with terrorism is well over a decade old.

And yet.

I can still feel the pounding in my veins, still see the odd narrowing of my vision, as the news comes through — over the kitchen radio, from a taxi driver, from a sudden, crackling awareness among the people in the grocery store: Haya pigua – There was an attack.

Suddenly, you don’t know where you are, what you were meant to do. Where did it happen? Without meaning to, you calculate the last time you were in that same place, on that same bus. Where is everyone? Is there any reason to think someone you love may have been there when it happened? Phone calls are made, assurances gathered and given. In some cases, I remember, the attacks were so ferocious, involving so much death, that Israel’s phone system crashed, and no one could get through to anyone.

I was a reporter for much of the worst of the ’90s waves of terror, so I would invariably have to shake myself loose of all that, call my bosses, grab a notebook, and either hit the streets or start translating the news.

There was the time that the bombing was two half-blocks from my apartment, which was handy, because I had access to a bathroom.

There was the time it was at a popular shopping mall, and, being a reporter, I sneaked past police to get closer to the site of the explosion, to better see what remained. I found myself near a pay phone, so I called my sister in Chicago: “I’m at the site of a bombing, but I’m only reporting it. I’m fine.” (She thought that odd, if memory serves).

I saw things that were the kinds of things you don’t want to talk about, and later find yourself having to talk about. I remember very clearly, one night, after a day of reporting, suddenly standing stock-still in my hallway, and then sinking to the floor, weeping. I would shake myself loose to do my job, but the horror always came back.

And so when I heard the news this morning, the horror came back. These are my people, that Jerusalem bus stop a place I’ve stood more times than I can possibly calculate — what can I do? I feel my own losses more sharply, the air escapes the room more quickly, than when the losses belong to someone else. I know that fear the people felt today in Jerusalem, that stunned confusion, that aimless wandering or eating or paging through newspapers without seeing a thing, because a little piece of your mind just shattered along with your sense of safety. I know it.

What I don’t know — what I honestly find myself struggling to understand today — is how Israelis cannot seem to translate their experience to that of the Palestinian people.

The attack in Jerusalem was the first such attack in three years. Do you know when Palestinians in Gaza were last bombed by Israeli planes? Yesterday.

And then again today.

Yesterday, eight Palestinians were killed, four of them civilians, one 11 years old. The same age as my son. Tonight, I’ve been watching as Palestinians on Twitter warn each other to be safe — Israeli fighters were just seen in the sky, they write. There was just a loud explosion – a second – a third – now a fourth! Even before this morning’s bombing, HaAretz was telling us that, between Israeli raids and Palestinian rockets in response to those raids, “a small war” was flaring up along the Gaza border.

The fear I remember so clearly, the slowing of time, the constriction in the chest and terror in the heart — the very horror wreaked in Jerusalem today — is the stuff of near-daily life for Palestinians in Gaza. It happens all the time. Only occasionally do we hear of it (and by “we,” I mean not only Americans, but also Israelis, mere miles from where it’s happening), yet it happens all the time. And as someone pointed out to me on Twitter this morning, when Palestinians call to make sure their loved ones are in one piece — the answer is far more often “no.” During the 2008-2009 Gaza War, Israeli forces killed about 1,400 Palestinians; Palestinians killed nine Israelis. Between 2009 and January, 2011, Israelis killed 151 Palestinians; Palestinians killed nine Israelis.

I understand that Israelis are frightened. That they are steeped in an existential fear that they are told, over and over again, is the only thing keeping them alive. I understand that to let go of that fear just enough to see the fear and devastation on the other side would require letting go of decades of lived experience, powerful beliefs taught as knowledge, a constructed narrative that is felt to be Truth. I understand that such change is tremendously difficult. Fear is often the safest place we can find.

But for all that understanding, I still can’t understand. How can Israelis not recognize Palestinian fear, so like our own — only more so? How can they not recognize the blood and the grief — so like our own, only in greater numbers? How can they not understand that when one side wages war, the other tends to fight back, even if our side doesn’t think they should?

How can we not see that Palestinians are as human as we are?

The woman killed today by a Palestinian’s hand is gone forever. Never to shop for birthday presents again, never to talk with friends over coffee. Never to hold a loved one, never to smile, or cry, again. The 11 year old boy killed yesterday by Israel’s hands — by my hands — will never learn geometry, never fall in love, never hold his own child, never smile, or cry, again. The pain is bottomless and endless. And it is the same.

