Adania Shibli is a visiting professor at Birzeit University’s Institute of Women’s Studies and Cultural Studies Department. Her latest book is the novel “We Are All Equally Far From Love.”
When looking at a map of Palestine and Israel, Gaza resembles the little toe of a foot. You hardly pay attention to your little toe, unless it’s in pain, of course. When Gaza suffers devastating attacks by the Israeli military, immense sympathy for its people pours in from the outside — but hardly anything more than that.
Oddly enough, this is also how Palestinians in the West Bank often relate to Gaza.
I live in Ramallah, only 60 miles away, but it feels as if Gaza were as far as Berlin, New York, Paris, Istanbul or London. It has been this way since 1994, when control over some Palestinian cities was passed to the Palestinian Authority. As a result, movement of Palestinians to and from Gaza, as well as cities on the West Bank, became very hard, if not impossible.
In recent years, Palestinian society has become trapped in geographic divisions: Gaza vs. the West Bank, but also inside the West Bank. By 1996, the Oslo Accords allowed the Israeli authorities to control Palestinians’ lives by controlling their movements — mainly between cities rather than inside cities, as was the case before then. What used to be an open space where people could travel freely between all the Palestinian areas, and even into the Israeli areas, has been divided into four zones, with connections between them controlled by more than 500 checkpoints and roadblocks and a wall 26 feet high. That wall does not so much divide Palestinians from Israelis as Palestinians from each other.
The last time I visited Gaza was in 2000. Before then, I used to visit Gaza City quite often, while working on art and theater projects. With the eruption of the second intifada, or uprising, I could no longer travel there, and my contact with Gazans was reduced to e-mails that vanished with time. I would meet with Gazan writers, artists and intellectuals at events around the world — anywhere but Gaza. It turns out that this geographic division has been the most efficient way to occupy and manage the Palestinians; it has destroyed the idea of a Palestinian culture, of a society with coherent connections.
Consequently, since 2000, the Israeli occupation has felt like an individual, rather than a collective, problem. For instance, when Palestinians cross an Israeli-controlled checkpoint, we go through a revolving gate that allows only one person at a time, or we sit in a line inside a car. Naturally, you want to cross the checkpoint first, before your fellow Palestinians. And it is the other Palestinians in the line who may delay you. They might jump the queue, because they, too, need to get somewhere urgently, while the Israeli soldiers are the ones allowing you to go through. The enmity felt while crossing a checkpoint can thus often be directed more toward Palestinians than the Israeli soldiers.
Every time I return to Ramallah from Berlin, where I live for part of the year, I feel compassion and understanding for the suffering of my fellow Palestinians. Yet once I stand at a checkpoint, I protect my spot and boil with anger at anyone who pushes me in the cramped line. I may even yell at them: You think you are better than me? Or what you’re doing is more important than what I need to do, so you want to pass ahead of me?
A few years ago, in fact, a man who worked as a butcher killed another man with a knife when he tried to get ahead of him at the Qalandia checkpoint, between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
Eventually, as it became nearly impossible for Palestinians to move between the West Bank and Gaza, most of us turned into spectators to the destruction inflicted on Gaza. What else can we do but watch? That was the troubling question that many in Ramallah posed every day during the recent attacks on Gaza. Among those asking the question were my students at Birzeit University. Discussions among the students about the situation in Palestine seem unavoidable in my classes focusing on European thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, John Locke and John Stuart Mill who examined notions such as truth, human life, liberty, equality and justice.
And when some students turn to the question “What can we do to gain such freedoms?,” the answer is normally silence, followed by confessions of helplessness and despair. But there are also confessions of selfishness. No one wishes to risk any of what they have, knowing how much they lack. More or less, my students argue that, in the past 10 years, Palestinian society has fallen prey to coveting the little, absurd privileges people have left. My students want to finish their studies, find jobs, get married, buy cars and flats, now that mortgages have been introduced by Palestinian banks. They’d rather not waste their futures fighting for a cause that is proving to be a lost one. “What had we gained from all our repeated intifadas?” some ask. The quest for national liberation, which many have lost hope in, is now eclipsed by the quest for personal, mostly economic, gains.
In the past decade, the West Bank has been pumped with private and international funds aimed at creating small businesses and building a bureaucratic authority with many employees who are hardly productive. Not much can be done, after all, without full freedom and an end to the Israeli occupation; their work is limited to a few cities and does not exceed what a municipality does in other countries. Still, those funds have created thousands of jobs, whereby employees get salaries in spite of their redundancy and dysfunctionality (or maybe they get such salaries to be dysfunctional). But with salaries, these workers can secure loans to buy cars and flats. These days, you hardly meet someone in the West Bank without a loan tying him or her to a bank for a few years. This is one of the main contributions of the Oslo Accords: the introduction of a neoliberal economy, boosted during the term of former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad.
Just 20 years ago, buying a car or an apartment was an unnecessary luxury. While this way of life might work better in places where basic rights such as equality and freedom are granted, for Palestinians it has made life under occupation and oppression seem normal. Now these smaller dreams — buying a car and an apartment — have replaced the bigger ones: justice, equality, freedom and social solidarity. And of course, in these flats, the owners have at least one plasma TV screen where they can watch Gaza as it is bombed, and feel helpless. They no longer know how to move from self-interest to mutual care.
During a recent class discussion, one of my students, who’s very clever, implored his classmates to resist paralysis and passivity. Before asking others to act, he said, everyone should do something on his own to counteract this gloomy reality.
That student, though, didn’t show up for class a few weeks ago. His sister told me that he was in the hospital, after being shot by the Israeli army, with two bullets in his stomach. After a few surgeries, he’s now in a wheelchair waiting for another surgery to repair his hip. He was protesting in the Ramallah area against what has happened in Gaza. Following that small demonstration, a huge one erupted, where many people, including other students who had been passive until that point, took part.
Perhaps even the most selfish and passive Palestinians can no longer remain indifferent. Whether or not a cease-fire agreement is reached, the Israeli occupation will continue to divide us from one another. Our main challenge is to find ways to counter that division and the selfishness it inspires.