Promises, Promises: Palestinian Gallows Humor and Boats

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Jewish settlers in the illegal West Bank outpost of Evyatar, June 2021.
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

“When the time comes, we can pull strings for you so you can stay in Palestine,” (meaning the country from the river to the sea) my friend Ahlam said to me one day during the last war in Gaza. Attempting to explain black humor ruins it, especially when it comes to Palestinian gallows jokes about expulsion. But let’s give it a try.

What she meant was clear. As in every previous round of fighting in which Hamas demonstrated its military capabilities, in May too, it involved hints and wishful thinking that very soon Israel would be crushed; the liberation of Palestine was approaching; and finally, there would be justice.

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Ahlam, whose mother and family were expelled from Safed in 1948 and whose home there is now occupied by Jews, was in her own way mocking Hamas’ pretensions about its might. She went straight to the next step in this fantasy of victory and justice: the Jews will leave or be expelled, but she will speak to the people in charge so that I, her Jewish friend, could remain.

Your promise is an upgrade from what Nidal and Bassam promised, I said, referring to a conversation a decade ago. In the early days of the so-called Arab Spring, there was the same heady sense of role reversal: in the Arab countries, democracy would be established, and Israel’s defeat as a result would be only a matter of time.

So you’ll throw us into the sea? I asked Nidal and Bassam, and they replied: Yes, but we’ll make sure you have a boat. Need I explain that this black humor was au lieu of a banal discussion on the limits (or absence thereof) of Israel’s power to destroy?

A few days after the recent war, I met Omar. “Next year I’m moving to Haifa, you’ll see,” he informed me. It felt like a continuation of my conversation with Ahlam, who is an old friend of his as well. He, too, was deterred by the gauzy fantasies Hamas had been weaving about a military victory, and expressed his repulsion via an imagined solution that Israel wouldn’t allow: A West Banker is taking the natural, simple step of moving to Haifa. I told him about Ahlam’s promise to tap connections on my behalf, and he turned serious: “There’s a good chance that next year you’ll find me in the Al Wahdat refugee camp in Jordan.” He wasn’t joking.

Nor was Ahlam joking last week when we met again in her apartment, and I complimented the houseplants on the balcony. “At least take care of this apartment for me, or tell your young friends in Tel Aviv to take care of it,” she said suddenly, and explained: “If not for me, then for my grandsons.” It was like a knife in the stomach.

She confirmed: She is constantly haunted by the fear of expulsion, of a new Nakba (catastrophe). She lives in the shadow of the ever-expanding settlements and is experiencing the banishment of the Palestinians from the expanses of the West Bank, so it makes sense for her to be afraid that Israeli forces will expel her and her family again, and hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians.

The settlements and the constant vigorous construction in the West Bank, for Jews and for Jews alone, sketch a clear vector: making the Palestinians disappear. The Palestinians are the superfluous factor in the Israeli psyche, and it’s only logical for them to disappear. Ahlam and Omar and their ilk are personally experiencing the subconscious (and for quite a few – the conscious) Israeli desire to live in a country “free of Arabs.” That’s why every piece of land that is blocked to Palestinians (note the illegal outpost Evyatar and the recent “compromise” with its leaders) is a Jewish achievement.

This week, I met Nidal. “After the Palestinian security forces murdered Nizar Banat (an outspoken critic of the Palestinian Authority) while he was under arrest, I started to become afraid,” he said. “They can do that to anyone who doesn’t support them. There’s no solution except to emigrate.” I immediately thought of Ghazi, a young Gazan who messaged me during the war: “I’m living in Norway. I fled from the wars and from Hamas,” he wrote.

I’ve known Nidal since he was a child, therefore I allowed myself to chide him: That’s exactly what the Israelis want – for you to emigrate. But he didn’t need to say it for me to understand. The oppression and imperviousness of your own leadership are more painful than the oppression and the wickedness of a foreign power.

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