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The apathy that hangs over Palestine

Exhausted by life under military occupation, Palestinians generally seem more interested in putting food on the table than in political revolution, reports Joseph Dana .
Hamas supporters take part in a rally celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Islamist movement on December 13 in the northern West Bank city of Nablus. Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP
Hamas supporters take part in a rally celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Islamist movement on December 13 in the northern West Bank city of Nablus. Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP
Amid a sea of green Hamas flags in the centre of Nablus, Abdul Rahim Rabaiya expressed satisfaction that Hamas had returned to the West Bank after a five-year absence. A modest schoolteacher, Rabaiya passionately argued that the Palestinian street needs Hamas to force change on the West Bank. Hamas, forced underground by the Palestinian Authority, sweeps over the past years of political division. The rally marked what some see as an olive branch from Fatah to Hamas in order to kick-start reconciliation efforts.

But despite the passionate chants ringing through the narrow and ancient streets of Nablus, Hamas's first West Bank rally in more than five years failed to attract more than 4,000 people. One shopkeeper dismissed the entire event outright. "We are the products that these politicians sell," he said. "If there is unity, it will be bad for us. The United Nations should run Palestine."

Undoubtedly, the final months of 2012 saw dramatic events unfold in Israel and Palestine. Hamas, long isolated diplomatically, staged a veritable diplomatic coup with unprecedented visits from Arab leaders like the Emir of Qatar, who pledged more than $400 million (Dh1.46 billion) to the Islamic movement in Gaza. A quick but brutal conflict erupted between Israel and Hamas with all of the trimmings of the last conflict, back in 2009, which turned the Gaza Strip into a battleground.

Demonstrating the changing contours of the Middle East since the Arab revolutions, Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi asserted his country's new position as a regional broker and negotiated a fragile ceasefire between the two sides, which, surprisingly, has held. In a major boast to Hamas - and evidence of Egypt's changing role in the region - Morsi has even pledged to ease border restrictions at the Rafah border crossing, the only crossing into Gaza not controlled by Israel.

The West Bank has not been immune to changes as well. Palestinian Authority president and Fatah chairman Mahmoud Abbas continued his quixotic statehood campaign at the UN and delivered the Palestinians de facto state recognition. More than mere symbolism, the Palestinians may now have access to institutions such as the International Criminal Court, which could be used to prosecute Israel for rights violations and murder.

Yet, these efforts seem to be lost on the Palestinian people.

The ferocious manner in which Fatah and Hamas are fighting for the approval of the Palestinian street is all the more breathtaking given the general sense of apathy that hangs over Palestine.

Exhausted from the Second Intifada and life under military occupation, Palestinians generally seem more interested in making ends meet than political revolution.

The apathy is evidence that 2012 might well be remembered as the year Israel's status quo over Palestine took hold of the Palestinian mindset. There is faint hope that reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Fatah could work but they are overshadowed by deep cynicism.

Both major factions are basking in the limelight of self-pronounced victories: Fatah is celebrating its upgrade in status at the UN while Hamas is parading its armed resistance credentials after standing up to Israel's military machine during last month's Gaza offensive.

"We know from the past that Hamas is not simply going to give up its economic, social and cultural gains for the sake of reconciliation," Anna Ateerah, the deputy governor of Nablus, said hours before Hamas held its 25th anniversary celebrations in her city. But exuding some confidence, she added, "There are a few members in Hamas that will really work for reconciliation and we in the West Bank believe in them."

Indeed, Israel's recent behaviour demonstrates that Tel Aviv is confident in the strength of its status quo in the Palestinian Territories. After nearly 45 years of occupation in the West Bank, Israel has perfected a system of benign control that can seemingly withstand Palestinian diplomatic efforts at the UN and a resurgent Hamas in Gaza. At the root of this status quo is the Israeli desire to maintain control over Palestinian lands, entrench settlements and ensure that facts on the ground work in Israel's colonial design. As pundits and liberals debate the merits of a two-state solution, Israel is quietly making such an outcome impossible. In fact, the debate about the two-state solution has become an important diversion from discussing the true nature of Israeli colonialism.

This status quo strategy, while cynical, is not entirely new in the history of colonial movements. The structure of apartheid South Africa is a handy example for context in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is all the more convenient that Israel maintained unusually warm relations with Pretoria during the darkest days of apartheid.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky's 2010 book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, raises some important questions concerning the extent to which Israel studied and learnt from the apartheid regime and its downfall. The Oslo peace process, initiated as apartheid was being dismantled in South Africa, has been nothing but tragic for the Palestinians and laid the foundations for dependency on Israel and internal political fragmentation.

By now, Ariel Sharon's famous comment concerning his desire to create "bantustans" in the West Bank is well known and the present situation confirms that his desires have provided a blueprint for Israeli relations with Palestinians. On a most basic level, Israel learnt the need for a divided and weak Palestinian people, unable to pose a serious non-violent threat to its colonial rule.

Through the application of one of the most advanced colonial divide-and-rule tactics in modern history, Israel has been able to effectively sever the West Bank from the Gaza Strip. The resulting infighting since Hamas's 2007 takeover of the Gaza Strip has entrenched this separation. Bolstering the political separation is the fact that Palestinian cities on the West Bank now stand isolated like islands in a sea of Israeli settlements; cut off from one another by myriad Israeli walls and checkpoints.

With the Palestinians divided, Israel has been able to entrench its matrix of control in the West Bank to such a degree that an equitable two-state solution appears to be a remote fantasy. Even the false appearances of such a resolution are fading away.

Much to the dismay of the international community and proponents of a two-state solution, Israel recently announced that it would begin planning for settlement creation in the E-1 area east of Jerusalem. Israeli settlements in this area would effectively sever Palestinians from Jerusalem save for a few access roads carefully controlled by Israeli soldiers. When - not if - Israel begins building in E-1, it will end the two-state solution paradigm as we have come to understand it.

Threatening to cement the further entrenchment of the status quo are the upcoming early elections in Israel. Israel is heading for early elections in January on a platform that confirms the future entrenchment of the status quo. Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, is set to cruise to victory with one of the most openly antagonistic and right-wing coalitions in Israel's history. His coalition will include a collection of right-wing politicians who call for varying degrees of annexation in the West Bank.

"The Israeli election does not signify a chance for change, but the opposite: we are more likely to end up with a government that has the maintenance of the status quo as the centre of its policy," said the Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf about the upcoming elections. "Probably the only issue all coalition partners can agree on is the status quo."

Israel may very well redouble its colonisation efforts on the West Bank in 2013 under Benjamin Netanyahu's new parliament. The international community will certainly bemoan the loss of the two-state solution but, if history is any guide, will take very little concrete action. Whether or not Palestine is able to mend its political division will bear little on the inevitability of perpetuation of the status quo. With anti-migrant violence on the rise in Israel and the rifts between religious and secular Israelis growing, Israel itself might be its own worst enemy in administering the status quo it has so carefully created.

Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Ramallah.

Updated: December 29, 2012 04:00 AM



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