Monday, June 23, 2008

Football match ends in cloud of tear gas

About 12 kilometers west of Ramallah, the village of Bil’in has been home to a weekly protest against the Israeli separation barrier for over three years now. Like the large city of Hebron in the southern West Bank, Bil’in (boasting a scant 1% of Hebron’s population) has become both flashpoint and metaphor for the conflict between Israel and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Several differences between the two locations, however, come to mind.

First, whereas the protests in Hebron are led by former IDF soldiers who want the world to see the urban injustice of the apartheid system they once helped to enforce, the weekly protest in Bil’in is led by rural Palestinians who have been cut off from 50% of their farmland by the separation barrier whose route here snakes some 4 kilometers east of the Green Line.

Second, whereas the conflict in Hebron concerns access to an ancient site holy to both Jews and Muslims—the grave of Abraham, Sarah and four other patriarchs—the dispute in Bil’in concerns the location and impact of an Israeli settlement (Modi’in Illit) established on Palestinian farmland.

Third, while Hebron testifies to the power of the Zionist lunatic fringe to manipulate Israeli security forces (both IDF and police) and to prevent them from enforcing Israel’s own High Court rulings, tiny Bil’in shows that the IDF is entirely capable of moral and legal failure all by itself.

I returned to Bil’in a few weeks ago, almost two years after my first visit, to lend timid support to a group of brave local organizers whose recent legal victories in Israel’s Courts have made no practical difference on the ground for olive farmers. Ignoring the Court’s judgment, the IDF has not changed the route of the barrier due, they contend, to “security” concerns. This is what happened.

Around noon on Friday, June 6, about 200 locals and internationals (many of whom were concluding a 3-day conference on non-violent resistance) began our westward march through the village, and beyond, to the vicinity of the barrier. For each weekly demonstration the local committee plans a different theme; the theme for this day was football (i.e., American soccer). It would be Palestine against “the world” (which meant mostly Italian and French men in their early 30s). We halted our march a “safe” ½ kilometer (perhaps more) from the barrier, at the site of the football “field” which was no more than a cleared and furrowed patch of rocks and dirt. A formal beginning gave way to an intense, closely fought match under the non-partisan noonday sun. Local children and weathered grandparents looked on. Cameras clicked. Everyone cheered, specially for the home team. For a few moments all was well.

We were about midway through the second half—as I recall Palestine was up by a goal—when a lone Israeli jeep growled along the road that hugged the opposite side of the barrier and halted, inexplicably, 1/3 kilometer or so from the game. Perhaps they wanted a better vantage point. Perhaps sport had transcended conflict even here in the West Bank. Or perhaps not.

Without warning or provocation—God is my witness—soldiers emerged from the jeep to fire multiple rounds of tear gas, skillfully avoiding the spectators but landing their toxic canisters just upwind. In seconds the game was over. Crowds and athletes alike stumbled toward the village and away from the wind-borne poison. Faces burned. Eyes watered. Chests heaved.

What kind of malice is this wherein soldiers gas, without provocation and with utter impunity, a peaceful, legal public gathering? Which side in this bizarre, asymmetrical contest is terrorizing which?

Daunted(?), we gathered like shell-shocked, novice infantry under the shade of a large tree where one of the organizers, William Wallace-like, offered inspiration and provided (slightly ill-timed) instructions on how to handle the effects of tear gas. I bantered with a Jerusalem-based journalist from CNN who, alas, was not there on assignment. (If only Britney or Angelina had been in attendance.) After 40 minutes of mustering, we were joined by a parade of cheering, flag-waving locals coming directly from prayer at the mosque. Swelling their ranks we proceeded together to the wall. Several leaned on canes. One rode an electric wheelchair.

Bil’in choreography is largely predictable. The crowd gathers at the fence. Someone reads a declaration (in Arabic). Anti-wall chants rise up. Tension mounts as Israeli soldiers move from behind concrete barricades. An IDF commander broadcasts something in Hebrew, no doubt declaring the area a “closed military zone” and charging us to leave at once. We stay. Nonviolently, and well inside the barrier on indisputably Palestinian soil, we stay. Then, percussion grenades followed immediately by tear gas. (Or was it the other way around?) Dozens of canisters launch heavenward, gaseous tails smearing their profanely inhumane graffiti. Civilians, gasping and tearful, fall back. IDF troops, armed and emboldened, reinforce their demands. Off to the side kids start throwing stones. More weapons discharge. Gas forces another retreat. “Rubber” bullets chase the fleeing (not advancing) crowds. A dozen Red Crescent volunteers, until now huddled under a tree, move in to attend the wounded. A siren announces the ambulance’s arrival. As it turns out, among those feeling the effects of the gas were European Parliament Vice-President Luisa Morgantini, Irish Nobel laureate, Mairead Corrigan and an Italian judge, Julio Toscano.

This time differed in small ways from my visit two years ago. The barrier has a new, more permanent look. One cameraman ominously sported a gas mask. Grass fires broke out where several of the canisters landed. (Those who sought to extinguish fires near the barrier were gassed, by the way.) Thankfully, this time I saw no soldiers cross the barrier to seize and beat demonstrators. Oh, and this time I was proudly demonstrating alongside my 19 year-old daughter.

