In a few hours i’ll fly out of Tel Aviv to return to the US. This will be my 20th or 21st year of visiting Israel and the West Bank. In that 20 years I’ve never seen or heard less hope and more fear than I’ve heard on this trip.
Not that there haven’t been positive changes. Better roads in Israel make it easier for tour groups. Fewer checkpoints in the West Bank make it easier for everyone who travels through, including Palestinians. The economy in the West Bank is better than ever. Cities are growing, new houses are being built, infrastructure has vastly improved. One sees similar growth in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
So what’s the problem?
It is complicated, but not incomprehensible. Corruption is a problem because it slows and misdirects the economy, and it exists in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Both economies are distorted by foreign aid, although Israel, which receives massive amounts of US foreign aid, probably suffers from the worst distortions.
There are the internal complexities I mentioned in an earlier blog – complexities that can and already have quickly boiled into conflicts. Just yesterday there was a demonstration by the ultra-orthodox in Israel against the enforcement of Israel’s draft laws against their young men. This group has also gotten ugly with women who they think are immodestly dress, or who refuse to go to the back of the bus. In short you have a large community that believes that it should be exempt from obeying the law.
And they are not the only Israelis who believe they don’t need to obey the law. There are tens of thousands of Israelis living in settlements that Israel’s courts have declared illegal, but they continue to defy the law of their own country. And the current government that should enforce the law does not.
We were told by a prominent Israeli social scientist that the Israeli government has passed many laws to either satisfy or which irritate various religious groups, and that these laws are either unenforceable or will not be enforced. And what this means is that gradually Israel’s status as a nation of law is eroded, as is the confidence of its own citizens in their government.
And over in the West Bank and Gaza what remains of the territory that was to be a Palestinian state is now divided between what are effectively two different pseudo-governments, one run by the Hamas political party in the Gaza Strip and one run by the Fatah political party in the West Bank. When I mentioned to one young Palestinian that things seemed to have improved he said, “beneath the surface it is all corrupt.” Obviously the situation is politically impossible, but it is a result of democratic votes by Palestinians. Whether any better possibility can exist seems unlikely.
But most physically visible over a 20 year period is the steady expansion of the settlements into the territory that according to the Oslo accords would eventually become a Palestinian state. Palestinian towns near the cease fire boundary from the 1967 war are gradually being surrounded by settlements and cut off from each other. With an exception of 6 months Israel has never ceased expanding its settlements, not merely in terms of the number of people within existing settlement areas, but in terms of taking new land.
And this disheartens not only Palestinians, but also Israelis who believe that peace within a normal nation is only possible if the Palestinians have their own state.
Thus I heard more than ever about the “one state solution.” Israel would simply annex the entire West Bank and make it part of Israel. I heard both Palestinians and Israelis who spoke as if this is the only way forward. But is it a good way forward?
Those I spoke to agree that there are three possible outcomes of a single state. 1. All Palestinians would get Israeli citizenship. This means that half or even a majority of Israeli voters would be Arab Muslims and Israel would lose the characteristic of being a Jewish state. 2. All Palestinians get some kind of residency permit but would not be citizens. This would be an end to any pretense the Israel is a democracy. 3. The Palestinians would forced out of the West Bank, which would be a humanitarian disaster and would put Israel among the worst of the states practicing “ethnic cleansing.”
I didn’t meet anyone who thought that these possibilities were good for either Israelis or Palestinians.
So where is hope? Not in politics. The politicians have failed their peoples.
Yet everywhere in Israel and the Palestinian territories there are groups and individuals that are reaching out, forming relationship across deep divides, consciously protecting the rights of their neighbors, acting in decent and humane ways. In short they are creating the actual infrastructure of human relationships that makes living in society possible and ultimately is the only basis for democracy. I mentioned one of them, Roots. But there are dozens of others engaged in both service to those most vulnerable and bringing people together across boundaries of misunderstanding and hate.
We don’t hear about these people and these groups in the news. And frankly we don’t hear about them from the various advocacy groups, Jewish and Palestinian, who are themselves inextricably implicated in the failed political power structures. But these individual and groups are here. Almost crushed beneath the weight of politics and exploitation and hatred and fear, they are still here. They are still at work.
And these groups are, to be very frank, the only reason I continue to return to Israel and the West Bank. They, these unknown, invisible, decent human beings acting out their true humanity and scattered through the two societies are the only thing that makes this land holy.