Normal – that’s the watchword. During our 2015, July/August Interfaith Peace-Builders delegation’s first meeting here in Palestine, the phrase “a normal life,” and the general idea of “normalcy” was repeated by those speaking to us at the Youth Center in the al-Bustan neighborhood of Silwan. Our guide for the day spoke of just wanting a normal life. His village of Silwan suffers regular home demolitions which systematically displace Palestinians as part of this ongoing Israeli public policy. It’s also known for its high rate minors (children) being illegally apprehended by heavily armed soldiers, often in the dead of night, and taken into administrative detention.
Muslim, a 15 year old boy from Silwan, spoke to us about being arrested 15 times – presumably for throwing stones – since he was 9 years old. For Muslim and hundreds of other minors subject to administrative detention, being arrested often means being beaten, deported out of your hometown or village, being separated for extended periods from your family, being afforded no legal representation, having no formal charge lodged against you, etc… One of Muslim’s arrests had him jailed for 8 days, forcing him to miss a good amount of school while he was confined to a prison cell. When asked by a member of our delegation what the jail was like, he replied, “4 walls. No sun. No air.” This is the current “normal” in Silwan and many other Palestinian villages and refugee camps.
Our delegation’s next meeting, via Skype, was with an American Friends Service Committee youth group in Gaza. Throughout the discussion with these young adults from Gaza (which is quite literally the world’s largest open air prison), the desire for a “normal life” was specifically mentioned again. Despite being periodically assaulted over the last 6-7 years (2008-09 Operation Cast Lead, 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, 2014 Operation Protective Edge, etc…), leveling their infrastructure, killing thousands, including hundreds of children, creating mass unemployment, etc., these kids keep moving forward. This is their “normal” since the illegal blockade of collective punishment was imposed on Gaza by Israel in 2007. These youth somehow remain vital and actually retain a sense of humor in their talk with our delegation. It is near miraculous.
In solidarity circles, the term “normalization” is oft used and is a big term in the Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions movement. Our meeting with one of the main leaders of this movement, Omar Barghouti, touched on this normalization concept. There are many interpretations and shades of what this concept means, but in a general way, it means if one tries to simply make the occupation more comfortable to live under, as opposed to resisting it, one “normalizes” the occupation. Situation normal… SNAFU.
When we met with Nomika Zion (Other Voices) in Sderot, she told us that in most all of Israeli society, “[T]he occupation is second nature… [This] means you don’t see it anymore.” This is another way of saying that it has become normalized. And she meant this in the most negative sense. She also directly referred to the situation between Sderot and Gaza as “abnormal.” Since the illegal blockade of Gaza, Sderot is one of the Israeli towns close enough to the Gaza border to consistently receive their retaliatory rocket fire. Nomika’s two references to normality were extremely tame compared to other criticisms she had for Israeli action, policy and society. For someone who has lived under the threat of rocket attacks from Gaza to still be so honestly self-critical of her own society’s behavior and policy is brave and illuminating. She is a living lesson.
When Benjamin Netanyahu and countless other politicians and pundits refer to Israel as “the only Democracy in the Middle East,” they are trying to convince the West that we share a similar standard of democratic “normalcy.” And when seen through the prism of other colonial enterprises historically, Israel’s illegal occupation and systematic abuse of International Law can appear, in away, normal. But in another much more profound way, when seen up close and in detail, it’s gruesomely abnormal. They’ve transformed a perverse abnormality into their own, relatively unique, normalcy.
Israel’s normalization of the abnormal is mirrored in the U.S. by the alarming rate of our cops killing our own innocent, unarmed black civilians. The situation in the states is not as bad as in Israel, but the parallels are clear. And this is not to minimize what is happening to black men and women in the U.S. It feels like it’s getting noticeably worse by the week. Reading about another U.S. police officer killing another unarmed black civilian in our newspapers back home is becoming way too normal.
Last March in Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer wrote this of Israelis’ relationship to their own country: “Deep down, they know normalcy is an illusion.” But it’s not an illusion. It’s a choice. They’re choosing supremacy over normalcy.
So what’s the “normal” bottom line? I see both Israel and the U.S. espousing a desire for creating a normal situation for the Palestinians and Israelis, while actively working against one. Their conception of “normal” for the Palestinians seems unfortunately, and thoroughly, linked to their own control and repression of another people. On the other hand, everything I’ve heard and seen here from the Palestinians themselves during our delegation points to their conception of “normal” as containing true universal and equal human rights. Something much closer to what true democratic (and hopefully still, American) ideals represent. It’s about freedom, equality and justice. Got Normal?