By Linda Sweiss
My name is Linda Sweiss, and I am a 23-year-old, first generation Palestinian-Canadian. Growing up in Canada I always heard of a distant land that was once the home of my parents, a home they were forced to flee from when they were children. As I grew older I began to learn more about this place called Palestine, and the turmoil the land and its people have faced for over 50 years.
I recently decided to experience it for myself. With the aid of Global Exchange, an organization dedicated to promoting social justice throughout the world, I visited the occupied territories as a part of a solidarity delegation. The delegation consisted of eight people from North America, all from various ethnic and religious backgrounds.
For two weeks I lived the occupation as every Palestinian citizen lives every day of their existence, less the fact that I had a Canadian Passport, which made my travels much easier. It was disturbing knowing that a foreigner (as myself) had many more privileges then a Palestinian who has been born and raised in Palestine. I found myself continuously wondering how peace could ever prevail in the absence of justice?
One of the most rewarding experiences of my trip was when I had the opportunity to live amongst the refugees in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, located in Bethlehem. Even though I was only visiting there for a short time, I found myself easily sympathizing with how a Palestinian could feel utter despair and complete hopelessness.
I met family after family and each with a tragic story to tell. More often then not, words became simply unnecessary, for the eyes of an orphaned child or a newly widowed mother, tell a thousand words.
I felt for the first time in my life how it feels to not have water to bathe in, to wait 3 hours for a soldier with a foreign accent and an M16 to allow me to make my journey from Ramallah to Bethlehem which typically is only a 20 minute ride, to be scrutinized and my belongings taken when entering a mosque for prayers. I never had to experience living like a prisoner within my own home, imprisoned like a caged animal with barbwire and tall fences surrounding me, and having a curfew, something my own parents have never afflicted on me.
There is nothing that could describe the feelings that erupt within you when you see the inhumane acts that are committed against the people of Palestine, atrocities that have been ignored by the world. I truly felt as though an insect had more rights then I.
In Gaza Strip, we visited the Rafah Refugee Camp, which is the site of the largest home demolition that has taken place during the intifada. As I boarded the bus for our return trip, I noticed my friend Elise, an American Jew, sitting in the back of the bus, face in palms, sobbing. I thought of consoling her. I went and sat beside her and before I could say a word, she began to apologize. She said that what we just saw was not what being Jewish was all about. She felt a sense of shame for what was being done to the Palestinians in the name of Judaism. In my effort to console her, I found that I was being consoled by her.
It was to my relief (and delight) to learn that the Jewish state does not speak for the Jewish people in the world. Not all Jews believe that the oppression is legitimate or justifiable. For me, this was one of the most cherished lessons that I took back with me. Elise and I promised to continue our relations when we returned home and to fight the ignorance in our own countries together.
I have scarcely met a people as warm and kind as the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories. Even with their misery and poverty stricken lives, they would do their utmost to make you feel comfortable amidst their humble surroundings.
It is astonishing to see people cry so loud for help, while the international community stands idly by: not hearing, or pretending not to be hearing the cries. I wondered many things while I was in Palestine. One of them was: if this were happening to another people, a people from a different part of the world, with a different culture and different religion, would everyone else remain mute? Or, might we hear a call for justice by some brave nation? I have realized that in Palestine there are always more questions than answers.
While at the airport returning for home a young Israeli soldier by the name of Patricia walked me to my gate, she had asked me about my education, and if I had received military training in Canada. I told her that is was not mandatory to be in the armed forces in Canada.
I asked Patricia if she enjoyed being in the army, her answer was simply “it is something we must do”. I then asked her what she thought of the situation between the Israelis and Palestinians, and she abruptly told me that we (the Israelis) must protect our people from these “terrorists”. It was then that I told her that I am a Palestinian, and you have walked me all the way to my boarding gate and have talked to me in a civil manner, why can we not speak always in a civil manner?
She looked flustered and then began to agree with me. I learned that Patricia had never entered the Occupied Territories; she had never seen how the Palestinians suffer each and every day of their lives or what it’s like to grow up in an occupied land. I told Patricia about what an everyday is like for a Palestinian: the continual humiliation, cutting off of water, and electricity, the killing and imprisonment of innocent people, and curfews to name a few. I rhetorically asked her how the Government of Israel can justify for the sake of security, denying access to a pregnant mother who is about to give birth to pass through a checkpoint.
Until our conversation, Patricia had no idea what the Palestinians endure each day of their lives. Patricia asked me what I think the answer to our problem is. And the answer is so simple: end the suffering of the Palestinian people; end the occupation.
How much more proof do we need to see that these people are suffering, how much more collective punishment, how many more demolished homes, how many more mothers will have to cry for the loss of their children, how many more unnecessary checkpoints, how many more Israeli soldiers will have to refuse military occupational duty, how many more suicide bombings will have to occur, before we understand how real this occupation is, and how we have been so negligent as westerners to the outcry of the Palestinians.
The famous anthropologist Margaret Meade once said ” Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that has.” Well I for one intend to be a committed Canadian citizen who will fight and speak out against these crimes of humanity.