Palestinian Reality Is So Fake It’s Normal

Behind the events of October 2015 stands Palestinian youth, which grew up in the hopeless reality of the Oslo Accords. In East Jerusalem and elsewhere, they deal with checkpoints instead of a livelihood, a barrier instead of movement and a failed leadership instead of a state

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas surrounded by schoolchildren in Ramallah.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas surrounded by schoolchildren in Ramallah.Credit: Reuters

At the gleaming new, glass-walled convenience store, a few young men gather to buy something to drink. The store is located at the Al-Huda gas station by the northeastern exit from Ramallah, and the youths are taking a break from their demonstration against the Israeli occupation – namely, throwing stones at the checkpoint. They are all masked, with different-colored kaffiyehs covering their faces. Quite naturally, the masked youths hand their coins to the guy behind the counter. Equally relaxed, he takes their money, asks them something and they answer, their voices a little muffled through the cloth. One of the young men with a kaffiyeh fumbles around in his pocket and sees that he doesn’t have enough money on him. Another guy sporting a different-colored kaffiyeh pays for him. Suddenly aware of what an odd sight they must look amid their collective anonymity, they stop and laugh behind their kaffiyehs. Some of the other shoppers, who aren’t masked, laugh along with them, displaying an affection reserved for the people faithfully representing them. Affection because now it is the turn of these young men to carry the torch in the race toward the goal that the former generations of runners has missed.

This scene occurred on one of the first days of October 2015, when the semblance of normality in the West Bank and East Jerusalem cracked again, under a wave of protests near the military positions that separate the Palestinian Authority enclaves from Area C (under full Israeli control) and the Israeli settlements: Stones that can’t hurt the soldiers; tear gas; shots fired at the protesters; overturned trash cans used as shields; military jeeps that pass through the checkpoint and approach the young men (so close that one was nearly run over and just managed to get out from under the tires); young women, their faces covered – who maybe also threw stones that didn’t hit the soldiers – run from the approaching soldiers or the clouds of tear gas; a journalist wearing a helmet shouts “Ouch!” and clutches his foot – a rubber-coated metal bullet has struck his shoe, which, luckily, was thick enough to keep the foreign body out, but he still feels the pain of the blow; an ambulance wails ... then suddenly all is silent; other young people come down from the hilltop opposite the checkpoint – some have already removed their kaffiyehs to reveal gel-slicked hair in a variety of styles; a paramedic sits idly next to a line of stretchers lying on the ground at the corner of a nearby street.

Here and at other protest sites, when the young men remove their kaffiyehs, one can recognize among them supporters of Fatah, Hamas, Palestinian leftist groups, some nonaffiliated, students mixing with the unemployed, rural folk and city folk and residents of the refugee camps, who always make up a significant number of the protesters. And alongside them the sons of Palestinian police officers and PA officials, and the children of day laborers who sneak into Israel to work. Without any flags from any organizations, without any party symbols.

Despite the danger and the risk of being killed by Israel Defense Forces fire even when the soldiers are not in danger (between October 2 and October 13, 15 protesters were killed by the IDF, including five minors aged 13-15 – six in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and nine in Gaza). Despite the injuries from live fire and rubber-coated bullets, despite the stink that sticks to the clothing because of the “skunk water” sprayed by the military forces and the stinging in the eyes and throat that persists long after fleeing from the tear gas, and despite the high chance of being arrested right away or afterward – their togetherness gives them energy and encouragement, and a feeling of brotherhood and involvement in something that will bring change. The PA security organizations, which don’t prevent them from protesting, probably keep a close watch to see they aren’t joined by armed Palestinians. That was the situation as of mid-October. It looks as if these young protesters don’t intend to let the mistakes of the second intifada and its rapid militarization reoccur.

Their togetherness is in stark contrast to the loneliness of other young Palestinians, mostly those East Jerusalem residents who decided to go out and kill Jews, mainly in Jerusalem. This is the dominant trademark of the events of October 2015. More than the protesters at the military checkpoints, the lone stabbers know that, given the collective hysteria among Israelis and the encouragement to kill anyone who looks like a “terrorist,” their chances of being killed are high. So they set out to kill and be killed, propelled by a deep personal despair and social anger that, even when not put into words, is completely understood by all of Palestinian society.

About three kilometers (1.8 miles) west of the closed Beit El checkpoint and the nearby plaza, still enveloped in clouds of tear gas, a mother of four sits and watches, live, the unequal confrontation by the checkpoint, which is being broadcast by the Falastin al-Yawm television channel associated with Islamic Jihad. She is furious at the PA channels and those associated with it, which are showing regular programming and not special broadcasts from the protest sites – as if all is normal. Like many other parents who admire the protesters, she admits to keeping a close eye on her own kids, to make sure they don’t go near the dangerous checkpoint. She says she also understands the stabbers and their mothers.

Double pain

On October 3, Muhannad Halabi, 18, conducted the first of the stabbing attacks when he murdered two Israeli Jews on Hagai Street in the Old City in Jerusalem. That night, when his name was announced, his parents stood shocked next to their home in the village of Surda, north of Ramallah, and watched a group of young men rejoicing and praising their son and his actions. Simultaneously, they braced for army forces to raid their house (they did, and they clashed). The soldiers came again the next night – this time with troops from the engineering corps who measured every room in the well-tended house, in preparation for its demolition.