Otherwise the depressing choreography has changed little since 2006. March. Demonstrate. Run. Gasp. Run. Regroup. Watch for vapor trails. Stay upwind. Fall back. Eventually my daughter and I returned to the village and boarded a serveece taxi bound for Ramallah, home of the Stars and Bucks from which perch we could survey the city square, sip coffee and ponder the twisted normalcy of another day in Palestine.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Four Evangelists on a Balcony

Yesterday evening I was invited to the home of a local Imam (one who leads prayers in a mosque). A student in one of my classes, his stilted English was balanced by his unstinting hospitality. We were joined on his apartment balcony by three other locals: a British-trained medical doctor, an expert in Islamic civil law, and the owner of a pastry shop. The balcony, high on the Mt. Ebal side of Nablus, offers stunning views of the urban sprawl, the Old City and, above it, Gerizim, home to the Samaritans.

Most of the 2-hour conversation was theological, though with regular detours into politics. Here, as in much of the world, to quarantine religion from politics is to defy gravity. Without waiting for my questions they eagerly listed the marks of a good Muslim, narrated the events of the Last Days, and extolled the the wonders of the Qur'an. Fueled by juice and watermelon, coffee and chocolate, we traveled the theological landscape, discussed differences between Judaism and Islam, and pondered the intractable antagonism of the modern conflict.

Equally fascinating were both the substance of their comments and the tone they adopted; it was as if they were praying to see scales fall from my eyes so I could see the truth and spontaneously convert. This uneasy Evangelical was being evangelized.

Notwithstanding my Christian intransigence, these four friends were uncommonly generous tutors in (local) Muslim thought. Here are a few highlights, offered without commentary:
  • The fact that Muslims worldwide read the Qur'an in Arabic is proof of its divine authority.
  • The Qur'an has been miraculously preserved by Allah; neither omissions nor additions have crept in.
  • Jesus did not die. God insured that another man resembled Jesus, allowing Jesus to escape while the other died in his place. God took Jesus to heaven where he now lives.
  • Jesus is a Muslim. When he returns, an Imam will invite him to be the new Imam but Jesus will refuse. When Christians see Jesus praying behind the Imam, they will all convert to Islam.
  • To be a good Muslim, one needs to believe in all the prophets without exception (including Jesus), as well as the angels and "the Day After."
  • Most Muslims in the world today are not good Muslims. This does not simply mean they do not observe the five pillars; it means they are not seeking God.
  • Islam is a religion of peace, not violence. Non-Arab converts over the years (e.g., in Asia) have embraced Islam in response to the integrity and example of Muslims, not in response to violence.
  • Both practicing Muslims and religious Jews agree (the doctor explained) that the conflict between these two peoples will continue until the end of history. Any treaty or negotiated settlement will at best offer only temporary reprieve. The "two-state solution"--peaceful, side-by-side co-existence--is (they assured me) not possible.
This last point caught me by surprise. I hear this sort of resignation from Jewish Zionists and know that Chrisitan Zionists defend the eschatological necessity of the conflict in order to justify their political opposition to international peace efforts. But I'd not heard this same perspective advanced so clearly by non-militant, practicing Muslims.

I'd like to think that my quartet of tutors are out of touch with the mainstream. Most locals I've met are profoundly pessimistic about a long-term solution to the Occupation. But they are not fatalistic. For them peace is possible but politically unlikely. By contrast, these four men were resigned to the status quo; ultimate vindication would come in the eschaton but not before.

Our conversation ended rather abruptly as the sun set and as minarets across the city summoned the faithful to prayer. Walking with the Imam to his mosque, I listened and watched through an open window as he, donning a robe, head-covering and lapel mic, sang the evening prayer before a single line of two dozen men. It lasted about 15 minutes, after which he insisted on walking me the mile or so back to my apartment and bidding me God's peace.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Hebron: where Patriarchs lie buried and where matriarchs lie in front of tour buses

My daughter and I just returned from a quick trip south to Hebron in the southern West Bank, just 30 clicks (that's Canada-speak for kilometers) south of Jerusalem. To get there from here we rode a serveece (shared taxi) to the infamous Huwarra checkpoint outside of Nablus, hailed another one from there to Ramallah, a third to the Qalandia checkpoint north of Jerusalem, and a fourth to Damascus Gate just north of Jerusalem's Old City. After a 30-shekel night in the Hebron Hostel in the Muslim Quarter, and a quick breakfast on the amazing roof of the Hashimi nearby, we set out for the bus station in West Jerusalem where we joined a tour heading to Hebron led by Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers who served in Hebron and have since made public the terror and abuse of Palestinians that went on under their watch. More about that below.

The story of Hebron goes back at least to Abraham. Genesis 23 documents the Patriarch paying full price for the cave of Machpelah where he would bury his wife Sarah. When Abraham himself died, his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the same cave (Gen 25:9). Ditto for Isaac, Rebekah, Leah (49:31) and Jacob (50:13). Which is why the burial site in downtown Hebron, like the Temple Mount (or Noble Sanctuary) in Jerusalem, is sacred to both Muslims and Jews--known by the former as the Ibrahimi Mosque and the latter as the Cave of the Patriarchs--and why Hebron has its share of religion war stories to tell.

Two 20th century Hebron tragedies stand out among the rest. In 1929, riots in Jerusalem spread to Hebron where 67 Jews were brutally killed and 50 more wounded. The surviving 500-ish Jews were evacuated. Then, in 1994, an American-born radical settler, Baruch Goldstein, entered the Patriarchs' shrine with his M-16 and gunned down 29 Palestinians and wounded 150 more, before he was subdued and beaten to death. Since the Goldstein episode the Tomb of the Patriarchs has been militarized, partitioned and strictly controlled. Muslims to the left, Jews to the right. Christian tourists: no guns or knives please.

