Zaina Awad was born and raised in Jerusalem, Palestine. Majoring in Anthropology with a special interest in community health and development, Zaina graduated from Princeton University in 2009. Following graduation, Zaina had the opportunity to work as a Princeton AlumniCorps fellow at the World Faiths Development Dialogue in Washington, DC. Afterwards, Zaina returned home to Jerusalem, where she currently works with the Madrasati Palestine Initiative – a project that aims to improve the quality of education in a selection of the neediest schools in the area. Some of Zaina’s favourite hobbies while living in Palestine include exploring Jerusalem’s Old City, riding bikes in Jericho, and indulging in a newly found passion for hummus and falafel.
March 8, 2012
Under the Burden of Proof
My office is located inside Jerusalem’s Old City, just next to the Al Aqsa Mosque compound. Our balcony overlooks the Dome of the Rock; all that separates us is a wire fence and security cameras. Because of our close proximity to the compound, where clashes between Muslims and Jews often taken place, the Israeli Occupation Forces routinely conduct checks on the fence to ensure that no one can enter without their permission.
About a month ago, an armed Israeli soldier stormed into our office because one of our visitors had taken a picture of the mosque from our balcony. He shouted angrily at my boss – a young woman – for allowing the visitor to take the photograph, which he claimed compromised the security of the compound. Hearing the yelling, my colleague, who was the only male in the office at the time, rushed to her side. The situation quickly escalated into a physical confrontation, one that the soldier accused my colleague of initiating. This was untrue. My boss had asked the soldier not to storm into the office again, because it is a working environment and a private building. The soldier informed her that he could do whatever he liked in our office because it was he who was in charge. My colleague responded with a sarcastic comment, and the soldier reacted by shoving him angrily.
Scared of what would happen to our colleague if the fight continued, we pulled him into the adjoining room. We tried to keep him calm, which was made especially difficult by the insults the soldier yelled from next door. The soldier radioed several fellow officers to come and arrest my colleague. My boss frantically tried convincing them that our colleague had merely acted out of self-defense, but it was of no use. Because the eyewitnesses were Palestinian, their accounts of the incident were meaningless and held no weight against the word of an Israeli soldier. They dragged my colleague to prison.
Incidents like these are not atypical here. As can be expected, they are frustrating, upsetting, and frightening. But they are also so disturbing, because it seems that Palestinians have grown almost used to living in a reality where we are being stripped of our human rights. Yet, when dealing with outsiders, it seems to be Palestinians who are under the constant obligation to prove their legitimacy. It appears that we are irrationally held to higher standards than most; we are guilty until proven innocent.
For instance, faced with eviction, a family in the Palestinian village of Silwan is caught up in a legal battle to prove that they are the rightful owners of their home – a fact that is being contested in an Israeli court even though the family holds the deeds and has lived there for generations past. Despite this, the court plans to evict this family in favor of a party that has no legal ties to the property, yet are being granted ownership based on apparently irrefutable religious claims to the land in general. Palestinian juveniles are imprisoned indefinitely under abysmal conditions, without trial, charge, or evidence against them. All Palestinians, young and old, are forced to endure humiliating and invasive searches at checkpoints, in order to prove that they are not carrying weapons. After living under an illegal occupation for more than sixty years, Palestinians are called upon to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Yet, Israel has never considered the rights of the Palestinians it has displaced and continues to displace in the creation and expansion of that state.
Living under occupation, Palestinians face unremitting degradation and a lack of control over their lives. This is a reality that we are never allowed to forget. Even in the best of circumstances, we know that the safe spaces we have built can be shattered quickly and easily because our lives are under someone else’s control. The evidence is everywhere – on our roads, in our schools, and in our offices.
A couple of weeks after the incident in my office, a bus carrying Palestinian kindergarten students crashed into an oncoming truck near the Jaba’a checkpoint, just south of Ramallah in the West Bank. The bus was originally headed toward a playground in Ramallah, but the driver made the last-minute decision to turn back because of heavy rain and slippery roads. Upon collision with the truck, the bus flipped onto its side and was soon engulfed in flames; at least five children and one school teacher were killed, and more than thirty children were hospitalized with burns and other serious injuries.
Almost immediately after the bus crash, hospitals in Jerusalem and Ramallah issued urgent requests for blood donations for the injured children. The word spread remarkably quickly. Within half an hour of the announcement, my colleagues and I had arrived at a hospital to donate blood. We found it so full of others wanting to donate that the doctors had begun turning them away.
Waiting in that crowded room, seeing people pour in to help, was a remarkably humbling experience. Perhaps two of the most salient emotions I associate with being Palestinian are helplessness and hopelessness. Yet, what I witnessed in the hospital that sad day served as a powerful and much-needed reminder of what it is that, in fact, unites and defines Palestinians. It is not violence or powerlessness. It is our loyalty to one another, our humanity, and our resilience. Even when our legitimacy is constantly being questioned and undermined, these are all attributes that can never be taken away from us. And, in the famous words of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, we will remain “Standing here, staying here, permanent here, eternal here. We have one goal, one, one: to be.”