No Space to be Child
A Palestinian’s story of his escape from Gaza and his work for the children in that area.
I am a Palestinian whose family had lived for generations in the village of Al-Maghar. Sixty years ago, during the Nakbah (Catastrophe), my grandparents and their whole family were expelled from Al-Maghar, uprooted and sent to the huts and narrow streets of a refugee camp 100 kms. away. After sixty years, still they taste the bitterness of that loss and watch as the flames of that tragedy continue to burn. As a child I was used to living in one of the huts of the refugee camp, but as I got older and became aware of the discontent inside the family, I would pester my father with questions:
Why do we not have a garden?
Why do all ten of us sleep in one room?
Why does the roof always leak in winter?
Why do we go to school without having a breakfast or pocket money?
Why do we have no heating in our house or school?
Why is our classroom crowded with 50 students in one small space?
Why do we not have a playground?
Where can I get clean water?
Why do we not travel anywhere?
Why do we hear booming throughout the night?
Will the roar of the bulldozer come towards us today?
Who has been killed today?
Why do you let the soldiers humiliate you at the checkpoints?
Do all human beings live like us?
Why has our country been wiped off the map in the library?’
Often he would answer me with tears in his eyes. "We are the victims of a violent occupation. Like a cancer, it spreads over all aspects of our lives. Oh, my son, be careful! Do not provoke the violence to fall upon you."
I was born in 1973 and gradually became aware of all this suffering in the narrow alleys of the camp. By the time I was fourteen years old, I could not bear the fact that the occupying soldiers were wreaking havoc in my homeland. I would ignore my father’s warnings and seek revenge for our humiliation.
So I used to throw stones at the bulldozers and armoured cars as they rumbled through the streets. With my brothers and my friends we would chase after the armoured cars from one place to another, believing we were expelling them all from our land. As soon as we heard the rumble of their engines, we would gather pieces of rubble and pile them in various parts of the camp. Then we hid ourselves and as soon as we saw the soldiers coming we rushed out and pelted them with stones.
This was our favourite game. We had nowhere to play organised games, and football in the street was too dangerous. The older members of our family and the neighbours continually warned us that they were unable to protect us from the dangers of the occupation. "We do not have a police or a national army," they said. So in our minds, we became the national army; we were The Children of Stones protecting our camp and resisting the soldiers of occupation. We were Robin Hood fighting for justice, or the American Indians defending the frontier from the white invaders. It was not just a game; it was actually a Death Game – a game which released our anger and gave us the thrill and pride of feeling we were protecting our communities when the older generation could not. I was too young to understand its consequences even though some friends of mine were killed or injured or became disabled for life.
It so happened that during one of these daily activities of throwing stones the soldiers started to chase me. I had been hurling stones at them and my aim was good through practice. Now I turned and ran, dodging to avoid bullets and evade capture. Suddenly my shoulder and back were struck in several places at once. They had fired a plastic bullet. It had broken into several pieces to injure me, make me collapse, but not to kill me. I staggered and fell, but immediately got up. I carried on running although I felt my shirt sticking to blood that poured from my back and head. I felt no pain as excitement, fear and pride forced me on and I raced towards the fence of a farm which was located at the edge of our camp. I leapt and climbed, but my leg became stuck in the rough structure of wood and thorns and metal. A hand gripped my shirt and I was pulled out of the fence and thrown to the ground. I yelled and kicked and the soldiers punched me hard. By now my bleeding was serious, but still they punched. I became weaker and my angry protests turned to sobs. I was beginning to lose consciousness, but then my arms were yanked upwards and a soldier pulled me by my hands and dragged me to where the officer in charge was waiting. During all this the people in my camp watched helplessly. Many shouted in outrage over what was happening and this anger helped me stop crying out in pain as my ankles were scratched and battered along the road. Suddenly, men, women, and children started to throw stones in an attempt to get the soldiers to release me. Women from my family and then neighbours rushed forward and attacked the soldiers with their bare hands. Some of these women reached the officer and yelled at him: " Release the boy! Release him! If you don’t, he will die and it will be your fault." This must have had some effect because the hitting stopped soon after I found myself admitted to hospital.
It was some weeks before I recovered and when I returned to the camp my friends treated me like a hero. My father, however,was not pleased. I had ignored his warnings and disobeyed him. When, later, my older brothers went out to throw stones at the soldiers, my father locked me in a room upstairs. I knew he did this out of love and a real fear for my safety, but even so I climbed out of the window, slithered down the drainpipe and ran to join my brothers in the street. That night, forty people were injured and during the curfew I crept though the darkness from street to street to avoid the soldiers who would arrest me. Since I was under-age, my father would be fined if I was caught. When I reached home, I climbed to the space above our door and dropped quietly inside, hoping everyone was asleep. My father and mother, however, were up waiting for me. They had not been to bed. It was a full time job for them, protecting me and my eight brothers. I had ignored their warnings even during the curfew hours. That night, I got a severe final warning. The next time I tried to go out to join in the stone-throwing, my father held onto me and then, for the first and only time in his life, he beat me. So, from that day on, if I threw stones, it would be far from my house.
