WHY I HAVE TO RETURN
George Small, a UK-based freelance writer, spent a week in 2006 with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitionsa Summer Work Camp. He reflects on its impact on him.
Years ago, in the divided and occupied city of Berlin, in a Germany itself split into two halves by a Wall 1,393 kilometres long, I met a Palestinian refugee. He told me of conditions in his country, which was also divided and occupied. This was in 1986, before the first intifada. West Berlin, he said, was only his temporary home. His real home was in Nablus.
He told me of what life was like for Palestinians trying to exist under Israeli occupation. Their stories of suffering beggared belief. They seemed so outlandish because surely, I thought at the time, the world would not let the occupier get away with such things.
He said that _homea for those Palestinian refugee families in the mid 1980as, strewn across the world yet so emotionally close to each other, was Tunis, Algiers, Cyprus, European capitals or Middle East refugee camps. His accounts of the struggles of daily living in Occupied Palestine sounding like life on Mars. In the 1980as there was no internet, no instant e-mail or blogs to check his accounts. There was only his word.
His stories of life under Israeli occupation were so alien and unbelievable because I had no standard emotional reference points in my comfortable Western experience. If these people were short of water why didnat they just use a tap like the rest of us? I could not grasp what this man was talking about. So I decided he was a propagandist, making things up just to denigrate Israel. And when I moved jobs, this glimpse into a world so far away it canat have been true, drifted further into my past.
But there was too much on the News to allow indifference to grow_ the first Intifada, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin _ Sabra and Shatilla before that _ all these events kept pulling me back to asking why there were so many Palestinian émigrés scattered across Europe and unable to live in their own country. Like a muscle ache you canat quite pinpoint _ it nagged and pulsed yet couldnat be rubbed away.
Yet 20 more years would pass before I saw at first hand how truthful that Palestinian refugee in West Berlin had been, and how wrong I was to doubt him.
In 2006 I observed a woman peace activist at some stall in a northern UK town _ pushing leaflets to passers-by who would rather just pass by, thank you. _Come along to a meeting,_ she said. There was to be a speaker from Palestine. So I did, embarrassed and reluctant. The photos I saw on the display boards at this meeting couldnat surely be true _ surely they were propaganda of the Left _ Agitprop à laArabe.
But when the Palestinian speaker started to recount his story of living under Israeli occupation, his account shot through me like a lighting bolt, bringing all the telephone stories of Palestinian grief back from my past as though it were no further away than that morning.
The more literature I read, and the more I discovered on the internet, the more incredulous I became. How could so much wrong be done to so many by so few, with as many again so indifferent?
There really was only one way to go – either purge my past or listen to it, and I could only do that with any emotional authenticity by going to this land with a Wall splitting it in two and seeing it first hand. It was ironic that this journey began in a land similarly split in two, (Germany) along with its pre-War capital, Berlin, with the PLO Embassy on one side of the Berlin Wall and the Palestinian émigré population on the other .
So, at that meeting I signed up to go to the West Bank to join the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and help rebuild a Palestinian family home destroyed by Israeli bulldozers. This was the first turning point on a journey I now realised I had begun 20 years before.
That week with ICAHD last summer changed me. I saw the squalor enforced upon Palestinian communities, the official abuse they were subjected to, the checkpoints, the harassment, the humiliation and subjugation heaped upon them hour by hour. I felt burning shame at having ever doubted that Palestinian refugee in West Berlin 20 years before. I saw now why they couldnat get water from kitchen taps like you and I.
All of this reached through and awakened a sense of outrage and anger in the same way it would if you saw a loved one mugged on a street and like a slow-motion nightmare you just couldnat quite move fast enough to stop the brutality _ that same sense of powerlessness.
I was no artisan or craftsman but that did not matter. I could lift and drag and did so with a will, alongside some 25 other internationals who were, like me, learning fast how to become building site labourers united and bonded by a common moral purpose. To help put right, in a small way, the injustices heaped upon innocent families, whose _crimea was to have built a home without a building permit.
Our ICAHD hosts explained that many Palestinians had to build without permission because the Israelis practically never gave such permission to Palestinians. ICAHD shepherded and briefed us, opened our eyes to the _factsa on the ground, whilst our Palestinian hosts were kindness itself.
The work never fatigued us _ a few aches after the first daysa labour, but none of us ever felt tired. But we learned quickly to hide our anger and, when moving through the checkpoints, we role-played the polite and timidly co-operative tourist at the checkpoints.
This pretence was a small price to pay to have the honour and cathartic triumph of building _ physically rebuilding _ a home smashed by the oppressors. By so doing we, alongside many other Israeli peace groups, actively resisting this cruel Israeli occupation and rejecting its tyranny _ and right in the oppressoras own stolen back yard.
The other team members were of all ages, generations and nationalities, all of us bravely united in a common cause of righting a monstrous wrong. The daily lunchtime and evening talks arranged by ICAHD for the work camp (participants from both Arab and Israeli, Jewish and Muslim peace groups), bolstered and encouraged us all with their implacable commitment to fighting this hideous and totally illegal occupation of Palestine.
We won, with every brick we laid every day. We won with every bucket of cement binding the bricks. And we win by carrying the message back to our own countries on our return. And above all this, the Israeli occupiers unknowingly ignited within each of us a torch of such burning ferocity of indignation and refusal to accept, that no _Securitya measure could ever put out.
The house _ the home – was built and handed over to a grateful Palestinian family, after two weeksa of building. That was an emotional and tangible victory beyond measure. This is what ICAHD accomplishes.
I returned to the UK confident of the route before me _ to advocate, to inform, to educate, to add to the clarion call to shame our respective national governments to face up to their indifference to the suffering of the Palestinian people. And to return to join ICAHDas peace and rebuilding camp once again.
I am going back to the 2007 work camp, God Willing, to help, in just a very small way, the dispossessed, the humiliated and the downtrodden Palestinian people and build for victory again this year. And as our numbers grow as more attend the ICAHD work camp experience, so our voices grow louder so that one day the chorus of change will reach critical mass that will force our governments to call Israel to account.
I believe this can happen. Just as the Inner German Border and the Berlin Wall were wiped away, so one day will the current Wall. Regimes that divide by Walls never last long, and by joining ICAHD we can perhaps add to the process that will rid the region of this unjust occupation and all its trappings, so that Israel and Palestine can have a fair and lasting peace for all concerned. I just hope that Palestinian refugee I encountered in West Berlin 20 years ago will live to see that day.
Until we reach that point, as Winston Churchill so eloquently said:
_We shall never, never, NEVER give in!_