Sipping Lattes on the Edge of a Volcano
What do Palestinians, human rights workers, progressive Israelis and Israeli settlers have to say about daily life in an occupied land?
The international news coverage of the Israeli-Palestine conflicts often dwells on the disputes among diplomats or dramatic actions in the street. What’s missing, however, are the realities residents face as they go about their daily lives. Even as the United States-prompted negotiations between the country’s leaders grow uncertain in the face of an April 29 deadline, those in the region — including human rights workers, elected officials, intellectuals and government workers — don’t anticipate that the personal consequences of occupation will diminish anytime soon. In the second part of a two-part series, here are the voices of varied groups of Palestinians and Israelis with whom I spoke last fall, as they share their experiences of occupation and how they think it will end.
The human rights workers
Robert (not his real name) is a European who moved to Ramallah, Palestine six years ago to work with Military Court Watch, a legal aid group that advocates for Palestinians subject to the dual court system Israel has imposed in the West Bank.
Whereas Israelis — whether they live in Jerusalem or in the West Bank — are usually tried by civil courts, Palestinians accused of a crime will most often face the Israeli military courts that have jurisdiction in the two-thirds of the West Bank under Israeli control.
Robert’s work primarily focuses on youth — including the 500 to 700 young people, some as young as 12, who are prosecuted by the military courts each year. More than 99 percent of those cases end in conviction. He finds the work compelling, he says, because “for me, the court system provides the clearest case for ending occupation.”
“When a fight breaks out between children in Israeli settlements and Arab villages,” Robert says, “a summons is issued by the police, and the Israeli child is told to report with his parents to the civil authority [the police station]. He is read his rights, has a lawyer and proceeds to court.”
But that isn’t the case, he explains, for Palestinian children. After such an altercation, he says, “There is a raid on the [Palestininan] family home in the middle of the night, during which the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) take the child away to a military encampment and interrogate him, without his parents or a lawyer.”
Robert says that with this system in place, it is no surprise that 800,000 Palestinian men, women and children have been prosecuted in Israeli military courts since 1967. A large percentage of male Palestinians, he continues, will have spent some of their lives in jail, usually as a result of relatively minor crimes.
Ending occupation, Robert feels, is the key to combating this distorted court system. He doubts, however, that the current talks will yield a solution.
“Everyone put faith in the Oslo Accords [finalized in 1993], believing that there would be an independent Palestinian state in three years,” he points out. Instead, he says, “The Accords have been used by the Israelis to justify and expand occupation for the past 20 years.”
Robert and other rights activists believe that any agreement made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would only be one that prolonged occupation, thereby continuing to enable expanded settlements or the dual court system.
When I asked what the solution to occupation would be, he says, “We’ll just have to wait for a new generation.”
Sam, the Palestinian-American immigrant
Sam is an American: the son of a Palestinian who immigrated to the United States in the 1950s and a Lebanese-American mother. In 1993, he married a Palestinian woman and moved to the West Bank, determined to help build the economy of the nation that he believed would soon emerge from the Oslo Accords.
He settled in his family’s century-old home in Al-Bireh, had three children, built a $100 million telecommunications firm, and earned an MBA from a joint Tel Aviv/Northwestern University program. The one thing he didn’t have was the residency permit that would allow him to live in the West Bank permanently.
His American passport allowed him to travel freely in Israel and the West Bank, to see friends and conduct business. Every three months, he would leave the West Bank to have the visa he needed renewed.
All went well until 2006, when he was issued a visa that read “Last permit” in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Sam learned that had three choices: leave for good, live in Israel illegally (risking deportation and a permanent ban), or fight for the permanent residence status he had first applied for in 1993. He chose the latter course.
After months of work and with help from Israeli friends, he prevailed. However, Sam explains, “When I went to the IDF to claim my residency card, I brought my American passport as required. When the IDF returned my passport, it had a new stamp: NOT VALID IN ISRAEL.”
“Overnight,” Sam continues, “I lost the rights that all other Americans enjoy in Israel. I could no longer drive my Israeli-registered car in the country, nor on any of the special Israeli roads in the West Bank.”
In fact, Sam could also no longer enter Israel without a permit. And like most Palestinians, he could only get a short-term permit — in his case, one that lasted only a day. With the added travel times and uncertainty about even attaining a permit¬ in the first place, this made conducting business meetings a major feat.
Eventually, he learned from friends that it was possible to get a three-month permit. “But says Sam, “When I applied … I was told my residency card and passport were not sufficient ID. Instead I needed a different, ‘magnetic ID.’”
Sam obtained the magnetic ID — essentially a magnetized version of his residency card — and applied again. “Unbelievably, the same officers rejected my application again,” he says. “They told me I also needed a ‘businessman’s ID’: not my business card, but a special ID that only they issued.”
