A civil way out of the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire

 
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By Khaled Diab

How do you end the Israeli occupation without ending the occupation? Through a struggle for equal civil rights for Jews and Arabs.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 24 November 2014

How do you annex territory without actually annexing it? How do you acquire the land without the people?

This is the dilemma with which the settler movement and its friends in successive Israeli governments have been grappling for years.

The latest move in this regard was when Israel’s Ministerial Committee voted overwhelmingly in favour of a draft bill to apply Israeli law in the settlements – only two ministers voted against the initiative: Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

Although many Israeli commentators do not expect this bill to make it into legislation, what this overlooks is that Israeli legislation already applies in the settlements, though some more recent laws have not yet been turned into military regulations. The draft bill simply sets a 45-day deadline for this process.

In addition, though the settlements are formally under the military’s jurisdiction, the settlers themselves are effectively under the jurisdiction of Israel’s civilian courts, vote in Israeli elections, pay taxes to the Israeli treasury, etc. Meanwhile, their Palestinian neighbours who live in what is known as Area C live under martial law and their loves are governed by the army’s Civil Administration.

Despite the fact that a huge proportion of Israeli voters are opposed to annexing the West Bank, those behind the draft bill make no secret that it is part of their blueprint for creeping annexation.

“We came to the Land to apply Israeli sovereignty over it and to establish, within it, a Jewish state in its entire territory, gradually,” explained Knesset member Orit Strock of Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), the author of the draft bill, in a recent interview.

As part of this gradual process to win over a reluctant Israeli public and create facts on the ground to overcome international objections, Strock and her allies have 10 pieces of draft legislation in their arsenal which they are waiting for the right moment to unleash.

And her ambitions extend beyond Israeli settlements to the main Palestinian population centres of the West Bank. “History is always evolving and we are not giving up these areas, but rather, progressing and ascending one more step,” Strock maintained.

Unsurprisingly, the cabinet vote has stirred up protest and opposition in Palestinian circles. “This creates a political context where these settlements become a part of Israel,” slammed veteran Palestinian politician Nabil Shaath. “They are stealing the land, water, materials, and all natural resources in the West Bank.”

Sadly, however, Palestinian condemnations and protestations are unlikely to change the reality on the ground. In light of this, perhaps the time has arrived for Palestinians and their sympathisers in Israel to try another approach.

Instead of futilely seeking to stop the application of Israeli law in the settlements, Palestinians should demand that civil law is extended to cover them too. This will inevitably be regarded as a setback by Palestinians, who are seeking greater national sovereignty, not less. But the reality is that there is next to no chance that these national aspirations can or will be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. Under such circumstances, priority must shift to human well-being.

So doing would protect Palestinians against the iron fist of military rule, shielding them from arbitrary arrests, evictions and home demolitions. The application of Israeli law would also enable them to move freely within the West Bank, accessing those roads which are currently for Israelis only, and challenge the unfair military permit system which bars them from entering Jerusalem and Israel.

Gazans, who still effectively live under Israeli occupation, could also embark on a similar process. This may sound outlandish, especially to Israelis, but prior to the Oslo accords, Gaza and the West Bank were administered in the same way.  And since the peace process died years ago and even the life-support system to which it was hooked up has now given up the ghost too, it’s time to drop this masquerade and self-deception and abandon Oslo for a civil-rights platform.

In addition, the Palestinians of the West Bank should demand the right to live in the settlements, like some Jerusalemites already do in settlements which allow it, such as Pisgat Ze’ev, despite discrimination and local efforts to block them. Under such circumstances, the Palestinian urban areas, known as Area A, should also be opened up to Israeli Jews to be able to live there.

Such a campaign – which can be conducted on the streets, in the Israeli courts and even in the Knesset – could act as the first step in a full-scale civil rights struggle, which would eventually include full Israeli citizenship for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. This is bound to cause jitters in Israel, where people will interpret it as the death knell of the Jewish state, while many Palestinians are averse to the idea of becoming Israelis.

