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People’s stories during the second Intifada

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 23.05.2006:

An Exploratory Analysis conducted on the base of stories collected at the Arab Educational Institute, Bethlehem, October-November 2000

The following is an overview of different types of stories told in the Bethlehem and Hebron region (Palestine) during what has become known as the “Al Aqsa Intifada.” Most are stories that have circulated widely within the local communities. The purpose of the categorization is to show that almost all these emotionally salient stories express, in different ways, the deep powerlessness people feel during this period. Most of the time the stories make a straightforward and almost desperate point: Palestinians face overwhelming violence. On the level of content, they seem disempowering. At the same time, the stories are told with the purpose to create community, to fight isolation, to sustain a moral basis among people under immoral circumstances. On that level, that is, in their social embeddedness, they are empowering. The stories, perhaps some sixty-seventy in total, have been collected mainly from teachers and school students in the larger Bethlehem and Hebron region who come together at the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem. (The Arab Educational Institute is an institute for community education, associated with the “Euro-Arab Dialogue from Below” project, and an affiliated member of the peace movement Pax Christi International). The stories have been added by examples from personal hearsay. On the base of our experiences, it seems, perhaps not surprisingly, that in ordinary life women (girls) are somewhat better in story-telling and story-writing than men (boys). This may have had an influence on the kind of themes and values that the stories express.

Let me stress that what follows is not more than an exploratory classification. For instance, the stories as they are told or written are not registered here. Also, the stories have not been collected in a systematic way, nor did I apply a precise definition of “story.” This preliminary overview may yield hypotheses for a more solid study, and that it gives directions for developmental, educational and counseling work.

1. Stories of the killing of innocent people, especially children.

Undoubtedly, the best known story of the A-Aqsa Intifada is about the young boy Mohammed Al-Dura who was filmed by French TV while trapped with his father in a crossfire in Gaza. His desperate father tried to protect him in vain. The film showed how he died in his father’s hands. The story immediately touched the hearts of all Palestinians and indeed people all over the world. In Palestine Mohammed al-Dura became a household name. It is not only the tragedy of an innocent child being killed but also the circumstances under which it happened – his father asking for help, while the shooting continued. The fact that the father was unable to protect the child exposes deep vulnerability and helplessness. The images are still repeatedly screened on local TV, according to Israel for reasons of “incitement”, but quite likely because the story expresses what common Palestinians feel. It is also possible that the story resonates since it is felt to be an allegory of the larger Palestinian story of vulnerability and suffering. Other stories of innocent young people stand out, too. One colleague told how his son asked him to write a story about his friend, a young kid in the Al-Arroub refugee camp, who just for curiosity went out to watch the clashes near the camp’s entrance, and was targeted by an Israeli sharpshooter, how he was critically injured, brought to Saudi Arabi and died there. Again, the innocence of the boy is the main theme. He just wanted to watch. The stories show both cruelty and exposure.

2. Humiliation stories

Israeli soldiers are said to have become increasingly inhuman in their encounters with people whom they stop or arrest. Telling stories about such encounters also expresses people’s violated feelings of morality. For instance, people tell how those who supposedly tresspass a curfew or are caught without a permit have to sit in a row for a few hours, with their head down. An 8-year boy who didn’t know that he entered H2 (an Israeli-controlled) area in Hebron was forced to lay down, the soldiers spat at him and kicked him. He had simply lost his way. In another story, a truckdriver was said to have been caught in an area where he was not supposed to drive. He was confronted with the following choice: either to have his tyres shot or to drive the foreside of the truck against a wall. He chose the last option because the heavy tyres were very expensive. Afterwards, the soldiers shot his tyres, too. Similarly, there is the story of the shooting of tyres of about thirty taxis near Al-Arroub camp. The drivers also had to give the car keys to the soldiers. Other stories of senseless violence and intimidation show the insulting behaviour of soldiers at checkpoints. Such humiliation stories are told with indignation, sadness and anger. They, too, indicate both cruelty and helplessness.

