That pretty much sums up the atmosphere in the West Bank following Abbas’ recent trip to the UN in New York to submit an application for statehood for Palestine. There was some anticipation leading up to his speech in the same way there might be excitement for a favorite football team playing on a particularly big stage. But the football team wasn’t Abbas, it was Palestine. Abbas just happened to be the guy with the microphone.
The excitement was mainly due to the fact that something was happening, as opposed to the usual nothing at all. The world was looking this way even though the Palestinians had not engaged in any violence. (Usually the world ignores the Palestinians totally unless they do something violent, which sets up an unfortunate incentive structure.) And Fatah had set up a big stage in the Duwar al Saa’a (Clock Circle), Ramallah’s second-biggest traffic circle, which they hastily renamed Arafat Square (though no one actually calls it that). They had also paid musicians, traditional dancers, and poets to give free performances. And they let everyone off work.
So those “spontaneous” “rallies” in support of Abbas—yeah, that was pretty much a free concert and a lot of people who support Palestine (not necessarily Abbas). It was surreal—not to say a bit silly—to be sitting in my flat a block from the Clock Circle watching a reporter on Al Jazeera English talking about “Arafat Square” and pointing to a group of ten people within the larger crowd waving identical placards with portraits of Abbas and calling it “a massive, spontaneous show of support for President Mahmoud Abbas.”
It was made abundantly clear in the leaked Palestine Papers that Abbas has made major concessions on Palestinian rights, which are totally unacceptable to the Palestinian public, and the Israeli government still has no serious interest in talking with him. Therefore it was a smart political move for Abbas to refuse to ‘negotiate’ with Israel as long as settlement expansion was ongoing. He knew the settlements wouldn’t stop expanding in any case, and he knew he wouldn’t get anything out of negotiations anyway. So it looked like he was ‘standing up’ to Israel when in fact he was just letting them keep doing what they wanted to do anyway, without humiliating himself through a sham ‘peace process.’
This statehood bid was also good domestic politics. It was smart because his presidential term ended years ago, and people are less and less sure why the hell he’s still the president. He hasn’t accomplished anything, and nobody voted for him to be president this long. With the statehood bid, it once again looks like he’s standing up to the US and Israel when in fact the bid is sure to languish in committee until it’s effectively buried, at which point it will be quietly vetoed by the US.
Lucky for Abbas, no one here seriously had any expectations that anything would change on the ground due to a piece of paper handed over at the UN. The barista at the Karameh cafe in Ramallah offered the typical sentiment here when I asked him, “What did you think about Abbas’ speech?”
He shrugged. “Kwayyis.” (Good. Fine.) There is a consensus here that it was a good speech.
“Bas, esh fi?” (But now what do we find here?)
He laughed. “Just talking.” He made the universal hand sign for, ‘Blah, blah, blah.’ “That’s it.”
So Abbas got his little party in Ramallah. But by the very next day, life was back to ‘normal’ (occupation as usual) as if nothing had happened. There are more soldiers in the West Bank these days manning checkpoints and harassing people, and slightly more settler pogroms. A friend offered to drive me to Tulkarem to visit another friend, and we used an alternate route to bypass a main road where settlers were randomly attacking cars. But otherwise nothing has changed at all. And nothing is expected to change any time soon.
Journalist Joseph Dana put it best: “The Palestinian leadership is trying to save a peace process based on the two-state solution by implementing the ‘corrective measure’ of seeking a state within the 1967 borders. On the surface, this seems to be a bold move. But it is really the PA’s attempt at self-preservation in a system designed to prolong the status quo.”
Amazingly, even this won’t succeed, because the US and Israel, due to domestic political considerations, foolishly reject even a slightly more sustainable status quo with a slightly larger fig leaf, but instead support Netanyahu’s utterly unsustainable project of total Israeli domination and intransigence, without even minor checks allowed by anyone whatsoever. It’s Bibi’s way or the highway. I think the reason even American elites are taking exception to Netanyahu is because he’s so obviously driving Israel toward a cliff.
