On the West Bank, the Palestinian September has come and gone in an eerie quiet. Abu Mazen returned from the UN to a hero’s welcome in Ramallah, and there were low-key celebrations in other cities as well; but the mass demonstrations that many predicted, and that the Israelis feared, have not materialized. The Palestinian security forces were given strict orders to keep demonstrators away from potential places of friction such as roadblocks, checkpoints, and of course Israeli settlements. Expecting the worst, the Israeli army invested considerable resources in the latest crowd-control technology, including the infamous “Skunk” spray, which disperses an unbearable malodorous mist, and which some of us have experienced in Bil’in and al-Nabi Saleh; but so far they haven’t needed these methods.
In the meantime, has anything changed on the ground? Yes. According to the statistics compiled by Peace Now, in the ten months following the end of the “as-if” freeze on building in the territories in October 2010, work began on 2,598 new housing units; 2,149 new units were completed, and building continued on at least another 3,700. The rate of housing construction per (Israeli) person on the West Bank was double that in Israel proper. If you drive south from Jerusalem along Road 60, the main north-south artery, you see signs of building by settlers everywhere. At Avigail, an “illegal outpost” in the south Hebron hills—that is, a settlement that is illegal even within the peculiar terms of the Israeli legal system—a big sign on the roadside proudly proclaims, “We’re growing!”
It’s important to know what this means in practice. Avigail sits on lands that have belonged, from time immemorial, to the Al-Jibrin family, a large clan currently scattered among the small khirbehs, such as Old Karmel, in the south Hebron hills. The Al-Jibrin have the land-registry documents, stamped by the Israeli tax authorities and recently confirmed by an Israeli court, to prove their title. But when on October 1 farmers from the Al-Jibrin family tried to plow the fields that were the subject of the court’s ruling, the usual protocol was enacted: soldiers arrived to stop them and eventually a high-ranking officer from the Civil Administration—Israel’s occupation authority, a wing of the Defense Ministry—ordered them to leave all but a tiny patch adjacent to the highway.
I was there, and I saw it happen, as I have seen it happen in countless similar cases. We, the activists with the Israeli-Palestinian organization Ta’ayush who were on the scene, couldn’t prevent it. Court rulings have little purchase in the wild West Bank. In practice, only the law of the gun counts; authority rests with local commanders, who often disregard the rulings of the army’s own legal advisors and take ad hoc decisions on grounds of expediency, or to protect the settlers.
This is one reason why Obama’s statement at the UN—”There is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace is hard work”—is curiously out of sync with the reality of life in the occupied territories. If there is ever to be a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, it had better happen quickly, before there’s no land left to be returned to its rightful owners. No one who has seen Israeli policy toward Palestinians and the institutions of the occupation in action can have any doubt that they are directed to one overriding goal—a land-grab of truly astonishing proportions.
The irony, if that is the right word, is that this is happening even as a moderate and responsible Palestinian leadership is ready and willing for a historic compromise. Abu Mazen’s speech at the UN, though marred by his failure to mention the Jews as one of the ancient communities of the Holy Land, was the formal expression of a far-reaching change that has overtaken the Palestinian mainstream. This change is by no means merely tactical, despite what the Israeli government likes to claim. A strategy of non-violent resistance to the occupation, first adopted experimentally some seven years ago by groups of ordinary Palestinians in villages such as Budrus, Bil’in and Na’alin in the Jerusalem corridor and then in others in the area around Bethlehem, is now the declared modus operandi of the leadership in Ramallah.
At a ceremony at Susya, in south Hebron, last March, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad spoke of non-violent struggle for every well and olive tree. Just two weeks ago a large non-violent march to Susya to protest the Civil Administration’s violent evacuation and demolition of a nearby Palestinian village drew activists from all over the southern West Bank. And although they did not take place when Abu Mazen made his UN speech in late September, mass non-violent demonstrations on the West Bank, possibly with the participation of Israeli activists, will no doubt occur in due course. One occasion may be when the General Assembly votes on Palestine, which some sources say is being timed for November 29—the 64th anniversary of the UN vote that created the state of Israel and sought to create an independent Palestine as well.
