It’s really quite extraordinary and at the same time disturbing to take a day trip from Tel Aviv to the West Bank – Area A. Kinda like taking a red-eye flight from one continent to another, and not JFK to London, but JFK to Moscow, or even more starkly dichotomous – LAX to Moscow. In a 60 minute drive you are on another planet, not just another country, not just one of Israel’s occupied territories, but literally a different world. You only have to go through a certain checkpoint, making sure to bring your foreign passport if you happen to have two, and plan on being questioned, no matter what color your passport is.
Checkpoints themselves are an entirely separate culture having their own contentious character, aside from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation in general. Since the 1990s and especially after the Second Intifada of 2000, the IDF has set up hundreds (exact number depends on who you ask) of permanent checkpoints and roadblocks for security measures ultimately limiting the flow of Palestinians in and out of Israel and enhancing security for Israeli citizens living in West Bank settlements. There are also “flying checkpoints” that are temporary and tend to move around.
The checkpoints are manned by either IDF soldiers or, a more recent trend – civilians. “The privatization of occupation” the girl sitting next to me on the bus called it. I didn’t really understand what kind of benefits the Israeli government would have by outsourcing checkpoint staff, but like everything else in the world, I knew it had to be about money and probably accountability. Replacing soldiers with contractor’s employees saves money and absolves the government of any responsibility for them, them being the Palestinians. Smart business move actually but pushes a possible future coexistence between the two cultures even farther away.
Back during the Oslo Period (1994-2000) – although arguably we can technically say we are still in the Interim Period of the Oslo Accords – Israeli soldiers (mandatory) and Palestinian employees (contract employment) had a joint and cooperative system of patrolling the interim borders between Israel and the prospective Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Two jeeps, 1 Palestinian and 1 Israeli, jointly set up a cooperative system where the transition from war to peace was to take place – they were called the Joint Patrols and were not an observer force but a confidence-building measure. Through a serious of interviews, Deborah Heifetz-Yahav highlights that although the Joint Patrolers were successful in stabilizing the Oslo Period, the non-mediated peacebuilding mechanism also magnified the identity and power struggles between the two groups, specifically the distrust on both sides of the other (Heifetz-Yahav, Non-Mediated Peacekeeping: The Case of Israeli–Palestinian Security Cooperation, Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol.15, No.2 (Autumn 2004)).
That’s the whole point, right? Getting people to work together instead of separating them even more. Building trust from within instead of putting an outsourced mediator between the conflicting parties. We seem so far away from the hopeful Joint Patrols era. It’s surprising and unfortunate that Israelis don’t want to employ their DUGRUIT (direct and forceful instinctual, communicative method) way of being heard, because this one-on-one method of communication might just foster cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. Instead we keep hoping a third party mediator will come lick our wounds clean and slap a band-aid on it all. How about changing our diet instead? Well, hey, that’s just the way it is.
Back to the red-eye flight from one extreme to the other, walking around the old city of Nablus you are constantly reminded of the conflict, the pain, and the stalemate of the peace process. Like most old cities in Israel-Palestine, Nablus has an incredible 2,000 year history and has been ruled by many empires, including the Crusaders, Mamluks, and the Ottomans. In 636, Neapolis, along with most of Palestine, came under the rule of the Islamic Arab Caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab and the name was Arabicized to Nablus.
Architecturally, little is know about the special building and construction methods of Nablus, which differs from other old cities in the region. The geographer al-Maqdisi comments that Nablus has “strange caves,” referring to dusky underground passageways. Apparently, the city keeps building up from the ruins thereby keeping intact a whole underground city-like system. There are a number of enclosures that still exist today – long passageways that lead to living quarters of family/clan members. This has created a social class of architects and stone masons, who hold a special place in the community, but also becomes a security risk for Israelis.
As a tourist in Nablus, you get to see eat really good knafe (supposedly the best in world, although every city in the Middle East seems to say that about knafe or hummus) and buy olive oil soap.
The Palestinian narrative is around every corner of Nablus with graffiti symbolizing the right of return and the eternal hope that one day home will be more than just this. Images of the temple mount, the whole state of Palestine with a chains on it, the key, a flame, and then of course there is Handhala (Arabic: حنظلة), the ten-year-old boy drawn by the Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, which has become an iconic symbol of Palestinian identity and defiance. He appeared for the first time in Al-Siyasa in Kuwait in 1969, and turned his back to the viewer with clasped hands in 1973. The boy represents the artist when he was forced to leave Palestine and will not grow up until he is able to return to his homeland. The turned back and clasped hands symbolize the character’s rejection of “outside solutions.”
