House fire v. house demolitions: the difference a birthplace makes


Last week it was exactly a year since my flat caught fire. I expected to write about it here, to feel the pull to reflect on and pick over the event. But I found I didn’t have much to say. I did walk around the house last week on that day feeling a bit slow, unfocussed, like there was a fog – or smoke – in my head. I remembered the shock and confusion of that night as flames took hold in the living room and sticky, black smoke engulfed one floor of my flat, clinging to walls, windows, furniture and belongings. But by the time I needed to go to the shops to get some food in for the weekend I still hadn’t written anything about it and thought I probably wouldn’t.

Overpriced Palestinian olive oil

In the supermarket, I went to the olive oil section. I’ve been buying Palestinian olive oil for a while and as my hand reached up to grab a bottle, I saw that the price had gone up exponentially since I’d last bought it a few weeks before. It now cost nearly £2 more for the same amount. With deep dismay I realised that, at just under £9 for 500 ml, I could no longer afford to buy it (a common Italian brand in the same store is typically around half the price). And it hit me that, for whatever reason the retailer here had put up the price, the result was very likely what had been intended somewhere far back in the chain of oppressing Palestinian human rights: a hit on Palestinian livelihoods with all the repercussions that comprises.

The luck of the draw

Noticing this increased cost of a product which is at the heart of Palestinian culture and, in better times, the heart of the economy, I re-connected directly with one of the overriding sensations that shaped my experience of the house fire last year: that of luck.

There is so much in the news, with good reason, about the sorry state of the UK’s underfunded health, social and emergency services. Yet last year, in the midst of the crisis of the fire, the situation was attended to quickly and efficiently by the fire brigade and I experienced excellent professional and sensitive care from the fire officers and ambulance staff. The next day, my insurers and their contractors stepped in and began to unroll their comprehensive service which included providing alternative accommodation for several months while repairs were carried out on my home.

As tiring and disruptive as the experience undoubtedly was, looking back I remembered that, particularly in those first few days after the fire, I walked around almost open-mouthed, incredulous at my good fortune: by virtue of being born in and living in the UK, I automatically had the right and access to these life-saving services and ongoing support structures.

House demolitions in Palestine

The fire took place at the beginning of February and I had come back from my first visit to Palestine the previous November. Amongst other distressing insights I’d gained there, I heard first hand about the practice of house demolitions experienced commonly by Palestinians living under military occupation in the name of the Israeli government.

Very occasionally, these are a response to violence perpetrated by Palestinians, a sanction which surely affects far more people than those who may be directly responsible for the violent acts carried out. On many other occasions, this act of demolishing Palestinians’ houses is carried out as an officially recognised policy in response to what is a complex planning permission situation, a policy which is impossible for Palestinians to adhere to: The dictates of the Oslo Accords, which were only meant to be temporary, mean legal and reasonable growth of Palestinian towns and villages is not viable.

Travel ban and other executive orders

I’m acutely aware as I’m writing this of how pertinent the topics of birthplace and borders are at the moment. It is less than a month since Trump was inaugurated but it feels much longer; his executive orders, not least the travel ban, have already had such far-reaching reverberations.

The difference a protest makes

The impact on people’s lives through inhumane policy-making, motivated by greed and fear, happens quickly and can endure a life-time. With this uppermost in my mind and my heart, on Monday I went to protest outside Downing Street at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Teresa May. She has scored a horrible hat-trick in the last couple of weeks of meeting a trio of leaders from the US, Turkey and Israel who all have a horrifying record in how they approach human rights.

The pros and cons of protesting

I was inspired by the numbers of people at the protest, a wonderful, motley clan from what felt like many different corners of our wonderful planet, showing up on a weekday to make an important noise. I felt heartened, even while I knew May and Netanyahu were close by, eating lunch and more than likely discussing trade deals.

I’m aware of the argument that protests and demonstrations can backfire with terrible consequences. I can see, as Zoe Williams noted recently in the Guardian, writing about Hannah Arendt’s ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, that they can generate a ‘crisis situation in which, ultimately, the protection of law and order justifies the government in extreme measures’.

Public indifference v. resistance

But if we don’t protest, I fear that the public indifference David Frum of The Atlantic warns of could set in and pave the way to a Trumpian autocracy. While acknowledging that civil unrest can be used by leaders against society, Frum also argues that we have a ‘duty to resist’ and describes various ways of carrying this out which, for those in the US, include telephoning senators and House members and urging new laws.

Connection not demolition

We can do our equivalent of those things too in the UK, while continuing to  turn out and turn up on the streets, contributing, as I’ve mentioned previously, to a perfect symbiosis where hope creates action and action fortifies hope. We’re all connected. We all need and merit a civil society where house demolitions are not the norm and comprehensive health, social and emergency services are.

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