In a voice that sounded like it came from the grave, the father described on Radio Sawt Falastin how the soldiers came and beat two of his sons. The next week, after the son’s funeral, the mother was interviewed by another radio station and gave the impression that she had come to terms with her son’s deed. He is in paradise now, she said. The broadcasters sounded relieved that she was toeing the line. It seemed like she’d been instructed to say what she did, to recite a line that other shocked and hurting parents before her had said. “No instructions. She has no choice but to talk and feel that way,” explained the mother of four who lives near the Beit El checkpoint. “That’s how she copes with the grief. She has to give meaning to her son’s death, to her suffering and the suffering to come.”

The young protesters and stabbers were born into the reality that was shaped by the Oslo Accords: Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank that can be cut off from each other at any given moment by a few soldiers and a spiked barrier; Palestinian policemen who hide in their headquarters whenever the Israeli army comes into town to arrest someone; settlements that keep growing and spreading; Israeli military checkpoints that are removed from one spot and then spring up in another; continuous images of destruction from Gaza; television that shows either funerals or military displays; East Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque, which are both so unreachable they may as well be on the moon; two Palestinian governments but no state; an official leadership for which most of the public has lost all trust and respect; separation barriers and barbed wire fences keeping families apart from their source of livelihood; the sea as an abstract concept that one sees in movies or on television, without ever getting to feel the waves or smell the salty air.

Meanwhile, the only Israelis they know are those living across the street in lush and beautiful colonial suburbs; soldiers whose job is to ensure the prosperity of the settlements; or Shin Bet security service officers who summon them or family members for questioning in the guise of an ice-breaking chat. This is the routine that masquerades for normality. The only place that can maybe compete for fake normalcy is East Jerusalem: a city united under Israeli rule and whose Palestinian residents live directly under Jewish control, where the only official message they receive is that it would be better if they disappeared.

Both operate within the internal Palestinian political vacuum: With two leaderships that are mutually hostile to each another, they have no leadership that will faithfully represent them, that will direct and lead them, one in which they can place their trust.

Not the same sea

Baha Alian was one of the two Jabal Mukkaber residents who carried out the stabbing and shooting attack on an Israeli bus in Jerusalem on October 13. Three Israelis were killed in the attack and more were wounded. Alian was shot and killed. About a year ago, he posted the “10 commandments for every shahid [martyr]” on his Facebook page. In the first one he talks about a lack of faith in the existing political groups. “I command the Palestinian organizations not to adopt my sacrificial action and death, because these belong to the homeland, not you,” he wrote, forbidding in advance the political bodies from donating money for his funeral and taking credit for his “achievement.”

The world that the parents and grandparents of these young people knew – the pre-Oslo world – was a lot simpler: They knew the sea, and if they weren’t in Gaza they knew Gazans and studied with them at the universities, along with Palestinian citizens of Israel. They could visit their parents’ old villages that were destroyed or turned into Jewish neighborhoods; they could travel to Jaffa or Haifa to work or visit friends and family that weren’t expelled in 1948. Jerusalem was their religious, cultural and economic capital, an integral part of their geography, sociology, history and entertainment. And they traveled to or from there on Palestinian buses run by companies that had obtained their license either under the British Mandate or during Jordanian rule. The vast majority supported one of the Palestinian political organizations, where they felt they had found a second home.

The Israeli occupation was direct, without the mediation of Palestinian liaison committees and police. Soldiers roamed within the towns and villages, there were no checkpoints separating communities – only a few on the dividing line between either side of the Green Line. The leadership lived abroad amid an aura of affection and trust. People knew they were fighting for the end of the occupation, they knew whom they were fighting against. The Israelis they knew were also regular people: Employers (some good, some bad), work colleagues and their children, partners in small businesses (restaurants, construction companies), grocery store workers, drivers. When their parents or grandparents took part in the first intifada, in the late 1980s, liberation and independence and the establishment of a state seemed around the corner. How beautiful were liberation and independence during the time of the direct occupation. And now their children and grandchildren are experiencing daily their parents’ dream that shattered into pieces and was glued back together into a fake normality.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is the leader most closely identified today with this detested false normality. It’s a show government devoid of all sovereignty, but with plenty of representatives basking in the title of minister; CEOs galore vying for salaries while the great majority doesn’t earn enough to get by; the growing presence of international aid organizations that write weekly reports about dispossession and the loss of human life while driving up the rent in Ramallah and Jerusalem; security personnel fanning out through the streets whenever the president’s convoy passes; the news that it is now forbidden to express criticism of Abbas on Facebook; when the newspapers you buy don’t report on really important things like the arrest of students identified with Hamas or the regular meetings for the exchange of information between Palestinian and Israeli security officials; the heads turned away when passing by the refugee camps, drowning in their bleak poverty just five minutes away from trendy restaurants; Jerusalem, where there isn’t a single political representative who can do anything for their Palestinian residents; ribbon-cutting ceremonies at brand-new glass towers and shopping centers that everyone knows won’t add many jobs given the Israeli limitations on freedom of movement. And so on and so on.

Over the past decade, Abbas hoped to buy enough time until the world came to its senses and intervened, keeping its promises to end the Israeli occupation. He begged Israel to give him a little rope and more excuses to keep buying time, to keep offering his people this fake normality. But now even he seems to realize the fakery has gone as far as it can.

These lines are being written in mid-October, when a thin line is all that separates a slide into a new round of bloodshed and new heights of Israeli oppression, annexation and settlement expansion – and a return to the semblance of normality. A temporary return, until the next wave comes and deepens the cracks.

The writer has been Haaretz’s correspondent in the occupied Palestinian territories since 1993.

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