We have become — we have made ourselves — like the idols we read about in Psalms: “Eyes they have, but they cannot see; ears they have, but they cannot hear.”

We blind ourselves, and seal our ears, and forfeit another little piece of our own humanity, every day. And the bombs continue, and the blood flows, and it never ends, because we choose not to end it.

***********************

Earlier:

Israel/Palestine: the basics.

Israel/Palestine – a reading list.

Israel/Palestine peace advocacy – places to start.

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.

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26 Comments

  1. dmf

     /  March 24, 2011

    for those lost, living and dead, and friday:

    War
    Naomi Shihab Nye

    If this is what we studied for,
    heads bent over books at wooden desks
    engraved with the names of the dead,
    then I have a new feeling for
    subtraction.

    Olive trees, three acres slashed
    equals zero zero zero.
    That’s my address. The grade on my page.

    If this is the spectrum of pronouns—
    you kill, he or she kills, anyone might kill—
    then I speak a new language without them.
    Words rinse into one another
    recklessly—morning, wishes, windows, thick paste
    of kisses on a child’s warm scalp, riddle, riddle,
    tin bowl. No reflection, no wall or ladder,
    no lock, no key.

    If this is why we bow our heads to pray
    in the corner, by the iron stove,
    so many years, forgive me.
    Forget the words, the posture,
    the time of day. Blood aches inside
    my veins. Where did we bury Sitti?
    Between her sons, unmarked boulder
    by the bent tree. I will wait there,
    telling her the same story she told me
    about the long river of waiting, how some of us
    fall into it and are not seen again,
    even by the bottom stones.
    How some of us end up in another paradox
    known by other names, drifting
    with clouds on far horizons,
    lost in small shops
    making change for gasoline.
    I can’t get into a better story no matter
    how hard I try. If this is persistence,
    lack of imagination,
    sorrow, who knows? I’m stuck here,
    in the invisible corner of war
    that’s not even called war, pressed
    like a pigeon into the smallest twig cage,
    my dry eyes flaming.

    • dmf

       /  March 24, 2011

      i’ll be out tomorrow good ee, but didn’t want this go unmarked.

    • Thank you for this, dmf. She is powerful with her words. “All [we] have is a voice/ to undo the folded lie.” Thank you.

  2. Juaquin Murrieta

     /  March 24, 2011

    The really tragic thing here, besides of course the deaths of the individuals, is that for these two groups of people I don’t see a way out, and apparently they don’t either.

    I was born in 1945. This thing has been going on for my entire lifetime, and innumerable attempts have been made by all sorts of people, the parties themselves and outsiders, to find a way to peace. All have failed so far, and I see no hope in the future, though it is always wrong to lose hope.

    I don’t have a personal horse in this race. I am not Jewish, nor am I a Palestinian Arab. I am a Christian, and I would certainly like to visit Jerusalem, but I probably will never do that. I have the money and the time, but I find that I am growing risk-intolerant as I age. I think all people, though, whether they are personally involved or not, are saddened by this horrible, endless conflict.

    You quote the Psalms, so I will too. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

  3. JHarper2

     /  March 24, 2011

    I believe that there can be no peace in Israel/Palestine until all groups acknowledge the humanity and suffering of the others. Until all the deaths, losses, and dismemberments are mourned by all nothing can start. Until the vast majority of all the groups resolve it must stop and that people will agree to live together in if not peace then an absence of violence and oppression this evil situation will continue.

    As far as I can see, peace here cannot be imposed by violence, and peace cannot come without the agreement of the parties to put aside their arms. The sad part is that I don’t know how the peoples of Israel/Palestine get there, get to the point of agreeing to live together.

    I weep in sadness and frustration.
    As Juaguin Murriata said above: Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem.

  4. Adin Aronson

     /  March 24, 2011

    I think Bibi’s speech a few years back should reflect what I think of this article:

    “The deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians is shamefully equated
    with the unintentional loss of Palestinian life that is the tragic
    but unavoidable consequence of legitimate warfare.

