I spent my last hour in Palestine listening to the stories of a man named Obada. As he drove me along the windy back roads to the airport, he distracted me from my profound sadness at leaving by telling me about all the people he’d driven, and of the changes he’d seen his country endure.
“Ten years ago, you could not drive through the Central West Bank safely. You were taking a real risk. Now, 40 minutes and you can be in Tel Aviv.”
In one sense, he was right. Conditions on the ground for people in the West Bank have improved in the last ten years. The intifada ended long ago, freedom of movement has eased, the foreigners have returned and with them aid money.
Yet, as life has grown more comfortable, the bitterness engendered by the stagnated political situation has not waned. Daily life is tainted by the khaki-green presence of military force, hiding behind bulletproof glass and concrete walls.
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Obada himself was involved in the recent wedding of a friend. Israeli soldiers had stopped the bride and groom at a checkpoint on their way to Bethlehem, not permitting the bride, a foreigner, to continue due to some minor visa issue. The entire wedding was in jeopardy, and as the couple grew increasingly exasperated, it became clear that an alternative solution was needed. Backing away from the checkpoint, the wedding party (led by Obada) tried a lengthy back route that eventually brought them to Bethlehem, hours later than intended. The celebration continued as planned, with the party starting at 3am. Somehow, even under the worst conditions, life goes on.
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In other ways, nothing at all has changed in the years since the intifada. Just a few days prior to my departure, I spoke with a family that owned a candy factory in the old city of Nablus. Within minutes of our introductions they pointed to a faded picture on the wall, a memorial to their martyred brother. The word “shaheed” permeates Palestinian culture, the label of “martyr” having touched too many families in this region. Last week, a 17-year-old boy from Hebron was shot on his birthday, unwittingly becoming the latest fighter lost to the greater struggle. The violence of the intifada may be long over, but the list of the shuhada continues to lengthen.
I moved to Palestine with so many arguments that needed to be settled, questions I sought to understand. By the time I left, none had been answered (satisfactorily at least), but that didn’t seem to matter any more. In the year I spent living in the West Bank, no matter how many articles I read or skeptics I debated or checkpoint soldiers I had to face, nothing affected me more than the stories like the one Obada shared with me.
There was no common lesson to take away from all these personal narratives, only that everyone in Palestine has a story to tell. No one’s life remains unaffected by the occupation. So in the end, perhaps the best thing we can do, perhaps the best thing we should do, is simply to listen.