Driving north out of Jerusalem after twelve months away was like settling back to watch a favorite film. The olive trees and stony hills baked under the late summer sun and the eroded limestone cliffs at Wadi Harimiya— “thieves,” in Arabic—looked as smooth as they must have thousands of years ago. There used to be a tough Israeli army checkpoint at Harimiya, and Israeli settlers once fired a few shots at me and my assistant just south of there when I was a field operations officer with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
The September air smelled hot and clean, and we made it to Qalqilya, in the northern West Bank, with no delays. I even spotted a hoopoe, my favorite bird, with its exotic flight and plumage. As a foreign visitor I could afford to watch birds. Palestinians, who still queued for hours at the grimy checkpoints, wouldn’t have cared whether I was enjoying the scenery. Their lives had not changed for years, and in this territory, about the size of Delaware, more than 500 obstacles of various types, plus the formidable West Bank barrier, kept them from moving freely.
The army and Israel’s Shin Bet security service maintain that these obstacles prevent bomb-carrying terrorists from reaching Jerusalem. But the barriers and the restrictive permit system feel to Palestinians—and many Israelis—like a means of keeping a population under complete control. Forty years after Israel occupied the West Bank, Palestinians are depressed and feel that it will never end. “This is our life,” they say with weary shrugs in Nablus and Tulkarm.
Israelis are dejected too. “What can we do?” they often say (if asked) in the trendy coffee shops of the German Colony in West Jerusalem.
Settlers, who make up a small percentage of Israel’s population, wield enormous influence in the country’s fractious political system, and the army is said to have an increasing number of members of the right-wing National Religious party or settlers themselves in the officer corps. I tend to view the settler enterprise as a strong tail wagging a lethargic dog. Many Israelis, including some religious ones and Zionists, are deeply troubled by these trends.
In an article in the July 30th issue of The New Yorker, David Remnick quoted former speaker of the Knesset and Zionist leader Avraham Burg, whose new book Defeating Hitler has caused a stir. “For me, Israel is shrinking into its own shell rather than struggling for a better world. Who is responsible for identity? The ultraOrthodox.... Who is responsible for our fundamental relation to the soil? The settlers. The two tribes responsible for the spiritual dimension and the territorial dimension are anti-modern Israel.” For such thoughts Burg has been excoriated from all points on the political spectrum.
If Israeli government policy is disproportionately shaped by religious settlers and activist generals, ordinary Palestinians also are divided and badly served. In Gaza, the former prime minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas has urged Arab countries to boycott the November peace conference in the U.S., and has spoken out against normalizing relations with Israel. The Hamas government has done nothing to halt rocket attacks from Gaza. And Hamas and the more secular Fatah party are locked in a deadly power struggle.
“There’s a symmetry of extremists,” Dror Etkes, the longtime Israeli peace activist and an army veteran, told me over coffee in Jerusalem. “On both sides. We are stuck. Trapped.”
This tar pit has left Palestinians and Israelis feeling like permanent victims of the other, dishing out blame but refusing to take responsibility. It’s all the fault of the Israeli occupation. It’s all the fault of Palestinian terrorists.
The pessimism can be contagious. But there are ways around it. One is to find a good restaurant in a West Bank town. Just before Ramadan, we had a hummus and salad lunch in a third-floor restaurant with windowsill boxes full of salvia and coleus overlooking Qalqilya’s town square. Below, on the quiet streets where in 2002 I tried to keep out of the way of speeding Merkava tanks, the flags of Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine fluttered weakly in the damp midday heat. Militant factions rule (we heard some dreadful stories about their rough justice) and the flowers were a bit wilted, but the welcome was warm and the excellent hummus lunch with warm pita bread, for three people, cost about seven dollars.
The next week I found relief from the gloom in a familiar place, an UNRWA school in Jenin. In this refugee camp that has seen so much violence, the kids are sparky (too sparky sometimes; the boys are hyperactive and rowdy) and always glad to see a foreigner. A social welfare counselor was painting the faces of the small girls, so I had mine painted too. The girls were between seven and ten, and were all smiles. My favorite had an orange nose; about eight years old, she was wide awake, happy all the time, social and self-contained, and she made me laugh every time I looked at her. I forgot to wash my face afterward, and for the rest of the day wondered why I was getting odd looks. When we walked into the UN health clinic, one man asked my friend Gustav’s assistant, in Arabic: “What’s on that guy’s face? Is it some kind of political symbol? Is he a Nazi or something?”
That’s why I like the schools. The girls don’t do politics. As accustomed as they are to tanks screeching through the streets and the sound of machine gun fire, the kids (the girls, anyway) adjust their outlook and carry on. “Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend?” they squeal.
For their sake, the extremists on both sides should be shown the door. Moderates, if given a chance, know this intractable problem can be solved through compromise and a negotiated end to the occupation.
Philip C. Winslow's latest book is Victory for Us is to See You Suffer, an account of his experiences in the West Bank during the second intifada. Winslow has been a journalist and foreign correspondent for more than twenty years; he also served in two United Nations peacekeeping missions and spent nearly three years living in the West Bank. Winslow is also the author of Sowing the Dragon's Teeth: Land Mines and the Global Legacy of War.