Thursday, April 21, 2011

Palestine Seen by Liberals as Noble Victim

For an outsider, visiting the West Bank for the first time is a bit like going to New York City for the first time, in the sense that it feels familiar even before you get there. It’s a place you expect to recognise because you’ve seen and heard about it countless times on television, in films, on the news. But, as with the myth-enshrouded Manhattan, the schism between stereotype and reality in places like Ramallah, Birzeit and Bethlehem is blatant.

Visiting these places over the weekend, I saw no armed militia men, no children in rags or violence-glorifying graffiti. Of course, all of these are present elsewhere in the Palestinian territories. For instance, on the day I arrived in Ramallah, an Italian member of the International Solidarity Movement was executed by Islamic militants in the Gaza Strip, and in places like Nablus I have seen walls covered in Islamist slogans calling for the destruction of Israel.

And of course, many Palestinians live in very poor conditions. In the West Bank, there are 60-year-old refugee camps where people have gone from living in tents to shacks constructed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and finally on to self-built concrete homes lining narrow, paved streets. One camp, Ayda, is home to 5,000 people and is just a short drive from the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. It is also adjacent to the lavish Jacir Palace Intercontinental Hotel.

A view of the West Bank, travelling between Ramallah and Bethlehem.

Yet flicking through This Week in Palestine, a local English-language listings and features magazine, one gets the impression that middle-class pleasures are not wanting in the West Bank. A contemporary dance festival, a theatre festival, a literature festival - all are currently in full swing. Also, any Western liberal chatterati type would have felt completely at home at Saturday’s TEDx event in Bethlehem. This was a locally organised day of talks and performances modelled on the California-based TED conference, which is arguably the best reflection we have today of the state of political correctness and middle-class preoccupations.

Driving within and between West Bank cities, along bumpy countryside roads criss-crossing through grassy and rock-strewn hills, the overall impression is not so much one of poverty as a sense of being trapped. The most obvious obstruction to free movement here is the concrete security barrier that cuts off Palestinians from Israelis and from one another. It snakes through the countryside and, by the major Israel Defense Forces-manned checkpoints, it has been covered in garish graffiti and slogans – mainly by foreign peace activists who seem to use the wall as a canvas on which to project their own political frustrations.

[Israeli security fence]
Graffitti on the security wall in Bethlehem (picture taken in 2006)

The infamous military terminals, ‘flying checkpoints’ and roadblocks impair freedom of movement further, and in addition a complex bureaucracy and stringent international visa restrictions make acquiring permits to enter Israel or to go abroad at best frustrating and at worst impossible for many Palestinians. Israelis are also disallowed from entering Palestinian territories. By contrast the freedom of ‘the internationals’, as foreign aid workers and activists are referred to, to move in and out of Israel and the Palestinian territories appears particularly unfair.

From listening to the 20-odd, mostly Palestinian speakers at the TEDx conference, and talking to young locals, international peace activists and aid workers, it also became clear that for many, self-imposed separation among Palestinians is the preferred response to the ongoing occupation. The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has made its mark among this section of Palestinian society, where cooperation with Israeli organisations and individuals is pejoratively branded as ‘normalisation’.

Jamil Abu Wardeh, best known for founding the Axis of Evil comedy tour, hosts TEDx Ramallah, which was re-located to Bethlehem.

At the first Palestinian BDS conference in 2007 it was agreed that, ‘Normalisation means to participate in any project or initiative or activity, local or international, specifically designed for gathering (either directly or indirectly) Palestinians (and/or Arabs) and Israelis, whether individuals or institutions, that does not explicitly aim to expose and resist the occupation and all forms of discrimination and oppression against the Palestinian people.’

This delegitimises not just commercial links or political initiatives aimed specifically at blocking the struggle for Palestinian self-determination, but also any initiative that does not explicitly oppose Israeli policies. It is a great hindrance to potentially fruitful collaborations between Israeli and Palestinian scientists, artists, academics and others. An unwillingness to politicise projects that are not inherently political (a concert, an art workshop or a scientific study for instance), or an unwillingness to subscribe to the BDS-worldview, carries the risk of being slapped with an embargo or being socially ostracised and regarded as a colluder.

