It was a long time coming, but during the recent trip to Israel I went back to areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. A decade ago, this type of visit would not have happened given the upsurge in violence in Gaza. Violence in one area, raised tensions in another. Since the Gaza withdrawal and the rise of Hamas, this is progressively proving to no longer be the case. Why? Recent history isn’t the only reason.
Palestine as colonial construct
In 1919, as the British prepared plans for their temporary control of areas in the Middle East, they considered the southern regions of what is now Israel as ‘Egyptian’ because of the tribal affiliation of those living there. Take this extract from a memorandum on British understandings during the early days of the 1919 Peace Conference (Versailles):
‘As to the southern boundary, there are a number of different considerations. On the one hand it is contended that the cultivable areas south of Gaza ought to be part of Palestine, because they are necessary to the subsistence of the people. On the other hand this area is inhabited by Bedouins of the desert, who look really towards Sinai, and ought not to be associated with Palestine at all. It is suggested by the Foreign Office it would be a sound principle to include in Palestine all the southern country capable of cultivation, e.g. in the direction of Rafa and Beersheba; and that the remaining area south of Gaza and to the Dead Sea, should be reserved to the Bedouins and attached to Egypt since the tribes are identical with those in the Sinai Peninsula and the pre-war frontier is quite arbitrary from the tribal point of view’.
Decolonising Palestinian identity
The British cut the cloth for the mandate that was then given a name, ‘Palestine’. As a national identity, Palestine was a colonial construct whose borders were first defined in European cities less than a hundred years ago. Had the British not interfered, Palestinians would not exist as *a nation of people* today. If the British cut the cloth differently, then many of those in Gaza would wave an Egyptian flag. Had the British designed the Northern border differently, then some of today’s Palestinians would be proud Lebanese citizens. This is historical game-play that ardent anti-Israel activists should consider. ‘Decolonising Palestine’ doesn’t touch the Jews, nor the Jewish homeland, it only deconstructs the colonial identity the British created within the borders that they called ‘Palestine’.
The cracks today
The cracks between the different populations become more evident as time goes by. A conversation with an Israeli Arab quickly highlights this. So do discussions with many Arab residents of East Jerusalem, people who exhibit open reluctance to return to ‘PA’ control. Arabs of Ramallah have become unwilling to place their relative prosperity at risk for Hamas led Gaza. Beyond a dislike of Jews and Zionism, there is little ‘political or national bonding’ amongst many of these populations.
This is often missed by visitors to Palestinian towns. Walk through a neighborhood during times of conflict and look at the pictures of ‘martyrs’ in the streets. Walk down one street and you’ll see the image of a ‘martyr’, a terrorist who died killing or trying to kill Israelis. Turn into a different street and a different image appears. Palestinian streets are families, the images are members of their clans. The funeral procession will not venture into, nor be welcomed in, another clan’s street. They are often rivals. In reality it is surprising how numerous, deep and localised those divisions can be.
This is not a denial of modern Palestinian identity, it is merely history supported by verifiable observations. It has serious repercussions in the search for peace. Just which Palestinian group do you negotiate with? And how many people do they represent? Does a signature by one group mean anything, when rival groups will always reject some of the terms?
In any event, for our group this meant that as Gaza marched to the violent tune of Hamas, we could head towards the calm atmosphere of ‘Area A’. The region under direct control of the Palestinian Authority.
The day started with a drive into the area of Gush Etzion. In the modern era, Gush Etzion was settled by religious Yemenite Jews. In 1927 they founded ‘Migdal Eder’. It lasted just two years. In 1929, as massacres of Jews took place in cities such as Hebron and Tzfat, ‘Migdal Eder’ was attacked and destroyed by Arabs. In 1935 another attempt was made, and Kibbutz Kfar Etzion was founded. It too only lasted a couple of years, as the violence of the 1936-1939 Arab revolt, drove the religious Jews from their homes.
A third and more substantial attempt was made from 1943. Kfar Etzion was resettled and three further Kibbutzim were built, ‘Ein Tzurim’, ‘Massu’ot Yitzhak’ and ‘Revadim’. These became known as the ‘Etzion Bloc’.
