The Profound Chasm in How Israelis and Palestinians See the Occupation

Equipped with notebook and camera, Nir Baram headed out to the field, spoke to settlers and Palestinians, and has offered some possible answers to the question preoccupying us for almost 50 years: What is occupation?

Palestinian children from the West Bank village of Beitillu look out onto the settlement of Nahliel.
Michal Fattal

“In a Land Beyond the Mountains,” by Nir Baram, Am Oved Publishers (in Hebrew); 181 pages, 59 shekels

Last month, I joined a delegation of international writers touring the occupied territories as part of a project sponsored by the Israeli anti-occupation NGO Breaking the Silence. Around 30 well-known authors were each asked, as part of this endeavor, to write an article on a subject related to the occupation of the West Bank, now entering its 50th year.

Nir Baram has taken the same journey, but by himself. During 2014-15, he traveled around, interviewed, observed and took notes. The result is “In a Land Beyond the Mountains,” the chronicle of a journey through the occupied territories in the West Bank. It goes without saying that the Gaza Strip was not on the itinerary; it was long ago dropped from the Israeli lexicon of “occupied territory.”

An author turns into a journalist, equips himself with camera, notebook and pen, and heads out into the field. This is the complete antithesis of the usual image of a novelist – hunched over a keyboard, concocting plots and characters, living in that grayish-colorful space between reality and fabrication. But the result of the author being dispatched to the field makes for a peculiar amalgam: documentary literature. Does such a thing even exist?

It certainly does. This type of literature dispenses with the element of fabrication, as much as possible, and aims to base itself on the author’s five senses and on the interpretation he lends to the information he has gleaned by means of those senses. This type of literature also relinquishes the title “belles lettres,” a literature that is an end in itself. Belles lettres is writing based on artistic, aesthetic principles of observation and experience, such that the personal dimension of the author carries much weight in the shaping of the text.

Israeli author Nir Baram.
Berenice Bautista, AP

Documentary literature is supposed to work against this type of writing: To the greatest degree possible, it should nullify the personal desires of the writer, and strive to construct an “objective” reality. Baram may not be 100 percent dedicated to this premise, but he certainly succeeds in providing a stage for that sort of reality, where it (the reality) features as the main protagonist, constructed from situations, interviews, monologues, inner thoughts and descriptions. He also dispenses with the pretense of being an objective journalist, and succeeds in maintaining his artistic style with a clear, characteristic technique. This is one of the book’s major achievements.

“In a Land Beyond the Mountains” contains 11 chapters, each of which tackles a different issue, place or group of people. These include East Jerusalem, outposts and settlements throughout the West Bank, the Palestinian town of Barta (which straddles both sides of the Green Line), Palestinian refugee camps and cities, Kibbutz Nirim. One may, of course, argue about the sites he selected to summarize the situation in the occupied territories – a situation that Baram calls “the ghost time.” One can also speculate about the absence in the book of Hebron (including its Jewish settlements, along Shuhada Street) or the large-scale and painful land grab occurring in the Jordan Valley, but any such contention would be just another attempt to force an interpretation-dependent, external perspective onto the amorphous question: What is occupation?

The common thread that links all the chapters is the fact that all the places described are, as the saying goes, “beyond the mountains.” The book’s title evokes the play by Harold Pinter, “Mountain Language,” in which he writes about a despotic regime that forbids the mountain people to speak in their original ethnic language. A sort of non-physical occupation, more of a consciousness-and-identity occupation. And this is also the occupation described in Baram’s book. In it, the author identifies a problem that is essentially related to language: “There has always been a large gap between the world the Palestinians see and the world the Israelis see, but in recent years this hasn’t been so much an argument over the narrative, or over the fairness or abnormality of the situation, so much as that, for every event, every death, every incident, there seems to be a Palestinian version and an Israeli version.”

