From Ramallah: Who wants peace?

Yesterday Tony Blair was named the Quartet’s envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Israelis say they are happy with this appointment, and so does the PA, but many Palestinians – and everyone whose opinion I trust on the Middle East – are dubious, to say the least. The war in Iraq and Blair’s behavior during the wars in Lebanon and Gaza last summer are two strikes against him, not to mention the perception here and everywhere that, as my Arabic teacher said yesterday, “Blair is Bush’s tail.” Robert Fisk’s reaction to the news is definitely worth reading.

Some people are talking about the events of the last few weeks as presenting a new opportunity for peace. I wish I could agree. What kind of peace would this renewed effort bring?

Last weekend I went to Bethlehem and stayed at Ibdaa’ Cultural Center in the Dheisheh refugee camp nearby. We met with a group of teenagers from the camp who are participating in a blogging program that tries to link Palestinian refugees in different camps to one another and provide teenagers with a means of self-expression. (The same organization also runs a really great English language site about refugees.) Five other PAS students and I sat in on a planning meeting and then had a discussion with the eight teenagers and three young women about my age, who were leading the meeting.

We talked about whether the blogging project could change anything, about the occupation and about peace. These 14 and 15-year-olds are not hopeful about the future of Palestine and have no illusions that their blogs can do anything to help their situation. They don’t believe there will be peace between Israel and Palestine anytime soon, and they cite two reasons: Israel doesn’t want peace, and the rest of the world – particularly the Unites States – doesn’t want peace.

A 15-year-old girl qualified that analysis for us. There are many Israelis who want peace, she said, but the Israeli government doesn’t. Likewise, a boy told us he understood the difference between the American people and the American government. It’s the American government that is to blame for what is happening to his people, he said.

But that argument only goes so far. As convenient as this dichotomy is for promoting goodwill between Palestinians and Americans and Palestinians and Israelis, the sad truth is that to a great extent the American and Israeli governments are representing the wishes of their people.

One of the group’s leaders – an Arab Israeli – argued this point to the students. Israelis want security, she said, and that hardly resembles peace for people in the West Bank and Gaza. Just look at the wall, she said. More occupation means security – the facade of peace – for Israelis, but more violence and suffering for the Palestinians.

I went to a panel yesterday in Jerusalem about the role of the international community in the peace process, and Shlomo Ben-Ami, the former Israeli foreign minister, made a similar statement. Israel and Palestine cannot produce an agreement themselves, he said, because the political realities in each of their countries will not allow it. “The Israel that I know – not the Israel of my dreams, but the Israel that I know – has much more in common with Hamas than with the PLO,” he said. Israelis in general, he believes, are not ready to make the concessions that are necessary for peace.

So what would peace here look like, and whose is it to give? For a long time, the peace process here was based on the idea of “land for peace.” Israel would return land to the Palestinians in exchange for “peace” – as though peace was something in the Palestinians’ power to give.

“Peace,” of course, meant that the Palestinian resistance would stop. The resistance to the occupation, then, was expected to end before the occupation itself. Hope as we might, that couldn’t and didn’t happen. But even if it had, would there have been peace? Is peace just an end to Palestinian bombings and Palestinian demonstrations (which, judging by the IDF’s response, Israel also sees as a threat)? Stop complaining about your situation, we seem to say to the Palestinians, and then we can talk about where and how you might live. Stop trying to resist us, and then we will stop oppressing you. That strategy seems neither just nor pragmatic.

There is inherent violence in the occupation, and whenever we talk about peace we have to understand that. The wall and the checkpoints are violent, not only because they are strangling the Palestinian economy and preventing travel to school, work and to visit family, but because they are a constant reminder of humiliation and powerlessness. (One of the leaders of the blogging group told us that she was hospitalized once for depression, which she attributed to the stress of going through three checkpoints a day for four years in order to go to school. Writing, she said, has finally helped her cope.) Real peace requires an end to occupation. What exactly that will look like for the Palestinians and Israelis and what kind of state or states will exist here remains to be seen. But if we say we want peace, we have to want freedom, rights and land for Palestinians.

I’m not sure how sincere America or Israel is in its desire for that kind of peace. For Palestinians, because they are the occupied, peace is ultimately the only means through which they will get their rights. Israelis need peace, too, but it’s harder for the occupier to see this. Israel has other tools at its disposal to get what it wants. The wall and the settlements take land and resources without peace. The checkpoints bring a sense of security without peace. Israel and the United States have the ultimate power over the situation, and that makes it both more necessary and less likely for them to make the concessions that are necessary for peace.

In the meantime, the occupation and the resistance continue. The IDF this week conducted major operations in Gaza and Nablus, against both Fatah and Hamas, in which at least two civilians were killed. (Al Jazeera notes that the Nablus incursion also prevented students from taking their final exams.) These incursions occurred despite strong condemnation from the Palestinian Authority, to which Israel and the U.S. have so eagerly pledged their support.

