Trapped

Israel/Palestine
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Blue sky over Bethlehem
Blue sky over wall in Bethlehem

On my last day in Jerusalem I went to the Holocaust memorial and marveled at the architecture. The exhibit hall of Yad Vashem s in the form of a long triangular box whose poured concrete walls slope overhead as you walk through the museum of horrors. You enter at the closed-in south end of the box, but by the north end, the walls peel up and apart like wings. So the box is no longer closed, and from a railing you look out at the beautiful land of Israel. The message is clear: Europe was a trap for Jews, the only way out was here.

The architecture conveys my feelings about visiting Israel and Palestine. With the obvious disclaimer that nothing compares to the extermination campaigns of the Second World War, I can’t see any way out of the conflict without tragic consequences. 

This was my 7th or 8th trip, and I was happy to leave this time. In the last 24 hours I witnessed four threatening incidents on the street, all trivial, yet all contributing to the overwhelming sense of darkness and martial law. The place simply doesn’t work politically. Hillary Clinton’s mantra that the status quo is unsustainable is a thin scraping of the truth, this is a situation of tremendous political imbalance and revolutionary feeling. I wish I could give all my friends passports. One older friend said, There is a 10 percent chance that this situation won’t end in Bosnia.

Anyone with any sense of the real conditions understands that the two state solution is over. That awareness is widespread within the elites  and intelligentsia of Israel and all over Palestine. Yossi Sarid said it in Haaretz, and the knowledge is working its way to the United States. The recent Times op-ed by Dani Dayan, the settler leader, stating that the land is ours and we’re not going away was a healthy intervention by the New York Times in our political life– trying to break the news to the fantasists that there will be no viable Palestinian state in the West Bank. Anyone who has spent many days inside the occupation can explain why this is the case. I will do so in posts in days to come: show that this is a land of inequality and apartheid and subjugation.

Here’s one example that I find crushing. When I left Israel two days ago, I walked down the great ramp of the Ben Gurion airport exit hall past two dozen images on the walls from the collection of the Israel Museum, beautiful objects showing he history of the land. And when you have gone halfway down the ramp you realize that you will see no Palestinian images. There are images from Egypt and Algeria, something from Persia too, but everything else is Jewish. Jewish coins from the 1st century BC. Beautiful Jewish sculpture and paintings. An iconic black-and-white photo of a Zionist athlete. I did not see a mention of Palestine or the indigenous people. So in this last salute from Israel to the traveler, the central political claim is restated: This place belongs to us, and we have removed all evidence of the people who were here before us. Palestinians are beneath contempt.

Another quick example: at an affluent Jewish settlement deep in Palestinian East Jerusalem that looks like a fancy development in New Jersey, there is a fine brick sidewalk. The sidewalk simply stops when the road enters the neighboring Palestinian area. Now the side of the road is dirt and trash. The settlement is served by an Israeli national bus line. The Palestinians—and mind you both groups are in “Israeli” East Jerusalem– get no such services… .

The man who showed me these apartheid conditions, Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, is a famously-ebullient spirit, for he can mix mirth with tragedy in the same breath. But as Halper said, the political despair is so profound here, and the polarization of Israel and Palestine so complete, that some activists seem to have abandoned the South Africa model and begun to turn in their hearts to the Algeria model: you Israelis are a bunch of colonialists who don’t belong here. In a word, the two sides can’t imagine a future living with one another.

I don’t know whether this is true. I spent less time in the activist community than I have on visits past. The nonviolent struggle was at an ebb because of Ramadan, and I had the impression that the nonviolent struggle is approaching a new chapter, maybe, hopefully, a more international chapter—witness the fact that Ben Ehrenreich is writing about the nonviolent movement in Nabi Saleh for the New York Times Magazine.

The great fear of course is that Palestinians will abandon a nonviolent approach. This was the fear that Mustapha Barghouti expressed at J Street in March to a room packed with 500 people in which you could hear a pin drop. Hamas leaders laughed at me when we told them nonviolence is the answer, he said in so many words, and then when we got international attention, they came to me and said, This stuff actually works. Then Barghouti challenged the largely-Jewish room: We cannot continue without a sense of progress. People in Palestine must feel that they are achieving something by this pacifist response.

I don’t think they should resort to violence, I pray that they don’t. And yet it’s difficult to understand why they haven’t. The message that Israel has dispossessed Palestine and blindered itself to Palestinians’ humanity and tossed them into Bantustans is everywhere so blunt, whether you are in an Orthodox settlement in Ramot, or in the barricaded city of Hebron, or the martial city of East Jerusalem where young Jews in uniform walk through the Muslim quarter with their fingers on the triggers of their M16s, that were I Palestinian I would be filled with dreams of rebellion.

