From “Revisiting Solidarity”

In March 2013, I visited Palestine for the first time. It was also the first time I saw the face of occupation close–up. I had been prepared for much of what I saw by readings, lectures, films and discussions; all of it still shocked me.

While I was in Ramallah, US President Barack Obama made a trip to Israel as well as a fleeting visit to the occupied Palestinian territories. In the fifty hours he spent in Israel, Obama is reported to have discussed Iran, Syria, and the other usual item, the “peace process”, with Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. The visit was also to “recalibrate” Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu, and “connect with the Israeli people”. To this end, Obama’s public engagements included inspecting an installation of Iron Dome, the US-funded missile defence system which the Israelis tested during their offensive against Gaza in November 2012; and telling Israeli youth in Jerusalem that “I believe your future is bound to ours.” (Obama was heckled at this point, but dealt with it suavely.)

Obama also laid a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, considered the father of Zionism.  In 1895, Herzl wrote in his diary: “We must expropriate gently the private property on the state assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our country.” Herzl anticipated that these colonising tactics to create a Jewish State would “temporarily alienate civilised opinion”, and that “at first… people will avoid us” because “we are in bad odour.” But it would all be worth it: “By the time of reshaping of world opinion in our favour has been completed, we shall be firmly established in our country, no longer fearing the influx of foreigners, and receiving our visitors with aristocratic benevolence and proud amicability.”

The White House was careful to announce that the trip was mostly a “listening exercise”. Of course it didn’t need to add whose voices Obama would hear, or whose voices would remain unheard, well beyond security lines. The official poster and the unofficial T-shirts I saw in Jerusalem a few days before Obama’s visit summed it up nicely. The white poster on the roads said, simply, Unbreakable Alliance. In the market in Old Jerusalem, in a shop not far from where two armed Israeli soldiers leaned against the sign Via Dolorosa without self consciousness, the T-shirts on sale said Don’t worry, America, Israel is behind you.

With Israel behind him, Obama travelled to Ramallah to meet the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the prime minister, Salaam Fayyad. Obama made the 11-kilometre journey by helicopter. He didn’t have to go through the Qalandia checkpoint like the rest of us, past boys and girls playing soldiers with loaded guns, or a forbidding red sign that warns Israelis how dangerous it is to enter this area. But Obama may have seen, if he looked down to admire the view, the map of settlements spreading like amoebae; on hilltops, rooftops. He may have seen the smooth grey criss-crossing rivers of settlers-only roads and military roads. It would have been difficult, unless he decided not to look down at all, to miss seeing the “separation barrier”, the wall that snakes its relentless way through the land.

The day Obama took that helicopter to Ramallah, I was supposed to go to Haifa. The plan was to see one bit of ‘48 – the Palestine that Israel took over during the Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948. But the roads closed in Ramallah and Jerusalem; the checkpoints were on high alert; my visit to Haifa was cancelled.

I walked around Ramallah, uphill, downhill. One poster said: “Obama, don’t bring your smart phone to Ramallah. We have no 3G.” The police whizzed past in trucks and vans. White plates: Palestinian police. The Palestinian Authority had announced that 3,000 police officers were on duty in the city alongside US security personnel. Text messages and emails had been flying back and forth for the last few days on where and when protests were to be held. Inevitably, scuffles had broken out between protesters and police near the Muqata, the presidential compound in Ramallah where the meeting was to take place. And inevitably, many of the banners in the rally I saw bore a prominent key: the key to return, the right of Palestinian people to return home.

As the day wore on, Barack Obama and Mahmoud Abbas stood stiffly next to each other on television screens. Unlike the official images of the day before in Israel — though the word is that there is no “personal warmth” between Obama and Netanyahu — the Ramallah meeting showed the leaders cold and unsmiling. What they said officially, said little about the misery and hope of real people. Perhaps leaders get used to talking about the people they speak for in people-less terms. But the Palestinians were not missing. Despite the official cacophony of speeches, the barricaded and gun-toting security, I had no trouble seeing the people who become phantoms in official meetings. I had already seen them in stubborn flesh and blood in the days leading up to Obama’s visit. I had been to Jerusalem, Nablus, Bethlehem, Hebron; and several villages on the road between Ramallah and Nablus, and the road between Bethlehem and Hebron. I had seen what people wrote and drew on the illegal wall Israel has built through their land and lives. I had heard what those I met had to say.

In Hebron, for instance, people’s everyday lives revealed what settlements, and breaking the commercial heart of a city, can do.

A group of young activists took me into the old Hebron market. Above a shop, no longer open, we went up a steep flight of stairs. Children hung about as if it was a playground, not a dimly lit stairwell with dank air. In the terrace I saw how close the rooftops are; it is easy to walk from one to the other, harass Palestinians who continue to live in the old market area. It is, the Palestinian girl with me said, like living in the lap of your tormentors. The terrace had a water tank; I was shown the holes, told they were made by the settler family just above. I looked up; the settler- apartment’s curtains were drawn. I looked down and saw another settler’s “backyard”: a young man, two women, two children pottering about, a banal picture of normalcy. Then they looked up and our eyes met for a blank moment or two.