In case you need a reminder, here’s what the status quo means. This Saturday I was invited to give a talk about my book (Fast Times in Palestine) at the Alternative Information Center in Beit Sahour, a town north of Bethlehem. I decided to take the route bypassing Jerusalem, mainly to save myself the hassle of passing the Qalandia checkpoint and then walking from one bus station to another in East Jerusalem.
As Sandy Tolan remarked in his recent excellent article, it’s hard to go a full minute in the West Bank in any direction without seeing some sign of the occupation: a graveyard of trees that have been uprooted by soldiers or slashed and burned by settlers, masses of electrical wires strung up by the Israeli government for the settlements, an illegal Israeli garbage dump next to a Palestinian village, a massive quarry stealing even the stones, Hebrew signs pointing to settlements, sniper nests, the heart-stopping Wall or its incarnation as a Fence with a blasted perimeter and army access road flanking it, ‘industrial areas’ flying Israeli flags, segregated roads, gated communities, stolen springs. All of it expanding continuously.
In the fabled wilderness east of Jerusalem, you can still see shepherds with their flocks, but they are pushed ever further to the margins. This is no longer their domain. Idyllic scenes have become islands in a surrounding sea of devastation and disfigurement. It makes me think of a kid who wants a smaller kid’s popsicle. Knowing he can’t legally get it outright, he yanks it out of the kid’s hands, takes a giant bite that he doesn’t even really enjoy, and then throws the rest of it in the mud. The word that kept repeating over and over in my mind was, “Maniacs.”
Of course there was a checkpoint even in the bypass road (which goes through Wadi Nar, ‘Valley of Fire,’ a dramatic pass between dry hills), but the soldiers didn’t happen to stop my service taxi. I arrived in Beit Sahour and met Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, a long-time activist and writer, who was on his way to the Dheisheh Refugee Camp to bring grapes, bread, and greetings to a family he knew. They were from Al Walajeh, a village that was emptied and destroyed in 1948. Most of the village’s land fell on the Israeli side of the Green Line, but some was still left on the Palestinian side, and they rebuilt their village a couple of miles from the one that was destroyed on the land they had left.
Of course, now Israel wants this land, too. The Wall is not content to turn Bethlehem into a ghetto. It splits off perpendicular to the Bethlehem Wall to crash through Al Walajeh and separate it both from much of its remaining land, from Jerusalem, and from the two massive settlements built east and south of it.
This family had their home demolished in Al Walajeh by the Israeli army, and in a separate incident, the father was beaten severely by soldiers and hospitalized. His house has been rebuilt in Al Walajeh, but he refuses to live there because he now suffers from mental problems and is both too terrified of soldiers to set foot in his village and too heavily medicated to work. So his family moved into a refugee camp.
See how enlightened the Israeli occupation is? They didn’t kick this man out of his village. He left voluntarily!
I asked Dr. Qumsiyeh if we could visit Al Walajeh next, and he said sure. After a lovely drive through Beit Jala (a suburb of Bethlehem), we approached the invisible line marking the transition from Area A to the dreaded Area C (the 60% of the West Bank where Israel has full civil and military control and wields it with extreme prejudice). Dr. Qumsiyeh pointed out the road signs pointing left and right—one to Jerusalem and the other to a settlement.
“But you will notice, there is no sign saying where the middle road goes. I guess we are driving into the abyss.”
Of course this road went to Al Walajeh, a place Israel wishes didn’t exist. It’s such an inconvenient location—a beautiful hilltop right between several Israeli built-up areas. What were they thinking, rebuilding their village on land Israel might someday want?
I have to admit that as shocking as the Wall and settlements were, I was struck more than anything by the beauty of the location. In everything I had read about Al Walajeh, nothing at all had prepared me for how stunning it was. The sun was setting, which sent a soft purple light on everything, and the hills were rich with trees, and the view of West Jerusalem and the hills beyond was gorgeous. No wonder they want it, I thought. Who wouldn’t?
“You see how the Wall goes right up next to the houses,” Dr. Qumsiyeh said. “And it takes all the land. And there’s a huge hole in it that I can drive my car through. So you can see it’s not about security.”
That much has been obvious for a very long time.
