West Bank Journal: Death and Birth in the Occupied Territories

On Death

First, a correction. Sheikh Yassin, assassinated on Monday by
the Israeli military, was only 67 years old, not 92. That’s the
last time I take the word of an eleven-year-old informant!

Regardless of how old he was, regardless of his responsibility
for deaths or his culpability in suicide bombings, regardless of
whether you loved or abhorred him, assassinating him was morally,
politically and strategically indefensible. If you make
assassination a tactic in your political program, you become
something vile, something that will taint every good you claim to
stand for. However dangerous you might perceive Yassin’s ideas to
be, you can’t destroy his ideas by killing him, you can only
strengthen their appeal. You can’t kill hate: you can only create
more of it by killing. Had Sharon and company hired a PR firm to
tell them how to create the ultimate Hamas martyr, they couldn’t
have done a better job: an old man, in a wheelchair, murdered
coming out of a mosque after praying.

In fact, assassinating Yassin was not a program of security, it
was a program of deliberate provocation, aimed not at gaining peace
and safety for Israel, but at undermining any serious attempts at
peace, negotiation, or concessions to the Palestinians. That is his
pattern: any time another step toward peace is made, he stages
another assassination or a provocation, and that takes care of the
threat that he might actually have to give something up or make
some meaningful concession.

Assassinating Yassin will surely bring death to Israelis. That
means to someone like my cousin, who regularly studies at a
Yeshivah, or to my friend Dana, newly pregnant, or to one of the
young Israeli activists who are regulars at every demonstration
against the wall. Hamas cannot be absolved of responsibility for
those deaths, but neither can Sharon.

And the revenge that will inevitably come will surely draw
reprisals. The Palestinians, who already have their freedom of
movement restricted, their land and water resources confiscated,
their economy destroyed, their houses regularly searched and
trashed, their schools periodically closed down, their men arrested
en masse, their women humiliated, their children terrorized, who
have suffered three times as many deaths as the Israelis in this
intifada, will suffer some more. That means the death of someone
like my friend Hanin in Balata camp, young mother of a baby girl,
or the young boy who thought Yassin was ninety-two, or the old man
I stayed with in Rafah who urged me to ‘Eat, Eat!’ in the same
tones my grandmother used.

And it means the death of any possible new round of
negotiations, any peace process, any road map. Be clear: Sharon
does not want peace. He wants the land, all of it. The
assassination of Yassin was a move on his part to gain the land.
And if you find some part of yourself in sympathy with that aim, be
honest with yourself and recognize that to gain all of this land,
the Palestinian people must be destroyed. The name for the
destruction of a people is genocide, and the assassination of
Yassin was part of that policy. Not the overt genocide of gas
chambers and mass executions, but the slow starvation of everything
that furthers the life of a people, the constant attrition of a
killing here and a killing there, the unrelenting pressure to pick
up and leave a land that is held like a prison.

For three days everything was shut down in Ramallah, stores
closed, cafes shut tight, streets empty. On the third day, the
walls of the town were covered with Yassin’s shahid
poster. When someone dies in the struggle here, in whatever way, a
child shot by soldiers or a fighter gunned down in a clash, the
family or the political organization he or she belonged to makes a
martyr poster. Hamas has made one for Yassin that depicts him in
glowing white, flanked by two black silhouettes of armed men. In
Arabic it says, ‘We accept the challenge.’

On Birth

Because of the assassination of Sheikh Yassin, my friend Neta
couldn’t go to her brother’s wedding in Tel Aviv. Neta is married
to a Palestinian, Nizar, who cannot legally be in Israel proper.
Neta, as an Israeli, cannot legally be in the West Bank, but she
lives here anyway. In calm times there are ways Nizar might come to
a family occasion safely but these days everything is tense, roads
are closed, and it seems too risky. Our trainings for this week are
also postponed as no one can get out of Nablus or Jenin so our
trainees can’t come. Also they are afraid that Hamas will take
revenge for the Sheikh and Israel will avenge the revenge and tanks
will roll back into Ramallah, and they could get stuck here. We’ve
postponed the trainings until next week, although there’s no
guarantee the situation will be better and it may well be worse. In
the meantime, although I can feel Neta’s frustration and
disappointment at not being able to be with her family, it turns
out to be fortunate that she doesn’t go. For in mid-morning, her
water breaks and she begins to get mild contractions. We’ve been
worried that the baby is late: the doctors she’s seen have been
making noises about inducing labor, and she very much wants to have
a natural childbirth, so this is good news.