What makes Hebron unique in the Occupied Territories, however, is not its painful past or its militarized shrine (enclosed by a pristine Herodian wall). The bizarre thing about Hebron is that, since 1968, it has been home to first one and now several Israeli settlements located in the general area of the Tomb, in other words, deep in the heart of a Palestinian city. Nowhere else in the West Bank or Gaza do Jewish settlers and Palestinians live so closely. (Notice in the first picture that settlers, living above Palestinians, have thrown garbage onto wire mesh above the shops in the Old City.) Predictably, with proximity come security measures, enforced by IDF troops, monitored at military check points, surveyed from watchtowers, and implemented through closures, curfews, intimidation and forced population transfer. Hebron is the Occupation under glass.

For the blood-soaked details of the 40-year story of Jewish settlements in and around Hebron, I recommend chapter five of Idith Zertal and Aikva Eldar's Lords of the Land: The War over Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007 (Nation, 2007), and bits of chapters 5, 6 & 7 in Gershom Gorenberg's The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 (Times, 2006). For recent stories from Hebron's front lines, see the Breaking the Silence link above.

Back to our tour. Breaking the Silence has been leading Hebron walking tours for several years but in recent months settlers in the area have mobilized against them. This led police to block the tours which in turn push BTS to bring their case to the High Court. Justice prevailed, which means that tours should be able to resume, legally and unencumbered by settler animus. It was precisely that High Court ruling that our tour set out to test.

We approached Hebron through a settlement called Kiriath Arba. (If the name rings a bell, see Genesis 23:2.) We planned to stop first at the settler shrine to Baruch Goldstein, the guy who gunned down 29 worshiping Muslims in the Ibrahimi Mosque--for these settlers Goldstein is a hero--but Yehuda and Mikael (our guides) got word that settlers were waiting for us. So the shrine visit was scrubbed and we proceeded through the settlement to the gate leading directly into Hebron.

And that's as far as we got. Immediately our path was blocked by settlers whose numbers swelled as the first ranks used cell phones to summon their friends. Soon there were dozens: old and young men, women, children, several babies in arms, a pregnant woman, a child in a stroller. A line of women and children (pictured) planted themselves directly in front of the bus. One fellow took to a megaphone, addressing us, his captive, mostly-English-speaking audience, in Hebrew. Police and soldiers arrived in force. No one was going anywhere.

When Mikael wasn't working the phones he was providing running commentary over the bus PA. Meanwhile the unflappable Yehuda, sporting sandals and a cowboy hat, wove among the settlers with a video camera or pressed his case with the authorities. We hapless passengers, embracing our role as witnesses to something simultaneously illegal and outrageous, jostled for the best photo angles or took notes in our Moleskins. One young man--maybe 14 years old--caught my eye. (He's the one in the white shirt with his hand on his chest.) He was pacing up and down beside the bus. Our eyes met. He glanced sideways for cameras and then drew his finger knife-like across his throat. He needn't have worried; settler children his age are not legally responsible for their vandalism and assaults on Palestinians. A faux-threat to murder some international would evoke little more than dismissive hand waving.

So it went for two hours. At first it looked like the tour was over before it began. Then we learned it could proceed if we remained on the bus. Then, we could advance only a few hundred feet before turning around. In the end, we gave up. The lawyer for BTS advised us to reject any limitations (since they had no legal basis) and to turn the bus around. No need to let the settlers argue in court that they had "allowed" the tour to proceed.

Not ready to admit defeat, my daughter and I got the bus to drop us at the northern, Palestinian entrance to Hebron as it passed by. We easily caught a serveece taxi and shortly found ourselves wandering the Old City, sipping drinks in various shops (date juice, coffee, tea), visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and walking the ethnically-cleansed, Palestinian-forbidden Shuhada street where settler vandalism abounds. A young man (again, about 14) approached. In Hebrew, with much hand-waving, he demanded that we turn around and leave the area. Fortunately he had only his kid brother with him and none of his peers. When we refused to comply he gave me a push to which I responded by taking his picture (orange shirt, blue cap) and continuing on our way.

Strange limbo this: we are free to wander Palestinian markets (where Israeli citizens cannot legally go) and along defacto settler streets (from which Palestinians have been cleansed). Moving between two worlds though belonging to neither, we felt the embrace of both hatred and hospitality.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Aaron Miller, The Promised Land, and the Detachment of Diplomacy

I've read about a quarter of Aaron David Miller's new book, The Much Too Promised Land, about his lengthy stint in the State Department, advising an impressive six Secretaries of State. Born into an affluent Jewish family from Clevland, Miller offers an insider's look at the highs and lows of international diplomacy, with particular attention to the tenures of Kissinger-the-strategist, Carter-the-missionary, and James Baker-the-negotiator. Stories of close encounters with power players like Yasser Arafat and Menachem Begin confirm Miller's rightful place at the negotiating table. The book flirts with self-absorption but anyone contemplating a career in mid-level diplomacy should give it a read.

From my vantage point--my apartment window looks across downtown Nablus and beyond to the Israeli military post high on Mount Ebal--the book confirms a rather disturbing aspect of high level international relations: the isolation and constraints imposed on State Department officials when they visit this place. Consider these remarks:

Any veteran of the road trips will tell you that the most likely threat to American diplomats abroad is not a terrorist attack but an overanxious embassy driver behind the wheel of an armor-plated SUV doing seventy miles an hour, convinced he must remain within two feet of the vehicle in front of him. (34)

Out in the neighborhood we had no expectation of privacy, and none ws given. (34)

The party would take over at least two complete floors of a five-star hotel. . . (35)

I was always acutely aware of how isolated we were and how limited our reach could be. (36)

When we traveled without the secretary [of State], our ability to control our own destiny was even more limited. (37)
On it goes. Perhaps this is how it has to be. Perhaps there is no safe way for diplomats and policy wonks to get out and explore the neighborhood. If so, however, I find it difficult to imagine these folks ever seeing the situation on the ground as it really is. It is one thing to have an official tour of a "terminal" checkpoint (emphasizing the benefits of new levels of security) or to be shown in a helicopter how close the West Bank is to Tel Aviv (advancing the wall-as-security argument). It is something else entirely to listen to Palestinian students who missed class because of military closures, to take a 3-minute trickle-shower to save water, or to be awakened at night by percussion grenades or an IDF helicopter hovering somewhere nearby (presumably as part of a military incursion).

