The terrors of occupation

Israeli and Palestinian identities must be reimagined, says Mark LeVine.

    Israel's easing of the occupation in places like Ramallah and Nablus has made
    little real difference to most Palestinians [GALLO/GETTY]

    "We're living in a 5-star occupation here."
    So explained a Palestinian businessman and frequent participant in back channel negotiations as we shared some delicious hummus and mohammara at Darna restaurant, one of Ramallah's most upscale restaurants, which as we spoke was filling up with members of the city's elite and the ubiquitous foreign NGO community.
    This was my first time back at the restaurant in a few years. The last time I was there a firefight between members of Hamas and Fatah left upwards of two dozen people shot and me and my lunch companions racing through the backstreets of town to find a safe way out.

    'Western myth'
    There is little chance of getting shot these days in Ramallah; but still, it is all too easy if you spend your time in the city's upscale eateries to forget, in the words of one Palestinian in a recent Le Monde Diplomatique article, that "Ramallah is not Palestine".
    Most Palestinians cannot afford to eat at Darna; the occupation is anything but 5-stars for the residents of nearby al-Amari or Jalazone refugee camps, where in February 17 children were arrested in the middle of the night by Israeli soldiers and, according to testimony gathered by the organisation Defense for Children, abused and beaten while in custody.
    Western and especially American commentators are fawning over Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's "law and order" programme and attempts to put money into the hands of small entrepreneurs and to improve quality of life in the major towns. But no one I know and none of the statistics I have seen paint a positive picture for the Palestinian economy and Palestinian life more broadly.
    As one friend said over lunch in Ramallah's more working class downtown the next day, the very idea of real growth is little more than a "Western myth".

    "Fayyad shows up somewhere else every other day to cut a ribbon, but it's not changing the structural realities of the occupation, which remains so intense that most Palestinians can't even think clearly about its economic dimensions," my friend told me.

    Israel and Western commentators also make much of the easing of checkpoints and the opening of the main Palestinian roads, which are making it easier to travel across the West Bank.

    While this is certainly true - the drive from Ramallah to Nablus today can take as little as one quarter of the time it did a few years ago - many Palestinians are scared to travel to the smaller villages that are almost inevitably surrounded by Israeli settlements.
    As a member of one of the premier hiphop groups in the Occupied Territories explained when I invited him to join me for a trip to the village of Burin, near Nablus, "The roads might be 'open', but you always here about people getting shot or attacked by settlers, so we're too scared to go there."
    Activity without development

    More Palestinians work in settlements than are allowed to work in Israel [GALLO/GETTY]

    Trying to navigate through the still usually bottlenecked Qalandiya checkpoint on the way back to Ramallah the next day, several implications of the "5-star occupation" in Ramallah came into view.

    Firstly, while Israel has allowed a resumption of economic activity in the West Bank under Fayyad's management, it is still in no way encouraging actual economic development there. And because of this, life has changed little for the majority of Palestinians living in the 0- and 1-star occupation in Gaza or the West Bank.
    In fact, the Palestinian economy would be in utter disarray without hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid each year, while unemployment remains sky high - more Palestinians work in West Bank settlements than are allowed to work in Israel - and a staggering 72 per cent of the urban Palestinian population lives in poverty.

    As for Gaza, a senior EU diplomat put it best over dinner the night before: "People aren't starving, but the situation is absolutely miserable."
    But Israel's easing of the occupation in places like Ramallah and Nablus has given the elite a vested interest in doing nothing that might return the situation to that of the early 2000s, when Israel reoccupied the major Palestinian cities and some friends in Ramallah had to live with tank barrels pointed into their kitchen windows.
    The taming of Hamas
    Of course, Palestinian leaders are not merely being venal or looking out for their own class interest. There is a real fear that however bad the remnants of Oslo remain, a bad deal is better than the alternative of completely unfettered creation of facts on the ground.

    The "Left" opposition remains so fragmented that it cannot offer an alternative, while Hamas is sounding and acting increasingly like its Fatah counterpart.

    Moreover, its three geographically isolated branches - in Gaza, the West Bank, and outside Palestine - are by necessity (and according to Israel's strategic plan) developing different agendas that make it hard to speak with one voice and to develop a successful counter-strategy to continued occupation.

    Indeed, according to Palestinian activists present at recent strategy negotiations between Hamas and Fatah, there was hardly any daylight in the arguments about long term goals, including the acceptance of a two-state solution, if such an outcome is still possible.

    "Hamas is sounding just like Fatah, only a bit shrewder," one attendee told me.

    It's all about the price. Having seen how little the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) got for recognising Israel and renouncing violence against Israel - which at the moment, Hamas has effectively done on the ground - at the start of Oslo, they are not prepared to cash in their only trump card until the end of the process.
    Of course, the issue of recognition has always been something of a red herring anyway, as Hamas is long on record saying it will accept any agreement negotiated by the Palestinian Authority (PA).

