Welcome to Law & Za’atar
JOHN DYLAN VAN HOUCKE
In the spring of 2013 Sophie Bones, Eddy Perello – two of my closest friends – and I decided to Israel and Palestine because we wanted to see the manner in which Palestine is occupied by the Israeli with our own eyes. We asked my father Stan van Houcke, who is a journalist who had been to Israel and Palestine several times before and has written extensively about the occupation, to come with us and act as our guide. Drawing on the contacts he had made in the past trips, Stan organized meetings for the four of us with people from both Israeli and Palestinian NGOs. During our ten day stay visited the old city of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Hebron. We intended to also visit the city of Nablus but were advised not to as a couple days before our arrival a Palestinian child had been shot by an Israeli soldier. Every day we spoke to people from at least one NGO and spoke to numerous Palestinian civilians. Everyone we spoke to had their own story, their own hurt, and grief caused by actions by the Israeli occupation of their land.
I was surprised to discover, however, that despite the fact that there was not a day that they were not reminded they lived in an occupied country the Palestinians are far more positive, accommodating and, most surprisingly, willing to forgive than any population you find in the West. Wherever we went we were welcomed with open arms and even in the refugee camps people would invite us to come to their homes for food or some tea. When on our second day in Palestine an Israeli soldier, intending to hit a Palestinian guy that walked passed us, pepper sprayed Bones and me with military grade pepper spray – something that feels like hot ash has blown into your eyes – Palestinian shopkeepers came running out with bottles of water to wash it away. “Welcome to Palestine”, one of the shopkeepers jokingly said before forcing the Israeli soldier to apologize to us. Realising his mistake in pepper spraying to Westerners the Israeli soldier reluctantly complied. A small personal victory for the shopkeeper that had seized what is probably the first and last time he could get an Israeli soldier to apologize for something he or she did.
I did, however, not realise at the time how admirable the positivity of the Palestinians is until the penultimate day of our trip. The day before our flight back to London we arrived in Tel Aviv, which is best described as a North American city on the Mediterranean. The luxury of Tel Aviv with its beautiful sandy beach and warm sea came as a welcome relief after two weeks in Palestinian territories. Bones, Eddy and I spent most of the day swimming and later had dinner at a modern Mediterranean restaurant and struck up a conversation with the two 30-something-year-olds sitting on the table next to us. Both women introduced themselves as Polish-Israeli and confessed never to have been to the Palestinian territories themselves. Even though they emphatically told us that the situation of the Palestinians is not as bad as the European media portrays it and that nowhere in the world “Arabs” – Israeli often refuse to use the name Palestinians as they deny the existence of the Palestinians as a people or nation – have as good a life as in Palestine. Understanding that we were not going to be able to convince these women of their ignorance my friends and I only made a half-hearted attempt at protest.
Anger had been building up over the two weeks and on the way back I was overwhelmed with the most intense feeling of anger and hatred; anger at the oppression of the Palestinians and hatred of the Israeli oppressors and the two Israeli women and their ignorance of what is happening less than thirty kilometers away. But most of all, I was angry at myself because I had let myself forget about the situation of the Palestinians at several points during the day. Moreover, I was angry with myself for being so full of anger and hatred even though for two weeks the Palestinians had shown us nothing but positivity. Never in my life before had I felt that much like a spoiled and sheltered white brat. Never in my life had I felt as low as I did at that moment. I burst out in tears and did not stop crying for about an hour. The three of us sat down on the beach, staring out over the dark Mediterranean Sea in silence, unable to vocalize our emotions.
It took me months after returning from Palestine to shake the feeling of constant anger I had with the world. I recognized a similarity with the mood my father often had in the weeks after he came back from places like Palestine, full of anger and disillusionment, especially with his journalistic peers. But at the same time he always came back with stories about the kindness and positivity of the people he met and the pride these people had in their culture. Sadly the negative had completely overshadowed the positive and only after months I started remembering the Palestinians the way they are. Proud of their culture and traditions, positive about their future and most of all full of forgiveness for the Israeli people whose government has oppressed the Palestinian people for generations. I started to remember the great food we had, the warmth of the deep colours of the land, the beauty of buildings that have stood there for hundreds if not thousands of years and the atmosphere created by the five Muslim Prayers – Fajr, Dhuhr, Asr, Maghrib and Isha’a – which were broadcast over loudspeakers from the Mosques and could be heard throughout the Palestinian cities.
Which brings me to the reason I created this blog. For the months of November and December I will live in Ramallah to do research, for my Ph.D., on the limits on the socio-economic self-determination of the Palestinian people. I will set out a basic explanation of my research topic in another post on this blog. I was blind to the true Palestine because of my focus on the negative during the ten days that I was there with my father and friends . I do not want to let this happen again and, therefore, want to use this blog to write about things I see, think and experience during my upcoming time there. On this blog I will write about international legal issues regarding the illegal occupation of Palestine as a means to unburden but will also write about the people I meet, and the food I eat, hence the inclusion of ‘za’atar’ in the title of this blog – for people that might be reading this and are not aware of Middle-Eastern cuisine, za’atar is a Middle-Eastern spice blend. This will, hopefully, help me to get a better understanding of what life in Palestine is really like and maybe even about what kind of person I am. Following this blog and its eclectic mixture of a legal, food and travel blog will probably only be interesting for family members and a small group of people but then again it will be mainly written for myself.