notes from the West Bank

Today, we talked to senior officials of the Palestinian authority in the Palestinian Authority’s capital of Ramallah. We also visited a brand-new, planned Palestinian city called Ramabi. And before we entered the West Bank, we toured the Israeli separation wall with the colonel who had planned it.

If you’re a pessimist about Palestine, its future is Ofra. If you’re an optimist, its future is Ramabi. If you’re a realist, its future is Ramallah. I will explain …

Ofra is the Israeli settlement we visited yesterday. One of the first settlements, it dates from the 1970s and still has a feel of that era. For one thing, it’s a dusty place that looks as if it’s held together with duct tape and staples. You are greeted by a large photo of one of the community’s members who was killed in Lebanon in 1982, and his big mustache, grin, and tan make him look like someone out of “Easy Rider.” (The landscape looks exactly like Arizona, by the way: high desert.) But the prevailing ideology reminded me of Mississippi circa 1950. We were told that the Arabs who live all around were originally grateful to the Israeli settlers for bringing them medical care and other modern conveniences, but then outside agitators turned them into terrorists. Whatever you think about it, Ofra is all about the past: the past of David and Solomon, and the past of 1947 and 1967.

Within sight of Ofra, Ramallah is bustling, dynamic, and large (maybe 25,000 to Ofra’s 3,200 people). Most of the city seems to be a construction site right now. Signs advertise a mix of international brands (Dominos, Hyundai), local bargains, and trademark violations like “Star Bucks” coffee shops. I am not a good judge of income and development, but it looked to me like an upper-middle-income city, by global standards. Public services look a little weak (unpaved roads, for example), but the apartments and stores look modern and comfortable. The people on the streets are diverse, some religious and others secular. I can’t read the signs in Arabic, but to go by images, Disney is a more pervasive force than either Islam or nationalism.

The Palestinian Authority’s officials were smart and knowledgeable. They made many valid points. But their argument was all about past grievances with Israel, and their only answer when someone asked how they could obtain peace was to hope that the Americans or liberal Israelis would recognize the injustice of their side and back down. Their goal was to persuade us to sympathize with them as victims.

Meanwhile, Palestinian businesspeople are building Ramabi on a vast scale on barren hills north of Ramallah. It will cost $1 billion to erect and will provide jobs and homes in an environmentally friendly, postmodern, urban, planned community. The company is corporate, on the global model, with nice logos, smoothly produced PowerPoints, gifts for visitors, and financial lingo. The staff emphasize their cooperation with Israeli companies and the substantial number of Jewish investors, who are taking a risk on building in a politically volatile region because they believe that Ramabi is the best thing that could happen to Israel. (I agree, by the way.) The leaders of Ramabi have legitimate grievances with Israel–they can’t get a permit to build a convenient access road to the nascent city, and when checkpoints are closed, their trucks can’t get through. Politics is inescapable, and in fact, the main reason for the city is Palestinian patriotism. Bashar Masri, a major international business person who happens to be Palestinian, wants to invest in his home country to strengthen it. But the company tries to be minimally divisive. Their politics is explicitly win/win, not zero-sum, Above all, they are thinking about the future, not the past.

In Ramallah, I asked about the combination that Israeli negotiator Tal Becker had recommended: Israelis should acknowledge Palestinian suffering and take some responsibility for it (implying also that many Arabs lived in what is now Israel), and Palestinians should acknowledge that the Jewish people have historic roots in Palestine. I noted that recognizing Jewish origins in Palestine does not commit one to endorse Zionism; it is just a matter of accepting a historical truth and recognizing the sincerity of the Zionists’ motives.

Dr. Abdallah Abdallah is Deputy Commissioner of FATAH’s International Relations committee and Chair of the Political Committee of the Palestinian Authority. He gave a long answer to my question; I wish I had transcribed it. I believe he basically wandered among four different themes: (1) just because you lived somewhere in the past doesn’t mean you should own that place now–do the Native Americans have a right to America? (2) The ancient Jews lived in parts of the Holy Land, but not in most of it. (3) The Jewish people may or may not have lived in Palestine in ancient times. Some Jewish historians doubt the reality of the diaspora, and he doesn’t have opinions about ancient history. And (4) the Jews conquered Palestine from the Arabs in ancient times, coming up from Egypt, which makes them one of many “waves” of conquerors, just like the Romans.

Now, Dr. Abdallah may actually believe that the Jews originated in Palestine. Earlier, in an entirely different context, he had noted that all three Abrahamic faiths originated here, which sounds like an acknowledgement that Judaism started in ancient Israel. But what struck me was a refusal to state publicly something that Israeli liberals desperately want to hear, an explicit acknowledgement of ancient Jewish history. Arguably, what he says shouldn’t matter. I doubt it matters much to right-wing Israelis, who don’t care what Arabs think. But if it does matter, it’s for this reason: to doubt the reality of the Jewish historical narrative is to read Zionists as sinister conspirators, European colonialists who invented a wild excuse for seizing Arab land. And as long as you believe that, you have no reason to make a sincere deal with Israelis today.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.