By the end of my grueling trip last year focusing on President Barack Obama’s jaunt to Israel/Palestine, I was despondent. Time spent on the tails of power brokers can be thrilling, but when the adrenaline runs out, the feelings turn to a sickness of sorts.
This time was different. Earlier this month, I returned from a three-week trip to Jordan, Israel and Palestine. Instead of despondency, I was invigorated.
It is not that the reality in Israel/Palestine is different than last year. It’s quite similar. The day always brings something new, but on a macro-level, the situation has stayed largely stagnant. What changed is the people I spent time with–specifically, my time spent within Israel’s borders among Palestinians living there, mostly people who are around my age but live in a vastly different context than I do.
My colleague Allison Deger and I made the trek to Iqrith for my first reporting trip this go around. There was an Easter celebration in a village that was formally wiped off the map in 1948. But the descendants of the Palestinians from Iqrith have begun to live there. They’ve returned in a way that the refugees outside Israel’s borders dream of. They can’t build any permanent structures there, like a house, but that hasn’t dampened their spirit, which was alive on Easter. After the church service, youth from the village danced dabkeh and listened to music in a village overseen by a magnificent blue sky. It was a thrilling moment.
The next weekend, I arrived in Haifa. The port city I immediately fell in love with was made all the more beautiful by the spirit of Palestinians I interviewed, like Majd Kayyal, a journalist who was arrested for traveling to Beirut. Kayyal knew he was breaking the law that prohibits Israelis from traveling to “enemy states,” though in practice it is only enforced when a Palestinian breaches the border. He went anyway, acting on a life-long dream to connect with a center of the Arab world.
This simple act was a defiant rebuke to Israel’s attempts to divorce its Arab citizenry from the larger Palestinian populace. You would have to possess a cold heart not to be invigorated by that spirit of resistance. And Kayyal is no anomaly. He’s representative of a newly assertive generation that sees itself as an integral part of the Palestinian people, and an integral part of the struggle for equality–which explains why the Shin Bet and Avigdor Lieberman is so scared of them.
Kayyal explained it to me this way: in every generation, the struggle against Israeli colonialism draws closer to its center of power. First it was in Jordan; then Lebanon; then in the West Bank and Gaza. And then: “The coming main clash between the colonial system and Palestinians will come inside,” said Kayyal. “We are the next circle” to revolt. The large demonstration held in Lubya last week to commemorate the Nakba and demand the right of return was an affirmation of Kayyal’s prediction.
Yet before I get too polyannish, I must say that, at the same time that Palestinian citizen activists are asserting themselves, there is no mass political action on the horizon. There are spurts of activism, attempts to remind Israeli Jews that their existence has come at the expense of the Palestinians. But for the most part these attempts don’t work. One reason is that the attempts to shake up the status quo are in isolated pockets. In the West Bank, the popular protest movement is small, there is little societal consensus on how to move forward and the leadership is much more concerned with remaining in power than taking confrontational risks.
Among Israeli Jews, there is no reason to confront the horrors happening a short drive away. They are not paying a cost for it. With no intifada on the horizon, Palestine is out of sight, out of mind for ordinary people. When Allison and I walked around West Jerusalem and asked people about the peace process and John Kerry, it was a miserable failure. Nobody wanted to talk about it. Many said they didn’t know enough to talk. There is no reason to think about. They can shop ‘til they drop without being bothered by the home demolitions, the child arrests, the checkpoints, the wall.
There is quiet on the streets of Israel and Palestine. Many Israelis–and their political leadership–seem to think that quiet can last forever. The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement wants to change that, but so far, it has had a minimal impact on Israeli consciousness, never mind the Israeli economy.
Predictions are a fool’s errand, but I do not think the quiet can last. It will be able to last for a good while. But the humiliation of Palestinians is too overwhelming for things not to go haywire.
The day before I left, the Israeli defense minister announced that the West Bank will be under “general closure” due to the spate of holidays coming–Yom Hazikaron (memorial day for soldiers) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day). I panicked a bit. Would I have trouble getting out? It was a selfish thought, but that’s where my mind went.
Turns out that I had no trouble crossing Qalandiya checkpoint to reach Jerusalem–and neither did Palestinians. I’m not sure what the “general closure” meant in practice. But what I do know is that it was an example of the occupation’s randomness, an arbitrariness that can seem confounding but gels into a stable system nonetheless. How long before this random cruelty–exemplified in announcing the West Bank is on lockdown for Israeli holidays–tests the last bit of patience Palestinians have? When that patience runs out, Israeli nightmares of another revolt will turn into reality. And Israel won’t have anybody to blame but itself and the cruel policies it has imposed.