Saturday, February 26, 2011

A tale of disconnection

The last two days have offered an interesting juxtaposition between the reality of the occupation and the relatively disconnected nature of the Israeli peace camp.  Both were troubling.

Yesterday I was in Hebron where there were protests against the closure of Shuhada Street in the old city.  Nearby the Israel army provides a round-the-clock presence for 400 settlers who took over part of the old city in 1980 and live behind high walls, barbed wire and various security measures.  We arrived around 1pm to find the protestors – mainly teenagers and boys – going as far as they could into the old city in the street and along the roof tops and throwing rocks at the soldiers.

From time to time they would turn and run, usually following the firing of a tear gas canister.  This went on for some time while ambulances went back and forth, presumably ferrying people who had been wounded in the fracas.  It was hard to tell, especially as there weren’t any gunshots (although I was further up the street and so too far to tell) and the occasional booms that we heard were designed to disperse the crowd.

At several points the protestors were pushed back to the edge of the old town where the Palestinian police, both traffic and riot, were located.  They would set up a barrier against the protestors, discouraging them from entering the city and forcing them further up the street to discourage confrontation.  This was the much acclaimed Israeli-Palestinian Authority security cooperation in practice.  For much of the time though, they stood further up the main street, watching events unfold before moving back into position.

However, this wouldn’t last long and the boys would soon be back down the street, throwing rocks again.  Although we hung back, a gas canister landed behind us, obliging us to walk quickly through the rapidly enveloping cloud.  Not only did my eyes sting, but I inhaled a sufficient amount to feel it burn my throat.  A local vendor very helpfully offered us onion halves to breathe and remove the effect.

In contrast to this, the day before I attended a workshop run by IPCRI and the Konrad Adenaur think tank in Jerusalem which brought together a number of Israeli peace activists.  Having arrived halfway through, I found the general tone of the meeting both dispiriting and unconnected to reality.

First, the discussion suggested few prospects of a change in Israeli public opinion concerning the occupation in the OPT specifically or the region more generally.  There is very much a sense of bunkering down and waiting to see how the current uprisings in the Middle East pan out (there was some discussion about the impact of the revolution in Egypt and whether this might affect the relationship with Israel) and the potential of it spreading to Jordan.  If the latter, this may pose greater concern than in Egypt, since for many in the military establishment, the key to Israeli ‘security’ concerns lie not with the borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state in the West Bank, but with Jordan’s border.  Because of this, several participants see a collapse of the Hashemite kingdom as opening the door to a larger Palestinian state (given the number of Palestinians who live in Jordan).  Consequently, for the Zionists in Israel, the Jordanian government’s reforms have to work.  Within Israel there is no desire to change course, either within the political class (and its political parties) or among the public – who are happy for the government to ‘manage’ the situation rather than make a significant break with the present.

Second, I get a feeling that the Israeli peace camp is not only disconnected from the Israeli mainstream, but also from their Palestinian interlocutors.  Several times I heard participants talk about the ‘success’ of the Fayyad plan, through its involvement in the building of institutions and the security sector and its reform (the above noted security collaboration between the PA and Israel in action...).  However, this completely disregards the distortions that are emerging within Palestinian society between the haves and the have-nots, economically and geographically, especially outside of Ramallah.  It totally overlooks the growing disaffection which is being felt among Palestinians about their leadership, especially in the wake of the leaks revealing the extent of Palestinian compromise (and Israeli intransigence) in the Palestine Papers in January and public support for the uprisings in the region.  While much of the ‘credit’ for the reforms may be directed towards Salam Fayyad himself, he is arguably not as independent as many Israeli peace activists think.  He may not be a Fatah man, but he is Abu Mazen’s appointee – and the PA risks growing criticism for its initial backing of Mubarak and subsequent disruptions of the demonstrations in support of the Egyptian and Libyan demonstrators by Fatah ‘supporters’ during the last month.  On the same day as the meeting, the PA also disrupted a demonstration in support of reconciliation between the West Bank and Gaza.  Finally, the fact that he suggested elections might take place before retracting it (as far as I’m currently aware) reflects jitters within the PA.

Third, and perhaps most problematic, is the language which Israeli peace activists use.  That the Israeli public only wants ‘to manage the conflict’ or that negotiations between the two sides constitute ‘two traumatised people talking past each other’ suggests balance between two sides rather than the power asymmetry between Israel and the Palestinians.  For Israelis, it may be a ‘conflict’ on the margins of the Israeli state, buy for the Palestinians who live within it, it’s an ‘occupation’.  As for the notion of ‘trauma’, it’s not certain to me whether the speaker was talking about individual trauma or a people’s collective sense of trauma.  If it’s the former, then few Israelis have experienced this compared to the Palestinian who faces any number of problems associated with the conflict daily, from being stopped at a checkpoint, denied freedom of movement, being subject to interrogation, etc.  If the speaker meant a collective trauma shared by a people, then I suspect it’s a codeword for the Holocaust.  And while I understand it had a significant impact on the people who lived through it and their descendents, I’m not sure why it should determine Israel’s public actions to date.

[As an aside, I find the use of the Holocaust as an explanation for Israel’s experience to be problematic by being extremely reductionist, especially when placed in the hands of people like Steven Spielberg and his film, Munich.  In his film the protagonist asks if the violence he perpetrates is justified.  The extremely unsatisfactory answer that comes back is that (1) the violence against the Jews justified the creation of Israel which it is his goal to defend and (2) wouldn’t the world be a better place if both sides didn’t act violently against the other? (with the shot of the Twin Towers to labour the point at the end)  By taking this approach, Spielberg is guilty of reducing the creation of Israel to the abhorrent act of the Holocaust and overlooking the role of Zionism and Zionist settlement in the area which stretches back to the First Aliyah in the 1870-80s.]

The above points all point to a great deal that needs to be done if Israeli opinion is ever to come around to addressing the reality of the occupation and the nature of a final agreement with the Palestinians.  The reason why I feel especially troubled is the fact that these Israelis arguably constitute the section of society most inclined to reach a deal with the Palestinians.  However, the fact that they appear to recognise their own marginalisation within Israeli society, along with their lack of awareness of internal Palestinian conflicts and tensions and their mental map of the occupation (the latter which will be more challenging to break than that of their understanding of Palestinian politics) does not inspire much confidence that they will be a significant actor in the months ahead.  That was also similarly apparent in the lack of any clear ideas of suggestions during the meeting about how best to make the case for the peace camp, given the general mood in Israel.  I left with the impression that the current mood in Israel is one of inertia; a wait-and-see approach with few ideas at hand.

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