I admit I'm surprised by the question. The girl is no more than fifteen, sitting quietly among other students her age at a secondary school in Gaza. They're all members of the school parliament – a student body elected by peers and representing them in discussions with school management. I'm with a couple of UN staff and we’ve just spent the past 45 minutes asking them about their activities. They set up peer mediation groups for students with disagreements; they coordinate trips to local organizations, including visits to the elderly; they raise funds to help poor students; they provide support to students traumatized by the latest rocket attacks back in November; they help students with their homework; they keep the school clean. They are articulate, enthusiastic, and eager to talk about their accomplishments. They even put on a slideshow partway through.
I pause a moment before answering the girl. “No,” I say, “not
everyone thinks that. My friends and family know a lot about Palestinians and of the suffering that they are going through. They ask me what your lives are
like; they ask me how a peaceful solution can ever become a reality. They are
genuinely interested in seeing you live a life of dignity, and we all know that
the actions and words of those in power – anywhere – are not necessarily a
reflection of the hearts and minds of the people who must live by their rules.”
Part of my answer is a copout; it's too easy to rely on what friends and
family think because they are sympathetic to Palestinian autonomy and
freedom. But I withhold speaking about the more nuanced reality that exists,
one in which many people are divided on their (often strong and ill-informed)
opinions about Palestinians.
The school bell rings, signalling the start of the afternoon shift; the students are ready to go, but my UN friends ask them if they have any questions for us. As a young girl speaks, my friend nods and translates into English. “She wants to know if people in other countries think that all Palestinians are terrorists.”
For a split second I’m sixteen again and standing on the stage of my high school auditorium at the end of the Christmas play feeling the suffocating heat of my Santa Claus costume and ready to pull it off when a young mother walks up the stairs holding her young son by the hand and tells me he missed Santa at the mall and could he say to me what he wants for Christmas? I want to say Duh I’m not Santa but spot the sad look in the kid’s eyes and realize that maybe this moment means more to him than me so I play along and give him my best Ho-ho-ho and –
– Looking at the dozens of eyes staring back at me waiting for an answer I want to say No of course not don’t be ridiculous. But that isn’t the truth. All you have to do is travel a few kilometres north of the border and ask that question to people on the street and you’ll find at least a some who swear that every man, woman, boy and girl in Gaza is nothing but a terrorist. I want to say No don’t be silly but that just isn’t so. There are people I’ve met who know about my work for Palestine refugees and when I speak of Palestinians’ suffering the response is always “Yes, but” and I grow tired of it. “Yes, but the Palestinians receive millions in donations and the money goes back to firing rockets into Israel.” “Yes, but there are always two sides to the story. Israelis live in constant fear for their safety.” “Yes, but they are the ones who put bombs in baby carriages and kill us.”
|Girls at a secondary school in Gaza.|
The girls I meet are hopeful in a place that is rotten, broken, smashed, bombed, cracked, patched together, and filled with garbage on the streets. Nearly every street corner has a weather weary poster of a martyr brandishing a machine gun looking very Rambo-epic and ready to die. Turn the corner to walk into a school and you see walls plastered with malformed paintings of SpongeBob, Mickey Mouse and Papa Smurf smiling right at you. The juxtaposition of violence and fear with happiness and a safe learning environment is enough to mess anyone up; that the girls still have hope is nothing short of miraculous. I don’t know if my answer means anything to them, but they need to know that their hope has to lead them to a better life.