What I Heard In the Holy Land
“Do not search for the Canaanite in you to prove that you exist.”
— Mahmoud Darwish, In the Presence of Absence
“In what way will the world of Mashiach be different from our tragic and pain-filled world? Stay tuned! The best is yet to come.”
— Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Torah Tidbits #1240
“Peaches in the summertime, apples in the fall; if I can’t have the girl I love, I don’t want none at all.”
— Trad. American, “Shady Grove”
Proud American that he is, Superman has always had the luxury of ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if he so chooses. But if you’ll indulge me for a moment, let’s adapt Mark Millar’s thought experiment and ask ourselves what might have happened if Jor-El had launched his son’s space-cradle just a few moments earlier and it had crashed in the West Bank instead of Kansas. What if the Kents lived near Jenin instead of Smallville? What if their adopted son flew off to defend Ramallah instead of Metropolis? What mindset and values would the Man of Steel have if he grew up as an Arab in the world’s least-agreed-upon region? In other words, what would a Palestinian superhero be like?
This is a question that Mohammad Sabaaneh has been grappling with recently. He’s one of the only professional cartoonists living in the Palestinian Territories, and though his corpus has so far consisted mostly of political cartoons, he’s been wondering about how he can expand his reach. A few days back, I was in the elvish, frantic, lightly stubbled 39-year-old’s home studio in Ramallah. While he rummaged through a pile of newly drawn comics, I asked him what he thinks of superheroes.
“Actually I tried — two weeks ago — I started to think to do something like that, to create a Palestinian hero,” Sabaaneh said in his mildly hobbled English. “But what’s the aim of the Palestinian hero? Maybe to encourage the people, to liberate the people, to help the people to be free.” Okay, so far so good; that sounds like the basic idea of a cape-wearer. Then Sabaaneh got to the specific problem at play. “But when I create the hero, I will have to try to figure out how he can liberate the people. By fighting the Israelis? By going by the Peace Process?” The latter, of course … right? Not so fast, says Sabaaneh. The 25-year-long path toward a two-state solution has, in his eyes, been a disastrous one for the Palestinian people. He feels that Israel is a cruel behemoth that has failed to honor its promises, and that the Palestinians need to stop rolling over for it. With that mindset, how could Sabaaneh create a Palestinian Superman who capitulates to the government he sees as the enemy, simply out of a desire to be peaceful? “You cannot create a hero with a naïve personality,” he says. “He should fix this problem. But how can he fix this problem?”
Well, that’s the question, ain’t it? If ever there were a dilemma that defied the application of superhero fiction, it would be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Superhero stories are fundamentally about power and its responsible use, and I’ll be damned if I have any clue as to how to lecture an Israeli or a Palestinian about when and how they should use their power. What’s more, I’m not sure I trust any American who confidently says they do have the clarity to execute such a lecture. Before I began my just-concluded jaunt through the Holy Land, I was a dilettante; now, after an exhausting sequence of extended conversations with Israelis and Palestinians, I feel somehow more stupid. But I have learned three things:
- Simply hoping for peace, while understandable, is a horrifically inadequate degree of intellectual engagement with this topic;
- The romantic dream of a Palestinian nation beyond just the West Bank and Gaza, whether you love it or hate it, is alive and well in our cynical and pragmatic age;
- You’ll likely never be sufficiently well-informed about the conflict, but that’s a poor excuse for not trying to learn and talk.
I suppose it’s in the spirit of that third point that I’m bothering to write any of this down. Or maybe it’s just vanity. All I know for sure is that the words and images of this trip have been accumulating, Katamari Damacy-like, in my gut, and I can’t help thinking that the only way to expel them in a salutary way is to type something out. I’m sorry in advance. My disclaimers must be plentiful. Anything I can think or say about this myriad-stage tragedy has already been thought or said, I’m sure. All the moments when my heartstrings were pulled may have been instances of a rube falling for propaganda. All the moments when I felt defiant may have been the self-congratulation of the 15-year-old who just skimmed a Howard Zinn book and thinks he’s smarter than his history teacher. I know nothing and have very little right to my opinions.
