The land of milk and honey recently marked the fiftieth anniversary of its victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and I took the opportunity to reflect on my own experience in the Unholy Land, part of which happened to coincide with the occasion.
Driving through the West Bank was at the same time insightful and disheartening, and I got the sense that the hope-turned-disappointment cycles of the failed, successive peace accords have been replaced by a grim resignation to the reality of an implacable occupation and settlement project. This mood seemed to be reflected in many dispirited locals, and looking out from atop Herod’s mountain palace ten minutes south of Bethlehem, even I found it hard to repel a sudden wave of despondency. All the trappings of occupation and land theft have only reinforced the incongruity of the Israeli settlements scattered throughout the West Bank, not least of which is the prison-like fencing and barbed wire that encircle them.
Amidst the fog of facile media reports and partisan political agendas that envelop the conflict, the actual situation on the ground can be difficult to discern. Only by journeying there was I able to judge the dynamics at play. In such a divided place one is compelled to seek out the voices of reason and lucidity in the conflict, and the late Palestinian-American intellectual and activist, Professor Edward Said, was one of these voices. Best known for his work on orientalism, Said maintained that Palestine had become the twenty-first century’s focal point for orientalist discourse, racism, and the overriding demand for justice. His calls to overcome the inhuman legacy of colonialism that condones the separation of peoples and views difference as a threat are also echoed in the words of Mahmoud Darwish and Hanan Ashrawi; a sort of trifecta of Palestinian intellectualism. Said’s magnum opus, Orientalism (1978), remains a haunting read for its enduring relevance and applicability to the Palestinian plight:
In a sense the limitations of orientalism are, as I said earlier, the limitations that follow upon disregarding, essentializing, denuding the humanity of another culture, people, or geographical region.
One need not have an in-depth understanding of the historical and political dimensions of the conflict to appreciate Said’s on-the-mark analysis of colonial projects and the pertinence of this analysis to his homeland. Even to the casual observer, latter-day Zionist expansion neatly fits these criteria, but also further reeks of an insistent, victimhood-style justification heightened to no small degree by the ‘divine warrant’. The irony of course is that, as a result, the Palestinians have become the victims-of-the-victims, refused the dignity of statehood and of freedom of movement (among other deprivations).
While it is important to acknowledge the work of the Israeli left and anti-settlement organisations (many of which are shamefully cast as unpatriotic or antisemitic), it remains the unfortunate case that the fickle and ungodly alliance between Likud and the ultra-orthodox Shas party continues to occupy both the Knesset and vast swathes of the West Bank. Far from secrecy is the Shas’ primary concern with the interior ministry and the housing department, especially the arm of the latter that deals with illegal settlements. The support of messianic crackpots with a favourable disposition toward land theft, needless to say, has only emboldened Netanyahu’s thuggery and contempt for Palestinian self-determination. It is therefore very difficult for an outsider to assent, intellectually or morally, to this ‘Greater Israel’ project and Netanyahu’s regular smokescreen of Gazan Hamas does little to conceal or justify Israeli crimes in the West Bank.
The ‘divine warrant’ is, as Christopher Hitchens once put it, sinister piffle and no more than a delusion of Israel’s religious right. Staying with Hitchens for a moment, his collaboration with Said, Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question (2001) addresses this phenomenon incisively, exploring how Israel and some Western academia and media have not-so-subtly denied the historicity of a Palestinian homeland and offset opposition to occupation and settlement through constant, extraneous reference to the existential threat of Palestinian terrorism and the forces of Islamist jihad. Predictably, the divine-biblical ‘rationale’ also surfaces here via the claim that Judea and Samaria are inversely occupied by Muslim Arabs, and is often coupled with the tired and banal rhetoric of Palestinians being an inherently intransigent and violent people. ‘Justifications’ aside, dispossession and apartheid-like occupation are simply distressing on the human level, and how nationalist-orthodox settlers can eagerly participate in this project without compunction belies not only reason but also empathy.
And so to part with the politics, it really is on the human, empathetic level that the scars of occupation and the daily pang of inferiority are most acutely felt. Tourists in the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah are immediately confronted with the separation barrier – the well-adorned but nonetheless austere and dehumanising demarcation that reminds Palestinians almost daily of their threat to the welfare of the Jewish state. Just as the humble Nazarene was once suppressed, it seems that today’s Pharisees are as equally disposed to subdue reason and burn the olive branch.
The ongoing attempt to preclude Palestinian nationhood couldn’t be more overt and the extensive settlement infrastructure throughout the West Bank is such that it is now almost inconceivable for Israel to relinquish the hundreds of embedded communities, some with private-access roads, hospitals, schools, universities, and malls. The sheer scope of and investment in this finely tuned enterprise is as antagonising as it humbling for Palestinians. To suggest otherwise, and buy into the myth that ongoing annexation and settlement construction are not obstacles to peace, is to firstly betray one’s inhumanity and lack of honest, critical thought, and secondly to consent to the popular Zionist pseudo-logic that justifies control of the occupied territories as a ‘security’ imperative, whilst simultaneously making the poorly disguised attempt to create a Jewish Judea and Samaria.
Throughout my journey, I was surprised to have met quite a few fellow travellers in Tel Aviv (mostly from the US) with an almost sublime disinterest in the Palestinian issue. When pressed on the topic, they were content that Israel’s status as a free and democratic state outweighed the ills of occupation; that by citing the standard security line, the depravity of the settler movement is somehow whitewashed. While it is true that ‘Israel proper’ contains refuges of social liberalism and tolerance (Tel Aviv Pride is testament to all of this), it is unconscionable to use these secular achievements in the mitigation of nefarious, messianic pursuits in the occupied West Bank. In much the same way, Hamas-inspired atrocities, of course deserving of condemnation, should not detract from the just and necessary cause of an independent Palestinian homeland.
On a final note, I suppose it’s relatively easy to travel exclusively to Israel and not see a concrete barrier, barbed-wire fence, or a checkpoint. The verdant Galilee is as much a pleasure to visit at this time of year as the haunting solitude of Mitzpe Ramon, and there is never a short supply of congenial locals in Tel Aviv or Haifa to make one feel right at home. Israel’s less appealing side, however, remains its greatest indictment, and for those willing to witness first hand the occupation and daily indignities of Palestinian life, it becomes clear that only Israel can decide if and when it will finally disentangle the noble Magen David from its present web of oppression.