Israel/Palestine: The Chaos of Seeing: Witnessing the Occupied Territories

An article by Irene Siegel about her experiences in Palestine between 2001-2002.
The following report was published in Middle East Women’s Studies Review, vol.xvii nos 3& 4 fall 2002/winter 2003.
I have been asked to write an article on my experiences doing activism in Palestine during the roughly six months I spent there between 2001-2002. But as I sit here staring at the clean blankness of my computer screen, the chaos and pain of what I witnessed comes rushing back to me, and I feel that same choked feeling I often feel when people ask me, "So, what was it like?" "What did you see there?" My throat constricts as my mind is flooded with images of destruction, humiliation, cruelty — much of it subtle and banal, much of it dramatic — all of it shocking. My mind races, trying to find the language to equal what I've seen — still, even now, even after speaking on panels, doing presentations, conversations, E-mails — still, every time I'm asked, I come up against the unrepresentable dimension of it all. My body strains to convey this thing that feels unconveyable — until I finally end up stuttering something about the dizzying level of destruction, of cruelty—about how it was like nothing I've ever seen before. As ever, the words are dwarfed by what they gesture to. It's true, the destruction I witnessed was unprecedented in many ways — I mean unprecedented. But these are all just abstractions. What does "destruction" mean? "Horror?" What do people see when I tell them that?

Perhaps my interlocutor will gasp, or look at me anticipating the details, wanting to hear more. Or, she might scan the room in search of another subject to break the tension. But what I see as I utter these banalities is a rain of images — images I recite in a kind of random flood. It might start with the smashed office equipment of a lawyer's office in Nablus in the aftermath of the "Operation Defensive Shield" invasion in April of 20'02, the toilet stuffed with torn up or burnt files, the office littered with bootmark-covered pages ripped from his pocket Koran. I also see his law diploma, torn up, along with the checks destined for hi clients, the fruits of the lawsuits he'd won on their behalf.

I see the dentist's office in the heart of the old city, decimated by an Apache missile attack. The owner provided low cost dental-care for many Palestinians in his community, and rails at the hatred such attacks are sowing in the hearts of this generation's youth. He also curses former Israeli friends who didn't even call to check on him after the attacks — another fragile line of coexistence and connection snapped along with the smashed ceramic base of his dentist's chair.

1 see the smashed windows and looted stores 'Imara Al-lsra', an 8 story commercial and office building in central Ramallah, where Israeli soldiers would go night after night during the first weeks of the invasion, systematically trashing the building floor by floor — stores, doctor's offices, the offices of the Palestinian human rights organization LAW. Even the UN High Commissioner's office had its window smashed and its front door broken.

I see the bank in central Nablus where my friend's father worked, as he described to me the scene that met him and his fellow employees the first day the curfew was lifted that April: the smeared feces on the floor, the broken chairs and equipment, the papers and files thrown everywhere. There were also bags of checks destined for other banks. Israeli soldiers broke open the bags and tore up the checks, rendering them useless scrap paper and wreaking fiscal chaos in the lives of countless people already living at the edge of poverty.

I see the ransacked Sakakkini Cultural Center in Ramallah, where world-renowned poet Mahmoud Darwish had an office. I was volunteering with the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees (UPMRC) at the time, and a fellow volunteer took me there on our way to deliver some medicine to a neighboring home. Peering through the windows I could see smashed office equipment, ripped up files and books and overturned furniture. A friend who worked there also described the feces soldiers left in the copy machine and the urine in random office drawers.

I see the Nablus schools where Israeli soldiers tore up children's drawings, broke chairs, soiled the bathroom floors, and threw their rotting garbage everywhere. They painted Jewish stars on the walls, in a sinister display of territorial control. I feel the rising nausea once again, faced with the appropriation of this symbol of my religious heritage, transformed into a rapacious symbol of terror and imperial incursion.

I hear the story of one of the ambulance drivers I worked with when I was volunteering at the UPMRC in Ramallah. He was forced to strip naked and turn around in front of his co-workers and an entire street of Palestinians imprisoned in their homes under curfew, for the entertainment of the soldiers. This same driver was also forced to lie face down, fully clothed, in a puddle of filthy water. His female co-workers, witness to these incidents, shook with nervous laughter as they recounted them to me, shrugging apologetically as if to say, "What else can we do but laugh in the face of such horrors?" As if to somehow subvert the power of these soldiers to control every aspect of their lives, instead transforming these events into silly pranks, something manageable.

Now I see three young Israeli soldiers walking through the street beside the Ramallah UPMRC. They are swaggering like a street gang, carrying heavy sticks or mallets as they look for things to smash. Earlier that morning, they, or other soldiers from their unit, stationed one block from our building, had smashed every window of every car in the parking lot. Now I was watching them try to smash an attendant's booth in another parking lot down the street. They kept striking the windows of the booth, until they realized that it was made of plexiglass and wandered off angrily.