Settlements in Hebron have had a particularly painful history. The supposed theological significance of the place has attracted settlers motivated by no less than the determination to “reclaim their heritage from Biblical times”. Such a process has meant severe restrictions on the life of Palestinians in Hebron. Their movements and business activities are curtailed; they are subject to curfews; and they suffer all manner of harassment from settlers every day. Both restrictions and harassment are explained away as “security” for settlers and settler areas.

Not surprisingly, Hebron has served as a haven for fundamentalist Jewish groups, including the Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful) and the Kach movement, to build “the single most successful extra-parliamentary movement in the country’s history”. “Extra-parliamentary”: those who see their action as part of an unfolding cosmic drama do not necessarily recognise the government’s or the military’s or the law’s right to interfere with their mission. Perhaps the massacre in the Ibrahimi mosque, a place significant to more than one faith, illustrates best the power of the ideology these fundamentalist groups and settlers live by.

On February 25, 1994, Baruch Goldstein, an American settler in Kiryat Arba near Hebron and a military doctor, put on his army uniform, and went to the centre of Hebron. There, in the Ibrahimi mosque, he began to shoot; the room was full of people at their Ramzan prayers. Though official reaction was to describe him as deranged, his action was subsequently transformed by apparently sane people, including those very much in the establishment, into a justifiable, even heroic act. After the funeral the army provided a guard of honour for Goldstein’s tomb. The rabbi who spoke at Goldstein’s funeral, Yaacov Perrin, was not generally reviled for saying “One million Arabs are not worth one Jewish fingernail.” Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba declared that Goldstein was “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust”.  When asked whether he felt sorry about the massacre, Rabbi Levinger, a Gush Emunim leader, replied: “I am sorry not only about dead Arabs but also about dead flies.”

These spontaneous reactions “illustrated the influence, even beyond the messianic community, of an ideology that approved indiscriminate killing of Gentiles by Jews… The tomb became a pilgrimage site, not only for the religious settlers but also for delegations of pious Jews from all Israeli cities.” Though the Israeli army finally bulldozed the shrine and prayer area set up near Goldstein’s grave, radical Jewish settlers continued to celebrate the anniversary of the massacre in the West Bank, sometimes even dressing themselves or their children to look like Goldstein.

The point is that these armed, aggressive settlers, and the Jewish fundamentalist groups, are not “deranged”. Nor are they on the fringes of power. They have grown strong enough to be allies in coalition governments. They have grown strong enough to raise worries about outright conflict in the future between government/ law/ state on the one hand and settlers on the other; or between “secular Jews” and “fundamentalist Jews”. Meanwhile, they have provided a model to be used elsewhere in the occupied territories.

Hebron, with its commercial history – Palestinian friends told me jokes about how “hard-headed” Hebronites are – has had its market broken. There is the shameful netting above the market, on which the settlers above throw all kinds of garbage. A good number of the shops are sealed shut. The deeper you go into the market, the more bleak it grows. The recurrent theme in the graffiti on the market walls is Open Shuhada Street!

Shuhada Street is the main commercial thoroughfare of Hebron; and Palestinians are barred from using it. Muneer, a shopkeeper who is determined to try and open his shop every day, told me that since 2000, business is practically non-existent; and for family or friends to visit him, he has to get permission from the border security policemen manning entry to Shuhada Street. The area looks like a ghost town; the young woman who took me there hesitantly confided that drugs and sex for sale are also used to make the area “unlivable” for Palestinian families.

With the 1997 Hebron Agreement that followed the 1995 Oslo Accords, Hebron was split into H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, controlled by Israel. The Palestinians in H2, along with the Israeli settlers, are under Israeli military control. This means Palestinians can approach areas where settlers live only with special permits from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF); Palestinians have to live with the threat of damage to their property; and worse, physical violence from settlers, or indiscriminate firing by the Israeli border police and the IDF.

One former IDF soldier with experience in policing Hebron, testified that a sign on the briefing wall of his unit reminded them of their aim: “To disrupt the routine of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood.” And the perception of Palestinian residents of H2 Hebron is that violence has increased after the Oslo Accords.  Muneer the shopkeeper said to me with great dignity: “All I can do is try and open my shop every day. You, and others like you, must tell the world what is happening here. So many journalists and delegations come here, but…” – he sighed and fell silent.

The activist from the Stop The Wall group who drove me back from Hebron to Ramallah summed it up: “It’s the old divide and rule colonial policy. The occupied are all hit, but in different ways so their day-to-day concerns are different. You want to hit commerce, you hit Hebron Market; you want to hit religion, hit Jerusalem; you want to hit agriculture, take away farmers’ land with roads, fences and walls.”

Note: This extract does not include the footnotes in the essay as in the book.