There is no Palestine (Israel: Part 4)

Tank Green/ September 19, 2006/ Palestine and Israel

There are roughly three positions to take on the Israel / Palestine issue. (1) You are an ‘ardent Zionist’ with little-to-no concern about the plight of the Palestinians. (2) You are staunchly pro-Palestinian with little-to-no concern about the plight of the Israelis. (3) You fall in the indeterminable mass of grey between these two positions, generally having slightly more sympathy for one of the two positions.

If you are a type (1), you are probably already living in the neighbourhood, and I doubt much could ever change your mind. If you are a type (2) and you go visit Palestine, you will most likely become radicalised, if you are not already. If you are a type (3) and go visit Palestine, I fail to see another possible outcome then for you to slide further down the scale towards more Palestinian sympathy. I was always a type (3), but worryingly, at certain times during my visit, I felt myself dip precariously close to becoming a type (2). I understand now, why suicide bombing happens: I feel it in my bones.

I want you to read this sentence over several times and memorise it: what is being done to the Palestinians is wrong and their situation is infinitely worse than you think it is. We do not even know half of the truth of it all. I just want to sit here and say, over and over and over, that it is awful. Awful. Awful. That what the Israelis are doing is wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Overwhelmingly, I got the feeling that Palestine is paying for the Holocaust. Yad Vashem, the Shoah (Holocaust) museum in Jerusalem, is littered with pleas from victims asking survivors to extract revenge. We went there on the Sunday; Wednesday saw Jericho and Bethlehem; Thursday saw Hebron. Bethlehem made me feel as though the Palestinians were paying for the crimes of Europeans (and the Americans for turning them away). In Hebron, I became convinced of it. I’ll say it again: what’s being done to the Palestinians is awful. Truly awful. Nothing justifies this.

J had booked us a guide to take us to Jericho. He was a Palestinian ex-journalist and heavily politicised, but yet I felt his rhetoric forgiveable. He said, ‘Imagine, you are a visitor to my country, and you are welcome, but you are more free here than us.’ Later, when we were awkwardly drinking tea in someone’s house I said to him, ‘Do you feel there is any hope?’ He said there is always hope. I couldn’t feel, see, or find it. Indeed, when I asked the question, I could barely pronounce it. And so whilst I know I saw what he wanted me to see, that it existed was enough. Was too much. Was awful, terrible, wrong.

Jericho was like a ghost town. We saw (supposedly) the sycamore mentioned in the New Testament’s Luke 19:1-4, and bought a postcard and a piece of its bark off an old man for 5 shekels (60p). He made me want to cry because if that was his income, he would be dead before long. Business does not boom for those tied to tourists who never come. Our reasoning for going to Jericho was to see a 10,000 year old tower: it was shut. We caught a cable car up the Mount of Temptation (as in Matthew 4) to the Greek Orthodox monastery. There were only two other tourists. I ate my Turkish Delight on the way down, sugar all over me, and looked at the refugee camp the cable cars were flying over: bleak, dead. Suddenly the sweet, sticky rose flavoured sugar pained my teeth.

Jericho, however, was the first place I encountered nice people, kind people. We were allowed fifteen minutes or so to wander around the ‘town centre’, which consisted of a handful of shops and not much else. L and I went to a vegetable stall and she tried to buy a tomato. They gave it to her for free. They also gave us some dates which they said were blessed. All I could think of was the hatred we had experienced from the Israelis, and I knew then it was true that we were in a different country with vastly different people, but yet it did not exist.

To get into Jericho, you have to go through an Israeli military checkpoint. Jericho is in Palestine. To get into Bethlehem, which is also in Palestine, you have to get off the bus, join a line, show your passport or have your ID card swiped, go through metal detectors, and have your bag x-rayed. This is all courtesy of the Israeli military. Then you walk across what feels like a no man’s land to have to go through more of those one way gates, which you can go through but not back. And, of course, there is the wall: a grey expanse of concrete, eight metres high, with fortified watchtowers, barbed wire, and a huge poster that says, ‘Peace be with you’ which is issued by the Israeli Ministry for Tourism. I nearly choked on my fury.

