Sunday, 18 March 2012

Occupational Hazards

All pictures in this blog entry are from Deheisheh refugee camp, Bethlehem, just down the road from me. It's where Ishmael, my friend the taxi-driver, and his family live, and where Ibrahim Issa was born.

For 25 years, following the occupation in 1967
Deheisheh was surrounded by a fence, and
refugees had to enter through this turnstile
I went to a talk about normalisation. It concerned an issue that has troubled me, affecting my own actions, and that’s why I went. Yousef Habash, who gave the talk, is a member of the Executive Committee of PNGO, a Palestinian umbrella organization comprising 132 member organizations working in different developmental fields.

Normalisation concerns establishing relations between Palestinians and Israelis, building connections over the apartheid barrier. This sounds good, and it is commonly the norm in the donor countries to encourage and fund projects that further such relationships.

Deheisheh is densely-packed but
it has a strong community atmosphere
But there’s a problem. We are not talking about Britain and Germany at the end of WW2, or America and the USSR or twenty years ago – countries of a comparable standing and power who were able to make respectful treaties at the end of their conflicts, and who had recourse to reserve options if such treaties went wrong. We’re talking about one nation which is economically and militarily superior, an invader of the other nation and generally supported by the international community. We aren’t talking about equal partners. Thus, relationships tend to unfold on an unequal basis – Palestinians can’t go out to restaurants or pull strings like Israelis can, and if official permissions are sought to meet up, Israelis have far more power than Palestinians – because Israelis are the invaders, with the power to decide. There’s a psychological issue too: people in winner nations have more confidence and clout than people in loser nations, no matter how many self-empowerment workshops one might attend.

It's full of narrow alleyways
But there’s more still. This is one of the reasons I started out working with both sides in a reconciliatory manner, then to discover something was wrong, which caused me to gravitate to the Palestinian side. Not because I turned anti-Israeli, but because I could see that the Palestinians needed more assistance to get to a place where peace would be possible. They had lost too much, and the odds were stacked against them. Israelis, on the other hand, just needed to work to maintain what they had gained from the Palestinians, and they had a tendency to use peacemaking measures as a cover for maintaining these gains and perpetuating the oppression they nowadays continue.

Many walls are decorated by murals
memorialising people killed by the Israelis
Many Israelis are not conscious of this. Thus, international tours with an Israeli and a Palestinian speaker, which originally I was involved with organising, tended to be the Israeli starring with a fascinating Palestinian as a guest, generally raising the Israeli’s kudos since he was a peacemaker with the good grace to bring a Palestinian along, and since an enlightened Israeli is, in some ways, more of a wow-factor for Westerners than a Palestinian.

Many Israelis say to me, “Well, why don’t the Palestinians just accept their losses, forget the past and come to a deal with us? ”. Well, that sounds logical, but it’s shot with holes. It’s simple: Palestinians don’t forget the past for the same reason why the Israelis won’t forget the Holocaust. “But the Holocaust was far bigger a crime.” That might be so, but in no way does it excuse what Israelis have done to Palestinians and continue doing today – ethnic cleansing, stealing of land, demolition of Palestinian houses, bombing Gaza, arrests and the whole matrix of control they exert over Palestinians.

Here's the main street of the camp
“But they want their land back, when it was over sixty years ago they lost it, and this isn’t practical. They ought to drop the past.” The same applies to Jews trying to reclaim their possessions and properties in Germany, Poland and Switzerland, from before WW2. They are permitted to do it, and some have won substantial restitution, so the same right applies to Palestinians, whose losses are more recent, in some cases this year.

These Israeli views represent a sense of entitlement and self-referencing rightness which Israelis hardly notice they have. They just wish Palestinians would stop making such a fuss over what’s past and gone. But the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza are justified on an historical rationale – the West Bank occupation is justified by biblical and historical claims going back 2,000 years and more. There’s a massive hole in this kind of thinking.

In 1950 it started as tents, then huts by the late 1950s,
then, as people moved out, those who remained
built houses like these
Fact is, Palestinians mostly accept the loss of ‘1948 Palestine’ (the area that became ‘Israel proper’), but they do not accept the loss of the West Bank to the 1967 invasion and subsequent colonisation by Israel through settlement-building and the seizing of large and strategic tracts of land. Accepting the loss of ‘1948 Palestine’ involves accepting the loss of 78% of the Palestinians’ original land, nearly four-fifths. Understandably, Palestinians wish to go no further – they have swallowed too many hard facts already.

