How To See Palestine: An ABC of Occupation

P is for Palestinians

In this project, I'm not trying to speak 'for' or 'about' the Palestinians, who are so capable of doing that for themselves, as writers like Mahmoud Darwish, Elias Khouri and Omar Barghouti make clear in their different contexts.  It's important to say, though, that every aspect of what I learned was enabled by Palestinians, who generously tolerated my ignorance and incredulity at the blatant force of the occupation.

Every account of Palestine stresses how kind the people are. In my cynical New York way, I assumed there was some creative license here. Not at all. People are generous to a fault. As elsewhere in the Middle East, it's impossible to enter a home without being offered food and drink. When that comes from people whose village has been destroyed dozens of times by the Israeli military, or from people living for decades in a refugee camp, it's hard not to become emotional.

That culture of hospitality is connected to an everyday sense of belonging not to a state but to a place, or more exactly, to a particular piece of land. People want to offer you their olive oil from their trees, or herbs from their land. As you would expect, there are subtle and highly-prized variations in taste in the ways that have become commodified as 'farm to table' for urban hipsters. Such sustainable ways of life are being literally and metaphorically uprooted, as the regime destroys olive trees and forces Bedouin to leave their land and live in pre-fab camps. 

In a short visit, I won't pretend to have gained deep insights into an ancient and transforming culture. David Graeber's account of his visit in 2015 is, as you would expect from a leading anthropologist, full of insights, so head over hereNor do I want to pretend that this is utopia. I could not speak to many Palestinian women and to no Bedouin women. Differences of opinion arose in conversation about women's roles in the resistance.

I should also plead ignorance about religion, except to say that Western clichés about Islam did not prepare me for the fluid and complicated role of religion in everyday life. For an example, an activist told me in terms of frustration how stores in Israel offer discounted sales before the holy month of Ramadan, encouraging Palestinians to stock up but taking 'millions of shekels' out of the Palestinians' own economy.

What was obvious, though, is that people of very different levels of religious belief, and indeed religions, co-exist. Christians in Bethlehem are not oppressed. A family might have very different levels of religious observance. I should also say that wherever I went, Palestinians went out of their way to disavow anti-semitism or anti-Jewish feelings, making it clear that their differences were with the regime, not the people. In a part of the world where people do identify others visually, I am very recognizably of Jewish descent but I walked Palestinian streets by myself comfortably and without harassment.

I take this to suggest that--at least from the Palestinian side--the goal of a single, secular democratic state across the region would once have been possible, had there been any interest on the Israeli side. This possibility is now, sadly, remote. But the Palestinians have another quality that they call sumud, which might be translated as persistence. It's that sumud that has sustained resistance in the face of implacable opposition for so long. Just, ironically, as Jewish people maintained a sense of identity over centuries of their own oppression. Perhaps this has just begun.

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