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The Palestinian dilemma: Between ideology and reality

Palestinians in the West Bank often face an internal clash between identity, ideology, politics and reality. In truth, they live in a place where making any decision in life is a dilemma.

Handala graffiti in the West Bank village of Bil’in. (Photo:Palobserver/Wikicommons)

A few weeks ago, on a tour I was leading through the Old City of Jerusalem, I stopped next to a souvenir shop with a t-shirt display outside. I wanted to explain certain cultural and political things that were printed on these shirts. On one of the shirts was the famous cartoon figure “Handala,” created by Naji al-Ali, the most well known Palestinian cartoonist. Al-Ali was assassinated due to his controversial cartoons.

I told the group about al-Ali’s life – he was a Palestinian refugee and a fearless man who spoke his mind. Everyone was subject to his criticism. I continued by describing Handala, a cartoon which depicts a 10-year-old boy with his back turned to the reader. The cartoon has become a symbol of the Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice.

After a few minutes, the owner of the shop came out and started nodding his head in approval. I asked him if it was okay for me to continue talking about the shirts. He said yes. After I was done with my remarks, the shopkeeper told me that I was excellent, saying “I am happy with your explanation, it was remarkable and well done.”

Soon thereafter, the co-leader of the tour, an Israeli named Shira Nesher, turned the attention of the group toward the other t-shirts displayed outside the shop. One was an IDF shirt, another was an Israel Police shirt. There were other funny ones, such as a t-shirt that read “Super Jew.” There were also shirts with political slogans like “America don’t worry… Israel is behind you.”

Suddenly, the shopkeeper face turned into a frown. He looked at me and said “I am not happy with what she is saying.” I asked him why he is selling such t-shirts if he is not happy with them. He stumbled and finally said “tell them that I am forced to sell these shirts – they force me to display them,” referring to the Israeli government.

However, reality is different. I know of shops in Jerusalem that do not sell these kind of shirts. Shopkeepers make a choice based on ideology, and that choice costs them financially. Many tourists in Jerusalem want to buy these Israeli shirts. Our shopkeeper, like many others, is faced with a dilemma: sell t-shirts that go against their ideology, or make less money. Despite choosing to sell the shirts, our Palestinian shopkeeper was not proud of displaying the IDF logo. On the contrary, he seemed ashamed to the point that he had to lie about being forced to do it by the government.

The dilemma facing the shopkeeper is not unique. Traveling around the country, I have met many Palestinians in similar situations. Tens of thousands of Palestinians faced a similar dilemma several weeks ago, when they received permits to enter Israel during Eid al-Fitr (the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan). While many Palestinians support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) and are against vacationing with Israelis, the beaches in Tel Aviv were full of Palestinians who have never been before. Thousands of Palestinians took the chance to shop in Israeli stores for the Muslim holiday. These Palestinians were met with the dilemma of ideology versus curiosity, causing many of them to act in ways contradictory to their political beliefs. Those who went to the beaches in Tel Aviv choose to show their kids the sea that they had only heard of.

The shopkeeper in the Old City, the Palestinian shoppers in Israeli malls, and those vacationing in Tel Aviv had an internal clash between identity, ideology, politics and reality. Many Palestinians face similar dilemmas on daily basis. They live in a place where making any decision in life is a dilemma.

One friend told me that has been shopping at Rami Levi supermarket which is known for being a pro-settlements chain. He claimed that the prices are sometimes 10 times cheaper than Palestinian shops in the West Bank. It is a large store, and isn’t subject to the same restrictions, taxes and fees (due to checkpoints) as Palestinian shops. He justified his actions by explaining that he cannot afford to shop in a Palestinian store.

I quickly began explaining how he needs to support Palestinian shops and the Palestinian economy. I asked him whether he feels guilty buying from a settler shop instead of a Palestinian one.

He looked at me with a puzzled face, and after a sigh told me that I could not understand his reality. He continued, saying, “You have a good job, you can afford being self-righteous and spend 8 times more in order to buy in the Palestinian store. I can’t.” He explained that he has to choose between a hungry night for his children for the sake of a political ideology on one hand, or compromising for the sake of feeding the children on the other.

After talking to him, I found myself facing a dilemma of my own. On one hand, I wanted to tell him that one cannot grow the Palestinian economy by shopping in the settlements. Prices will go even higher and unemployment will increase if people continue to buy from settlements. Palestinians inevitably increase their suffering by not supporting Palestinian products. On the other hand, I could not tell the man to keep his children hungry. I left feeling conflicted – knowing what is right, but also understanding the price others have to pay.

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    1. Richard Witty

      It is undeniable that a component of the settlements in every breath, is the Israeli governmental siting, funding, protection, encouragement of the settlement enterprise. It is in every breath a state-sponsored effort of incremental annexation.

      And, at the same time, at every breath, the same breaths, the settlements are neighbors to the Palestinian communities that exist there.

      At the inevitable two or single state, either some or all of the settlements will be comprised of mostly Jewish residents within sovereign Palestine or sovereign “Isra-stine”.