However, this should not be the case. To my mind, this is a pragmatic and necessary interim step to prevent disaster turning into catastrophe.  I call this the ‘non-state solution’ – which I outline in my new book, Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land – for a reason: because it is an interim solution that does not pre-suppose the final outcome of future peace efforts, and leaves the possibility open for a two-state or a binational-state model.

However, instead of questions of state and statehood, it focuses, for the time being, on the far more urgent matter of the state of the people. The situation today has become untenable, mainly for Palestinians but also for Israelis.

Palestinians live in marginalisation, fear and under severe and inhumane military restrictions which impinge on their freedom, safety, economic well-being and dignity. As the prospect of political violence grows, Israelis are living in greater insecurity, not to mention the high burden of the occupation, not only on citizens’ economic well-being, but also on the untold thousands of young people forced to police it.

Focusing on inclusive civil rights rather than national aspirations and divisive nationalism, is, for the foreseeable future, in everyone’s best interests.

Once everyone is empowered, enfranchised and equal, then a people’s peace process can commence in which the Israeli and Palestinian publics, long sidelined and ignored as players in efforts to forge a resolution, can all have their say.

Civil rights and a people’s peace process may sound like a pipe dream, and a dangerous one, to critics on both sides of the fence. But I disagree.

One of the great unseen and under-appreciated tragedies of this conflict – and to which I dedicate considerable attention in my book – is just how much in common Palestinians and Israelis actually have, and how the differences within each camp are actually far greater than the divergence between them. This ignored reality can act as a great unifier between the two sides.

The situation is speeding towards a very dark, cold and hostile night. Every effort is needed to change directions towards the sunrise unseen just beyond the horizon.

A new dawn will undoubtedly come, but the question is how long and frightening the night before will be.

____

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land

By Khaled Diab

Published by Guardian Shorts, October 2014,

On Amazon

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 20 November 2014.

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Intimate enemies, future friends

 
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By Khaled Diab

As I cycle amid the growing cycle of violence, I believe peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians is plausible and possible. 

Friday 21 November 2014

I prefer to do the school run by bicycle. While this is unremarkable in any bike-friendly European city, here in Jerusalem it is a different matter, and not just because of the manic traffic and steep inclines.

As the situation in the Holy City speeds along the fast lane downhill, taking the slippery slope towards the abyss, when my son is with me, I too am slowly beginning to succumb to the mass fear gripping both Arabs and Jews. What will happen if Israeli extremists overhear us speaking Arabic to each other? What if Palestinian extremists mistake us, a darkish man with a blond son, for Jews?

This week’s deadly and reprehensible attack against defenceless worshippers at a Jerusalem synagogue, alongside the ongoing attacks against Palestinians by settlers and ultra-nationalists has further reduced the sense of safety and any residual mutual trust in this bitterly divided city. Incitements by extremist elements in the Israeli government and Hamas are stoking the fire further.

Since the summer of hate erupted, many Palestinian Jerusalemites I know no longer venture into West Jerusalem and some who worked for Israeli companies have quit their jobs or are considering it. Similarly, even many of the Israeli Jerusalemites who used to go to the Arab neighbouhoods of East Jerusalem have stopped doing so.

As the situation continues on its collision course, it is hard to imagine that people in this fractured city once lived differently – at a time when there were no walls and fewer psychological barriers.

But older people recall a time – before Oslo and the first intifada – when Jews and Arabs visited each other’s neighbourhoods unselfconsciously and even the West Bank and Gaza were open, with two-way traffic. Difficult as it is to conceive today, both Palestinians and Israelis used to head to Gaza to enjoy its cuisine, beaches and cheap shopping.

Go even further back, and the very oldest Jerusalemites recall a time when Arabs and Jews lived side by side, when the different religious communities shared in one another’s festivities, and all enjoyed the magic of the Egyptian silver screen during its reputed golden age at the local cinema, as my 92-year-old Palestinian neighbour is fond of reminiscing.

And that is not all. Despite their bitter political differences, Israelis and Palestinians are, I have found after living among them for some three years, more alike than they like to admit or are aware.