Stories about self-important authorities, high-level pressure tactics and chastened diplomatic expectations make for good (if sometimes depressing) reading, and Miller displays endearing authorial candor. But his account (so far) doesn't inspire me to think that these career negotiators (much less their bosses) who tread the red carpet at Ben Gurion airport, play doubles tennis at the King David Hotel, and stay up all night to nuance the syntax of a press release--that these warriors of diplomacy could possibly understand the daily, monotonous grind of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Without that understanding, with personal, unvarnished experiences of "occupation," without first-hand testimony of the personal impact of American dollars, settler hostility and Israeli military incursions, diplomats and negotiators lack an essential tool in their diplomatic tool pouch: the holy privilege of weeping with those who weep.

Must run. I have an English class to teach.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Sages and Nihilists

Two quick vignettes about hope.
  1. Yesterday my daughter, returning from teaching in one of Nablus' three refugee camps, was walking through the city with two local volunteers. Whenever we internationals move about the city we wear vests that display the name of our NGO: Project Hope. A local man approached them from behind and, as he began to cross the street, uttered one brief sentence in English: "There is no hope." That was it. Nothing further. He was gone.

  2. After teaching English today in a building downtown, I boarded the elevator to leave. A young man in the elevator looked at my vest and said earnestly: "Hope. Hope for who?" I replied cautiously: "Hope for Palestinians." Then, hesitating, I added: "Do you think there is hope for Palestine?" My caged companion immediately became philosophical. I can't recall his precise words but I will long remember his message. There is no hope without vision and mission, he said. He offered as Exhibits A and B the twin countries of Germany and Japan in the aftermath of World War II. To recover from the War's devastation, he explained, the people of these nations required clear vision, a sense of direction, a shared purpose. The Palestinian people, he said, have no clear vision. How then can they have hope?
The elevator-philosopher was right, of course: hope, like faith, is meaningful only when directed at an object. One must hope in something. Hope is not sunny optimism, nor a function of personality. In this sense, hope is like a vector in mathematics: it must have both magnitude and direction. It is motion towards, not feeling about.

But what about the first man, the nihilist on the street? Was he right as well? Is there no real reason for Palestinians to hope? Is theirs a failed state? Are they fated to remain under Occupation for the next 40 years? In my view it wouldn't be too great a distortion to reduce the conflict in this region to precisely this question: is there hope for Palestinians?

Aaron David Miller, in his new book, The Much Too Promised Land (Bantam, 2008, p.7) describes what he finds so compelling about so many of "the Arabs and Israelis" he worked with over two decades of advising the U.S. Secretary of State:
hardened by conflict and by their own natural prejudices and biases, they managed to struggle on, preserving a sense of humor, fairness, and, most important, hope for the future. In the end this struggle was about good people caught up in a nasty conflict who managed, however imperfectly, to preserve their humanity and faith in the future.
Will a Palestinian statesman or woman emerge, like Moses from the desert, to show the way away from violence and corruption toward statehood? Will the nation of Israel dare take the risks necessary to end apartheid and embrace a just peace? Will the next American president implement policies that offer Palestinians reason to be, or become, hopeful? If not, I fear that more and more Palestinians will slide from profound discouragement into despair. There will be fewer and fewer sages on elevators, and more and more nihilists on the street.

From Distrust to Suspicion to Conspiracy

In one of my English classes yesterday, we found ourselves discussing the “war on terror.” Not surprisingly, none of my students found this phrase remotely helpful. Not that they leapt to the defense of Saddam Hussein; they simply heard the phrase as an American invention, intended to defend and justify U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.

Nothing in this response surprised me. What did get my attention, however, were their remarks about 9-11. All four students subscribe to a 9-11 conspiracy theory according to which, as Lev Grossman of TIME summarizes,

the entire catastrophe was planned and executed by federal officials in order to provide the U.S. with a pretext for going to war in the Middle East and, by extension, as a means of consolidating and extending the power of the Bush Administration.
(If you don’t know of the many alternative 9-11 historiographies out there, start here and here.)

Thus, according to my uncontrolled, completely unscientific, statistically insignificant sample consisting of four young professionals from Nablus, the question of what exactly happened on 9-11 is not at all straightforward. Did George Bush plan the attacks to garner world support for his campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Iran? Is the CIA still secretly supporting Al Qaeda, as it allegedly did during the ‘80s? Such questions may seem silly to many in the West but they open a window onto “reality” here in the Middle East.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find 9-11 conspiracy theories in Nablus. After all, Grossman cites a recent poll suggesting 36% of Americans “consider it ‘very likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ that government officials either allowed the attacks to be carried out or carried out the attacks themselves.” As Grossman observes,

If we went to war to root out fictional weapons of mass destruction, is staging a fictional terrorist attack such a stretch?

Let me clarify a key point: these students of mine—two men and two women—are not at all the type to be recruited by Islamist radicals to take up arms. They are not “fighters.” They are culturally Muslim but not ideologically Islamist. Nor are they simpletons. They all have university degrees and hold decent jobs. One studied in Germany for a year. Another is an engineer who installs water systems in West Bank villages.