The State of Israel has worked diligently for decades to widen this gap, deepening it in order to attain several goals, which Baram cites: enabling the continuation of the status quo at minimal cost, and making people forget 1948 as the formative year of the conflict and replacing it with 1967. This gives rise to the absurdity in which every book/article/demonstration marking the anniversary of the occupation becomes part of a conscious attempt to forget 1948. On the one hand, there must be commemoration and remembrance; on the other, all the writings and demonstrations become part and parcel of the effort to forget it – even if that is not their intention.

In any event, beyond the mountains, there is no horizon and no hope. No real sense of time. No precise definition of individual freedom or desire. Perhaps herein lies the decisive effect of 50 years of occupation.

Baram is an inquisitive author, with the capacity to contain contradictory opinions. His encounter with settlers succeeds in eliciting credible and sincere quotes and dialogues, thus revealing the thoughts and desires of those who control the land beyond the mountains. Beyond the slogans and messages, Baram exposes a small part of the diverse world in which the masters of the land live.

Politician and settlement advocate Dani Dayan admits as much. “I am willing to commit injustices on behalf of the existence of the Jewish people.” This is the direct and unsurprising rejoinder to the statement ascribed to the late prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, “It is permissible to lie on behalf of the Land of Israel.”

Sarah Eliash, who founded a popular religious girls’ high school in the settlement of Kedumim, goes even further with her sincerity – a sincerity that is essentially based on a moral blind spot that assumes the guise of pure morality: “It is as clear as day to me that if we ended the regime that you call occupation and left this territory, we would be doing harm to a lot of innocent Palestinians.”

The land of the settlers as a light unto the nations.

Source of hope

The Palestinians in Baram’s book are portrayed as a people with a range of opinions. Some of the old-timers seek to promote an initiative called “One homeland, two states”; there are former Hamas convicts who established a school for Hebrew-language instruction after being released from prison; entrepreneurs and pioneers in the economics field; shopkeepers and merchants looking to make money by means of advancing financial ties with Palestinian citizens of Israel. The element of initiative, mubadra, is frequently mentioned in the books, and is a source of hope and inspiration in spite of everything else that is going on.

On the other hand, increasingly more voices are being heard that reflect a sense of acceptance of the end of the idea of two states for two peoples. Some of Baram’s interviewees even dispense with political definitions altogether, focusing instead on what they consider to be the most important thing: Palestinians’ day-to-day existence under the occupation. As Khaled from Hebron declares, “The Palestinians are prepared for one state, two states, the main thing is that the occupation end We want to change the day-to-day, we want free movement, and any plan that changes the situation is good. The debate held among you Israelis is more abstract. It is always focused on the principles of the final settlement, because you do not feel the occupation.”

This is a substantive diagnosis delineated in the book: The stronger, more dominant side promotes a discourse of written agreements, details and minutiae, whereas the weaker and subjugated side is focused on a discussion about which restrictions can be eased and improvements made that will enable it to stay afloat until the final draft of a resolution is inked.

Consequently, the ability of the strong to make life difficult through a regime of permits and bureaucracy takes the discourse further away from the broader issues, focusing it more closely on the minor details associated with categorization of territories, types of permits and an assortment of stricter or more lenient measures. Baram offers this spot-on description: “breaking the geographical expanse into differently shaped pieces that have fallen out of the puzzle, and all this in order not to have to deal with the entire puzzle – the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the larger questions that they raise.”

Baram sums up his thoughts and uncertainties in the epilogue, in the form of questions and reflections. But he is convinced of one thing: “The model of separation between Jews and Palestinians has collapsed – geographically, demographically and politically. Now the question is, which political model can supplant the separation model?”

This is in essence the question that will likely preoccupy Israelis who still remember those beyond the mountain. But those paying the price for the Israelis who forget and are apathetic will continue to ask the critical and, as far as they’re concerned, no-less important question: Will a new checkpoint be put up near my house tomorrow?

Ala Hlehel’s new novel (in Arabic), “Au Revoir, Akko,” is due to be translated into Hebrew and English later this year.