    Acting like Israel

    Life has changed little for the majority living in the West Bank and Gaza [GALLO/GETTY]

    What is more, a huge swath of Israel's citizenry does not recognise the Israeli state either yet still manage to live with it. This includes ultra-Orthodox haredim who do not accept its theological legitimacy, Palestinian citizens who remain marginalised from its Jewish character, and increasingly, settlers, who like their extremist Muslim counterparts, put their conception of the sovereignty of God above that of the Jewish state.
    If Hamas is thinking more like Fatah, it is acting more like Israel. And so, much as the Israeli government does in East Jerusalem, Hamas destroyed 25 homes built "illegally" on government land by Gazans whose homes were destroyed by Israel during the Gaza war.

    When questioned about how they could copy such a practice, Hamas officials responded without a hint of irony that the "law" had to be respected and those who built the homes were engaging in an "aggression on public properties" and constituted a threat to government control.
    These are, of course, the same arguments the Israeli government uses when destroying Palestinian homes; one refugee from Gaza City whose home was destroyed called it the "Nakba of 2010".
    Hamas remains unable to challenge Israeli rule through violence and incapable of forming a coherent and successful paradigm for resistance against its much more powerful adversary.

    Moreover, according to one senior UNRWA official who works in Gaza, the recent home demolitions, coupled with corruption scandals and other problems associated with attempting to govern Gaza under such extreme conditions is wearing on its support.

    And back in Ramallah, when activists do try to organise demonstrations they are often met with tear gas and even beatings by the PA-controlled security forces.
    Who will resist?

    The international community might celebrate a chastened and moderated Hamas. But even those Palestinian strategists who disagree with its ideology and tactics worry about what will happen if Hamas softens and becomes invested in the peace process. As one friend put it: "If Hamas gets coopted, who will be left to resist?"
    Every day there is in fact more to resist. In the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, on the same street I once lived in with a few Israeli peace activists in Oslo's early years, the government is now expropriating land on which Palestinians have lived for decades.

    In the small village of Burin, not far south of Nablus and one of the most beautiful regions of the West Bank, settlers from the ultra-militant colony of Yizhar routinely attack Palestinian farmers, cut down olive trees, and steal chickens, goats and the occasional horse from Palestinian farmers - all with almost total impunity.

    An acquaintance in the village pointed up from the mutilated trees to the mobile homes that had appeared on those hill tops that did not already have settlements, staking out ground for the future.

    Young girls are forced to drag crates filled with fresh water to their dilapidated homes, because the village, which boasts a Roman-era fountain and olive trees equally as old, cannot supply enough water to residents thanks to the expropriation of the area's water resources by the settlements.
    Meanwhile, Israeli soldiers are everywhere; the roads might be "open" but Palestinians are in no conceivable way "free" to move through the West Bank.

    And now, tragically, the world has another example (as if there were not enough already, going back at least to the death of Rachel Corrie) of how even foreigners who attempt to ameliorate the situation of Palestinians are no freer to move about than the occupation's primary victims.

    It used to be that you had to be inside the Occupied Territories to wind up being killed by Israeli soldiers for non-violently trying to challenge the occupation; now, it appears, nowhere is safe, even in international waters on an aid ship.

    The upside of disillusionment


    Israeli soldiers are still 'everywhere' in the
    West Bank [GALLO/GETTY]

    The deaths of numerous humanitarian activists trying to break the Gaza siege might harm Israel's image and foreign relations and even lead to some opening of the siege of Gaza, but tragically, they will not lead to a basic reversal in the closure of Palestinian life, now close to 20 years old, and with it the closing off of any possibility of independence.

    If resistance is futile and politics hopeless, what hope is there for the immediate future?
    About eight years ago, during the height of the al-Aqsa intifida, I visited a cultural centre in one of the refugee camps outside Bethlehem that focused on educating young children.

    As I watched a group of 10-year-olds learn the Dabkeh, the national dance, the 20-year old activist who created the centre explained to me that the only hope for the future was to give the young generation of Palestinians tools to create a new paradigm for resistance and politics when they came of age.
    Today, that young generation is entering adulthood, and they are about to initiate a sea-change in Palestinian politics, whether their elders are ready or not.

    These "children of the al-Aqsa intifada" have known only a desultory Oslo peace process and intensified occupation. They have no allegiance to Oslo, to the PA, to Fatah, to Hamas, or any other movement or orientation.
    Because of this, they are, as Palestinian entrepreneur and consultant Sam Bahour described it to me, perhaps the most free-thinking generation since 1948.

    They are beholden to no one; the bankruptcy of the peace process and the two state solution, the obvious impossibility of physical/territorial separation, the corruption and weakness of most of the political class, have all created the conditions in which they are ready to think outside the box, to consider options that the various sectors of the Palestinian establishment, so invested in their own policies or scared of an even more chaotic and oppressive reality should the existing system collapse, are unwilling to contemplate.

    Fragile democratic grounding

    For their part, Israelis are increasingly coming to understand that the failure of Oslo and an unending occupation, even if politically manageable and economically feasible, will further erode the country's increasingly fragile democratic grounding.