Two Jerusalemites embody this symmetry in a symbolic, even poetic fashion. The late Palestinian-American academic, musician and activist Edward Said and Israeli novelist and activist Amos Oz shared, unbeknownst to each other, the peculiar fantasy of metamorphosing into a book “whose fate I took to be happily free of unwelcome changes”, imagined Said, and who “would have a better chance of survival”, in Oz’s words.

But the similarities and parallels aren’t confined to the imaginary sphere, they also occupy the real world.

Palestinians and Israelis share a similar Mediterranean outlook, characterised, among other things, by the central importance of family, child-friendliness and the casual attitude to regulations, from smoking to driving. In culinary terms, this is reflected in the Israeli love of hummus and the Palestinian infatuation with schnitzels.

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.  Order here

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.
Order here 

Collectively, both societies are highly traumatised. Israelis live with the memory of the Holocaust and the almost wholesale disappearance of Jewish communities in much of Europe and the Middle East, while Palestinians live under the shadow of the Nakba, the loss of Palestine and the ongoing occupation.

Politically too, the two societies have seen an almost symmetrical swing from leftist, secular nationalism towards right-wing, religiously flavoured populism.

All these commonalities, and the fact that the differences within each society is greater than the divergence between them, is why I call Israelis and Palestinians “intimate enemies” in my new book of the same title.

The book digs beyond the politics to unearth the people, the human reality obscured by the fog of war. In it, I also explore creative ways out of the quagmire, namely a civil rights struggle, what I call the non-state solution and the launching of a people’s peace process.

Impossible as it seems today, peace and coexistence are possible but getting there requires a radical rethinking of each side’s priorities, aspirations and narratives.

 

This article first appeared in Italian in Corriere della Sera on 20 November 2014. 

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Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land

By Khaled Diab

Published by Guardian Shorts, October 2014, http://guardianshorts.co.uk/intimate-enemies/

More info on Intimate Enemies: news, views and reviews

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Lost in confrontation in the Holy Land

 
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By Khaled Diab

As tensions mount, it’s hard to believe that Israelis and Palestinians share a lot in common – even the dreams of their great writers.

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.  Order here

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.
Order here 

Monday 10 November 2014

You could tell by the chaos and confusion in the aisles that it was a flight heading back to the Middle East. Passengers milled about noisily in search of space for their excess hand baggage or chatted animatedly by their seats, causing a significant delay as the perplexed cabin crew tried to gain order.

During take-off, an argument broke out between two passengers because one of them was using his mobile phone. Pretty soon, in classic Middle Eastern fashion, others were drawn into the altercation, each contributing their penny’s worth on whether or not phones should be switched off.

Despite the familiarity of the scene, this flight was not heading to my hometown of Cairo or any other Arab capital but was destined for Tel Aviv.

What this incident highlights is that the differences between Israelis and Arabs are more about politically coloured perceptions than they are about social or cultural realities, especially when it comes to Israel’s Palestinian and Levantine neighbours.

With so little contact between Arabs and Israelis, this will undoubtedly come as a surprise to people on both sides of the political and ideological chasm separating the two sides. But having lived in the Holy Land on and off since 2011, I would hazard to say that, in many crucial respects, Palestinians and Israelis have more in common with each other than they do with their kin further afield, say Gulf Arabs or Diaspora Jews.

That is one reason why I describe the protagonists in this decades-old conflict as “intimate enemies” in my new book: partly because of their close geographical and physical proximity but also because of their surprising social and cultural symmetry.

Confronted with a reality on the ground which conflicts with the simplistic prevalent political narratives, I wrote the book as a modest corrective to all the distrust, misapprehension and miscomprehensions in the air. I am also of the conviction that seeing the human faces behind the conflict is a vital prerequisite to the long process of organic, grassroots peace-building.

The manuscript was well-received by reviewers. One of my favourite responses I received was from the prominent Israeli historian and dissident Ilan Pappè. “I was deeply moved and impressed by the chapters,” he told me. “You are doing justice to their experience, complexities… and impossible reality.”