This too, he obtained; armed with his residency ID, his magnetic ID and his businessman’s ID, he applied for a three-month permit yet again. As far as I know, he is still waiting.
In the meantime, to go to his home in America or to a speaking engagement in Europe, Sam cannot drive the 45 minutes to the Tel Aviv airport. Rather, he says, like all Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens, he must travel to Amman, Jordan — adding a day to his trip each way.
Occupation’s influence doesn’t just emerge through the walls erected throughout the West Bank or the armed forces of the IDF; it’s also reflected in the scores of banal rules and regulations that control, constrict and distort the lives of the people and the economy of Palestine each day.
The Palestinian girlfriends
The East Jerusalem restaurant in which I meet a group of mostly Israeli-Palestinian women is packed — but only with Israeli-Arabs. East Jerusalem is predominantly Muslim and Christian; Jews, I am told, don’t come to the restaurant, despite it being only a 10-minute walk from my West Jerusalem hotel.
It is an interesting group. Three are Christian Israeli citizens; one is a German immigrant married to a Palestinian man with Israeli citizenship. All are well educated, have spent time abroad and have more independence than most Palestinians. Sarah, whose real name I am not using, is a renowned intellectual who founded and leads a women’s counseling and policy center; she is also a leader in joint Israeli-Palestinian women’s efforts for peace and the end of occupation. Sylvia, whose real name I am also not using, and Anna both work for international human rights organizations.
Despite their relative freedom, they tell me, all of them experience the small hardships as well as the outright horrors of occupation every day. Sarah’s family has lost its home twice to the Israeli government — one confiscated in 1948, the second in 1967. The family of another woman, Nadine, owned a famous butcher shop in Jerusalem. They, too, lost their home. However, as her father was the only supplier of pork in the city, she says, they were eventually able to regain it.
Stories like these, the women say, are far from uncommon. “Life for us,” Sarah says, “is an endless round of dealing with the Kafkaesque system of rules and barriers that the Israelis have created.”
“If you want to build onto your home, you must spend months dealing with the bureaucracy,” she continues, “and usually you are turned down.”
Nadine, meanwhile, talks about the road restrictions that prohibit Palestinians from using the main roads of the West Bank, which can turn 10-minute trips between villages into hour-long treks.
All agree that even traveling out of the country is a nightmare. Even the women with passports, they say, frequently endure detentions and searches at airports, which can cause humiliation as well as missed planes and appointments.
And they scoff at the idea that these strictures are for security. “These rules don’t make anyone safer,” Sarah argues. “The restrictions and regulations have only one purpose: to wear people down and to encourage us to leave the country.” For these women, as with Sam the human rights worker, it is the very banality of the system that makes it so pernicious.
Yet the situations the women describe, as frequently as they may occur for Palestinians, are rarely covered in global media. “The international press is good at writing about the bigger problems,” Sarah says, “But little is written about the indignities every Palestinian — Israeli citizen or not — faces.”
Nadine agrees, “While the media covers the incarceration of children for throwing stones, the gassing of peaceful demonstrators, and land seizures in villages — occupation affects us all.”
Asked about the negotiations, they, like Sam, are cynical. “The only Palestinian state that Netanyahu has in mind,” says Nadine, “is a Swiss cheese-looking state of ‘connected’ villages and cities, surrounded by settlements and totally within the confines of Israel with no external borders.”
Only strong outside pressure would make an acceptable proposal emerge, they suspect — but they doubt the United States has the will or the power to make that happen.
The Palestinian officials
One night, a group of Palestinian leaders makes the time to share their perspective on the talks with our delegation. More than one says the last decade of diplomacy has been the worst one, in which the Palestinian cabinet maintained every commitment while the Israelis broke each of theirs.
One talks about the expanding settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where, he says, Israeli flags fly “as a statement and a dare.” Another speaks of the travesty of Israel’s claim that it has helped build Palestine’s economy. How, he asks, can anyone believe that, when Israel has defied the Oslo Peace Accords by keeping Area C, which contains much of the West Bank’s water, agricultural and mineral resources, fully under Israeli control.
According to many of these officials, all obstacles to a two-state solution lie on the Israeli side. They consider the issues Netanyahu raises, such as his demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” or the refusal to grant Palestinian refugees a “right of return,” to be delaying tactics in order to allow for more settlements. This, they fear, will prevent the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state.
However, they also think Netanyahu isn’t thinking in the long term. He’s blind, they say, to the growing European and American frustration with Israel and to the possibility of another Arab Spring changing the political face of the Middle East, thereby catalyzing the demand for democracy everywhere.
The progressive Israelis
As a longtime progressive leader and former Meretz MP, Naomi Chazan is a fixture of the progressive movement and a constant advocate for women, peace and democracy. As such, she and her work have been a frequent right-wing target, but she remains unbowed.
