How To See Palestine: An ABC of Occupation

I is for Israel

I went to Palestine because of my public support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), the policy called for by Palestinian civil society since 2005 that has gained traction in academia in the past few years. I felt I needed to see for myself. My experience in the 48 (the 1948 border of Israel) was troubling. As a policy, BDS relies on what political theory calls a rational state actor. That actor would observe how the Israeli regime is losing credibility and friends due to the occupation and modify its position.

I did not witness such a state. Instead I witnessed celebrations of occupation and commitments to further expansion, together with a despair from internal opposition that any dialog with the regime was possible. Boycott is a beginning to the process of awakening but it is not going to be its end.

On my last day in Palestine, I went to Jerusalem's Old City. I had fond, if somewhat Orientalist, memories of the quarter from my visit as a teenager with my grandmother. Visiting now is a very different experience. The Old City is in East Jerusalem, notionally under PA control. Israeli flags and troops are nonetheless visible everywhere. Entrance to the Western Wall is via checkpoint, while visitors have only a brief access period to al-Aqsa. 

By chance, the day of my visit was Jerusalem Day, when Israel celebrates its occupation of the city in 1967. Large crowds of Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews moved through the Old City at a jog, chanting and wearing Israeli flags tied around their necks, reminding me of British football hooligans. As they moved down the street, six abreast, the only option was to get out of the way.

Tourists are largely confined to two main routes through the Old City and checkpoints prevent you from meandering. I arrived at the entrance to al-Aqsa, only to find it barricaded by Haredi. It seemed that they hoped to enter the mosque in numbers or, failing that, to prevent casual visitors from entering. There was more chanting and an air of tremendous self-confidence. These people knew that they were not going to be challenged by the state, or more exactly that the state was theirs.

In the Western Wall enclosure itself (above), soldiers in battledress with their weapons flirted with passers-by and gave visible form to the occupation. The enclosed wooden walkway is how non-Palestinians gain access to al-Aqsa, whose dome is just visible above the Wall. Other than such fleeting glimpses, the Palestinian city and its central glory, al-Aqsa, are invisible to tourists.

Standing in the line, wondering if I might still get through, I remembered a conversation with Habshe, a refugee and activist from Aida Camp. When I told him where I was going, he wistfully recalled that he had not been allowed to visit al-Aqsa since the Second Intifada of 2002. What was the better course, I wondered? To defy the Haredi picket or to refuse to enter under these conditions? Boycott, we wrote in 2015, is

an ethical guideline, not a law, whose goal is creating a space for another set of social relations to emerge — ones that have justice, freedom and liberation at their heart.

With regret to not see the architectural wonder, I walked away from the line.

On Jerusalem's West side, all that tension can seem very distant. People talk of the 'green line,' as if it were not a bus ride away. A family friend spoke wistfully of the socialist dream in Israel and how it had withered. He spoke of how his grandchildren had sailing lessons, was that not the dream? I thought of Palestinians who had told me they had never seen the sea, how much they wished they could do so. How much 'unseeing' this dream requires. When does the dreamer realize his dream has become a nightmare? How to awaken and then stay woke? 

To back up this subjective experience, it is noticeable that Israel's public championing of itself as 'the only democracy in the Middle East' does not tally with its 2016 ranking from 
Freedom House as 'partly free.' The regime scores only 7 out of 30 on legal environment and 14 out of 40 on political environment. Defenders will no doubt say this is biased. 

What if I was to talk about the Israeli

state's tyranny and racism.

Or write about how in Jerusalem

occupation screams from every stone.

I'd be written off as anti-semitic (or a self-hating Jew), deluded, benighted and so on. But these are comments I read on the bus while in Jerusalem in an editorial published in Ha'aretz for Jerusalem Day (the liberal Israeli newspaper that's no more extreme in its views than the New York Times or the London Guardian and is certainly a supporter of the state of Israel). 

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