The ‘smaller’ indignities of occupation

I teach writing at a Palestinian university in the West Bank. Several of my students have been gracious enough to share their experiences with +972, albeit anonymously. This is the third of four short essays. Read parts one and two.

As my siblings and I sat alone in an unfamiliar place waiting for my mother, I tried my best to keep a strong face in front of them. How I felt, on the other hand, was the exact opposite of strong.

It was the middle of July during the summer of 2006, the first time I came to visit Palestine. My mom, my siblings and I, all made the tiring journey across the Atlantic ocean so that we could visit the place we had a connection to. We landed in Tel Aviv Airport at 3 p.m. and I couldn’t have been more excited to see what this “homeland” was all about. But as we made our way to the visa booth, we were escorted into a long hall with empty white rooms. The soldier, who could barely speak English or Arabic, pointed my siblings and I to a single room and took my mom somewhere else.

When I realized what was happening, my panic took over and I rushed to the soldier to tell him to leave us with our mother, but he wasn’t having it. Across the hall was another room with another Arab family, including one older woman. When she saw what was happening she told me to sit down, and not to worry. I couldn’t see how I wasn’t going to worry when I was suddenly in charge of caring for my two-year-old sister, my five-year-old brother and my nine- and 10-year-old sisters. I was only 11 at the time.

We sat there for four hours waiting for my mom, but it felt like a lifetime. No one would tell me where she was, or what we were waiting for.

My siblings, especially the younger ones, wreaked havoc on the area we were waiting in. They screamed, cried, complained about hunger and even decided they needed to use the restroom. At first, I did what I was taught, which was to subdue my siblings into listening to me and behaving, but after an hour of doing that, they just stopped caring. The panic I had been keeping down, finally surfaced and I began to beg every Israeli soldier who passed by me to tell me where my mother was, to no avail. My younger sibling took this advantage to walk out of the room and go on an adventure and I just stood there watching them go from room to room looking for something interesting to do. I had reached my limit, it seemed that we were going to be there all day.

Finally my mom was led back to us and we all took a sigh of relief, especially when she told us that we could finally leave the airport. That day I decided that I was never going to go through the Tel Aviv airport again.

Yes, the Israelis eventually allowed the family to enter the country. But that’s not the point. Not only were these children subjected to discriminatory policies, they went through a frightening experience just because they’re Palestinian. Unsurprisingly, their American passports did not provide them any protection. To Israel, a Palestinian is a Palestinian — regardless of their age or nationality.

My student’s story is also a reminder that the occupation of Palestinian land is not just about arbitrary arrests and imprisonment and death and the violation of freedom of movement. It’s also about the smaller indignities, like a child being separated from her mother at the airport; like not being able to use the restroom; like being corralled into a room, even if one is eventually released. And, eight years later, my student’s reaction to and memory of these “smaller indignities” actually remind that there is no such thing as a small indignity.

More from this series:
‘Land isn’t enough; the army takes olives, too’
‘Dad’s in prison’: A young Palestinian woman speaks