As I grew older, I began to get tired of our games. The stones looked pathetic against the armoured cars. Also, I found that I was doing well at school and as I learnt more I realised that knowledge was another kind of weapon. It made me feel strong. It reinforced my identity. The growth of understanding made me see the possibility of helping our people and resisting occupation in more subtle ways than throwing stones. However, I cannot blame those children who still throw stones. Their anger and their actions constitute some form of therapy and they have become a symbol around the world for innocent revolt against injustice. The root of problem is not the children throwing stones but the occupation that has stolen their childhood.
I began to study hard and found a path which would lead to my active role in helping the Palestinians remain steadfast – "sumud" - in the face of humiliation and oppression. An understanding of History and the pursuit of knowledge in the psychological sciences have aleady produced results on the ground in Gaza. This work is set to continue for many years to come.
Since I achieved excellent results in high school and, because my family had little money, I was given a grant by UNRWA to study to become a teacher. My hope was that I would then have enough money to support my parents. I needed to go to Ramallah, on the West Bank, to complete my studies but, due to the Occupation, I faced obstacles wherever I decided to go. Travelling between Gaza and the West Bank was always difficult and, during the first Intifada (the uprising between 1987 and 1993) I was prevented for a while from leaving Gaza.
Travelling has been one of the main restrictions we face in Palestine. Because of the wall, the fences, the checkpoints and the endless paperwork involved to get a pass, there is a barrier between Gaza and our relatives or friends in the West Bank. We can wait for one hour or one day or one week or one month or one year to get permission to travel to another region in our country. One soldier can stop many thousands of people crossing a checkpoint. One soldier is given control over the daily lives of a whole population who need to get to work or reach a hospital or go to school. One soldier can decide between live and death for innocent civilians. I once saw an old man dying at a check point as he waited in the heat to cross through to go back to his family. Another time, I saw a pregnant woman give birth beside the road at a check point after a soldier refused to let anybody pass between the north and middle zones of the Gaza Strip.
I was not surprised, therefore, to find that my studies were held back by the occupation. Later, when I finished my final exams in Ramallah in 1993, I could not get permission to return home. So I tried travelling through the checkpoint on a friend’s ID and was arrested. When I was taken into custody, they tried to get me to sign something that was written in Hebrew. I told them I could not read Hebrew. They said, ‘Sign it anyway’. I said, ‘No!’ because I thought it was probably a confession statement. Then one of them hit me across the head and told me to sign. I refused and he punched me again and again. Even today, I still have problems in my left ear from this beating. After one month in prison, they said I would be released on payment of $500. I knew my family would have to sell many possessions to raise this sum. So, I refused to let this happen and stayed another two months in jail.
The period that followed was very hard. I was working as a teacher in UNRWA’s schools to earn money for myself and my parents while, at the same time, I was doing my postgraduate studies in mental health at an Egyptian university. I had decided that I must learn more about psychology because the children I was teaching in Gaza were suffering badly from the Occupation and I wanted to be able to help them. During my work as a school counsellor in the Gaza Strip, I saw a lot of the Palestinian children who have been exposed on a daily basis to traumatic experiences since the beginning of the second intifada which began on 28th October 2000. They clearly suffered from psychological, social and educational disturbances such as: insomnia, fear of the dark, phobias, depression, bedwetting, social withdrawal, negative social-interaction, aggressive behaviour, forgetfulness and truancy from school. These were alarming indicators that having a normal childhood in Palestine was unlikely in the current circumstances and that the future psychological well-being of Palestinian children is being compromised by on-going traumatic experiences.
I began to study for long hours after school and travelled to Egypt to see my supervisor during the summer holidays. Once I had received my Master’s degree, I began also to work as a part time lecturer at a university in Gaza. Life was so busy that I had no time to see my friends and they saw so little of me that they thought I had gone away.
In 2001, I started studying for a PhD. But my family was worried. I was nearly 28 and they thought it was time for me to marry. I tried to tell them that I didn’t have time for this. I was still pursuing my long held dream to learn as much as I could so that I could help to heal the wounds caused by the Occupation. It was as if the anger that had made me throw stones had been converted into the need to study. I didn’t have time to run a car, let alone get married – it would be too unfair on my wife. Gradually, however, I realised that my life should not be all work and, having found the right person with the help of my family, I got married in August 2002. In September 2003, I walked at midnight – the last two kilometres through gunfire – to the hospital where my daughter was born.
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