Cover story In the wake of the brutal Gaza War, Andrew Hammond reports from Israel and Palestine, two nations growing further entwined with each bloody month.
In the wake of the brutal Gaza War, Andrew Hammond reports from Israel and Palestine, two nations growing further entwined with each bloody month. Driving north from Tel Aviv on the Trans-Israel Highway, passing through the lush farmland of the coastal plan, you cannot see the wall that Israel has built off to the right side of the motorway. Even though it lies just a stone's throw from the blacktop, the barrier is hidden by bushes and trees. The partition roughly follows the old Green Line, which until 1967 marked the border between Israel and the mountainous West Bank. But the wall, it seems, is not so much meant to mark the border as to conceal the nearness of the Palestinians on the other side. The view is different from Qalqilya. In this West Bank town just over the barrier from the motorway, the wall is a raw presence. Concrete and wire fencing surround the entire settlement, save for a single checkpoint on the east side that controls access in and out. When I visited Qalqilya in January, entering was easy enough, but exiting was a problem. The soldiers stationed at the checkpoint demanded to know why we were "entering Israel". My companion, a journalist from Tubas, a town in the northern West Bank, was taken aback by the question - we were headed away from the coast. "We're going that way," he said, "not into Israel. We're going to Ramallah." But for these soldiers, everything not penned in by a wall was Israel, even in the West Bank, even between Qalqilya and Ramallah. "But now you are going into Israel," they said. "You go to Israel before you go to Ramallah." The soldiers were young. One was apparently from the former Soviet Union; another was British. But here they were deciding whether Palestinians could leave their hometown to enter the rest of the West Bank - to visit other Palestinian villages inside the occupied territory. Heading into Israel proper was obviously off-limits. But the soldiers were here to protect the Israeli settlements dotted across the West Bank, a territory they clearly considered to be part of one state under Israeli sovereignty. The valley was full of towns and villages. You had to strain to make out where one ended and the next began. Palestinian towns lay all around, to the left and to the right, in the hills and in the lowlands, inside the occupied territory and out. This is the geographical heart of Israel-Palestine, where the coastal plain segues into the hills of the West Bank. It is the site of an intermixing of populations that threatens to undermine the Jewish-majority state - a nightmare for Israelis like Avigdor Lieberman, whose ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) party took third place in last month's Knesset elections. But in the aftermath of the recent war on Gaza, this divided landscape is no less a nightmare for the Palestinians trying to see their way to a political future. Ever since the current Palestinian National Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas came to power and put an end to the second intifada, Ramallah, unique among Palestinian cities, has prospered. It is awash in foreign aid money, and the usual gamut of local consultancies and charities has come into existence to help soak it up. These development programmes go hand in hand with efforts to train Palestinian security forces (a project involving Britain, the United States, Egypt and Jordan), which have over the past year allowed Abbas to impose strict control over Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank, arresting Islamists and other forces who wish to restart the uprising - creating a strange alliance between the Palestinian police and the Israeli army. When I entered Qalqilya, Palestinian forces in neat new blue uniforms stood near the Israeli checkpoint, monitoring the scene. "They are there to train Palestinians to maintain order against Palestinians and not against Israel and the occupation," says Khalil Nakhleh, an anthropologist at Birzeit University. The Israelis enter at will to arrest agitators.
Ramallah has also blossomed as a result of East Jerusalem's increasing isolation. Many East Jerusalemites of means have managed to find work in Ramallah or relocated there to breathe what they can of freedom. Palestinian life in East Jerusalem is a battle against an Israeli bureaucracy whose overwhelming aim is to encourage Palestinians to leave. Many Ramallah residents suffer to maintain their Jerusalem residency status. They keep a flat and a telephone line there and pay Israeli municipality taxes to prevent giving the Israelis an excuse to revoke their right to live in the city of their birth. An East Jerusalemite who marries a Palestinian from outside the city runs the risk of eviction. And the continuing development of settlements in and around Jerusalem seems likely to push more Palestinians out of the city. There are plans to evict residents in the Silwan district for a tourist development and to build more settlements to the east, heading down into the Jordan valley - further steps in the long process of dividing the West Bank in two.
