By Ayah Mckhail
A Palestinian woman is crouched down, pressed against the wall of her cinderblock home in the Balata refugee camp on the outskits of Nablus. Outside, the azure sky billows with smoke from heavy machine gun fire. Its unmistakable stench wafts through her home. The woman doesn’t dare look outside. She’s done it before, and she knows from experience that this only angers the Israeli soldiers who patrol the narrow streets of the old Arab city, looking for a provocation.
A few minutes later, the woman begins to weep. Her sobbing becomes uncontrollable, its pitch rising higher and higher. She’s alone in the house and her feelings of isolation intensify. She hears a knock on the door. She’d like to inch towards the door and answer it, but she’s scared.
Someone has arrived to rescue the woman from her sorrow, and to hear first-hand what it’s like to live under occupation, in a constant state of siege. The person at the door begins to bang on the cold metal. The stranger begins prodding at the lock. Whoever is outside is determined to get in and learn the truth.
If you take this scene and add a few rows of seats outside the entrance to the Palestinian woman’s home, you have Bombshelters, a piece of installation art b.h. Yael created in 1991.
The empty seats have been placed outside the home’s door to symbolize the people who expose themselves to the pain, suffering and devastation of others. We sit down for a few minutes and then we leave. This escapism is a luxury that only the Western world can attain.
Installation art, which is Yael’s medium of choice, involves a creative approach in which artists build something to serve as a representation of the message they are trying to convey. It allows for a great deal of creativity and imagination to be expressed, as it involves the use of different media in its assembly.
Yael says she wanted to depict how we silently bear witness to the pain and suffering of others. The dynamic Jewish artist, of Iraqi and Polish origin, became incensed when she watches televised newscasts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that fail to depict the human side of suffering in the occupied Palestinian territories, such as the endemic poverty and the constant home demolitions that leave scores of families homeless.
“There’s so much that we don’t see and that we don’t have access to,” she says. “It’s really problematic, and I’d like to expose this.”
Yael has always refused to be a passive observer. A successful filmmaker and installation artist, who’s also an associate professor and chair of integrated media at the Ontario College of Art and Design, the 46-year-old is an activist at heart. She has journeyed to Israel and the Palestinian territories twice since the outbreak of the latest Intifada in October 200 and she plans to return this summer.
“It’s this visceral desire to see first-hand what’s going on,” she explains. “I’m never satisfied with just watching the news. It’s never enough. I’ve always wanted to challenge myself — to push myself.”
Yael has encountered plenty of obstacles in her quest for answers. For starters, she doesn’t speak Hebrew or Arabic. And when her family in Israel learned that she wanted to visit the West Bank to film what was happening and make connections wiith the local population, they disapproved.
“My family was falling into the same rhetoric that a lot of Israelis fall into,” she says. “I could really see that they were very fearful. It’s hard to see the extent to which fear determines one’s politics and determines the way in which you live.”
Despite this, Yael was determined to visit the West Bank and, in the end, she feels it was worth it. She was able to create several films that showcased the peaceful actions of a handful of European peace activists in Hebron.
Her documentaries are gritty and the footage she chooses is raw. In Hebron, she shot footage of Palestinians dealing with vandalism and destruction of their property by a group of Israeli settlers. In Nablus, she witnessed numerous home demolitions. In the Balata refugee camp, she saw the dire living conditions of the local population.
In a village on the outskirts of Ramallah, she saw an old and visibly shaken Palestinian woman watch the construction of the security wall that has cut families off from their villages. Israel feels the wall must be erected in order to prevent the infiltration of suicide bombers into Israel. The Palestinians argue that the wall amounts to a further confiscation of their land and is intended to entrench the Israeli occupation.
On another occasion, at the infamous Qualandiya military checkpoint entrance to Ramallah, Yael was exposed to the same scrutiny that the Palestinians constantly experience when they line up in queues in an attempt to cross into other areas.
“A female Israeli soldier pulled me aside and began interrogating me on what I was planning to do in the West Bank and why I was there,” she says. “She was really persistent and she demanded that I speak in Hebrew. She didn’t believe me when I said I couldn’t. I began crying and I think that helped. She let me go, but the interrogation was tough.”
One thing that remains constant for Yael throughout her visits to the West Bank is the warm reception that she receives from the Palestinians. People of all ages are eager to tell their stories, and just knowing that someone from the outside is genuinely interested in listening means a lot to them, Yael says.
“People have responded very well to me,” she says. “There is very much a ‘welcome.’ It’s a wonderful thing, because I’ve always had to battle so much fear to get there.”
But the obstacles don’t end in the Middle East for Yael. As a Jewish woman who is steadfastly anti-occupation, she has dealt with a backlash from members of her own community, who have often called her a self-hating Jew.
At one protest outside the Israeli Consulate on Bloor St. W, where Yael protests the occupation every Friday night, she was holding a banner that read “Peace for Israel and Palestine.” A group of Jewish people who were at a counter-demonstration went up to her and said: “You all should have died in the concentration camps.”
Unfortunately, according to a Palestinian doctor who is working in the region, such an attitude is a despicable but common practice used to keep all Israelies on the same page.
On Sunday, Mustafa Barghouti told an audience at Ryerson that the outlandish statements such people make when confronted by a Jewish community member that does not support Israel’s actions are nothing more than “psychological terrorism,” designed to intimidate people like Yael into conforming to the popular anti-Palestinian sentiment. Yael wholeheartedly agrees, and says she won’t back down from her position. She has seen too much to allow spiteful name calling to deter her, she says.
“I’m there, and I’m witnessing all of the difficulties that the people are experiencing,” she says. “I’m seeing all the repercussions of the actions that the Israeli state is taking. It’s very demoralizing and it’s horrible to see what people are living through.”
Yael says her art displays the challenges that ordinary people face in the midst of all the violence that they live with. It echoes the triumph of the human spirit and the will to persevere. She is especially keen to make it known that a great deal of Jewish people actively oppose the Israeli government’s policy towards the Palestinians.
“I think it’s importance for people to realize that there are a lot of Jewish people, such as myself, who do not support Israel’s position in the territories,” she says. “I want people to know that there are a lot of joint peace initiatives that Israelis and Palestinians take part in together — that we’re united in our efforts for peace.”
Ultimately, Yael echoes the late Palestinian writer Edward Said’s position on a peaceful settlement: they both hope for a bi-national state where both Israelis and Palestinians can coexist as equal citizens.
She doesn’t deny that people on both sides may not be ready for this, yet she feels it’s one of the tragedies and consequences of the conflict that has polarized both camps.
“The fact that Israelis and Palestinians live in such close proximity to one another, and yet they don’t know each other — this is tragedy,” she says.