Published on Wednesday, August 22, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times
Another Kind of Intifada
When their uprising began, Palestinians put off weddings and other celebrations. Now they are trying to lead normal lives to fend off despair
by Tracy Wilkinson
BIRZEIT, West Bank -- Birzeit University's class of 2001 seems so full of promise as the young men and women, in long black gowns and mortarboards, parade onstage to receive their diplomas.
Their parents, bursting with pride, wave from the audience, weep with joy and crane to snap photographs of the momentous event.
Outside the walls of the Palestinian university campus, a devastating Israeli siege has West Bank villages in a vise-like grip. The Israeli military, fighting a deadly Palestinian revolt, has tightened its control over places such as Birzeit and does daily battle with stone-throwing students and Palestinian gunmen. The outside is a world of bombings and death, a world in which very few of these Birzeit graduates have much future.
Yet many Palestinians feel compelled to go ahead with their rituals, their graduations, weddings, even the occasional night out on the town. It is a way to grasp at sanity, a way to hold on to some small part of normalcy amid the chaos all around them.
"If you impose mourning all the time, Palestinians will end up in an asylum for mad people," said Abdul Jawad Saleh, the director of the Baladna Cultural Center in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Grinding hardship, extremist politics and what Palestinians see as heavy-handed Israeli repression have further radicalized society in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Red-hot anger and a disorienting uncertainty permeate the collective Palestinian psyche and contribute to a sense that the conflict will only get worse as it drags on over the weeks and months--perhaps years--to come. Voices of moderation have been drowned out by calls for murderous revenge.
Israelis too have seen their lives turned upside down in the nearly 11 months of violence unleashed by the collapse of peace talks and a renewed Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. But Israelis, for the most part, have ways to escape the daily trauma.
Because of the Israeli closure of much of their territory, there is no escape for most Palestinians. In what Israel says is an attempt to prevent terrorists from entering its territory, it blocks off many West Bank and Gazan towns to regular traffic and the transport of goods. Palestinians see that as collective punishment.
Many of those Palestinians who can leave the region have done so, while the rest, the vast majority, persevere and endure.
"Someone kicks you and it hurts badly, but you think, well, it could be worse. This is the mood of the Palestinians. We have an alarming level of adaptation," said Albert Aghazarian, an administrator at Birzeit who was presiding over the recent graduation ceremony. "Abnormality becomes normality. Aberration becomes the rule of the day."
Even the joy at the Birzeit ceremony was tempered by reality. The graduates, their families and the faculty observed a minute of silence for "the martyrs"--the more than 500 Palestinians who have been killed in the violence, those who have "opened the horizon for the future of Palestine," as the emcee put it.
University President Remembers a Bomber
University President Hanna Nasir paid brief homage to the one suicide bomber produced by Birzeit. (He was not a particularly adept one, having killed no one but himself when he tried to board a bus on Jerusalem's northern edge.)
Because of the closures, most families had to come in taxis, which can more easily penetrate Israeli military roadblocks, either through surreptitious side routes or thanks to permits. Many students who should have graduated this year did not because they missed too many classes as a result of the intifada. Holding the ceremony at all was meant as a gesture of defiance toward Israel, Nasir said.
Israel blames the violence on the Palestinians. More than 150 Israelis have been killed in bombings and shootings since the uprising began in September.
Mohammed Zomlot, a 24-year-old business student who was among the graduates, has seen his prospects dwindle. His dream of earning a master's degree in London and running the family textile business was shattered by the demise of the Palestinian economy. The family's plant has shut down.
Zomlot expects to be one of the 5% or so of his graduating class that actually manages to find employment, but at a lesser job and for a fraction of what he would have earned, he said.
"I wanted to be a decision-maker in Palestine. I wanted to change things and fix a lot of the problems, the mismanagement," he said. "It was not a huge dream. I wasn't asking for much. But now I'm stuck."
In the audience, families also struggled with their bittersweet emotions. The parents of 21-year-old English major Fadia Dweik jostled for a good view of their daughter. A semester behind schedule, Dweik had finally earned her degree, but no job awaits.
"We knocked on every door in an attempt to ensure her future," said her 65-year-old father, Badawi. "Nobody can design the future in this kind of situation. If we sleep at night, we cannot be sure we will awake. If we see the morning, we cannot be sure we will sleep at night."
In the early months of the intifada, Palestinians postponed weddings and other celebrations because of the disaster overwhelming them. But today, as it becomes abundantly clear that the conflict will continue for a very long time, they are resuming some aspects of their lives.
At the Golden Roof Wedding Hall in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Attalah Handal and Noha Atrash were getting married on a recent summer night. Their guests ate chicken and shared a small dance floor ringed with candles.
"We believe the situation is not going to improve, so we had to take advantage of the moment," said Handal, 29.
Atrash, 23, decked out in white taffeta and rhinestones, agreed.
"We have to live," she said. "It is up to us to bear the situation."