I hear the nerve-shattering boom of repeated explosions night after night as soldiers dynamite their way into people's homes in Ramallah — whether or not their inhabitants are home or willing to open their doors themselves. Soldiers often invaded in the middle of the night, smashing television sets and glassware, pouring olive oil and emptying bags of sugar on floors, rugs or furniture, demanding "hidden weapons" or information on militants, as if every Palestinian home was actually a cog in some vast Arab-terrorist machine. I heard countless stories of such invasions, in cities and villages throughout the West Bank. I also heard the occasional story of soldiers who were more respectful, who were careful not to break or dirty things. Sometimes people even had their property returned, though this seemed to depend on the disposition of a given soldier or his commanding officer.

It's still April 2002, and I see the long, terrifying muzzle of the cannon-like gun perched atop an Armed Personnel Carrier (APC), with a soldier hunched behind its sight, pointing it at the windshield of the UPMRC ambulance I'm accompanying. It was my first run, and we were about to pull out from our parking space in front of the building when we looked up and noticed him — crouched before us like a bird of prey, silent and motionless. He didn't address us, didn't call out to us to demand that we descend from the vehicle, didn't signal a "search" for the weapons the Israeli army insists are smuggled in these ambulances, despite an utter lack of convincing evidence to support such claims. The soldier was simply pointing his gun directly at us, in a terrifying gesture of intimidation. I froze, not knowing what to do. "He's going to shoot us, Irene," one of my more experienced Palestinian colleagues exclaimed under his breath. "Say something to him!" I fought the urge to dive under the dashboard, and slowly stuck my head out of the window, smiling weakly and waving to the soldier. He suddenly stood straight up and looked at me. The ambulance pulled away quickly, and the APC made no further attempt to stop us.

The effect of this flood of images is numbing…. my interlocutor's eyes begin to glaze, or sink back in her head in a kind of self-protecting act. I step outside the flood of images — which is just at its beginning. I need to take a breath in any case.

I've barely scratched the surface of what I witnessed, of the stories that were shared with me. There are so many more scenes like this, and worse — too many to count. And I'm not even past Spring 2002. By the Fall the situation had deteriorated, though I didn't think that possible. And it continues to deteriorate until now...

Thinking back to the fall, I see the torn up roads of the villages I visited throughout the West Bank, cut across with deep trenches, or rendered impassable by roadblocks of piled dirt, garbage, old cars, and impossibly huge cement blocks. These were the Palestinian roads, the ones which connected villages and cities while avoiding the Jewish-only settlement bypass roads which have always been off-limits to Palestinians. The by-pass roads are surrounded by "security zones" the width of football fields, leading to the Jewish-only settlements perched on the hilltops, sneering down at the Palestinian villages below them. You can discern most of the settlements from far away, by their uniform red roofs and lush green lawns — and even swimming pools — fed by water resources siphoned from local Palestinian communities, where wells have begun drying up and water is in short supply. We managed to get around on rutted dirt roads or no roads at all, often on foot or in vehicles so old and worn they could hardly run on pavement. One of the reasons these vehicles are so worn is in fact that, barred from all roads, Palestinians are being forced to drive on terrain which would challenge a four wheel drive vehicle.

Once while we were driving back to Nablus from a protest against Israeli confiscations of Palestinian land to build the "separation wall," we found an enormous roadblock had been erected on the route we had taken earlier that day. We were forced to drive through the land at the outskirts of a Jewish settlement. It was the dark of night. There was no road, no path, no lights. We drove in fear of attack by settler patrols, knowing that settlers are often far more violent and unpredictable than soldiers, and that they are rarely — if ever — punished. Fortunately we encountered other Palestinian vans coming from the other direction who helped to guide us toward the road on the other side. But by the time we reached it, the van had been so badly damaged by the rough terrain, we had to abandon it. The driver — already financially strapped from months without steady work — was faced with hundreds of dollars worth of damage. He found a colleague willing to do it for less — but even so, finding parts, or even accessing skilled individuals is not a given. Conditions are even worse for those in the villages, who can't reach the cities. Meanwhile, my colleagues and I — Palestinians and internationals — were forced to walk for hours on foot, in the darkness. We had to hide from military patrols twice, but could have easily been targeted by Israeli snipers at any time. As for the driver of our van, like all Palestinian drivers, he now faces large fines, severe beatings, arrest, and/or confiscation of his vehicle or keys if he is caught during curfew, or on prohibited roads, which means virtually all roads now.

Back in the village of Azbat Salman, I saw the pools of settlement sewage poisoning Palestinian farmland — a problem in many Palestinian villages. This particular pollution problem has now been rendered irrelevant, as the land has been unilaterally and illegally confiscated by the settlers, operating under the full protection of the Israeli Army. Barred from their own roads, targeted by settlers from ever-encroaching settlements and the Israeli soldiers and police who serve them, Palestinian villages have become prisons for their inhabitants. Slowly but surely, Israeli policies are having their desired effect — not security, but transfer, forcing more and more Palestinians — those with the means, those who simply can't bear it anymore, those with no choice — to flee the land they've lived on for generations. As Benny Alon, a minister in Sharon's government, has said, "Make their lives so bitter that they will transfer themselves willingly." One of the most dramatic acts of mass abandonment since 1967 was that of the village of Yanoun, which was rendered a ghost-town in the fall of 2002 when its last inhabitants finally fled the relentless, violent settler attacks on citizens, homes and water-tanks.

