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On the humanity of the grieving - Emily L. Hauser

March 25, 2011 10:43 A.M. (Updated: March 26, 2011 6:56 P.M.)
On Wednesday a bomb went off in Jerusalem at a busy bus stop, killing a British tourist and injuring 30 others.

I haven’t lived in Israel for a while, since the summer of 1998. I go back a lot, and nearly every time I'm there, something awful happens, but all of my living-breathing knowledge of living with terrorism is well over a decade old.

And yet.

I can still feel the pounding in my veins, still see the odd narrowing of my vision, as the news comes through — over the kitchen radio, from a taxi driver, from a sudden, crackling awareness among the people in the grocery store: Haya pigua – There was an attack.

Suddenly, you don’t know where you are, what you were meant to do. Where did it happen? Without meaning to, you calculate the last time you were in that same place, on that same bus. Where is everyone? Is there any reason to think someone you love may have been there when it happened? Phone calls are made, assurances gathered and given. In some cases, I remember, the attacks were so ferocious, involving so much death, that Israel’s phone system crashed, and no one could get through to anyone.

I was a reporter for much of the worst of the ’90s waves of terror, so I would invariably have to shake myself loose of all that, call my bosses, grab a notebook, and either hit the streets or start translating the news.

There was the time that the bombing was two half-blocks from my apartment, which was handy because I had access to a bathroom.

There was the time it was at a popular shopping mall and, being a reporter, I sneaked past police to get closer to the site of the explosion, to better see what remained. I found myself near a pay phone, so I called my sister in Chicago: “I’m at the site of a bombing, but I’m only reporting it. I’m fine.” (She thought that odd, if memory serves).

I saw things that were the kinds of things you don’t want to talk about, and later find yourself having to talk about. I remember very clearly, one night, after a day of reporting, suddenly standing stock-still in my hallway, and then sinking to the floor, weeping. I would shake myself loose to do my job, but the horror always came back.

And so when I heard the news, the horror came back. These are my people, that Jerusalem bus stop a place I’ve stood more times than I can possibly calculate — what can I do? I feel my own losses more sharply, the air escapes the room more quickly, than when the losses belong to someone else. I know that fear the people felt in Jerusalem, that stunned confusion, that aimless wandering or eating or paging through newspapers without seeing a thing, because a little piece of your mind just shattered along with your sense of safety. I know it.

What I don’t know — what I honestly find myself struggling to understand today — is how Israelis cannot seem to translate their experience to that of the Palestinian people.

The attack in Jerusalem was the first such attack in three years. Do you know when Palestinians in Gaza were last bombed by Israeli planes? Yesterday.

And the day before.

On Tuesday, eight Palestinians were killed, four of them civilians, one 11 years old. The same age as my son. I’ve been watching as Palestinians on Twitter warn each other to be safe — Israeli fighters were just seen in the sky, they write. There was just a loud explosion – a second – a third – now a fourth! Even before the Jerusalem bombing, Haaretz was telling us that, between Israeli raids and Palestinian rockets in response to those raids, “a small war” was flaring up along the Gaza border.

The fear I remember so clearly, the slowing of time, the constriction in the chest and terror in the heart — the very horror wreaked in Jerusalem — is the stuff of near-daily life for Palestinians in Gaza. It happens all the time. Only occasionally do we hear of it, yet it happens all the time. And as someone pointed out to me on Twitter, when Palestinians call to make sure their loved ones are in one piece — the answer is far more often “no.” During the 2008-2009 Gaza war, Israeli forces killed about 1,400 Palestinians; Palestinians killed nine Israelis. Between 2009 and January, 2011, Israelis killed 151 Palestinians; Palestinians killed nine Israelis.

I understand that Israelis are frightened. That they are steeped in an existential fear that they are told, over and over again, is the only thing keeping them alive. I understand that to let go of that fear just enough to see the fear and devastation on the other side would require letting go of decades of lived experience, powerful beliefs taught as knowledge, a constructed narrative that is felt to be truth. I understand that such change is tremendously difficult. Fear is often the safest place we can find.

But for all that understanding, I still can’t understand. How can Israelis not recognize Palestinian fear, so like our own — only more so? How can they not recognize the blood and the grief — so like our own, only in greater numbers? How can they not understand that when one side wages war, the other tends to fight back, even if our side doesn’t think they should?

How can we not see that Palestinians are as human as we are?

The woman killed Wednesday by a Palestinian’s hand is gone forever. Never to shop for birthday presents again, never to talk with friends over coffee. Never to hold a loved one, never to smile, or cry, again. The 11-year-old boy killed Tuesday by Israel’s hands — by my hands — will never learn geometry, never fall in love, never hold his own child, never smile, or cry, again. The pain is bottomless and endless. And it is the same.

We have become — we have made ourselves — like the idols we read about in Psalms: “Eyes they have, but they cannot see; ears they have, but they cannot hear.”

We blind ourselves, and seal our ears, and forfeit another little piece of our own humanity, every day. And the bombs continue, and the blood flows, and it never ends, because we choose not to end it.

Emily L. Hauser is an American-Israeli freelance writer; she has written about the contemporary Middle East since the early 1990s. A version of this op-ed first appeared on Hauser's blog and is republished here with permission from the author. Follow her on Twitter.
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