We spend the day walking. Walking helps bring on the
contractions. We walk around the shuttered town, looking for stores
with their doors open a crack where we can slip in and buy food. We
go out later with Nizar and their one-year-old daughter, Nawal, who
is truly adorable, one of those happy babies who finds life
delightful and funny, laughs a lot, and waves bye-bye on every

On the outskirts of Ramallah are terraced hills still planted
with olives, some of them so ancient they are called ‘Romim’,
Roman. Olives can live for a couple of thousand years, and some of
these have trunks so braided, swollen and thick that they could
indeed have seen Herod pass by, or Jesus climb these hills. I put
my hands on one of them, thinking that these trees have seen
empires come and go, have seen betrayal and brutality and
assassination, and still they endure. Someone long ago carved this
terrace, stacked these stones one on one atop each other, carried
the weight of each stone on his back and placed them with his
hands, and the stones endure. Pink cyclamen and wild iris and tiny,
magenta orchids peek out from among them, returning to bloom in the
spring as they have always done. And though we all feel as if we’re
waiting in the pause, the indrawn breath, that will blow the candle
of the world out, maybe this empire too will pass and the beauty
and the blossom yet endure. Neta’s contractions grow stronger, she
pauses and leans on Nizar: a new life is about to be born and who
could not feel hopeful, in spite of everything?

We return back to Neta’s house. Her friend Ream comes to watch
Nawal, and Nizar goes to fetch the midwife. She is an older woman,
dressed in a long coat and headscarf, and she has a beautiful,
strong face. Ream and I find her a bit intimidating: clearly the
housekeeping and the appointments of this house are not quite up to
her expectations. I’ve put Neta in a warm bath to relax and Um Ali,
the midwife, takes the one chair in the house into the main room
and prays. Neta and I have had a running competition for the chair
all week: between her nine-months pregnant bulk and my bad knees
neither one of us is all that happy on the floor. But we’re very
good, we don’t fight, in fact we keep politely offering it to each
other. ‘You take the chair.’ ‘No, no you take it.’ Neta and Nizar
have actual furniture but it’s in Nablus, where they used to live,
along with boxes of baby clothes. It’s simply not possible to
transport furniture between cities in the West Bank, because of the
checkpoints and the roadblocks.

But now, clearly, the midwife needs the chair. She tells me to
tie my hair back. Something about my hair is deeply disturbing in
this culture where women keep it covered — probably the fact that
there’s so much of it and it’s so fluffy and wild. I somehow don’t
think she likes me much, but after I find a rubber band and pull it
back into a rough French braid, she nods approval.

She sets up a birth bed for Neta on the coffee table, spreads
some plastic, requisitions some old clothes and towels, and Neta
comes out of the bath and into full labor. Nizar and I both support
her, rubbing her back, sitting behind her so she has something to
lean on. Um Ali, from time to time, rubs her belly in clockwise
circles while whispering verses from the Koran. I am murmuring my
own prayers to birth Goddesses but do so quietly as I’m not sure
how much English Um Ali understands and she’s already a bit
scandalized. Nizar goes off to put Nawal to sleep. He’s a wonderful
father, patient, affectionate, nurturing and kind, and it’s a very
beautiful sight to see him holding the baby on his knees, patting
her and singing in a low croon as she drops into sleep. I don’t
know if he’s typical, but in the patriarchal culture, he nurtures
the baby, cooks us food, does dishes, cleans the house, and grows
window boxes full of plants wherever they have room, dreaming of
compost bins and gardens.

Labor always seems endless but hers is not long, as births go.
Um Ali tells her to push, and I hold her from behind, Nizar from in
front, as the hard, painful work begins. Somehow I sense I’ve now
slipped into Um Ali’s favor. We are all working together, calm and
strong, and Neta is a lion, roaring and pushing and moaning and
bearing down, until that great moment of transformation occurs, and
the shape in her stomach becomes a wrinkled prune of a skull that
squeezes through the gates of life and blossoms into a new human
being. A beautiful baby girl, named Shaden, who fills her lungs
with air, cries, looks up alertly and smiles at me. I know newborns
don’t smile, but I swear she does.

Starhawk is an activist, organizer, and author of Webs
of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising and eight other books
on feminism, politics and earth-based spirituality.

She teaches Earth Activist Trainings that combine
permaculture design and activist skills, and works with the RANT
trainer’s collective,
that offers training and support for mobilizations around global
justice and peace issues. These updates will be posted on her
website, www.starhawk.org.
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