Add to this the unilateral Israeli confiscation of greenhouses, homes and lush farmland to build an Apartheid Wall, to separate themselves from the "terrorists" on the other side of the Green Line — or, rather, the new Line which the Israelis have taken it upon themselves to unilaterally redraw. This wall cuts deeply into the West Bank, annexing thousands of dunums of land and dozens of water wells, destroying countless farms planted with priceless old-growth olive tree groves. Would that the Wall actually could rid the Palestinians of the terrorist regime that has occupied their land for over 35 years. Then we could start talking about "regime change" and "democracy" in Palestine. Instead, what we are witnessing is a new Warsaw ghetto, literally walling in millions of Palestinians, most of whom are already prisoners in their own communities due to checkpoints and roadblocks, curfews and settler attacks. While people might cringe at this analogy, I cringe at its chilling appropriateness, at the banal repetition of a history whose memory is at the very heart of Israeli (as well as Jewish-American) identity.

There is No-one Here to Hate

I look at the words which are now meant to capture these images and pin them to the page. They are shadows. I want you to understand. I want to understand. This is what ethnic cleansing looks like. It is endless acts of violence, humiliation and destruction, slow, insidious, relentless. As former Knesset member Shulamit Aloni bravely noted, expressing her horror at the atrocities being committed by the Israeli army, "There is no single fixed method for murder and not even for genocide. The author Y.L. Peretz wrote about the 'righteous cat' who does not spill blood, but only suffocates." (Haaretz, 3-6-03; translated in Jewish Peace News 3-7-03) The acts of these soldiers are sometimes carried out with sadistic glee, sometimes with "regret," sometimes as a matter of "following orders," of conditioning and propaganda. Relentless and never-ending conditioning and propaganda about the existential threat, the "they" that want to "push us into the sea."

There is no one to hate here: hate is useless. But this is the crucible of hate: it is the seat of its unbridled expression, as meted out by the most powerful military machine in the region, the fourth most powerful in the world. And it is the site of the justifiable rage and desperation that will ensue, ripe for exploitation by militant groups, or random expression by individuals vainly trying to reassert control over their lives, their land, their future.

There is no one to hate here. I keep drawing back Ghandi's words, like a protective layer against the pull of hatred... He said we must hate the systems of oppression, not the individuals who are part of those systems.


Once when I was accompanying an ambulance, we were stopped by a patrol of soldiers. By then I had learned to hold the microphone which was attached to the speaker on top of our vehicle in my hand at all times. This way I wouldn't have to reach for it if we ran into a patrol, possibly giving the impression that I was reaching for a weapon. The soldiers pointed their guns at us, and I spoke calmly into the microphone, announcing that we were "unarmed civilians" transporting medical aid. One of the soldiers motioned to us to stop the ambulance and get out. They approached us cautiously, took everyone's ID cards and my passport. The soldier who took mine looked like he was in his mid-late 20s, and had a small ponytail of reddish hair which peeked out from under his helmet. He looked at the passport, looked me right in the eye and said, "You think I'm a monster, don't you?" I just looked at him, a bit dumbfounded that he was even addressing me. I wasn't expecting this. It was the day after Marwan Barghouti had been arrested, and there was a lot of army movement. We'd been stopped before. A group of soldiers had even planned to use us as human shields to ambush a building where they suspected militants were hiding. That is, they wanted to force us to drive ahead of them so that we would absorb fire in case they were shot at. They were fortunately talked out of it by their commanding officer. Those soldiers did not address me. They spoke about me, about us, to each other, in Hebrew. They discussed us as though we weren't there. 1 couldn't understand. It was a Palestinian colleague, fluent in Hebrew, who warned me anxiously of their plan.

But here, now, I was being addressed by this soldier. Not just addressed, but incited to engagement, discussion...interchange. I was caught off guard by this soldier, his eyes insistent, eyes that seemed to need an answer... as though he really was bothered that I would think him monstrous. He was being so respectful with me, his eyes were so concerned. I started to answer, awkwardly, telling him something like,

"No, I don't think you're a monster...but, what you're doing is wrong. And if you're not beating and killing Palestinians, and if you're not acting like a monster, then you're not a monster" and he cut me off, "You know they transport weapons in these things," he said kicking the ambulance lightly. I responded quietly, "Well, actually, they don't. They don't carry weapons, and we're taking medicine to Palestinians who need it. You know that what you're doing here is just making the situation much worse," "I'm just defending my family," he responded. "This is just making it worse for your family," I told him. I spoke so calmly... he was so civil with me, so polite, so concerned. I said something about how I’ve had friends who've been in the army, and I know he must be scared being here in this place he doesn't belong, but that he's making the situation far worse than he could imagine. I wanted to shake him... "Look around you!! Look at what you're doing! What does this remind you of!?" I wanted to find a way to make him understand...