    Worse, since Palestinian terrorists both deliberately target civilians
    and hide behind them, Israel is cast as the guilty party because more
    Palestinians have been killed in Arafat’s terrorist war than Israelis.

    Israel has not experienced a terrorist attack like the one the
    world witnessed on that horrific day in September. That
    unprecedented act of barbarism will never be forgotten.

    But in the last eighteen months, Israel’s six million citizens
    have buried over four hundred victims of terror – a per capita
    toll equivalent to half a dozen September 11ths. This daily,
    hourly carnage is also unprecedented in terrorism’s bloody
    history”

    • To say that Palestinians “deliberately target civilians and hide behind them” carries the same moral weight as saying “Israeli children will grow up to be soldiers so they’re fair game.” People live in Gaza. Well over a million of them.

      Nothing Netanyahu said in this speech is honest, or morally defensible (and given that it refers to Arafat, it’s clearly also a bit out of date) — if only because the main reason that Palestinians cannot engage in “legitimate warfare” is because they don’t have a state and/or a standing army — because Israel has consistently refused to “allow” them these rights.

      And, not for nothing, but if one is killing that many hundreds of innocent people “unintentionally”? You need to put a little more intention toward your methods of warfare.

  5. Thank you for this post. It’s beautiful and it’s made a dark night in Bethlehem feel a little less dark.

    • I’m so glad. I wish I could do more than write from a distance, but please know that I’m thinking of you and doing what I can to fight the good fight. If you look at the right-hand side of the blog, you’ll see a bunch of resources for Israelis working for peace and justice — please check them out. They may afford you some real hope.

  6. rebecca

     /  March 24, 2011

    Barak offered arafat practically everything . He said no.

    Olmert offered Abbas everythign –including the old city. He said no.

    So what is it they are truly after?

    I used to think like you. But about ten years ago I began seeing things differently.

    The human price on either side always breaks my heart. But I think you conflated two issues: the political and the human.

    You could be against the current Palestinian agenda, the terrorism etc, and still grieve the loss of innocent human life, be it Jew or Arab.

    • I’m sorry, but you seem to have heard and been convinced by the narrative sold by Israelis with a vested interest in demonizing the Palestinians. I urge you to read Robert Malley’s report from Camp David in the New York Review of Books http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2001/aug/09/camp-david-the-tragedy-of-errors/ It wasn’t a “generous offer” and it wasn’t, as they say, batich. He was at the table, and the simple truth is that Ehud Barak is to blame for the disaster at Camp David.

      And despite the fact that so few Israelis know it, the entire Arab League — all 22 member states — offered Israel a comprehensive peace in exchange for a two-state peace — the very thing that Israel kept saying it wanted for years and years — not once, but twice: 2002 and 2006. And Israel literally ignored the offer. http://www.al-bab.com/arab/docs/league/peace02.htm and http://peacenow.org/entries/archive3525

      The stumbling block to peace is Israel, which has taken up the tradition of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

  7. Joe Turner

     /  March 25, 2011

    It is a sad Shakespearean tragedy – an eye for an eye (or rather several hundred for one) making the whole world blind. Babies dying in their beds takes us to a new low, whether it was done by Palestinian militants or Israeli warplanes. Is this the start of a final, suicidal intifada? Have the young people of Palestine finally concluded that all is lost so there is nothing to hope for and nothing left to be gained? That they’re better off ‘gloriously’ dead than cowering behind walls and checkpoints and prison bars? From this distance it appears almost inevitable – god knows what it looks like on the streets of Bethlehem and Gaza city or the refugee camps.

  8. Thank you for this post, ee. It has given me a frame of reference for placing this horror into my own experience. Through your words, I can feel that gut-wrenching detachment, the sense of the world shifting in place. I agree that until both Israelis and Palestinians acknowledge the humanity and suffering that they share with every other human alive; until they cease efforts to rationalize such attacks, it will be hard to find a way to peaceful resolution.

    I pray daily for peace and respect between us. Peace here in the United States, peace in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Palestine and Israel. Thank you again

  9. pelsar

     /  March 25, 2011

    a simple question…what is it about israel that makes you believe we dont see the Palestinians as people? as humans?….i would then ask the opposite, given the arab press (govt controlled as it is), can’t your claim be equally applied toward the Palestinians?

    and one additional comment, which is infact the crux of the matter, what i believe you dont really understand. We israelis infact do see the Palestinians as equals and as people, hence our expectations from them are as two equals, not as the stronger to the weaker (which is the crux of your argument).

