One of the advantages of return visits to Palestine over a period of years is to get a sense of the way the situation is developing over time. Unfortunately, in coming here many times over the past ten years, the impression I have is of a constant deterioration of the political landscape and the palpable loss of hope for any short-term improvement.
As an activist, my first direct personal connection with Palestine came in 2002, before I ever visited the country. In 2002 I helped to host a US tour of Palestinian trade-union representatives and organized a couple of speaking events in Boston. I have kept in touch with them and spent some time with them almost every year since 2004 when I visited Palestine for the first time.
Mohammed, known to his friends as “AbulAbed,” has a history like many aging activists here. Mohammed is gentle, modest, soft-spoken and, like nearly all Palestinians, generous and welcoming to visitors. You can say there is not a violent bone in his body. And yet, he spent a good part of his life in and out of Israeli prisons.
Mohammed’s family story is one of those which encompasses many aspects of the Palestinian experience. Although he lives in Ramallah now, Mohammed is originally from the village of Arura, not far from Bir Zeit. Like many Palestinians in their 60’s. he is only one generation removed from the land. His father Mahmoud was a fellah, born in 1890; during the First World War he was drafted into the Ottoman army, serving (as was the intention for Arab recruits) far from home in the Gallipoli campaign near Istanbul.
After the war Mahmoud had a number of children from his first wife, married again after she died, and then was widowed a second time. In 1948, at the age of almost 60, he married an 18-year-old refugee, one of thousands expelled from villages near Lidda (now the site of Ben-Gurion Airport) and living under trees or in caves in the countryside around Ramallah. This was Mohammed’s mother. (The same pattern of desperate young refugee women compelled to marry much older men is now being repeated among those fleeing across the borders to escape the violence in Syria.)
Mohammed was a promising student and eventually won a scholarship to study law in Beirut at the new Arab University. Like many others of his generation, he became active in nationalist politics as a student, was elected to the University leadership and joined one of the leftist factions in the PLO, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). He says he was attracted by the DFLP’s commitment to stand “with the poor people.”
Mohammed’s university career in Beirut was cut short by the civil war in Lebanon and he went to Cairo to finish his degree. Then, returning home, he got a job with the Jerusalem-Ramallah water company and began his career as a trade union activist. This (and never any accusation of violence) is what landed him repeatedly in Israeli prisons. Unions were outlawed by the Israeli occupation authorities until after Oslo.
After 1990, Mohammed and many other DFLP activists broke with the organization to participate in the early peace process begun under the first Bush administration. He was a delegate to the Madrid peace conference in 1991 — though it took a strike by the whole delegation for him to get permission to travel, which the Israeli’s at first refused because of his “criminal record.”
Since then, “the peace process” has delivered only process and no peace, as readers of this site well know. Mohammed left the mainstream Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) because of its obvious corruption and subordination to the interests of the Fatah Party. He worked, often without pay, for the independent trade union federation and as an organizer for the Palestinian Democratic Union (FIDA) Party, which became the political vehicle for dissidents from DFLP who participated in the Oslo process and the Palestinian Authority. Often, Mohammed and his family had to rely only on his wife’s income as a school teacher, including during the seven times he was jailed. His wife’s family are 1948 refugees from Haifa.
Now, Mohammed, like many others of his generation, recognizes that the peace process has become a dead end. He regrets the years he spent in jail, missing a good deal of his children’s growing up. He is now intensely involved in helping to arrange for their education. His oldest child, Mahmoud, studied chemistry and biology for a BS degree at a Quaker college in the US, where he is now working; one daughter is finishing her university course in genetics at Irbid in Jordan; another won a scholarship for a seven-year medical degree in Tunis; and his youngest son, Sami, is now completing the very stressful Palestinian high school leaving exams.
I asked Mohammed if any of his children were involved in politics.
He said, “Not at all. Why should they want to go into politics? We set a bad example for them. We sacrificed and we struggled for our state but we did not succeed. We failed.”
Mohammed is philosophical about the defeats suffered by the Palestinian national movement. He still finds the strength to struggle, but he is not expecting any positive outcome in the near future. Unlike some others, he refuses to compromise his principles with job-seeking in the PA – or money-chasing in the NGO world that has substituted for political organizing in much of the Occupied West Bank.
Instead, he is returning to his roots on the land. Mohammed has been preparing for his retirement by developing a three-dunam family plot in the hills above Arura on which he has been planting fruit trees and vegetables. His attachment to the little garden plot is passionate and it is profoundly moving to observe the joy he gets from working in his “bustan.” Mohammed proudly shows off the calluses from long days of digging, planting and watering. Not the hands of a lawyer now. “No matter what happens,” he says, “we will always have the land.”
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All over the West Bank, disillusionment and retreat from politics is widespread. Tens of thousands turned out the other day in Ramallah to greet the new “Arab Idol” Mohammed Assaf, but political parties can barely turn out a few dozens for demonstrations or protests. The local struggles against the wall in places like Bil’in, Nabi Saleh, Beit Ommar, and Ni’ilin are brave but small-scale and largely isolated — mostly symbolic rather than politically effective.
But ironically, in the midst of their apparent triumph and the seeming pacification of the Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, it is the Israeli Zionists who seem to be affected by a deep-seated angst. Life may be good for Israeli Jews right now, but there is also a lingering uncertainty about their long-term prospects.
Increasingly shrill and self-pitying propaganda speaks of “de-legitimization” and “existential threats.” However, the real threat to Israel’s existence comes not from Iran, or Hezbollah or terrorism or even from supposedly eternal anti-Semitism. In fact, Israel will never be “legitimate” until its Jewish population finds a way to live in peace and genuine equality with its indigenous Palestinians.
The dream of a Europeanized outpost within the Arab world is a project that was tried at different times in the past and eventually ended in failure.
Perhaps deep down, many Jewish Israelis remember the experience of Algeria, which the colonists considered an overseas province of Metropolitan France until they were forced to leave after 130 years of implacable native resistance. Or even closer to home, where the Crusader States ruled a European enclave in the Levant for almost two centuries before their defeat and expulsion. Only a scattering of impressive ruined castles and some lovely Gothic churches in Jerusalem remain behind.
Is it any accident that so many Israeli Jews of European descent – faced with the endless prospect of living in a hostile region and the gradual Talibanization of their own country at the hands of Jewish religious fanatics — are leaving for the freer air of New York, Silicon Valley and even Berlin? No one knows for certain the exact figure, but it is thought that millions of Israelis of Ashkenazi origin possess passports from countries other than Israel. And even fanatic Zionist settlers from Brooklyn are not volunteering to give up their dual US citizenship.
On the other side, while many Palestinians acknowledge the current defeat of their national project they still maintain a stubborn historical optimism. Amidst the despair of the moment they cling fiercely to their land — and their memories are long.
In the crowded, segregated town of Qalansuwa, in what is called “The Arab Triangle” of central 1948 Israel, one end of the dusty main road pointing east toward Tulkarem just across the Green Line, was recently renamed Al-Quds Street. It is, rather defiantly, spelled out that way phonetically in the mandatory Hebrew version on its signpost, instead of “Yerushalayim.” The cash-starved town faces huge challenges in maintaining its schools and public services, with a huge backlog of badly-needed infrastructure improvements. But in the square at the other end of Al-Quds Street one of the few recent public investments was the erection of a statue of Saladin, who liberated Jerusalem a little more than 800 years ago.
Jeff Klein is a retired local union president and long-time peace and solidarity activist who travels regularly to the Middle East. He is visiting Lebanon and Palestine this month to do research for writing and speaking. A version appeared on Jeff’s blog “At a slight angle to the universe”.