As Saeb Erekat, the head negotiator for the Palestinians, said at the panel yesterday, “The Middle East is going down the toilet faster than people think.”


From Ramallah: What happened last week?

I've been thinking about my last post and trying to get a better grasp on the significance of what has happened here over the last few weeks. As I wrote about before, I’m intuitively a little uncomfortable with the media coverage I’ve been seeing. It seems to exaggerate the sense of tension and the significance of specific actions taken by Fatah and Hamas. But I feel strange saying that, because clearly developments over the past few weeks are hugely significant.

I was talking to Martin, one of my friend's roommates, yesterday about what he thought. Martin's a Brit who just made a short documentary about Marwan Barghouti and seems to be tuned into the political situation. Most Palestinians, especially those in Ramallah, are happy that Hamas is out of the government, because it means that Western aid will return. What they have learned over the past year and a half, Martin said, is that if they elect the wrong party, they will be isolated and essentially starved into submission. If they elect the party supported by Israel and the U.S. they will not see their political goals realized – or even pursued, really – but their government will be able to pay salaries and they’ll be able to eat. Fatah was voted out in 2006, because the Palestinian people didn't trust them. Many Palestinians welcome the new Fatah-controlled government not because that perception has changed but because every other option is unbearable.

What happened this week, then, was the confirmation of the Palestinians’ powerlessness. They tried, through a democratic process, to replace a corrupt party that had failed them in the Oslo peace process, and things only got worse. Now the hope of a two-state solution is essentially gone, and so too, perhaps, is the hope that Palestinian politicians can bring any of the things the Palestinians want – an end to the occupation, settlements and assassinations, release of prisoners, etc.

This is just one of many reasons why the actions of Hamas and Fatah over the past few weeks matter, and so it makes sense that the media are following them closely. But it’s the sense of chaos they presented that, I think, missed the point and exaggerated the government's power. Chaos in this weak government does not translate into chaos in the West Bank generally. Life here over the past few days doesn’t feel chaotic at all, and my sense is that’s because the Palestinian government has so little power, and, although the fatal bullet may have come this week, the hope of a viable state had been dying for a long time.

There is so much going on here apart from the Palestinian government that has an enormous impact on the lives of Palestinians and the prospects for peace. Where is the coverage of civil society and the effects of the occupation? Americans know so little about Palestinians, yet so many of us have such strong feelings about how the Israel and the United States should treat them.


Report from Ramallah - Part 1

Upfront editor Emily McNeill is in the West Bank for the summer, studying Arabic at Birzeit University and learning about life in Palestine under occupation. Whenever possible she'll be blogging for Buzzsaw about her experiences there. Questions or comments? Post them here or email her directly at emilymcneill@gmail.com.

From what I can tell, today is the calmest since I’ve been in Ramallah. I did some errands around the city this afternoon, and the streets were full of people who seemed to be going about their business as usual. Thursday night and yesterday the streets were quiet, and people I’ve talked to say the atmosphere was unusually tense.

The media, though, seem to have come to the opposite conclusion, and in some ways they’re certainly right. The political situation remains very unstable and today Fatah fighters made their most visible move against Hamas in Ramallah and Nablus. But some of the coverage – particularly the images – suggests a very different environment than what I see around me. Not surprisingly the media is captivated by images of men wearing masks and carrying machine guns.

I was buying some juice in Al-Manara (the central circle in Ramallah where a lot of demonstrations take place) when a lot of these masked gunmen were gathered there. Mostly they were just milling around holding their weapons while crowds of people either walked by them around the circle or stood watching. Cameramen were set up around the circle following fighters around and sticking cameras in their faces. It was a ridiculous scene, and it reminded me of the little I’ve read about Walter Lippman. I looked him up on Wikipedia when I got home and found this quote: “The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.”

The images these journalists were collecting in Al Manara “signalize” the event of the day – Fatah’s moves against Hamas in Ramallah. They illustrate perfectly a sense of tension, unrest and violence and are the ideal images to accompany tonight’s reports on the turmoil in the Palestinian government. But while that turmoil is real, these images are caricatures. Take a step back and the men in these images are a small – though unsettling – piece of a much larger picture. Ramallah, a city of 40,000 people, is going about its business today while gunmen show off for TV.

I’m not arguing that the images of gunmen are irrelevant. These men are on the streets of Ramallah, and the fact that they’re flexing their muscles and harassing Hamas is significant. But the obvious question is whether the coverage encourages a real understanding of the situation in the West Bank today, and if not, what factors does it ignore and what stereotypes does it reinforce? Even if we could agree on the answers to those questions, how could journalists go about producing material that was further from "news" and closer to "truth?"

It's complicated. But, like so many people have said before, I find myself wishing today that it wasn't just the pictures with shock value and the people perceived to have power that were making it onto the front pages.