Last week, I went with my friend Ahmed to Sinjil, his family’s village, to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. As we left Ramallah, I asked Ahmed how long it would take to get to Sinjil. He explained that it used to take around 15 minutes, but following the start of the second intifada Israel prohibited Palestinians from using the main highway that leads from Ramallah to Nablus (and Sinjil, which is between Ramallah and Nablus). Today, Palestinians are still unable to use the road, which instead serves the thousands of settlers who live in the area. Due to the roundabout route Palestinians must take, it takes about 40 minutes to get to Sinjil.
After leaving Ramallah we drove through the village of Birzeit to the area of the Atara checkpoint. “There’s no checkpoint here anymore, right?” I asked Ahmed. When I was last in Ramallah Israel had announced that they had removed the Atara checkpoint as one of their “good gesture” measures to the Palestinians. Soon, however, I saw that this was not the case. While Israel claims that this checkpoint has been removed, there is still a watchtower with soldiers inside and barriers set up, should the soldiers decide to man the checkpoint. When we drove through Atara on the way to Sinjil, the soldiers were inside the watchtower and no cars were being stopped. By the time we returned home, the soldiers were at the barriers checking cars as they went by.
As we continued driving, I could soon see Sinjil on the left, just off of the main road. We could not turn onto this road leading to Sinjil, however, because the main entrance to the village is blocked by a giant mound of dirt and concrete blocks, which Israel dumped at the beginning of the second intifada. We had to drive well past the entrance and wind around the village to enter on a back road. On the road from Ramallah to Nablus you can see many villages whose main entrances are blocked in this way.
After completing our roundabout trip, we pulled up to Ahmed’s grandparent’s house. Inside, I was greeted by warm smiles and welcomed to their home for the holiday. It was no longer about roadblocks and checkpoints and soon two enormous platters of mansaf (lamb with a yogurt sauce served over rice) were in front of me. As we began eating, a man walked into the front room of the house. I looked around and realized that no one knew him. Ahmed’s father offered him a seat and served him a plate of food. Later, they told me that the man suffers from mental problems and had nowhere to go for the Eid. Ahmed’s family gladly took him in.
After the meal, Ahmed’s father took me outside. He pointed to the surrounding hilltops, one by one, and said: “settlement, settlement, settlement, settlement.” The easiest one to spot was directly in front of me, just above a Palestinian village (see picture below). Rows of identical houses covered the hill, each with the same red-shingled roof. On the hill next to it I could see a collection of shacks and small homes. This is how new settlements start. In fact, all the hills surrounding the large settlement were covered with smaller groups of structures. What generally happens, over time, is these outposts grow larger and larger until they are connected to and indistinguishable from the large settlement itself. What started as one hilltop becomes three, four, or five hills with thousands of residents.
While we had come to Sinjil to celebrate the Eid, it was impossible to separate ourselves from the occupation even for an hour. With the roundabout route to Sinjil, the blocking of the village’s main entrance, and the surrounding settlements, the holiday became a mix of celebration/family and the suffocating effects of the occupation. A mix between people trying to live their lives normally and the oppression of an occupying force. This is the reality of life in Palestine, and as I write this, I realize that it sounds like it could be overwhelming. At times, it definitely is, especially with the intricacies of the occupation. Yet, this reality also begins to feel normal.
When I go through checkpoints, for example, I am used to waiting in line for the soldiers to check people. I know the routine very well. I look around and see children who only know this life. They have lived their entire lives under these conditions. It should not be normal for us as human beings to routinize these experiences, but here this reality and process is forced upon people. A major holiday, which should consist only of celebrations, time with family, and a delicious meal, cannot escape this. No one can. This does not mean that people accept this way of life, as this is far from the truth. But, with such a comprehensive system of occupation, what once was “normal” or everyday life is now poisoned by the oppression and these two components (normal routines/daily life and the occupation) can no longer be separated. In this way, the occupation has been normalized. Or, perhaps it just that normal life has been occupied.