But reality intruded. Israel had hunted down and killed Palestinian militants in Bethlehem the week before, and some people raised questions about whether it was appropriate to go ahead with the wedding. In fact, hard-line Palestinian activists threatened to disrupt the festivities, and only 135 of the 400 invited guests showed. There were many empty tables, and the wedding party kept the music low.
Hanna Abuallis, the owner of the banquet hall, spent much of the evening on the sidewalk, keeping watch for troublemakers. Business, he said, has been awful. The hall has been virtually empty since last fall. Summer is normally wedding season for Palestinians, and slowly people began booking the Golden Roof for events starting in June.
That's something, he said with resignation, but activity remains far below last year's wedding a day.
Abuallis has cut his prices to encourage people to go ahead with their marriage plans.
"A wedding is psychological," Abuallis said. "I want to help life return to normal. Either life gets back to normal or it explodes for all time. What else?"
Mental health experts say the majority of Palestinians are filled with despair and that many are suffering from clinical depression. Some residents, with only minimal exaggeration, compare the West Bank and Gaza to one huge insane asylum. Or, at the least, a prison.
Dr. Mahmud Sehwail, who runs a rehabilitation center for torture victims, conducted a study two months ago that showed that 50% of the Palestinian population was suffering from psychological trauma serious enough to require treatment; he thinks the figure is higher today.
The despair manifests itself in physical ailments such as headaches and gastric pains, he said, which mask depression. Living through the relentless crisis, or watching it on TV, children suffer through nightmares, bed-wetting and loss of self-esteem. Some become aggressive. Adults have unreasonable fears and anxieties.
"I'm a psychiatrist, and sometimes I feel unsafe driving my car," said Sehwail, 50, who is based in Ramallah. "I know normal people who check their car [for bombs] before driving." That is not completely logical, he said, but understandable.
Survival Skills Common to Arabs and Israelis
Israelis and Palestinians alike can reach into a reserve of resilience to survive--Israelis from their nation's many wars, Palestinians from their lifetimes as refugees.
In some respects, Israelis have been so traumatized because of the contrast between a year ago and today. Last year, they thought peace was around the corner. Their lives had become modern and normal.
Many Palestinians, on the other hand, were less sanguine about their circumstances, and they see today's horrors as part of a continuum.
"The majority of the Palestinian population was exposed to a traumatic event once or more--demolition of homes, arrest of their fathers, families forced to move," Sehwail said. "They learned from their past experience."
Polls also reflect a pessimism felt by the Palestinians even deeper than Israelis'. A joint survey by Israeli and Palestinian researchers last month found that 46% of Palestinians believe there will be no peace in the foreseeable future (compared with 41% of Israelis), while 59% of the Palestinians (and 46% of the Israelis) expect the conflict to continue for five to 10 years.
Hatred has also soared among Palestinians, with wide support for suicide bombings and other armed attacks on Israelis, according to polls.
To cope, many Palestinians watch enormous amounts of satellite TV, even though much of Arab television carries seemingly endless reports on the intifada. Others pour their energies into projects.
The Baladna Cultural Center sponsors art exhibits, dance and music programs and workshops for children, all as a distraction from life in a battle zone. Center director Saleh believes Palestinians must live as if occupation and struggle will go on forever, showing defiance to both Israel, which he says wants to reduce Palestinians to a primitive state of being, and to Palestinian leaders, who he says manipulate popular suffering for political goals.
"The political leaders don't want us to have celebrations or weddings, but I say no! We have to live," he said.
Saleh, 69, once served as agriculture minister in the government of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, but he quit to protest rampant corruption. He supports the intifada but opposes its militarization. He is one of a daring handful of prominent Palestinians who speak out in favor of nonviolent resistance.
Restaurant Provides Respite From Chaos
In the West Bank town of Beit Sahur, the open-air Shepherd's Valley Restaurant is packed with Palestinian couples, families and children seated on low cushions, sampling mixed grill and smoking fragrant traditional Arab water pipes. This too seems improbable. Beit Sahur has frequently been shelled by retaliating Israeli forces, and it lives under the same closure that strangles the rest of the region.
But Majed Ishaq and his partners are determined to defy their circumstances. They have kept the restaurant open every day since the intifada began, even the days without a single customer.
When there are lulls in the shooting, however, the restaurant fills up--not with the tourists for whom it was designed, but with locals.
"People are getting used to the situation," Ishaq said. "It's like in Beirut. In the middle of the civil war, people would go out dancing and to restaurants. If you just stop living, it would be too depressing."
Osama and Noha Sleibi, a young couple with a newborn son, were among the restaurant patrons on a recent evening. It was only the second time in 10 months that they had ventured out at night.
Noha was supposed to finish at Birzeit University this year and earn a civil engineering degree. But it became too difficult to traverse Israeli roadblocks and reach the school, so her education is on hold.
Osama said he used to think the world would intervene to stop the accelerating violence that has destroyed all chances for imminent peace. But no more.
"We have no future and no hope," he said. "At the moment, I feel like I'm walking on water, sinking. Sinking and shouting, 'Help! Help!' But I am just sinking."
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times