Salameh al-Kasasi is a toddler from the Bedouin village of Saawa in the Negev desert, and on Sunday the 22nd of February he came back from kindergarten to find his home had been demolished . His wasn’t the only one, eight family homes had been destroyed that day. The village itself has been demolished four times by the Israeli authorities and rebuilt four times by its inhabitants. Saawa is in Israel and its people are citizens of it, not stateless like most of the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. It doesn’t lie on occupied land desired by settlers, it has no strategic or economic importance, yet it has never received the infrastructural support that the local Jewish towns and single-family farms get, despite some of the latter having no construction permits.
Villages like Saawa do not have equal access to infrastructure for manifold reasons, all to do with systematic exclusion. However the official bureaucratic reason is that the village is “unrecognised.” What does it take for a village that has existed longer than the state to be unrecognised? According to Israeli archaeologist Dan Gazit , land ownership records for the Negev were kept in the municipal archive of the city of Be’er Sheva. When the city was occupied by Zionist militias in the 1948 war of independence, those records were lost in transit to the new state archive, leaving the people of Saawa with little legal claim to their land. That is where Salameh lives.
Firas al-Shirafi is eleven years old, he lives in Gaza City. Firas plays a traditional stringed instrument called a qanun, he studies in the Gaza branch of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music where he has been enrolled since he was five. Both Firas’s father and grandfather were musicians, and the director of the conservatory says he has a promising musical future. Since he was five, he’s also lived through three major assaults by the Israeli Defence Forces against the tiny territory to which he, along with nearly 2 million others, is confined by a siege.
The first of the three assaults began in late December of 2008, called Operation Cast Lead, which killed almost 1000 Palestinian and 3 Israeli civilians, around 500 Palestinian combatants and 10 Israeli soldiers. Horrific and illegal weaponry was used by the IDF, such as white phosphorus, which sticks to skin and burns until it is completely consumed. This war destroyed over 4000 homes and displaced more than 50,000 Gazan people. Three years later, Operation Pillar of Defence was launched with the Israeli assassination of top Hamas military official Ahmed Jabari . At the time, Jabari was working on a draft agreement for a permanent truce. This operation lasted one week in November 2012, thankfully killing far fewer civilians on both sides. Most recently, in the summer of 2014, the IDF commenced Operation Protective Edge which was probably the most destructive event in the history of Israel and Palestine. In terms of casualties, nearly 1500 Palestinian civilians (of whom 500 were children) lost their lives, and 6 Israelis. Nearly 100,000 Palestinian homes were damaged or destroyed, displacing a quarter of a million people. Perhaps the worst outcome, however, has been the severe psychological harm to Gaza’s children: according to a joint British and Palestinian study, more than half of teenagers in Gaza now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of seeing bodies piled in the streets, hearing military drones and jets flying overhead, and not knowing if their house is the next to be bombed. This is where Firas lives.
To some, it may seem like Firas and Salameh do not have a lot in common. One lives, stateless, in the world’s largest ghetto, the other is a citizen of a developed nation. One has survived bombing campaigns by the strongest military force in the region, the other is unlikely to ever hear a drone overhead or a tank shell explode. What ties these children together is their world. They both live under a system of apartheid, the political practice of separating and segregating ethnic groups. Firas in his besieged and bombarded little enclave, Salameh in his “unrecognised” village. The intensities may be vastly different, yet they are both still subject to the pressures of separation and exclusion. They will both grow up in communities separated – by force of arms or of economics – from the rest of the world.
There are now 11 million Palestinians around the world, with more than half of them living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (the West Bank and Gaza), in Israel and in neighbouring Jordan. It is easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of history, to obsessively trace the time-lines, to see who started it or who escalated. But to defend the status quo by pointing the finger of historic blame is simply wrong.
There is no historical event that can condemn the talented Firas to a lifetime of bullet-ridden walls and broken musical instruments, no social or economic justification for Salameh to see his home in ruins. The history, no matter how much it is revised (and it has been, considerably), can never excuse the suffering that the Israeli state continues to inflict on Palestinians through apartheid and occupation. More important than the apparent historical need for a Jewish homeland, more important than any atrocities committed and much, much more important than who started it, is who will finish it and how they will bring peace and justice to millions.