For many Palestinians in the West Bank, the minor shifts in Israeli politics are a long-awaited opportunity to challenge the traditional understanding of the occupation.
By Yuval Abraham
Ahmad, a former officer with the Palestinian Authority’s intelligence forces, retired two years ago. Every morning for 23 years — since the PA was established — he would drive to his office in Ramallah and deal with security issues. He experienced the political upheavals of the past two decades on the ground, including the collapse of the peace talks, the Second Intifada, Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule, the building of the separation wall, and the expansion of the settlement enterprise.
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I call Ahmad to get his thoughts on the latest elections in Israel. He agrees to speak to me on the record, “but without [publishing] my family name.”
“Honestly, I was happy with the election results because there’s a chance that Netanyahu will not form the next government,” he says. “Anything is better than another Netanyahu regime. Over the past few years, we at the Palestinian Authority have been feeling that this man is trying to force our political and economic demise.”
I ask why. “Netanyahu openly said that if he is elected again, he will annex the Jordan Valley,” Ahmad replies. “He is talking about 35 percent of the land under the PA’s control. He knows we will oppose this annexation, which is why he is trying to weaken us. It has been eight months since PA employees received their salaries. One of the reasons is that Israel, which charges a tax for all goods that enter the West Bank, is not transferring the money we deserve. This tax, about $15 million a year, is a significant part of Palestinian economy. The PA is essentially under an economic, political and media siege — led by Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Mahmoud Abbas has been the Palestinian president since the first PA elections in 2005, replacing Yasser Arafat. Ahmad says he knows him personally. “Since Abu Mazen was elected, he is doing everything to appeal to the Israeli public and to show them that the PA wants peace, but Netanyahu is working in the opposite direction, especially over the last three years.”
I ask Ahmad what the PA has done “for peace,” and he says: “I was part of the team that drafted Abu Mazen’s peace plan. He was very emphatic about his position. The Israelis want security? We will take great measures to provide it to them.” He mentions a campaign led by the PA to collect weapons from Palestinians, as well as Abu Mazen’s attempt to replace the generation of technocrats who worked under Arafat with another “that prioritizes de-escalation and cooperation with Israel,” explains Ahmad.
“The most significant move Abu Mazen led,” he continues, “is security coordination with Israel. Abu Mazen used to say: the security coordination is sacred. Sacred! When opponents told him ‘Why are you lending a hand to the occupation?’ He said Israel always uses security as an excuse, so there, now that it has security, there can be no more excuses. I think the Israeli army, as opposed to Netanyahu, knows to appreciate this security coordination.”
That makes Ahmad’s support for Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s competitor, former IDF chief of staff and head of the Blue and White party, far clearer to me. “Gantz is preferable over Netanyahu, because the positions that Israeli generals take, at least those in the Labor Party, rule out the annexation that Netanyahu is trying to promote. Yes, maybe they are not interested in resolving the conflict or evacuating settlements, but they are interested in maintaining the status quo. Therefore, they prefer to maintain the security coordination with the PA and oppose annexing occupied land, which could lead to the collapse of the PA. If Gantz and his team of generals are elected, in some ways, we will steer back in this direction, and the PA’s status will stabilize.”
These days, Ahmad enjoys spending time with his grandchildren, painting and writing — he says he does not miss his work in intelligence at all. “Life is more relaxed this way,” he says, laughing. I asking him how he would summarize his years at the PA, or whether he would have done things differently. After a prolonged silence, he says: “We have utterly failed.”
This sense of failure is especially palpable among young Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The perception in Palestinian society is that the PA is essentially a puppet serving Israeli interests, “a government without legitimacy.”
A Palestinian activist friend of mine from the South Hebron Hills tells me that last year the PA arrested her father and took him in for interrogation. They held him for two weeks, “hung him upside down from his feet and tortured him with electric shocks. He showed me the scars,” she says. “Anyone who accumulates some influence in Palestinian society — even my father, as an organizer — intimidates them. Abu Mazen is a dictator who will do anything to stay in power.”
Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Palestinian scientist and intellectual, is starkly opposed to the path the PA is leading. “Any change to come from the elections will be positive, in my opinion,” he says. Answering my questions over a phone call from the Palestine Museum of Natural History, which he founded in Bethlehem, he continues: “What matters is that there is some sort of movement, because the status quo is bad for us. A shift — of any kind, whether to the right or left — will advance us toward the inevitable: the end of Zionism.”
“What does this mean?” I ask.
“Blue and White, Likud, Avigdor Liberman — all of them share the same agenda, which can be summed up in one sentence: a land without a people for a people without a land. They deny our existence. That is why, I believe, we must let go of this illusion that there is any possibility to co-exist with the Zionist movement. For those who want peace on this land, the replacement of Zionism is inevitable.”
But what about parties like Meretz, that support a Zionist state alongside a Palestinian one, along ’67 borders? “It is an illusion,” he replies. “It cannot happen. Zionism will not allow it. The logic behind colonialism, which is deeply rooted in the Israeli establishment, refuses to accept the native population’s control of even a small portion of the land, because recognizing our existence as Palestinians, in the full sense of the word, questions the entire [Zionist] project. If they recognize my right to live in Ramallah, for example, why shall I not also live in Jaffa, Haifa, or Nazareth? It frightens them.”