Palestinians and Israelis share a similar Mediterranean outlook, characterised, among other things, by the central importance of family, child-friendliness and the casual attitude to regulations, from smoking to driving, as if they are recommendations and not actual legislation, not to mention their almost innate distrust of authority. In culinary terms, this is reflected in the Israeli love of hummus and the Palestinian infatuation with schnitzels.

Even Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals share some surprising traits, such as when it comes to their daydreams. One intriguing example is the fantasy entertained by both the late Palestinian-American academic, musician and activist Edward Said and Israeli novelist and activist Amos Oz. “One of my recurrent fantasies… was to be a book, whose fate I took to be happily free of unwelcome changes,” Said wrote in his memoir, Out of Place.

Echoing this sentiment, Oz confessed to me in his study that, as a child, he wanted to “grow up and become a book… because, as a book, I would have a better chance of survival”.

This conflicts with the common Arab perception of Israel as being a slice of Europe transplanted into the region, not to mention the Israeli self-image of being a supposed stronghold of Western enlightenment in the Middle East.

When viewed dispassionately, these similarities, symmetries and parallels are hardly surprising. After all, Palestinians and Israelis have lived side by side for decades and so, even if they regard each other as enemies, they are bound to influence one another.

Add to this the fact that around half of Israel’s Jewish population is Mizrahi (Eastern), then Israel’s Middle Eastern flavour becomes more comprehensible.

Mizrahi, or “Arab Jews” as many were once known, like the Palestinians, also fell victim to the conflict between Zionist and Arab nationalism – so much so that few Arabs alive today realise that they once shared their societies with a dynamic and integrated Jewish minority.

“When you walked down Baghdad’s main street, Al Rashid, half the names on the shops and offices were Jewish,” Sasson Somekh, the accomplished Iraqi-Israeli poet and academic, who helped put the late Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz on the map of world literature, told me.

“We felt even more Arab than Arabs … We did not feel we belonged to a place but that the place belonged to us,” believes Baghdad-born Israeli author Sami Michael.

But in the unforgiving reality of the conflict having the words Arab and Jew in such overlapping and interwoven proximity was too close for comfort for enemies who sought to take the Arab out of the Jew and the Jew out of the Arab.

But it is not just Mizrahi Jews who find themselves trapped unenviably in the no-man’s-land of the conflict, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are also caught in the middle, with one foot on either side of the widening Israeli-Palestinian abyss.

Probably the most famous Palestinian with Israeli citizenship was the late Mahmoud Darwish, whose powerful verse earned him the title of Palestine’s national poet. One under-appreciated aspect is the enormous impact growing up in Israel had on Darwish’s identity, both negatively and positively.

This was reflected in his love of the Hebrew language, not to mention the passionate love affair he once had with an Israeli woman. And it is this ambiguity in a situation that does not generally tolerate it that makes Palestinians in Israel not just “fifth columnists” in the eyes of their Jewish compatriots but also distrusted among some of their Palestinian brethren.

Only last week, the Mufti of Nablus, Ahmed Shobashi, stirred up anger and calls for his resignation when he demanded that Palestinians in Israel be barred from entering the West Bank because of their “negative moral impact”.

This incident illustrates how the differences within Palestinian and Israeli societies are often greater than the disparities between them. This is reflected in the sharp and polarised secular-religious and right-left divides. In fact, with attention focused on the headline conflict, most overlook the brewing civil strife in both societies which manifests itself, for instance, in the increasing “price tag” attacks by settlers against peace activists and leftists or the bitter Hamas-Fatah schism. That is not to mention the conflicts between the haves and have-nots and those in favour of justice and equality, and those opposed to them.

Despite the significant amount of common social and cultural ground, politically Israelis and Palestinians have perhaps never seemed further apart. This summer turned into a heated season of hate and open warfare.

Even now with hostilities over in Gaza, the situation in the besieged enclave has not changed – except for the massive amounts of wanton destruction there. Meanwhile East Jerusalem and the West Bank witness daily protests and clashes, with al-Aqsa acting as a symbolic centre for the rising tensions.