3. Stories of abandonment

During the Sharm al-Sheikh summit, and the Arab summit afterwards, people felt abandoned by the Arab world. There were no effective steps taken against Israel. The feeling of abandonment went for some so far as to lead to a feeling of betrayal. Stories of being betrayed and abandoned by Arab countries are very familiar from past experiences in Palestinian national history. There is also a feeling of being betrayed by the international world which does not prevent the siege and suffering of Palestinian communities. Sometimes, youth tell about their surprise when they see on TV Western people abroad demonstrating in support of the Palestinians. Alternatively, those with close contacts with Israeli colleagues in the peace movement sometimes tell stories of being abandoned by them, not receiving support or consolation.

4. “First reaction” stories

These are stories about how people react upon unexpected happenings or unexpected news. The bombings and shootings keep people out of their daily rhythms. Most people live on the edge. They tend to listen well, and are scared about what may come, whom of their friends and family may be affected. People tell about how they keep their ears wide open, always listening to the sounds of sirenes or shooting, and how they react upon the electricity cuts (sudden darkness, computers getting off etc.) which occur regularly. Sometimes the stories are tragi-comic; for instance, when school students are said to routinely continue their exam after hearing the bombs falling, bringing out the collective remark, “Oh it is just a normal bombing…” Or the teacher who says that she and her sisters simultaneously jump up when planes break the sound barrier. Many stories are about the panic which sometimes breaks out when rockets fly over one’s house. One story is about the panic which broke out after a funeral when a large lamp fell down in the midst of a reception of mourners. Panic stories tend to make other people afraid, too. Sometimes the stories are about how people were informed about some terrible news. When the garage of the Baboun brothers oppositie Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem was bulldozered (to clear the view of soldiers who wanted to spot stonethrowers), it was told how the family very carefully approached both brothers, who were elsewhere at that moment, in telling the terrible news – both are heart patients. The story of the Bethlehemite who saw his house destroyed while viewing TV abroad, and who got a deadly stroke on the spot, is well-known. It was widely circulated by local TV.

5. Stories of hiding

People tell each other how they go and look for safety with friends, especially those who live alone. People stay together in bed to comfort each other. That is true both for the young and the elderly. There are stories about how people give hospitality, and try to comfort or console each other, such as by praying or reading the Bible. There are also stories about students who hide and study under their bed. Or when people find themselves in a shooting zone and have to hide whereever they can find shelter. Some stories show that it is impossible to hide, which again shows the ever-present vulnerability. People discuss whether to sleep at the first or the second floor, but anecdotes show that both levels can be hit. A girl whose house was severely damaged pointed out that she and her family were happy not to have hidden under the staircase – an area the TV shows to be full of bullet holes. Some stories are, surprisingly, about people who do not hide but go out. Violence facinates, and some people go to the roofs and balconies to watch the shooting and shelling, or go and visit friends and family members who live close to the firing zone in order to watch. The watching itself is a salient act which is expressed in stories.

6. Rescue and escape stories

Harry Fischer, the German physiotherapist living in Beit Jala who was killed by a rocket while trying to rescue a neighbour, could not flee, was trapped, and even after he was hit, nobody could reach the scene. His story had and still has an enormous impact locally. As we said before, Mohammed Dura and his father were trapped, they could not escape, nor could they be rescued. There is the touching story of a girl who wanted to rescue her doll after her house was severely damaged, a story widely circulated on local TV. Stories of narrow escape abound, like when bullets are said to have flewn over people’s heads, or rockets have touched the roof of a house. Many people had to leave their houses, sometimes without being able to rescue anything inside. Stories of failed rescue and failed or narrow escape attempts again show extreme vulnerability.

7. Revenge stories

Some reaction stories are told precisely because they show restraint, a will to forgive, such as the eight-year girl at St Joseph School who said that the Israelis are a cruel people but that she wants to ask God to forgive them because they are human beings too. Others, especially children and youth, tell fantasy revenge stories; stories one wants to act out if one would have the opportunity to do so. Such reaction stories show powerlessness in an indirect way, by the very fact that they are a fantasy.

8. Travel stories

These days it is so difficult to travel, that people have a lot to say about how they crossed or circumvented checkpoints, how long it took, how difficult the roads were, what kind of discussions they had with soldiers about permits, how unpredictable the public traffic is. One cannot plan. Many travel stories have the function to advise people what to do on the road. In fact, taxidrivers stay in contact with each other all the time, also on the road, in order to tell each other where there are police and army checks, which road is safe etc.

