15 December 2005 Edition
Interview - Giving a voice to the voiceless in Palestine
Journalist and author Kenizé Mourad talks to An Phoblacht about her experiences in documenting the plight of the Palestinians
Kenizé Mourad has been a journalist for 20 years, and an author for 18. For Mourad, writing was a journey to discover herself and to build a bridge between her ancestry and her circumstances. She is Muslim and part Turkish, part Indian. She was brought up in France and educated by Catholic nuns.
After her two books, the best known being Regards from the Death Princess, dealing with the story of her mother, an Ottoman Princess, Mourad returned to documenting the harsh realities of the Middle East for the French newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur and wrote a book, Our Sacred Land, Voices of the Palestine-Israel conflict — "about the lives of ordinary people in Palestine and Israel".
Reading the book you realise that the voice you may be hearing is Kenizé's Mourad, but that the words are those of Palestinian homeless Salim, whose house has been bulldozed three times by the Israelis because they refuse to give him a permission to build; or Itaï, an Israeli Conscientious Objector who is refusing to serve in the Israeli Army in the occupied territories, or of Hussam, the little nine-year-old boy who will never walk again because he was shot by Israeli soldiers "just for fun".
There is pain, little hope and frustration in the words of Mourad, as there is in the current Palestine-Israel situation.
Mourad cannot but empathise with the Palestinians: "The only people who have been thrown out of their country. As consequence their lives are horrendous," and whose portrayal by mainstream international media is so "biased" against them and in favour of the Israeli administration.
Mourad finds that "papers are not doing their jobs very well" and that the pro-Zionist lobby has a strong presence in the international media. Even in France, a country often regarded as being sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, Mourad encountered difficulties in finding a publisher or even to get her book reviewed.
Recently, eighty-year-old Edgard Morin, the famous French sociologist of Sephardic Jewish origin has been sentenced to a symbolic fine of one Euro, together with the French newspaper Le Monde, for racial defamation. According to the appeals court of Versailles, an article by the sociologist on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict contains anti-semitic affirmations. The article, published three years ago, attacks the policies of the Sharon government. But the association France-Israel had contested two passages: "It is hard to imagine a nation of fugitives, originated by a people that has been persecuted longer than any other in the history of humanity, that had suffered the worst humiliations and scorn, being able to transform itself in the space of two generations into a people that is a dominator and self-assured, and with the exception of an admirable minority, into a people that is arrogant and derives satisfaction in humiliating."
The other phrase that was condemned was: "The Jews, who were victim of a merciless order impose their merciless order upon the Palestinians."
Mourad believes that this sentence demonstrates that: "France has gone mad." Journalists living and working in Israel try their best not to suffer similar experiences as Mourad. "For a start, it was very difficult to enter Israel. I had to travel through Tel Aviv and it was only because I had a letter from the French Consulate that I could get in," she explains.
"When I left the country I was searched for four hours and after that they told me that they did not have time to search my suitcase and that my options were to stay or to leave without it. It is non-stop harassment."
Mourad found that it was easier to approach ordinary people and get them to talk. However, Israeli suspicion towards of the media and Europeans, who they consider pro-Arab, had to be overcome. "It was difficult with some Israeli people." But Palestinians "were anxious to talk, because their voice is never heard".
Her book, featuring portraits and interviews with ordinary men, women and children from Israel and Palestine, puts a human face on a conflict where numbers do not seem significant anymore. "Ten deaths, 20 deaths. After a while they fail to impress anymore. So, maybe, if you show the history of individuals and the terrible situations they are living in, they would understand. It could, in a way, open the eyes of many people," she explains.
The book presents the voices, ideas and views of all those interviewed. But Mourad never hides her empathy for the Palestinians and on occasion you can feel how she had to bite her tongue in order to allow for the partial, biased and racist views of some Israelis to be expressed.
The context also sheds light on the situation. The wealth within Israel is contrasted with the misery and deprivation of Palestinians. Israeli fear of suicide bombers: "Eighty percent of Palestinians I interview find bombs against civilians disgusting," is juxtaposed with the gratuity of the violence that Israeli settlers and soldiers inflict on the Palestinian population. "The soldiers shoot at children who throw stones against the tanks. And when you ask eight-year-old children why do they throw stones, they tell you they have to defend and free their country, or that the soldiers have beaten or taken away their fathers, mothers, brothers, or killed their friends," explains Mourad.
She refutes the idea, propagated by the media, that mothers would send their children to throw stones. "They cried and said that it was an outrageous suggestion. They are living in a very restricted space and in dire conditions. Kids have to play on the street and despite threats and punishments, kids still will go and throw stones against their mothers' will."
