In a refugee camp occupied by the Israeli army, private life is an illusion that ends with a knock on the door
In June 2002, writer and activist Starhawk traveled to Palestine to take part in the International Solidarity Movement, or ISM, a nonviolent campaign to protest the Israeli occupation. While she was staying in the Balata refugee camp, she saw firsthand how continuing violence not only killed people in the street but attacked family life at home. And yet decency and hope somehow endured among the people she met. While there is no easy solution to the conflict, a worldwide plea for basic justice in Palestine would at least be a step toward the light, reminding all sides that they share a common capacity for joy and anguish.
I am in Balata refugee camp in the Nablus district of occupied Palestine, where the Israeli Defense Forces have rounded up 4,000 men, leaving the camp mostly to women and children. The men offered no resistance. All the shops are shuttered, all the windows closed. Those who remain in the camp hide in their homes. A deathly quiet is shattered by sporadic bursts of gunfire and explosions.
All day I have been encountering Israeli soldiers who look like my brother or cousins or the sons I never had, so young they are barely more than boys armed with big guns. Along with the other American women in my immediate group, I’m one of many people from around the world who have traveled here to assist the Palestinian-run International Solidarity Movement. As ISM volunteers, we work side by side with Palestinians as nonviolent witnesses to the violent acts that have become everyday occurrences during the Israeli occupation.
It is nearly dark, and Jessica and Melissa and I are hurrying through the streets, looking for a place to spend the night before curfew. Eight of our friends and colleagues have already been arrested this evening. We know that we, too, could be caught at any moment. “Go into any house,” we’ve been told. “Anyone will be glad to take you in.” But we feel a bit nervous.
A young woman with a beautiful smile beckons to us from a staircase. Her name is Samar. She invites us into the three small rooms that house her family: her mother, big bodied and sad; her older brother’s wife and children (Samar’s small nieces and nephews); and her other brother’s wife, Hanin, round-faced and pale and six months pregnant.
We sit down on overstuffed couches. The women serve us tea. I look around at the pine paneling that adds warmth to the concrete walls, at the porcelain birds and artificial flowers on a ledge. The ceilings are carefully painted in simple geometric designs. They have poured love and care into their home, and it feels like a sanctuary.
Outside we can hear sporadic shooting, the deep boom of houses being blown up by the soldiers. But here in these rooms we are safe, in the tentative sense that the word can be used in this place. “Inshallah”—God willing—follows every statement of good fortune or commitment to a plan here.
“Yahoud!” the women say when we hear explosions. It is the Arabic word for Jew, the word used for the soldiers of the invading army. It is a word of warning and alarm: Don’t go down that alley, out into that street.
But no one invades our sanctuary this night. We talk and laugh with the women. I have a pack of Tarot cards that we consult to see what the next day will bring. Both Samar and Hanin want readings. I don’t much like what I see in their cards: death, betrayal, sleepless nights of sorrow and regret. But I can’t explain that in Arabic anyway, so I focus on what I see that is good.
“Baby?” Hanin asks.
The card of the Sun comes up, with a small boy-child riding on a white horse. “Yes, I think it is a boy,” I say. She shows me the picture of her first baby, who died at a year and a half.
Around us young men are prowling with guns, houses are exploding, lives are being shattered. But we are in an intimate world of women. Hanin brushes my wild hair and ties it back. We try to talk about our lives. At least we can write down our ages on paper. I am 50. Hanin is 23, Jessica and Melissa are 22; all of them are older than most of the soldiers. Samar, who first greeted us, is 17. Her older brother’s children are 8 and 10, and the baby is 4. I show them pictures of my family, my garden, my step-grandaughter. I think they understand that my husband has four daughters but I have none of my own, and that I am his third wife. The women of this camp are educated, sophisticated -- many we have met are professionals, teachers, nurses, or students when it is possible to go to school.
“Are you Christian?” Hanin finally asks. Melissa, Jessica, and I look at each other. All of us are Jewish, and we’re not sure what the reaction will be if we admit it. Jessica speaks for us. “Jewish,” she says. The women don’t understand the word. We try several variations, but finally we’re forced to use the blunt and dreaded “Yahoud.”
