What folks are saying in Palestine

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Last month, in the Old City Jerusalem, I visited a Palestinian friend who belonged to one of the radical Left factions of the PLO and had spent many years in Israeli jails. When I asked him what he thought about the political situation he responded that Palestinian politics was “one piece of shit, divided into two parts.” Whether the new unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas will create something that smells better remains to be seen. 

During almost four weeks in the West Bank (“1967 Palestine”) and 1948 Israel I spoke to a wide array of activists from the various parties, as well as a lot of ordinary people. The impressions I got are far from a scientific sampling of opinion, but rather a cross-section of what people are saying.

Everyone advocated an end to the division between the Palestinian factions – though Fatah supporters insisted on putting all the blame for the split on Hamas alone. However, there was little sign of sustained popular pressure for this following up on the March demonstrations in Ramallah. The “unity tents” set up in the squares of Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem — attempting to catch the Tahrir wave — were only sporadically occupied by a handful of dogged youth activists. I couldn’t talk to any Hamas members because the Islamic Resistance remains virtually underground in the West Bank between joint repression by the Israel and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. 

The Fatah members I met – both a mid-level functionary and several grassroots activists – were unanimously expectant of some breakthrough toward diplomatic recognition of Palestine at the UN next September. However, none of them could specify very clearly what that would mean on the ground regarding the Occupation or whether even a successful admission of Palestine to the UN would entail any enforcement mechanisms that could make a practical difference. One acquaintance in Fatah’s international department spoke vaguely about the option to dissolve the PA or even the specter of new attacks against Israelis if the diplomatic push ended in failure, but it was evident that there was no developed “Plan B.” Given the estimated 150,000 people on its payroll, It was hard to take the option of voluntarily ending the PA very seriously. The threat was reminiscent of the line by Palestinian negotiators after Bush’s “Roadmap” that there would either be an agreement with them – or Hamas might come to power. We know that Israel and the US responded to that outcome with diplomatic/financial boycott, repression and collective punishment of the Palestinian people – to which the PA virtually assented. No better offer was forthcoming. 

Aside from the heroic but largely isolated resistance in the villages struggling directly against the Wall and the settlements, the sense of exhaustion was palpable among the long-term activists. Everyone was struggling for survival amid unemployment, low salaries and escalating food and transportation prices. The Palestinians, who had taught the Arabs how to make an Intifada in the 1930s and 1980s, were reduced to watching the Middle East revolutions on Al-Jazeera.

Activists who had come of age during the 1970s and 80s were now reaching their fifties and sixties. All my friends had spent multiple times, sometimes years, in Israeli jails, at great hardship to themselves and their families. Who could blame their discouragement? A Leftist friend who had been a delegate to Madrid in 1991 and had broken with the DFLP to support the Oslo process, said he had to spend more time “taking care of his family and children.” Among ordinary folks, it was common during casual conversation with workers in shops or taxis to be asked – only half jokingly – whether I could help them get a visa to the US. 

Those doing better economically typically had some well-paying job in the PA bureaucracy or more often in one of the better-funded NGOs. Regardless of whether actual corruption was involved, the obviously superior lifestyles of the well-connected were vehemently resented by almost everyone. A normal salary for a teacher or a low-level functionary is 2000 shekels a month (about $580; the minimum wage in 1948 Israel was 3850 shekels, scheduled to rise to 4100 in July). An old friend of mine, the president of one of the sector unions in the Palestinian General Confederation of Trade Unions (PGFTU), remarked that Palestinians were suffering under a “triple occupation” — by Israel, the PA and the NGOs. He had to pay 20 shekels a day out of his monthly 2000 shekels for transportation from his village to his job in Ramallah. 

Meanwhile, traveling around the West Bank had become much easier – though expensive for average people – with the inactivation of many Israeli checkpoints. You could now take a service taxi from Tulkarem or Qalqiliya direct to Nablus, Ramallah or even “Quds” (actually, the Kalandia checkpoint, which remained as horrific as ever). Of course the checkpoint infrastructure remained in place and could be activated quickly, as it was to isolate Nablus following the shooting of some settlers invading the city to visit “Joseph’s Tomb” while I was there. 

For the first time in many visits I met ordinary folks – rather than activists or academics — who expressed the opinion that a state in ’67 Palestine was a lost cause and that the solution was to struggle for a single democratic country. Traveling around the West Bank, as many are more able to do now, it was hard to imagine the dismantling of the omnipresent – and expanding — settlements or the super-highways that connected them. In ’48 Israel, Palestinian friends of mine were also expressing skepticism about two states. A few years ago it was commonplace to hear them say that they could never achieve full rights in Israel until there was a separate Palestinian state. No longer. A lawyer in Tira who supported the Arab nationalist Balad party said that two states were “dead” – though he “had to respect the aspirations of those in the ’67 occupied territories who still saw that as the goal.”

The popular resistance in the villages continues, though without much sign of national mobilization. Bil’in or Ni’ilin are within half an hour of Ramallah and most of the West Bank is no more than an hour away from those and other sites, but the struggles remain largely isolated. It is usual to witness more participation by Israelis and internationals than by the Palestinian masses. Political faction leaders or PA officials sometimes show up, but this usually has the quality of a photo op rather than a genuine commitment of sustained support. 

However, the relative quiet in the West Bank can be deceptive. just a year ago, who would have predicted the rapid rise of protest politics to revolution in Egypt? One friend in Nablus predicted a political explosion that would come quickly and unexpectedly. Another friend in Ramallah, active in the Independent union movement, said that “people are not ready to struggle as long as they have their salaries from the PA. If the PA dissolves and the salaries stop, people will be in the streets.” After the failure of the PA diplomatic effort in the fall, he thought that Abu Mazen “would be in Qatar within a year.”

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