With the worsening reality on the ground, people may be excused for believing that this conflict will just grind on forever. Although the situation is likely to get a lot worse before it gets better, I believe the status quo is untenable.

The most promising way out of the quagmire, in my view, is what I call the “non-state solution” in which talks of states and statehood are abandoned for the time being in favour of a civil rights struggle for full equality, emancipation and enfranchisement. Once this has been achieved, ordinary Palestinians and Israelis, long sidelined and ignored in efforts to resolve the conflict, can begin a people’s peace process in which everyone is involved in the quest for coexistence.

Although it may take generations, I am convinced that a new dawn of peace and justice will come, but this dawn will arrive in gradual glimmers and not in a blaze of blinding sunshine, as many hope or dream.

____

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land

By Khaled Diab

Published by Guardian Shorts, October 2014, http://guardianshorts.co.uk/intimate-enemies/

On Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Intimate-Enemies-Israelis-Palestinians-Guardian-ebook/dp/B00OXQJYUE/?tag=smarturl-gb-21

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 8 November 2014.

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The trials and tribulations of a Palestinian Mandela

 
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By Khaled Diab

Although I wish there were a Palestinian  Mandela, I suspect that Israel-Palestine is not ready for someone like him… not yet, at least.

Partners in peace: Mandela and de Klerk shake hands. Photo: World Economic Forum

Partners in peace: Mandela and de Klerk shake hands. Photo: World Economic Forum

Thursday 12 December 2013

Since the passing away of Nelson Mandela, eulogies glorifying the great man have been circulating around the globe – some heartfelt, others opportunistic; some genuine, others hypocritical.

I will not bore the reader by adding my own longwinded homage to the cacophony of tributes already out there. Suffice it to say that, despite his imperfections, Nelson Mandela was one of the few leaders – perhaps the only – in the 20th century who succeeded both as a revolutionary and as a statesman.

My intention here is to examine Mandela’s legacy in the Israeli-Palestinian context and whether the South African model he helped pioneer could help lead Palestinians and Israelis to the Promised Land of peace.

We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians; without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan and other parts of the world,” Mandela said on the 20th anniversary of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People in 1997.

And from within my prison cell, I tell you our freedom seems possible because you reached yours,” Marwan Barghouthi, the imprisoned Palestinian leader who has often been described as the Palestinian Mandela”, wrote in a tribute, reflecting the deep sense of mourning many Palestinians feel.

The tiny cell and the hours of forced labour, the solitude and the darkness, did not prevent you from seeing the horizon and sharing your vision,” Barghouti wrote from his own cell in Israel’s Hadarim prison. “Your country has become a lighthouse and we, as Palestinians, are setting sails to reach its shores.”

But one reason the Palestinians have not reached this promised shore is because they have not had a leader of Madiba’s stature and vision, many argue. “The Palestinians needed a Mandela but they got Arafat,” reflected an Israeli I know, echoing a common sentiment in Israel.

While it is true that the Palestinian cause could have used someone of Nelson Mandela’s humanity and vision, what this view overlooks is that the Israelis have also been seriously short-changed by their leadership. Yes, the Palestinians have not had their Mandela but, likewise, an Israeli FW de Klerk has yet to emerge, with the nearest Israel has come to this being Yitzhak Rabin.

Although de Klerk is largely overlooked today, it is, in my view, no exaggeration to say that without his “verligte” (“enlightened”) contribution, Mandela, who nevertheless deserves the greater credit, may have failed in his mission to dismantle South African Apartheid.

After all, despite being a dyed-in-the-wool conservative for most of his political career, de Klerk called for a non-racist South Africa, lifted the ban on the African National Congress (ANC), released Mandela from prison and managed a surprisingly smooth transition to democracy. This would have been unthinkable had his predecessor PW Botha, who campaigned for a “No” vote in de Klerk’s 1992 referendum on ending Apartheid, not been forced into retirement following a stroke.

