Facts on the Ground: Notes from the Middle East

Israeli Defence Forces soldiers escort settlers on a Saturday visit to the market in the divided city of Hebron. Photo by Jeff Sallot

Gerald Wright

March 13, 2020

The following reflections are from a visit to Israel and the West Bank in November, 2019, the latest in a series of annual “Come and See” trips by a group of policy-minded Canadians (most of them retired after careers in business, diplomacy, education, journalism and law) organized by Peter Larson, former executive vice president of the Public Policy Forum and chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine. The visit was intended to gather perspectives from advocacy and monitoring organizations, as well as individuals with a variety of views and backgrounds, and thereby to strengthen the group’s understanding of what divides Israelis from Palestinians and how those divisions might be healed.

Donald Trump’s administration has produced yet another unworkable Middle East peace plan. Decades of frustrating negotiations have demonstrated that the fractious relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is to be studied, analyzed, palliated, accommodated and tolerated rather than resolved in one fell swoop. As long-time United States Middle East peace negotiator Martin Indyk wrote recently, “…it’s time to end the farce of putting forward American peace plans only to have one or both sides reject them.”

Admittedly, the temptation to have another go at the problem can be overwhelming. The region of the Levant occupied by Israelis and Palestinians has, through millennia, served as a magnet, attracting the spiritual devotion of hundreds of millions, evoking their military zeal and, more recently, inducing the better heeled to invest in Israel’s booming tech sector. It is patently, frustratingly obvious that the region could have a peaceful, prosperous future if a spirit of cooperation were to take hold. The industriousness of the Palestinians and the inventiveness of the Israelis would amount to an unbeatable combination. How, then, can the land that was promised to Moses be allowed to remain the scene of nail-biting tensions and chronic turmoil? Based on my observations on the ground in the region, two mighty obstacles stand in the way, stymieing the chances of a new and more cooperative order.

The first is the national narrative of confiscation, oppression and discrimination nourished and venerated by Palestinians for generations. A central place in that narrative is accorded to the “right of return”. In 1948, 548 Palestinian villages in what is now Israel were destroyed, displacing a population of 720,000 refugees into Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Nearly 5 million stateless Palestinians now live in the 59 camps across the Middle East operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

The attachment to ancestral land and property is most powerfully symbolized by the Palestinian custom of cherishing and passing along the front door keys of homes confiscated during the Nakba (“catastrophe”) of 1948 as priceless heirlooms. Standing in Ayalon Canada Park — a 700-hectare Israeli picnicking area that extends into the West Bank —Heidar Abu Ghosh reaffirmed that attachment. The park was built, controversially, with Canadian funding in the 1970s over the remains of three Palestinian villages expropriated in the 1967 War, including the one from which Ghosh was evacuated in the middle of the night as a 14-year-old. “My wish is that before I die, I can return to live here,” said Ghosh, who has become an advocate for peaceful coexistence.

The West Bank’s Balata Camp, built on land leased by UNWRA and intended for 5,000, now holds 31,000 residents. There is 65 percent unemployment and medical and educational services are stretched thin. Typical of the refugee camps, in this perfervid environment, the dream of the right of return is kept alive, as is resistance. Our briefer gave as a reason for having five children that one of them might be lost in a third Intifada. On account of the lack of opportunities, a youth explosion is always a distinct possibility.

In the Knesset, Yousef Jabareen, an Arab-Israeli MK (Palestinians in Israel are often called not Palestinians, but Arabs) identified land, housing and unemployment as his priorities. “We lost 50 percent of the land we preserved after the Nakba. Now we own only 3 percent of the land of Israel though we constitute 20 percent of the population.”

Jabareen’s second theme was the loss of identity, brought to a head by the contentious new Basic Law, or nation-state law, which downgrades the Arabic language and defines the right to self-determination in Israel as “unique to the Jewish people.” Like all Arab-Israeli MKs, Jabareen is accustomed to playing hardball on behalf of his constituents in a legislature famous for it. When the Canadian group met with him, he was coming off a hunger strike.

Further behind the emotional front line, we met a group of Arab-Israeli teenagers, who complained of being forced to feel inferior, deliberately disconnected from their people in other parts of the region and subjected to a school curriculum that ignores their own history.

One ray of constructive optimism shone through the prevailing narrative. It came from Abed Abu Shihadeh, a city councillor in Jaffa (the historic seaside city that now forms part of Tel Aviv). Only three to four thousand Arabs remained in Jaffa after 1948. In the 90s, the Arab community started to organize and talk about sewage, schools and football fields. Now they number 20,000, including a highly successful business community. Abed decried a PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) discourse based on victimhood. He campaigned for election proclaiming, “Yes We Can.”

