I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
I’ve been back in the West Bank for five weeks, my first visit since spring 2009. On the face of it, things are looking good. The Palestinian Authority is reporting a booming economy. Building projects seem to be going on everywhere, people are out and about. The lifting of road restrictions means that getting around is the easiest I’ve known it in ten years of coming here; I still find it shocking that I can get a serveece [shared taxi] or bus straight into Nablus, not to Huwarra or Beit Iba checkpoints, or from Bethlehem to Ramallah. And more importantly, that ordinary Palestinians can do the same thing. That would have been two, three, four separate trips a couple of years ago, schlepping from checkpoint to checkpoint. Attracted by the veneer of peace and prosperity, tourists are starting to trickle back in and there are more facilities for them than I’ve ever seen before.
But in my first ten days here, and without any prompting, three different people used the phrase “there is no hope” to me. They are very disparate people, with little in common except that they live here and have each spent years decades watching the repeated rounds of failed peace talks, land confiscations and human rights abuses.
The first was a Muslim Jerusalemite with Israeli ID. He’s cynical about everything, from the ethics of his former colleagues in the tourist trade to the prospects of peace. For him life is a juggling act which is becoming harder and harder as the legal complications for people with homes or land on both sides of the Wall become more and more intricate. At what point will he have to choose between a citizenship which allows him a certain amount of international mobility and the ability to live in the city of his birth, and his Palestinian identity? The recent backing by the Israeli government of a law which could see Israeli citizens forced to swear allegiance to a Jewish state suggests that he, along with the other million-odd Palestinian citizens of Israel, could be in line for ‘population transfer’, disenfranchisement, or other attempts at completing the ethnic cleansing that started in 1948. ‘The Only Democracy in the Middle East,’ anyone?
The second person was a Christian Palestinian woman from Beit Sahour, in her seventies. “There is no hope,” she said to me spontaneously and pretty much apropos of nothing. This lady knows what bad times look like; she was living and working in Gaza in 1967 when Israel occupied it. “We went to bed under UNEF rule, and we woke up at four o’clock in the morning with Israeli jeeps with loudspeakers outside saying: there is a curfew now, do not come out of your houses, if you come near the windows you will be shot,” she recalls. Now, with settlements encroaching on her town and eating away at her country, she repeats, “there is no hope. Maybe twenty years ago, but not any more.”
The third is the activist, living in Ramallah. “We’re living the benefits of ‘peace,’” she says, “but we’ve been bought pretty cheaply.” A mother with small children and a veteran fighter for peace and justice, she acknowledges the benefits of this period of comparative calm, but also regrets the feeling of hopelessness, of acceptance of a third-rate deal, implied by it. “We’re all so tired. We’re still tired,” she says, describing much of the population of the West Bank after the years of the Second Intifada. “But at least people aren’t dying all the time.” But, in a Ramallah where every vacant lot seems to be a building site, where shiny skyscrapers are leaping into the smoggy air and where every third car on the road seems to be a glistening new SUV, Mercedes or even a Porsche, she remains sceptical. The banks are giving easy mortgages – 90% of the purchase price of a property, instead of the customary 75% – and people are taking out loans to buy those glossy new cars. “But isn’t that what caused the crash in America and Europe?” she asks. “What is all this based on?”