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The Hourglass: What I Learned About Empire in the West Bank

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This is possible. These are proven methods for subjugating a people and taking over a territory. They’ve worked in many times and places, and in Palestine they’re working now. The military occupation over that tiny patch of land only makes more explicit than usual the kind of subjugation that elsewhere goes by other names.

The arbitrary imprisonment that was so common among Palestinian boys we met reminded me of Mike, who has lived in my building in Brooklyn all his life, who didn’t come by for guitar lessons for a few months because he’d been locked up for doing the same stuff other kids in other places do but without much chance of consequences. Some people, because they are in the way of something valuable, are born suspects, guilty before they have a chance to be innocent. They paint graffiti on the walls to insist that their home is really theirs and kill each other to insist to themselves that they’re really still alive.

We know this; this is familiar. We call it stop-and-frisk or eminent domain. It should come as no surprise that the NYPD has been learning combat and surveillance tactics from Israeli troops in the West Bank, and it now has its own office in Israel.

An Israeli soldier at a checkpoint in Hebron. Photo by Bryan MacCormack of Left in Focus.

The Palestinian Authority’s ghostly provisional capital of Ramallah – at the narrow point of the hourglass, where the sand passes through – is the exception that proves the rule of hopelessness. It is the place Palestinians are expected to accept as their capital instead of Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967. Cranes and towers rise up out of the dust. There, our search for a network robust enough for a video conference with people trapped in the Gaza Strip took us to the basement of the headquarters of PalTel, the largest private outfit in the Occupied Territories. (Israel inhibits Palestinians’ access to bandwidth, along with everything else.)

In a room resembling the bridge of a starship we met with PalTel’s CEO. Unlike any of the villagers and activists and artists we heard from, he spoke as if a viable Palestinian state huddled alongside Israel were still a practical ambition. “We are capitalists!” he assured us, tugging with both hands at the lapels of his suit jacket. “All we are concerned about is making money.” He spoke of a future in which Ramallah would be like New York. He thought that would please us.

Such talk has appeal for some young Palestinians, those less attached to their grandparents’ skeleton keys and the dream of Return. Like children of neoliberalism everywhere, they seem disturbingly well-adjusted to the way of things, with an instinct for turning oppression into a business opportunity. They ask, before even knowing your name, if they can be your friend on Facebook. But there are also others among the youth: the ones responsible for the burning tires and dumpsters we passed by on the road out of Ramallah, calling for the downfall of Texas-educated Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Wherever I went in the West Bank, my country was lurking in the background – framing the choices, making a little more bearable the slow dissolution of this society for those enduring it, and thereby making it possible at all. Along roads and among the crumbling old sections of towns, there were reminders of our handiwork: “Funded by the people of the United States of America for the benefit of the Palestinian people.” No such signs appeared on the Israeli soldiers’ rifles.

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