Soon his commanding officer cut off our discussion. Like most of the commanding officers I encountered during my time there, this one didn't like his soldiers having civil conversations with the people they were investigating - or intimidat1ing. He gruffly told me to go stand on the other side of the road, where my Palestinian colleagues were waiting. I approached the ambulance driver I was working with that day, Ahmed, a very quiet, sweet man in his late 20s. Looking at the soldiers with a palpable hatred, he muttered to me, "They're all animals." His voice jolted me, reminding me of the privilege of my position, and of the power differential between my colleagues and me. I suddenly felt self-conscious about my civilized little interaction with the soldier. I looked at Ahmed, saying something like, "Well, some are worse than others.." And, still looking back at them nervously, he started to recount to me the events of the previous night. He told me how soldiers had blasted open the door of his building and burst into his apartment at midnight. It was a huge explosion. In fact, I realized that I myself had heard it: I had been staying with a colleague of his in an apartment building a few hundred yards from his home. There had been dynamite blasts and gunfire all night, but the force of this one particular blast had woken us all up sometime around midnight. The daughters of my host Thuraya - two incredibly brave, strong young women in their early 20s, cried out for their mother, who ran in and clutched them both. Their home had already been invaded by soldiers earlier in the invasion. Those soldiers had also burst in, in the middle of the night — this time looking for a gunman who had been shooting from below the building. They forced the family into a room facing another building, from which soldiers were shooting at Thuraya's building. Even in the midst of her own terror, Thuraya noticed the fear in these soldiers' eyes. Weeks later, during my visit I witnessed the bullet holes in the window and walls of that room.

Thuraya and her family had cowered on the floor until they couldn't stand it anymore and burst out. The soldiers told them that they could either return to that room or leave, so they abandoned their apartment to the soldiers, who remained for a day and a half. They didn't break or soil anything, but they did steal my friends' cellphones, along with everyone else's in the building, which were all eventually returned.

But now Ahmed was recounting his story, from just last night, about this home so close to Thuraya's. Ahmed told me the soldiers stormed in and made him., his wife and four young children stand in one room while they proceeded to smash and tear their way through the apartment. They dragged him out at one point, demanding that he show them "where the weapons are." He kept telling them he had no weapons, that he was an accountant and volunteer ambulance driver. Three and a half hours later they finally left. They headed to the next apartment, whose occupants were gone. The neighbor had a key and offered to open the door, but the soldiers dynamited it open instead. They went from apartment to apartment this way until 5 am.

Ahmed's voice was practically monotone as he recounted his experience. In fact, this was virtually always the case when any Palestinian recounted some story of humiliation or violence. A shrug of the shoulders and the phrase, "It's normal" constitute the usual summations. The pain and rage in Ahmed's eyes was smoldering, soft - barely discernible: at these soldiers, at his inability to protect his family. I felt sickened, wondering whether these were the ones who did it. I asked him if he recognized anyone, and he said no, not that this meant anything. Who's to say these soldiers didn't do the same thing to someone else? Or perhaps they were one of the more "respectful" units, enforcing a kinder, gentler Occupation, with apologies for broken vases, wiped boots on the doormat - and the special care taken to protect civilians, which the Israeli Army's PR office loves to celebrate...

These encounters with the soldier, with Ahmed -they shook me. Ahmed's situation left me trembling with anger and frustration. How could these soldiers behave like this with such utter impunity? How could they live with themselves?

And here is a soldier, involved in something so monstrous, standing in front of me. And I was shocked to be so moved by his humanity, his vulnerability — him, with his bullet proof vest covered with ammunition, his helmet, his top-of-the-line-US-funded machine-gun, Merkava tanks, APCs, Apache helicopters, and jeeps at the ready... Who knows what destruction and pain he'd already inflicted. And yet there seemed to be something in him that was worried... about what he was doing, as though trying to convince himself. Why bother to convince me? He certainly has the full force of the Israeli government and media machine behind him. But he's still witness to what he's participating in. He's a witness -and so am I. And so are the Palestinian communities he is helping to destroy.

I learned that, though most Israeli soldiers don't seem, to recognize—or care—that what they're doing is wrong when they're doing it, they do have some sense of fear about being punished. This was the underlying philosophy of the Israeli human rights organization Hamoked, for example, which would intervene on behalf of Palestinians facing abuse by soldiers at checkpoints. A friend of mine who worked there told me in virtually every case, they needed only call the soldier or the commanding officer to let them know that they were being watched in order to make them stop. It was the soldiers' almost juvenile fear of "getting caught," of punishment, which was exploited to help these Palestinians. Another activist friend recounted a conversation with a soldier who expressed his fear of going abroad — a fear of being accused of war crimes, or targeted with retaliatory violence. Then there is the rising number of soldiers returning from the Occupied Territories to civilian life only to find themselves haunted by what they've participated in. This has become such a phenomenon, that a "rehabilitation village" called Izon was recently opened to meet the demand for treatment of what has come to be known as "Intifada syndrome." Striking even soldiers from the most elite units, after years of dedicated military service, its symptoms have been compared to those of Vietnam veterans, and include severe depression, suicidal tendencies, and hard drug addiction.


