Last Monday’s opening of the American Embassy in Jerusalem was another set piece in the inflammatory go-it-alone pageantry of Donald Trump. While Israel Defense Forces fired live rounds and tear gas into Palestinian protestors at the Gaza border, curlicues of disconnected fantasies bloomed in the old American Consulate building, on the 1949 Green Line in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood. Considering what was happening at the Gaza fence, fifty miles away, some of the fantasies were almost grotesque:
- Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s beatific smile as he unveiled the stone wall tablet with a great flourish.
- Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s unctuous praise for Trump and Israel, blame for the Palestinians, and the meaningless suggestion that peace can still be achieved.
- Trump daughter Ivanka, beaming but slightly vacant, as she dedicated the Jerusalem stone plaque bearing her father’s name in large letters. Maybe she was nervous. After all, she was awfully close to Arab East Jerusalem. Great falafel shop over in Abu Dis, I could have told her.
- Trump’s tweet: “A great day for Israel!”
- His video message: “We extend a hand in friendship to Israel, the Palestinians and to all of their neighbors. May there be peace.”
- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s gushing about Trump’s “courage” and the righteousness of historical corrections. Well, no hypocrisy there; Netanyahu got everything he wanted, and was beside himself with glee.
And what of the tens of thousands of Palestinians, egged on by Hamas, massed along the Gaza fence as some tried to cut the wire amid clouds of tear gas and smoke from burning tires, on their Nakba day, the catastrophe seventy years ago when their parents or grandparents lost everything? Palestinians? Oh, them. “A gruesome and unfortunate propaganda attempt,” White House spokesman Raj Shah sniffed. I guess it depends on one’s perspective; with dozens shot dead at the fence, the gala in Jerusalem seemed gruesome and unfortunate to me.
With this diplomatic provocation, the Trump administration seemed confident that it has done the right thing for Israel and her security. It has not. And the only American hand extended to the Palestinians proffered a raised middle finger. It was the most blatant—yet in a way the most honest—American gesture to the Palestinians since Israel’s occupation began in 1967.
I lived and worked in the West Bank through the Second Intifada, from 2001 through 2004, as an operations support officer with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), driving six hundred miles a week the length and breadth of the West Bank, and I can tell you a few things about the Palestinians. Hardly any harbor ill feelings for Jews—and please note my distinction here—but they do have bad feelings for Israel, and what they want is the Israeli government and the security forces off their necks so that they can breathe basic human freedoms such as work and unrestricted movement.
The Palestinians I know, remember and remain friends with fourteen years after that intifada are families full of architects, engineers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, students, actors, musicians, warehouse workers, ambulance drivers and people desperate for a job of any kind so they can feed their kids.
The old Israeli tropes—Palestinian terrorism, and “we have no partner for peace”—once true but no longer, are still deployed to sidestep the two-state solution, which Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has no intention of midwifing. It’s true that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is ineffective and needs to go. But without much effort I can think of several Palestinians who would make excellent partners for peace. The United States, however, is no longer a peace broker, honest or otherwise; America is done.
Granted, too, the sight of Gazans in checkered keffiyehs, hurling stones amid flaming tires, is not pastoral. But here’s something else about the Palestinians. Despite the hot rhetoric, they have no intention of trying to enforce what they call the right of return to their old homes in Israel, except symbolically. If Israel lifted the blockade of Gaza and restrictions on West Bankers, Palestinians would, as one woman once plaintively said to me, just get on and “live our simple lives”.
And if they didn’t? If Palestinians, again given access to move freely and work in Israel, resorted to old ways of terrorism? I once put that question to a retired senior Israeli military man. “We would know exactly what to do,” he told me. He didn’t need to elaborate.
Israel’s blockade of Gaza is not about to be eased, especially after Trump’s embassy move and the violence. Peace talks are out of the question for the foreseeable future.
So, what is to be done with the nearly five million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank? The most pessimistic fear is that Israel will keep doing what it’s doing until every last Palestinian is squeezed out of the West Bank. The hardline vision of Israel “from the river to the sea” is not an idle daydream. If you doubt that the squeeze is well underway, look at the UN or Peace Now maps showing the growth of Israeli settlements over the years; Vox has a selection of them here, although it’s not up to date. Israelis in general, even those on the left or center-left, don’t want to know about the Palestinians. Penned in behind the barrier or working in Germany, it’s all the same. They don’t want to see them.