What disturbs me about this discovery is not that speculative theories about 9-11 are popular in Palestine. My concern is with the antecedent distrust of the U.S. government that lends these theories so much credence. So deep are suspicions of American intentions in the region that not even a deadly terrorist attack on New York and Washington can reverse them. Readers may disagree on whether such distrust and suspicion are warranted. But they can’t really deny their existence, even among young, urban, English-speaking, West-looking professionals.

Whoever leads the next U.S. administration, we must hope that they will recognize the central importance of rebuilding trust and restoring credibility in the Middle East. I shall be bold enough to hope, further, that any such campaign will proceed by means of sincere, aggressive, even-handed diplomacy, wisely targeted economic development initiatives, culturally sensitive demands, and a non-combative foreign policy that gives reasonable people in places like Nablus reason to consider giving America the benefit of the doubt.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Thomas Friedman’s Call for "Radical Pragmatism" (Opinion – NYT – June 4, 2008)

I’m copying here a recent New York Times opinion piece by the renowned columnist and author, Thomas Friedman. Friedman’s words carry weight and his best judgments should be taken seriously. In my opinion, however, his “radical” proposal is not nearly radical enough. Nor do I think it will work. I have intruded my comments between his, in an irenic spirit of dialogue with a man whose work I respect very much. Readers’ comments are most welcome.

TF (NYT): When I reported from Israel in the mid-1980s, the big debate here was whether Israel’s settlement-building in the West Bank had passed a point of no return — a point where any serious withdrawal became virtually impossible to imagine. The question was often framed as: “Is it five minutes to midnight or five minutes after midnight?” Well, having taken a little drive through part of the West Bank, as I always do when I visit, it strikes me more than ever that it’s not only five after midnight, it’s five after midnight and a whole week later.

If by these remarks Friedman means that the settlements and their infrastructure (roads, expropriated land, security barriers, settler-only roads, military closures and checkpoints, lost farmland) has so fractured and fragmented the West Bank that a truly viable, let alone vibrant and autonomous, Palestinian economy is impossible, I agree.

TF (NYT): The West Bank today is an ugly quilt of high walls, Israeli checkpoints, “legal” and “illegal” Jewish settlements, Arab villages, Jewish roads that only Israeli settlers use, Arab roads and roadblocks. This hard and heavy reality on the ground is not going to be reversed by any conventional peace process. “The two-state solution is disappearing,” said Mansour Tahboub, senior editor, at the West Bank newspaper Al-Ayyam.

Once again, I agree: the two-state solution may well be dead. If so, Israeli expansionism has killed it. Friedman’s drive-by assessment of Palestinian “reality,” however, does not begin to describe the grind of life under Occupation. To us outsiders, a “checkpoint” is but an unobtrusive circle on a map. Even for those who enter the West Bank, checkpoints appear as shiny terminal buildings or as a few relatively harmless army jeeps. To Palestinians carrying green ID cards, however, these same checkpoints mean something entirely different: wasted time and lost money, personal humiliation, spoiled produce, inaccessible markets, separation from family, physical danger and more. The problem here is not merely physical—Friedman’s “hard and heavy reality on the ground”—but also psychological and practical: the painful daily reality of millions of Palestinians. I suspect on this point Friedman would agree.

Two further bleats. First, why are Palestinian communities so often called “Arab villages”? There are, of course, many villages in the West Bank populated by Arabic speaking people. But there are also many substantial towns, like Tulkarm (60K), Jenin (36K), Bethlehem (30K), Qalqilya (45K), Jericho (21K), and Ramallah (26K) as well as several modest cities like Nablus (135K) where I’m currently living, Hebron (170K) and of course East Jerusalem (with its c. 242K Palestinians). Those who speak exclusively of “Arab villages” disguise and minimize the demographic impact of Israel’s military occupation.

Second, why “Arab villages”? Why not “Palestinian”? Do we really grant too much when we embrace the term that these indigenous Arabic speakers have chosen for themselves? True: there is currently no autonomous state of Palestine. And true: the term only emerged in modern times after 1967. But designations like Philistia, Palaestina and Filastin have a long history here, a history in which many, many West Bank families have a share. Add to that the struggling, stumbling Palestinian National Authority that needs our financial support and moral encouragement. For us to speak of Palestine and Palestinians is simply to honor the emerging identity of an indigenous people group. Indeed, Friedman does as much in the rest of this piece.

TF (NYT): Indeed, we are at a point now where the only thing that might work is what I would call “radical pragmatism” — a pragmatism that is as radical and energetic as the extremism that it hopes to nullify. Without that, I fear, Israel will remain permanently pregnant with a stillborn Palestinian state in its belly.

Not sure about the pregnancy metaphor, but I’m listening..

TF (NYT): Why we need a radical departure is obvious: the business-as-usual course that Israelis and Palestinians are on right now does not have enough energy or authority to produce a solution. With the encouragement of the Bush administration, Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank are negotiating a draft peace treaty that supposedly will be put on the shelf, until the Palestinians have enough capability to implement it. I seriously doubt that the parties will reach an agreement, let alone have the energy to implement it.

The Israeli-Palestinian energy shortage today is on three levels: First is the level of hope and trust. Ever since the breakdown of the Oslo agreement, the romance has gone out of the peace process. Israelis and Palestinians remind me of a couple who, after a stormy courtship, finally get married and one year after they tie the knot they each cheat on the other: Israelis kept on building settlements and the Palestinians kept on building hate. When you cheat and have war after peace, trust vanishes for a long time.