The second obstacle in the way of a settlement is the narrative on the Israeli side of the conflict: That in the aftermath of centuries of persecution and the Holocaust, the most monumental injustice in history, the long-held dream of a Jewish homeland became a reality as a sanctuary and a declaration of survival. The determination and willpower mobilized to create the state of Israel also drives it to extraordinary lengths to defend its security in a hostile environment.

It should not be forgotten that the ideal of a homeland is grounded in more than just the need for protection. Ardi Geldman, an American Jew from Chicago living in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, talked of returning to a land where the Jews can claim to be the indigenous people, with a government, a culture and a coinage that were taken away from them by the Romans. “We have a right to be here,” he asserted.

Many Israelis quell their qualms about signs of intellectual and moral bankruptcy on the part of their government because they perceive a nobler narrative in the undoubted achievements of the state and a higher end in its survival.  A few give vent to their misgivings. “The world is far too forgiving of the Israeli government,” our group was told by retired Israeli diplomat Ilan Baruch, a one-time hawk turned peacemaker. “The international community should pay more attention … Israel is becoming more and more illiberal.”

There is no clear and compelling way forward. Ilan Baruch advocates Palestinian statehood. “We could not share power. That won’t work. One state will be impossible to maintain. We need to have a nation-state for the Jews and another for the Palestinians. A two-state solution is crucial.” Nevertheless, that two-state solution has been made hard to achieve by the advance of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Advocates of a one-state solution persist in believing that the two communities can live together. Jeff Halper of the One Democratic State Campaign contended that Israel/Palestine can be transformed into a democracy with equal rights for all. Has this got any better chance of working? Certainly, the demographic and civil rights arguments aside, as long as Netanyahu is in power it remains unlikely.

What you get from being on the ground, which cannot possibly be gained at a distance, is a sense of the taut psychological environment. Many Israelis are oblivious to it, at least much of the time, as beneficiaries of the security state that keeps peace and freedom on one side of the wall and the constant tension of granular oppression on the other, in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Our group experienced the frustration of Palestinian workers making the laborious crossing from Bethlehem to Jerusalem at Checkpoint 300, and the tension in the air as white-shirted settlers, guarded by young Israeli soldiers who were probably frightened but doing their best not to show it, conducted their Saturday afternoon procession that temporarily closed down the market in Hebron.

We were left awestruck by the calm demeanour and willingness to risk livelihood and lives of those working in NGOs at the coalface of the conflict — Israelis, Palestinians and foreigners. At the same time, there is a difference between coping with the effects of the conflict and finding a way out.

Time and again, we were asked about the role that could be played by the international community. This was an understandable reflex in view of the $3.8 billion (US) in military aid that Israel annually receives from the United States. There are some Israelis who seek international attention because they despair of how fragile their democracy has become and fear that — with the perpetual parade of other crises from Trump to, now, COVID-19 — the world hasn’t noticed. “Israel is incapable of saving itself,” warned Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, a stern critic of the Occupation.

Palestinians seek international attention because they feel powerless. “The way to protect ourselves is to get international support,” said Jafar Farah, Director of the Mossawa Center, which advocates for Arabs in Israel. One of the Arab-Israeli teenagers pointedly asked what the visitors were going to do with the knowledge they were picking up. Hanan Ashrawi, for decades the female face and voice of the Palestinian people most familiar to Westerners, made it evident that she was concerned with winning the public opinion war in the United States, which, despite Donald Trump, still commands respect, as an economy, a culture and a moral force.

Outsiders will not solve the problem. Nevertheless, fate can intervene, often in surprising ways. Could, for example, the threat of withdrawing American military aid under a new administration, mounting evidence that the Arab population of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza is surpassing the Jewish population, the emergence of strong and effective leadership capable of uniting the disparate Palestinian people, or alarm at the Chinese influence that is growing markedly in the region, impart momentum and change to long held attitudes, entrenched leadership and stagnant policies?

The best hope for productive and peaceful relations among Palestinians and Israelis may lie in an unforeseen transformation or upheaval that will force the parties to recalculate benefits and costs, cast aside their grievances and make the supreme effort to extricate themselves from the morass into which they have sunk.

Gerald Wright is a senior fellow of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs of Carleton University and a board member of the Canadian International Council.