Balata Refugee Camp
Not far from the Old City of Nablus and Jacob’s Well (an interesting historical, Orthodox Christian site), is the United Nations supported (UNRWA) Balata refugee camp. The history of this place is contentious, political, but most of all strikingly informative of how the Palestinian narrative differs from that of the Israeli one. The very sincere cliché of “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is apparent as you walk down the narrow streets of Balata with concrete, boxed homes creating a dense feeling of community. More than graffiti, there are countless memorials for young Palestinian boys, who were killed in IDF air raids or skirmishes, holding up very large guns and automatic weapons, some in masks covering their faces, some with a serious look of determination, but all of them way too young to die.
Photos of these martyrs hang from banners above the narrow streets where kids just run around, playing, yelling “hello, how are you?” to visitors like me. I take a few photos of teenage boys just chilling on the streets because, i’m assuming, their homes are too overcrowded and hot on an otherwise pleasant May afternoon. They hold up a peace sign with their hands when they see me with the camera, but otherwise they don’t seem too affected but the group of tourists/outsiders coming into their community.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Balata residents played a leading role in the First and Second Intifada. Posters and graffiti around the camp symbolize these events, but the history and significance of the place is much older and more political than just that.
In 1950, the United Nations gave refugees from Jaffa temporary housing offers, but displaced Arabs from the newly founded state of Israel refused these offers, hoping to go back home soon. Eventually, however, they settled in Balata around 1956, when the border with the State of Israel was sealed and concrete housing units replaced tents.
Now, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) funds a school in the Balata camp and has about 5,000 students. The Yaffa Cultural Center operates a guesthouse, children’s theater and cinema, library and media center.
UNRWA: Political Expediency v. Humanitarian Development
The impact of the UNRWA refugee camps on the Arab-Israeli conflict is a very difficult and ambiguous one. It’s mandate, given by a UN resolution, is to help displaced Palestinian refugees now living in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories; however, their involvement in the West Bank and Gaza makes them a pseudo-government authority and the word on the street is that the UN organization takes better care of the refugees, Palestinian non-citizens, than the Palestinian Authority does. [Side Note: does the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) still exist or was it replaced by the PA during Oslo. This is very unclear to me.] Refugees (in this case non-citizens) should be the responsibility of their government, not an NGO, which is what the UN’s mandate for the UNRWA’s definition is limited to.
Also, why are there two UN refugees organizations – one for refugees generally (UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency) and one for Palestinian refugees specifically – what makes Palestinian refugees distinctly a separate and special issue? Another interesting fact is that the UNRWA is the only organization that reports directly to the Secretary General. A very ambiguous organization indeed, that presumably keeps its presence in the West Bank because of international pressure on the United Nations to keep the right of return on the international agenda. What will happen to UNRWA if and when a Palestinian state is solidified and no claims for permanent status are left hanging? More importantly, what will happen to Palestinian refugees living in UNRWA camps outside of the occupied territories (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon) if and when the Palestinian “entity” de jure becomes a Palestinian “state”?
Another interesting contradiction when talking about the legal implications of a Palestinian state (with reference to UN recognition of statehood) is that the existence of UNRWA is very convenient for Israel. UNRWA, more or less, SUBSIDIZES, or PAYS FOR, THE OCCUPATION. The quasi-government organization is based on social welfare principles, but ultimately it keeps everything in their rightful place: STATUS QUO. Helping without really allowing progress, a move forward, and least of all, joint cooperation of any de facto kind between Israeli and Palestinians on the ground, in practice, or even in principle.
It Will Be Like Oslo
At the end of the day, it’s difficult to say whether an NGO with such power is doing more good than bad. At the present moment, its providing shelter and community development for many displaced Palestinians, but what kind of effect is the Balata Refugee Camp having on the Arab-Israeli peace process as a whole? Unilateral moves on both sides, Israel and the PA, doesn’t help the situation but instead isolates each further away from the other. What else can be done besides privatizing the occupation and limiting accountability?
On a personal note, a few months ago, when another break-up was looming in the foreseeable future, my Israeli significant other and I were discussing and trying to plan a vacation/trip, even though we knew the relationship was falling apart. “It will be like Oslo,” he said. “Let’s plan what we can now and leave the details for a later date.” Oslo is, was a process that initially had a planned end point, but when you leave a wound open and bleeding, that end date becomes a far off dream. Twenty years later, Israelis and Palestinians are still in the “process” of breaking up, but there will always be ex-girlfriends that appear all of a sudden stirring up drama (hello U.S. Secretary of State Kerry – as a representative of the U.S. in general) and hey, let’s keep the relationship open and add a few more players, spicing it up a bit (beats handcuffs and blindfolds) with the Arab League and their Arab Peace Initiative.
This will end abruptly, because honestly, if it doesn’t it will never end at all.
“We cannot always assure the future of our friends; we have a better chance of assuring our future if we remember who our friends are.” — Henry A. Kissinger