Surrounded by Israeli settlements, including one that stares down from a fortified hilltop more or less inside the city itself, Ramallah is a bubble. Access to Jerusalem involves one of two main checkpoints: the hellish Qalandia crossing, which runs alongside a refugee camp; or Hizmeh, inside the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Hanina. They are separated by the Israeli settlement of Atarot, which is protected by an imposing concrete section of the wall that runs throughout the occupied territories. Residents of Ramallah use their cars for a trip of even just a few blocks; the chance to drive anywhere without checkpoints and roadblocks, even if it's just around the hamster wheel of a city like Ramallah, is worth taking.
March 2001: The Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi argues with an Israeli soldier at the Ar Ram checkpoint on Jerusalem's northern exit towards the West Bank town of Ramallah. Jamal Aruri / AFP Photo
Yet ever since the recent Gaza war, Ramallah has been a town in quiet turmoil. In the cafes, bars and restaurants the well-heeled rail against Hamas. They say it was more concerned with maintaining its Islamist project in Gaza than with taking serious steps to end political separation from the West Bank, thus playing into the hands of Israel and its "divide and rule" policy. Hamas only cared for its "imarat Ghazza" - "the Gaza emirate" - Fatah supporters say. One Palestinian journalist told me she would rather be ruled by the Israelis than Hamas. During the war, the fear of Hamas's rising popularity in the West Bank was so strong that the Palestinian Authority repressed protests in solidarity with Gazans. "They didn't even fight. Where was the resistance they talk about?" says one Fatah member of the Palestinian parliament, deriding Hamas's performance during the Gaza war. Fatah supporters argue that Hamas was acting on the orders of its backers in Tehran and Damascus and showed irresponsible leadership by insisting on military action that led to widespread death and destruction for Gazans. They also say Hamas decides when and where to resist only with its own future in mind. As Abbas himself put it: "There is no doubt about the Palestinian people's right to resist. But the question is who, when and in what format? No one has the right to take the fate of a whole people by the hand and lead them wherever they want."
Yet many Palestinians I met in Jerusalem and the West Bank agreed with the Hamas view of Abbas - that he had too much blind faith in negotiations with Israelis. The Ramallah leadership, these Palestinians argued, was morally and politically bankrupt. The antagonism between the two camps has only deepened. "The rift has become ideological and touches the nature of Palestinian life, whether it's Islamist and theological or democratic and national. It's not just a question of the peace process with Israel versus armed struggle, it's more than that," said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the legislative assembly, speaking in the offices of the NGO she runs in Ramallah. "At this point, Hamas is gaining more support because they are seen as the underdog and the peace process did not yield results, and that has undermined moderate voices."
Hamas, for its part, seemed eager to take over the mantle of Palestinian leadership in the wake of the Gaza carnage. Buoyed by the rhetoric of "victory", Hamas's leader-in-exile in Damascus, Khaled Meshaal, opened a debate about the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), the secular body dominated by Fatah that has led the Palestinian national movement since the 1960s. He suggested that the PLO needed to be revamped with new elections, presumably to reflect the central role he now believes Hamas has in the Palestinian cause.
"Hamas is now presenting itself as the legitimate representative force of the Palestinians, the force that wins elections and fights the Israeli occupation," says Khaled Hroub of Cambridge University, the author of a study of Hamas. According to one former security employee, Fatah forces are nervously monitoring Ramallah to see if Hamas cadres rent out apartments, which might give them a foothold for street activity in the future against Abbas.
The political analyst Ali al Jarbawi suggests that neither Fatah nor Hamas has a convincing vision for Palestinians - though at present there seem to be few political alternatives. "Hamas is advocating resistance but also a truce (in Gaza) with the Israelis. For Abbas, it's about negotiating forever with the Israelis with no result," he says. "We have to combine resistance with negotiations. If talks fail and Israelis don't want [to return land], we should close the door on negotiations and resort to other options."
