The response to the Manchester terror attack reminded me a lot of the response of West Bank Palestinians to the 2014 War on Gaza.
In the West Bank, people watched for a month as bombs rained down on their families. Children’s burnt bodies carried on the shoulders of grieving parents were repeatedly shown on TV, citizens keeled over in grief, screaming by the rubble. Understandably, there was an air of depression and despair about the place. In response, there was a campaign ‘Kolna Gaza’ – ‘All of us are Gaza’. In the administrative capital, Ramallah, this flashed up on a billboard and people bought t-shirts with the slogan, the money going to help those in Gaza.
In Manchester, though the incident was on a far smaller scale, what added to the shock was that people had presumed themselves to be safe. We expect these things to happen in the Middle East and in Africa. Even in London, you get on the tube aware of the potential risk. But Manchester was not prepared. That children were purposefully targeted also angered people. It was not long until ‘We love Manchester’ posters appeared in shop windows, and t-shirts bearing the slogan could be bought, as in Gaza, this time with the money going to the families of those affected.
They are responses that I find at once inspiring and depressing and am trying to fully understand.
On the one hand, that two communities 3000 miles apart react in such a similar fashion says something of our similarities, of the way we all struggle to deal with atrocities and wish to show solidarity with those who suffer. Like others, I was warmed to hear of people spitting on free editions of the Sun that sought to spread racist rhetoric, brought to tears when people clapped as Muslims walked through the city one afternoon with banners decrying terrorism. For the first time, I felt proud to belong to this city. How many people who have never set eyes on one another now bear the same symbol of togetherness? And so, while there are surely others whose racist views were strengthened, it seems that a sense of community was actually created by an attack that sought to achieve the opposite. The sudden reminder of our vulnerability acted as a reminder that, regardless of our social status, we are all made of the same flesh and blood.
In the West Bank, a strong sense of community already exists due to decades of struggle against oppression. It is a place where you feel looked out for, even as a foreigner, in a way you don’t as a local in the UK. There, what I found inspiring rather was that so many years into war and occupation, people still found the strength to cry out and to declare that ‘all of us are Gaza’.
However, I also find such reactions to be a tragic comment on the helplessness we feel in such situations.
That Palestinians responsible for two uprisings this time displayed their anger by wearing t-shirts suggests too that the spirit of some is flagging. And it’s not surprising. West Bank Palestinians also took to the streets to protest the escalation of the war on Gaza but, there, protests are quickly met with tear gas and rubber bullets, and gain little global coverage. There were rumours that a third Intifada was coming but such rumours were met with fear by many, aware of the physical, emotional and economic suffering that this would bring. Israel has only strengthened over the years, with technology and global support rendering it an even tougher opponent.
In Manchester, and other parts of Europe, people feel too like there is nothing they can do when such atrocities occur. One person commented how with other risks there are usually steps that can be taken to avoid them. You can stop to look before you cross the road, for instance, but with terror attacks there is little to be done. I think such a sense of helplessness is partly attributable to the fact that many do not consider terror attacks as a repercussion of war and social segregation, but see them as isolated attacks carried out by evil fundamentalists. People thus feel there is nowhere to direct their anger.
Who then, is such a response really for? Is it really for those in Gaza, for those families who lost people in the Manchester attack? While the financial gesture is done in good faith, West Bank Palestinians are not the ones who should be paying to rebuild Gaza, and the families in Manchester surely just want their friends and relatives back. Rather then, is it for ourselves, so that we can feel like we have not completely lost our grip on the world around us? Certainly, there is nothing wrong with this, if it is the case. In both Gaza and Manchester such acts of solidarity have warmed those towards whom they were directed, and that people wish to respond in any way is a positive thing. It is when people stop even trying to make these small gestures that we will have become truly apathetic and disempowered.
But if only there was a way to make people feel empowered beyond wearing t-shirts and getting bee tattoos. If only as many as gathered to pray for the dead in Albert Square, gathered to fight for the living.
Perhaps the key is in recognising that these two incidents are not as disconnected as they appear. Our emotions do not speak different languages. Across the world, anger is bred by fear and injustice. And, as a headache is the body’s way of telling us that we are ill, terrorism can be an indication that society is unwell. It is in unequal societies that people most easily become disillusioned, in a world where one country bombs another that people become angry and fearful, where once innocent children become adults with an eye to murder.
In Manchester, however, we are still fortunate to have the ability to protest, to stand up against injustice without fearing for our lives. I just hope that now that we’ve had a taste of such threat and disruption, we are able to positively harness such energy. For if such a sense of community can extend beyond a city’s walls, beyond a country’s borders, in the long run, we all might have less to fear.