But what if Mandela had been a Palestinian and what if he had found his Israeli de Klerk, could he and would he have succeeded where Arafat and Rabin, not to mention the rest of the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, failed?

Although I would like to think so and it is tempting to believe that what Palestinians and Israelis lack is a saviour, there are certain structural problems in the Israeli-Palestinian context which could defeat any would-be Mandela, the foremost being the narrow ethno-religious character of the conflict.

Even though Palestinians generally regard Mandela as a kindred spirit and his largely non-violent tactics resonate deeply, if Mandela were actually a Palestinian leader, I fear that his philosophy would face a groundswell of opposition. Despite undoubted support amongst pragmatists, some would label him as a “traitor” for demanding no more than equal civil rights within the existing Israeli framework, while others would dismiss him as a “normaliser” for his inevitable collaboration with Israelis.

Interestingly, whites, usually leftists and communists, were involved with the ANC from its earliest days. For instance, the Freedom Charter was compiled, based on demands from across the country, by architect-turned-political-activist Lionel Bernstein. At the Rivonia trial, which led to Mandela’s long incarceration, there were five white co-defendants who, like Bernstein, were also Jewish.

On the Israeli side, Mandela’s vision and mission would also likely prove unpalatable. Although Jews make up a far larger percentage of the population of the Israeli-controlled territories (former mandate Palestine and the Golan Heights) than whites did in South Africa, there is a widespread obsession with the so-called demographic time bomb.

This would most probably lead many Israelis to condemn a Palestinian Mandela as plotting to “destroy Israel by other means”, to rob Jews of their right to self-determination and even to lead to civil war and massacres the “day after”. Even though they shared a similar angst, white South Africans managed to overcome this existential fear and survived – even thrived – to tell the tale.

Although secular Palestinian nationalism and secular Zionism have both traditionally striven for democratic societies which involved the other side as equals of sorts, this was always in a shell where the other would be a minority and willing to live under a clear, dominant nationalist framework.

One reason why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not pursued a South African solution – and is instead stuck in the unworkable doldrums of a two-state solution in a land that is under 27,000 km2 compared to South Africa’s massive 1.2 million km2 – is simply a question of time.

The European colonisation of South Africa started much earlier, and had already reached fever pitch by the early 19th century. In contrast, large-scale Jewish immigration and settlement did not take off until after the British mandate began in Palestine following World War I.

As the situation increasingly grows to resemble the segregation of Apartheid South Africa, many, especially among the Palestinians but also a growing number of Israeli Jews, are convinced that the only way forward is a single, binational state.

However, huge confusion and differences remain over what form this should take and how to get there. I urge people to take inspiration from Nelson Mandela and the ANC and launch a civil rights struggle for equality for all, while also protecting the rights of every ethnic, national and religious group. 

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 10 December 2013.

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Next stop: freedom?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Palestinian ‘freedom riders’ defiantly boarded a bus to Jerusalem. So is the next stop for the Palestinian struggle  a mass civil rights movement?

Thursday 17 November 2011

Huwaida Arraf (left) and Hurriyah Ziada talk to the press. Image: ©Khaled Diab

For untold millions around the world, buses are little more than a mundane and functional aspect of their daily lives. But there are times when public tranposrt take on huge symbolic importance. In 1961, for example, Washington DC played host to the first ‘freedom riders’, courageous civil rights activists who boarded an interstate bus bound for New Orleans to challenge the federally outlawed segregation practised in the southern states.

Half a century later and half a world away, a group of Palestinian activists has drawn inspiration from the African-American civil rights struggle and organised their own ‘freedom ride’ on Tuesday, 15 November, which marked the anniversary of the Palestinians’ symbolic declaration of independence in 1988. Symbolic because, like their current quest for UN membership, Palestinians still live under Israeli military occupation, with all the restrictions on their liberty that involves, including the freedom to travel, work their land, to build and to manage their own affairs.