This infighting, Ashrawi fears, undermines Palestinians' attempts in the international arena to challenge the legitimacy of Israeli practices in the occupied territories. I mentioned the provocative argument put forth by some thinkers on both sides for formalising the de facto single state that presently exists, so as to ensure full rights for all the inhabitants of Mandatory Palestine. Such talk was "glib", she said dismissively - since in the meantime Israel is engaged in the continuous process of confiscating land and cutting off communities, tactics that necessitate a Palestinian state in the territories as soon as possible in order to safeguard the Palestinian presence as it currently stands.
After the war Gaza was a scene of destruction tempered by a typically resolute spirit of survival. "Israel has been practising collective punishment on all Gaza since the first uprising began in 1987," said a pharmacist who gave his name as Abu Baraa. "We've been through so many crises that it creates a kind of psychological immunity." His meagre display of medicine and health and beauty products was a testament to Israeli restrictions on imports. Prized international brands of baby nappies were nowhere to be found, and he complained about the Egyptian versions that arrive smuggled through tunnels.
Hilmy Samouni survived a missile attack on a house in the Zeitoun district outside Gaza City, where he lost at least 23 members of his extended family. The Israeli army herded them into a building that was subsequently bombed; Hilmy says he spent four days inside the ruins while the army refused to let them out. He remained stoic in the face of his loss - the deaths of his mother, father, wife, son and brother. "They came here intending to cause destruction. The army has a new generation of 18-year-olds who have been taught that Gaza is a place that you can do what you want," he said, as we surveyed graffiti soldiers had left on the walls. There was a drawing of a tombstone with the words "Arabs: 1948-2009". "Die you all," another message read. "You can run but you can't hide." "Gaza, we are here."
Samih al Sawafiri's farmhouse was also requisitioned by the army during the war. When he returned he found they had smashed his televisions, punched holes in the walls and bulldozed his poultry farm. A few feathers and a stench were all that remained of the 50,000 battery hens that once inhabited large pens in his yard. But most striking was the graffiti left behind. There is a picture of a pig with "oink-oink" scribbled in Russian next to it, numerous Stars of David and a fire engulfing a veiled woman who is being held on a leash. Walls were daubed with messages such as "Leave or die" in Hebrew, and "F*** Gaza" and "F*** Hamas" in English. "They want a land without a people. They want us to go to Rafah, or Sinai," Sawafiri said.
For Hamas, the "Ramallah camp" harbours a naive belief in peace talks and in giving up al muqawama, the resistance. They contend that Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, has become Israel's policeman and allege that his security co-operation with Israel in the occupied West Bank, where he controls some territory, amounts to collaboration. Their message is that only political Islam can mobilise people to fight for the restitution of rights. "Abu Mazen believes in peace, dialogue with the occupation, security co-ordination and in talks even if they last 100 years," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said. He claimed that it was use of force that made Israeli quit its Jewish settlements in Gaza in 2005. "[Abbas] has not demanded liberating the West Bank. He's happy with the situation like this. Israel is the protector of the West Bank and he's the protector of Israel."
Meanwhile, this week a conference of international donors pledged more than $4bn for reconstruction in Gaza - though there was little progress toward a political arrangement that might prevent another round of destruction. While the European Union has done almost nothing politically to halt Israeli demolition of Palestinian infrastructure since 2000, observes the anthropologist Khalil Nakhleh, it has stepped in after each orgy of violence to award contracts to European firms to rebuild what was destroyed.
Since the end of the second intifada - and the rise of Abbas's security forces in the West Bank - violence against Israeli settlers has diminished dramatically. With some 500 checkpoints restricting the freedom of movement of more than 2 million Palestinians, many of the roads - notionally open to both occupied and occupier - are safer than ever. Settlers stand by the roadside hitchhiking rides or wait politely in prim bus shelters. Some go for a brazen jog. All this would have been unimaginable five years ago.
Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP Photo
I recently took a trip into the largest settlement of all, the hidden mountain city of Ariel. Its official population is 20,000, but it gives the impression of being larger, sprawling for 12km across the hills to the west of Nablus with an industrial zone, shops, schools and offices. Connected seamlessly by motorway to Israel proper, Ariel is "here to stay", according to the city's website. Indeed, Ariel is one of the settlement blocs that Israeli governments have insisted will remain part of Israel in any resolution with the Palestinians - a stipulation to which the Bush Administration agreed at the time of the Gaza withdrawal. In Ariel, I found immigrants from Russia and Arab countries utterly disconnected from the land around them. Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing former prime minister still trying to form a government, would never be tough enough on the Arabs, said Ira Isacov, a video-store worker who emigrated from the former Soviet Union 14 years ago. Isacov compared Lieberman - favourably - to Stalin and Lenin, saying he was a man who would be "strong" in dealing with the Arabs. Netanyahu, he said, is "weak".
Lieberman posters were all around. The politician says he wants to pass a law that would require Israeli citizens to sign a "pledge of allegiance to the Jewish state" and deny the right to vote or to hold public office if they refuse. He also talks of "transferring" Palestinian towns north of the West Bank to a Palestinian state in exchange for annexation of West Bank settlements. Haim Dhen emigrated from Morocco over four decades ago. He speaks Hebrew with an unabashed accent, and his sentences were peppered with the Arabic he still speaks at home. I noted that no one in Ariel calls the non-Jewish indigenous population by their preferred name, Palestinians; instead they are simply Arabs. Dhen was unmoved. "In my opinion, the Arabs always want war. If you give them something they always want more," he explained over a cup of Arabic coffee served up in his small restaurant.
Dhen chose to move to Ariel 10 years ago for the pure mountain air, cheaper housing and better schools for his children, but he seemed resigned to an uncertain future. Even Ariel was not safe from the concessions a future Israeli government would have to make, he said, and Jews would face greater and greater dangers as a result. Lieberman, at least, was less prone to make such concessions; what's more, he was honest.
As we talked, the afternoon call to prayer gently wafted up from below. The Palestinian town of Salfit is separated from Ariel by fences and army watchtowers. Its roads are rundown and full of potholes, its people depressed. Israel's elections meant nothing to them. "The one among them who kills more of our people wins," said a villager named Awad Shudayyid. "We hear about their elections, but the Gaza events have taken over people's interest," said a woman who worked in a clothes shop. "They talk about peace but just want to put their hands on our land." As for Ariel: "They live their lives and we live ours. There is no contact at all between us. They are in a closed citadel on top of the mountain."
Mobility, contact, freedom of movement. These are the issues constantly raised by Palestinians. Not only freedom of movement between Palestinian towns inside the Green Line, but also between Palestinians inside the occupied territories and those just kilometres away inside Israel. And more than that, mobility over all of historical Palestine - to Tel Aviv, or Jaffa, or Haifa. This freedom once existed, in the years immediately following the Israeli victory in 1967. The mechanisms of separation and isolation encroached in stages, from the colonisation that began shortly after the 1967 war and accelerated when the Israeli right came to power in 1977, through the first intifada, the first Gulf War, the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and the Oslo regime, with its distinct areas of Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank. One of the cruellest ironies of the struggle for independence is that the Palestinian nationalist movement - as it gradually narrowed its focus to the areas seized by Israel in 1967 - played no less a role than Zionism in fostering the separation of Palestinians.
"In the ceasefire talks, nobody is talking about individuals [moving freely] - not at all. It's only about economic transactions, that's it. They will likely resume a permit system to allow people for medical reasons to pass and some merchants," said rights activist Hamdy Shaqqoura in Gaza. "From 1967 to 1993 we could drive to Jaffa; since that time they incorporated more restrictions and ended up with this total ban on movement. I can't imagine stability and any atmosphere of peace without the free movement of persons to the West Bank and Israel."
Haifa is usually touted as Israel's successful "mixed city" of Arabs and Jews, though Palestinians form only around 10 per cent of its 300,000 population. Haifa lies in northern Israel, near the Galilee and the Triangle area around Nazareth where the Palestinians still form a majority of the population, despite aggressive state settlement policies since the 1970s. Unlike Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, Haifa's Palestinian population is fed by a bank of Arab villages in its hinterland. Palestinians have so far remained only 20 per cent of Israel's population because of the flow of Jewish immigration, but they represent almost 50 per cent of the population between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.
