Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Movement in Palestine

Getting a new perspective at the Palestine Festival of Literature.

On my way to the 2019 Palestine Festival of Literature, the flight presents me with a unique opportunity. In a precious interlude between hassles, I get to exist in close proximity to people without them knowing about my disability. Most passengers are too distracted or too bleary-eyed to notice a wheelchair user’s early boarding, so when they take their seats they see the person next to them as a frustrated equal, nothing less and nothing more than a fellow repository of bones and flesh who would rather still be in bed. But to a lifelong paraplegic, the cabin of an airplane is the stage of a poignant, if somewhat cramped, ballet: the determined young woman sliding her lithe frame past a rudely sprawled teenager without complaint, the volunteer firefighter placing a heavy gift for a child in the overhead compartment as gently as if it were a baby bird, the arthritic retirees tenderly steadying themselves against each other as the impatient crowd presses forward. 

PalFest, which began in 2008 as a link between creative communities normally thwarted by the occupation, had made an effort to bring in people who were routinely forced by professional or family obligations to deal with the global apartheid of borders. I was the first disabled person to make the trip. I knew Israeli bureaucracy hindered Palestinian society’s capacity to create livable spaces, and I also knew disabled Palestinians tend to be hit particularly hard by the obstacles to travel and health care imposed by the occupation. My worst-case scenario for PalFest was being stranded at every significant cultural landmark of antiquity while the rest of the group got around unimpeded. 

Making our way from the Allenby Bridge Terminal on the Jordan border to Jerusalem, we saw the monotonous Israeli settlements perched on hilltops adjacent to the highway, chains of blocky white buildings established in violation of international law. For new arrivals, the divided roads in the West Bank make up the carefully composed overture to a more comprehensive symphony of exclusion. The human rights group B’Tselem reported that Israeli route closures enacted to suppress purported incidents of stone-throwing or the use of Molotov cocktails severely inconvenienced working class Palestinians at the same time that we had gathered for the festival. In March and April, Israel used these allegations as grounds to close the gates to four villages: ‘Azzun (20 days), Kifl Hares (8 days), Deir Istiya (5 days), and Tuqu’ (17 days). When the declaration of a national emergency in response to COVID-19 a year later kept Israelis at home, the government was essentially giving its citizens a taste of the same treatment it had long meted out to the Palestinians. 

Fortunately, getting around Jerusalem was less daunting than I feared. The Old City, which contains the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Western Wall, is largely accessible by paths for vendor carts. The festival’s organizers and the other participants gave me a push when the alternative would have been me trundling up steep inclines and having to pause to catch my breath every few minutes. Our tour guide pointed out buildings and apartments that had been seized by Israeli authorities from the original Palestinian residents. 

Photos provided by author.

On the second day, we visited Hebron, which is divided in two sectors, H1 and H2. The Palestinian Authority is in charge of H1, the larger zone. It also carries out civil administration for Palestinian residents in H2 while the Israeli military handles everything else. The Palestinian population in H1 has climbed in recent years, but the opposite has occurred in H2 as settler violence and IDF harassment have worked in tandem. The Ibrahami Mosque, built atop the Cave of the Patriarchs, was the site of a vicious 1994 massacre of Muslim worshippers. The fanatic Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 people and injured more than a hundred others with an automatic rifle before being subdued and killed by the survivors. His tombstone at the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba doesn’t mince words: “To the holy Baruch Goldstein, who gave his life for the Jewish people, the Torah, and the nation of Israel.” Goldstein is a popular figure among hardline Israelis. His legacy remains visible in Hebron. Look up: In the main Palestinian thoroughfare, metal netting catches whatever trash Israeli settlers feel like throwing from the street above.

Photos provided by author.

I was at the bottom of a hill in H2 with another PalFest participant when the rest of the group, a short distance behind, called us back. Something was going on. Israeli soldiers were talking to the PalFest contingent, and between them stood an irate settler woman. I couldn’t immediately tell what had transpired, but there was a heated disagreement between the settler and a PalFest author. After a few minutes, the soldiers relented and said we could move on. Moments later, however, more soldiers arrived and the argument with the settler was revived. This time, the author was taken away, and two PalFest organizers went with her to expedite her release. 

The woman who had started all this trouble was Anat Cohen, the settler movement’s Madame Defarge. Animated by the same frightening ruthlessness of the slighted villain in A Tale of Two Cities, the sixtyish Cohen is a motormouth who has spent years patrolling Hebron on behalf of her gnarled Zionism, a cause for which her brother gave his life and her father spent time in jail on terrorism charges. She had accosted a member of our group to ask where she was from. 