“Yahoud!” Hanin says. She gives a little surprised laugh, looks at the other women. “Beautiful!”
And that is all. Her welcome to us is undiminished. She shows me to the shower, dresses me in her own flowered nightgown and robe, and gives me the empty side of the double bed she usually shares with her husband, who has been arrested by the Yahoud. Mats are brought out for the others. Two of the children sleep with us. Ahmed, the little 4-year-old boy, snuggles next to me. He sleeps fiercely, kicking and thrashing in his dreams, and each time an explosion comes he hurls himself into my arms.
I can’t sleep. How have I arrived here, I wonder, at an age when I should be at home making plum jam and doll clothes for grandchildren, to be comforting a Palestinian boy in a night disrupted by gunfire? I lie there in awe at the trust that has been given me, one of the people of the enemy, put to bed with the children. At that moment, there do indeed seem to be powers greater than the guns I hear all around me: the great surging compassionate power that overcomes prejudice and hate.
The next night, we return to our family just as dark is falling, along with Linda and Neta, who is one of the founders of the ISM. We have narrowly escaped a troop of soldiers, but no sooner do we arrive than soldiers come to the door. We are actually grateful that at least they have come to the door. All day they have been breaking through people’s walls, knocking out the concrete with sledgehammers, bursting into rooms of terrified people. They search the houses, or, worse, turn them into surreal, spray-painted passageways through which soldiers traverse the camp all night rather than travel through the streets.
As witnesses, we step forward to meet the troop. One owlish-looking young soldier with glasses knows Jessica and Melissa. They had a long conversation with him beside his tank. He looks uncomfortable with his role. Ahmed, the little boy, is terrified of the soldiers, but he can’t bear to be out of their sight. He runs toward them crying.
“Take off your helmet,” Jessica tells the soldiers. “Shake hands with him, show him you’re a human being.”
The owlish soldier takes off his helmet, holds out his hand. Ahmed’s sobs subside. When the soldiers file upstairs to search, Samar and Ahmed follow them. Samar holds the little boy up to the owlish soldier’s face, tells him to give the soldier a kiss. She doesn’t want Ahmed to be afraid, to hate. The little boy kisses the soldier, and the soldier kisses him back, and hands him a small Palestinian flag.
This is the place to end the story, on a high note of hope and human warmth, suggesting a child’s kiss can, for a moment, overcome oppression and hate. But my story from a relentless occupation doesn’t end here.
The soldiers order us all into one room and then close the door. We can hear banging and loud thuds against the walls as they search the house. I am trying to think of something to sing to distract us, to keep the spirits of the children up, but my voice won’t work. Neta teaches us a silly children’s song in Arabic: “The train comes, the train goes,” she sings, “the train is full of sugar and tea.” The delighted children begin to sing. Hanin and I drum on the tables as the soldiers are throwing things around in the other room. Little Ahmed begins to dance. When we put him up on the table he smiles and swings his hips and makes us all laugh.
When the soldiers finally leave, we emerge to examine the damage. Everything has been pulled off the walls and thrown out of the closets into huge piles. The paneling is full of holes. The floor is covered with broken glass, and bags of grain have been emptied in the sink.
We begin to clean up.
We are a houseful of women and know how to restore order. Melissa sweeps while Jessica keeps the children out of the glass. I help Hanin clear a path in the bedroom, folding the clothes of her absent husband, hanging up her own things, finding the secret sexy underwear the soldiers have obviously examined. When the house is back together, Hanin and Samar start to cook. The grandmother is having a high blood pressure attack, and we lay her down on the couch. I sit down, utterly exhausted, as Hanin and the women serve a meal. A few porcelain birds and artificial flowers are back in their places. Somehow once again the house feels like a sanctuary.
“You are amazing,” I tell Hanin. “I am completely exhausted; you’re six months pregnant, it’s your house that has just been trashed, and you’re able to stand there cooking for all of us.”
Hanin shrugs. “For us, this is normal,” she says.
I would like to end this story here as well, celebrating the resilience of these women, full of faith in their power to renew their lives again and again. But the story continues.
