An entire summer long the world has watched Syria and Egypt. With anarchy and conflict breaking out in both countries, events as the Syrian use of chemical weapons and the attack on Muslim Brotherhood supporters in an Egyptian Mosque are creating shocking headlines. Right in the middle of this stew, mostly uncovered by international media, the US is re-launching its peace talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian authority.
While regional turbulence definitely impacts life in the Palestinian Territories greatly, with for example the closing of the food tunnels between Gaza and Egypt cutting off 1.8 million people from a primary supply network. The largest challenge to the Palestinians remains the occupation. Despite 45 years of intense international intervention, the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is only becoming bleaker. Not only are arbitrary arrests still common place and are children often among the many victims of violence, but throughout Palestine there is a shared mood characterized by an almost entirely depleted sense of political hope. Inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza are constantly dealing with a weak economic condition, a bleak social outlook, a serious lack of jobs and extreme overpopulation.
Just after the United Nation’s decision to recognize Palestine as a ‘Non-Member Observer State’ – seen by the international community as a great victory – I was in Bethlehem. When asking around whether people had celebrated the UN’s decision as a victory, almost everyone replied a firm ‘no.’ Each person explained how they had not celebrated, because they did not believe a change in discourse would actually make a difference to their livelihoods. This subdued mood was in stark contrast to the celebrations that lined the streets after Mohammed Assaf from Gaza, secured his victory on Arab Idols.
But who can really blame this mood? Visitors to the West Bank city of Hebron can still admire the Arab market protected by a metal net, shielding walkers below from the papers, glass bottles, rocks and other trash thrown down by Israeli settlers above. Inhabitants of the West Bank working in East Jerusalem continue to enter and leave through checkpoints at the beginning and end of every working day. Moreover, Palestinian refugee camps which now resemble cramped together permanent structures dotted throughout the West Bank are bursting to the seams as families are swelling with the generations, but the camp territories are not expanding. In Gaza the Hamas led government figures more as a dictator of morality, while all educational, healthcare and food programs are provided mostly by organizations as the UN and Save the Children. General frustration is felt about the fact that international aid organizations are still taking care of basic needs in the worst areas, such as the West Bank’s refugee camps and the Gaza strip. Especially because these organizations are increasingly strapped for cash, suffering from global financial processes and a reorientation of donations to other neighbouring countries. There is furthermore a frustration with representatives of the international community who keep coming and going, whilst the communities themselves remain stuck.
But why are international organizations still necessary? While traveling round the West Bank I met a number of grassroots Palestinian organisations which possessed a high degree of competency and understood how to solve the problems they worked on like no one else could. These organisations led by Palestinians, are solving space and unemployment issues by creating agricultural farms on the roofs of refugee homes. Or are leading female empowerment programs not by teaching women their human rights, however by teaching women to read and helping them to teach their husbands about human rights. The territories do not need more involvement by international organisations, yet a clear plan out of the current liminal situation.
Palestinians are predominantly tired of international promises. Major symbols of international promises are the paintings on the wall of separation. The extent to which the wall has become a tourist industry in itself can be seen from the Banksy shops and café’s that line the wall, where visitors after writing a message of support can buy memorabilia from their trip. This issue became further illustrated to me during a trip with an International NGO to the village of Lode, an Arab village bordered by an Argentinian Jewish Kibbutz. The Kibbutz community had built their very own wall of separation, separating themselves and the Arab community. In an action of protest and empowerment the idea was to spray-paint murals of hope onto the wall of separation with a group of young people from the Arab side led by a French artist. Upon arrival however, the leader of the Arab community greeted our delegation and kindly informed us that they did not want images or messages on their wall. The Arab community wants absolutely to protect their wall from becoming a political statement reminding them of the occupation, after all it serves as much for their protection as for their marginalization.