So the anti-normalisation campaign in Palestine seeks to stop relations between Palestinians and Israelis that fail to acknowledge the Nakba, the Disaster, the losses, deaths, evictions and tragedies of 1948, when the state of Israel was forcibly established. This massacre and ethnic cleansing was deliberate policy on the Israelis’ part. There are relations between Palestinians and Israelis who accept this and set out to oppose the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, but there are plenty that do not accept or acknowledge it.

Everywhere, kids
The problem here is that joint projects can look like nice reconciliatory ventures – two popular examples being Seeds of Peace and One Voice – yet they can cover up the real issues at stake, that the Israelis continue to make inroads into Palestinian land and rights, continuing to kill Palestinians, and that they have no sincere intention of pulling back or bringing any restitution. They want what they’ve got and more, but they deny the Palestinians what they want and need.

The fact that it is the Israelis who are in the position of graciously giving back what they have taken, while it is the Palestinians who are supplicants whose requests can easily be refused or skimped over, makes for an unequal relationship. Palestinians who fight for the rights of their people are terrorists and extremists, while Israelis who do the same serve the forces of law and order – whether it’s propaganda or reality, the relationship is unequal.

I spent a fine 15 minutes breaking the
language barrier with these sweet girls -
you can see the future in their faces
So the question of normalisation is fraught. The problem is that there are subtle distinctions involved. First, not all cross-border organisations and networks adopt a clear political platform. In many of them, the Israelis involved are a mixture of those with well-meaning intent who wish to make friends but do not intend to give anything back, except perhaps to keep the Palestinians quiet and please the international community, and there are those who stand against the occupation and want to do something about it. So banning connections when a mixed bag is the case can actually alienate some Israelis that many Palestinians want to keep on-side and build relationships with.

One person in the audience made a valid point. The projects that might be banned are sometimes a starting-place for many Israelis, many of who have never had anything to do with Palestinians. The first step here is for Israelis to realise that Palestinians are ordinary people with ordinary wishes, aspirations and concerns – not bogeymen, barbarians or cut-throats, as many Israelis have been indoctrinated to believe. Then, arising from this, some of those Israelis might go further to accept what Israel has done to Palestinians. So such projects that gloss over the occupation have their value.

It's quite an artform, this
martyr iconography
This is a fair point. But it is countered with the notion that such reconciliatory ventures can cover over the harder truths and people can build a habit, an institution, of not looking at awkward truths, incanting the above-mentioned statement of “Why don’t they stop fretting about the past?”. Also, why don’t such Israelis do something to meet up with their own Palestinians in Israel (so-called ‘Arab Israelis’, as if they are different from Palestinians)? These people constitute 20% of the population of the state of Israel, but they are in practice heavily discriminated against within that state. The anti-normalisation campaign says that Israelis should befriend Israeli Palestinians first, and correct the inequality in their own nation, before making friends with West Bankers. Another fair point.

This martyr looks like a decent chap.
Life ended prematurely. Only the locals cared.
I was down in Tel Aviv last week. I attended a meeting at The Hub, a meeting and working place for people involved in new start-ups – a major sector in the Israeli economy centred on Tel Aviv. The idea was to propagate the idea of starting a Hub in Palestine. The Palestinians attending the meeting were either Arab Israelis, somehow representing their brothers in the West Bank, or West Bankers who had had to have permits fixed so that they could visit Tel Aviv – a lengthy and insecure procedure where Israelis have to vouch for them (again, making the relationship unequal). It was a good meeting with potentially positive outcomes.

The main entrance to Deheisheh camp
from the main Hebron road
But I realised what was going on here. The Israelis present indeed were well-meaning, but there was a potential glitch – such a move would reactivate the old problem between Israelis and Palestinians, which is more of a problem for Palestinians than for Israelis. So I butted in to offer some help from Britain, from a more objective, detached partner. Such hub-building developments are going on in Britain, and the British foreign office offers grants to help such things. It would also help Palestinians by having expertise and encouragement coming from Britain rather than Israel – especially if conflict or polarisation flares up.

This was welcomed by the Palestinians and generally welcomed by the Israelis, though I think they might have felt I was stealing the show. But it highlights a point here: it’s not good enough for an Israeli simply to be well-meaning toward Palestinians. It’s important for Israelis to do something to undo the damage directly done by their country – damage being continued even today – and to recognise that the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza must end.

