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

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One afternoon after a seminar at Hebron University, I spoke with an activist about thirty years old, wearing glasses and a colorful button-up shirt, a member of the Hebron Defense Committee on the bottom bulb of the West Bank. His group had been helping people build traditional tent homes in Area C, where the Israeli military rulers won’t grant building permits to Palestinians, while the settlements keep growing. At one point he cut himself off mid-sentence, after he said the word “settlements” – “the colonies,” he corrected himself. “We need to rethink again the words that we use,” he said. “When you’re building something, you have to use the right words.”

There are so many words to learn, and to learn how to use correctly, depending on whom you’re talking to. I’ve been saying “West Bank,” for instance, but Israel’s prime minister refers to the same territory in biblical terms: “Judea and Samaria.” What other words are landmines? Is there a “security fence” or a “separation wall,” or a “segregation wall” or an “apartheid wall”? The towering concrete barriers and the settlements and the Israeli “Defense” Forces’ checkpoints are “facts on the ground.” When Palestinians can’t stand to name the country that took their land, they call it “’48,” after the year of the taking. This is a practice in “steadfastness,” in “popular resistance,” in preventing one’s own “normalization” to the presence of the colonizer.

The greatest feat of redefinition, though, is the ubiquitous umbrella word for all this intransigence, “conflict.” “The conflict.” But ask the land. What is taking place there right now is not so much a conflict as it is the process of expansion for which “the conflict” lends cover. Just before I arrived it was revealed that Mitt Romney had told some of his presidential campaign’s wealthy donors that the Palestinians aren’t interested in peace, so neither is he: “We sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.”

If “peace” and “conflict” were really the issue, this could sound like commendable realism. But when expansion and dismemberment are the facts on the ground, the unstated “something” to which he knowingly refers, and which we only need to “live with” a few generations longer before it “ultimately” concludes, these same words become monstrous.

Second only to “conflict” in serving the purposes of the occupier is the truism of the situation’s befuddling “complexity,” followed in third place by the proposed solution of “dialogue.”

A villager in Khan al-Ahmar tells his story to Freedom Theatre actor Faisal Abu Alhayjaa. Photo by Bryan MacCormack of Left in Focus.

 

There was a woman on the Freedom Bus, a middle-aged social worker from New York, who wanted to see Playback Theatre of this sort practiced by Israelis and Palestinians together, sharing their stories and thereby learning to coexist. She reported to me at one point, however, that she’d asked one of the actors about this idea, and the actor was not interested.

The Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said once observed of the many polite dialogues he participated in that, “as the weaker, less organized party, the Palestinians could not really benefit from the uneven exchange.” Under occupation, the likely effect of such productions is the further pacification of the losing side. The activists we talked with in the West Bank asked not for dialogue, but for more bodies at protests, and more boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against the occupation.

Said described the problem of diplomacy – also a kind of dialogue – in geographic terms: “ They had the plans, the territory, the maps, the settlements, the roads: we have the wish for autonomy and Israeli withdrawal, with no details, and no power to change anything very much.” On the Israeli concrete wall that lines the border of the Aida Refugee Camp, someone painted these words of Nelson Mandela’s: “Only free men can negotiate.”

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