In April of 2002, I saw streets littered with the remains of cars which had been pulled out into the streets of Ramallah and flattened by tanks — I mean flattened into an unrecognizable crush of bolts and mangled metal. A local resident saw his neighbor's expensive, brand new imported car dragged out of his driveway onto the street by soldiers so that they could crush it with their tank. As I recall the image, it segues into a dialogue I had with Shlomo, a 60 year old Israeli airport shuttle-driver wearing a yarmulke, as he drove me from the airport in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in his empty van.

Allow me to digress a moment to set the scene: I had just arrived from Cairo, where I had been glued to the TV set, internet and radio for the past two sleepless weeks, following the situation in the West Bank, until I couldn't stand it anymore and had to get on a plane and come — to try to do something — anything. I planned to do relief work, perhaps coordinated through the International Solidarity Movement, with whom I'd worked the previous summer. My plane had landed in Tel Aviv sometime after midnight, and after waiting several hours for his van to fill up-with not a single customer joining me-Shlomo finally offered to drive me to Jerusalem with him, since he was going there anyway. As I was climbing into the front seat beside him, he commented in his broken English on the news of the Israeli soldiers killed in a booby trap in Jenin that day. "Did you hear? Isn't it awful?" I remember looking at him, my heart filled with anger and bitterness, thinking to myself, "and do you know how many Palestinians were killed today? Or yesterday? Or all the days since September of 2000? You're just another one of 'them',— another Zionist racist who cares only about Israeli lives. And I have to ride with you all the way to Jerusalem..." My response was cold, or nonexistent, my heart hardened from the endless stream of images and reports I'd been ingesting from the Occupied Territories... and I folded up into myself, a wall between us, as we drove along the broad, smooth Israeli highways, now lined with Israeli flags, a sickening nationalist touch I didn't remember from my last visit. We drove along in my imposed silence, in the serenity of the night, in the relative "normalcy" of life on this side of the Green Line — the roads that are not torn apart, the traffic lights and sign posts that have not been run over by tanks, the people sleeping in their homes knowing that they won't be demolished in the middle of the night, or shelled by Apache helicopters or Merkava tanks. My heart was filled with bitterness and sadness, at the sight of this man, this society, so wrapped in its hateful propaganda and self-imposed blindness that it can't see it's killing itself, too...

Until at some point I realized that I actually didn't have any idea what this particular man was thinking, this man who'd generously offered to drive me to Jerusalem at a cut price, who'd tried to engage me in conversation. I turned to him and asked him if he had kids, if they were in the army, if he worried about them. He said he was terrified for them, And I asked him if he knew what was happening in the Territories — did he know about the destruction, about the war crimes... And I watched him struggling to convey to me through a veil of broken English how shocked he was at what soldiers were doing: "When I served in the army, we would never do things like that! We would drive our tanks around cars, we would try to avoid running things over! How can they do this? Why do they let them do this?" When I asked him what he thought of what Sharon's government was doing he replied, "We just need to give them what they want!" "What do you mean?" I asked. "We just need to give them what they want — what they ask for —- the Palestinians. They just want a state — why shouldn't they have a state? They have a right to that! Why doesn't my government just give them what they want? Then it will end. They have a right to that! It's their right!" He kept repeating this. His face contorted, as if he might cry — with the effort of wrestling through the limits of his English. When I asked who he would vote for in a new election, he responded with despair, "It never makes a difference, they all end up doing the same thing..."

I need to tell you some of these things I saw, these things I heard — these things I witnessed. One of my most potent experiences — itself a kind of activism — was the act of listening. I was an outsider taken into people's homes and lives like family. And yet I'm not family. I'm an American, an Ashkenazi Jewish-American, although the latter was not necessarily evident. My experience was colored by all of these things... as well as by being a woman, and an Arabic speaker. During the time I spent in Palestine, I was flooded with stories, from people desperate to be heard, to finally break through the choking isolation of curfews and closures. Living under the ever-tightening grip of relentless Israeli siege, literally cut off from the outside world and from each other, so many Palestinians expressed their feeling of utter abandonment by the international community - and they have been, at least at the government level. International NGOs, human rights and peace activists, and journalists - these are some of the lifelines to the world outside, not only in a material sense, but in a much larger sense: the sense that comes of being "seen" -of having your humanity acknowledged, and of knowing that someone is bearing witness, recognizing, seeing the reality of this unbelievable, nightmarish experience. These are the very Lifelines that the Israeli government has come to target with an increasingly violent abandon. This is one of the most potent weapons of the Israeli occupation: this war of isolation against Palestinian resistance. It's a war of attrition, like dry-rot, instilling a creeping demoralization and hopelessness. Israel's escalated targeting of journalists, peace and human rights activists, and aid workers is not a message to "internationals": it is a message to Palestinians, that Israel will make sure to seal their isolation, and to see to it that there are no credible witnesses to their suffering, and no-one to advocate, no-one to stop what's happening to them.