The Israeli Arabs - a term that cuts away at some of the demographic confusion of Israel, but which some resent for its implicit denial of Palestinian identity - are also nervous. "The fear really is that Israeli leadership and society have begun to show signs of accepting the idea that 'we don't want Palestinians' in Israel," said the Haifa University historian Mahmoud Yazbek, surveying the coast towards Lebanon from the top floor of a campus building on Mount Carmel. "The Palestinian historical experience says anything is possible. Before 1948 no one believed that the state of Israel could be established and the Palestinians would be made refugees. But the chaos that would ensue from a war with Iran could be exploited."
The Israeli Right has raised the alarm about what they say is the Israeli Arab population's increasing politicisation during the last intifada and the Gaza war, suggesting that Israeli Arabs could ally with the West Bank and Gazan Palestinians in an uprising against Jewish Israelis. But aside from a number of isolated attacks, their activism has almost never gone beyond protests. The Arabs of Israel are not interested in armed struggle to create a new political reality in Israel, says Rina Jabareen, the international advocacy director of the Haifa-based legal centre Adalah. "For Palestinians inside Israel to keep all of the struggle civil is an achievement. [Violence isn't] on their agenda here at all," she says.
That's not to say Palestinians inside Israel don't face systematic discrimination. Indeed, the Adalah centre has doggedly pursued the Israeli government in court over cases of discrimination, as when housing and education benefits have been denied to Palestinians for not having served in the army (conscription is voluntary for Arab Muslims and Christians) and when Arab farmers have been denied licenses to sell their eggs in supermarkets. Israelis have aggressively colonised the land around Palestinian towns in Israel with the aim of starving them of territory and resources. Some Arab towns and quarters have even been sectioned off from Jewish immigrant neighbours: the town of Lod, inside Israel, has its own concrete version of the West Bank wall. The result has been the creation of two societies within one country, a prosperous new Israel backed by massive state largesse, and an old Palestinian society, marginalised but surviving.
September 2008: Palestinian Muslims pass by the West Bank checkpoint of Qalandia, on the outskirts of Ramallah, en route to Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque for the last Friday prayer of Ramadan. Abbas Moumani / AFP Photo
Yet the two remain inextricably tied, despite the vast efforts to keep them separate. Courts have backed Palestinians seeking to find homes inside the new settlements (moshavim) in the Galilee and Negev, despite housing committees' efforts to keep them out. Upper Nazareth, a town set up in the 1950s for Jewish immigrants to offset the historical Palestinian town, now sees prosperous Palestinians moving in. Even in Jerusalem some Palestinians are seeking to move into the Jewish areas in the annexed East such as French Hill for perfectly mundane reasons - it's cleaner, and there are proper municipal services. It is not difficult to see how the degradation and segregation of Israeli Arab areas may backfire for Israel, as Palestinians who refuse to leave the country seek accommodation outside the enclaves designed to hold them. "I can buy a house in Tel Aviv but I can't buy in a settlement in Galilee. Each Arab town has a settlement around it that stops it developing, so you have a demographic problem inside the town," said Yazbek. "It could create an internal intifada to demand living and housing rights."
Israel and Palestine today are tense and claustrophobic. But what I sensed most of all in my recent visit was desperation: the desperation of Palestinians in Gaza who had just suffered a war that implied they were no more than human detritus in Israeli eyes; the desperation of isolated Palestinians in East Jerusalem resisting the pressure to leave; the desperation of Palestinians in the West Bank, where it seems too late to patch together any kind of state; the desperation of Palestinian citizens of Israel, battling discrimination and dark hints of transfer. But on the Israeli side there is an equal desperation - the desperation of an ideology running aground, unable to displace millions of Palestinians but unwilling to accept them. The former Israeli chief-of-staff Moshe Yaalon said in 2002 that the Palestinians "must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people". But if Israel seems desperate today, it is because the Palestinians, for all their defeats, are not yet defeated.
Andrew Hammond is the author of Popular Culture in the Arab World and What the Arabs Think of America.