“Although the tactics and methodologies differ, the white supremacists and the Israeli occupiers commit the same crime: they strip a people of freedom, justice and dignity,” said Hurriyah Ziada, the young spokeswoman for the Palestinian Freedom Riders, whose name, appropriately enough, means ‘more freedom’ in Arabic.

“As part of our struggle for freedom, justice and dignity, we demand the ability to be able to travel freely on our own land and roads, including the right to travel to Jerusalem,” she told the dozens of journalists who had crowded into the courtyard of the state-of-the-art cultural palace in Ramallah, the town which, with Israel’s continued annexation of East Jerusalem, acts as the Palestinians’ de facto capital. She also called for boycott and divestment against the Israeli and French bus companies that run lines through the occupied West Bank.

Basel al-A’raj, one of the Freedom Riders, waits for a bus. Image: ©Khaled Diab

Of course, there are certain key differences between the situation in the southern American states in the 1960s and the situation in Israel and Palestine today. There is no actual law that forbids Palestinians from boarding Israeli buses, and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem do so on a daily basis, although Jews and Arabs rarely mix in the troubled ‘holy city’ and possess their own parallel transportation systems.

However, holders of West Bank identity cards live under restrictions imposed by the occupying Israeli military and are barred from entering Jewish settlements and Jerusalem unless they are in possession of rare permits to do so. So, while African-Americans were free to travel where they wanted but not to board whites-only buses, West Bank Palestinians are legally entitled to board Israelis buses but cannot ride them to their destinations. Such is the perverse logic of segregation and discrimination.

And this is what the six brave freedom riders set out to do: challenge the ban on Palestinians travelling to Jerusalem, running the risk of arrest and possible attacks by violent settler extremists, who have recently not only escalated their attacks on Palestinians but have also increasingly targeted the Israeli military, Israeli leftists and human rights activists with violence. 

But even the most serious political activism is not without its surreal moments and light relief. As the six would-be passengers set out in search of a bus stop, the snaking convoy of perhaps 50 or more carloads of journalists followed on a sort of blind bus chase. This caused not only curiosity among passing motorists but a number of traffic jams on some of the narrower back roads used by Palestinians who are not allowed to drive on many settler-only roads and so have to take massive detours to avoid them. 

We eventually wound up on Road 60, one of the few main arteries in the West Bank which is open both to Israeli and Palestinian traffic. When we finally arrived at a bus stop near the settlements of Psagot and Migron, it was difficult to tell whether the bewildered expressions on the faces of the waiting Israelis were due to the presence of the six activists – who wore the emblematic Palestinian chequered ‘keffiyeh’ and T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘dignity’, ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ – or the dozens of unruly journalists milling about the road and even standing on the roof of the bus stop.

The commotion eventually drew the Israeli police, army and the private security from one of the nearby settlements. But all of them seemed to be at a loss as to what to do. As we waited for a bus that would permit the Palestinians to board without just pulling away from the crowd, I spoke to some of the Freedom Riders. 

Like for Jews in the diaspora, who for centuries longed for “Next year in Jerusalem”, the holy city carries huge symbolic significance for Palestinians. “I haven’t been to Jerusalem for 14 years. It’s a dream of mine to enter Jerusalem,” said Nadeem al-Shirbaty (33), an ironsmith from Hebron who co-founded a movement called Youth Against Settlements. 

The Freedom Riders wait patiently for a bus willing to take them. Image: ©Khaled Diab

Huwaida Arraf (35), the only woman Freedom Rider and a passionate advocate of the Palestinian cause, also holds American citizenship but refused to bring her US passport along. “To be clear, Israel would not be able to do this without the United States’ financial support and political protection,” she told me. “It’s up to the American people to say, ‘No, we fought this during the civil rights movement in the 60s. We don’t accept it for our own communities, so we should not be funding it abroad either.’” 

One of the settlers at the bus stop, who could have easily passed for a Palestinian had it not been for his kippah (yarmulka), voiced a concern common among Israelis. “We are scared that those people will come and blow us up,” he admitted to me. “If one or two or even a hundred come in peace, so what. All you need is one in a thousand to have a bomb, then what are you going to do? How are you going to stop it?” 

