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The battle for hearts and minds: Entry permits during Ramadan

The Palestinian, in whose head is engraved an image of the lands that were torn away from him, now faces an entirely different picture that clashes with the narrative and imagery of his grandparents’ stories. Haifa of today is not the Haifa of Al-Shrak Cafe or the 1920s and 30s capital of Palestinian culture. An entry permit is a statement in and of itself: Here, you are permitted to enter once again, to have a good time, to pray. That is, as long as you behave yourself.

By Fady Asleh

Border police officer stands in front of Palestinian as they wait to cross from Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah, West Bank, into Jerusalem on the third Friday of Ramadan, July 26, 2013. (Photo: Activestills.org)

One of the questions that came up during Ramadan last year, and it’s probably relevant again this year, is why the Israeli security establishment decided to allow hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into Israel? On the Palestinian side, you hear the claim that Israel is trying to get its hands on the money Palestinians save all year for shopping during Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. According to that logic, the decision was made only considering economic factors. On the other side, the Israeli government claims there are no economic factors, and that its motivations are purely “humane.” In other words, it is simply easing restrictions for Ramadan. According to that approach, there’s no shortage of money in Israel and the state doesn’t need Palestinians’ money; its intentions are pure and reflective of “Israeli compassion.” In other words, easing restrictions is aimed at improving relations. A taste of sorts, of the further easing of restrictions Palestinians might see when they stop their resistance against Israel and end the “cycle of violence.”

There’s some truth to both claims. It’s only reasonable to assume that Israel, as a country that invests vast amounts of money in security, wouldn’t endanger itself by allowing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to enter just for a one-time economic boost of a few million shekels. Actually, because the Palestinian economy isn’t independent, but rather dependent on the Israeli economy, the Israeli economy would benefit from Ramadan shopping anyway, whether Palestinians buy in the West Bank or inside the Green Line. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that the decision is a product of “Israeli compassion” whatsoever, because there’s no “compassion” in politics. Politics is composed of interests and power relations, in which the perception of “compassion” plays a role in exercising political power.

Either way, the most likely scenario is that the security establishment is using entry permits as part of an important and aggressive war, a war whose battle field takes place inside Palestinians’ minds. Humans, including Palestinians, are visual beings who understand things through images and symbols. They use language (which is also a set of symbols) to produce images and then reconstruct them. Throughout their lives, Palestinians living in the West Bank, in Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron and everywhere else, have created a certain picture of “historical Palestine,” composed in the image of a paradise lost. They’ve lived in that image, and when the name Palestine enters their consciousness, that image comes tied to a package of ideas, symbols and places like Haifa, Akka, Jaffa and Nasira (Nazareth). They have a colorful picture, composed of memories from their grandfathers and grandmothers who experienced the Nakba, the day-to-day life, the Intifada, the schools, the music and the poetry.

As part of my work running creative writing workshops, I’ve met with a lot of children (who’ve since grown up) in a number of places in the West Bank. Most of them experienced the second Intifada as children. I would ask them: What does Palestine mean to you? The answers kept repeating themselves: “Cinema, journalism, public transportation, parties and celebrations, the beach, horses, a house with a garden, old houses, beautiful villages with breathtaking views, amazing silence and the call of a rooster…”

The Israeli side creates confusion among Palestinians, because it forces upon them an unfamiliar picture of Palestine. The Israeli version of Haifa, for example, is not the Haifa of al-Shraq Cafe and it’s not the capital of Palestinian culture from the 1920s and ‘30s of “al-Karmil” newspaper. Israel is telling the Palestinians, the Haifa that you remember exists only in your minds. Come experience the new Haifa, styled with Israeli magnificence, Haifa of the amazing Carmelit subway and tunnels, Haifa in which the Carmel is full of tourists, Haifa of popular beaches, of the university and the Carmel Mountains.

The Palestinian with the image engraved in his mind of lands that were stolen from him, a picture crafted from the stories of his grandparents, and who fought for that picture his whole life, now faces a reality that subverts the picture in his imagination. A picture that raises doubt, that distorts and sometimes replaces the old one. More so, an entry permit is a statement in and of itself: you are permitted to enter once again, to travel around and to pray. You’re allowed to do it all. You specifically, and not others, not your friends, not your brother, only you have the privilege. That is, as long as you behave yourself properly. It’s an expression that destroys the old picture and replaces it with an entirely different one, together with an entirely different question: How can I satiate Israel?

