His cries could be heard from across the hospital. After tending to wounded after clashes in his home city of Nablus, medic Elias al-Ashqar had been unable to save an elderly man injured by an Israeli bullet. When he pulled down the man’s mask, he realized it was his own father, a former UNHRW employee. “It’s my father, it’s my father” he wailed in the operating theater, a crowd gathered around him in horror and consolation.
For many in Palestine, death at the hands of soldiers or settlers has become so commonplace that it isn’t something they fear anymore. “I wasn’t scared. It’s something you get used to over time – you feel potentially you might get shot but you don’t feel scared of death but you think of your loved ones and you want to know how it’s going to end. I’ve seen three people get shot” Samya* told me in a phone call. A 16-year-old former student of his was killed in the clashes which took 11 Palestinian lives and left over one hundred injured.
Samya had gone out to teach English in a school outside the city center like he does every day, when he received news of a raid. The local militant group the Lion’s Den Brigade1Recently profiled in the New York Times – see Patrick Kingsley & Hiba Yazbek, “In West Bank, New Armed Groups Emerge, and Dormant Ones Stir,” New York Times (4 March 2023). had put out a call on Telegram for supporters to go out into the street to try to block the soldiers. Other groups came from as far as Jenin, a 2 hours’ drive away in the north of West Bank, with improvised explosive devices useful for urban combat in the tight, dusty streets in Nablus’ old town where just the day before they had been shooting a historical drama.
Samya had done this before and was accustomed to the chaos – “you feel helpless” he adds – but this time the IDF soldiers had updated their equipment and were able to shoot out of holes in their armored personnel carriers. They were firing live rounds. He later saw bullet holes as far away as 2 kilometers from where the fighting took place, and fires in the nearby village of Hurawa in a revenge attack by settlers that a senior Israeli military commander described as a pogrom.
Life isn’t easy for Samya. “You feel like being in a big prison. That’s the West Bank in general.” Traveling around the West Bank through areas B & C – zones under Israel’s administration – isn’t easy, thanks to strict checkpoints where they apply Israeli law and can detain you at will. If you aren’t wearing a seatbelt, you can get a fine of 500 shekels – ten times more than it would cost in Palestine, constituting half of Samya’s monthly paycheque.
These restrictions mean that for Palestinians creativity is the only way to survive. “It hasn’t been this bad in a long time” says Mohammad Ghannam, his American accent marked by Arabic inflections. Mohammad hasn’t been paid his full teachers’ salary by the governing Palestinian Authority for months, so alongside his day job he takes people on tours of Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank.
The first time you go to Palestine is unforgettable. I first met Mohammad seven years ago, but he greets me warmly.
I had come to Jerusalem for the wedding of a British-Jewish friend who’d moved to Israel and fallen in love. For his bachelor party I went paintballing with his friends and family, who had all served in the IDF. I’d been hesitant beforehand, but then I realized that they were mostly nebbish types who had never seen combat. I began to enjoy myself, barely suppressing the urge to scream at them in Arabic while firing my weapon. The wedding was lavish, with a Klezmer band and the chuppah canopy overlooking the Dome of the Rock.
Having felt ambiguous about attending due to the politics of it all, I made a compromise with myself: I would visit Palestine as well as Israel. I wrote to Mohammad on Couchsurfing. Because I was unmarried and he lived with his hijab-wearing wife and then-young daughter, he arranged for me to stay with friends of his.
Entering the West Bank is like entering another world. The streets were crowded with market sellers and litter. When I arrived I went to a cafe to wait for Mohammad, the cafe served mint tea and had a (now removed) larger-than-life mural of Saddam Hussein. I remember the green-lit mosques with their penetratingly hypnotic calls to prayer punctuating the eerily silent nights; the men near the four lions roundabout wearing Ottoman jester outfits and pouring earthy-sweet carob juice. I was struck by Arab generosity, given fruit for free by street vendors with little more to their name. I gorged on sticky knafeh, the Palestinian sweet cheese dessert. My anxiety on arrival made me realize I had imbibed some of the West’s hostility and fear towards Arabs – something I overcame as I began to forge friendships with my hosts, of the type that young men can form whatever their background. One, Hamdi, showed me his art made with coloured sand in bottles.
