Palestinian isolation and a need for change

This TIME article about Palestinians, contained by the security wall is sad and poignant.  This article depicts that many Israelis and Palestinians simply do not understand each other, because they do not get to know each other, and just reaffirms the vital need for OneVoice’s Imagine 2018 Campaign.

Monday, Dec. 13, 2010

Palestinians, Contained

By Karl Vick / Ein Arik

On the question of Israelis, Ramzi Thaer Rafik knows what he knows. He spoke to one once. Five years ago. "I was 10 years old, but I remember it very well," he says. The Israeli was a soldier, and he demanded to know why the young Palestinian was going from one end of his village to the other. Ramzi informed him that he was on his way to school.

At that point in Israel’s 43 years of occupation of Palestinian territory, its army maintained a permanent checkpoint in Ein Arik, a village strung along a deep cleft in the steeply terraced hills just west of Ramallah. The young soldiers provided security to fellow Israelis living in hilltop settlements nearby and, in the bargain, afforded a viewing opportunity for young Palestinians who would henceforth know Israelis only as soldiers and settlers, the newly installed Wall having barred exposure to any other kind. (See photos of Israeli settlements built by Palestinian labor.)

Ramzi took what he could from the encounter — the soldier was brusque and belligerent, he recalls — and remained alert for further information. Some arrived on a recent Friday, from a neighbor he was helping repair a fence. Nidal Shaheen had been to Jerusalem three years earlier, having scored a day pass good for a few hours on the other side. He seized the opportunity to take his family to the zoo.

"They were nice," said Shaheen of the Israelis he met there. Ramzi listened closely. The animals, he could conjure; his family has a satellite dish. Harder to imagine was an Israeli smiling at an Arab from a ticket booth. He gave it a moment, then piped up, offering with a knowing air the only explanation that made sense to him: "The zoo is split," Ramzi declared. "There’s an Arab side and an Israeli side." (See "The War of the Olive Harvest: Palestinians vs. Settlers.)

The separation barrier — the seldom-used formal name for the Wall — turns out to be a label lush with meaning. Israelis credit the serpentine, 400-mile (640 km)system of fences, barricades and checkpoints with reducing terrorist attacks to almost nil since construction began in earnest seven years ago. But the Wall has done more than keep out suicide bombers. No less important, it has created a separation of the mind. Israelis say they simply think much less about Palestinians. And a generation of Palestinians is coming of age without even knowing what Israelis look like, much less the land both sides claim as their own. The absence of familiarity, names, basic knowing — the absence of the foundations of empathy — does not bode well for the chances of the two peoples one day living as neighbors in peace.

The economic consequences of the Wall are plain: it has kept out of Israel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who used to travel there every day, mostly to work. In the living room of Ramzi’s father, family friend Taeser Ihmad complains that after 20 years earning 200 shekels ($55) a day as a gardener at a Jerusalem hospital, he now makes just 80 shekels ($22) building houses in Ramallah.

"I never faced a day that they were not nice to me," Ihmad says of the Israelis as Ramzi and his older brother Anis watch silently from the sofa, drinking in the adult conversation with both the silence expected of the young in an Arab household and the curiosity that betrays a less obvious effect of the barrier. Whatever lies beyond it — enemy, oppressor, kindly cashier — is largely a matter of speculation to those born in the hammock of optimism between the 1993 Oslo accords and the second intifadeh, the uprising that began in 2000 and ended after an iron curtain was drawn across the occupied territories.

Ramzi’s 12-year-old cousin Khalid has been to Jerusalem with relatives three times. They strolled in the Old City, common ground for Muslims, Christians and of course Jews. Khalid says he saw them. What did they look like? "Like the ones who are here," he says matter-of-factly. "Green pants, green shirt." No civilians? Khalid shakes his head. Really? No one in regular clothes, perhaps with a skullcap, like a settler? "I don’t know what a settler looks like," the boy says. In fact, settlers stopped passing through the village a couple of years ago, after Israel completed a bypass road that whisks them from the nearest checkpoint to their hilltop subdivisions without having to encounter a native.

See photos of a Palestinian ‘Day of Rage’ toward settlements.

See photos of Mahmoud Abbas pressing for peace.