Boycotts are not a new strategy, of course. Arab boycotts of Zionist institutions and Jewish businesses started even before the founding of the state of Israel. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Arab League officially imposed an economic boycott of Israel. But the secret behind the international successes of the BDS movement lies in a relatively newfound obsession among westerners for playing a role in ‘the Palestinian struggle for justice’. At the same time as the BDS movement has hindered local collaborations, it has opened up spaces for international non-governmental organisations and campaign groups to come to the Palestinian territories, en masse, inevitably importing their own agendas and prejudices.

One of the four lions on Al-Manara square, Ramallah. In the tents on the right are the few remaining protesters from the Egypt-inspired 15 March demonstration calling for elections for the Palestinian National Council to end the division between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and the Hamas-run government in the Gaza Strip.

Again, this trend was blatant at the TEDx event, which was in the top-three topics on Twitter that day (since ‘trending’ on Twitter has become a modern marker of success, this was certainly seen as a big deal among the event’s organisers and participants). At TEDx, speakers marvelled at the wonders of ‘the social media revolution’, expounded on the futility of higher education (this from a Harvard academic), celebrated leaderless political movements, hailed the heroism of the International Solidarity Movement, used psychological terminology to explain why humans are convinced by certain political ideas, and lobbied for a ‘green-state solution’. It felt as if the programme had been inspired by the opinion pages of a Western liberal broadsheet: the New York Times, perhaps, or the Guardian.

Of course, some of the importing of outside ideas and resources into the Palestinian territories has been positive. The Palestinian-American Sam Bahour, who spoke at TEDx, was instrumental in establishing the Palestine Telecommunications Company and also set up the Plaza Shopping Center, Ramallah’s first mall. But the preference for importing political ideas and allegiances from the wider ‘international community’ also means that Palestinians accept the global image of themselves as a trapped, ‘voiceless’ people in desperate need of international patronage, shiploads of assorted self-righteous Israel-opponents, and young Westerners on the lookout for a relatively safe place to ‘find themselves’ while at the same time posing as self-sacrificing, risky activists.

Plaza shopping centre, Ramallah’s first and only mall, opened 2003.

In This Week in Palestine, a London-born reporter explains that ‘since the International Solidarity Movement was established in 2001, over 200 NGOs have sprung up in the West Bank and Gaza. This presence is proof of how favourable Palestinian conditions have become.’ This shows how self-serving the NGO agenda in the Palestinian territories can be, where these activists, through BDS schemes, take it upon themselves to police whom Palestinians should interact with, while at the same time importing and imposing their own ideas and ideology in Palestinian towns and cities. For many young Westerners, no matter how clued-up or clueless they are about the history of Arab-Israeli tensions, the people living in these small strips of Palestinian land have clearly become the world’s No.1 victims - and Israel is clearly the world’s No.1 bully.

A herder crosses a street in Birzeit with his sheep in tow.

In the same article in This Week in Palestine, the writer says: ‘In London, where I grew up, this conflict was a “red-line” topic. If you took the wrong position on Palestine-Israel, it was as bad as supporting the death penalty, or liking Margaret Thatcher, and you would be considered the devil incarnate. As I overheard at a Kensington dinner party: “You cannot be a good person if you think the occupation is okay”.’

This just about sums up the extent to which, for many Western, ‘dinner party’ liberals, where you stand on Palestine and Israel has become a barometer of your moral worth. Serious and complex political questions are pushed to one side as instead people embrace Palestine to show that they are a ‘good person’ rather than the ‘devil incarnate’. And although life in the Palestinian territories is no Kensington dinner party, such conversations are echoed here, too. To this outsider, it seems that self-imposed estrangement from the Israelis, and the acceptance of international pity missions, can only further entrench Palestinians’ new degrading status as noble victims.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.

All photos taken by Nathalie Rothschild.

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