      There is a logic of “as if”, that includes the concept of creating the future new norms in the present.

      For Jewish Israelis sympathetic with sovereign Palestine at the green line, “as if” implies already speaking, thinking, acting “as if” they are in Palestine when they cross the green line.

      For those sympathetic with a single state, “as if” implies that the settlements are already peers socially in a state in which before God and man, all are equal.

      “As if” is a risk. One’s hopes, one’s visualizations, don’t always manifest materially. Acting by the observation only though, rather than the aspiration, also have an affect. They preserve the status quo, as sad as that is.

      BDS is the status quo of isolation, of already subordinate, confirmation of current subordination, rather than affirmation of existential peer, even if that plays mostly internally in one’s thinking and relationships with already known friends.

      Reply to Comment
    2. the other joe

      Some years ago I was touring factories in the oPTs. In one, an owner showed me some products which he said were going to the IDF via an Israeli company.

      What can you do? If you need work, you need work.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Franz

      You can’t blame the customers and those who go to the beach.

      But on the other side, there is a number of things that you can get much cheaper in Palestine.

      While Rami Levi profits from Palestinians because they can sell imported goods much cheaper, a Palestinian Mall in a Westbank B-Area would be in an excellent position to beat its Israeli competitors in a variety of products, especially the labour-intensive ones.

      Sometimes I get the impression Palestinians are blocking themselves politically by not trying to conquer the Israeli market. Here are some ideas how a Palestinian Mall for Israeli clients could look like… http://business-ideas-palestine.blogspot.com/2012/04/designing-palestinian-shopping-mall-for.html

      Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      I find it interesting that the shop-owner lied to you in saying he is forced to sell pro-Israel shirts. Actually, he is quite happy to sell them and make money, but he wanted to save face in front of you and so he claims he is a patriotic Palestinian who is being coerced. I don’t think he is ashamed, he just wanted to look good in front of you. Thus, the situation is more complex than it seems.
      I was told about an article in Ha’aretz a few months ago (I am sorry, I don’t have the link) and it said many Israelis mistakenly believe it is cheaper to shop in Israeli Arab towns. In fact, it is more expensive, according to the article. It says that the Jewish Israeli chains are kept out of these towns (I can imagine how this is done) and so the Arab merchants have a cartel which doesn’t face competition. More money for them, less for their Arab customers. This has nothing to do with ideology or some sort of unfair advantage in taxes or the such that you say Rami Levy has. If Palestinian taxes are higher, your complaint is with the Palestinian Authority, not Israel, but it is more ideologically satisfying to blame Israel for problems like these.

      Reply to Comment
      • the other joe

        Hmm, well I can believe it is more expensive in Palestinian towns, I’ve not been to Israeli Arab ones so I wouldn’t know.
        Tax is a complicated issue and you’ve conflated several different things here. First, Arab Israeli towns are in Israel and not controlled by the PA. The PA does not collect tax inside Israel. In East Jerusalem, the taxes are collected by Israel. Even in the West Bank, a large proportion of tax is collected ‘on behalf of’ the PA by Israel, not all of which is always handed over.
        I agree the shopkeeper probably wanted to save face and that there is unlikely to be a government rule about selling particular t-shirts. On the other hand, I have heard first hand accounts of the ‘wrong sort’ of t-shirts being confiscated from visitors at Ben Gurion, so it is not too hard to imagine pressure being applied to Palestinian retailers. That said, the only time when I encountered absolutely no problem leaving Israel was when I had a suitcase full of Kaffiyeh. Make of that what you will.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Franz

      Why is Rami Levy much cheaper than Palestinian supermarkets? I read from the comments that this did not really become clear, so let me give some explanation.

      First, settlements obtain the Palestinian land virtually for free.

      Second, there are subsidies for settlement real estate investments.

      Third, the shop is large, has economies of scale.

      Fourth, settlements don’t pay VAT tax.

      Fifth, Palestinian shops often do pay Israeli custom fees and Israeli VAT. Lacking control over it’s borders, goods are then transferred unnoticed into Palestine. This allows shop keepers to avoid Palestinian income tax. More on this, read “the economic cost of the occupation”.

      Sixth, for imported goods, Palestinian shops have to fulfill first the Israeli regulations in order to import, and then in addition the Palestinian ones in order to sell. So you find a bottle of Chilenian wine, lab-tested in Israel and labled in Hebrew, and on top of that a Palestinian tax sticker and an arabic label sticker.

      Many of these points are valid for imported goods only. So Palestinian local products are indeed much cheaper than Rami Levy, like a pack of bread for 2.5 Shekel, etc..

