Palestine – caring but not comprehending

A few years ago, during the lockdown, I complained on social media about the fact that our local electricity company had seen fit to shut off our electricity for 16 hours on one of the coldest days of the year. As anything related to hospitality was closed, and family visits were prohibited, there were no warm spaces in which to retreat. I moaned that it was unbearable. I was pulled up short by a reply from a young Palestinian friend who pointed out that this was the day-to-day reality for Palestinians.

This exchange made me wonder whether it is ever really possible to understand Palestinian lives without the lived experience. 16 hours without heat, light or ways of cooking warm food was dismal, but it is almost incomprehensible to think of this going on day in, day out, year in and year out. Palestinians are aware of the fact that the reality of their lives is hard to fully comprehend, even for those who support their struggle and have empathy with their situation. This is particularly the case when, throughout history, their story has been narrated by others who treat their rights as less deserving of recognition, or who have successfully conflated any criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people as antisemetic.

The short film The Present (2020) is just one attempt to describe to others outside the region the reality of life under Israeli occupation.

Directed by Farah Nabulsi and co-written by Nabulsi and Hind Shoufani, the award-winning film (on Netflix) describes in chilling detail the reality of life on the West Bank through the lens of a small Palestinian family. It highlights the particular struggle and humiliations that a father and his daughter face as they try to buy a wedding anniversary gift, a new refrigerator, for their wife and mother. According to the director, Farah Nabulsi, the journey they need to take is about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) long, but it takes them several hours to complete due to the restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation. They have to cross several checkpoints, and endure dehumanising cages and roadblocks. One of the tensest scenes in the film is when the father and daughter try to get the refrigerator through a roadblock on their way home. They have to face the indifference and hostility of the Israeli soldiers, who refuse to let them pass with their vehicle. The father has to carry the heavy appliance on his back, while his daughter holds his hand and tries to cheer him up. The father suffers from a bad back, which makes the task even more painful and difficult. He struggles to walk across the checkpoint, while the soldiers mock and harass him. The scene shows the humiliation and hardship that Palestinians have to endure every day under occupation but it also shows the love and resilience of the Palestinian family, who try to find moments of joy and dignity amid the oppression.

The film is just a snapshot of what oppression looks like and how it is experienced by people trying to live normal lives in abnormal situations.

Those who live in the West Bank have to deal with Israeli settlements, checkpoints, barriers and permits that limit their movement, access to resources, and opportunities. Those living in Gaza have to cope with a blockade, power cuts, water shortages, and frequent clashes with Israeli forces. Those who live in East Jerusalem have to endure discrimination, evictions, demolitions, and violence.

They all face a regime of oppression that has destroyed their homes, their communities, and their hopes.  

The United Nations has repeatedly condemned Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory as illegal and a violation of international law. According to the UN, Israel’s occupation is unlawful due to its permanence and its de facto annexation policies, which aim to ensure permanent Israeli control over the land in the West Bank. The UN has also accused Israel of apartheid, a crime against humanity, by discriminating against Palestinians and denying them their right to self-determination. The UN has called on Israel to end its occupation and respect the rights of the Palestinian people. The rest of the world, including the UK, has been unusually silent.

This is so far outside the experience of many in the West. We cannot assume that we know what the Palestinian people, who have not only had their land stolen from them but also their rights and their dignity, go through on a daily basis.

We can only listen to their voices, learn from their stories, and support their struggle for justice and dignity. We can try to understand but we can never fully comprehend.

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