Friday, November 30, 2007

Reflection on Israeli Palestinian Relationships

I just saw the video clip Moshe and Munir on CBC. I have to admit to being very moved - and I recommend you spend the 15 minutes or so it takes to watch it. But it also made me think.

In the video we see Moshe and Munir: an Israeli and a Palestinian, former employer and employee, and former friends. They both long for the "good old days." They both lament the current atmosphere of violence. And they both lament the current lack of contact between them and between Israeli Jews and West Bank Palestinians in general.

But you have to notice that it is Moshe who is afraid to visit Munir in the West Bank and it is Munir who is prevented from traveling far from home, and certainly not allowed into "Israel proper". But it is, in fact, Munir who actually suffers from violence (his friend is shot by a settler and his olive harvest disrupted.) Munir longs to see Moshe's son, now grown up but whom he remembers as a young boy. But Moshe arranges to visit without his son - who is "away" at university - a lame excuse for anyone familiar with the size of Israel.

For Munir, the current situation is a tragedy. For Moshe a sad inconvenience. Both recall "the good old days", but clearly Moshe can easily live with the present, while for Munir it is very difficult.

But what of "the good old days"? - before the first intifada (which is what prompted then defense minister Yitzhak Rabin to making it harder and harder for West Bank Palestinians to work in Israel.) Were they really that good? Well, they both were and they weren't.

I too remember when it was quite normal and pleasant for an Israeli Jew to go shopping or just walking around the old city of Jerusalem; when Jewish friends exchanged the addresses of a really good bakery in Ramallah; or when we hiked through Wadi Kelt from Jerusalem to Jericho, stopping to talk to Beduin along the way. (Now those Bedouin have been moved off the land into miserable camps.) To be sure, the relationship was unequal. Moshe, after all was the employer and Munir the employee - it would be a very rare case indeed to find the ethnic and class roles reversed. And when we went shopping in Palestinian areas it was mostly for the bargains - depressed prices due to the lower wages, rents, and standards of living in the Arab areas. And when we went hiking, it was we who had an armed guard, not the Bedouin who we met along the way.

But the Palestinian economy was better then than it had been under the Jordanians, and the discrimination was mostly unofficial and of the kind that minorities everywhere are - unfortunately - accustomed to. What changed?

In a word - Settlements. This is original sin for which both Israelis and Palestinians (though mostly Palestinians it must be clearly said) are suffering. Once Israel started expropriating land and water for exclusive Jewish use, once it became clear that Israel wished to annex all or large parts of the West Bank, and to change their basic character, to develop them exclusively for the benefit of Jews, it was only a matter of time until Palestinians started to actively resist. For the first 20 years of the occupation, it was mostly peaceful, and Jews and West Bank Arabs mingled and lived in a common economy. But after the intense settlement activity of the late 70's and 80's the local Palestinians finally had had enough. The Palestinian resistance moved from overseas (the PLO in Tunis) to the local front. The first intifada (1988-1992) was a local resistance in response the land expropriations and the now clear and growing apartheid policies on the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel's response only made things worse. Palestinians threw rocks. Israeli soldiers fired live ammunition. Worse, Israel responded by making it almost impossible for Palestinians to work in Israel proper (and at the same time started importing vast numbers of foreign workers from Thailand, Bulgaria, Romania, etc.) and by imposing roadblocks and checkpoints. The Palestinian economy began to collapse, and Palestinians and Jewish civilians ceased to have any contact at all. (Of course Palestinians encountered Jewish soldiers all the time. In fact a Palestinian under the age of 20 has very likely never seen any Jew except for a soldier or a settler.) The Olso period (1993- 2000) only mitigated the shootings and (many of the) road blocks. Separation and lack of economic opportunity continued. As of course did the settlements. The Oslo period saw a huge growth of the Jewish population of the West Bank settlements, along with more land expropriations and by-pass roads - designed to create even less contact between Palestinians and Israelis.

So that brings us to today, and to Moshe and Munir, pining for the good old days of the "benign occupation" when people "just got along." Can we ever go back? Probably not. But if there is to be any hope for a rapprochement, it will have to come after the dismantling of most of the settlement infrastructure and a semblance of equality between the sides.

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