Balata Camp

I have a memory of a night I spent in Balata Refugee Camp with a Palestinian family, friends of an American activist friend. It was April 2002, and I can hear the Israeli tank shells and machine gunfire flying past the shattered windows of their home as we all cowered on the floor of the children's bedroom with the lights out. Most of the windows had long since been replaced with cardboard and plastic sheeting, after the glass was blown out by the force of repeated shelling of the surrounding homes by Apache Helicopters and Merkava tanks during the March invasion which targeted a "wanted man's" neighboring home. My friends Nasreen, Muhammed and their older three kids, Amina (11), Nasr (9) and Imad (7) made jokes to each other across the darkness, to keep their spirits up. Nasreen comforted 5 year old Ahmed, and my friend and I held each other's hands. Ahmed, whom I might just marry when he grows up, spends most of my visits glued to my lap or carried in my arms, or telling me he loves me. When I think of what this sweet, soft-eyed child has been through, along with his still-young older siblings, it rips me apart. His older sister Nasreen is a fiercely articulate and intelligent young woman, long since stripped of childish illusions. She would proudly present her nationalist poetry and drawings to me, and regale me with piercing diatribes about the international community's abandonment of her people, as well as the need to meet the Occupation with militant resistance. I returned home one evening to find the children "playing" in their room. In fact they were staging a mock rally, wearing Hamas ribbons around their heads, and carrying Islamic Jihad flags. I stopped dead in the doorway, my breath caught in my throat. "I like Hamas," proclaimed Nasreen. "My party is Islamic Jihad," countered Nasr. I believe Ahmed was sporting an Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade flag. "What group do you prefer, Irene?" Again I felt the block in my throat as I tried to find an answer that could meet the situation... how do I lecture children who have been repeatedly brutalized, night after night, by gunfire and tank shells about the need to resist violence with non-violence? These are children who have lived trapped in their small, modest concrete home, cut off from running water and electricity for nearly two weeks; children cowering in their room with their parents as every single building surrounding them was pounded with missiles. These are children who, along with their entire family, were ordered out of their home in the middle of the night by Israeli loudspeakers, with the warning that their home was about to be shelled. As they ran outside in terror, bullets flew past their heads, sending them running back into the house for cover. Their parents laughed as they recounted the scene, in all its dark and ugly absurdity. These are children who by April had already been barred from school for weeks. — At this writing, the weeks have stretched to more than 400 days in the Nablus area. I see these children marching in their play-rally, honoring militant groups. Their mother is a nurse, a passionate, caring woman who lovingly welcomes me into her home, who accepts me, an American-Jew. Their father is an unemployed teacher, who is currently learning Hebrew. I look again at these marching children. I look at this scene, this context, this life, and I don't wonder where "popular support" for militants comes from.

And this is Balata Camp, where, as throughout the Occupied Territories, opinions ran more militant in tone every time I returned, on each of three visits between the summer of 2001 and the fall of 2002. Yet at the same time, even here, even in Nablus, Askar, Balata, pounded by unremitting violence and relentless siege — I continue to encounter and work with those who insist on resisting this state-sponsored terror with I don't know how I would fare under such circumstances, how I would stem the rising surge of anger and violence inside me... inside us all. It is a tide I am forced to face and wrestle with every single time I return, along with the impulse to hate, to hate those who are responsible for tormenting my friends and loved ones. I fight the impulse when it comes, because I can feel it eating away at me, dehumanizing me. I don't always succeed. It is an act of resistance to do this, an active and fraught practice. And I am just a visitor. I can leave if I want to. And I can also see the human face behind many of these uniforms — because I'm white and female and American and, yes, Jewish, and I can have civilized conversations with some soldiers, some of whom don't want to be here, some of whom don't know why they're here, some of whom have refused to serve all together. But to struggle against hatred and violence as a privileged American white-girl is a parlor game. I witness this resistance, this resistance to hatred, resistance to violence, over and over again from Palestinians living in its grip, people who speak of co-existence, who speak only of ending the Occupation which is destroying them, and then moving on. It's always the oppressed who are forced to "recognize" the oppressor. But Palestinians are not obliged to resist hatred: why shouldn't I hate the one who brutalizes me? Why shouldn't I hate the one who is determined to destroy me?

I've had many conversations about violent versus non-violent resistance with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, with Palestinians outside the Territories, with people from around the world. I can only believe in non-violent resistance because I can't stand violence, because I know that it always leads to more violence, because I know that it dehumanizes everyone— those who commit it and those who receive it. But when I'm met with the response, "we've tried non-violence. Hamas even had a unilateral ceasefire for months. Did the Israelis respond in kind? Did they offer real compromise and peace?" or, "You tell me that suicide bombings invite more violence from Sharon, and feeds the media machine that says we're all terrorists. Well guess what — they all say we're terrorists whether or not we're bombing people. I don't care what the international community says about us — what the hell have they done to help us lately, huh? What?

What? ... I have no answer.