Hmmm. Israelis build settlements and Palestinians cultivate hatred. When I walk the streets of old Hebron, most of the hatred I witness has been cultivated among Jewish settlers and is directed at Palestinians. Visit the tiny village of Yanoun (15K SE of Nablus) and you will meet one hundred or so inhabitants who have, since 1996, faced violence and hatred from settlers in nearby Itamar and its outposts. Oh, and did you read about the herds of wild boars released this week by Ariel settlers into the region of Salfit where they destroyed fields and terrorized residents?

Yes, there is cultivated hatred among Palestinians. A hatred that comes in many varieties. Palestinians hate checkpoints, like Huwarra outside of Nablus, where they are regularly penned up and humiliated. They hate their lack of freedom. Many refer routinely to the Israelis as their enemies. Palestinian fighters hate the IDF enough to die in combat. Islamist militants have elevated that hatred to a fine and deadly art. But it simply not the case that Palestinians have cornered the market on “hatred,” as Friedman’s remarks seem to imply.

Moreover, most people don’t understand that the settlement industry requires a vast and intrusive infrastructure: security, roads, reallocated water, checkpoints, barriers, stolen land, all of which severely compromises Palestinian life. To outsiders, a settlement would seem modest, unobtrusive, innocuous. A few wagons drawn up in a circle, perhaps. Don’t settlers live on the uncharted frontier and know how to chop wood and use an outhouse? How many people know that the area east of Jerusalem allocated to the “settlement” of Ma’ale Adummim is actually larger in area than the city of Tel Aviv, all of it carved out of the West Bank, and that its presence effectively eliminates the contiguity of a future Palestinian state. One of the principal cultivators of hatred among Palestinians, then, is the Israeli settlement.

TF (NYT): The trust deficit is exacerbated by the fact that after Israel quit the Gaza Strip in 2005, Palestinians, instead of building Singapore there, built Somalia and focused not on how to make microchips, but on how to make rockets to hit Israel.

Hamas’ practice of lobbing Qassam rockets at Israeli communities is evil. Qassams may be primitive and unsophisticated but they are killing innocent people. Moreover, they do little to advance Palestinian wellbeing. On the contrary, they help the IDF justify its siege of Gaza while tempering international criticism of the collective punishment that Israel daily inflicts upon 1½ million Gazans.

But did the residents of Gaza, after the pullout, foolishly opt not to “build Singapore” or “make microchips”? Even allowing for poetic license, Mr. Friedman’s characterization of post-pullout Gaza is a painfully misleading. Israel’s “unilateral disengagement” from Gaza left the tiny territory surrounded, sealed, tightly controlled and without any commercial ties to the West Bank. As several observers have drearily reported, Gaza became the world’s largest open-air prison. A non-viable economy does not suddenly become viable simply because all the prison guards abandon the quad to patrol from the wall.

TF (NYT): The second energy shortage comes from the fact that Israel, with the wall that it has erected around the West Bank, has so effectively shut down Palestinian suicide bombers that the Israeli public right now feels no sense of urgency, especially with the Israeli economy booming. The West Bank behind the wall might as well be in Afghanistan.

“Today, you have neither the romanticism of the peace process before Oslo fell apart nor a visible disaster knocking at the gates of Israel’s consciousness,” noted the Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit.

Mr. Friedman makes an important point here; many Israelis are profoundly ignorant of what goes on behind the Wall. Most never go there. Of those who do, most travel on ethnically cleansed bypass roads to reach subsidized commuter settlements—settlements many don’t even know are built across the “Green Line” on land Israel occupied in 1967 (41 years ago today).

There is, however, some debate about the cause of the decline in suicide bombings. Not everyone agrees that the Wall is principally responsible. I shall leave that to others to sort out. But it does not take a senior analyst to see that the serpentine route of the Wall is mostly about acquiring land, not about insuring security. Security concerns cannot explain, for example, why some Palestinian towns now find themselves on the Israeli side of the Wall, cut off from the rest of Palestine. Predictably, the IDF has responded to these Palestinians trapped in a Twilight Zone between Green Line and “Security Fence” by declaring their enclave a “closed military area” and requiring each adult inhabitant to get a “permanent resident permit” to live in his own home. In my view, we don’t yet know whether, in the long run, Israel will be more or less secure when its Wall/Fence/Barrier is finally complete.

TF (NYT): The third energy shortage is the fact that the political system in both Israel and among the Palestinians is so internally divided that neither one can generate the authority to take a big decision.

Only the U.S. can overcome this diplomatic brownout by offering some radical pragmatism, and the logic would be this: If Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not get control over at least part of the West Bank soon, he will have no authority to sign any draft peace treaty with Israel. He will be totally discredited.

But Israel cannot cede control over any part of the West Bank without being assured that someone credible is in charge. Rockets from Gaza land on the remote Israeli town of Sderot. Rockets from the West Bank could hit, and close, Israel’s international airport. That is an intolerable risk. Israel has got to start ceding control over at least part of the West Bank but in a way that doesn’t expose the Jewish state to closure of its airport.

Radical pragmatism would say that the only way to balance the Palestinians’ need for sovereignty now with Israel’s need for a withdrawal now, but without creating a security vacuum, is to enlist a trusted third party — Jordan — to help the Palestinians control whatever West Bank land is ceded to them. Jordan does not want to rule the Palestinians, but it, too, has a vital interest in not seeing the West Bank fall under Hamas rule.