Things seemed different this time, on both sides of the Israeli West Bank barrier which surrounds the road into Ramallah, an artery protected by spools of barbed wire. The day I arrived in Jerusalem was marked by the largest protest Israel has ever seen, with demonstrators streaming into the newly-built underground train station that goes to the airport and Tel Aviv. The stream of blue-and-white-flags broadcast that these were not leftists, they weren’t necessarily uncomfortable with the occupation nor conflict with the Palestinians. This was at the same time as the massive OurCrowd investment summit, which supports many of Israel’s dynamic startups. Some of the attendees at the summit and the march were one and the same, waving Save our Startup Nation placards.
Israel’s longtime leader Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is accused of undermining the independence of the judicial system in a naked attempt to stay out of jail for corruption. (He’s been convicted, but he continues to fight the charges in court.) Netanyahu’s right-wing nationalist camp broke Israel’s electoral deadlock, which saw the country hold five elections in four years, and appointed politically extreme convicted criminals like Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Jewish Power Party to his cabinet.
At the OurCrowd summit itself, there was talk of little else. Israel’s President Herzog – scion of a political dynasty, to the extent that one conference attendee described him as “President Nepo Baby” – aimed to calm investors and called for a compromise on so-called judicial reform, quipping that “I cannot promise 100% results, but I can promise 100% effort.” “The people the right are calling leftists now are business leaders and outright capitalists” one short-statured Israeli investor who was moving his wealth out of Israel told me. He explained that Jews had always needed to be careful with their finances due to persecution, under which their savings could be stolen at a moment’s notice. Now he was worried about this happening in the Jewish state.
A senior diplomat’s wife who has known Bibi for decades told me the same: “We don’t want to end up like Poland or Hungary. […] I sent my children into combat for Israel and now I’m really wondering if I did the right thing.”
With no real written constitution, Israel is particularly vulnerable to an executive takeover, and the country’s Supreme Court, based on a hill overlooking Jerusalem, is a kind of third Temple to many of the middle-class Ashkenazi Israelis that are protesting Netanyahu. The racial element of Israel’s division is often missed by outside observers: though Netanyahu’s Likud leadership are mostly Ashkenazi, most of their voters come from Israel’s Mizrahi minority. Bibi has followed the playbook of many far-right populist leaders, successfully promoting himself as a champion of the poorer groups that were discriminated against by the educated elite.2Ashkenazi Jews are those of Eastern European descent, whereas Mizrahi Jews are of Middle Eastern descent. The former are prominent in Israel’s ruling class and tend to be more well-off, whereas the Mizrahi form a plurality among ethnic sub-groups in Israel. The far-right government has gained much support from Mizrahis in recent years through populist appeals. For more on this dynamic, see Joshua Leifer, “Israel’s Class War Conservatives” in Jewish Currents (22 February 2023).
Since Bibi broke the electoral deadlock and conclusively won last year, some analysts say that his government is pursuing a deliberate strategy of escalation with the Palestinians. Even the US, usually Israel’s staunchest backer, signaled that it considered their transfer of civilian authority in the West Bank to far-right Finance Minister Smotrich a step towards annexation.
I remember scoffing when Mohammad told me that “no one cares about the Palestinians.” People had marched in their hundreds and thousands across the world. We were all Palestinians, weren’t we? Since then there have been brutal attacks on Gaza, a creeping expansion of settlements, as well as the signing of the Abraham Accords whereby states like the UAE and Morocco normalized relations with Israel, breaking a decade long diplomatic stance not to recognise what they previously called “the Zionist entity.” After watching a raucous testosterone-charged volleyball match between his village and a local rival, with chewed sunflower seeds crunching beneath my feet, I realized Mohammad’s observation had proven true. Palestine is alone – even many Palestinians now prefer a one-state solution after seeing the comparatively privileged lives of Arabs in Israel.
Since the pandemic, Ramallah is quieter, without international visitors and with a growing sense of desperation, exhaustion. When I crossed the concrete Qulatya checkpoint and entered the minibus next to a van selling giant heads of cauliflower, a young man spoke to me on the bus. He’s a Palestinian from Jerusalem. Does he come here often? “No. There’s nothing here. It’s cheap though.” ~