I have no answer... I have lots of questions I can't answer. I can only continue to work with all the Palestinians — the vast majority of Palestinians -— who somehow manage to resist without violence. They risk their lives by marching in nighttime candlelight vigils in violation of curfew, or during their precious few moments when curfew is lifted. Or they resist by harvesting their olives from the land their families have lived on for generations, in the face of brutal settler attacks — settlers who are aided by Israeli soldiers or police. Or they organize popular schools in their communities in the face of ongoing siege, trying to make sure their children still get an education, without risking their lives on the way to school. Or they organize groups of activists to escort children to school, in violation of Israeli curfew, in the face of teargas or live gun and tank fire. Or they organize a children's play-fair on the street in front of the Israeli tank which has held their children prisoner for weeks on end. Resistance to occupation is also found here in the fabric of daily life. It is as dramatic as a confrontation with a soldier, or as simple as lighting a candle, or as ordinary as survival. Just sitting in the living room watching TV with your family is resistance when you can be summarily shot through the window, or perhaps buried under the debris of your home as it is demolished without sufficient warning; or perhaps your house collapses due to the demolition of a neighboring home, or is targeted by a wayward missile attack — perhaps from a "pre-emptive assassination."

Just cooking a meal for your family— this is another act of resistance. Just violating curfew to visit your sister's home — the sister you couldn't see for weeks on end, who lives a 5 minute drive away from your home — this is resistance. Just driving on roads from which you've been barred — resistance. Just getting up in the morning and getting through your day is an act of resistance. In the face of an onslaught designed to drive Palestinians off their land at any cost, to make them "transfer themselves," resistance consists of simply going on, of living, of surviving. I don't know where this patience comes from, because quite honestly, I don't know that I would have it in the same position. And every time I leave Palestine, I'm forced to face my commitment to nonviolence again, forced to wrestle with it and reaffirm it, actively, with a muscular force. Even for me, it is not just "a given." It is not easy. There is nothing easy about it.

Chaos and Order

I’ve barely begun to recount the spew of scenes which have daily greeted the average Palestinian citizen during Sharon's reign. So I'll start again. There is no way to wrestle this ever-multiplying splatter of events into a linear, ordered whole. There is no way to master this chaos of images. Because this is life in the illegally Occupied Palestinian Territories — it is disorder, it is contingency and violence, it is what happens to you, at you, in spite of you, whether you like it or not. It is a complete lack of control over the most basic aspects of your life — over whether or not you can buy food, over whether you get to have electricity or water or garbage collection, over whether or not you can go to work, over whether your child gets to go to school, or even leave the house, or even which rooms in your own house you might walk through, depending on where the nearest soldiers are stationed, depending on the most likely trajectories of gunfire or shelling, depending on the mood or disposition of your local occupying troops. It permeates the most banal aspects of daily life. Will there be curfew tomorrow or not? If curfew is to be lifted, when? Such announcements will come either from the loudspeakers of patrolling Israeli jeeps— sometimes peppered with curses or insults in Arabic; or from phone calls from friends and colleagues; or from the radio, where a 9 pm broadcast announcing a lifted curfew might be followed by a midnight broadcast retracting the previous statement — long after most people have gone to bed, set their alarms, put out their clothes for work or arranged their few precious hours of freedom to somehow fit in the doctor's appointment, the bank, and the supermarket, or visit to their mother after weeks apart. In Nablus, for example, during the customary 4 or 5 hours when curfew is lifted every few weeks, Palestinians will most likely be caught in traffic and long lines for most of that time, unable to accomplish anything, as everyone around them madly dashes through their impossible, compressed schedule. And if you forget to buy the vegetables for dinner on the way home (if you have the money to buy them, in spite of being out of work for months because you can't get to your job, or because the business has had to close, or because the office has been destroyed), if you forget the milk or the butter, you can't dash out again to the local store to pick them up, because if you do, you may never return. And in a society where spending time with friends and family numbers among the highest values, spending weeks apart from your loved ones is not an insignificant detail. And nor is spending weeks imprisoned with them.

One of my dearest friends in Ramallah described this unseen casualty of the grinding war of attrition against the Palestinians: the wearing away of the fabric of relationships. He told me he'd never seen so many friendships collapse, marriages strained to the breaking point, extra-marital affairs, tobacco, drug and alcohol use, depression. He himself was smoking and drinking — and sleeping — more than he ever had before, and when I expressed concern, he could only reply, "I simply can't stand it. I have to numb myself or I just can't bear to live like this."

And yet, in spite of this imposed chaos, there is a persistent order which continues to impose itself on daily life. My friend, a journalist, has survived. His colleagues continue to work, to produce - in spite of having their studio trashed by the Israeli army early on in the Spring invasion.

