Wednesday, 2 May 2007

The long road to Hebron

By Khaled Diab

The quickest way to get from Ramallah to el-Khalil (Hebron) is via Jerusalem – a journey that should take just over half an hour.

But the Israeli occupation in all its infinite wisdom provides Palestinians with the unavoidable opportunity to take the scenic route, along secondary roads, via Bethlehem – a journey which takes two hours, assuming you don’t have to stop long at the checkpoint and there is no heightened state of emergency.

While the rest of the world goes about its business at increasingly break-neck speeds – the Maglev train in Japan can go almost as fast as a plane and Paris is now only an hour away from Brussels via a high-speed rail link – the Israeli authorities have enabled the Palestinians to go about their lives at a more leisurely pace.

Who needs a high-octane-rapid-burnout career when they can, instead, simmer slowly in the bubbling frustration of unemployment and poverty? And if you have a job, why overwork yourself dashing from one appointment to the next, when you can stop and smell the flowers, or admire the midday sun as it hangs perpendicular over your sweating brow while you kick your heels at a checkpoint?

And don’t forget the flora and fauna. Look around you and marvel at the growing forest of settlements that have been planted on almost every hilltop and in many valleys, and why not follow the wild growth of the security wall as it cuts through people’s backyards and land?

All this, and much more, you can do, as a Palestinian, on the long roads between Palestinian towns.

The Israelis believe the checkpoints and road blocks are justified because they prevent would-be suicide bombers from crossing into Israel and murdering Israeli citizens - I had lunch at a roadside cafe near Haifa where a large attack had occurred and, while there, Tzachi admitted to me that he sometimes thought about the best place to seat his children so that they would be shielded from a possible attack.

The Palestinians see them as yet another form of collective punishment that may slow but not prevent a determined extremist from getting through, especially since the back ways are often left unguarded. In addition, they are bewildered why, if Israelis are so concerned about their well-being, do they build so many vulnerable settlements on Palestinian land and push more Palestinians to extremes? A couple of Palestinians I met went so far as to suggest that this was part of an elaborate policy to make daily life unbearable for Palestinians, to 'encourage' many of them to leave the land 'voluntarily'.

Splitting the Palestinian atom
For me, the journey was a chance to have a long chat with my companion from a Palestinian NGO. He spent the first part of the drive tracing the course of the settlements which have mushroomed up on much of the available land between the Palestinian towns, penning them in and inhibiting their future growth.

A practical illustration of the atomised nature of the West Bank – which is supposed to represent the heartland of a future Palestinian state – is that every few minutes, my companion would have to switch between his Palestinian and Israeli mobile phones when he needed to talk to his colleagues and the group of European NGO activists we were due to meet in Hebron.

My companion is the third generation of his family to live in the Kalandiya refugee camp, which is home to over 10,000 registered Palestinian refugees and was established in 1949, shortly after the armistice in the first Arab-Israeli war. Israel considers it to be part of ‘Greater Jerusalem’. “The camp still witness clashes with Israeli soldiers and frequent stone throwing incidents,” according to UNRWA.

My companion pointed out the densely populated and walled-off camp as we drove past it. “It’s often hard to sleep,” he confessed to me. “Israeli soldiers regularly patrol under my window late and I hear armoured cars passing all night.”

I realised just how fortunate I am: not only do I have a land (two, in fact); I am also free to travel the world and am more mobile in my Palestinian companion's land than he is.

The Hamas factor
The conversation drifted to Hamas and I asked him whether secular people and Christians were finding life harder in the wake of the gains made by the Islamist group.

“Hamas respects the plurality of Palestinian society. In fact, a lot of Christians voted for them,” was his response. He explained that, despite their Islamic platform, Hamas were less bigoted against Christians than most Fatah members and hangers-on, many of whom were little more than thugs.

The Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians, who voted for Hamas, he said, did so because they were sick and tired of Fatah’s corruption and the criminal gangs that lived off it.

He acknowledged that in Gaza, where Hamas rules the roost, things had become a lot more conservative and restrictive than in the West Bank, but this was also down to the religious and social dynamic that has been gaining ground there. And, I would imagine, the desperate economic situation and the fact that Gaza is the most densely populated place on Earth also play a role in making it so stifling.

I asked why then was the Christian population of Palestine dwindling. He said that life under occupation was miserable for all and that masses of Palestinians have fled and are trying to flee the country. He explained that Christian Palestinians, who are generally better-educated than their Muslim compatriots and have more connections with the outside world, find it easier to get out. I found this was a partly satisfactory explanation. But I imagined with the growing politicisation of Islam, it was also becoming more uncomfortable for Christians.

I asked him if he was not afraid of Hamas’ vision of, one day, creating an Islamic nation. “Not really,” he shrugged, expressing his belief that the party was committed to the democratic process and so whatever goals it achieves “will occur in the context of the democratic process”.

He contended that, much like the religious Jewish parties in Israel, Hamas may succeed in pushing through some Islamic elements but Palestinian society will remain secular because Palestinians prefer that system of government.

©Khaled Diab. Text and images.


Anonymous said...

Well, for what it's worth, most Israelis can't take shortcuts when they travel between certain points in Israel either. When we go to visit the Dead Sea, we don't travel through Jerusalem and then Jericho. Instead, we take a 2-hour long detour to get there. We may not be held up in the checkpoint, but it's just as much of a roadblock for sane Israelis. The way these areas intertwine is part of the problem, but it's not just the Palestinians who are being affected.

IsrealiMom said...

Well, my comment did go through yesterday after all!
Just wanted to add some more... there were not such terrible checkpoints before the Intifada, and people from both sides could move freely from side to side. Is Israel to blame? are the Palestinians to blame? or maybe we should avoid the blame game altogether and try to look towards the future?

That said, I think that there is probably plenty of room for improvement. I am sure conditions in the checkpoint could be greatly improved. It would take the cooperation of the Palestinian Authority as well, maybe setting up joint control positions. I wonder if the people who go through the checkpoint noticed the difference during the Oslo days?

So, while I do think things probably could and should be improved in the checkpoints, I also think it's important to bring the Israeli point of view when talking about them. They are there for security reasons, pure and simple, not because anyone here gets a kick out of them.