Such forms of resistance, partly inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi, but mostly emerging directly from the Palestinians’ own experience over the last decades, reflect an inner shift—a recognition that violence is not merely ineffectual or counter-productive but profoundly wrong, a violation of one’s basic humanity. One can hear eloquent variations on this theme articulated by grass-roots leaders such as Ali Abu Awwad in Beit Jala and Walid Salem in Jerusalem, to name but two. Once again: we are not talking about isolated pockets of Gandhian-style resistance but about a wide-spread phenomenon that began in the villages, achieved some success in the struggle against the Separation Barrier, and has now filtered up to the political leadership.
Corresponding to such developments are the recent statements by Abu Mazen and others in the Palestinian leadership that the new state of Palestine, when it comes into being, will seek to live in peace with the Israeli state beside it. Those who have doubted and continue to doubt mainstream Palestinian commitment to a peaceful solution along the lines of the so-called Saudi peace initiative, or the Bill Clinton bridging proposals of 2000, or the Geneva program, should take the trouble to read closely the text of Abu Mazen’s UN speech, which was delivered in Arabic for the whole Islamic world to hear. Actually, I’ve been hearing such statements, in Arabic, in various Palestinian forums, for years. It is simply no longer possible to claim with any fairness that the Palestinian national movement formally refuses to recognize Israel as its co-state and partner in making peace. Israelis might also take to heart, if they had the courage to do so, Abu Mazen’s repeated statements that he has no wish to delegitimate Israel. He and his government want, naturally and correctly, to delegitimate the Israeli occupation.
All of this may sound too good to be true, and in a way it is. I was in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, on September 22 for a celebration of Palestinian statehood-to-be. Several hundred Israelis came under the aegis of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement and the group Combatants for Peace; and there were hundreds of Palestinians from Beit Jala area and farther away. Speeches by various spokesmen, including ‘Abd al-Fattah Hamayil, the Governor of Bethlehem, were in Arabic—I again stress this point—and emphasized Palestinian willingness to adopt the two-state model and to live in peace with Israel; they also expressed Palestinian despair, entirely justified in my view, at the Netanyahu government’s stubborn refusal to make peace.
Listening to speaker after speaker, I thought at moments I had wandered into a Utopian fantasy. Indeed the Palestinian moderates know very well that they have to produce tangible results—real movement toward independence, the removal of Israeli settlements, and the end of the Occupation—if they are to survive. The extremists are, as always, waiting for an opportune moment to seize power. Thus the mood of the Beit Jala gathering was somber, nothing like the electric joy that swept through Tel Aviv on November 29, 1947. Hamas, though in steep decline in recent months, will certainly be strengthened by its agreement to hand over to Israel kidnapped soldier Gil’ad Shalit, who went home after five years in captivity on October 18, in exchange for the release of more than one thousand Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. And no one expects the current Israeli leadership to abandon its present self-destructive course.
It is no secret that Abu Mazen’s decision to take the struggle to the UN was the subject of severe internal controversy in the Ramallah leadership. There is considerable risk involved; indeed, one might easily read this strategy as a last, desperate gamble. If the ongoing dramas at the UN, together with political forces active in the territories, fail to generate substantial structural change in the conflict, the old Fatah leadership may well collapse. The hope is that the rules of the game will change now that an international consensus on Palestinian independence has been revealed, with probably only three countries (Israel, the United States, and perhaps Micronesia) voting against it in the General Assembly.
An American veto in the Security Council, if it comes to that, is no trivial matter this time; it will mark yet another critical milestone in the decline of American power and influence in the entire Islamic world. The spectacle of the Americans vetoing what is, in effect, their own policy on Palestine—for narrow electoral reasons in the United States—will itself constitute a major Palestinian victory. Yet symbolic achievements such as this, however important in the long term, may not be enough to keep the Palestinian moderates in power. Eventually—perhaps in the not too distant future— Israel’s rejection of the option for peace with Abu Mazen will almost certainly lead to a Hamas takeover of the West Bank, with incalculable consequences.
This is the first part of David Shulman’s two-part report from the West Bank since the Palestinian bid for statehood.