Monday, February 26, 2007

Three Wishes: Palestinians and Israeli Children Speak

This is part of a report sent by Jehan Helou of the Tamar Institute, Ramallah:

Fouad Moughrabi in The Electronic Intifada Feb 07 writes:

I write this on the day that my family and I attended the bar mitzvah of my son's classmate and friend Aaron Steinberg. I was deeply touched when Aaron spoke so eloquently about the need for Israeli-Palestinian peace and proudly announced that he will donate half of the money he will receive as a gift to the Seeds of Peace Program which brings young Palestinian and Israeli youth together in order to promote coexistence.

Obviously, my son and his seventh grade classmates are beginning to think about these complex issues and some of them do so with some emotion, for one reason or another. The question is: do we have them read books that reinforce prevailing stereotypes and nasty media frames or do we try to show them another way. There is far too much stereotyping and dehumanizing that goes on in the public discourse about the Middle East in the media and popular culture. Our task is not to reinforce it but to challenge it.

I decided to read Broken Bridge by Lynne Reid Banks carefully and to write my own reactions to it. I concluded that, although it is well written, it is, nonetheless, not a good way to introduce the issues to a seventh grade class. I outlined the main reasons for this and then began to look for better alternatives. I found an excellent book by the Canadian author Deborah Ellis entitled Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak and another by Elizabeth Laird entitled A Little Piece of Ground that chronicles the life of a Palestinian teenager during the most recent Palestinian Intifada and the Israeli assault on Palestinian towns. What follows is a review essay of all three books.

Broken Bridge relates the aftermath of the stabbing in Jerusalem of a Jewish teenager who was visiting from Canada, by two Palestinians. His cousin, who was walking with him, was inexplicably spared and had to contend with conflicting emotions, at one point refusing to identify one of the assailants in a police lineup. The author takes pain to describe the debate among Israelis about the occupation of Palestinian territories and about attitudes towards the Palestinians.The core of the book as well as its starting point is a rather shocking act of violence perpetrated against a teenager that most Western readers will immediately identify with.

While the Israeli Jewish characters are well developed to the point where we can even empathize with them, the Arab characters are nebulous, distant and threatening. The Arab first appears in Broken Bridge on p. 21 as a taxi driver. The Jewish teenager is warned: "'If it's an Arab driver, don't get in!'/ 'Why?'/ 'Dangerous.'/ 'More than thorn?'" Soon thereafter the Arab appears as a murderer. On p. 26, news comes on the radio that a child has been stabbed in the street in a place called Gilo.The feeling of a pervasive danger that the Arab represents, followed immediately by the stabbing of a Jewish teenager, sets the tone for the entire story. Furthermore, the event happens in Gilo, referred to in the story as "our district," a suburb of Jerusalem. Just how many American school teachers would know that Gilo is, in fact, a Jewish settlement, illegal according to international law, because it is built on confiscated Palestinian land in full view of the Arab village whose inhabitants still carry the deeds to their stolen land.

Mustapha, one of the main Arab characters in the story talks his nephew into becoming a "fighter." They both finally embark on an operation during which Feisal, the nephew, kills the Jewish teenager who was visiting from Canada. Mustapha, however, mysteriously ends up sparing the life of the boy's cousin, a girl who was walking with him. The other Arab characters include Ali who tries to save his job at a Jewish restaurant in Jerusalem by reporting to the Israelis about his neighbors in the nearby village and Mustapha's brother-in-law who becomes a collaborator and finally betrays him to the authorities.

The author engages in a bit of hyperbole describing the training that Mustapha had received in order to become a terrorist: "When Mustapha had been sent abroad for training, he was made, among other things, to bite the heads off live chickens to toughen him up. Not that he'd needed it -- not after what he's been through. Each time he had told himself that the chicken was the Jew who had interrogated him ... But Feisal was not so strong and tough as Mustapha thought he needed to be" (p. 128). I have never heard of any such bizarre rituals among Palestinians and I seriously doubt that such things ever occurred. However, attributing such monstrous behavior to Palestinians is quite common in Israel. Sadly, it reminds us of the bizarre rituals attributed to Jews by anti-Semites.

In a rather odd twist, the author informs us that Mustapha is said to be originally from a small village in Jordan, just across the border, and therefore not a native but an import or an intruder. We are told that his father had brought him to the West Bank after the June 1967 war, leaving his mother and sisters behind, in order to help fight the Jews. This gives credence to an Israeli-generated myth that the native Palestinians are not unhappy with their lot and prefer to live under Israeli control if it weren't for the troublemakers who sneak in from the neighboring Arab countries and who are determined to drive the Jews into the sea.

