Source: Zainab Chamoun

On “neighbouring” the oppressor: living under the constant threat of war

Zainab Chamoun reflects on her life in South Lebanon during the Israel-Gaza conflict.

Disclaimer: I refuse to self-censor my words. I say things as is. Every free human being of the world shall see.

Ten days after the Palestinian resistance broke out from the Gaza open-air prison, I find myself grappling with emotions of grief, frustration, and overwhelming rage as I witness a live genocide perpetrated by the Israeli occupying forces against entire Palestinian families. Violence by one Palestinian resistance group, triggered by 75 years of occupation and apartheid, was met with extreme barbaric violence against 2 million civilians, most of them children, from the Israeli settler-colonial regime. Entire families are slaughtered and wiped out from civil registry records with a deafening silence from much of the western world.

 Emotional battle is the harsh reality here. Social media is jam-packed with heart-wrenching testimonies from the people of Gaza, many of whom are sending their last messages and we might not hear from at any other time. I refresh my feed constantly just to make sure that the Gazans with whom I have never had a direct conversation, are still alive.

In a parallel world, much of the western sphere is drowned in Zionist propaganda, systematically generating misinformation, blatant lies, and controlling the narrative while turning a blind eye to the horrific war crimes committed by settler-colonial Israel against Gazans and their children. This world remains ruthlessly indifferent to the live scenes of the people of Gaza and its children being slaughtered, besieged, deprived of water, food, electricity, and humanitarian aid.

As a Lebanese, born and raised in the South of Lebanon, I am familiar with what war is and the aggression of Israel. I survived the 2006 war, and my parents survived multiple wars against Israel. It is always brutal and inhumane, purposefully neglecting every aspect of humanity and international humanitarian laws. But why would they even obey if they always escape being held accountable for their atrocities? No amount of bloodshed is surprising from Israel – this is the core foundation of their existence.

As a refuge during the dreadful nights of watching the news from a distance and listening to echoes of manoeuvre at the Southern border of Lebanon, I find myself reflecting on what it means to live under the constant threat of war. I contemplate neighbouring Palestine and the Palestinians and living in close proximity to Israel. 

I revisit my memory of surviving the 2006 war with Israel. First, war is ugly. But it has shaped us into who we are today. War is ugly, especially when it's perpetrated by Israeli terror.

I was 12 years old when the war broke out with Israel in 2006. Main bridges were bombed, and a nearby house in the town of Jebsheet was hit by an Israeli airstrike. The whole family was killed. I woke up to the sound realizing that I was about to experience my first war with Israel, an entity associated with some of the worst massacres in Lebanese history.

Living under the shadow of war

Living next to Israel means living under the perpetual shadow of war. What does this mean? I remember that we used to keep a bag ready by the door, containing all our official documents, money, and gold. Uncertain of whether we would wake up the next day, we exchanged farewells every night, not knowing if we would ever see each other again when we laid our heads down to sleep. To live under war is to wake every morning, if you make it through the night, and greet your family with “el-Hamdellah al-Salama,” which translates to “thank God for your safety” in English, instead of good morning.

Living under war puts you in a resisting position on so many fronts, it’s a daily struggle to process and deal with the mental, emotional, and physical burden, while receiving floods of news of massacred families, with sounds of bomb blasts in the background, uncertain if you will be hit next. All of this while sitting in perpetual darkness, both day and night. You find yourself sleeping, fully dressed, in corridors for added protection. Living under war means enduring the temporary loss of connection with extended family members and friends and skipping a heartbeat each time the contact is lost. It is to live in a constant and collective state of anguish on your beloved ones.

Living under war, you do not plan for the future and do not dwell on your aspirations and dreams. The act of dreaming is persistently disrupted by the violent aggression, threats, and airstrikes darkening the skies in daylight. On top of all the restless experiences, you carry the burden of self-censorship otherwise you will be accused of anti-Semitism. The silence is imposed upon you, adding to the weight of adversity, yet you speak up.

Having experienced the horrors of war, I’m not afraid of death. It is not for myself that I fear, but for the safety of the people I hold dear and for the humanity of the world. The distant rumble of Israeli airstrikes that I can hear just right now sends shivers down my spine as I contemplate the well-being of my loved ones. During the 2006 war with Israel, we often found ourselves whispering the same prayer: if we must face death, let us face it together. We were unified in our wish to spare any of us the pain of surviving alone.

Our memory. Our identity. Our history.

I remember the days and nights of the 2006 war vividly. We withstood at our home for 22 days – we refused to leave. Under pressure from our concerned family abroad, we decided to migrate to Beirut. There’s not enough space to take our stuff. I was not concerned about clothes. I wanted to preserve my memories and everything that tells the story of my home and family – it was my duty back then. I carried a bag full of family photographs – photographs that date back to my grandparents’ childhood, my parents’ marriage, and my own childhood. I couldn’t live with the possibility of coming back after the war ends, to a damaged home, with no trace to their memories. That bag was all I cared about.

Today, with the current threat of war, I find myself preparing the same bag again if we were ever forced to leave.

In moments like these, I reflect on how neighboring Palestine has shaped us into the people we are today, proudly standing up for justice in all causes. Despite the pain, we are who we are because of being from this region of the world and facing Israeli terror. It is here that we learned our history by heart. Coming from our corner of the world, we are thirsty to learn the history of our dehumanization, absorbing every detail and every story told by our grandparents, seeking a deeper understanding of our roots and the history of Western colonization that has fragmented and weakened our countries, depressing any possibility for a simple decent life. We learn history by heart to forever defend Palestinians’ right to return and resist, taking a firm stand on the right side of history.

To us, Palestinian words and swords heal the entire region. I often seek refuge in Palestinian literature. The works of Ghassan Kanafani bring out an overwhelming flood of emotions. Among them, "Men in the Sun," a literary masterpiece I had previously avoided due to its painful narrative. A dear friend gifted me the novel, and it felt like Kanafani's call to read this work. I find myself posting their words on my social media. If words did not matter, why are they trying to shadow-ban our accounts?

Having experienced a very brief version of some of what the people of Gaza are enduring right now, and have experienced since their birth, I do not have the authority to dictate how their resistance should look. It is not my place; I am not the woman who has been besieged for 17 years in a concentration camp, nor am I the person from whom land, home, and memories were ripped away by settlers and colonizers.

To our fellow humans from the West, who may sometimes fail to recognize the privilege from which they speak, I implore you: if you have not lived through what I shared, kindly have a seat, remain silent, and refrain from instructing the Palestinians, the oppressed, on how to resist. 

I survived the war, but many did not. I do not know anyone who has not lost a family member or a friend because of Israeli airstrikes. If you haven’t lived through all of this, do not tell Palestinians how to resist.

 Gaza, I wish I had more than just my love and these desperate words to give.