During the civil war, these kibbutzim were besieged by local Arab villagers and forces of ‘Arab irregulars’ that had illegally entered the Mandate lands to fight Jews. Convoys to bring supplies to the Jews were attacked. In just one incident on 15th January 1948, ‘the convoy of 35‘ (it was actually a convoy of 38, because three survived) set out to resupply the bloc. Thirty five bodies, many mutilated, were found by the British.
The bloc did not survive a single day of Israel’s war of independence. By 15th May 1948, 157 of the 161 people still inside Kfar Etzion were massacred. The other Kibbutzim fell and the area was ethnically cleansed of Jews. When Israel took these lands back in 1967, Kibbutz Kfar Etzion was re-founded. Many others followed. Today there are approximately twenty-two settlements with over seventy thousand residents. These lands are considered ‘occupied’ and the settlements ‘illegal’ by most of the international community. Given the history of this particular ‘bloc’, one could argue that view is somewhat perverse.
Building bridges that go nowhere
Until the first Intifada, there was daily interaction between hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians. In Israeli towns, in Arab towns, in markets, at work, the two communities experienced high levels of peaceful co-existence. People moved about with relative ease. When I first went to Israel, the market in Gaza was full of Israelis buying produce. Today that level of co-existence is nowhere to be seen.
As a result there are grassroots movements that seek to bridge the gap between communities of Jews and Arabs who never cross paths outside of the context of the conflict. All forms of dialogue are positive and any sincere communication is to be commended. Yet however much I may support the idea behind some of them, the relevance of these groups is often overstated.
There are two different types of movement. One type, is formed by left wing Israelis who are highly critical of Israel and have unsurprisingly found counterparts from the Arab side who agree with them. We saw a group of this type on the first day of the tour in Israel when we met ‘Women wage Peace‘. When I meet people like this I always think it would be nice if the imaginary world in which they live existed. Everything sounds lovely and the vision is enticing, but none of it is real.
These groups are always driven from within Israel, which is indicative of the problem. Regardless of how many Israeli groups of this type spring up, they will remain irrelevant for as long as there are not reciprocal movements on the other side. Without this, it is just a fringe group of Jews, and some of their Arabs supporters, blaming Israel for almost everything. Inaccurate, irrelevant, pointless and even self-harming.
With its operations between Gush Etzion and Bethlehem, our group went to visit grassroots movement ‘Shoreshim‘ (‘Roots‘) before entering Bethlehem. ‘Roots’ is a different animal and a movement of the second ‘type’. These are politically more ‘ambiguous’. These groups contain people who have ‘agreed to disagree’ and try to build bridges between communities by talking about anything other than the conflict.
‘Roots’ brings together ‘settlers’ and Palestinian nationalists in dialogue. I admit it was a fascinating experience and one of the few times on the trip my understanding was challenged by what I saw. Joseph Cohen from the Israel Advocacy Movement has uploaded a video onto YouTube of one part of the talk. Some parts could not be filmed, which is indicative of the same problem that the left-wing movements suffer. These are all Israeli led initiatives which play to Israeli / international audiences.
It was great to see this ‘little piece of farmland‘, but theirs is no more than a niche argument with a solid anti-secular underpinning. It contains too many awkward foundation stones to be anything more than a quirky idea, but it is refreshing to see Palestinian and Israeli in dialogue no matter how flawed the context. Yet Roots highlights another often misunderstood element of this conflict. Real co-existence is supported far more on the right-wing, than the left. But more on this another day.
From Bethlehem to Ramallah
As we moved from Area ‘C’ to Area ‘B’ and then ‘A’, there were some nerves in the group. Some of those travelling had never been to the PA areas before. It was interesting watching their understanding of the situation confirmed by what they saw. Big houses, clean streets, luxury cars. The more time we spent inside PA areas, the more relaxed the group became.
The first place we stopped at was Bethlehem. I have already written an account about the antisemitism we saw inside the disgraceful Banksy ‘Walled Off Hotel’ in Bethlehem. Having left Bethlehem sickened by what we experienced, we set out for Ramallah (area A). That city was different. In Ramallah there is no sign of conflict.
Ramallah is the norm. Across the 67 lands there are *hot-spots* that every anti-Israel activist is taken to see. A few points on the map where the disturbing reality of a localised situation is used to provide a distorted lens. One tiny part of Hebron is the most famous example of this. Hebron is unique, yet the word ‘microcosm’ will appear on every leaflet on Hebron handed out by anti-Israel organisations. No activist tour is complete without seeing a single street in Hebron and being deceived into believing that all of Hebron looks the same.