“I will give you another example,” Qumsiyeh continues. “In 1993, during the Oslo Accords, there were negotiations over the distribution of water in the West Bank. One of the Israeli delegates noticed that the title for one of the discussions was ‘Water Rights for Palestinians.’ He stopped everything and said: ‘Before we address water issues, we must talk about language. This discussion is not about water rights, but water needs for Palestinians.’”
“This difference, between needs and rights, is exactly why the two-state solution cannot be realized. The day [Israelis] recognize our rights, even over a single spring in the West Bank, is the day the entire regime collapses.”
“What can we do?” I ask him, “How can we move forward, then?”
He responds: “The only practical solution is for all of us to live together as part of the same, single state. In full equality, with an environmental agenda and a green economy. The other options are a disaster, be it the expulsion of all Jews, the expulsion of all Palestinians, or sustaining the apartheid regime.”
Interestingly, Qumsiyeh believes that this regime change can take place from within the Knesset as well. Meaning, voting in elections and fighting for political influence inside parliament are not entirely futile.
“In South Africa, after all, it was a right-wing government that decided to end apartheid,” explains Qumsiyeh. “It can happen in Israel, but only in conjunction with immense international pressure. In that sense, I am not sure Gantz is preferable over a right-wing prime minister. As a former chief of staff, [Gantz] seems even more attached and committed to the Zionist regime than, say, Netanyahu, who mainly looks out for himself.”
Mariam Barghouti is a writer and journalist from Ramallah. Unlike Qumsiyeh, she does not believe change can come from the Knesset and is opposed to Palestinian citizens of Israel participating in Israeli national elections. “Be it Netanyahu or Gantz, Zionist leaders will always promote policies that serve their colonial project on this land. Gantz may use more subtle rhetoric and attacks, but it will still be violent,” she says.
When I ask what she thinks of the Joint List’s decision (minus the members of the Balad party) to recommend Gantz for the premiership, she says she thinks this is a grave mistake. “Palestinians have tried to enact change through negotiations and diplomacy within a Zionist framework, but reality shows that these efforts have failed. Palestinian society became fragmented and weaker as a result, and the occupation grew even more worthwhile for Israel. It is unfortunate that the Palestinian leaders of ’48 (Inside Israel – Y.A.) continue to narrow the Palestinian struggle down to one over civil rights, when it should be an anti-colonial struggle. The fear to come to terms with that could harm our ability to change this reality and achieve freedom.”
Nasser Nawaja, a Palestinian activist from the village of Susiya in the South Hebron Hills, takes a different position. He takes my call while witnessing Israeli forces demolish another Palestinian home before his very eyes. Every Monday and Wednesday, the Civil Administration, which manages the civilian aspects of Israel’s military control over the West Bank, arrives to destroy buildings in Area C, and Nawaja is always there to document. This time, the demolitions were taking place in a small village just north of Yatta. If there is someone who experiences Israel’s colonial policies that Barghouti talks about, it is him.
“I am dead scared,” says Nawaja. “Netanyahu keeps talking about annexing the Jordan Valley and the South Hebron Hills. This will be a catastrophe because he wants this land without the people inhabiting it. This is why they have been demolishing so many homes — it is all in preparation for more annexation, really. We are pressured to leave, so that when they finally annex this land, they will not have to grant us citizenship.”
I tell him about my conversation with Barghouti, and how she believes that, at the end of the day, both Gantz and Netanyahu will advance the same policies. “It is true,” he says, “it is the Zionist left that created the settlement enterprise to begin with. However, there are subtle differences between Gantz and Netanyahu. Gantz, for example, is less influenced by settler groups like Regavim, which are pressuring Netanyahu to intensify demolitions in [occupied territories]. I cannot turn a blind eye to these differences,” he explains.
Nawaja says he even asked his friends who were planning on boycotting the elections to vote for the Joint List. “We cannot waste our chance to change reality,” he says.
Issa Amro, a veteran Palestinian activist against settlements in Hebron, agrees with Nawaja, albeit different grounds. Amro believes that by participating in elections, Palestinian citizens help expose Israel’s true face.
“Did you see how Gantz publicly dismissed the Joint List’s support?” he asks me. “In the past, Palestinians refused to participate in elections. Today, when they demand to participate fully, it is proving to be a source of great humiliation for Israel. This humiliation, over refusing to see [Palestinian citizens] as equal partners, helps us expose the racist nature of this regime. Israel does not come across as ‘more democratic’ — the opposite is true.”
“What do we do in the long term?” I ask him. “How do we stop the suffering? Can these elections change anything?”
This is a complicated question, Amro tells me. “It is not on the horizon, unfortunately. There is no real left in Israeli politics, and we, the Palestinians, are too fragmented. This situation will go on until Palestinians unite and replace our current leadership with a functioning national liberation organization that has a clear strategy. This, however, is no longer related to elections in Israel.”
Yuval Abraham is a photography and linguistics student. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.