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West Bank Diaries (cont’d)

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Day 6: May 8, 2012

Started off with a gracious meeting at the Jordan Parliament with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—a self-selected group (all men) who spent about two hours with us giving their prognostications on the situation of the Middle East. All are cautious about the Arab Spring (although remember they are all friends of the King) and worry about the rise of Islamist states.

Their main point was that the Arab Spring is a wave, demanding human dignity and full citizenship rights, and that this tide will also affect Israel. Like all others from whom we heard, they believe that the window for a two-state solution—which they all favor––is short, and they do not see a negotiating partner in Israel.

We spent the afternoon in the West Bank looking at Jewish settlements—all illegal, according to Article 49 of the Geneva Accords. Hundreds of thousands of settlers now live in the West Bank, and settlements and their “outposts” have been placed to totally surround Arab villages, confiscating Arab lands in the process and creating an internal colony.

(A note: I know when we think of settlements, we often think of the American West, where whole towns have grown. In the West Bank, settlements vary. In some cases they are huge, with thousands of residents, and resemble the gated communities of southern California or Florida. But in other places, settlements are one building on a street in East Jerusalem, or some cases whole blocks, where one or two lone Palestinian families remain.)

Day 7: May 9, 2012

Today was Israeli official politics day. We started off at the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) with a series of meetings with a variety of representatives of various parties—Labor, Meretz (the socialist party) and Kadima, which is a center-left (more center than left) break-away from Labor. It is a very tumultuous time for the Knesset. Last week, Netanyahu declared that the Knesset would be dissolved and that elections for a new parliament would be held in September. Then, on Monday night, Kadima’s leader made a radical u-turn and decided to join the Likud (Netanyahu) coalition, giving Netanyahu a 94-vote majority—if the deal holds of course…

And there are reasons why it wouldn’t hold. Kadima, while not a strong party, represents the faction that in theory wants to freeze the settlements and pursue the peace process. Likud has shown little inclination to do so. There is much speculation among all about what will happen. All say they are committed to a two-state solution, and that there isn’t much time, but all doubt the political will of Netanyahu.

Day 8: May 10, 2012

We started our day off at Hebron, a large town in the Judean mountains. We were brought to Hebron by a group called Encounter, a Jewish organization that tries to expose Israelis, American Jews and others to the realities of life in the West Bank, without commentary. Most of the Encounter members are rabbinical students, and quite lovely.

Some context: In 1929, during the Arab uprising against the British, 67 Jews in Hebron were killed by Palestinians (many, many more were sheltered and protected by their Palestinian neighbors). After that, Jews left Hebron, not to return until 1968 when they began to settle in an area just outside of the Old City’s downtown. The settlement they established grew into Kiryat Arba, which now has 7,500 residents. In 1979, a group of Hasidic families occupied an old, empty hospital in the Old City itself, creating another settlement.

After a 1994 shooting in which a settler killed 29 Palestinians (and injured dozens more), the government decided that Jews and Palestinians needed to be separated, and the barricading and death of the old Palestinian city began. Today, as you walk around the half-deserted streets of the Old City in which Palestinians still live and try to have shops, you see shuttered stores, their façades often graffitied with the Star of David.

Most disturbing is Shashuda Street, once a central street in the Palestinian community, where the vegetable and meat market once stood. The remaining Palestinians’ homes are like hen’s teeth on the first blocks of the street, squeezed among the new settlements. Many Palestinians now put screening over their interior courtyards and over their stores to protect them from the feces and trash thrown down by settlers from their higher homes.

The next block is almost fully occupied by Israelis, and Palestinians are prohibited from driving on the street. Many are not allowed to exit their homes onto the street; rather, they must exit via the roof or an adjacent apartment onto the “Palestinian street” on the other side of the block.

Day 9: May 11, 2012

From the surreal experience of Hebron we went off to Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), to meet with Salam Fayyad, the PA’s prime minister. Ramallah is a bustling, modern city, with cranes dotting the skyline and the same type of buildings that you see in Jerusalem. Israelis are not allowed to visit Ramallah or any other place in the West Bank designated an “Area A” without a special permit.

Fayyad, who got his degrees at the University of Texas at Austin, is responsible for the administration of the West Bank, while President Mahmoud Abbas is the political leader. A small, fairly quiet and compact man, he was engaged and engaging. He says that they are fully committed to a two-state solution, but feels a growing sense of despair due to the lack of response by the Israelis to the Arab Peace Initiative and the refusal of Israel to halt or freeze the settlements, which, if they continue, will make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible.

He talked with pride about the growth of Ramallah’s and the West Bank’s economy and the reduction of violence. But he fears that the delays in the peace process, the jailing of hundreds of Palestinians, the sense of hopelessness, the confiscation of Palestinian homes and lands, and the settler violence against Palestinians will once again lead to violence.

As for him, he is engaged in “constructive defiance.” For example, after the IDF bulldozed a road the Palestinian Authority had built in the West Bank to connect two villages, the PA rebuilt the road. After the IDF again bulldozed the road, the PA rebuilt it a third time, and for now, the road still stands.

Day 10: May 12, 2012

Lunch in Ramallah was hosted by the emerging young business and political leaders of Palestine. Among them were investment bankers, youth leaders and a number of entrepreneurs. All came back to Palestine—from Harvard, MIT, Stanford and the like—to nation-build, and all are frustrated, some only with the U.S., and others with the PLO and the Abbas leadership as well. They speak of the degradation of being stopped at checkpoints on their way to business meetings in Israel (despite their permits). They speak about supplies and goods being held up by the Israelis for months at a time, and the impossibility of generating a real economy, as Israel controls the timing and the content of all imports and exports. While all believe in a two-state solution, they are really beyond that. Their demand, very simply, is that the occupation—it’s walls, its rules—be ended now.

The day ended with a trip to Neve Shalom, a community on a hilltop above the lush and fertile valley between the mountains and Tel Aviv, the green belt of Israel. Established more than 30 years ago, Neve Shalom is a “model village” where an equal number of Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews have created a community committed to providing a model of integrated living. We joined members of the Sulha Peace Project for an evening of “encounter” between Palestinians and Israelis. Founded by Palestinian and Jewish leaders, the organization regularly brings together Palestinians and Jews for song, talk and sharing. Not exactly my cup of tea, yet I was moved and impressed nevertheless with this people-to-people grassroots attempt to envision a new way of being.

In the end, though, it isn’t enough. The two groups may break bread and sing together tonight, but their ability to even come together at all is dependent on the benevolence of more gracious occupiers who give out “get out of jail for a day” cards to the occupied. And at the end of the day, the occupied go back to their cages.

Marilyn Katz is a writer, consultant and long-time political activist. She is president of MK Communications, a partner in Democracy Partners and a founder and co-chair of the newly formed Chicago Women Take Action.

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