I just rocked baby Muhyaddin, the youngest of the five Burnat children, to sleep. I was a nanny for over 10 years, so I’ve rocked more babies to sleep than I can count and sang the same lullabies that I sang to Muhyaddin hundreds of times. But now he’s asleep and I can’t bring myself to put him down. I look at this sleeping baby (and type with one hand) and wonder what his life will be like as he grows up under this Occupation. He already wakes up choking on tear gas all too often. His brother Majd already got shot by the Israeli Army and is now permanently injured, and his other siblings have to worry about being the next kid to get shot or imprisoned for no reason. Just recently, a three-year-old and a five-year-old girl in the West Bank were run over (one killed, one critically injured) on their way to school. In Gaza this summer, snipers aimed their guns and shot at babies- even at fetuses inside pregnant women. If you’re Palestinian, there’s no age too young to face the most brutal government-sanctioned violence at the hands of Israel. And I figure that growing up from year to year exponentially increases the likelihood that Muhyaddin will become the victim of these sickeningly common Israeli atrocities. I don’t want to be morbid or dramatic or pessimistic, but these are the realities on the ground that constantly manifest in everyday life. I wonder, is this what Iyad and Tasaheel have to think about every time they look at their children?
Palestinian men and boys in particular are regarded as inevitable terrorists. In Israel and even in the international community, there are widespread and often vocalized sentiments that “even if they’re not terrorists already, they will become terrorists. It’s inevitable that eventually they will become threats.”
I look around at the Burnat boys. Right now, 13-year-old Mohammad is studying English with Ariel and teaching her Arabic. He is constantly bubbly and affectionate, even when he’s studying for exams. 14-year-old Abdul Khaleik is the kind of kid parents dream of having: he’s always helping out around the house without being asked and he’s extremely thoughtful and considerate of others. Every time I go to do dishes, Abdul Khaleik insists on doing them instead. 16-year-old Majd is a sweet and wonderful big brother to his siblings; he is goofy but incredibly nurturing. Isabella and Elijah are in good hands when he’s looking out for them. All of them take very good care of Muhyaddin and are always rocking him or playing with him or carrying him around the house. But beyond the Burnat family, I see this kind of nurturing with all the men and boys here. I’m finding that cultural attitudes around masculinity here are almost exactly the opposite of what they’re stereotyped to be. And yet politically, so many Zionist assertions hinge on the assumption that Palestinian men and boys are intrinsically violent, hostile and threatening. (Ironically, I felt super uncomfortable around most Israeli men when I was in Israel. Even when I was still vaguely Zionist, I was sick of Israeli men sexually harassing me and I was terrified of the combination of their angry, entitled anti-Arab racism and their IDF-issued machine guns.)
Sometimes when I talk to Majd I am struck by the fact that some Israeli soldier looked him in the eye and decided to shoot him. Majd was an unarmed kid who was in no way posing a threat to these heavily-armed soldiers and their tanks, but the gun was aimed and the trigger was pulled. Thankfully he is still alive, and now his dream is to become a doctor specializing in the treatment of wounds like the one he suffered.
Majd and all Palestinians in this area live under military law, which means they are guilty until proven innocent. But if Palestinian boys and men are all viewed to be inevitable threats, how are they supposed to prove themselves innocent? If being unarmed and maintaining lifelong commitments to nonviolent resistance isn’t enough, if being a dedicated student or a loving brother/husband/friend/son isn’t enough, if holding your hands up and pleading isn’t enough, what will it take for you the soldier, you the American taxpayer, or you the international civilian bystander to see this baby in my arms as anything but an eventual terrorist?
Note: This post obviously focuses on Palestinian males. There’s so much to be said about the intersectional oppression of Palestinians of other genders, and that’s enough for its own (upcoming) post.