I tried to get the car moved but they couldn't
find the driver. Mustn't be an insistent foreigner,
expecting everyone to run around for me.
It’s important also for foreigners to recognise this and our part in it – and I am one of those who does. It’s not good enough to play nicey-nicey peace games and insist that everyone stops being nasty to each other. Fact is, in doing so, we cover Israel’s tracks, allowing it to continue with atrocities this very day, and we pressurise the Palestinians to shut up, swallow hard, accept all their losses and play someone else’s game of cover-up. Building peace isn’t about making peace in the first instance, it’s about the restitution of justice – and peace will follow that. Westerners need to understand this and stop using the peace card as a way of bashing Palestinians for legitimately digging in their heels.

In my own dealings with Israelis I have to be willing to lose some friends by presenting, in the best possible ways, some awkward truths. This is tricky, because in Israel there is an unspoken ethic that goes “We won’t talk about that – that’s just incitement – so let’s just talk peace”. In other words, though it’s never said, I’m being asked to shut up.

I agree with the basics of the anti-normalisation campaign. Though I have some reservations about the precise instances and issues involved. Sometimes, for example, I allow Israelis to get away with ‘not talking about it’ in order to soften them up before coming in with my awkward truths – but this tactic would be considered by some to be normalisation. Sometimes a little trickery is involved too, in order to get some information or fix something – just saying this would certainly make some of my Israeli friends distrust me. But it’s true that, for example, to come here to help the Palestinians, I must at times call on the support of Israeli friends in order to vouch for me, so that I can gain entry to the country.

It’s also true that I support peace-building, and the way to do that is to foster relationships over the (Israeli-built) separation wall. It’s true that the past should be forgotten – but the best way to do this is to perform some genuine restitution of the ills and insecurities that Palestinians still suffer from. For Palestinians to forget their past, Israelis should set an example by consigning the Holocaust to the past (since they still use it to justify their current actions, to maintain the Zionist ‘everyone is against the Jews’ mindset). 

The Holocaust should never be forgotten, neither the Nakba, and the rigid, unforgiving way that both are remembered definitely doesn’t help resolution now. However, nothing can now be done about the Holocaust (except definitely not repeating anything similar), but something can be done about the Nakba – that’s a big difference. Germany is still paying vast sums to Israel in restitution for the Holocaust, but Israel is avoiding restitution to Palestinians by allowing foreign countries and agencies to support and perform the necessary social duties an occupying power should carry out, protecting the welfare of its subjects, according to international law to which Israeli is signed up.

You've probably heard the term shebab, referring to
Somali terrorists. Well, it actually means 'the lads'.
Here they are, busy not sitting in front of computers.
Never do I feel in danger amongst youths here.
Something needs to happen here. This concerns not just the whingeing of Palestinians. It concerns the carrying out of international law and standards, as decided by the international community. Occupation and colonisation of others’ land is illegal – it should be returned. Oppression of an occupied people is illegal. An invading power has a legal responsibility to cater for people under occupation. This is the law. It should be adhered to, otherwise international law is empty.

There’s also something the Palestinians need to learn. They have tended in the past to say No to various ideas and decisions from the international community. Fair enough. But simply blocking something doesn’t necessarily help, because international forums can then get fed up, conclude that the Palestinians are just being reactive and obstreperous, and decide in favour of the other side. It’s too simple just to block things. It’s necessary to make positive statements and do good PR in order to get one’s point understood. So it’s necessary to go on the offensive with this. Instead of saying No, it is necessary to state positively what one will go along with, and to make it loud and clear, louder than the ‘No’. Even the concept of ‘anti-normalisation’ is negative: it’s a movement for justice and a lasting solution.

Thanks for letting us see Deheisheh, Puddy Tat.
So, the Palestinians need to look at their side of the equation too, and to learn from history. Here’s an example: after the Israelis’ thumping victory in the 1967 Six Day War, which started the occupation of the West Bank, the Arabs adopted the policy of ‘the Three Nos’ – no recognition of Israel, no peace and no negotiation. Well, fine. But the consequence was that the Arabs made no progress for twenty years because they posited their position negatively, in terms of ‘no’. They lapsed into the same idea Israel falls into, that of punishing the other side for its perceived wrongdoings. It gets nowhere. The challenge is thus to change the concept from ‘anti-normalisation’ to ‘steps to peace’. If these steps are followed, we will make peace – that’s a positive statement that gives diplomats and the other side something to get to grips with.

So the talk was interesting, and it applies to me personally. I’ll have to think about this. Life goes on. Meanwhile, I have nine days left in Palestine – I leave on 27th March.