In contrast the Jewish characters in the story are playful, cultured and normal human beings, while the Arabs appear as non-descript, without a history and a normal existence. The author, who is impressed with Arabic food, very much like most Israelis who also like it to the point where they even appropriated it as their own (we now have Israeli hummus and falafel, for example), nonetheless feels compelled to criticize the excess that Arabs go through in preparing it. She does describe the anxiety that Feisal undergoes before he commits his violent act. Yet, to a large extent, there is nothing in any of the Arab characters that would make one empathize with them in any way. They remain dark and shadowy figures, always lurking in alleyways, waiting to pounce on some unsuspecting Jew.

The author tries to appear balanced in her narrative. But this balance is rather odd because it is not a balance between the Israeli and the Palestinian narratives. There is very little here about the Palestinian narrative. We are offered scattered tidbits here and there about how bad the occupation is. We are told that fanatical religious Jewish settlers terrorize Arab villagers (she fails to mention that they do so even as the Israeli army often simply looks on). She provides a passing reference to the 300-plus Palestinian villages razed to the ground by the Israelis in 1948 in order to make sure the Arab refugees will never be able to return.

The reader will therefore know very little about the Palestinians, who they are and why they sometimes behave the way they do.What appears as "balance" in the book emerges because the author captures rather well the debate within Israel itself between those who hold the Palestinian Arabs with racist contempt and those who argue that the Israeli occupation of Arab lands and the harsh treatment of Palestinians by their Israeli occupiers may account for Palestinian acts of violence against the Jews.It is precisely the appearance of balance that makes uninitiated American readers think this is a book that tries to promote peace. This works mainly because most American readers lack the necessary historical knowledge that would provide the needed context for the stories. And herein lies the key problem with choosing a book like this as an introduction to this conflict. Without some knowledge of the context, of the history and of the nuances of the place, one ends up simply adding insult to injury and reinforcing pre-existing stereotypes that dehumanize people.

In the end, the media frame of the Arab as "terrorist" is given a substantial boost and is reinforced in the minds of Americans children.In essence, the book frames the issues almost solely in terms of conflict and violence -- in this case, Palestinian violence against Jews therefore making the Arabs the perpetrators and the Jews the victims. It provides nothing about the richness of the Palestinian narrative and its complexity.

After reading the book, one understands why Israelis engage in acts of violence against Arabs and may even empathize with them but one does not understand the circumstances that drive some Palestinians to engage in violence. More importantly, one does not see any glimmer of hope that this cycle of violence will ever come to an end, as if it really were an immemorial kind of conflict.The story is fundamentally the chronicle of a moral debate. But, because only Israeli Jews are presented as human beings, the debate occurs basically among them. In principle, this is fine except that it is really an artificial kind of debate. What the author does not tell us is that those who hold Arabs with racist contempt are in fact the majority among Israeli Jews, as confirmed over and over again by Israeli public opinion surveys. By contrast, those who argue for a humane approach to dealing with the Palestinian Arabs are in reality a very tiny minority whose voice is marginalized in Israeli society.

In the end, the impression that there is a vigorous and healthy moral debate in Israel is simply either a fraud or just an example of wishful thinking among well-meaning writers and intellectuals that serves to present Israel as a normal, civilized, and democratic society where such debates are said to occur.

Deborah Ellis begins her scrupulously balanced book by expressing a genuine concern for the plight of civilians, especially children caught in situations of war. She states what UNICEF and others have already amply documented, namely, that "in World War I, 15 percent of all casualties were civilians. In World War II, 50 percent of all casualties were civilians. In 2004, 90 percent of casualties in war are civilians." Ellis is concerned with the casualties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She points out that "between September 29, 2000, when the second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, began, and March 7, 2003, 3,399 people were killed. Of these, 429 were children under the age of eighteen." She then lists their names.

Ellis provides a framework and a context that enables the reader to situate the interviews with the children. She briefly explains the history of the conflict and provides the arguments as seen by Israelis and by Palestinians. Both narratives are therefore provided. The reader will also understand what a Jewish settlement is, how some roads are for Jews only and how Palestinians are controlled by a system of roadblocks and checkpoints.One hears the voices of Palestinian and Israeli children and one is able to enter into a world that is bound by fear, anxiety and sometimes despair. Yet one also sees glimmers of hope and possibilities of a better life.

What we learn by reading these accounts is at times shocking to the point where I think every Arab and Israeli politician should be required to read the book, if only to finally realize what kind of world they are creating for their children.