The other side of the wall is writhing with taxi cabs, anti-apartheid graffiti, and a sense of desperation. We caught a cab down to the Church of the Nativity and the taxi driver hooked us up with a guide. They say Jesus was born on the site where the oldest church in Christendom now stands, but what I remember most about it are the walls, pock marked from Israeli gunfire. Those pock marks prove that nothing is sacred to Israelis, unless it’s Jewish.

Bethlehem, on both sides of the wall, is in Palestine. And so this wall, I presume erected under the pretence of Israeli security, simply divides Palestinians from each other. The Israelis have made it nigh on impossible for Palestinians to go visit a family member in another part of Palestine. Indeed, Palestinians now find it practically impossible to work their land which might fall on the wrong side of the wall. Israel has passed a law that says any land not worked in a year becomes Israeli property. This is how they divide. This is how they take more and more Palestinian land.

But Hebron, sunny Hebron, now I know what war wounds are. One of the most notorious Israeli settlements, Kiryat Arba, is there. Also there is a market with thick wire mesh installed for a roof, since the settlers throw bottles of piss, plates of shit, and cocktail bombs down onto the Palestinians in the market below. There the wall is not around the city, but inside it. There the settlers have destroyed a Mosque and built apartments on top of it. There streets were closed down and barricaded off by the Israeli military.

Also there, in 1994, was the massacre at the Mosque of Abraham, in which a settler murdered 29 worshippers and injured hundreds more. He was strangled to death by those unhurt; his wife is still trying to press charges against them. To get into the Mosque, you have to walk through metal detectors and have your bag searched by the Israeli military. I don’t know if those metal detectors were there in 1994, but I do know the guards were: so how did he get in? After the massacre, the Mosque was closed down for 9 months; when it reopened, it was half Mosque and half Synagogue.

So for me, there is no Palestine. I don’t see how a country can exist when I only saw one pathetic looking Palestinian policeman in Hebron, its largest city, but yet was searched, and watched, by the countless guns of its supposed neighbour. When we were drinking that tea in the house of the friend of our guide, we learnt of the curfews imposed on the Palestinian citizens of Hebron by the Israeli army. Curfews which go on for months sometimes, lifted merely for an hour or two a day, and I thought: this is more than occupation, this is systematic eradication. How do you have a country when you are at the mercy of your neighbour? At their mercy not to traverse borders, but simply to go outside your own home, to go to a different part of town, to work your land, to visit another village or town within your borders. No, there is no Palestine, there is just a slow leaching of lives. A destitute, derelict, devastated land, far more depressing than I had imagined in even my most cynical moments. There is no Palestine and I feel it pointless to even hope for one.

Our guide, in a moment of angry passion, said he thought that the Israelis should know better than to persecute the Palestinians. I told him that no one’s history precludes them from torment. That many people lash out in pain on a regular basis. That saving others from what you know is not something humanity practices with any regularity. Later, J said something similar about the Palestinians: that they should know better. I looked at her quizzically and we laughed. We all should know better, but we don’t.

Before going on this trip, I read an interesting article by Tony Judt in the NY Review of Books; he said that the only solution to the Israel / Palestine problem was a one-state one. Interestingly, our guide felt the same way and I think, upon reflection, that I do too now. Palestine has been brought to its knees and then had its legs amputated, and it lies there, the other side of the roadblocks, flailing itself further and further away from modernity. Meanwhile, the industrialised Southern California of Israel collects the dust that the disabled Palestine disburses, and adds it to its own pile. Smaller grows Palestine, larger Israel, and they are too far down this road to be able to go back. The two-state solution has had its time and it now sits, like some maltreated antiquarian book, mouldy, festering, and useless. It’s time to move on.