Bibi or Benny? Palestinians in West Bank Refugee Camp Fear Israeli Election Will Bring More of the Same

Even a man defending the prime minister's integrity against the corruption charges argues that, whether it's Netanyahu or Gantz, Israelis only think about power

Ben Lynfield
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Two Palestinian schoolchildren walking past a mural depicting late Palestinian activist Ahmed Mosleh in the Deheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, in the West Bank.
Two Palestinian schoolchildren walking past a mural depicting late Palestinian activist Ahmed Mosleh in the Deheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, in the West Bank.Credit: Nasser Nasser / AP
Ben Lynfield

Only a few miles away from Israel, in the West Bank’s crowded and impoverished Deheisheh refugee camp, no one is holding their breath about the upcoming Knesset election.

This is the case even though whoever is prime minister can affect all aspects of life: From the economy to personal safety to the ability to move around. In short, an Israeli prime minister holds the power to inflict greater misery on the camp’s over 16,000 inhabitants — or, in theory, ease their plight.

“It’s not important who will win,” says Nader Mana’a, 58, who custom-designs traditional embroidered dresses. “Whoever is prime minister will perpetuate the occupation. It’s the same system. The Palestinian situation gets worse with any Israeli prime minister.”

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The one exception, says electric appliance store owner Daoud Odeh, 69, was Yitzhak Rabin, who was elected in 1992 and signed the Oslo self-rule agreement with Yasser Arafat. This could have paved the way for Palestinian statehood were he not assassinated by Yigal Amir in 1995. “Rabin was a man of peace, but he was assassinated because he was a man of peace,” Odeh adds.

Just how far the sides are from peace, and Palestinians are from a state, is visible in the expansion of Israeli settlements that nearly enclose the Bethlehem area of which Deheisheh is an integral part. Despite nominal self-rule, the camp is the target of frequent nighttime raids by the Israeli army to arrest wanted suspects.

Regarding the election, Odeh echoes Mana’a’s view: “You must know that this state of occupation with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu or without Netanyahu is the same,” he says.

He shows pictures on his cellphone of the remnants of his family’s village of Sufla, south of Jerusalem, which was captured by Jewish forces during the fighting that accompanied Israel’s establishment in 1948, known to Palestinians as the Nakba (catastrophe). About 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled, mostly to what became refugee camps like Deheisheh.

“I have no faith in any Israeli party,” Odeh says. “We as Palestinians have had our land raped and we want it back. We want peace, we don’t want war. We want Israel to change its aggressive policy.” Odeh predicts Netanyahu will win.

Inside Israel, change toward the Palestinians is hardly being mentioned as the campaign heads toward its climax and voters who are being bombarded with opinion polls and advertisements argue over whether Netanyahu will — or should — be ousted after a decade in power.

This time, the election is a real contest, with the Kahol Lavan electoral alliance of challenger Benny Gantz — a deliberately inscrutable former army chief of staff — tallying ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud in recent polls. Inside Israel, Netanyahu’s foes are anxiously waiting for his hoped-for demise on Election Day, April 9.

Back in Deheisheh, in a water-pipe and tobacco store next to a wall with a drawing of a slain youth from the camp, owner Maarouf Amer says he is following the election campaign “24 hours a day.” Amer, an Egyptian married to a camp resident, speaks Hebrew so he monitors developments in the Israeli media. Somewhat surrealistically, he defends Netanyahu’s integrity against the corruption charges.

“I think he’s innocent,” he says about Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s finding that Netanyahu made a deal to ease regulation of Israeli telecommunications giant Bezeq in exchange for favorable media coverage by the Walla website owned by the same tycoon. “Bribery is a question of money, not journalistic coverage,” Amer says, echoing Netanyahu’s line of defense.

“Why is all of this coming just a month before the election?” he asks. “He is innocent until proven guilty.”

Still, Amer is pessimistic the election will produce anything positive. “Things will change when the Israelis’ thinking will change. Today, their thinking is about power.”

Palestinian analysts, meanwhile, are split between a wait-and-see approach and utter skepticism about Gantz. The former chief of staff, who in early campaign messages boasted of the number of “terrorists” killed in the 2014 Gaza war he oversaw, has pledged not to divide Jerusalem and asserted that Israel’s eastern border will be the Jordan River Valley, casting doubt that he contemplates a viable Palestinian state.

“We don’t know his real agenda. What we are hearing is not clear enough,” says Ashraf al-Ajrami, a former Palestinian Authority minister for prisoner affairs. “We want to see him as prime minister with a clear agenda supporting the two-state solution on the 1967 borders. We don’t accept positions that decrease Palestinian demands.”

“I hope he will defeat Netanyahu,” Ajrami adds. “We want to see change in Israel. It will be an opportunity to start negotiations.”

Veteran West Bank commentator Ghassan Khatib begs to differ with that assessment. “I don’t see significant differences between the candidates and the parties. They all are not ready to end occupation or go for a historic compromise,” he says

“As far as the Palestinians are concerned, Gantz will not bring any new positions or approaches,” says Khatib, a former PA planning minister. “He seems to be presenting a line as hard as Netanyahu,” he adds.

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