Commenting on the current round of Israeli-Palestinian talks, Chazan harbors little hope.
“On the one hand,” says Chazan, “there is no question that a ‘final status agreement’… could be achieved.” This, she says, would act in contrast to what she calls an “agreement to agree” by both sides, which presumably would achieve little real progress.
Surprisingly, though, Chazan says that she thinks the cynicism she and others express is a good thing. “The euphoria and hope surrounding Oslo and other rounds of talks turned to bitterness and anger when the negotiations yielded no results,” she says. Today’s public skepticism, she says, is actually a “sign of progress.”
That night, I spend the evening with a young leader of the peace movement in Israel. She enthusiastically talks about progressive Israelis’ hope — thanks in large part to U.S.-based advocacy groups like J Street—that Jews in the United States might help work for a two-state solution.
However, beyond that optimism, she says, there is a sense of growing unease and discontent among Israelis as a whole. She cautions, “Whether that unease leads to the growth of the Left, towards peace and justice, or to the growth of the Right … will depend on the ability of the existing parties — or a new party — to excite, empower and provide [my] peers with a viable, believable path to a better future as a nation of, rather than simply in, the Middle East.”
A few days later, our delegation meets with a broad range of progressive politicians, pundits, former security advisors and university professors. And in spite of their varied backgrounds, I am struck by the homogeneity of their arguments.
Many are skeptical about the progress of the negotiations — and they agree with Palestinian leadership that the barrier to peace resides predominantly on the Israeli side. They rue the government’s use of security as a pretext for settlement expansion as it takes mountaintops in the West Bank as Israel’s own for “strongholds” and expands the line of the “security fence” into Palestinian lands beyond 1967 borders, encircling Palestinian holdings with Israeli land.
Some say that even as public polls show that the Israel people would support a peace agreement, the Israeli government has moved right, empowering the settler movement and increasing its requirements for Palestinians.
While most feel Netanyahu and the right wing want negotiations to fail, they also stress that Israelis are fools if they think the status quo will hold. Israel, they say, is already a bi-national state, with one group’s lives constrained by lack of citizenship or access to resources. They argue, just like the Palestinian-Israeli women of a few nights prior, that if there is forward movement, it will be due to outside pressure. Israel, they say, is unable to save itself.
We travel to Ariel, a massive settlement of 18,000 on the West Bank predominantly populated by Russian immigrants lured there by generous Israeli government subsidies and grants. Here we meet with Dani Dayan, an Argentinian immigrant who has become a vocal advocate for the settler movement in the international press.
To our generally pro-two-state delegation, he delivers a 90-minute soliloquy about why a two-state solution is not warranted and why Israel deserves to control all land from the Jordan to the Mediterranean.
Dayan’s recounting of history is certainly unique. According to him, only Jews have any historic claims to the land. In his view, a two-state solution is neither possible nor desirable. When asked if he therefore favors a unified state, he says, “of course not.” His reasoning is that Jews won the 1967 war morally — against the totally unjustified quest of the Palestinians, the Jordanians and the Egyptians to “annihilate Israel”— and thus the territory is theirs.
As I sit on the tarmac in Tel Aviv in November of 2013 waiting to go home, the plane delayed so that Secretary Kerry’s plane could take off, I reflect on the places, events and people I’ve encountered throughout the week.
Kerry has been blunt in recent weeks about his impatience with the stagnant peace talks (he traveled to the Middle East twice in March to try to break the impasse, without success). But even in the fall, the Secretary of State ended his trip venting frustration about Israeli behavior, upset that in the middle of negotiations, the Israelis announced their intention to expand the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, I end my trip thinking about the pathway to peace in the region.
Actually, “peace” is a rather strange word to use. For Israelis, peace has pretty much been at hand for quite some time. Despite high prices and housing shortages, life for most Israelis is good. The average income is $32,000, and the construction cranes rising along the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem speak volumes about a robust and expanding economy. Israeli citizens have a national healthcare system and generous funding for higher education (in exchange for extended military service).
Meanwhile, in the occupied territories, the majority of land and resources are controlled by Israel. It is here that youth aged 15 – 29 make up 30 percent of the Palestinian population and face unemployment as high as 36 percent.
Due to these disparate realities, many Israelis understandably feel no urgency to the situation, though an increasing number of progressives are advocating for a shift in the status quo. Yet it is clear that ending occupation is essential for building a nation for Palestinians, for fostering Israeli democracy, and for preventing an escalation of hostility in the region. Astute observers on both sides agree that the situation is a time bomb — and dangerous for Israelis, who, as Gershom Gorenberg, a journalist for The American Prospect, put it to our delegation, “sit sipping lattes on the edge of a volcano.”
This is part II of a two-part series. Read part I, “Two Decades After Oslo, A Look at Life in Israel and Palestine,” here.