Resist to exist in dignity

I’m in Jerusalem, where Vice President Pence declared to the Knesset today:

We stand with Israel because we believe in right over wrong, good over evil and liberty over tyranny.

That confirms what President Trump had already made clear with his decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, without even mentioning the Palestinian hope of a capital there: that Washington will no longer even pretend to be neutral in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

I’ve spent the last four days or so on a SAIS study trip talking mainly with Palestinians, having spent the previous several talking with Israelis. Here I’ll focus on the Palestinians, since their views will be less reported and are far less known. I’ve also spoken to quite a few Jewish Israelis who would agree at least in part with their Palestinian colleagues, though the majority is thrilled with Trump’s move and Pence’s audacity.

The mood among the Palestinians I’ve talked with is annoyance, sadness, frustration, and exasperation. They are profoundly disappointed that the United States, which they have seen as the standard bearer of human rights and international law, has abandoned that vocation for an America First policy that guarantees declining American influence and strengthens Israeli determination to maintain its settlers in occupied Palestinian territory.  The rumor that the Americans intend to relabel their East Jerusalem consulate as the embassy, in order to make the move more quickly, rubs salt in Palestinian wounds, since it means that the Americans will not accept a Palestinian capital in that traditionally Arab part of a city.

The Palestinians are planning a general strike and demonstrations tomorrow in response to Trump/Pence. That of course may boil over into violence, not least because in the Palestinian view the Israeli security forces seem to prefer it that way: they can more easily disperse a crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets if given even a slight excuse to do so. But at least those Palestinians we’ve been talking with are hopeful that violence will be avoided. The successful nonviolent confrontation in July, when massive crowds of praying Palestinians forced the Israelis to remove security devices from the entrances to the Al Aqsa compound in Jerusalem, is the paradigm many hope will prevail. There is of course no guarantee it will.

Conditions for Palestinians vary from catastrophic in Gaza and the refugee camps of the West Bank to maddening in the more or less middle class neighborhoods of Ramallah, Beit Jalla, and Nablus. The Israeli occupation is evident to Palestinians every day:

  • Checkpoints not only coming into the West Bank but between the major Palestinian towns
  • Settlements that loom like recently arrived space ships over the West Bank
  • Prohibited roads used only by settlers, who hope to number 1 million within the next few years
  • Settler violence, rarely punished, against Palestinians, including murder
  • Destruction of olive trees and other factors of production
  • Jerusalem Palestinians “exiled” to the West Bank without permission to return to the city and the vast majority of Gaza residents who can never leave their densely populated strip
  • Gates that close off particular towns without any apparent or announced security justification
  • House and other building demolitions, ostensibly due to lack of permits, which are almost never granted to Palestinians while Jewish illegal outposts are not only tolerated but often legalized
  • Israeli security raids into areas that are supposed to be under exclusive Palestinian control

Some Jewish Israelis would claim these measures are justified, but that reminds me of a story one told: he found one of his two children crying uncontrollably and when asked what happened she responded “It all started when she hit me back.”

The Palestinian leadership is aging. No one knows who will succeed Mahmoud Abbas as President, or many other figures now reaching into their late 70s and 80s. Seventy per cent of their population is under 30 years old. Many young people are looking not to Fatah and Hamas for leadership but rather to “popular struggle”: resist to exist in dignity is their motto. They trust no one, one elder statesman advised, follow no one, and want to define their own future. Let’s hope they do so nonviolently, and with more wisdom and restraint than the President and Vice President of the United States.

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