All things considered, it could have been much worse. Cohen, who keeps a photo of Goldstein with a reverential inscription in her home, is an evergreen menace to foreign visitors to Hebron. On YouTube, the videos of her attacking passersby mark her as an unstable and dangerous force. But there is no doubt she is in sync with Israel’s hard-bitten policymakers. In late 2019, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced Hebron’s fruit and vegetable market would be destroyed to make way for a Jewish neighborhood. The market’s Palestinian residents had been pushed out after the 1994 massacre. Hebron’s 800 settlers among approximately 200,000 Palestinians compelled Israel to overcome a major demographic hurdle. And that is precisely what Israel did. Where Goldstein had sown death, the authorities had reaped displacement of Hebron’s Palestinians in the short term and appropriation of valuable real estate in the long term. The PalFest author Samia Henni calls this “the architecture of counterrevolution,” the manipulation of natural and artificial environments to crush subjugated groups.

On the first of three stalemated election days Israel would muddle through in the next year, I interviewed Muhannad Shafi, a buildings inspector and accessibility project officer for the municipality of Ramallah. I thought there must be a typo on his business card, but it’s Muhannad and not Muhammad. As it turns out, the name means “sword made in India,” proof of how multiculturalism is seeded even where people seem most isolated. Shafi, a wheelchair user, says the main obstacle to helping the disabled is enforcing laws, which officials tend to see as a humanitarian cause rather than a juridical obligation. If you perceive disabled people as objects of charity, you’ve already placed them in a category outside the bounds of a foundational esteem. 

Undeterred, Shafi wants to set things right. The municipal council has said all new buildings must be accessible. Now the goal is to bring about a change in old buildings as well. Ramallah is poised in the liminal zone so common to a disabled American. Outside our hotel, I didn’t notice significant modifications, but I also didn’t come across much that was downright hostile. A lack of curb cuts could be managed with some help from friends. While most buildings lacked ramps, the steps and doorways were wide enough that my wheelchair could be lifted into a restaurant after the fashion of a palanquin. And the summits of hills situated atop paved streets made you forfeit only your punctuality. People with my needs were clearly an afterthought in Ramallah. On the other hand, American habitats as different as New York (population: 8.6 million) and the complacent liberal arts college I attended (student body: about 1700) were only marginally more welcoming. 

Photos provided by author.

The next day, I went to nearby Birzeit University to speak to students who had temporary or lasting disabilities as consequences of encounters with Israeli security forces. The Middle East Monitor reports that “occupied Palestinian territory is one of the highest places with persons with disabilities compared to the size of its population,” with nearly 100,000 disabled residents. In 2018, Israeli soldiers killed disabled activist Fadi Abu Salah with an exploding bullet to the chest, after he had already lost his legs to an Israeli drone strike. 

The campus was modern and tidy, which I didn’t expect. As with so much else in the West Bank’s more populated areas, the university’s placid outward appearance conceals profound adversity. Serving roughly 15,000 students with classes in Arabic and English, Birzeit connects young Palestinians to bigger possibilities even as the school is beset by arbitrary restrictions. Just getting to Birzeit is a struggle thanks to checkpoints. Twenty years ago, Gazans accounted for about a third of the student body. Now Israel forbids them from entering the West Bank. Birzeit attracts the majority of its students from Ramallah and its environs, yielding a campus lacking the dialogue that could be fostered among Palestinians with more diverse upbringings. Combined with the red tape imposed on foreign professors trying to obtain visas and the university’s precarious budget, Birzeit’s persistence is a microcosm of Palestinian resilience under military rule.

So, too, were the testimonies of the students I interviewed. Twenty-four-year-old Ahmed Walid Hamed explained how he lost an entire academic year due to the arduous process of recovery. During an October 2015 protest against Israeli abuses, undercover soldiers started attacking students. One of them shot Hamed at point blank range and detained him for two hours without medical attention. Hamed didn’t give up on his studies despite the severity of his injury. Eventually graduating with an electrical engineering degree, he now works at Birzeit. 

Raghad Diab Mousa Nasrallah, a 21-year-old Arabic literature major, acquired her injury from inexperience instead of political scruples. Three years ago, she went to Jerusalem for the first time. At the notoriously congested Qalandiya Checkpoint, there was a track for people with West Bank permits and a track for Jerusalem ID holders. Hesitating in the bustle, she ended up in a lane for cars. Soldiers shouted at her in Hebrew, which she couldn’t decipher. The bullet wound she suffered leaves her unable to feel her foot. I thought about my delay at Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem, where a soldier had advised using the lane for cars because wheelchair access was not available any other way. When one of the festival organizers and I took that route, the guards didn’t seem to know we were coming despite the assurances their colleague gave us. If we had crossed paths when they were fractionally more irritable, I could have easily gone through what Raghad did. Documents—even an American passport—are not a shield against exhausted teenage conscripts with state-of-the-art machine guns.