In short, I’m both compelled to and terrified to write anything about Israel and Palestine. Back home, I’m a pretty unapologetic leftist on most matters of war, peace, and ethno-religious relations. Most of my friends are, too, and I’m firmly ensconced in a bubble when it comes to all matters domestic. But man, the Holy Land is a weird prism. You’ll often be surprised to find out which of your pals is militantly in the #FreePalestine camp and which of them thinks any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. I’ve managed to not piss off any of them by, well, avoiding thinking too hard about it and thus not bringing the subject up. I’m still way too dumb to come up with a final conclusion about which side I err on, so I’m going to avoid being too opinionated here. I’ll still get eviscerated by someone or other. To paraphrase Valeria Richards: I can’t win, so I’m going to put my efforts into not losing. If that makes any sense.
No, none of it makes any sense. This trip was a heap of broken images, a puzzle that the Divine Manufacturer cheekily made with pieces that don’t interlock and an image on the box that changes every time you blink. I try to suss out facts, but facts have a way of being not so factual between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. All I can do is report at a very, very granular level and tell you what I heard in the Holy Land.
I think of the first time I came here.
It was in June of 2005, at the tail end of the Second Intifada and on the eve of the Gaza pullout. Those things were barely on my mind. I had just concluded my freshman year of college and was on a free trip for young U.S. Jews and Israeli soldiers that was like Birthright but not actually Birthright. It was a solidly designed tour that hopped up and down the State of Israel (and East Jerusalem and its neighboring Old City, long-annexed spots that are still technically in an iffy legal status internationally), and the organizers did a decent job of attempting to acknowledge the conflict while not distracting from the general get-in-touch-with-your-Judaism aims that the program’s backers no doubt had.
I was mostly just besotted with a fellow trip-goer, for whose affections I competed in a pitched battle with a statuesque and mop-haired Israeli soldier. (I won a final-night makeout; score one for Team Diaspora.) But I do recall a few moments when the intractable — oh, that stale yet somehow still delicious word — struggle moved into the foreground. For example, we went to East Jerusalem to meet with an Arab high-school teacher and one of her students, the latter of whom told us very matter-of-factly that Jews hadn’t been present in Palestine prior to the emergence of Zionism. The absurd claim was met with Tony Soprano-esque Ohhh!s from the soldiers and it seemed that anything else the kid had said was wholly invalidated.
And yet, the soldiers were not free from sin in this area, either. We went to Haifa and, while strolling in a park, came upon some Arab women singing in Arabic and dancing. We Americans joined their dance and, days later, during a little intra-group talent show, the Israelis mocked our fun by imitating the women and pretending the Arabic lyrics had secretly, cheerfully been “Death to the Jews, death to the Jews!” I also seem to remember a heated spat between a guest speaker and one of the group leaders about whether demolition of Palestinian homes was morally equivalent to suicide bombings. Oh, and a spokesperson from a far-right Knesset party showed up to tell us the Palestinians should all just move to Jordan. None of this really made any sense to me. All I remember is thinking that this verbal chaos implied a deeper degree of instability. This was not the firm, eternal Israel I’d been taught of in Sunday School — this was a place at war and unable to blind its visitors to that fact. I kept thinking of that scene in The Godfather, Part II where Michael tells Hyman Roth about seeing a suicide bomber in Cuba. “What does that tell you?” Hyman asks. “It means they could win,” Michael replies.
Twelve years later — the same amount of time, it occurs to me, that had passed between the Oslo Accords and my initial visit, which should give you a sense of how much things had changed between my two trips — I had decided to come back. Like everything in my goddamn home country, the choice can be traced back to November 8, 2016. The day after Trump’s victory, I pondered strategy. There were too many fronts on which the battle against his agenda had to be waged — I would spread myself too thin if I were to try to fight on all of them. I would set up recurring donations to an array of groups, but I’d focus on one issue for my personal advocacy work. It was hard to pick the most loathsome aspect of the Trump mindset, but I felt that, as a Jew, I had a particular responsibility to fight his anti-Muslim sentiment and policies — one oft-persecuted religious minority to another. I started doing pro bono communications strategy with a local group that protects the civil rights of Muslim New Yorkers. But as the months wore on, I felt I had to escalate my efforts.
