This article was written for the Occupied Times newspaper.
On BBC 5 live, Michael Richmond (also of OT fame) was debating the Occupy movement when one of his opponents shrilly suggested, “no one suffers in this country, we have a welfare state”. I felt like I had just ran into a brick wall. This sort of view could only come from someone who has never spent time with the homeless, the destitute or the desperate. The comment oozed a certain complacency that is replicated across middle England. I passionately believe that the challenge for us is to help people understand issues that are alien to their existence. Issues that they have not, and possibly never will, personally experienced. This is no easy task.
I am currently sat in my house pondering the very same conundrum regarding a very different type of occupation. I am currently living in Jayyus, a small farming village in the West Bank which has been living under occupation now for over 45 years. Every aspect of life here is controlled, restricted and made unreliable. Whether we are talking about access to water, employment or education; it can all be taken away at a snap of the fingers.
I passionately believe that part of the problem that enables this occupation to continue rests in European and Israeli citizens inability to imagine what life is really like for Palestinians living here. This is part of the reason why I am here – to try and tell the stories of those living under occupation to those who can affect change, you!
Equally, I believe we face a similar challenge within the Occupy movement. Most people cannot feel what it is like to be on the negative end of our unfair, unequal and deeply discriminatory economic and social system. When we try to reach out to suburbia and tell them the system is falling apart around their ears, they look through their double glazed windows and wonder what on earth we are talking about. We have no choice, it is time to get personal!
It is in light of this that I wanted to share with you a recent experience I have had. Through this experience I hope that I can explain to you the devastating affect that the occupation here in the West Bank is having on ordinary people’s lives throughout the occupied territories. I hope to get you to open up your European double glazed windows and to see the occupation for what it is.
I met with Haney Ameer just a few days ago. Mr Ameer lives on the outskirts of Mas-ha just outside of Qalqiliya in the West Bank. Back in 2003 his house was situated on the path of the proposed separation barrier, 80% of which is built on Palestinian land. When he refused to leave his house, the Israeli government decided to build the barrier around him. His house is now surrounded on all four sides by either walls, fences or the separation barrier. He lives in what looks like a high security prison except he now holds the keys for the one small gate that provides access to his property.
On one side of his house is the 8 meter high concrete separation barrier that scars the landscape for as far as the eye can see. On the other side of his house there is an illegal Israeli settlement which is cut off from him by a barbed wire fence. Flanking each end of his property are locked security gates leading to the military road that track the separation barrier. He is hemmed into his small plot of land on all sides.
Between 2003 and 2006 he lived in his property not owning these keys to access his own property. For three years he relied on the IDF to let him through the security gate each day to return to his own property. It was not uncommon in those days for friends to throw food parcels over the wall so he could feed his wife and children.
I sat outside his broken and bruised property in the fading evening sun just a few days ago. He explained to me he cannot fix any of the broken windows, crumbling walls or holes in the roof as he cannot get a permit off the Israelis to ‘build’ on his own land.
The Israelis offered him a lot of money and a chance to rebuild a bigger and better house on more land wherever he wanted in return for his land. He refused. Why he refused is a mixture of a connection to a family home that has been with him for years, and a slightly more harsh reality. The Palestinians who lived nearby warned him that if he sold up to the Israelis he would no longer be considered a ‘Palestinian’, he would be isolated. An ironic threat given his circumstances.
The meeting comes to a close and he walks us back to the rusted metal gate in the wall. Unlocking the padlock he looks up at the separation barrier and then at the floor. His body forgets what he is doing for a brief moment but his hands are still unlocking the door they have unlocked everyday for the last 6 years.
Mr Ameer lives in the most unimaginable conditions. And this is the point. They are unimaginable. The occupy movement now faces a challenge, to make the unimaginable a reality. We have to make all those who sit behind their double glazing understand that there are people across the UK who are suffering unimaginably because of the gross inequalities in our society. Just as most of you dear readers will struggle to give two hoots about Haney, so most of suburbia will struggle to give two hoots about you! This is our challenge. We have to make people care. This challenge is not related to the degree to which people are suffering, but our ability to enable people empathise with those that are experiencing the suffering.