Monday, February 28, 2011

Palestinians and Israeli reality

One of my criticisms of the Israeli peace camp has been that it does not seem entirely familiar with development taking place on the ground, within Palestinian society. In making that claim I am being rather sweeping and possible unfair; it may well be that there is greater awareness of the nuances within Palestinian political and social life by Israelis than I give credit for. That said, comments like those on Thursday gave me pause for thought, since a generally positive impression of the Fayyad plans and the measures implicit within it overlooks some of the starting points for my critique of the situation within the West Bank (e.g. whether market forces are both feasible or indeed justified in the context of occupation – two distinct issues in themselves). As I also mentioned in my post on Thursday, this needn’t prevent Israelis from being able to get a better perspective and understanding on the situation in the West Bank. There is sufficient material available to anyone who wants it.

Now I direct my attention to the other side. Although hardly representative, I am struck by some of the statements that I’ve come across within the West Bank by Palestinians. And while I empathise with the situation, at times it also shows a distinct lack of understanding of their Israeli counterparts as well. For example, over the past month I’ve listened to several Palestinians tell me that Israel does not have the right to take the land.

In the first instance, one characterised it as someone moving into your house uninvited and taking up one of the rooms. At first the person sounds reasonable, saying he will not be present in the rest of the house, only the room he’s taken. Then a month later he takes over a corner of the sitting room, but again say that his intentions are modest; he will confine himself to his room and the corner that he has taken. This carries on, over and over, until eventually he has taken over the whole house, leaving you confined to your room. And before you know it, you come home to discover that he’s moved his friends into your room. Your house is no longer your own. More to the point, this all started without any consent on your part; you never invited him into the house in the first place. He just appeared one day. [actually, this is a metaphor that has been used before, by the PLO in the past, so is hardly original – but it’s a nice analogy]

That same individual echoed another person who I had reason to listen to recently and a second reflection. Without saying it specifically, both speakers likened Israel to a transient entity and the Israelis as temporary interlopers. The implicit assumption is that Israel is not a ‘real’ state and that Israelis do not belong here. Tied to this is the ‘one more heave’ theory: if we can evict the Israelis from Israel then Palestine will once again be Palestinian. When I’ve asked what this means for the Israelis, there is a denial of their right to remain: they are seen as immigrants and have other countries they can go back to, regardless of whether they are born here.

[Slightly off topic, but it is worth laying out the less absolutist approach as well. This involves adopting a more reasonable stance and saying that following the passing of Israel, the Israelis that remain would have the option of integrating into a single Palestinian state. The rhetoric employed by those who maintain this sounds as reasonable as the language employed by the Israeli peace camp. However, like the Israeli peace camp’s words, those relating to the Palestinian ‘one state’ solution also hides more than it reveals. Who can be against a single state of Palestinian Arabs and Jews? Especially one that is binational, democratic and secular? For most people, this sounds reasonable and balanced. But is it? In ‘one state’ there would be an Arab majority and Jews would be a minority. Even though I too instinctively favour a single, democratic and secular state, I have to be aware that there are others (many among Israel’s 7m people) who do not want that and favour a Jewish homeland. It may be democratic, but any recognition of Palestinian rights means recognition of others’ rights as well, in this case Israelis. And if some of them demand a homeland that is Jewish in character, how is that to be reconciled with the one state idea?]

I think it’s fair to put down these views to Palestinians’ general lack of knowledge about the Israeli reality. For most, the only experience they have of Israel is that of an occupying, colonialist force, mainly as settlers protected by the army across the West Bank. For those in east Jerusalem as well, the sense of being besieged is apparent from the Jewish Agency’s pursuit of housing units within the Old City and the construction of settlements around the Arab neighbourhoods.

[One friend told me the sad story that a friend of his faces. He and his father live in the Old City in Jerusalem next to some settlers. His father is very old and settlers and their organisations have tried several methods to get him out of his house. They have offered to buy the property and sought his eviction. Now though, they have opted to wait until he dies. Apparently, the settlers are confident that they can take over the property when he dies on the basis that it is the old man’s property and cannot be transferred to the son. When I asked why his will couldn’t be amended to allow the house to be passed on or a deed to be drawn up, my friend said it was to do with the interpretation of the law; a biased legal system (which is known all to well to Palestinians living in Jerusalem) is weighted against them, with the likelihood that any court will side with the settlers’ interpretation that the property’s ownership was only limited to the father and not the son.]

That said, a friend (the same who recounted the above tale) recently got hold of a six-month permit to visit Jerusalem, after more than a year of applying. When I asked him what his impression had been of the city after not having been in the city for nearly three years, his words were sad, yet telling:

“This is not my country anymore. The Israelis have completely changed it.”
When I asked whether he was talking about west Jerusalem, he said that was partially it. The streets and people around the west (Jewish) part had little connection to him. But more troubling as well was his impression of east Jerusalem, which remains predominantly Palestinian. He found the mindset of the people different to the people he knows in Ramallah: their concerns and points of reference simply felt different to his.  This is the same insight that another friend made about his feelings of visiting Israel when I asked him whether he would be updating his permit.  For him, there's little reason as he doesn't feel the need to travel there.  Other than Jerusalem - and the east side at that - he does not feel 'comfortable' in Israel.  He said that he feels incredibly self-conscious about speaking in Arabic in public.  He has cousins in Jaffa and like my friend who recently visited Jerusalem, he finds that they have a different way of life to Palestinians in the West Bank.  Because they are surrounded by Israel, in terms of the people they work with, the TV they watch, the newspaper they read, this makes them seem different.

This to me says that the impact of Israel’s facts on the ground is far more significant than West Bank Palestinians - most of whom are unable to go beyond the wall (even to Jerusalem) sometimes understand. As I frequently point out to Ramallah-ites who ask, Israel’s presence – especially in ‘48’, the land that became the new state of Israel after 1948 and not ‘67’, the OPT, which was occupied after the 1967 war – is far more permanent than they may be aware. Of course, it doesn’t help with rhetoric (albeit very much old-fashioned and largely outdated) that stems from the pre-1967 period, when the Arabs threatened to push Israel into the sea (and language which continues to be cited by the fear-mongering Israeli political class to justify their obsession with ‘security’). Similarly, it’s hard to realise this when they many Palestinians are unable to see Israel for themselves.

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