The Palestinian News and Info Agency (WAFA) reported that during a speech at Khan al-Ahmar, marking 30 years since the establishment of B’Tselem, Executive Director of the Israeli human rights center, Hagai El-Ad delivered the following speech:
“When you work for thirty years you learn a few things. Here’s what we’ve learned since 1989.”
We’ve learned the noble principles that are the foundations of our work: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which decrees that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”, and the biblical verse that inspired our name, B’Tselem – literally, in the image: “And God created humankind in His image. In the image of God did He create them.”
But we’ve learned, too, that rather than serving as principles to be fulfilled, they can also be drained of any meaning after Israeli lawyers charge, trampling them under foot and then market it all to the outside world as “justice”. Free and equal? We’ve learned that the stretch of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is run by one government, ruling over all people with a conviction that only Israelis are worthy of freedom and equality, not Palestinians.
We’ve learned that there is not an inch of Palestinian land that Israel can’t find justification to take over and do with whatever it pleases. We’ve learned that there is no Palestinian home the demolition of which an Israeli judge won’t justify with lofty legal verbiage.
We’ve learned that there is no Palestinian victim – a three-year-old child, a fourteen-year-old youth, a whole family – whose killing the Israeli system cannot expertly whitewash. There will be an investigation, there won’t be an investigation, the file has been lost, no suspect has been named – the details change but the outcome remains the same: death and violence with impunity.
We’ve learned there’s hardly any aspect of Palestinian life that Israel can’t arbitrarily subject to a permit, a checkpoint, a paper-pusher or a soldier.
We’ve learned that demographic reengineering of physical space – with decrees, expulsions or demolitions – can be official government policy. We’ve learned that a Palestinian can go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning with a wall separating him from his city; that a Palestinian can go to sleep at night and be woken before dawn by soldiers in his bedroom demanding he wake up his young children; that a Palestinian can go to sleep at night and be startled awake from an Israeli bomb that shattered her home and family.
We’ve learned that moral blindness is a bottomless pit; that even after 500 children have been killed in Gaza, it is still said that there are no innocent people there and that everyone in Gaza, including the children, are terrorists. We’ve learned you can shoot unarmed protestors and still pat yourself on the back for being moral.
We’ve learned you can exploit peace negotiations to continue to settle, dispossess and demolish. We’ve learned that paying lip service to the “peace process” is something nearly everyone delights in. But what does the endless chatter about this process have to do with reality?
We’ve learned that the demand for justice, rights and equality comes before the argument over the correct number of states there should be on this land. We’ve learned that the world won’t stop Israel if it just makes sure to do things gradually enough and cry “security” and “antisemitism” often enough.
Then again, we’ve also learned other things.
We’ve learned that against all odds, despite every Israeli state apparatus working against them, Palestinians hold on to life and to the land. We’ve learned that even after realizing that Israeli law enforcement won’t deliver justice, the human desire for it does not – and will not – abate.
We’ve learned that Israel can try to hide the truth and muzzle those who speak it, but what the facts cry out can’t be stopped at the airport. We’ve learned that even if it takes time to sober up and realize that making polite requests to the occupier won’t end the occupation – that that time is coming.
We’ve learned that you can say a million times over that the territory isn’t occupied, that the settlements are legal, that Gaza isn’t under blockade, that there is no Palestinian people – but, drinking from this well of lies only poisons the mind, without changing the facts; because tomorrow morning we’ll all still be here – Palestinians and Jews, seven million and seven million – two peoples, one connected future. After thirty years, these are our humble conclusions.
Without fear or fatigue, we are ready for the hard years ahead, and the better ones that will follow. We’ve learned that a Palestinian will be able to go to sleep at night and wake up to see not a wall or a soldier but the morning light on the horizon, waking up free and equal in value and in rights. That is the only self-evident moral future: one of full and equal rights to everyone on this land. That morning will come.
Edited for IMEMC: Ali Salam