Yesterday, I was riding back to Ramallah from Jerusalem, when the van I was in stopped at the Al-Ram checkpoint - still a couple of miles from the next checkpoint at Qalandiya which serves as the 'gateway' to Ramallah. All the traffic was stopped. The Israeli policemen that maintain the checkpoint had shot dead a 11-year old boy who was laying face down on the street, blood flowing onto the pavement. They claimed he was carrying a bomb in his backpack. So no one was allowed to get near, not an ambulance, not the boy's mother. Of course, he was not carrying any such thing - he was on his way home from school, another innocent victim of Israel's racist policies that maintain that all Palestinians are terrorists.
After an hour, I walked around the entire area, and then entered another van to go the rest of they way to Qalandiya. Everyone was talking about what had happened. But they were troubled to find the right word to put on it - criminal, terrible, horrible, an atrocity. It struck me then, that these words are insufficient to describe what had just happened and what was happening throughout the Palestinian territories. And then I thought it is not just these types of words were insufficient, other words had no meaning anymore, such as 'terrorist' or 'response' or 'incitement' or 'cease-fire.' It seems that our very vocabulary is a victim of Israel's aggression against the Palestinian people.
In sitting down to compose this essay, I quickly scanned my email for any new messages. There was one from my friend Lina from Tulkarem, whose uncle was killed in the recent Israeli invasion of her city. He bled to death in the street after soldiers shot him and refused to allow medical personnel to attend to the injured in the streets. Naturally, Lina is having a hard time dealing with this tragedy (another word that has been robbed of its meaning). So I opened the letter and read the forwarded message from Lina's aunt. It read,
I would like to share the story told to me by Em' Naif, your Grandmother, Ziad's mother, when she lost her first son Mamoun, 15yrs of age, in the Intifada-the "Resistance", on Easter Sunday, many years ago...Mamoun snuck out of the house to hang the Palestinian flag from a telephone pole in the middle of the night, he was shot dead. Mamoun, at 15 became the first "martyr" of Tulkarim... His body was found the following morning. The men of the family in the "Jarrad quarter"- carried the body home. Em Naif prepared Mamoun to be buried and when the men were carrying his body to the grave they were all arrested and taken to the school and kept prisoners...The soldiers imposed curfew on the "Jarrad quarter"... After a few weeks, when the curfew was lifted, Em Naif left her home to go downtown Tulkarim to check on her older sister- a widow who had been ill...At the time, the streets of the city were blocked off by barrels full of cement...soldiers standing guard on rooftops...As she walked the streets to her sister's home, a soldier jumping from rooftop to rooftop- Fell...He lay in a broken pile at her feet- he softly whispered "mama, mama..." Em Naif took my hands in hers and told me "there is NO difference between this boy and my son Mamoun.
After reading this story, told to Lina to encourage her not to give in to hatred and anger, I realized that there is still one word that has maintained its meaning - mainly because it is not used too often here. That word is 'human.' While the events of this story transpired during the 1987-1993 Intifada, I know that events like this still take place today - like the number of settlers (yes, even settlers) attended to by Palestinian medics from the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, even as they are being shot at by the Israeli army. Or the offer some months ago when a banquet hall building collapsed and the Palestinian Authority offered its ambulances to assist with the rescue operation (refused by Israel).
Occupation is based on dehumanization. That is how soldiers are able to do what they do - they are taught and encouraged not to see the Palestinians as humans. I do not believe that Israeli soldiers are inherently evil, but I do believe that when they are serving in the Occupied Territories, or flying their planes and helicopters and bombing cities, they leave their own humanity behind, and therefore are unwilling and unable to see the humanity in the people they are oppressing. For if they did, it would all come crumbling down - like the solider two weeks ago who left his post, refusing to continue carrying out dehumanizing orders.
When Israel finally understands that the occupation is the root cause of the conflict here, and acts accordingly to remove it and allow the Palestinians to live in freedom, the words we need to use to explain and understand our world will once again have meaning. Until then, 'human' will remain a word with meaning but without application, and the suffering of a people will continue.
Adam Shapiro is an American human rights activist living in Ramallah. He is the former Director of the Seeds of Peace Center for Coexistence in Jerusalem.