Palestine was a paradise
Two years ago, during Israel’s eight-day war on Gaza, I came to see with my own eyes the different faces of Palestine. Even as I was packing my stuff before leaving the Philippines, I was preparing myself for war-related traumas, for painful memories I would bring home on my return.
Today, while watching TV footage of the Israeli assault on Gaza, while hearing of the killing of civilians and innocent children 5,495 miles away, I hold on to my memories of Palestine, which have made me stronger, hopeful, and more determined—a far cry from my old self, who felt merely helpless when confronted with the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
I remember each home I visited, each scene I witnessed, all with their own stories of struggle, defeat, and hope.
I will never forget Abu Azzam, a poet, who treated me like his own child and shared with me his experiences during the two intifadas. Whenever he talked his words sounded like poetry—words about life, love, war.
He moved me to laughter when he told me how he met Karl Marx (I had told him how much I like the man). When Abu Azzam was in prison, a man commissioned him to write 12 copies of the Communist Manifesto. He said he did not know about communist thought before then, but after completing the 12 copies, he could recite the whole book from memory. He told me how amazed he was by Marx’s ideas.
Today Abu Azzam—after experiencing war, after living as a refugee, after being a witness to the rise and fall of the Palestinian people’s movement—is still an active leader of the struggle for liberation.
Clad in their hijab, the strong women of the West Bank village of Khirbet Sir also gave me courage to be steadfast in the face of gender inequality. Through a cooperative, they encouraged the women in the village to break free of traditional notions of womanhood. They were starting to build a new future, where women work alongside men for the family’s economic sustainability in a conflict-ridden community.
I remember the peasants who, with their donkeys and carts, had to pass through Israeli gates to get into their own farmlands. They left me a memory of morning smiles and “Kif halek (How are you)?” as we monitored the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Palestinian farmers still strive every day to have a decent life, as the Israeli government enforces various mechanisms to deter them from producing crops.
The memory of Mahmoud, a worker beaten by the IDF when he tried to go through a hole in the Separation Wall that divides Palestine and Israel, is still vivid to me. He wanted to travel to Tel Aviv, where there were plenty of jobs, so he tried going the “illegal” way when Israeli authorities would not issue him a gate permit. When later we asked him how he would get a job, he answered, “I might just do the same thing again.”
Like the peasants, the drive of the workers to be a productive force in their community, their perseverance to earn a living—their last weapon for survival—is also being taken away from them by the all-powerful Israeli government.
And, of course, I will forever remember those sweet and cheerful Palestinian children, with their curly hair and long eyelashes, saying “Marhaba!” and warmly smiling, as beautiful as the child fatalities I now see in the news.
When I saw the picture of the Palestinian child held at gunpoint weeks ago, I heard again those tiny voices, full of hopes and dreams. They went to school as regularly as they could, whenever the situation permitted it. I remember the times we checked the children’s school bus as it passed through the Israeli gates. I would always receive their warmest greetings, and sometimes food as well: Lion potato chips, oranges, biscuits, candies. Like their parents, they loved giving. They loved studying and playing. They loved dreaming. They dreamed of freedom from the war that would not permit their generation a better future.
As the world witnesses Israel’s brutal attack on Gaza, I remain confident that international solidarity with the Palestinian people will intensify. I think of the work of peace advocates worldwide, like Luiz from Brazil, Maida from Norway, Derek from the United Kingdom, and Sunkyo from South Korea. They are people willing to serve with their warm bodies—those who continue to struggle alongside Palestinians as they build a free and peaceful future. They are part of a fight against the US-backed Israeli occupation, a fight against imperialism, a fight for humanity.
Now, while we, the “outsiders,” listen to news about Gaza, while we criticize the media for not showing the world “balanced” journalism, I feel the need to share what I have seen in Palestine. Yes, there were rockets in the sky, there was tear gas between Jewish settlers and the Arab population—all those things we commonly hear in the news. And yet, what I brought back home were not the war-related traumas I expected. Not the noise. Not the chaos.
I remember a different Palestine. Whenever people, intrigued, ask me what Palestine looks like, I would always say: She is a paradise.
At dawn, with the chickens clucking in our deployment site at the West Bank town of Jayyus, we walked toward the beautiful and tranquil hills and saw camels and olive trees. In the Jordan valley, I saw the vast, liberating desert, home to people that danced joyfully to the colorful music of Arabia. The ancient biblical structures, the abundant fruits and vegetables, the herds of sheep, and the warm people—with their tea or coffee always offered to visitors—are what I see whenever I reminisce about Palestine.
It’s a paradise. A paradise that is being destroyed so the powerful can replace it with their own version of paradise. Israel, in its long-standing goal to create a lavish new heaven and new earth, has been waging war to stamp out beautiful Palestine.
But it can never erase Palestine from the memories of its people. Their hearts and minds always point them toward the paradise that Israel is destroying. And so they fight back. Some may be fundamentalist, some may be violent, and some may be coopted. Hamas, Fatah, PLO—some movements may need the criticism.
But never can we deny the Palestinian people the freedom to fight, to hope, and to learn how to win. Contemporary Palestinian history, after all, has been forged by the Palestinian people’s tireless struggle to live in freedom and peace.
This time, they might fight back, for they endlessly imagine life in paradise.
Kristine A. Valerio, 28, was a human rights observer from the Philippines under the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel, an initiative of the World Council of Churches. She is a sociology graduate of the University of the Philippines Diliman.
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