We learn for instance that there is absolutely no contact between Palestinian and Israeli children. One fifteen-year-old Israeli youngster, a recent immigrant from Russia, says, "I know a little bit about the Palestinians from the news. It seems they all hate us, but I don't know why. I have not met any yet. It is impossible for us to meet. We are separate people" (p. 23). An eleven-year-old Palestinian says, "I don't know any Israeli children. I don't want to know any. They hate me and I hate them" (p. 50). Merav, a thirteen-year-old Israeli who lives in a settlement (which means a place built for Jews only on confiscated Arab land in the heart of the occupied West Bank) has this to say: "I don't know any Palestinian children. They are all around the outside of my settlement, but I don't know any of them. I have no reason to meet them. They are dangerous and will shoot me if they get the chance. The Israeli army keeps them away from us" (p. 67-68).Usually, the only Israelis that Palestinian children see are the soldiers. Here is a twelve-year-old Palestinian child speaking: "There are a lot of soldiers where I live. They watch us all the time. We can't do anything without being watched by them. They carry guns, and they give me nightmares. We would like them to go away, but they don't care about what we want" (p. 25).

It is interesting to note how heavily socialized Israeli children are: nearly all mention school field trips to the Yad Vashem holocaust museum, boy scout activities, one child mentions a visit to Poland "to see for ourselves what happened to the Jews during the war," (p. 29) and army service. It is also quite interesting to see how propaganda themes and anti-Arab images filter down to children.

Here is an example from an eighteen-year-old in a Jewish settlement north of Jerusalem: "We, the Israelis have been trying, but how much can we give? After all, this is our land. I wish all the Jews in the world would come to Israel, and that all the Palestinians would leave and go live in some other Arab country" (p. 76).

By contrast, Palestinian children do not seem to undergo such a thick process of socialization. They appear to be influenced more by the texts of everyday life, what they see around them. Here is an eighteen-year-old who lives in a refugee camp near Ramallah: "A lot of people die in this camp. The Israelis shoot missiles at us. Not long ago, a missile hit a car and killed a woman and her three children. Two other women were killed by a land mine. Lots of people die here" (p. 79). The boy has been in a wheelchair for the past few years, not because of any injury, but because "he was frightened by the soldiers a few years ago, he became unable to move his legs and one of his arms. He hasn't walked since" (p. 79).

To her credit, Deborah Ellis points out that many Palestinian children have suffered what we call post traumatic stress syndrome, a widespread phenomenon that has received little acknowledgment or attention. Those who live in refugee camps have suffered the most because that is where the Israeli army focuses its most intense assaults. The symptoms include listlessness, inability to concentrate, bedwetting, aggressive behavior, insomnia and nightmares.

Israeli children who have come into contact with Palestinian children tend to see things somewhat differently. Here is a fifteen-year-old who lives in Jerusalem: "I used to take an art class with Palestinian children. I was eleven years old. It was no big deal. They were just kids doing art, same as me. We didn't fight because they were Palestinian and I am an Israeli. We were just kids doing art" (p. 96). This young man notes, "I don't think we'll ever get out of this situation unless we give the Palestinians their own state. It's the only way to make peace. Everyone will have to give up a little of what they want in order to get some of what they want. We're both here. Neither of us is going to go away" (p. 98).Some of their wishes are touching indeed. Nearly all wish for the fighting to end. A fourteen-year-old Palestinian girl says, "I wish the fighting would end, so that we can just make music and have fun and not hate each other. Maybe we could even make music with the Israelis one day" (p. 62). One sixteen-year-old Israeli says: "My three wishes? I have just one. I want the war to end, so I can keep living in Israel and raise my children here" (p. 33).

Elizabeth Laird's book, A Little Piece of Ground, written with the help of Palestinian writer Sonia Nimr, deals with issues that I am familiar with, having lived in Ramallah during the period (2000-2003) that she chronicles. The book was initially published in 2003 by Macmillan Children's books in England and reproduced in 2006 by Haymarket Books in the U.S. For a while, one could not purchase the book through USA because of a nasty campaign launched by pro-Israeli groups. I notice, however, that one can now buy a copy through USA. Recently, the book has been selected as a United States Board on Books for Young People-Children's Book Council (USBBY-CBC) Outstanding International Book for 2007, an honor well deserved by the author as well as Haymarket Books.

The book tells the story of the Aboudi family who live in Ramallah, their twelve year old son Karim and two of his friends, one of whom, Hopper, comes from a refugee camp near Ramallah and the other, Jodi, from a relatively well to do family. Karim daydreams about becoming a soccer star but has to contend with Israeli imposed curfews and checkpoints that restrict his freedom of movement.

