A few days ago while in a friend’s car for an hour of gridlock at Qalandia checkpoint in the middle of a clash, she made a joke about a reprieve. “Break!” she yelled out the window. But of course everything carried on. I’ve heard this joke before, when participants in a clash want to get a rest. Journalists even manage to get a break. I’ve called out to Palestinian youths to stop throwing stones and to soldiers to put down their guns as I’m moving to a different vantage point, and the sides have honored the request.
Palestinians are unable to call for such a break in 47 years of occupation, so they have buffered themselves in Ramallah: the city of dreams. Its massive construction sites buttressing the main district are both a physical manifestation of Oslo’s successes and failures. Money came in, a state was supposed to be built architecturally modeled after Amman, but instead the most impressive plans, like national roads and basic infrastructure, were never finished.
Three weeks ago this Ramallah bubble—however sturdy it was to begin with—burst. The deaths of the two Palestinian youths killed a few weeks ago outside Ofer prison during a Nakba Day demonstration have proved harder for Ramallah than any other West Bank killing over the past few years. When Nadim Nuwara, 17, and Mohammed Salame, 16, were shot by Israeli forces with live-fire, it sent Ramallah into a gloom. Sometimes killings are a spark for a sea-change, or political stumbling blocks. Yet this time the city and everyone in it that witnessed the deaths wept as if they were biting into a sour fate. These killings were emotional setbacks.
What makes these deaths so much harder is that they hit the epicenter. Nadime attended St. George Orthodox School in an upscale neighborhood with restaurants priced around twice that of any other West Bank city. Moreover, Nadime, a child really, had such a unfair passing. He was stone throwing at a demonstration. Yet from my interviews with medics and journalist present, his stones were bouncing off of the earth far, far from the Israeli army. There was no threat to life, the condition that is required for a soldier to shoot.
But soldiers did shoot, and according to Samer Nazzal a photographer with Raya FM, the army was shooting for an eight-hour block of time. And it wasn’t just Nadime and Mohammed who were shot. One other youth was hit in the chest and was in critical condition for days, and eight more were struck with live-fire in the extremities. A medic who carried Nadime after a bullet entered his back, and exited through his heart, something that rubber bullets do not have the force to do, said Nadime didn’t even survive the 15 seconds that it took to get him to the ambulance. Another medic was shot in the head with a rubber bullet when attempting to remove lethally injured Mohammed from the street.
To Palestinians, this wasn’t a clash. It was an indiscriminate spray of bullets. And so they are reacting like Nadime and Mohammed’s death is their Sandy Hook.
Human Rights Watch has labeled Nadime’s death a war crime. But even as the de facto capital was in mourning, the Israeli PR machine was rolling.
Within a week Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was on CNN suggesting that not only was live-fire not the cause, but the youths may not even be dead. It was a deliberate act of misinformation to construct ambiguity surrounding the killings. An invention of Pallywood, a drama staged by the Palestinian people to wrangle the world to their side, he said. And sides are what matters now as the battle over sovereignty for the West Bank is being fought on the international stage with the BDS movement on one end, and Scarlett Johansson and Oren on the other. Figureheads like President Mahmoud Abbas add nothing on the ground. He’s also looking abroad with the aim of creating the norm that Palestine is a state already, albeit occupied. His legitimacy outside Palestine derives from his desire to turn something that was called the “Palestinian national cause” into an international lobbying effort that is completely disconnected from the reality on the ground.
When Abbas’s Fatah party held its 48th anniversary last year, it hearkened to the aesthetics of abandoned armed resistance. All of the photographs that rolled onto a screen behind classical Arabic musical performances looked like Getty stock photos from decades past. Yasser Arafat was pictured holding a gun, and nothing newer was shown because the Palestinian Authority has long checked out of a ground battle with Israel. To them, resistance is a legacy, and not the present.
And the protests that do take place are incapable of retracting Israel’s occupation. There are not enough people involved. The largest demonstrations in the West Bank over the past few years have been against the Palestinian government over things like gas prices. The époque of the two Intifadas is long over. And yet the Israeli army over the past year has scaled up Intifada-era policies. Last year the Israeli army killed over 40 Palestinian civilians, twice the number from the year before. But these demonstrations, which are more or less skirmishes between stone-throwing or unarmed youth and the strongest military in the Middle East, are not moments of political change as they had been in the past. They reflect the anger still coursing through the West Bank, with the youngest generation raised behind checkpoints erected during the second Intifada. The leading political party, Fatah, renouncing armed resistance before they hit puberty.
Last summer when three were killed in nearby Qalandia refugee camp in the onset of the return to direct negotiations with Israel, the whole of the West Bank mourned then too. But it all subsided within days. The dead were refugees, and somewhere in the back of urban Palestinian life, among those who work in offices, shop in malls, and don’t have the weekly or daily occurrence of soldiers running through their streets, those killings were but a fact of living outside of Area A, the portion of the West Bank under Palestinian security control.
To clarify, under the Oslo Accords, which are still the guiding lines on the books to determine the rules of everything in the West Bank from trade to security cooperation, Israeli soldiers do not have authority in Area A. Reality though is a more lawless picture. Whenever soldiers have an operation to enter Ramallah, they do. The frequency varies, in tune with overall arrest trends across the West Bank. Even offices are raided, like the media outlet Palestine TV’s just this past week when journalists were arrested.
Meanwhile, on the political front there is deadlock. Or, the thing that comes after deadlock. Although a unity government announced last week has the makings of a political catapult, to get the Palestinian past 25 years of negotiations that have now collapsed, it also offers nothing practically, because Hamas will not be given back the ministerial positions from which it was purged from in 2007.
Now 25 years after Oslo, the people of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem are no closer to achieving freedom, even as Fatah has cinched control over the government under occupation. Nadime and Mohammed were buried in the villages they hailed from, outside of Ramallah. John Kerry has given up on his kitchen table approach. Netanyahu is refusing to discuss borders. And this week in Ramallah, nearly every shop is shuttered in a symbolic gesture to support hunger-striking detainees in their 46th day of grumbling stomach dissidence.
There are no political projects coming from the top. Every day in the West Bank someone somewhere is putting his or her body at risk or making a sacrifice, but these acts are all about scaling back aspects of the occupation. The feeling from the de facto capital is that there is no end in sight.