After six intense weeks in the West Bank, I realised that if I am to have any authority in talking about the conflict when I come home then it would be necessary to visit Israel, and at least attempt to understand the mentality that would allow a “democratic” nation of people to willingly sit-by, or actively take part in, a covert ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from their land.
Nevertheless, I had some reservations about the trip before I left. The first reason was regarding the fact that Israel’s second biggest economy after its arms trade is tourism, and it would of course be almost impossible to boycott Israeli products when inside Israel itself. Secondly, most of the students I have spoken to at Birzeit are resolutely against discussion and co-operation with Israelis. After years of failed negotiations, promises made and broken to halt the settlement expansion, the death toll and restriction of movement ever increasing, it is entirely understandable why this would be the case.
Some of the students have been offered to attend so-called “peace camps” with Israeli and Palestinian students, where the idea is that young people meet on an “equal” level to discuss and debate the issues surrounding the conflict. However, this is not a conflict, it is an occupation. In spite of well-meaning intentions, many of these projects imply equity between Israelis and Palestinians in their responsibility for the conflict.
There is the insinuation that if only the Palestinians would just stop throwing rocks! If only the Israelis would just stop building settlements for a few weeks! Then the talking could begin; then peace would be just around the corner.
This dialogue disregards the fact that Palestinian civilians live without even the most basic human rights, under an occupying colonial force that has systematically denied them the right to exist. Only free men can negotiate, and these normalisation projects ignore the fact that the Palestinian people have limited power to enforce the outcomes of any discussion. The Palestinians are not going to accept being given their freedom, it must instead be taken.
Nevertheless, after discussing this issue with my Palestinian co-ordinator at ISM, he encouraged me that my own personal discussion with Israelis, from an international perspective, is something which is necessary and perhaps beneficial, if only to strengthen my own arguments.
When I arrived in Haifa, I innocently steered the conversation towards politics with the Israelis I was hanging out with, but many times the conversation was fairly quickly shut down. Many of the people were incredibly reluctant to discuss what I had been doing in Ramallah, with most not understanding why I’d want to be in Ramallah in the first place. Having done most of their army service in the West Bank, the idea that I would want to go there out of choice seemed fairly ridiculous to them.
It was not that they were rude – in fact completely to the contrary, the people I did engage in a discussion with were very measured, and not at all like the Israelis I had been trapped with on the plane. Instead, I spent the evening with a group of very intelligent and genuinely warm people, in many ways with similarly leftist politics to me. My host was incredibly well-read, spoke four languages including Arabic, and we stayed up until sunrise enjoying the beautiful view over Haifa, discussing philosophy, music, and stories from our travels.
However, there was a continued repetition that “we don’t discuss politics at parties”. Their reasoning was that they are tired of talking about a situation that they see as having no resolution, and this is not an entirely unfounded point when you understand the complexity of the situation here. Nevertheless, I had to compare this to the attitude to all of the Palestinians I have met, for whom politics is at the forefront of every action and every thought, the occupation seeping into every element of their lives.
There is no doubt that the Israelis live under a form of almost constant paranoia – whether real or imagined – about the threat to their security and the extinction of their people, and I realise that it is this narrative which allows many Israelis to sit by and let the occupation continue, providing them with a false sense of security that allows them to lead a life of relative normality.
In spite of the recent economic problems experienced by Israel, relative to Palestinians the Israelis have an economically comfortable existence, in a country that they can proudly and openly say is “theirs”, where their fundamental human rights are upheld – things which are of course completely denied to the Palestinians.
Israelis cannot forget what the price of this normality is to the Palestinian people, and I was surprised to see that these Israelis were happy to live in a bubble world where life on the other side of the wall was certainly not at the forefront of their minds. Israelis who say they want peace, but that it is currently unattainable, and who are willing to sacrifice Palestinian rights in the interim, are akin to those “white liberals” in the America of the 60s, who maintained that the time wasn’t right for civil rights for the Black minorities.
Why is that nobody would dare to suggest a limited, negotiated form of freedom for the suffragettes at the beginning of the 20th century, for the Black minority in 60s America and in apartheid South Africa, for women in 21st century Saudi Arabia, yet this kind of attitude seems to be so prevalent amongst people who claim that they are “pro-solution”? To think about the situation here from a “pro-solution” perspective is not to be neutral, it is to side with the powerful over the powerless, and conceding to the arguments of Israelis is incredibly detrimental in asserting the just Palestinian cause.
In the most inspiring examples of struggle for basic human rights, it has been popular movements which have won liberation for an oppressed people based on the strength of their arguments, not negotiations conducted on unequal grounds. It seems to be the case that for real change to come for the Palestinians a fairly seismic shift will have to happen in the region – and in world politics – but that does not mean the daily struggle will not continue here in the Occupied Territories.
Just as the revolutions of the Arab Spring have demonstrated, the vital element in any major progressive chances for change is the confidence of the people who are demanding that it can be done. The uprisings there were shaped by the fact that there were enough people prepared to take to the streets and make the effort necessary to bring it about. Whilst Israelis may say they want to peacefully co-exist, the Palestinians will first continue to demand and take back their very right to exist as a nation from their oppressors. The Palestinian struggle has come to symbolically define the struggles of people all over the world who live without justice, dignity and freedom, and the Palestinian people are inspiring in proving that their very daily act of defiant existence is a moving form of resistance in itself.