He drove to another spot where the Israel army was building some kind of tunnel. “This tunnel is so one man can get to his house. The Wall will surround it on four sides. I’ve heard it will cost $2 million to build this tunnel.”
I looked at him strangely. “It’s not like I want them to, but… why don’t they just tear the house down?”
“They can’t find any excuse. It was built before 1967. So they will do this, and he can ‘voluntarily’ transfer himself if he wants.”
As we were driving back into Area A, the road was plastered with signs in Hebrew only, obviously warning passengers to turn around as fast as they can because otherwise they might come face to face with scary, scary Arabs. Insatiable crocodiles, don’t ya know.
Confidential to Netanyahu: Projecting much?
* * *
Despite all this, there is some amount of hope in three places. One is the dramatic shift in American and global public opinion. Even Thomas Friedman has started lamenting the Israel lobby’s stranglehold on US foreign policy (two years ago he wouldn’t even have dared suggest there was any such thing as an Israel lobby), and other news sources have started asking questions, inviting guests, and boldly making suggestions they’d never made before.
And Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the UN was fantastic. It was like some kind of cartoon alien spouting every tired line of campy hasbara kitsch all in one long string of mendacious, tone-deaf nonsense. It was like he was trying to get all the talking points in at once because somewhere deep down, he understood that this was their eulogy. He didn’t want to leave any of his old friends out of what I predict will be a historic speech—the last major event when anyone dared to say such utter crap on the world stage with a straight face.
The world’s reaction to his cringe-worthily sophomoric bluster spoke for itself (though apparently his popularity in Israel actually rose after it—which just goes to show how mentally isolated Israel is from the rest of the world).
The second place of hope is in the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which already has several victories to its name, and which is clearly terrifying the Israeli establishment. Along with non-violent direct actions like the Gaza flotillas, it’s the ultimate non-violent tactic to burst a dangerous bubble, and it’s just getting started.
The third is mass non-violent resistance by the Palestinians themselves, first Intifada-style. But there are three things suppressing this option. One is the Palestinian Authority, which is paid by Israel and the US to keep the Palestinians from taking matters into their own hands in this manner in any large-scale way. (Hamas is doing the same in Gaza to protect their own monopoly on power.)
The second is that people are still utterly exhausted from the evisceration of their economy by Israel’s occupation policies and the never-ending attacks by settlers and harassment by soldiers. People just want to scratch out a living and send their kids to school. This is enough of a massive burden given the conditions of occupation. To resist in a serious and sustained way means to risk losing every last scrap of what they hold dear.
The third is that the Palestinian people have understood for a long time what Amos Gilad, the head of Israel’s Defense Ministry’s political department, was recently quoted as saying by Wikileaks: “We don’t do Gandhi very well.”
Israelis are terrified of non-violent resistance. It’s not their strong suit. It’s not good for the world to see them bashing in the heads and shooting out the eyes of unarmed men, women, and children on their own land. So there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that if there is a mass non-violent uprising, Israel will do everything in its power to turn it into a military struggle.
This is where Israel is comfortable. This is where they win, especially where it matters most, in American public opinion: When they can point to someone else’s violence to justify their own massively more deadly violence. In this scenario, the framework switches from Palestinian human rights to Israeli security. And once the framework revolves around Israeli security, anything goes.
Most people forget that the second Intifada started as a mass non-violent movement. Israel responded by firing more than one million bullets into crowds of unarmed demonstrators. Six months later, the suicide bombings started. And we all know the rest.
A sustained non-violent movement on a massive scale in Palestine would be no passive Kumbaya sit-in. It would involve serious danger and horrible risk, and it would require many people to die while others would be forced to watch and do nothing but continue to protest peacefully. And it would take only one spark to turn it into another all-out militarized conflict, and all the devastation that brings.
But who knows? No one predicted that the Soviet Union would fall when it did. Apartheid fell, French control of Algeria fell apart, and one way or another this insane occupation, this rotten house of cards, is not long for this earth.
Another Palestinian I talked to, a pilot who used to fly Yasser Arafat around the world, said, “Netanyahu thinks he has everything under control.”
I replied, “So did Hosni Mubarak.”
Pamela Olson is the author of Fast Times in Palestine