Palestinians talk about the occupation endlessly. After visiting Yad Vashem my last day I had Iftar dinner (breaking the Ramadan fast) at the home of an old friend in East Jerusalem, and one of his relatives complained angrily of the humiliation involved in entering Palestine from Jordan–which entails a burdensome and arbitrary visa application process in Amman– even as Israelis can drive their cars into Jordan without any fuss. I’m talking about a secular highly educated household. My friend and I drank bourbon and he got out an Ipad to show the family Jon Stewart’s riff on Romney and Palestinian culture, and everyone was roaring. Yes, this was a great cross-cultural moment, and these Muslims actually feel represented in the U.S. by Jon Stewart. But will that be enough to lift the bleakness? No.

My friend drove me back to the Old City at 10 o’clock, and as we were going through East Jerusalem, we saw a soldier chasing down a boy and arresting him. It took all of 30 seconds. I don’t know how the matter began. But in the darkness the soldier pounced on the boy in the intersection like a snake, and other boys around the suspect dispersed almost calmly as the soldier dragged him back to a truck.

That was one of the four threatening incidents I saw in my last 24 hours. Another was a merchant in the Old City screaming at me, “You bitch, I will fuck you up,” because of a confrontation that began when I reached over his shoulder to look at a rug hanging from a wall. The third was two Palestinian vendors getting into a shoving match and having to be separated by the Ramadan crowd. The fourth was an Israeli army Jeep flying up behind a line of Palestinian cars outside the Damascus gate amid Ramadan celebrations and hitting its siren-buzzer and lights to force the cars out of the way. I remember the satanic grin on the soldier’s face; he took sport in the routine harassment of civilians.

All trivial incidents. Yet when people speak of the country’s toughness, and tensions so thick you can cut them with a knife, this is what they mean. And of course it’s only Israelis with guns. They have the sovereignty and the authority, the ability to deliver violence. And inasmuch as these roles are gender-defined in traditional ways, the imbalance is experienced as an insult to Palestinian manhood. That’s one way to explain the shopkeeper who kept screaming at me, You bitch, you bitch, as I walked away.

If I’d stayed in Jewish areas I could have avoided such scenes. But I didn’t want to be there, and also every time I went into the Jewish areas I had the idea of my bus or restaurant being blown up. You’re not supposed to talk about such things. But how far are we from the next rebellion? There are more than 4 million people without political rights in a box built by the misguided ideology of creating a safe place for Jews by making a Jewish state on other people’s lands. Still, Israel exists, in all its racist misguided political architecture, the people are human beings (and most are Jewish, like me), and my last gestures in the country were intentionally humane ones. I tried to be kind to people, even the interrogating guards at the airport, because I presume few of them have chosen this trap. Also I was thankful to be getting away.

An Israeli friend who does not have the luxury of leaving and who describes Palestinian conditions frankly as apartheid says that the next phase of the struggle should be an international movement for one person/one vote. Why isn’t an organization coming up with that simple message? he asks. The government that controls our lives is not one that we consent to. We have no rights. Give us the vote.

How will Israelis respond to such an appeal? I asked.

They will regard it as an existential threat, he said.

This is one reason that American Jewish organizations don’t want to declare the two state solution dead. They know what the reality is, they know how nutso Israelis are, and they prefer denial. They want to maintain the Zionist fantasy that there is a Jewish democracy, when it is neither, it is a Zionist authoritarian state. They are willing to suspend Palestinians in a situation of no-rights forever as they talk about land-swaps that will never happen. A journalist friend says that the settlers are actually more reliable actors in conceiving of a political resolution of the madness, because they actually live with Palestinians, so some of them know who Palestinians are.

Palestinians were once alien to me, but over the last three years, I’ve gotten to know a lot of them, and come to enjoy the humor and intelligence and generosity of the ordinary people I meet; and as for the noble ones, you won’t find more inspiring examples anywhere. I stood beside Badia Dweik on a corner in Hebron as he was harassed first by a settler boy on a horse, then by a soldier who ordered him to move back a few feet (just wait till you see the video of this incident), and Badia said calmly and firmly, This is my city, and under your own rules I have a right to stand where I am. I put my arm around him to have some of his strength and to express my solidarity.

But he has to live there and I don’t. I’m afraid for him, as I’m afraid for the security service woman who interrogated me at the airport two mornings ago. Neither of them chose to be born into this trap. My own despair springs from the fact that for years I thought I could do something to help them, but this time round I seem to have lost that belief.

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