Shedding the Mentality of the Occupied

By Joharah Baker

Why is it that when a Palestinian motorist approaches a checkpoint, he or she instinctively slows down, rolls down the window and reaches into their pocket to pull out their ID card even before the Israeli soldier hails for the car to stop? And why do Palestinians know to immediately open their suitcases at the airport the moment an Israeli security official approaches them for questioning even before the actual request is made?

This does not happen with non-Palestinians or even Palestinians abroad. This mentality only plagues those unfortunate enough to have spent the majority of their lives under the Israeli occupation and have, at some level, accepted the stigma of the occupied. And naturally, being the occupied rather than the occupier entails being delegated to the category of second and even third class citizen.

This is not to say that the Palestinians are not acutely aware of their occupied status. The decades’ old Palestinian resistance movement is proof of their understanding that being an occupied people is less than an enviable position. However, a distinction should be made here between the political awareness of a national status and the state of being of the people who have grown accustomed to turning – albeit begrudgingly – to a hostile power in order that their everyday lives to proceed as smoothly as possible.

While some can argue that this mentality of simply resigning to the reality is a form of self-preservation and a means of sustainability, there is a perilous side effect to it. Once a person – or people in this case – accept their plight, they inadvertently lower their own standards and expectations. In the case of the Palestinians, there are precious few of us who question why we automatically offer our ID cards or willingly lift our shirts at a checkpoint at a mere gesture from an Israeli soldier.

To be fair, it is not all the fault of the people. Having lived for over 40 years under Israeli occupation means two generations of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem know nothing else. Our children expect us to pull out our ID cards or slow down at a checkpoint. We, as parents and as adults have conditioned them to this, which is extremely unfortunate. Even as I write these words, I am guilty of this very thing. My children play a “Palestinianized” version of “cops and robbers” which they call “the checkpoint” stopping each other and handing out imaginary ID cards.

No doubt, this is also not completely a flaw on our part. Checkpoints are an undisputable reality in our lives, which we are forced to deal with one way or the other. This is not to mention that defying an army soldier manning a checkpoint could mean being shot to death, imprisoned or if nothing else, humiliated and harassed.

However, it remains our duty as leaders, parents and educators to teach our children to at least question this plight we have found ourselves in and to never accept it blindly, because once we do, it will be that much harder to break out of it.

Mahatma Gandhi hit the nail right on the head. He refused to accept the rank of second class citizen even if this meant that scores of his people met their deaths in defiance of the British colonial authority. Gandhi taught the world that even defiance in the form of a grain of salt symbolized a cause and a threat to those who wished to dominate.

While civil disobedience may not be the ideal or only avenue for the Palestinians in their push towards liberation, some of its attributes should certainly be adopted if we are to free ourselves of this imprisoning mentality. Unfortunately, we have fallen so far into the swamp of the occupied/occupier relationship, it is seemingly unfathomable to imagine any other interaction.

However, imagine 200 or 300 people at any given checkpoint – take your pick from among the over 500 of them peppered throughout the West Bank – refusing to hand over their IDs. The Israeli soldiers will panic, perhaps arrest a handful, close the checkpoint for hours and at worst, open fire on the people. Regardless of the consequences, the next day the people come back to the checkpoint and refuse to comply with the soldiers’ orders. The third day is the same, and so on and so forth until the Israelis understand that perhaps a reassessment of this particular checkpoint is in order.

Another example would be the actual proclamation of late President Yasser Arafat in 2001 when he vowed that despite Israel’s blockade, he would travel to Bethlehem to attend Christmas Mass. Of course he didn’t go through with it. But what if he had rallied thousands of eager citizens around him and marched across the checkpoint regardless of the barbed wire, heavily armed Israeli military and offending iron turnstiles. Perhaps, such a bold move from the leader of this people would have emboldened the masses to carry out further acts of civil disobedience and gradually changed the mentality from an occupied nation to defiant people power.

There have been instances of civil disobedience in the past, so it is not as if the concept were completely foreign to the Palestinians. It was dabbled with during the first Intifada in 1989 years before the Palestinian Authority was created. The residents of the Bethlehem-area town of Beit Sahour took it upon themselves to refuse to pay Israeli taxes. “We will not finance the bullets that kill our children, the growing number of prisons, the expenses of the occupying army. We want no more than what you have: freedom…” read part of the town’s statement. Israel eventually declared the town a “closed military zone”, cut off telephone lines and confiscated goods from homes. However, international support flooded into Beit Sahour and the tax resistance continued until the inception of the PA in 1994.

This brings us to the last and perhaps most important point of all. Courageous moves require courageous leaders. The power of the mind should never be underestimated. If a people aspire towards liberation, they must also think as a liberated people. As ambitious as this may sound, it is within reach. No one said it better than the great Mahatma Gandhi himself. “We must become the change we want to see.”

-Joharah Baker is a writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (This article was first published in Miftah.org and is republished by PalestineChronicle.com with permission)

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