Without a radically pragmatic new approach — one that gets Israel moving out of the West Bank, gets the Palestinian Authority real control and sovereignty, but one which also addresses the deep mistrust by bringing in Jordan as a Palestinian partner — any draft treaty will be dead on arrival.

I agree that a third party is desperately needed to resolve this intractable stand-off, but I don’t think Jordan is it. The only force on earth strong enough to make both parties in the dispute smarten up, make concessions, live up to treaties and get on with the job of stabilizing the region is the United States of America. Why? Because the U.S. injects more than $3,000,000,000.00 annually into the Israeli economy (one-fifth of the entire U.S. aid budget, according to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs). The road to peace in Israel and Palestine runs through Washington, D.C. with D standing for Dollars and C standing for Cents.

Only Washington, not Jordan, can demand an end to Israeli settlement expansion. Only Washington, not Jordan, can require Israel to halt its inhumane policies of house demolition and collective punishment. Only Washington, not Jordan, can insist upon a contiguous, economically viable Palestinian territory. These demands, tied unequivocally to foreign aid, would not make the state of Israel more vulnerable to attack. They would make it more secure. And it is Washington, not Jordan, whose “radical” diplomacy and “pragmatic” statesmanship, backed up by its checkbook, can provide the level of support non-militants within the Palestinian leadership will need if they are going to stem the violence and win the peace on their side of the Line.

The question I asked my Palestinian students today, as news broke of Clinton’s defeat in the Democratic primary, is whether a McCain or an Obama presidency would make any substantive difference on the ground here in Nablus. Not a single student expressed optimism. Given the campaign rhetoric so far, I have seen little reason to question their judgment.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Student daydreams

I’m teaching several English classes here for university students and young professionals. Among my students are two lawyers, several engineers, a few studying education, others nursing. One is an aspiring novelist. Another is a talented artist. In the evenings I’ve started tutoring a professional who commutes daily to Ramallah to work for the Palestinian National Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas. Since most of these students have a basic understanding of English, we use a lot of class time to read and discuss news stories drawn from a BBC educational website.

I've never lived more simply and felt more rich. Not only can I delight as my students grow in their language skills and connect through me to a larger world. Beyond this, class discussion opens for me a wide window on Palestinian and Arab culture. Their dreams for the future, personal loyalties, ethical perspectives, analysis of the news, expressions of anguish and anger—all this and more tumbles out in our discussion. They are teaching me far more about life here in Palestine than I am teaching them about subordinate clauses, popular idioms and proper (i.e., Canadian) English pronunciation.

Here are a few insights and observations, in no particular order, that I’ve gleaned from 1½ weeks of teaching:

  • The most desired superpower here is the ability to become invisible. (Try to guess why. Hint: think about passing through military checkpoints.)
  • My students do not think McCain, Clinton and Obama differ substantially with respect to their views on Israel and Palestine.
  • Students—ordinary, non-militant, non-violent university students—casually refer to the Israelis as the “enemy."
  • There is very little for young people to do here. They long for a change in the sameness of their daily routine. They express very little hope for positive change in the political situation.
  • Notwithstanding Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004, and the political victory in 2006 of rival party Hamas, Arafat—whose picture is displayed prominently in the town square—remains an iconic figure among Palestinian youth. For them he is a father figure who epitomizes their struggle against Occupation.
  • Although most women on the streets of Nablus wear the hijab (covering their hair and often neck), my students make it clear that this is a choice, not a requirement as it is, say, in Saudi Arabia. They see the current popularity of head coverings, in Palestine and much of the Muslim world, as symbolic of a general conservative reaction to the influence of Western / American culture and values. (A generation ago Palestinian women did not cover their heads.)
  • Students here are extremely respectful and grateful to international volunteers and generally very serious about their education.
  • If students were granted one wish, most would wish to travel. None of my students has the proper ID to let them travel to Jerusalem, let alone beyond.
Palestinian IDs come in a green plastic case; Jerusalem IDs in blue. With a Palestinian ID (or huwīya), the only way to get to Jerusalem is with a special temporary permit. This system was introduced in 1993 and tightened at the outbreak of the 2nd Intifada. If a Palestinian does receive a permit, it is valid at only 4 of the 13 checkpoints between the West Bank and the city. A UN-OCHA report illustrates the challenge Palestinians face simply getting into Jerusalem:
“Since the election of the Hamas government in early 2006, the Israeli authorities have ceased all communication with their Palestinian counterparts and now individuals are forced to apply for permits in person to the Israeli DCL [Palestinian District Liaison Officers] offices. Applying for a permit often involves traveling long distances and waiting in line, only to have to return the next day or following weeks toreceive a permit if it is granted. Applicants who are rejected can re-apply and maybe accepted the second timebut the outcome is always unpredictable. Permits are only issued for a specific reasons i.e. to work, to study, for family reunification or a certain social event and the permit applications are often refused on the basis of security.” [The Humanitarian Impact on Palestinians of Israeli Settlements and other Infrastructure in the West Bank. UN-OCHA. July 2007, p.101.]
Listening to my Palestinian friends describe their lives, watching them dream about freedom and travel, I was deeply disturbed by the news this week that Israel has denied exit visas to seven Gaza students seeking to study abroad. The tragedy of their plight is compounded by the fact that each of the Gaza Seven has been awarded a prestigious Fulbright scholarship. These students don’t need money; all they need is for some Israeli bureaucrat to sign and stamp a form. But since education doesn’t qualify as a pressing humanitarian need (?), permission to leave their compound has been denied.

