A growing divide: impressions from a month in the northern West Bank.
In Palestine people like to speak of bubbles. Ramallah is a bubble, because the reality there is so disconnected from that of the rest of the territory. Spend some time in Nablus and you will realize that the city is a bubble too, although a much different one. In Ramallah the presence of internationals and returning expat Palestinians has created a bar and nightclub scene that is unheard of in the rest of the West Bank. In Nablus people still hide their drinks, drugs and mixed gender socializing but the city as a whole enjoys a lifestyle that is completely disconnected from that of the surrounding towns and villages.
Bubbles or reservations?
The West Bank, the territory that is supposed to become a Palestinian state, is fiercely disputed land. Far from the peace process negotiations, Israelis are taking it into their own hands to ensure that the Palestinian state never exceeds a few disconnected swathes of land. Working within the framework of areas A, B and C the Israeli authorities and settlers are applying various forms of pressure to ethnically cleanse the West Bank and push the majority of the population into small pockets of Area A. While the authorities systematically deny building permits for citizens in area B and C (partial or full Israeli control), settlers play their part by attacking and intimidating villagers, farmers and shepherds. They routinely burn or chop down trees, torch cars and buildings and throw rocks or fire live ammunition at homes in villages that sit in their way.
Meanwhile international aid is focused on programs within Area A. The emphasis on security means that millions of dollars are spent on training Palestinian police forces to maintain order and silence popular anger while the Palestinians in real need of security are beyond the jurisdiction of this police force.
With Israeli efforts focused on making life unlivable for Palestinians in areas B and C and international efforts directed at making conditions less unbearable in area A it appears that there is a concerted effort to usher the traditionally rural and farming population of Palestine into land deprived urban reservations. Although bubble is a tempting word to use, with its evocations of carefree lightness and freedom it seems more accurate to name these pockets of territories after a relevant historical precedent. Not unlike the Palestinians, the native inhabitants of North America were removed from their land and forced to negotiate treaties by an overwhelmingly more powerful foe. These treaties were regularly violated until the native population was cornered into reservations, small pockets of territory where they could enjoy an illusion of autonomous rule.
Red placards mark the entrance to these reservations, reminding Israeli citizens that it is dangerous and illegal for them to enter area A. Since my last visit in 2011 I have noticed a proliferation of these signs. Their effect is chilling as these signs mark the only real limits of the territory the Israelis are willing to concede to indigenous rule.
The results of security coordination and Fayyad economics along with Israeli apartheid and settler violence are best observed in Nablus and its surrounding villages.
Within the city people live peaceful and modern lifestyles. Billboards advertise for the latest cars, televisions and fridges, shopping streets are crowded and cafes and restaurants are opening at a wild rate. It seems like there is an abundance of disposable income, despite there being a shortage of jobs. Many young professionals commute to Ramallah on a daily basis, something that would have seemed impossible when the Huwwara checkpoint was still in service. Security coordination is working wonders. During the day the Palestinian Authority enforces its dubious interpretation of order while at night the Israeli Army is permitted to enter quietly and arrest young men from different neighborhoods. These operations barely earn a mention in the morning news. The result is a city that closes its eyes while its youth disappear in the dark of night.
Outside the city there is no security and no need for coordination since it is all handled directly by the Israelis. In the suburbs and surrounding hills settlers run rampage on a population neglected by its ‘authority’. In Burin, Iraq Burin, Awarta, Qusra, Jaloud, Qaryut, Kufr Qaddum, Beit Lid and many other villages the stories are the same: arson attacks, destruction of trees and property, killing of livestock and attacks on the farmers, shepherds, and families have become common place. Here there is no Palestinian Authority to protect the villagers. If they wish to file a complaint they are invited to do so in the closest Israeli police station, which often happens to be in the settlement from where the assailants came. The economic situation is harsh since they not only face the hardships of peasant life, they must also sit by and watch as their livelihood is vandalized. Slowly and steadily the Israeli occupation machine is putting an unbearable amount of pressure on these communities to push the younger generations to move out.
As the city dwellers enjoy a recently regained sense of comfort and stability they have also grown disconnected from the events taking place just a few kilometers outside their shopping districts and modern cafes. In the villages, where jobs are few, the economic situation is difficult and the security situation harder still. Nablus is a city traditionally connected to its villages by trade, yet it has become separated from them and oblivious to the hardships they endure. This is a tribute to the success of Fayyad economics, Dayton security and Israeli segregation. The lasting impression is one a territory fragmented and divided, where each community lives in its own bubble, unaware of the realities facing their fellow citizens.
Hope is not the dominating emotion on my mind after spending a month in Nablus.
In Palestinian areas, the extent of the Palestinian Authority’s submission to Israeli wishes is only matched by the patriotic fervor deployed by the citizens who support it. Yellow flags and Arafat portraits remain sacred symbols that can be paraded by the Authority to rally support for the next round of concessions. The transformation of Palestinian society into a typical American backed Arab dictatorship is near complete. One member of the Istikhbarat (military intelligence) told me the society is so full of informants working for the various security services that agencies are arresting each other’s moles accidentally. Most Palestinians will agree that it is preferable to spend time in Israeli prisons than to be interrogated by the Palestinian security services.
Pacified by comfort and stability, the city dwellers appear complacent in the face of the brutal assaults that their neighbors endure. Their attitude is understandable in the face of the difficulties they have faced over the past decade. Yet this lack of concern for the campaign of ethnic cleansing taking place on their doorstep is frightening. It shows how successful the Israelis have been in separating segments of Palestinian society from each other. To the outside observer, who has the time and resources to travel in between these different places and witness the different situations people are facing it is clear that there is only one authority that rules the land of the British mandate, that there is one class of Palestinians profiting from this situation and that events are heading in one direction: the confinement of the Palestinian population in small, overcrowded, disconnected pockets. Call it bubbles, reservations, Bantustans or islands, it remains the result of displacement, uprooting and ethnic cleansing.