On the third night, Melissa and Jessica return to stay with Hanin, Samar, and the rest of the family. I stay with a different family that has asked for support-the soldiers have already searched their house three times and vow to keep searching it night after night. We are sleeping in our clothes, boots ready. I get a call. The soldiers have come back to Hanin’s.
Again, they lock everyone in a room and search. This time, the soldier who kissed the baby is not with them. They have an intelligence report that tells them there is something to find in the house. They rip the paneling off the walls. They knock holes in the tiles and the concrete beneath. They smash and destroy, and when they are done, they piss on the mess they have left.
Nothing is found, but something is lost. The house is wrecked, and the sanctuary has been destroyed. No one kisses these soldiers; no one sings.
When Hanin sees the destruction, she goes into shock. She is resilient and strong, but this assault has gone beyond “normal” and she breaks. She is hyperventilating; her pulse is racing. There’s a fear that she could lose the baby or even die.
Jessica, who is trained as a street medic, informs the soldiers that Hanin needs immediate medical care. “We’ll be done soon,” they say, reluctant to help. But one is a paramedic, and Melissa and Jessica get him to see the seriousness of the situation. The soldiers allow the two of them to violate curfew, and they run through the dark streets to a clinic. They return with two nurses who somehow call an ambulance that takes Hanin to the hospital.
This story could be worse. Hanin and the baby survive. That is, after all, why we’ve come to the Balata camp: to make things not quite as bad as they would be otherwise.
After Hanin returns from the hospital, I go back to say good-bye. She looks depressed, as if something has broken in her that can’t be repaired. Her resilience seems gone; her eyes have lost their light. Writing down her name and phone number for me, she adds, “Hanin love you.” I don’t know how the story will end for her. I still see in the cards: destruction, sleepless nights of anguish, death.
Later, I remember asking Neta about the song she taught us in Hanin’s house, the one the children loved, about the train full of sugar and tea.
“Didn’t you hear?” she asks. The soldiers came back at one in the morning and made the old woman sing the song, she says. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to sing it again.”
This is not a story of some grand atrocity. It is a story about “normal,” about what it’s like to live under an everyday, relentless assault on any sense of safety or sanctuary.
A friend wrote to me after my return from Palestine, asking, “What source can you believe in order to create peace there?” I have no answer. I have only this story. And every story goes on too long; every song is tainted. A boy whose dreams are disturbed by gunfire kisses a soldier. A soldier kisses a boy and then destroys his home. Or maybe he simply stands by in silence as others do the destruction-that same silence many of us have kept for too long. And if there are forces that can nurture peace here, they must first create an uproar, a vast breaking of silence, a refusal to stand by as the boot stomps down.
When I return to Balata earlier this year, people in the camp’s crowded streets greet me by name, surprised and pleased to see me. I’m there when Rachel Corrie, an ISM volunteer, is killed in Rafah, crushed by a soldier on a bulldozer. I visit Hanin and Samar on the day the war in Iraq begins. Hanin has a beautiful baby, a solemn-eyed girl, Donya. “You said boy,” she reminds me with a laugh, but she wants another reading. The house, its walls still bare cement, looks a bit forlorn, as if it has been trashed once too often. But Hanin feeds me lunch, and when Samar comes in she greets me with a smile. We hear gunfire. The women are not alarmed. It’s just the salute for a funeral of another man killed by the soldiers, they tell me. The soldiers might invade again tomorrow, but life goes on. Hanin holds up her baby and kisses her. It is one small victory, one life claimed from the death around us.
In the month and a half I’m in Palestine, Israeli soldiers wound two other ISM volunteers. Brian Avery is shot in Jenin, and Tom Hurndall is shot in Rafah, trying to save children who were being shot at while they were playing on the border. The ISM continues to mount an ongoing campaign against the “security wall” that is being built by the Sharon government deep in Palestinian territory, destroying villages, confiscating land and vital aquifers.
Reprinted with the author’s permission. A version of this essay appeared in The Sun (August 2003). Subscriptions: $34/yr. (12 issues) from Box 469061, Escondido, CA 92046. Other versions appeared in Yes!, Whole Life Times, and Off Our Backs.