Because beneath the chaos of Occupation is an ongoing, inexplicable, ever-shifting and changing order, newly unfolding systems which make life possible. Whether it's the system which manages to get food on the table, or manages to get money for food in spite of crushing unemployment, or manages to find a way in and out of cities suffocating under siege, to find the work to get the money to get the food... or perhaps it's the system of light-blinking between cars on a road or a whistle from someone on the street, running to take cover, that signals that an Israeli patrol is around the corner. The latter "system" saved a Palestinian friend and me from a head-on encounter with a three-tank Israeli patrol when we were driving home one night during curfew, from dinner at a restaurant which had secretly re-opened - another system of survival. Before we left, instead of tuning into the traffic report, we had to ask the look-out man about Israeli patrols in the area. These impossible systems of survival and resistance continue to emerge. To paraphrase one woman, "if you block the doors, we’ll get out through the windows, if you cover the windows, we’ll burrow under the floors. If you block off the floors, we'll fly through the ceilings. We will never stop. We will never give in."

The Occupation Is Killing Us All

Do you want to hear about the fear which eats at the hearts of Israelis as they decide which bus line to take, which mall to avoid, what cafe or nightclub they're more or less likely to return home from alive? "The Occupation is killing us all" goes the slogan from the brave and outnumbered Israeli peace camp. And this is something we can never forget. But it's not killing us all at the same rate, and it's not starving or humiliating us or decimating our societies to the same degree. In Israel its effect is not just evident in the carnage of the suicide bombings which have multiplied at an unprecedented rate since Sharon took office; and it isn't just evident in the material effects of economic decline; it is also a subtle, silent undercurrent that penetrates to the marrow of people's lives, their sanity, their character. Israeli society is being hollowed out — by fear, hatred (which are actually the same thing).

Most Israelis know someone — either directly or indirectly — who has been touched by the conflict — either as a soldier, or victim of a suicide operation. But unlike life for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, living with the fear of "terror" is something of an abstraction to most Israelis I encountered. While Israelis might agonize over which store to go to or which restaurant to avoid, most Palestinians are spared such choices, as they either cannot leave the house to go to the store; drive to the city where the store is located; get the money to spend in stores; find a store that has any inventory. Or perhaps the store they planned on visiting has been summarily demolished, or expropriated. Deciding to avoid nightclubs or buses is not the same thing as having your entire economy shut down, your infrastructure decimated, the very foundations of statehood pulverized....In brief, there is no comparison between the effects of the Occupation on Israeli lives with the kind of devastation it has wrought on Palestinian lives. Walking across that green line (into Israel) is like walking through a time warp, crossing a desert, finding yourself in a completely different world, a world where, if you call an ambulance, it will come; if you want to go to the store for some butter, you can open the door and walk to a local shop. Perhaps you’ll avoid particular areas, or times of day. But you'll open your door without checking for tanks or snipers, and when you get to the store, you'll most likely find butter on the shelves, and will most likely have the funds to buy it. As a matter of fact, like my Israeli friends, you probably won't even think twice about the whole operation, which in the context of life under curfew in the Occupied Territories, becomes an endeavor which could potentially cost you your life before you've even left the house.

Simply put, even without a "separation wall," Israel exists in a separate universe. But it is a universe whose contours are shaped by the domination of Palestinian lands. And it is an expanding universe, whose ultimate aim is to ingest the lands it dominates into its own body.

No one should live with violence. No one should have to mourn their friends and loved ones. I don't want to call my friends in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem every time I hear about a new suicide bombing, any more than I want to call my friends in the West Bank and Gaza to check on them. But I assure you such calls to the Occupied Territories are far more frequent — and more consistently upsetting — than my calls to Israeli friends. And I assure you, that for every story on a suicide bombing in Israel, which broke "six weeks of quiet," that "quiet" only existed on one side of the Green Line. Meanwhile, on the other side, the ongoing violence and brutality of Occupation were busy feeding the ranks of militant groups. If we would like to stop such horrors, we need to stop and take a close look at the gap between what Israel's leaders, supported by their American allies, claim to be doing in the Occupied Territories (i.e. "eliminating terror") and what they are actually doing — enacting a slow, steady policy of ethnic cleansing, toward the ultimate annexation of the whole of Palestine to Greater Israel.

Irene Siegel, a doctoral student in comparative literature at UC Berkeley, has worked with various Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian social justice organisations. She thanks the AMBWS board for their support, as well as the many friends and families in Palestine and Israel who made her feel welcome, including Thuraya, Ziyad, Ismail, Yuseff Roni, and Liora.

When the second Intifada grew convincingly alarming, friends and colleagues in Palestine made a plea for international observers. The AMEWS board decided to finance an individual's trip to Palestine. Our goal was for that person to witness the events, lend solidarity, act as a buffer by her/his presence, represent AMEWS, and report back to the membership so that we could stay informed of events "on the ground" and not have to rely on US media. We raised money from members of the board and the committee for human rights and academic freedom. Although we had originally planned to send a board member, given both the time and money constraints, we decided it would be better to send someone who was already in the region. Nadine Naber was in Cairo and suggested Irene, who had already planned a trip to Palestine. We contacted Irene and agreed to pay her expenses. She agreed to represent AMEWS, report to us while there, give a report to our annual meeting, and write a piece for the Review.

See the Assocation for Middle East Women's Studies (AMEWS) website for more information about their work and publications.