Palestinians arrive to Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah, West Bank, to cross into Jerusalem to attend the Ramadan Friday Prayers in Al-Aqsa Mosque, July 19, 2013. (Photo: Nidal Elwan/ Activestills.org)

Shopping on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Street or in the Mamilla Mall won’t inject that much money to the country, but it will implant a lot of images into the Palestinian mind. When exposed to “modernization,” he’s likely to want to be just like the saleswoman with the white dress, or like the salesman with the black pants and polished shoes. He’ll want to be just like the guy who picks out a dress for his girlfriend or like the girl drinking coffee in Aroma. And then, just maybe he’ll say: Wasn’t it a shame, all those years wasted? Wouldn’t it be nice to take out a girl out instead of going out with a flag? How much nicer would it be to go to a party instead of a protest.

It seems we’re facing the last stage of that war. Now that hardly any land is left for Palestinians, now that the security establishment has thwarted most forms of resistance along the seam lines, the time has come for the battle for Palestinian minds. And it seems Israel will win, considering it controls the discourse. Israel is the dominant power that can saturate the entire debate surrounding it. It is willing to create opposition in order to show the world the Israeli version of democracy’s perseverance and longevity, and its readiness to tolerate dissent. That’s how Israel deals with oppositional discourse. It frames the opposition as part of its internal discourse; more and more, the Palestinian discourse is becoming part of the Israeli one — at best, a marginal conversation inside the Israeli discourse.

That framework is also reflected in my writing. As a Palestinian and an Arab who was shaped by that power relation, if I want to turn to the Israeli reader I must speak and write in Hebrew. In order to speak, to express myself, to resist and to say to the Israeli reader that Israel’s easing of restrictions during Ramadan is not “compassionate” and that the state is not doing the Palestinians any favors, I have to accept the rules of the Israeli discourse and become a part of it. Just as I have to accept and use Israel’s rules of writing, its figures of speech, expressions and ideas, a Palestinian from the West Bank who requests an entry permit must accept Israel’s rules: stop resisting, recognize the state, become “modern” and act a certain way. The rest is just agreeing to some of Israel’s positions vis-a-vis the Palestinians themselves.

Fady Asleh is a comparative literature Master’s student at the Hebrew University.

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    1. Allowing Palestinians in during Ramadan diffuses religious tension; not doing so, absent overriding security concern, could enhance the position of those advocating a return to violence. I doubt the security decision was based on more than this. There is likely also a calculus that Islamic militants would be unwilling to employ violence while their purported “people” are in Jerusalem for worship.

      The polarized narratives of both sides are fraying. More Israelis, I suspect, are becoming aware that prolonged occupation will eventually yield some integration, and that the Arab Israeli minority will eventually change political culture. A Jewish State for the Jewish people, exclusive of all us, is becoming more difficult to hold–and so is always talked about to the contrary. And, as you say, the character of the land lost has changed. Heaven is static; evolution, not. Both narratives will have to face this.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Dan

      Incisive. For all its ancient, biblical narrative, Zionism has its view firmly to the future, as a way of overturning a difficult past. At the foundation of Israel is Herzl’s premise of “If you will it, it is no dream”, and much of Zionism is about rejecting what was – namely, the national passivity of Jews in the diaspora, and 19th CE Palestine – and establishing a wholly new thing. It seemed that as long as Jews grieved their past there was no way forward, only tragedy after tragedy, and now it seems that Palestinians are caught in an ongoing grieving for what has been lost. One rushes to the future, avoiding the past, and the other is caught in the past while putting the future on hold, and ne’er the two shall meet.

      Reply to Comment
    3. an Israeli

      Israel’s motives ARE mainly humane but that is a concept that the Arabs find hard to grasp. There are many things that Israel is doing both inside the country and out that stem from the desire to do good when possible. That is something not unique to Israel but is shared by many democratic countries who are guided by concept such as human rights, help for the needed, freedom, equality etc. Again the Arabs in the Arab world are not familiar with these concept because all they see in the societies and their leaders is violence, corruption, te rule of the jungle – where the strongest takes as much as he can and never thinks of giving to te others just because it is the right and humane thing to do.
      Another aspect of the Arab society is the culture of lies and lack of self criticism. Generations after generations of Palestinians tell their children and grandchildren lies about the “lost Palestine”. The lost paradise when in fact it was much closer to the 3rd world poor and under developed Arab countries and towns you see all over the Arab world. The Arab in Palestine were no different than their brothers a few kilometers north south or east and their conditions of living
      and villages and towns were mainly the same kind of miserable conditions and villages you see all over the middle east. The only difference between Palestine in the 1920’s and 1930’s and the rest of the middle east was the presence of the Zionists who came to it from the 1880’s and who contributed to the development of the place which the Arabs were influenced from and benefited and took advantage of. The European Zionists who settled on and developed the Carmel and built industry and modern neighborhoods and cinemas and coffee shops etc influenced the Arabs in the lower part of Haifa as did the European Jews who built Tel Aviv and its culture life near Jaffa.
      The Palestinians had many years a chance to build a paradise in the west bank and elsewhere in the Arab world, before and after the Israeli occupation but nothing modern or advanced or close to paradise was built. And not because of Israeli restrictions which came much later after the intifadas but because it’s nit in them to produce anything advance or cultural or developed.
      And regarding the allure of Israeli money and development, I can tell you that unfortunately it works like magic with the east Jerusalem Arabs. They may not recognize Israel but they do spend all their days and night in Israeli coffee shops, stores, malls and parks to the grievance of the Jews in Jerusalem who don’t very much like the takeover of the Arabs of their part of the city which was built and developed by Israel.
      But I guess like the rest of my comments which are a bit to truethfull for the Arabs to take, I’ll be censored again!