    Demonstrations, such as the ones against the latest confiscation plan in Sheikh Jarrah, are featuring an inspiring, if still relatively small, array of Israelis protesting together with Palestinians - kindergardeners and grandparents, hippies and anarchists, grizzled peace activists, religious Muslims, and even a smattering of religious Jews, all united by the belief, as a t-shirt being sold at the most recent weekly demonstration exclaimed in Hebrew, that "an occupied city can't be holy".
    There is also a realisation that the problems Israel confronts lie not just in Palestinian Ramallah, but in Palestinian Israeli Ramla as well. In poor and drug and crime-infested Palestinian neighbourhoods of Israeli towns like Ramla, Lydda and Jaffa, the costs of decades of marginalisation and discrimination are all too clear.

    Palestinian community activists in Israel are under increasing pressure, as evidenced by the recent arrest and espionage charges against well-known activist Ameer Makhoul, the head of the Union of Arab Community Based Organisations (Ittijah), long a thorn in the government's side when it comes to protesting against the treatment of Palestinian citizens of Israel.

    A close friend confessed that he is so cowed now by years of harassment by the security services that "if I see them beating someone in the street, I'll just turn the other way. The government does what it wants and there's nothing we can do".
    There is even envy of Ramallah's 5-star occupation among many Palestinians citizens of Israel.

    "We'd love to have some of the money that Ramallah is getting," explained Saz, Ramla's most famous hiphop star who for the last half decade has used his music to teach young Palestinians and Israelis about the realities of his local life.

    "It's worse in Ramla than Ramallah. I've almost been shot several times; hundreds of others haven't been so lucky in the last decade here."
    Old identities crumble

    Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been separated into two distinct polities [EPA]

    Taken together, the situation across Israel/Palestine reflects an entire system of identity that is, however slowly, beginning to break down.

    It is not just Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who have been effectively separated into two increasingly distinct polities, or the bourgeoisie in Ramallah who have little in common with Palestinians in surrounding refugee camps.

    As the editor of one Israeli magazine explained in a recent meeting, Israeli society is becoming increasingly disaggregated into various communities who relate to each other less and less with each passing year: secular Tel Aviv, haredi Jerusalem, ultra-nationalist Ariel, Palestinian Ramla.

    As coherent identity and national solidarity breaks down on both sides, the time might be ripe for something new - or, to borrow a phrase from the father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, "Old-New".

    There are literally dozens of plans for reimagining both Israeli and Palestinian identities, and the political mechanisms for the two national communities to share the same land.
    Some, like binationalism or various types of federalism or confederation, have a long history, as Israeli historian Yoseph Gorny pointed out in his 2006 book From Binational Society to Jewish State.

    Others, like the "Parallel States Project," are more novel, imagining an overlapping sovereignty of Israeli and Palestinian states over the entire territory of Mandate Palestine, which would allow Palestinians and Jews to live throughout the land while retaining citizenship through their ethno-religious state.

    What all share is the realisation that Israel/Palestine can no longer be separated, and the sooner both communities figure out a way to live together the better it will be for both nations.

    High stakes
    Such post-Oslo scenarios might still seem far-fetched, but when the seemingly possible has been shown to be impossible, the radical can suddenly seem not only a feasible, but necessary alternative.

    The problem is that a century of hatred, violence and oppression has created an environment where even the most innocent provocation can lead to disaster.
    My last day in Jerusalem, while walking into Sheikh Jarrah, I passed a little Hassidic boy, not more than eight, walking briskly on the street in the direction of the haredi Mea Shearim neighbourhood, his eyes darting nervously about. As he passed me a small group of Palestinian children, two of which were his age and one a few years younger, surrounded him.

    It seemed a situation ripe for mischief, so I turned around to see if anything would happen and sure enough, as he walked by the Palestinian kids surrounded him, and the youngest one, about five years old, yelled at him half jokingly and half antagonistically. It was a sound any parent would recognise, but in the context of Sheikh Jarrah and the conflict more broadly, its implications were more dangerous.
    The little boy jerked away and moved farther into the road where a bus was heading straight towards him. I screamed as loud as I could and all the children froze, the bus missing the hassidic boy by mere inches. If I hadn't screamed, it is hard to imagine what might have happened.

    But if he had been hit, and likely killed, what would the papers have made of it? How would the Israeli government have reacted? What was a natural interaction between children would have become a symbol of innate, irrational and irredeemable Palestinian hatred of Jews.

    How many Palestinian homes would have been seized in Sheikh Jarrah in retaliation? What "price tag" would settlers have extracted by attacking Palestinians across the West Bank?
    The chance for understanding and reconciliation would have once again been pushed further into the distance.

    No one would have understood the real tragedy - that in Israel/Palestine, no one gets to be a kid, that teasing and juvenile posturing can lead not only to death, but to more occupation and war.
    With stakes this high, new thinking cannot happen soon enough.

    Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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