This raises a number of thorny ethical questions. Although a tiny minority of Palestinians has been guilty of violent resistance and terrorism against Israelis, including suicide bombings targeting civilians, does this justify the collective punishment of millions and does such collective punishment reduce or increase the chance of future attacks?

As it began to look unlikely that the freedom riders would manage to find a ride, Basel al-A’raj (28), from Walajeh, a small village near Bethlehem, told me: “We’ve been trying for over 60 years to bring our cause to the world’s attention. It’s not a problem for me to wait here for a few hours for a bus.” 

Not much later, a bus arrived that the Freedom Riders managed to alight and the assembled journalists quite literally tried to press gang their

Israeli police and military watch on in bewilderment. Image: ©Khaled Diab

way on to the bus as the driver desperately attempted to shut the door on his by-now desperately full vehicle. Unable to get on the bus, I joined a number of other journalists who went ahead to the Hizma checkpoint on the outskirts of Jerusalem to wait for the bus. When the bus arrived there, the soldiers at the checkpoint were also at a loss as to what to do with the disobedient activists.

Eventually, they got the bus to pull up into the checkpoint’s car park, where I managed to board as the Israeli passengers began to disembark though numerous Israeli activists remained on board in solidarity. Meanwhile, a stream of officials from the police, military and special forces arrived to take stock of the situation. International activists carrying large placards also formed a human wall in front of the bus. 

On the bus, the Freedom Riders and dozens of journalists waited to see how the situation would unfold. A number of Arabic-speaking police officers boarded the bus and tried in vain to convince the activists to vacate the bus and informed them that they were under arrest for attempting to enter Jerusalem illegally and for disrupting public order.

“Our action has been a runaway success, regardless of what happens in the next few hours,” contended Mazen Qumseyeh (54), an academic and university professor who has published several books on the Palestinian struggle.

After Israeli police failed to remove him from the bus, one of the activists gives an interview on the stairs. Image: ©Khaled Diab

“If they try to remove us from the bus, I’ll refuse to get off,” al-A’raj, with his curly hair, said determinedly, giving me a toothy smile, from his so-far undetected position at the back of the bus. “I will abide by the principles of the law, not military decrees, but civilian and international law, which guarantee my freedom of movement.”

Reflecting on his state, he told me that he was overcome by a torrent of conflicting feelings, including excitement and fear. “But we live with these mixed emotions all the time under occupation. Every day, homes are raided and people are arrested. The main difference is that, this time, there is media coverage.”

After a couple of hours, the Israelis resolved on a course of action and delivered an ultimatum to the activists that they either got off the bus voluntarily or they would be forcibly removed. The police then carried them off one by one to a waiting police van, and each Freedom Rider shouted out their name and rejected what they regarded as the illegality of what the Israeli police was doing to them. The activists were released from custody a few hours later.

Though I was stranded without a ride at the checkpoint, unlike the activists, I was able to walk up a few hundred metres to the nearest Israeli settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev and take the bus into Jerusalem. On the way home, I reflected on how I, as a foreigner, have so much more freedom of movement than the local Palestinians of the West Bank and even more so than those in Gaza, and how I take this mobility to roam the world for granted, while Palestinians can have trouble not only travelling to Jerusalem, but during times of heightened tension, to other Palestinian towns and villages.

Despite their failure to enter Jerusalem and their arrest, the Freedom Riders are determined to scale up and continue their campaign to become regular rebel commuters to Jerusalem. “This is only the beginning. This is the first bus, but there are bound to be future attempts involving more riders,” promised Arraf before her arrest.

With the peace process long dead in the water and the end of the Israeli occupation unlikely in the foreseeable future, I have long advocated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be transformed into a peaceful, non-violent civil rights struggle for equality and dignity. This could be a significant step along this long road. Once everyone is enfranchised and has a voice, then the two peoples can start a conversation of equals about their future and whether it will be a common one or whether they will file for a magnanimous divorce.

 

This is an extended version of an article which appeared in Salon on  17 November 2011.

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