Illicit Day Trips
A handful of Israeli peace activists have defied their government in order to reach these isolated people — and take them shopping. They smuggle Palestinians across checkpoints in their cars — Israeli Jews sail right through — for illicit day trips to the fleshpots of Tel Aviv. "I want people to grow up knowing each other," says Ilana Hammerman, an Israeli book publisher who could face criminal charges for carrying young Palestinian women to the beach and the mall.

The trips are a symbolic effort against an everyday reality that takes Ramzi up and down the highway to school, down to the store, maybe up the hill to sneak under the gate into the soccer field, but always into the backyard to feed the white pigeons that can go where they like. His daily life is circumscribed not only by his parents but also by the Israeli checkpoints at Qalandia, 5 miles (8 km) to the southeast, and Bilin, 5 miles to the west. Life uncoiling in a confined space produces pressure that builds so slowly as to be measured across years. (See pictures of 60 years of Israel.)

Three years ago, 71% of Palestinians favored reconciling with Israel, according to a survey conducted for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty. This summer, a new survey found only 61% in favor. Least enthusiastic of all were the youngest asked: among Palestinians ages 18 to 24, only 46% favored reconciliation. More dramatic was the drop in the percentage of Palestinians who said they could imagine having a Jew as a neighbor. The question was premised on the assumption that Israel had pulled its 100-plus settlements out of the West Bank. Still, just 38% answered yes, down from 50% three years ago. Among the youngest, just 1 in 3 can imagine living near a Jew — the same ratio found among supporters of Hamas, the militant Islamic group that has taken over the Gaza Strip. In fact, surveys show that young Palestinians are the least likely to support direct negotiations with Israel, to believe that Palestine will ever be a state or to say Hamas should abandon its denial of Israel’s right to exist. None of which suggests time was on the side of either Israeli or Palestinian negotiators, even before direct talks collapsed in recent days. "You go to most places, including America, and the older you are, the more conservative," says Jamil Rabah, a director of Near East Consulting, the Ramallah pollster that prepared the surveys. "Not in Palestine. Here, the older you are, the more liberal; the younger you are, the more conservative."

When You Can’t See the Other
Rabah attributes the shift partly to the rise of political Islam across the Muslim Middle East — and partly to Israel’s pushing Palestinians into that very community, not least by taking as its own nearly the whole Mediterranean coast, which historically kept Palestinian elites, at least, oriented to the West. (See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.)

As late as 1967, some Palestinians often saw impressed Israelis who on weekends would drive over to Ramallah to snap pictures of Rabah’s grandfather’s villa. "Now it’s reversed," he says. High-tech Israel has an enviable quality of life, one that young Palestinians would like to experience for themselves. But neither side visits the other.

"The lack of these field trips prevents the Palestinian youth from seeing the developed ways of the Israelis, the way they live," says Ali Othman Salama, the janitor at the Ein Arik secondary school. "Not only do they not see normal Israelis," says Salama, who worked in Israel for 20 years and felt it did him some good, "but they witness the violence of the soldiers."

A few Palestinians manage to make their way across the border. "It’s a very beautiful area," says a teen who borrowed his father’s ID to sneak aboard a Red Cross bus to visit a brother jailed in Israel. But most of the new generation hear more of what was. "We’re from Ramla originally," Ramzi will point out upon introduction, naming the village his grandfather was driven from in 1948 and which his family still refers to as home. In the spirit of resistance, the boy was named for an uncle who was killed in 1991 while fighting Israelis near Gaza alongside his friend Anis, for whom Ramzi’s brother is named. "I don’t know — I guess they had a Hamas feeling, like they wanted to battle," says their father with an admiring smile. "I named my sons after my brother and my neighbor — " "So that people don’t forget them," Ramzi says from the couch. "And always remember them."

At the school, principal Jamil Saadat asks students what comes to mind when they hear the word Israeli. The replies are not descriptions but abstractions: "Crimes." "Settlements." "Killing of children." Finally a girl named Ismahad raises her hand. "Strange," she says. "Strange people. Very rude."

A few minutes later, Saadat, a steadfast supporter of Fatah, lays out the basics of the two-state solution Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wants to negotiate with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: abandonment of Israel’s hilltop settlements, a shared Jerusalem, a sovereign Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. How many would support it? In a class of 34, just five hands go up. The rest of the 10th-grade computer-science class insists upon getting all of Palestine back — every acre, from the Jordan River to the sea, the way it was before 1948.

And you think, In most of the world, the future belongs to the young.

See pictures of life in Gaza under Hamas.

Is the U.S. pursuing the wrong Mideast peace process?

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