      Reply to Comment
      • Ed

        Yeah the motives are ‘mainly’ humane … they’re just a little bit racial supremacist at the same time, but that’s ok right?

        Of course, because there are no cinemas and coffee shops in any other Arab country. The Palestinians should be grateful to the Zionists for introducing modernity to their miserable uncivilised lives.

        Yeah and why haven’t they built a paradise in the West Bank yet? It’s a full 22% of historic Palestine after all (including the bits taken up by settlements, military bases and other occupation paraphernalia). And a bit of confiscation of property, military aggression, restriction of movement and random extra-judicial arrest and imprisonment, and a little refugee crisis, I mean, why should all that stop them?

        There, have I passed Hasbara 101?

        Reply to Comment
      • David T.

        “Israel’s motives ARE mainly humane but that is a concept that the Arabs find hard to grasp. There are many things that Israel is doing both inside the country and out that stem from the desire to do good when possible. That is something not unique to Israel but is shared by many democratic countries who are guided by concept such as human rights, help for the needed, freedom, equality etc.”

        That might be the reason why it keeps Nonjews segregated and denationalized because of their faith (yes, only for that reason, even if they were angels sent from heaven) to maintain a regime dominated by a (in fact) Jewish minority which amounts to the Crime of Apartheid.

        Reply to Comment
        • rsgengland

          20% of Israels population are non Jews.
          There is no discriminatory legislation against non-Jews in Israel.
          If you are unaware of these facts, then you should do something to address your ignorance.
          In the disputed territories, military law applies, which differs from Israeli civil law.
          The overall aim/dream of the Palestinians, is the destruction of Israel and its Jews.
          Now if you want racism, you have it right there.
          The term historic Palestine is a misnomer.
          Historic Palestine only came into being after 1917, then was reduced by 80% in 1922 by the creation of Transjordan.
          Palestine has never existed as a state, but rather as a geographical entity, much like the Scottish Highlands, the Iberian Peninsular, the Maghreb etc.
          And the name Palestina was given to the area by the Romans, to try and erase the Hebrews and Judaism from the area after the Jewish revolt.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ed

            There is plenty of discrimination against non-Jews in Israel (let alone the occupied territories). Look no further than the front page of 972 for one example among many, Palestinian citizens of Israel expelled from their village and refused permission to return for no reason. Has this ever happened to Jews in Israel? I think not.

            Reply to Comment
          • rsgengland

            Discrimination exists in every corner of this wonderfully diverse world of ours.
            I was talking about state sponsored legislation.
            There is no connection and/or similarity between the two.

            Reply to Comment
          • Engelbert Luitsz

            There are at least 30 laws that discriminate against Palestinians. You are an ignorant fool.
            “The overall aim/dream of the Palestinians, is the destruction of Israel and its Jews.” That’s almost verbatim what Hitler said about the Jews.

            Reply to Comment
          • Vadim

            Please look at the charters of both Hamas an PA



            Please provide several examples of the 30 laws you speak about. And while you’re at it, let me know what you think about PA’s penalty of death for those who sell land to Jews? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestinian_land_laws

            To Ed – you do understand that 972 reports very selectively, don’t you? You realize that people get evicted from lands them unlawfully took? Jews as well, just ask Yoav Galant.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Laurent Szyster

      This article is the ultimate evidence of what holds back Palestinians.


      Access to Israeli reality becomes “a war taking place inside de Palestinian minds” against “the image of a paradise lost”.

      Even to “a comparative literature Master’s student at the Hebrew University” reality is just yet another Zionist plot.

      Orwell was dead right about stupid ideas and intellectuals …

      Reply to Comment