On the other side of the wall, one of a limited number of occasions in Israeli public life when the chaos that surrounds Israel becomes tangible, is in the bus. Bus drivers tend to put any news on Syria or Egypt at full volume so that passengers can enjoy whilst riding to school, the supermarket or work. Public reaction in urban areas is quite limited and the main sentiment is that Israelis are basically tired of having war on their borders and tired of being under (potential) attack. This weariness can lead to two reactions: blind emotional panic or ambiguity. During the Gaza war, the people of Tel Aviv either tried to get as far North as possible or sat on the beach and enjoyed the sun. These two reactions do not only reign when war is looming or occurring, in general public opinion they also have popular support. Most discussions on why counting Arabs or Muslims (these two terms are of course not interchangeable) as your friends does not make you a terrorist, results often in either a complete denial of the discussion or a long anguished testimony. Even some of the most left winged Israelis, whilst campaigning for peace and coexistence still feel the threat of a world turned against them.
Again, and who can blame them? All policies of boycott and half-hearted efforts of punishment, as France and the UK’s promise to abandon relationships if Israel did not stop plans of building settlements (yet then did nothing of the sort), or the Dutch government’s proposal last year to ban the import of Jewish goods (again, then did nothing of the sort), have just reaffirmed over and over again the national myth that the world is out to get the Jewish state and that they are right in doing everything possible to protect it. Then when even scientists – not political scientists, diplomats or even people who have actually set foot in either Israel and/or the Palestinian Territories – as Steven Hawkins start making calls to boycott Israel, it does give the impression that it is perfectly normal to be point blank against the Israeli state. Sociological theory has been explaining for decades how a people under threat turn to the smallest group they can fully trust. Why then are we trying to make this group of people very isolated and fully reliant on a prime-minister like Netanyahu? Paradoxically, Israelis are perceived to feel safe. For despite the constant sense of threat, no entity, war or intimidation over the past half century has truly touched Israel. Basically the more challenges the world throws at Israel, the more self-reliant it becomes. Indeed Israel is now more focused on internal issues, as can be deduced from the previous elections in January 2013 where socio-economic issues dominated the political agenda. Of course the elections did follow the conveniently timed ‘Pillar of Defence’ Gaza war, ensuring that Netanyahu and Likud still came out top dog. Parties interested in supporting the Palestinian cause and ensuring their dignity as a society free from occupation need to gently push Israel out of defence mode and make them realize that they have things to gain from refusing to be occupiers any longer. Only then will negotiations start carrying real substance and not simply consist of decadent rounds of blaming and shaming.
The issue underlying the fortification of Israel’s greatest myth (‘the world is against us’) is exactly one of the reasons why the current peace process is nothing more than window dressing. The international community’s plan of action does not reflect what the actual situation is in Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. First of all because the Two State Plan is based on the situation as it was prior to 1967, thus 45 years ago. Should the plan be put into action, all settlers will forcibly be removed from their homes as occurred in Gaza in 2005, something the Israelis will not agree to. Moreover, this plan assumes that the Palestinian Territories are one unified whole, not split in two and ruled in the West by an Islamic government linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and in the East by a secular government led by Mahmoud Abbas. No learned lessons, research on current coexistence thinking from the region or original thought has been put into devising a new suggestion. What is more, the current peace talks are between two parties who are inherently unequal. Yet the peace talks’ process does not reflect this and the issue is not addressed before talks begin, leading to a power dynamic in Israel’s favour. Also the party with the least to gain and everything to lose. Key points that have been causing eternal struggling points since Arafat and Rabin made great leaps forward remain unaddressed and unchanged, if not even more exacerbated with the expansion of Jewish settlements into the West Bank every day. Indeed the willingness to engage with one another has all but completely diminished on both sides with every unsuccessful peace process. Ultimately within the new peace process, most Palestinians do not hold much hope that it will be the US who will lead them to peace. Although, most are aware that the US is their best option, both because of and despite of its strong connection to Israel. The talks seem inherently futile and I am fearful for the emotions and violence another failed and staged process will have for civilians of this never ending conflict.