Welcome to Palestine

On my way to Bethlehem yesterday I met an Italian guy; a Jewish from Rome, visiting his brothers in Tel Aviv. After a really nice chat he told me: “Ti do un consiglio spiccio da pischello: non dare fiducia agli Arabi, mai, neanche se ti sorridono. Potresti rimetterci la vita”. (I’ll give you a practical advice: don’t ever trust Arabs, even if they smile at you. You may risk your life.”). I didn’t want to argue so I just kept silent but I realized that what my Israeli friends had told me the day before was true:”We -the leftist who oppose the government- are a minority. The vast majority just hates the Arabs”.

Hate is something difficult for me to understand: we all use the word hatred, but do we really mean it? Do we feel hatred growing in our stomach like a black smoky and suffocating cloud, so big that we need to let it out and have it devour the objects of our hatred?. Tal -one of the Israeli guys who hosted me- told me: “When I was doing the mandatory military service in Hebron I got scared: I saw little Jewish kids playing in the settlements, just a few steps away from Palestinian kids, and I saw the hatred in their eyes”. How can a child hate someone? The answer is not hard to find: when you grow up indoctrinated and brainwashed by your family, your religion and your culture, your perception of reality is distorted, your opinions are pre-constructed, your judgements are biased. Your mind is not free because your thoughts are channeled and it becomes hard to look at things objectively. Again, to me it all comes down to education.

However, taking off this prejudice-coated-glasses  is not impossible: it is not impossible to look at a Palestinian and inevitably notice that you have the same features, the same food, the same bad words and the same land under your feet. It is not impossible to see on a map how much land the Israeli government occupied from 1948 and keeps occupying with illegal  settlements: how many trees are uprooted, how many houses are destroyed, how many people are imprisoned. The cruelty of the military is under everybody’s eyes and yet very few accept to see it.

I arrived in Bet Jala in the afternoon and there I met the others volunteers and Rajeh, the coordinator of the camp. He took us to our house -an ex-school in the center of the village- where we had to come to terms with the extreme cold. It seems a paradox, but no house has a heating system in Palestine and this year’s snow took everyone by surprise. Coffee and tea have been our heaters for the past two days and I have never felt so much cold in my life: I cannot even think of how the refugees in the camps must feel.

Rajeh and his immense ranks of cousins have many stories to tell: they are my same age and yet they’ve been through so many unpleasant experiences: daily questionings, searchings, arrests, threats, the simple impossibility to move. All their parents have been in prison during the first Intifada, some for up to three years. Living in an occupied territory means that you’re constantly conscious that your land is not yours, you can be put in prison at any time just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time or a wall can be built between your house and that of your grandparents. It makes you constantly aware of your condition and of your limits. It makes you grow up faster.

Nevertheless, I never met such energetic and active people before. Nobody gave up, nobody lost hope. Is it even possible to lose hope? Or maybe hope is forced into you by a helpless situation, where losing hope would mean letting your soul die?

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I can see the separation wall from our balcony. This morning at 8am in a small house in Bethlehem there were eighteen people from Japan, France, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Turkey, Belgium, Algeria and Canada having Arabic coffee together. And yet outside our house there’s a wall that is separating Palestinians from Palestinians. Crazy huh?

Well, as Rajeh says: welcome to Palestine.

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