Checkpoint 56, Hebron, February 2016
I spent much of June and July feeling strangely optimistic. It is not a sentiment I am accustomed to feeling. But I was touring for my book and everywhere I went meeting people who were eager and excited to talk. Not all of them agreed with me about everything, which made me still happier, but I was heartened by the very clear fact that people in the US seemed ready, hungry even, for a conversation about the realities of Palestinian life under occupation, a subject that has for years been verboten in this country. Audiences were enthusiastically open to a perspective that they knew is far too rarely voiced here. My interlocutors were in some cases people with whom I disagree, but we were in every case able to speak and listen to one another with openness and respect. You don’t have to pay close attention to debates on Israel and Palestine in this country to know how remarkable that is. But it meant that I was able to end every talk I gave on a note of optimism that was sincere—the fact of our conversation, that it was occurring, and spreading, that it was becoming more and more possible to discuss the undiscussable, that alone gave me genuine hope. It was clear we had turned a corner.
But some realities have not gone away. I cannot think of anyone in the US, whether they are Jewish or Palestinian or neither, who has written critically about Israel who has not been smeared as an anti-Semite and an apologist for terror. And I know no one who has achieved any prominence while speaking out against injustices perpetrated by the Israeli state who has not received death threats for their work. Out of stoicism, stubbornness or shame, very few people talk about the threats they receive, but intimidation of the crudest sort forms the backdrop to the entire conversation about Israel and Palestine in this country. It marks and enforces the boundary line of what is say-able. If anyone does not know where that boundary lies, they swiftly find out. Any serious attempt to represent Palestinian realities is met with unrelenting threats and smears. The threats, fortunately, are rarely acted on. They nonetheless represent a brutal and consistent attempt to intimidate opposition into silence. And they are effective. Editors too receive death threats, and they rarely wish to risk receiving more.
The crazy thing is that this is normal, and has been for years. In the chapters I wrote about the West Bank city of Hebron, I spoke about the strange idea of normalcy that reigns in that city, where having rocks and worse thrown into your home by settlers counts as “normal,” where beatings in the street by Israeli soldiers are entirely “normal.” I referred to Hebron half-seriously as if it were another planet because the norms of behavior there are so alien to our expectations. But this twisted sense of normalcy extends far beyond the extremist settler enclaves of Hebron, to Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, any place where critical political discourse can be counted on to be met with naked threats and campaigns of intimidation.
I don’t see any point in remaining quiet about this. In the last week alone I have repeatedly been called a Jew-hater and a terrorist, a murderer of children and pregnant women. It has been suggested to me that I should, and may, suffer a terrorist attack. I have been wished a painful death and promised that I will “get what is coming” to me. I am not complaining. I knew what I was getting into. I know that others have endured far worse harassment, and actual attacks. But these tactics must be exposed. The climate of fear that they create must not be allowed to stand. There is too much truth out there, and too much hunger for it.
The girl in the poster at the top of the photo is Hadeel Wajih 'Awwad. She was 14 when she died. She lived with her family in the Qalandia refugee camp, just outside the checkpoint of the same name, pictured above. You can read more about the checkpoint, and what it does, in this excerpt from my book, which went up on LitHub today. On March 1, 2013, Hadeel 'Awwad's older brother, Mahmoud, was shot in the back of the head with a rubber-coated bullet fired by Israeli soldiers during clashes outside the checkpoint. He spent the next eight months in a coma and died that November 28. He was 25. Two years later almost to the day, Hadeel woke up, made breakfast, and left the house. Her mother thought she was going to school. Instead she sneaked with her cousin Norhan, who was 16, into Jerusalem. They brought scissors with them and, in the Mahane Yehuda market, attempted to stab passersby. They managed to lightly wound a 70-year-old Palestinian man, whom they presumably mistook for an Israeli. A policeman shot them both, and continued shooting after both girls had fallen and lay on the ground, immobilized. Norhan survived. Hadeel did not. You can watch the video if you want. In any case, I took the photo above in January of this year. Hadeel's face was still pasted all over Ramallah when I went back again in May.