He sounds almost exactly like one of the teenagers in Deborah Ellis's book who speaks about the threatening Israeli soldiers whose rules of engagement consider a twelve-year-old kid throwing rocks at them a legitimate target for killing. His father is humiliated in front of him by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint while the family is traveling by car to spend a couple of days in their own ancestral village near Ramallah. The family and the relatives are abused and threatened by nearby Jewish settlers who live on confiscated Arab land as they try to harvest their olives, much as their ancestors have done for many generations.

For these Jewish settlers, many of whom originate from the U.S., the land belongs to the Jewish people and the Palestinians who are said to contaminate it must therefore go.Karim and his friend Hopper decide to reclaim a bulldozed lot and turn it into a football field. They also establish a secret den as an after school hideout. This effort to reclaim a little piece of ground eventually brings them face to face with Israeli tanks and a near fatal adventure that takes the reader directly to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. Karim is shot in the leg as he runs away from the Israeli soldiers but he survives.

At the end of the story, the author narrates, "He'd go back soon, when his leg was better, and he'd start again, he and Hopper, and they'd bring in the other boys, and make the place theirs again, and play soccer, and play, and play" (p. 216).Elizabeth Laird captures the nuances of the place so well that one forgets that the author is actually a foreigner writing about a Palestinian story. The interaction within the Aboudi family reveals a society where the family plays a crucial role in people's lives, offering unconditional and loving support to all members. This may well be one of the main sources of strength that has allowed Palestinian society to persist in the face of Israel's fiercest attacks against it. At one point, Hassan Aboudi, the father, who had suffered humiliation at the hands of the soldiers, sits silently at the family meal and then says, "Endurance. That's what takes courage. Decency among ourselves. That's where we must be strong. When they steal from us and try to humiliate us, the real shame is on themselves" (p. 65).

The book captures the effects of the Israeli invasion on schools and education. Several schools were vandalized by the Israeli soldiers and the Palestinian Ministry of Education was ransacked and its computers were smashed causing major loss in files and data sets. In the story, children are unable to concentrate; they were "edgy and restless"; they hear a big explosion outside their school and the frustrated teacher resorts to physical punishment to try to control them.

Laird also captures rather well the feelings of anxiety and loss as Karim's best friend Jodi tells him that he and his parents have decided to leave the country. In those years hundreds of middle income families and professionals decided to leave because of their worries about their children's welfare and safety. A closely knit society was being torn asunder as it had been twice before, in June 1967 and in April-May 1948.

A Little Piece of Ground is a metaphor for Palestinians who are simply asking the world to recognize their right to a tiny place where they can live freely and breathe some fresh air. It is also a story of their endurance and their refusal to bow down to superior and rapacious power. Haymarket Books dedicates the book to the memory of Rachel Corrie, the young American peace activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer.

To her credit, Lynne Reid Banks offers a brief blurb on this book and says the following: "This story of how it feels to be under the heel of an occupier and how it affects day-to-day life is an oddly homely one. We get to care about this boy and his family and, yes, to loathe their oppressors -- and I say that as one who lived in Israel for years and has written the story of terrorism in that area for children from the Jewish side ... I know it is a good book and needs to be read by others like me."

These brave authors of children's books have had to deal with the thorny issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although some of these books elicited near-hysterical outrage from hard-core pro-Israeli groups, it is, nonetheless, interesting to note that hundreds of thousands of copies of these various books have sold and continue to sell throughout the world and a number of these authors have gone on to win some important literary prizes. This means that the traditional hold that pro-Israeli groups have had, always exaggerated in my opinion, that resulted in the reluctance of known publishing houses to venture into this area has finally begun to recede.

We now have a number of well-written books that offer a rich and highly textured portrait of children's lives in times of conflict. More importantly, we now have, for the first time, portraits of Palestinian children as normal human beings engaged in the daily struggle for survival, children with hopes and fears, hates and loves, just like the rest of the world's children.

This is quite remarkable because the Palestinian, as a human being, still does not exist. His or her identity continues to be submerged under various labels -- he is a terrorist, or a religious fanatic, a hater of Jews, a moderate or an extremist. Palestinian casualties are usually just numbers, while Israeli casualties are humans with a life story. We are told their age, where they come from, who their friends are, who their parents are, what their hopes were and so on. It is therefore significant that, for the first time, we can see Palestinian children as normal human beings.

The generalized political discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often obscures the tragic toll the conflict takes on innocent civilians. These books highlight this human dimension and they do it well. In the process, they reveal to us the incredibly huge and tragic cost of this ongoing conflict and the urgent need for its resolution.

Fouad Moughrabi is Professor and Head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is also Director of the Qattan Center for Educational Research and Development, Ramallah, Palestine.

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