Processing Palestine

A mural in Beit Sahour, the village of the shepherds in the nativity story.

A mural in Beit Sahour, the village of the shepherds in the nativity story.

I think I’ve been here long enough now to write something. Take it for what it is: the experience of a privileged outsider who does not speak for Palestinians.

I’ve spent the last month in Palestine. Specifically in Bethlehem, which is in Area A of the West Bank. Area A means that it is under Palestinian control (Area B is under Palestinian civil government but Israeli military control. Area C, which comprises about 60%–and which includes all the major roads between cities–is under Israeli military control). The occupation is brutal.

Here in Area A, I (as an outsider–my perspective would be different if I were Palestinian) do not often see the violence of the occupation disturbing day-to-day life, but it is never absent. For example, Israel controls the water in the West Bank, even in Area A. Only 20% of it goes to Palestinians. Palestinians who want to travel to Jerusalem or other cities (inside the West Bank or out) must pass through checkpoints, where 18-year-old soldiers with machine guns may search and interrogate them. Economically, the effects are disastrous. Unemployment is rampant. Many young people leave and don’t come back. The Christian population especially is dwindling due to emigration (and let us be very clear: there’s no ISIS here).

Lots of foreign governments have sponsored various projects in Bethlehem, and they put up big signs congratulating themselves. I especially loathe the USAID signs that inform the passerby that the paving of a certain side street is “a gift from the people of the United States to the people of Palestine.” We are the primary sponsor of your oppressors, but hey, we paved a road for you!

This is Area A, of course. In Area C, the city of Hebron is divided up by settlements in such a way that its Palestinian population can’t move about freely in their own city. I haven’t been there yet, but I’m told that the formerly bustling market is a ghost town, because its former vendors and patrons can’t get to it. As new settlements are being built, Palestinians live with the threat of forced demolition of their homes and businesses. This is currently the case in the Palestinian village of Susiya, which has sparked demonstrations and drawn international condemnation, even a cautious expression of concern from our own State Department. Not to worry though! The deputy defense minister assures us that the village does not actually exist!

He’s lying through his teeth, but he speaks more truth than he knows. To the occupying power, the indigenous people do not exist, except perhaps as cheap labor. I’ve been reading Homo Sacer for the last few days. It’s eerie to read about the exclusion of people from the political order in a perpetual state of exception where they can be killed with impunity, and then to see it out the window. Though they’ll try to keep you from seeing it. When we first arrived in Jerusalem and wanted to get on a bus to Bethlehem, and the only one running that day was a crowded one that was going through the worst of the checkpoints (at least from my perspective), an Israeli policeman told me I was in the wrong place, that “this bus is only for locals.” If there is any place on earth that is more like hell than Checkpoint 300, I hope I never see it. Photos obviously aren’t allowed, so I can’t show you.

This is probably where I’m supposed to point out that this is the city where Jesus was born, and how that gives us hope for both oppressed and oppressor. It’s true, but I’m not ready to go there yet. I’m still processing this.

I tell you this story though. The day we came here was a Friday in Ramadan. Half the West Bank went to pray in al-Aqsa and was trying to get back. After we finally got on that bus (a miserable ordeal on its own), a very tired man offered my wife his seat (it was pretty obvious that she was ill). There was standing room only and I was in the stairwell, practically leaning out the door, holding onto a pole with one hand and my suitcase with the other. A child adjusted the air conditioning vent so that it blew on me. In that awful checkpoint, where everybody had to get out and go through what was basically prison security, our suitcases kept getting stuck (they’re big. We packed for a month, and thought we’d be on another bus). This provoked a range of reactions. One woman was visibly angry with me. Why shouldn’t she be? I just added a few minutes to her already long, miserable, and humiliating commute. Another man picked up my spouse’s suitcase and carried it through for her. The men around me then said in what English they could muster: “You see how the Palestinian people suffer? We just want to go pray, and they make it take all day! And we’re fasting too!” Jerusalem is probably about five miles from Bethlehem. He then bade me welcome to his country.

The international consensus is now that the “conflict” will be “solved” through a “two-state solution.” There is no two state solution. There are too many settlements in the West Bank. Before the last election, Netanyahu openly admitted that the strategy in settlement building was to make a Palestinian state impossible. One should know that as soon as both American parties settle on a solution, it is already no longer feasible. And as you can see from the cautious expressions of concern about settlement building from American officials, we’re not really going to do anything to stop them (like cut off military aid). We know just as well as everyone else that the State of Israel is our proxy in a geopolitical power play.

And yet, for all that, my companions in that line in the checkpoint still endured the indignities of the checkpoint in order to go to al-Quds to pray and showed kindness to a citizen of the empire on the way home. Such anger. Such love. Such a God! I do not believe that such an existence can be denied forever.