Culture of Martyrdom, Mourning in The Time of Occupation

*(Ezz Zanoun / APA images)(Ezz Zanoun / APA images)

In the last six days during operation Protective Edge, Palestinians have been experiencing a widespread massacre while Israelis have been experiencing continued rocket attacks. On one side, Hamas has issued a statement violating international law; declaring all Israelis as targets for rocket attacks. Israel, on the other side, has been consistent in propagating its intentions and efforts to decrease civilian casualties. Despite the intentions and the propaganda, actions speak louder than words and have devastating effects. Hamas has fired over 650 rockets towards Israel and Israel has conducted thousands of airstrikes on the Gaza strip in order to achieve its declared goals of eliminating all Hamas leaders, militants and all their affiliations. Casualties have amounted to more than 170 deaths in Palestine (mostly civilians, over a quarter being children) and more than 1000 injuries, tens of injuries in Israel and 0 deaths. As always, Palestinian civilians pay the price of Israeli aggression and terror and the score is forever lopsided.

Anshel Pfeffer from Haaretz wrote The Gazan In The Bunker Is Trying To Kill Me where he imagines himself posing those questions to a Gazan; “What would even the score? I’d ask next, what would relieve your frustration? A double-digit Israeli death toll? Would 10 funerals be enough?” I would like to answer those questions for you. The questions themselves are entirely wrong in nature, more civilian deaths on either side is not the key to ending this conflict. It is ludicrous to even consider that the death of another civilian or ten civilians would ‘even the score’. Questions like these reduce the conflict to a fire exchange, redirect the conversation away from the 170+ Palestinian deaths, and further the propaganda of portraying Israel as the victim. Further, it is disgusting and disturbing that Hamas would target civilians; nevertheless, it is important to clarify that an occupying, colonizing, violent force should never framed as a victim of violence, when it is usually its source.

There has been much verbiage in the media about the culture of martyrdom in Palestine. The lack of provided context and limited information leads to the assumption and false understanding that Palestinians want to die. Numerous justification have been used to display Palestinians as blood-thirsty; for their own blood. Such justifications include, Palestinians allowing Hamas militants to hide between them, Palestinians encouraging their children to die, and Palestinians celebrating their dead as martyrs.

Hamas militants consider themselves to be guerrilla or freedom fighters, despite the western label of terrorists–as it is known, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. I am not a supporter of Hamas, nevertheless, it is important to note that accusing the people of Gaza of hiding Hamas militants between them is entirely out of context. Gaza is the most congested place on earth with a besieged population of about 1.7 million people in an area of 360 square kilometers (139 square miles), it is almost impossible to not have neighbors living above, below, to the right and left. Just as guerrilla fighters have historically hid in the jungle or in the mountains, Hamas militants hide (live) in an urban jungle. Hamas militants and civilian political and social members have homes and families, and just like any other Gazan, they have neighbors. Therefore, the argument Israel consistently makes about the reason for ‘collateral damage’ being that civilians hide Hamas members is absurd.

Moreover, the argument where Palestinians encourage their children to die is presented out of context. The strongest values that every Palestinian parent embeds in their children are resilience and resistance. Resilience is enduring all the obstacles imposed by the brutal occupation but still finding a purpose to live, to study, and to dare to achieve our life goals and dreams. Resistance embodies various means of fighting the occupation to achieve our goal of liberation; while some take up arms, most take up pens. Our most valuable Palestinian resistance method is education; the vast majority of the population enrolls and graduates from secondary school. An example of a Palestinian norm is that it is considered shameful if someone fails in school. Despite the lies told about our parents encouraging us to die, the truth is that they always encourage us to stay in school, to chase our dreams and lead successful and productive lives.

Furthermore, the culture of martyrdom and Palestinians’ reasons for celebrating the dead are deeply rooted in the essence of the conflict. Palestinian people have had to face imposed death ever since the Nakba (the catastrophe) in 1948. When death becomes an everyday occurrence, when the dead are dehumanized and reduced to numbers, when famous and accredited newspapers subjectify the attack and objectify the attacked, and when members of a civilian population are arbitrarily killed, declaring those people as martyrs becomes a coping mechanism. The label of martyrdom implies dying for a purpose, a promise of eternal escape and eternal happiness in heaven; death becomes a promise of a better life. Declaring the murdered men, women and children as martyrs is a way of mourning the dead, of convincing ourselves that their significance will not be forgotten, and that they did not die in vain.

It is imperative to understand that a culture of martyrdom is a coping mechanism, while a culture of resistance is a way of life. Although all Palestinians are willing and always ready to sacrifice all to protect and defend the radiance of the Palestinian fact of existence, Palestinians do not want to die. They love to dance, to sing,to read a book under the shade of an olive tree, to gather with their families by the beach or a bonfire, to live a normal life. We, Palestinians, cherish every moment in life, because we never know when life can be taken from us.

– Caroline Katba


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