9. Stories about psychological reactions and functioning in daily life

Many stories are about how the situation affects people’s psychological functioning. Examples are stories about children who do it in their pants, children having nightmares (e.g. dream stories of being attacked by the Israelis), children who cannot leave their parents’s legs, or who are silent or unruly; or stories about older people who cannot sleep alone anymore. Some stories show children and youth emphatically not being afraid (playing games of “military” parades or funerals at school), but at a psychological level the stories may well suggest that the fear is rather suppressed – a conclusion drawn by many.


Most of the stories are told by women. There may be various reasons. One is that in daily life women and girls are perhaps better story-tellers and story-writers. Women are often those who build community. It is easier to ask girls to keep a diary. Another reason may be that the present-day stories do not have much of an “heroic” element – the type of stories that usually attract boys and men. Rather, there is more emphasis on the lack of care and vulnerability that is generally felt. The stories that are told emphatically, in a salient way, and which circulate within the community, are stories which show abandonment, exposure, vulnerability, helplessness, lack of choice, powerlessness, lack of orientation and knowledge about what to do, lack of safety, psychological dysfunctioning and comcomitant fear. It is quite possible that the stories resonate with Palestinian history which is in general characterized by vulnerability.

It is remarkable that the story of an “Intifada,” that is, the story of a progressive uprising aimed at the shaking off of an occupation, is – at least as observed in people’s talk – an “abstract” story only, one which is supported as a general issue, but apparently not sustained by the “little narratives” of ordinary life. Contrary to the stories of the (first) Intifada some ten years ago, we don’t find empowering tales of how people and youngsters courageously or cleverly confront the Israeli army. The present Israeli army is quite overwhelming in its force, and apparently the suffering too great. The little stories tend to say that it is almost impossible to fight such a army. Moreover, people do not feel that a clear political victory or even progress is forthcoming; rather the stories tend to have an open-ended, pessimistically inclined ending, or even suggest despair in any solution leading to co-existence.

While there are stories about how people support and comfort each other, they are less salient. They do not express the main theme of the moment. Stories about how people can cope with the situation tend to emphasize the problems in coping effectively, such as failure and helplessness in rescuing people and property, or the problems when faced with the need to tell people terrible news about their damaged property, for instance. Many stories are about children, and show how people are afraid about the children and their future.

A major point stories make is showing the Israelis to be inhuman. The point of the story is often made explicitly. People also compare the relatively little amount of suffering the Israelis undergo, such as in Gilo (the Jerusalem settlement which has been under fire from the Beit Jala area), with the suffering felt in the Palestinian areas. Another major point the stories express is that when faced with such an adversary, people need support and intervention.

The stories help to feel people not being alone. While they are about powerlessness, and are almost inevitably depressing, they comfort at the same time because they express a joint community feeling. “Shared suffering is half suffering,” a foreign proverb says. Often the stories hit hard, like a punch in the face. Sometimes they are tragi-comic, which helps to release tensions and keep the conversation flowing, preventing it from becoming too depressing. Usually several stories are told at a meeting during work or at home. People add their own stories to a common theme, as they jointly make a point. Story-telling is a community and community-making activity. In the final analysis, the stories preserve an agreed moral basis in a world in which morals are increasingly at risk. In doing so, the stories show that people deeply care about each other.

For us, as a community education institute which works in a tradition of value-based inter-religious understanding and empowerment, we have to think about two major questions:

1. How can we have people, including youth, discussing the many sad stories in an empowering way?

2. Is it possible to give more emphasis to stories with an element of community and hope, such as stories of cooperation, consolation, support, and inclusion?

Toine van Teeffelen

Bethlehem, 20/11/00


Toine van Teeffelen received his Ph.D. in Discourse Analysis at the University of Amsterdam (1992) with a thesis on English-language bestselling stories about the Palestine/Israel conflict. His present work mainly involves community education with a focus on Moslem-Christian living together, learning about/through the local environment, and developing communication skills. He is married with a Palestinian, has a daughter of three and lives in Bethlehem.

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