The idea that this tiny section of Hebron is a miniature example of the wider situation is absolute poppycock and once you leave any of these deliberately chosen propaganda ‘hot-spots’, you quickly arrive at ‘normalville’. Ramallah is a great place to go if you want to see how out of sync anti-Israeli activism is with reality. The only weapons are in the hands of the Palestinian police, there are many affluent neighborhoods, building is taking place everywhere and there are a lot of very flashy cars. Ramallah had always been my favourite Arab city and it has developed a lot since I was last there. We didn’t go to the city centre, but if you get the chance, it is a ‘must visit’ destination. Ramallah has a vibrant heartbeat.
In Ramallah we met with Khalil Shikaki, the Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR). The NGO focuses on surveying attitudes on the Palestinian street. They work alongside Israeli academic institutions at times and produce detailed surveys or reports. We were in their offices for quite a while, heard Shikaki talk and then were free to ask questions. It was an interesting discussion but my own obsession with numbers would never have been satiated in a short exchange.
Despite the current depressive trends that are highlighted (no faith in the peace process and exasperation with current leadership), immersion in the statistics that PCPSR produce can be refreshing. We can relate to and understand surveys, and if you can get past picking at a useful headline (‘x’ amount of Palestinians support terror attacks), there is a lot of information sitting inside.
Rawabi, the masterpiece?
Having left Ramallah, we stopped for lunch in Birzeit, before heading to the new Palestinian city of Rawabi. I still haven’t made up my mind about Rawabi, is it a stunning part of the future, or just another white elephant built on sand, like so many mistakes of the past. Rawabi is a new city, it was the dream of entrepreneur Bashar Masri and so far the project has cost over a billion dollars to build. Visually, the city is incredible. A modern, well planned masterpiece that sets out to spoil those that live there.
(It is important to note that the BDS movement opposed Rawabi. For them, Palestinians cannot live in comfortable cities, they must live in refugee camps. Rarely is the cruelty of BDS so brutally exposed as it is over the Rawabi project.)
Rawabi, the white elephant?
But the big-name shops, every one of them, were completely empty. We saw a couple here and there, and there was minor foot-traffic in the pedestrian mall (outside, not inside, the shops) but this is not a living city. Something just seemed ‘off’. There was a difference between what we was being said by those taking us around and what we could see, and it all had to do with a missing population. We were told (when we asked) it was because everyone was at work, but that excuse doesn’t cut it. Only ghost towns have no children.
I know this project received a lot of support from the west but I cannot help but feel that may be the problem. The more I come to understand the history and the landscape, the more I believe western interference continues to be, as it has always been, more of a problem than a help. It does not matter how good (or bad) the intentions are. The situation between Israel and its neighbours will not be solved by applying strategies developed in Europe or the US. This is the Middle East and things that grow there should be developed from within. I am not convinced Rawabi is one of them.
The central truth of the tour
For some there was a feeling of relief as we crossed back over the 1967 lines. for me it was disappointment it was over. I miss being able to cross into these cities without thinking.
My take-home was a single underlying truth that was on show for the entirety of the trip. It wasn’t the free movement our taxi experienced with the Palestinian driver from East Jerusalem. Nor was it the calm we saw or the obvious presence of affluence. The truth is one we actually carried around with us everywhere we went. It was us.
This was a group that included key representatives of Sussex Friends of Israel, North West Friends of Israel and the Israel Advocacy Movement. Yet at no point did we look out of our depth. Yes, there were one or two minor flashpoints, but regardless of who we spoke to, we could communicate on topic with everyone we met.
The tour confirmed for us that our positions have validity. We can take what was say in the UK and without changing a word, use that same conversation in Ramallah or East Jerusalem.
Can you imagine an anti-Israel activist talking to everyday Israelis? Could they have a conversation? The answer is no they could not. Their version of events, their understanding, is so far removed from what is real there would be no common language. They would need to adapt to speak, re-educate themselves by investigating what is really going on. If they didn’t, then nobody would know what they were talking about.
Yet we could sit and discuss issues with those they claim to represent, and every note was on key, every question relevant. This was the true confirmation that we received on the tour. We live in the real world. As depressing as that thought may be, it is reassuring to receive absolute confirmation that it is still the truth.
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