    Hence the way they see us, view us, is just as of equal importance as the way we see them…i believe this is what you don’t see.

    • Mel

       /  March 26, 2011

      “We israelis infact do see the Palestinians as equals and as people”… Do you? What’s with the recent bill on celebrating the Nakba then?

      • Mel

         /  March 26, 2011

        Sorry… I meant to say commemorating the Nakba… sorry about the mistake!

      • pelsar

         /  March 26, 2011

        i dont see the connection between an internal matter of israel that has to do with israeli citizens and the relationship between two societies that are in the middle of a low level war.

        i understand why you want to do that, but a discussion about how countries handle their own internal cultures, to maintain a national language vs individual/group identities is a different subject

  10. Mel

     /  March 26, 2011

    THANK YOU EMILY for expressing what many of us feel, here in Gaza as well as in Israel!

  11. Shir

     /  March 26, 2011

    Why do you think Israelis have no sympathy to Palestinian suffering? As much as I know Israel never ever tries to bomb and kill civilians on purpose.

    On the other side, the main target of Palestinian attacks is civilians.

    There are more casualties in the Palestinian side because simply their military sites are in many times very close to civilians, and that is intentional.

    I, and I think the majority Israelis feel horrible when an innocent human being is killed (whether Israeli or Palestinian ). But what can do you do with people who want to kill and destroy you, it’s a war happening here, and a war is very painful to both sides.

    • Joe Turner

       /  March 27, 2011

      This is part of the problem – the Israeli narrative is that of two equal combatants, or often that actually they (the Israelis) are the lesser party.

      This is far from the truth – Gaza is essentially a prison so whenever you attack militants you inevitably destroy innocent lives. Palestinians, as a whole, have little to live for, little hope of a nationality or a life worth living. Palestinian businesses are routinely prevented from operating normally – either by technical ‘security’ fears or cold bloody minded jealousy on the part of Israelis.

      In contrast, settlers in the West Bank enjoy their lives in the promised land by swimming in their pools which are fed illegally by diverting water supplies to West Bank Palestinian villages and dumping their sewage sludge into Palestinian fields.

      What can Israelis do ‘with’ these people? Allow them to be free, for a start.

      • Shir

         /  March 27, 2011

        I think it’s very hard to be objective, since everyone has his own agenda, thus he interprets the events in a way that fits his own and long lived believes and ideas.

        For more than 80 years most of the Palestinians and Arab countries do not accept the very existence of an Israeli state. They tried to destroy Israel right after it was establish in 1948, and it’s going on until today, they can’t tolerate religiously any non-Muslim rulership in a sacred muslin land.

        Israel is strong, not because it wants to be the bully of the neighborhood, but because it’s a life or death thing.

        If Israel will give more and more territory and will not respond to Palestinian attacks, it will cease to exist.

        Maybe some people will be happy because psychologically they don’t like Jews and Israelis, but the Jews have a right for normal secure life just like any other people, and thank god they are taking care of them selves.

        • Joe Turner

           /  March 27, 2011

          Everyone, up to and including Hamas accepts the fact of an Israeli state within 1967 borders. The issue is not whether Israel exists but that it exists beyond the 1967 borders.

          If Israel decided that it would row back to the 1967 green line, it’d find there was a lot of support. The reality is that it is not interested in a state within 1967 borders – in fact, there is ample evidence that it could never live alongside a viable Palestinian state.

          • pelsar

             /  March 27, 2011

            I’m not sure who the “everyone is”…i suspect its probably limited to your peer group, but hamas for instance, islamic jihad for another are very very clear that they dont agree with you. (why don’t you believe them? they lying?)

            but we get the hint:
            its those rockets that are now landing on our cities, its the fact that when we left gaza, no matter how imperfectly the only thing we got in return was 6,000 rockets almost daily…..its those little things that tell us that, not everyone agrees with your view.

    • pelsar

       /  March 27, 2011

      we see them as equal people, hence we have expectations out of them

  12. Thank you for these words. Your are right. We sometimes forget that we are all connected; that we all go through similar emotions. We have the same aspirations in life. A little more empathy will do the world a lot better.

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