When the story broke, we learned that the US State Department simply canceled their Fulbrights. Serves you right for living in a war zone. More recently, perhaps to save face, they've changed the status of these scholarships to “deferred.” Assuming Israel lifts the siege of Gaza, next year the students may be able to pursue their advanced degrees. And their dreams. Perhaps. One never knows.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Water wells and water wars

A few hot, dry days ago, on the edge of Nablus and across the street from the entrance to Balata Refugee camp, I lifted a tin cup to my lips to drink cool water from a well said to be 3,700 years old. The forty meter-deep well is in the crypt of a church that rests upon earlier churches going back to the 4th century. It’s called Jacob’s Well (cf. Gen 33:18-20; Jn 4:12). Gentle Jamal will let you draw water for yourself with a rope and bucket. The usual tourist kitsch—icons, crucifixes and postcards—clutters a nearby table, but there is something undeniably magical about connecting to a place featured in both Genesis and John’s Gospel.

All sides of the Israel / Palestine conflict agree that water access and availability is a major flashpoint. Elena Hansteensen, a Humanitarian Officer in the Nablus OCHA office (United Nations – Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), contends that the locations of major Israeli settlements in the West Bank have been clearly chosen to guarantee access to the aquifers in the Palestinian hill country. An OCHA report details the inequity of water distribution in the region.

“Israeli per capita water consumption is more than five times higher than that of West Bank Palestinians (350 litres per person per day in Israel compared to 60 litres per person per day in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem). West Bank Palestinian water consumption is 40 litres less than the minimum global standards set by the World Health Organization.” (The Humanitarian Impact on Palestinians of Israeli Settlements and other Infrastructure in the West Bank, UNOCHA, July 2007, 114.)

A similar picture emerges in a report by BT’selem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories:

The discrimination in utilization of the resources shared by Israel and the Palestinian Authority is clearly seen in the figures on water consumption by the two populations. Per capita water consumption in the West Bank for domestic, urban, and industrial use is only 22 cubic meters a year, which translates into 60 liters per person per day.

There is a huge gap between Israeli and Palestinian consumption. The average Israeli consumes for domestic and urban use approximately 104 cubic meters a year, or 280 liters per person per day. In other words, per capita use in Israel is four and a half times higher than in the Occupied Territories. To make a more precise comparison, by also taking into account industrial water consumption in Israel, per capita use per year reaches 120 cubic meters—330 liters per person a day—or five and a half times Palestinian per capita consumption.

The World Health Organization and the United States Agency for International Development recommend 100 liters of water per person per day as the minimum quantity for basic consumption. This amount includes, in addition to domestic use, consumption in hospitals, schools, businesses, and other public institutions. Palestinian daily consumption is 40 percent less than the recommended quantity.

One front in the Water Wars might come as a surprise:

“For residents of the Occupied Territories, the primary result of the change in the law and transfer of powers over the water sector to Israeli bodies [at the beginning of the Occupation] was the drastic restriction on drilling new wells to meet their water needs. According to military orders, drilling a well required obtaining a permit, which entailed a lengthy and complicated bureaucratic process. The vast majority of applications submitted during the occupation were denied.”

I learned more about this curious state of affairs when I spent Friday with Nasser Abufarha, the Chair of the Palestine Fair Trade Association and the Director of Canaan Fair Trade based in Jenin. An anthropologist-entrepreneur-scholar-humanitarian (Google him some time), Nasser described to me the Israeli policy that forbids Palestinians from digging new wells when old ones run dry. Palestinians are forced, he said, to hide their new wells (e.g., under houses) and to dig them at night. Meanwhile the Israelis conduct aerial surveillance, fill newly-discovered, “illegal” wells with concrete, and restrict the amount Palestinians can draw from “legal” wells by placing regulators on them. To my surprise, Nasser does not believe that these draconian measures are driven by a fundamental water shortage in the region. Rather, he claims, water restrictions are one element of Israel’s systematic campaign to make life difficult for the Palestinians—difficult enough that they’ll want to leave.

I’m hardly qualified to opine on the politics of regional hydrology. But I can say that the water infrastructure in Palestine is woefully inadequate. I passed through a village in the north yesterday where the town well was surrounded by donkey droppings because the locals still transport their water on the backs of animals.

This brings me back to Jacob’s Well. According to ancient tradition, this is the very well where Jesus met the Samaritan woman and, at high noon, scandalously asked her for a drink (Jn 4:6). It’s a compelling story about ethnic tension, patriarchy and gender, sexual infidelity, competing religious claims, prophecy and fulfillment and more. Rereading the story lately I was struck by something else: Jesus’ promise to quench the woman’s thirst:

"Jesus answered her, 'If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, "Give me a drink," you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water'."

"Jesus said to her, 'Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life'." (Jn 4:10, 13-14)

Not even a Biblical well can keep physical thirst from returning. But Jesus’ dramatic claim here, interpreted literally by the dusty Samaritan, is that his loyal followers will find a deeper thirst quenched once and for all. For those of us who enjoy a cold beer on a hot day, the thought of never getting thirsty may have little appeal. But for folks over here who must daily draw water by hand and schlep it home on the back of a donkey, this is good news indeed.

Is there something in the water of Jesus’ Gospel for these sons of Abraham—here in Nablus and in nearby Ariel—whose parched souls thirst for peace? Is it foolish to think that the message of Jesus could end a 60 year-old drought in this land? Is it naïve to think that Christians could play a reconciling role between Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land? I don’t know. Perhaps the water we have to offer is simply too muddied—by Crusades, anti-Semitism and Christian Zionism—to be drinkable, let alone thirst-quenching. What do you think?

ADDITIONAL NOTE: A helpful piece on the subject of water by Ron Taylor just appeared today in CounterCurrents. It's called "Water Wars in the West Bank."