Few days ago, I witnessed a confrontation with the Israeli occupation forces regarding the closure of the Birzeit-Ramallah road. At around 7:30 am, a group of university professors and myself met at the checkpoint (between Ramallah and the University Campus in Birzeit) where Israeli soldiers systematically make checks on people going to and from Birzeit. We wanted to be assured of the safe and smooth crossing of the students.
Hundreds of students were at that checkpoint barred from going to Birzeit to their classes which normally start at 8 am. By 8:30, the number of students rose to about two thousand. They waited patiently as my colleagues and I tried in vain to convince the officer in charge, Itzick (that is the name I heard the soldiers call him), to let them pass so that they will not miss their classes. He indicated that he was just following higher orders. However, I was not sure about that because he was allowing some people to pass, according to what appeared to be his own whims.
In an effort to touch an element of humanity in the officer, I offered him some fruit and coffee that were given to me by a student. He refused rudely. He could not see a possible gesture of goodwill from a Palestinian. We all probably represented something abhorring to him. Yet all the students were young, cheerful and not much different in age from his. They could have been his partners in a swimming club or in a basketball team.
Of course, he was the stronger partner. He had a gun and was armed to the teeth. The students had only their books. Yet he felt uneasy and the students felt more relaxed. They were standing on their home territory, presently occupied, but they knew that someday that territory would be theirs. On the other hand, officer Itzick realised well that some day he would have to leave that area for good. It probably seemed incomprehensible to him why he should be at that spot. But he was acting according to orders, like a robot. Yes a robot with orders to shoot and kill.
It might sound a bit exaggerated but he actually gave orders for his jeep to be revved up and wanted to drive through the students in an effort to disperse them. Only luck and the courage of the students made him stop. Without provocation, he was losing his nerves. He probably was losing his nerves because there was no provocation. He decided to end the encounter by calling on members of his unit to attack with tear gas, sound bombs and rubber bullets.
The students dispersed and everybody went home. The peace process was buried one inch further down.
I do not know if he went home in the evening and bragged to his friends about what he had done. Maybe they hailed him as a hero. To me he is no hero. A hero is somebody who can think rationally and humanely, and act accordingly, despite orders to the contrary. In my opinion, officer Itzick was just a robot, and no robot can be a hero.
Since the June war of 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel has succeeded in convincing most of its citizens (and probably the world) to think that their occupation of Palestinian land is justified. They are also convinced that their young soldiers, who maintain security in the occupied territories, are heroes. They are further convinced, and in a distorted manner, that peace is achievable while occupation continues. They do not seem to appreciate the simple fact that the price of peace is the end of occupation.
Yes, it is as simple as that. Almost everybody who occupied other people’s lands has learned the lesson very well – albeit later than sooner. De Gaulle understood it after many years of French occupation of Algeria. The British understood it also after years of colonising India. A country sometimes gets away with being an occupying force for some time, but certainly not forever. If that reality was understood and acted upon by officer Itzick, then he would have been a hero – on moral grounds at least. But as long as he remains part of an occupying force and as long as he uses a gun to disperse innocent, unarmed students who are on their way to study, then a hero he is not and shall never be.
The real heroes are those same Palestinian students and staff who are able to resist and confront the occupation and at the same time resiliently continue with their daily life under the most adverse conditions.
The writer is president of Birzeit University. He contributed this article to the Jordan Times.