The day of the Embassy opening I found myself having to stifle an unaccustomed outrage at this finger in the eye to the Palestinians, while for the second time in two weeks America stood alone against our European allies. I emailed a Canadian friend, a journalist who has a strong social conscience and is well-versed in international affairs. He wrote back saying that for many Westerners the Palestinians are as off the radar as they are for Israelis. “When I raise it with well-informed people there are blank looks,” he wrote. “It’s as if they have all decided nothing will change and even the worst will be a repeat of past worsts, and Israel will always end up winning and Palestinians will always end up being deserted by Arab neighbors.” He agreed on the moral importance of the issue, but added that many in Canada, the U.S. and Europe are feeling beaten down by what he called news-event fatigue, “the sheer suffocating volume of crises.”
My outrage was not stilled. I hate to hear that well-informed people’s eyes glaze over and they say, oh well, age-old hatreds will never change. That’s a willfully-ignorant cop-out. Do we just forget about justice and human rights? I guess so, in this view. Yes, let’s not forget the political hand-washing of the Arab neighbors. But mainly let’s not forget international humanitarian law, the Geneva Conventions, and activities in territories occupied during war.
How can observers counter the numbing effects of “news-event fatigue,” to help end fifty-one years of occupation? It’s hard work and requires a determination that can exceed the bounds of the possible. A few tools of engagement exist.
Soccer, at least metaphorically. An incident occurred in 2002, at the peak of the intifada, when an IDF squad burst into the house of some friends of mine in Jenin, in the northern West Bank. Here’s how I wrote it up later:
“There were about thirty of them, and they were all in combat gear and flak jackets, and they were very aggressive,” Hidaya [my friend] said. It was the third or fourth search that year, and she calmly gathered the children around the television as a distraction. When the soldiers had finished, four of them flopped down in chairs next to Yazan [their son, who was ten at the time; he, like his father, is now a doctor]. It was the World Cup quarter final that day, England and Brazil, a nail biter.
“What’s the score?” one asked. Yazan told him.
“Who are you for?” the soldier asked.
“Brazil,” Yazan said.
“Me too,” said the soldier.
Hidaya laughed as she looked back on the incident. “They were sweating all over my chairs and the floor in their dirty uniforms. But for five minutes they had a normal conversation”.
Nice story, but how significant? Maybe just an illustration that common ground exists, that enemies can be got together. Even if for five minutes. Next time maybe it’ll be an hour.
The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is another tool, albeit fiercely controversial. I question both the effectiveness and the morality of broad economic sanctions, when different industries, the arts, and academic institutions of both parties are linked—and which can demonize an entire people for the actions of its government. BDS shuts down dialogue and creates ill will for dubious effect. I won’t buy products identified as coming from the West Bank settlements, but otherwise I favor strenuous engagement.
Breaking the Silence, the organization of Israeli combat veterans, offers an inside look from men and women who’ve been on the sharp end. Their courage in truth-telling, in a society where the military once was venerated, can and will bring about change. I’ve met and written about them, and strongly support them.
The Palestine Red Crescent Society is another group I like to plug. These are the first responders who never flinch to save the wounded and gather the dead. Supporting the PRCS replenishes supplies and helps morale among these dedicated medics.
UNRWA, my old employer, provides vital humanitarian aid to Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Israel fulminates against UNRWA and pressures the U.S. to shut down funding, claiming that it’s a terror-supporting organization. It isn’t. Push the U.S. Congress to keep the funds flowing.
These are sticking bandages on a wound that requires political solutions. Israelis need to face the long and destructive injustice, and to break the rightwing settler hold on government. American voters need to talk to our own politicians, who are largely responsible for funding the occupation. And we need to pay attention, whether or not we feel connected to this story.
Despite the passage of years, the needs are urgent. A self-absorbed and dangerously ignorant American president has just written off five million people and increased the risks of a widening regional war.
As I wrote the beginning of this piece, the death toll at Gaza had reached sixty, with about twenty-two hundred Palestinians wounded. Messages that trickled in from Palestinian friends were agonizing to read. “It’s a black day for us,” one wrote, ending with a broken-heart emoji. To this old friend, I replied that my heart was black with shame and embarrassment. I didn’t mention, because she knows better than I do, what may come next, as the story fades from the headlines.
About the Author
Philip C. Winslow has been a reporter and foreign correspondent for more than thirty years. He worked for the Christian Science Monitor, the Toronto Star, Maclean’s magazine, CBC radio, CTV News, and ABC radio news, in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Southeast Asia. He also served in United Nations peacekeeping missions in the former Yugoslavia and in Sierra Leone, and from 2001 through 2004 was a field operations officer with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the West Bank. He is the author of Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth: Landmines and the Global Legacy of War and Victory for Us is to See You Suffer: in the West Bank with the Palestinians and the Israelis.