Absurdity Surrounds Reality Surrounds Absurdity
Monday, September 19, 2011 7:11:14 AM
In the rising clamor of the Palestinian statehood bid, Abbas and his detractors have agreed on at least one thing: the day after recognition, if/when it comes, independence will not magically appear in Palestinian laps. Israel’s cynical “facts on the ground” policy (euphemistic mega-stretch for illegal walls and settlements) has virtually ensured that whatever state emerges will be geographically non-contiguous, economically unviable and impossible to govern. The day-after maneuvering is still unclear, in part because of the unpredictability of the far-right Netanyahu government, the further-right US Congress, and the number of pursestrings they control between them, but that would be nothing new to the Middle East. Opacity is a wonderful means for the unelected to stay in power, plus we’ll all know what’s up in a week or two, and I want to stay in the present.
The current realities of Israeli occupation are perpetually in danger of “normalization,” which is a properly boring word to describe how something once infuriating becomes boring. As an outsider with family and friends “on the outside” of the conflict, I have some use in recognizing and publicizing how abnormal Israel is. It is literally speaking the least I can do. But as long as we’re still in the age of irony, it will always be the popular reaction to sniff at injustice than to stare it indignantly down—I hope I’m not being obtuse in saying normalization is not a strange process at all, but a normal one. It certainly has its up-sides. Journalism generally and an understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict specifically would just not be possible were it not for the clearheaded cynics who normalize what they see. But there are experiences in which absurdity overwhelms.
Two West Bank locations stand out for this: the old city of Hebron, 45 minutes to the south, and the village of al-Walajeh, twenty minutes to the west. I’ve written about both places before, but like I said, it doesn’t get any less weird on second notice. I am compelled to bring them up again.
This is Apartheid Street in Hebron, formerly known as al-Shuhada Street (subtle name change effected by the Hebron city government). It’s the main entrance to the illegal Jewish settlement inside Hebron, where 600 settlers live cordoned off from 200,000 Palestinians, guarded by an enormous force of Israeli soldiers who escort them wherever they like in large, armored troop transports. I wrote about it last year. It has achieved infamy among occupation-tourists as a place of stark clarity, the place you have to see if you really want to know what the occupation is like.
On Apartheid Street, Palestinians are not allowed to drive cars or walk without a special permit. All of the Palestinian shops are closed and many have Stars of David spray painted on them. Those Palestinians whose houses line the street but do not have permission to walk around have their balconies caged like this:
This is the view from inside:
If Palestinians choose to open their doors, they get a nice visit from the army.
The commander speaks very good Arabic (it is an irony bordering, appropriately, on the absurd that he speaks better than I do) when he tells this woman to close her door and stay inside her house. Then he and his troops rumble down the quiet street.
The inverse of Apartheid Street is al-Walajeh, a Palestinian village one day to be completely surrounded by the Israeli wall. About 2,000 people live in al-Walajeh, many of them hearing intermittently about the latest Israeli High Court ruling deeming where the wall can and can’t be built—the truth is that the Israeli army is functionally deaf to the court and has opted to encircle the village, appropriating the highest land for settlements…
…and using the rest for to build the wall. When the wall is complete, al-Walajeh residents will have to enter and leave the village each day through one gate to get access to health, education, and employment. The settlers living on the other side of get subsidized housing and well-maintained access roads and of course, the fourth most powerful army in the world for when they want to take a stroll.
Protesters seen here…
…have about as much luck as the woman in Hebron had leaving her house. It doesn’t get anywhere:
So there’s the lay of the land: illegal settlements surround the Palestinians of al-Walajeh and the illegal settlement of Hebron is surrounded by Palestinians. Both cases mock the basic geographic understanding of a state, but it is within precisely these constraints that Palestinians are asking for one. Is it smart?
A friend of mine contends that the bid will snap American diplomats out of their complacence, and on other days I would agree. Where indignation lacks, everything seems normal. The only people walking down Apartheid Street who are visibly unhappy are the internationals, many of whom wear fair-trade woven pantaloons, thereby canceling themselves out of all relevance. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ban Ki-Moon, Catherine Ashton, Tony Blair—to my knowledge these people have never been to Apartheid Street or al-Walajeh. And so, by virtue of the Israeli government’s international legitimacy, both are allowed to exist. Perhaps if the Palestinian government were to achieve parity through the UN, it could call attention to the absurdity.
But I am not hopeful. I remember how slowly and uncomfortably the Obama administration reacted to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria. I know the vise grip the Israel lobby has on Congress (and so does bellweather Thomas Friedman) and I wish I could forget how face-palmingly, alarmingly shortsighted Americans get around election time. Everybody is going to be playing Israel’s best friend for political points and nobody will bother to ask questions of Netanyahu. The only real pressure on him will come from his right—the settlers who this week announced they will march on Palestinian cities, armed with live ammunition, to “make it clear to the Arabs who the home owners are.”
There are a lot of Palestinian flags flying from the roofs, distributed by the UN statehood bid campaign people and eagerly placed by the shabaab…
..and I can’t help but wonder what happens to them after the US vetoes, for the 43rd time, a resolution (ostensibly) against Israel that the rest of the world supports. Tonight the most level-headed Palestinian I know—Ayed, flawless-English-speaking landlord, father of four, aspiring burrito shop owner, master’s degree holder in philosophy—said the sense of frustration and inevitability around the camp reminded him of the beginning of the Second Intifada. In the hour it took to write this, I counted nine fighter jets flying over Bethlehem. I don’t know where it goes from here.