There are so many stories, like Salim Shawamreh, who is building his house for a fourth time, after it had been demolished by the Israelis because it was built without a permit. It effectively means Palestinians cannot build new houses, as permits are not being issued by the Israeli authorities. When Mourad talked to him, he was already rebuilding his house for a fourth time with the help of the Israeli Committee against House Demolition. "Anyone in the world who has their land occupied and does not fight back is an animal," Salim said. Jeff Harper, co-ordinator of the committee, explains that house demolition is part of a policy designed to confine Palestinians to small islands in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, "in order to keep as much land as possible free for Israeli people" and so to continue to expand the settlements.
Palestinian farmers face systematic attacks by settlers when they go to work their land. "Why do they do this? Well, because there is a law in Israel that says that the land that has not been tilled for one year is taken by the government and then, of course, given to the settlers," explains Mourad.
As Palestinians risk injury, rabbis like Jeremy Milgrom of Rabbis for Human Rights, act as human shields to help the farmers gather their crops and work their land.
But for each person seeking understanding and negotiation, there are many Israelis that do not want to recognise any rights for Palestinians. In some case, not even their existence. This is the case of Dr Tubiana, a settler from Pisgot, who maintains that Palestinian people are a concept created by anti-Semitic Europeans. "The Palestinian people never existed; you invented them. They have never existed," he proclaims.
Clearly, the Israeli establishment has a clear position. They want Palestinians to leave. Benny Allon, who served under Sharon's government, has said: "We must make their life so difficult that they will leave of their own accord."
"It is admirable how some Palestinians stay, though some also leave," muses Mourad. In her experience, occupation interferes with every aspect of ordinary life. Families do not see each other because it is impossible for them to travel due to checkpoints and curfews.
Christine Koury is a young Palestinian woman who had a young child and was pregnant at the time she met Mourad. She is from Jerusalem, and holds a blue card that allows her to travel freely. But her husband, from Ramallah, cannot go into Jerusalem. So, she is forced to live in Ramallah and travel for hours everyday to go to work, as Israel will not produce a permit for her husband and she does not want to loose her job and blue card. Another example is Maha, who like many students had to face curfews during her equivalent of the Leaving Cert examinations. Then, there is the hunger and violence against Palestinian children. According to figures from USAID, an American aid organisation for international development, in August 2002, 30% of Palestinian children suffered from chronic malnutrition and 21% from acute malnutrition.
Since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, in September 2000, there have been 603 Palestinian children killed by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights monitoring group, reported that of these 603 Palestinian children killed, 529 (87.7%) were not involved in any hostilities when they were killed, with ambiguous data on another 31 children. It is estimated that two-thirds of all injuries are to Palestinian minors (those under 18 years of age). Defence for Children International estimates that from the beginning of the first intifada and until April 2003, at least 4,816 Palestinian children were injured, with the majority of injuries happening as a result of Israeli Army activity, and a small fraction of those injuries being at the hands of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Another cause of injury has been unexploded ordinance (UXO). Since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, at least eleven Palestinians under the age of 17 have been injured by Israeli security forces' munitions' remnants.
As her book reflects, Palestinians and Israelis place very little trust in the international community. Those who do not want a negotiated settlement among the Israelis just laugh off any reference to United Nations. Among Palestinians there is a feeling that they have been forgotten and abandoned. "The US, and many European countries, sell weapons to Israel," points out Mourad, "so Palestinians get to feel the injustice of the situation. It is so unjust. It is complete double standards. How can the West give lessons in morality while allowing Palestinians to remain in this situation? People cannot go out, they are spending the little money they have, there is not work as the checkpoints are making it impossible for people to travel to work. People are really desperate, so desperate that some become suicide bombers. When I asked young people whether they would consider becoming a suicide bomber they say that they may do it, because they have not future, no light at the end of the tunnel. Only hunger and humiliation, killings and torture. So they believe that instead of waiting for the soldiers to go to their house and take them, it would be better to kill themselves and kill the soldiers too."
However, according to Mourad there is hope in the support and solidarity of grassroots movements who demonstrate in support of Palestinian rights, trying to keep the Middle East conflict on the agenda and reporting the truth about the situation in Palestine.
Their role is particularly important at a time when the US and Israel are spinning a positive web around Sharon's decision to withdraw from Gaza, that it is really only a transfer plan, with settlers moving from there into the West Bank. "The West Bank is now losing even more territory to Israel. And Israel is also taking the water," warns Mourad.
"In the West Bank, the Israelis are interning all political and social leaders, because they want Palestinians to be without direction, without leadership so they will not be able to negotiate or to liberate themselves. And we know that where there are no political means, there is only the resort to violence."
For Kenizé Mourad, the sadness of the story is that Palestinian and Israeli people could understand each other only if they had the opportunity and willingness to talk. However, Sharon's government is one of the main obstacles to a negotiated solution, as is the attitude of the international community, so ready to turn a blind eye when it comes to the plight of Palestinians.