Reportage. In the Occupied Territories, the Israeli settlements are expanding at an accelerating pace. Palestinian rights are not on the political agenda, and the sense of stagnation is palpable. ‘The Palestinians are alone.’

Demolitions and ‘tolerance’: Palestinians in the West Bank express resignation

The slow, early morning traffic after the Israeli checkpoint that bisects the Palestinian village of Nuaman, north of Bethlehem, means that one has time to note the striking advance of the concrete walls of the Har Homa settlement. It is 20 years old, built in the late 1990s on Abu Ghneim hill, where apartment buildings with six and seven floors replaced a forest where Palestinians used to have picnics during the weekend.

The settlement has grown in recent years and then exploded in size just in the last few months. It occupies the entire hill and is advancing rapidly outward. This advance is an immediate visible sign of how much the Palestinian agenda has been set back. Officially, people talk about the status quo and about unchanging boundaries, but here immobility is wholly one-sided: the Palestinians appear to be staying in place, while Israelis advance.

Further north, along the Israeli wall that surrounds Jerusalem, one can see Ramallah, with its awe-inspiring contradictions. There is construction happening here as well—a lot of it. New buildings made of white stone are sprouting up like mushrooms, featuring vaguely European-style bars without any definite identity. Bank branch after bank branch is opening up—each a concrete step towards debt, a new phenomenon for a society previously accustomed to living off savings and to only buy a house or add an extra floor to the family home after the marriage of one of the children. Today, things have changed: loans have become an everyday means to make ends meet with the small salaries, rent an apartment or pay for university studies.

“The first Intifada broke out when there were no walls or checkpoints in the Territories, when we could move freely through all of historic Palestine. We could visit Jaffa and Gaza and go to Jerusalem. The unemployment rate was very low. But it still broke out because people are not fighting for bread, but for freedom.” Saed was just a boy during the first Intifada; by the second one, he had grown up, and today no one even thinks of another Intifada anymore. He has two children and hasn’t received his wages for months. The organization for which he works can’t even cover their telephone costs. But—what Intifada?

“The Palestinians are alone. They have individualized this society and made it bereft of credible leadership,” said Baha, a twentysomething who some time ago set up a small alternative tourism agency with a friend. They take people, who come from around the world to witness the occupation, on tours of the West Bank.

“I never believed in ‘leaderism,’ but today more than ever, the lack of a credible ruling class is having disastrous consequences,” Baha said. “Israel is very good at applying the strategy of ‘mowing the grass’: as soon as a charismatic figure appears with an idea, with a vision, they are made to disappear. They end up behind bars, or six feet under. Remember Bassem al-Araj? He was an intellectual, an activist, he was able to mobilize the new generation. He spoke of revolution, was inspired by Gramsci. They went after him for two months, and then they murdered him in his home.”

The atmosphere of resignation and stagnation seems omnipresent. In the Arafat Museum in the Ramallah presidential palace, a brilliant exhibition traces Palestinian history from the early 20th century to the death of Arafat in 2004 and has crystallized the national liberation movement. Not far from there, at the military checkpoints, Palestinian day laborers stand in line for hours every morning, squeezed between iron cages, for a day’s work in Israel, earning a bit of financial relief by working jobs that leave them with no time, no rest and no respite.

Nonetheless, one sees enthusiasm and initiatives sprouting up everywhere—grass that hasn’t been mowed. This is most noticeable in Khan al-Ahmar. The walls of the camp built up in the center of this Bedouin village are covered with banners from both local committees and the organizations, which, for the past few months, have been an active part of the community resistance against demolition. On the ground, the mattresses are almost all occupied: the activists are resting, preparing for yet another night of wakefulness in ever-present fear of the arrival of Israeli bulldozers.

Among the many banners, we see that of the Protection and Sumud Committee, newly established among the 40 communities in the south of Hebron. It has about 30 stable members in the village of At-Tuwani, Basil Adraa tells us. They fight demolitions using their bodies, they rebuild homes that have been destroyed, and they act as escorts for the peasants, defending them from attacks by the settlers. “Our goal, as young people, is to rebuild Palestinian unity from the foundations,” explains Basil, 21, who just graduated from law school in Hebron. “The villages are resisting all by themselves. There is no overall coordination. We are in Khan al-Ahmar not just for solidarity, but because together we are stronger.”

Basil looks out at the rocky hills on which his village has been built—a microcosm of the politics of military occupation and popular resistance, a place where the locals have been managing to push their agenda through for decades: they built the school in spite of Israeli restrictions, and they forced Tel Aviv to recognize the master plan of the village from the Ottoman period and to connect the village to running water and electricity. At-Tuwani is a symbol of effective resistance, and has also become a driving force for similar initiatives: a few nearby villages now get their water and electricity thanks to pipes and wires running from here.

The road that leads from at-Tuwani to Jiftlik, a village in the Jordan Valley, is dotted by colonies and bypasses; these roads are only partly accessible to the Palestinians. In Jiftlik, in mid-October, the Israeli army deployed its Caterpillar bulldozers. It’s a regular occurrence here, in this warm place found at the lowest altitude on Earth: 400 meters below sea level, with fertile lands, the richest of historic Palestine.

Nasser takes us to see the corrugated iron protruding from the rubble of what was once a house—or a hut, a tent, and little more: Israeli law says Palestinians are not allowed to build anything, in stark violation of international law. Perched atop the pile of of ruins from which the families managed to rescue only the bare necessities, Nasser, a teacher, tells us about the struggles of the communities against demolitions, about those who rebuild immediately and those who try the legal route in Israeli courts, knowing that it’s a lost cause from the start but merely hoping to buy some time.

In Jerusalem, behind the wall, one feels the same sensation of suffocation, much like that given by the sticky mid-October weather. Going up on the rooftops of the Old Town, you can see what the tourists walking around below can’t even imagine: Palestinian families forced into cramped rooms in every hosh, in every courtyard, with half of the homes occupied by Israeli extremist groups—young settlers who take turns twice or three times a year to maintain a fixed presence there—and a maze of cameras with facial recognition technology that follow the Palestinians around at every turn.

“Here, it’s not just about memory, but about imagination,” Daoud, a Palestinian activist, tells us. “It depends on what you’re able to imagine: yet another expulsion from these lands, or the ability to stay here? Jerusalem is changing at an impressive rate. Israel is putting a detailed development plan into practice, aiming to transform the city into an open-air museum, with gardens, archaeological sites and shopping centers, where Israeli and foreign tourists will replace Palestinian residents. Where a museum display will replace everyday life.”

The process is already underway, with new projects springing up on every corner. The most disturbing—first and foremost on account of its name—is the so-called Museum of Tolerance. It is being built on top of the Mamilla Cemetery, the oldest Arab and Islamic cemetery in the city. This is how a possible attempt at a real, equal and democratic coexistence is being destroyed to make room for “tolerance” as a museum showpiece.

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