      Reply to Comment
      • shaun

        1. Palestinian obtain Palestinian land virtually (or totally) for free too
        2. There are subsidies for all real estate development.
        3. Same argument can be made for supermarkets in all economies. Israel is no more at fault than walmart
        4. Settlements don’t pay VAT? Holy crap!! I’ve been ripped off by someone….or your info is wrong?
        5. By your own admission,” … shop keepers… avoid Palestinian income tax.” This screws the PA, but it should make prices cheaper if not equal to the prices in Rami Levi? Unless PA merchants are upping the prices?
        6. I didn’t realize that the predominantly Muslim Palestinians enjoyed “Chilenian wine…”

        Reply to Comment
        • the other joe

          I’m not sure Israel can be considered to be specially at fault directly, but it is certainly true that by far the majority of produce sold in Palestine is imported and by far the majority of exports are to, or via, Israel. I have been to factories in the West Bank where they have closed because it is cheaper to import from China than sell to the local market.
          And of course, this import/export arrangement is vastly in Israel’s favour – an indirect economic impact of the occupation.

          Reply to Comment
        • Franz

          Hi Shaun,

          1. The Palestinian land administered by PA is getting overcrowded. Prices in A-Areas are shooting up. Palestinians don’t get permissions to develop C-Areas, while Israelis do. That’s an intended market distortion that comes along disguised as security reasons. Besides Israeli settlements receive far more direct or indirect subsidies than other Israeli real estate projects, and of course far more than Palestinian ones.

          2. Those parts of Palestine that offer large pieces of building land at low prices cannot be developed by Palestinians, therefore the possibilities for economies of scale are somewhat crippled.

          5. The PA is being screwed because Israel prefers to let the tax of Palestinians go into its own coffers. True thats not directly affecting retail prices. Very indirectly, one could argue it increases aid-dependency of PA, and thereby dutch disease phenomena that result in price increases.

          6. Seems like wine consumption is not the only thing about Palestine that you are not aware of. Same rule set applies of course for other imported goods. Israel likes to fence off especially its food market against imports through non-tariff trade barriers. That hits Palestinian consumers harder than anybody else — especially after the Palestinian agribusiness was severely hit by Israel claiming 80% of Westbank water.

          Reply to Comment
    6. Encroaching Israeli (and settlement) economic relations ultimately provide a lever for civil disobedience via boycotts and picketing. Some of the civil rights successes in the American South were urged by white shop owners who were being shunned by their mostly black clientle. In South Africa, organized blacks began stocking up on goods, then began a boycott. Again, white businessmen begged the government to find compromise; I suspect propect of such repeated action lead the government to more toward intergation. I had thought that the wisest long term control policy of Israel was to remove economic ties to the occupied. It seems, however, that settler economic growth is beginning to supply these links. I understand the unpleasant to terrible consequences for those on the ground; but, long term, this economic encroachment will be a vulnerability. As economic links grow, there will be a need for law beyond the IDF; that will also be a new possible path. Economic wins will be temporary.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ignatz

      This insistence: that every act, down to where you buy your groceries, or whether you want your children to see the sea, is always-already a political act. This insistence is just another ideology that we have to resist.

      There has to be room for people to choose when they are making a political act, and when they are not. Otherwise how can they ever possibly be free?

      Deciding that a choice is for you and for you only, that is freedom. And every act where someone gets to exercise their freedom will only lead to more of the same. The ideology that all is politics might actually be what is killing us.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Faisal

      The Palestinians should maybe focus on getting the Arab/Islamic stigma of visiting Palestine removed. Maybe then they can start to promote mass-Arab/Islamic tourism to the area, and the shopkeepers in Jerusalem will be more free to not be forced to sell pro-Israeli t-shirts. This asserts their claims to Palestine and as well, their economy will improve greatly. Imagine if the rich Gulf Arabs spent their summers in Jericho rather than Amman, that’d be a great help to the Jordan Valley farmers.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Bluegrass Picker of Afula

      I have lived in Bahrain. And I have hung out alongside Gulf Arabs in the hooker bars up and down Adriatico Street in shkunat Ermita of Manila City. You need to do better than a dusty backwater like Amman or Ramallah if you want THEIR dinars flowing in.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Anonymous

      Aziz, who are you kidding?
      Have you been to west Jerusalem (Jewish) center recently?
      Because all I see in the last year when I walk in Jaffa rd., Ben Yehuda, King Goerge, Mamilla etc. are scores of Arabs buying in Jewish stores, licking ice cream in Jewish ice cream stores, drinking coffee and eating cakes at “Arome”, “Cafe Ne’eman” and other Jewish coffee chains.
      Not only don’t east Jerusalem Arabs have a problem buying from Jews, they can’t seem to get enough of it!
      They walk along west Jerusalem streets with an attitude of being in their natural environment, when the fact is that environment has been always Jewish and was developed and built by the Jews.
      It seems to me they are even pretending to BE Jewish. They started to dress like Jews (after buying lots of cloths in Jewish stores), and they usually they have this expression on their face as being an integral part of this place – west Jerusalem, Israel. As if its development has got everything to do with them.
      Hell, from their attitude I feel sometimes that they think that the light rail, Mamilla, west Jerusalem parks etc. were actually built and developed by ARABS. The Jews are there by mistake!
      It’s actually pathetic.
      The Arabs have nothing to be proud of in the things they do so they started convincing themselves that everything in west Jerusalem and Israel which is developed, clean, beautiful is actually an ARAB achievement instead of what is REALLY is – the work of the Jews.

      Reply to Comment