Palestinians Aren’t Safe Anywhere, Not Even in their Classrooms

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Mohammad Hamayel was a 15-year-old Palestinian child from Beita village, located south of Nablus, the son of a political prisoner and nephew of two martyrs. His family was expelled from their homes during the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising)

In the past month, Palestinians have witnessed yet another escalation of Zionist violence inflicted onto our homeland without reservation. Israeli warplanes murdered over 250 Palestinians and displaced nearly 100,000 people from their homes during a two-week-long bombardment of the Gaza Strip. In East Jerusalem, lifelong residents of the Palestinian neighborhood, Silwan, receive orders to self-demolish their homes within 21 days. Refusal to meet Israel’s sadistic demands for self-demolition is met with state-sanctioned repression. Immediately following the 21-day deadline, the government will arrive with its own bulldozers, erasing Silwan from existence and replacing the Palestinian neighborhood with an Israeli national park. Meanwhile, martyrs from the West Bank are announced on a daily basis. As I write this, I am running out of space to hold grief for the 15-year-old Mohammad Hamayel, shot dead while he protested against the recent expansion of an illegal Israeli settlement built on his village’s land. Despite the initiation of a so-called ceasefire, tragedies pile atop one another every day—and, unfortunately, none of this feels new to me.

I grew up in the West Bank ten miles outside of Jerusalem, a city close in proximity but nonetheless illusively cut off behind a draconian apartheid wall. My childhood brimmed with fond memories of soccer games and olive picking. Standing on mountaintops with friends, I remember soaking in the distinctly Palestinian sunset, poetic beyond compare. Yet even as I recall these memories of joy, they are simultaneously tainted by a colonial apartheid that relentlessly loomed over our lives. In our kitchen drawers, my family crammed flashlights and candles in preparation for the nights that Israel, at its own discretion, cut off our electricity. I listened to music and chants ringing from down the street, as my neighbors celebrated the long overdue release of their son, a political prisoner, from Israeli detainment. Scrambling home after school, my sister and I slammed our windows shut and locked our doors thrice before the advancement of an IOF (Israeli Occupation Force) [editors’ note: the author is referring to what is officially called the Israeli Defense Force, or IDF] military raid into our neighborhood. Even after moving to the United States, these facts of violence never escaped me but instead morphed into alternate, more tacit forms.

During my first semester at U of I, I sat frozen in a lecture hall as one of my professors raved about his trip to Israel. He glorified it as an educational, eye-opening experience that illuminated the supposed Palestinian-Israeli “conflict” and all of its complex nuances. Eagerly, he listed the cities that he visited in Israel, accompanied by an IOF soldier as his tour guide. While my professor spoke at length about his trip, I closed my eyes in the back of the lecture hall, listened closely to his words, and with all of my focus, attempted to envision the cities that he described. My body shifted in its seat, uncomfortable with the knowledge that my professor’s eyes held more detail than my mind could ever imagine.

Native Palestinians, like myself, from the West Bank and Gaza are barred from entering Israeli cities, built atop the rubble of our ancestors’ villages. Our freedom of movement is obstructed by a 760-kilometer-long apartheid wall, alongside segregated roads and 140 military checkpoints that encage us between scrappy borders. Meanwhile, foreign visitors trek across our ancestral lands with effortless ease, a privilege unknown to the indigenous Palestinian. Foreigners are even afforded special treatment from Zionists, who exploit tourism as an opportunity to further diffuse colonial propaganda. They escort visitors to marvel at Israel’s shiniest buildings and their most vibrant cities, all the while dismissing the existence of an indigenous people entrapped on the other side of the apartheid wall. I stumbled out of class that day dragging heavy feet, wondering how many more moments of implicit, but nonetheless violent, Zionist discourse I will encounter during my university years.

On every corner of this campus, Palestinians are met with persistent reminders of our marginalization and erasure. We are reminded every time we register for new courses, hoping none of our professors hold a bias against our Palestinian identity or our calls for liberation. We are reminded each time we grudgingly mail out our tuition checks, knowing the university willingly invests in companies that fund lethal Israeli military weapons. We are reminded when the university repeatedly conflates anti-Zionism with antisemitism, further legitimizing a silencing tactic that threatens Palestinians from speaking their experiences. We are reminded when the Palestinian students, and Arab students at large, are not even afforded a cultural house on campus to hold space for our grief or our collective healing. We were reminded, unsparingly, during this past finals’ season: the university refused to extend its support to Palestinian students, who attended exams while distracted by the videos of settler mobs chasing and lynching our people in the street.

We are reminded every time we sit through classroom debates concerning the Palestinian question. My peers engage in these discussions sheerly for mental exercise, determined to practice how to leverage their points and counterpoints before applying to law school. Academics parrot the rest of mainstream media by regurgitating lightweight terms like “conflict” or “two sides.” Meanwhile, I wrap myself in silence and remember my grandmother’s neighbor, shot during a routine midnight raid, assassinated by the IOF for his political activism. I remember my seven-year-old self tugging at the ends of my mother’s shirt, while she railed against an IOF soldier who refused my entry into Jerusalem. I remember Palestinians unanimously falling silent at the checkpoint, intentionally amplifying my mother’s defiant voice. I remember how the threat of her arrest electrified me like nothing else. I remember afternoons engulfed with headlines and death counts that blared into my living room. I remember the Eid of 2014, when everyone wore black to mourn the genocide waged against our loved ones in Gaza. I remember grief latched onto faces when four Gazan Palestinian children were killed on that very same day. The boys, four cousins, were playing soccer on the beach when an Israeli airstrike targeted and murdered them. Seven years later, I remember their names: Mohamed Bakr (11), Ahed Bakr (10), Ismail Bakr (9), and Zakariya Bakr (10).

For too long, the “two sides” rhetoric has wrongfully positioned the oppressed and the oppressor on an equal footing. The term Palestinian-Israeli “conflict” dominates mainstream media but remains ridiculously distant from the Palestinians’ material reality: apartheid, forced dispossession, segregation, and land theft in the service of colonialism. As of now, these descriptors have been pushed into the periphery and will remain there until everyone actively works to normalize them. In order for us to realize liberation, we must claim an unequivocal language that accurately reflects the crimes of Israeli apartheid. This is no easy feat, especially for the countless Palestinians who lose their careers and livelihoods when they advocate for our freedom. Everyone, including myself, must unlearn and undo the harmful misinformation that has been legitimized for decades. We must persistently bring up Palestinian liberation to our loved ones, colleagues, professors, and government officials. Through conversations and sustained organizing, we can finally unveil the truth, the names of our martyrs, the traumas left unsaid, and only then will we be free from the violence that has terrorized us, everywhere we go, for 73 years.

Sireen Amra is a Palestinian-American writer and student studying Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a local mutual aid organizer with DefundUIPD and envisions a world free from all forms of structural violence.

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