Mohammad Ammar Khdairi, an 18-year-old finance major, recounted a similar incident. A soldier on a watchtower fired at him as he made his way to a protest. The bullet went through his stomach and hit a nerve in his left leg, a severe trauma for a still-growing 14-year-old. Lifting the front part of his foot is a chore these days. He has to forgo the soccer matches he used to enjoy and grapple with pain at the onset of winter. I noticed Khdairi wore a green armband indicating an affiliation with Hamas in the upcoming student council elections. The party had won at Birzeit four years in a row. Through a translator, I asked Khdairi about the armband without revealing I knew what it signified. He said he didn’t want to talk about it. It was a savvy response. Anglophone journalists are deeply wary of Hamas. Hamas, in turn, does a great deal to earn that wariness. Yet even the most righteous liberation movements have never been uniformly virtuous, and Khdairi’s qualms make sense in light of the predatory scrutiny that hovers over Palestinian affairs. If the Western press directed its vigilance toward the bigotry in the upper echelons of the conflict’s other major extremist group—the far right led by Netanyahu’s Likud party—maybe Khdairi would have been more open.

Maath Musleh, one of the festival organizers, took me to visit Ahed Tamimi and her family. In December 2017, Tamimi took part in a protest against settlements during which her 15-year-old cousin Mohammed was shot by Israeli troops at close range with a rubber-coated steel bullet. She fought back by slapping two soldiers outside her home. The soldiers didn’t retaliate during this incident, which was videotaped by Tamimi’s mother, but three days later a nighttime raid put her in custody. She spent the next several months in jail as part of a plea bargain. Although granted the chance to study in Britain, Tamimi was unable to secure a student visa and has instead opted to train as a lawyer at Birzeit. (Western governments can’t claim any moral high ground when it comes to offering Palestinians the freedom to travel.) While she was going through all this, her cousin Mohammed’s medical treatment proved arduous. The nearest clinic in Ramallah didn’t have the necessary equipment. He traveled to South Africa for reconstructive surgery, but his problems continue to haunt him. Mohammed gets tired more quickly now, and he can’t stay up as late as he used to. Nor is his ordeal with the Israeli military at an end. A few days after I met him, Israeli forces detained Mohammed on suspicion of “popular terror,” an extravagant term for stone-throwing. Unsurprisingly, the authorities still claim Mohammed’s head injury came from a bike accident even after the Tamimi family presented a CT scan to prove a bullet was responsible.

The number of Palestinians who are disabled due to ostensibly nonlethal Israeli actions dispels the mirage of restraint upon which an entire public relations apparatus—vegan! gay! fabulous! your friendly IDF!—has been constructed. A 2019 World Health Organization report noted that 29,130 Gazans were injured by Israeli forces between the beginning of the Great March of Return in March 2018 and February 2019. In 89 percent of the cases, the victims suffered wounds to their lower limbs. A Doctors Without Borders clinic in Gaza City has relieved some of the stress put on local medical infrastructure, but the situation is dire because of the constant Israeli harassment. The injuries don’t heal quickly, which means patients with open fractures run a risk of infection that could end with amputation or death.

At the Qattan Centre in Ramallah on PalFest’s closing night, we were invited to speak about what we had gained from the trip in front of a mixed crowd of the organizers’ friends and curious locals. Still reeling from my cold, I volunteered to deliver impromptu remarks. It might not have been the most prudent choice given my fragile state. I provided a sketch of my family’s peripatetic credentials, the strife between my parents, and my apprehension about my disability. So many of the people I had gotten to know in Palestine were also misfits in one way or another. Which passport they held, what history had done to their ancestors, or who they slept with conferred upon them the eerie feeling of looking in from the outside. Seeing their eyes fixed on me in that moment, I was roused by a mingling of fury and solidarity. Here was the breakthrough I had in Palestine, I said. Exiles can’t, by their very nature as a community, be cut off from exile itself. 

“Insofar as a rational politics has no place for anger, I am tempted to think: so much the worse for rational politics,” the philosopher Amia Srinivasan writes. “But we should query the premise. If anger is rationally evaluable—if it is something we do for reasons, good and bad—then it has at least a prima facie place in a rational politics.” Having practiced laughing with a mouthful of blood my entire adult life, I simply couldn’t be ashamed of the raw feelings PalFest quickened. What I had seen was worth summoning anger. I had begun the trip overwhelmed by an envy of movement. For now, I was content to be moved.

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