Some years ago, I found myself in the passenger seat of a car trying to make its way through the city centre of Lahore. The traffic was confusing. Cars and motorbikes swerved in and out of the gaps between vehicles, made sudden stops, flashed their lights unpredictably and meandered back and forth across the road, almost as if they’d had a drink too many, even if it was in the middle of Ramadan. ‘Only one piece of advice will do here,’ explained the driver, a secular Pakistani intellectual whose wry sense of humour helped him stay sane and alive. ‘Don’t look at the blinking lights and the waving arms, just watch the movements of the wheels in front of you.’ I later realised that he was not just talking about the traffic, but was commenting obliquely on the unhappy political situation in his country, where wealthy landowners, powerful officers and religious leaders competed for power, and where the middle class had never been given a proper chance. Listening to what the politicians said would only be distracting and confusing. In order to understand politics, you had to watch what they were actually doing.
During a visit in Israel and on the West Bank earlier this year, the memory of this experience kept returning to me, and it has not faded after the recent campaign in Gaza. You have to look at the wheels, not at their gesturing and palaver. Yes, it is relevant that Hamas are religious fanatics, and that Fatah are corrupt and inefficient, but in order to understand the relationship between Israel and Palestine, you must dodge the distortions of the communication agencies, avoid the lightning conductors and count dead bodies and transgressions instead.
OK, let’s start. How many walls have the Palestinians built, how many Israelis have they tortured and killed, and how many Israeli children on their way to school do they herd into narrow metal cages, where the children are sometimes forced to stand for an hour or more, in scorching heat, with no explanation? How many recently built Palestinian towns are currently to be found in Israeli territory, and how many Palestinian roads are de facto closed to Israeli vehicles?
One day, I was taken on a visit to Abu Nidal, who lives in a village near Jerusalem. The wall, or security fence, has been built in the West Bank itself, with the result that Israeli territory has, in practice, been expanded with a few square kilometres here and there, and this in turn entails that many Palestinian villages are on the ‘wrong’, Israeli side of the wall. It is unpleasant and not least time-consuming to have to pass through Israeli checkpoints and soldiers every day in order to get on with your business, but if you live in one of these villages, you have no choice.
Abu Nidal turned out to have little in common with his notorious namesake, the militant Palestinian activist who died in 2002. This Abu Nidal was a kindly man in his mid-sixties, who lived in one of the more spacious houses of the village with his daughter and two of his sons. A new Israeli settlement could be seen on a hill nearby, the apartment buildings and greenery surrounded by security fences. In the opposite direction, some of Jerusalem’s suburbs could be discerned in the distance. The security fence ran just below the property, behind it a recently built road for Israelis only. ‘I lost half of my olive trees when they built it,’ he explained. The Israeli state did offer some compensation to him and others in a similar situation, but as a matter of principle, they did not accept it. Abu Nidal speaks Arabic and Hebrew, but little English, and he was interpreted by the anthropologist Efrat Ben Ze’ev, the author of Remembering Palestine in 1948, a study of the collective memory work on both sides.
For years, Abu Nidal made good money with a construction company taking assignments largely from Israeli. He was now retired, but kept a spacious orchard where he grew olives, citrus and vegetables. We sat down in the shade in front of the house, where his unmarried, bare-headed daughter served us strong, sweet coffee. ‘This didn’t use to be a problem,’ he commented, shaking his head, ‘but she now has to cover her head just to go down to the village and do her shopping.’
Abu Nidal no longer believed that his children could make it in their home country. There are limited economic opportunities for those who live on the shrinking West Bank, and jobs in Israel are scarcer and less secure than they were only a few years ago. Increasingly, Israeli prefer to hire immigrants from countries like Thailand and China rather than Palestinians. Many wish to leave, and some succeed. One of his sons recently managed to get a permit of residence in Sweden, where he lives and works as an electrician. The situation is less promising for his other two sons. One of them suffers from damages inflicted when he was imprisoned, with his father, in Israel. He is no longer capable of working. The other son used to work in the Israeli settlement nearby, but lost his job and is now unemployed. Abu Nidal despaired over his inability to help his adult children. He rolled himself a cigarette from homegrown tobacco.
‘I hear that the Swedes now take war refugees from Syria,’ he said. ‘Why can’t they take us as well?’ I shrugged. Palestinians are not considered legitimate political refugees in Europe.
‘But what about Norway?’ he continued. ‘I hear about people who have gone there and are doing well. What if my son travels there, loses his passport and applies for asylum? He might even say that he is Syrian if necessary. He might then be able to find a job enabling him to support himself?’ Again, I had to disappoint him. I thought about the now abandoned Palestinian camp at the Jacob Church (Jakobskirken) in Oslo, which was supported by several NGOs but ignored by the authorities. This country has not been particularly understanding towards undocumented refugees, and after the change in government, it takes an even less generous stance than before.
‘If he knows people who can help him find a place to live, he might be able to get a job in the informal sector,’ I said, ‘but I wouldn’t recommend it. Sooner or later he’d be exposed; Norway is a fairly small, transparent society. The chances might be better in a large country such as the UK or France,’
Abu Nidal nodded and extinguished his cigarette. We changed the topic and talked about the Palestinian authority, the relationship between Fatah and Hamas, the internal problems of corruption, nepotism and personal rivalries, and the brutal Israeli occupation. Just as we were about to take our leave, he reminded us of what kind of society they had once dreamt of.
‘We were envisioning a society where it would be possible to live together without religion being an overriding factor, where religion was politically irrelevant. Where you had your rights and your value because you were a human being. And just look around yourself now.’ There was no need to elaborate. Yes, there has been a shift, and secular dreams now seem less realistic than ever. The change does not merely concern local life in the Palestinian territories, where Abu Nidal’s daughter and other Palestinian women now have to cover their hair when going out, but religiously conservative Jews are also becoming more influential in Israel. On both sides, the present-day territory is being read on ancient maps. Many Israeli speak of the West Bank using the Biblical designations Judea and Samaria, and at the anthropology conference in which I had just taken part, in Jaffa, an elderly Israeli colleague commented, during a plenary session, that the number of kipas seemed to have increased perceptibly in just a few years. Looking around the auditorium, I did indeed notice a fair number of kipas.
Abu Nidal’s story is a reminder of the fact that only a few decades ago, belief in a better world was still alive, even in this tormented, overheated territory wedged between Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and the Mediterranean. Today, scarcely anybody dares believe in positive changes at all.
On the plane home, a few days later, I was reading David Grossman’s The Yellow Wind from 1988, completed before the first intifada and published years before the building of the wall and the Israeli invasions in Gaza. But even then, optimism might be hard to come by. Grossman mentions a research project where several thousand Israeli and Palestinian children were invited to talk about their nightly dreams. Many had dreamt of encounters with the other group, usually of a violent nature. And, among a few thousand dreams among Jewish and Arab children, not a single one expresses a hope for peace, Grossman concludes. Alas, it is not difficult to imagine what the result could have been today. And yet, the grimness of the situation does not prevent Abu Nidal and thousands like him to hope for a better future for their children. Admittedly outside of their damaged homeland, which at the moment only seems capable of producing hatred and bitterness.