I try to go on one international trip a year, and when I began pondering 2017’s installment, the answer became obvious: I had to go to the Holy Land. If I wanted to stand for Jewish-Muslim allyship, I had to revisit the epicenter of Jewish-Muslim discord. I bought a round trip on El Al and decided that, though I would be based in Jerusalem for most of the trip, I would use it as a staging area for trips into the West Bank. There, I would meet with as many people with stakes in the conflict as I could, no matter what their background and angle might be. This wouldn’t be a formal reporting trip, as I didn’t have nearly enough time to get a truly representative sample, and as I’m a total amateur at this topic. I didn’t know what I’d do with what I learned; all I knew was that I wanted to learn. I booked tours with a left-of-center tour group for one end of the spectrum; for the other, I arranged to meet with some distant Orthodox cousins-by-marriage who live in a West Bank Israeli settlement, and put out feelers for other meetups.
I read up on the current state of things as best I could between work assignments, and as I flew from JFK to Ben Gurion, I devoured Sarah Glidden’s fantastic graphic memoir How To Understand Israel In 60 Days or Less, a chronicle of her own Birthright trip. Reader, I wept. Specifically at the parts where she imagines her Judeo-European ancestors and the murder they faced. As she attempts to be critical of Israel, she nevertheless cannot stop smelling the odor of the charnel-house it was designed to forever destroy. I couldn’t stop smelling it, either. Perhaps it’s Hebrew School brainwashing, perhaps it’s simply an objective argument for the necessity of a Jewish State. All I know is that, as I landed outside Tel Aviv at 3 a.m. local time, my eyes were freshly watered and, therefore, quite fertile.
I think of Z, the Millennial, atheist Hamas voter.
He was my first tour guide. I met him at a café a few hours after arriving, my system somehow amped despite getting maybe an hour of sleep on the plane. I didn’t know who my guide would be, but for some reason, I expected a liberal and disillusioned Israeli former soldier. But no, I got a chain-smoking, deeply pessimistic Palestinian from East Jerusalem. I say “Palestinian” and not “Arab-Israeli” because, despite being born and raised in a part of the planet that Israel claims as its capital, he, as an East Jerusalemite, is not an Israeli citizen. What’s more, he despises Israel and Israeli policy and would like to see the Palestinian people restored to their former status as the ruling majority and the land turned into a “secular, democratic state” that encompasses all of what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories. In other words, he seeks the end of the Jewish state, as such. Not the murder of the Jews, mind you! He said he’s not a violent guy, and he got along very well with me and told me of his Jewish friends and how he sometimes even leads tours as part of Birthright trips, so I assume he wants that end to come peacefully, but he also … well, he voted for Hamas.
He told me about this vote only a few minutes into our trip, after some introductions and a stroll into the Old City’s Jewish Quarter. He had told me that he’d clearly delineate facts and his own opinions, then completely failed to do that and instead gave me his own spin on everything we saw. It was a profoundly nationalist-Palestinian spin. It was also a solo trip — there was no one else who signed up for it and I gladly paid extra for the personal attention. The attention, I should say, was mutual. I found him utterly fascinating. He pointed out Israeli flags in the Old City and said they demarcate settlers who have violated international law by taking over buildings in the Old City, which is still technically recognized by the UN as occupied territory. I’m not weighing in on this, merely reporting what he said. That goes for everything below.
We sat on a platform above the Western Wall and he told me of the destruction of the Moroccan Quarter by the Israelis to make way for a clear path to the Wall. He told me how he hated that Jews put kitsch like giant menorahs and tourist-oriented display signs in order to claim the Quarter as their own. He pointed out young children walking around with armed guards and said they were settler kids being protected on their way to school. He smoked non-stop. He said his Hamas vote back in the astounding Palestinian elections of 2006 was the result of his deep dissatisfaction with the still-reigning-in-the-West-Bank Fatah party, which he saw as a corrupt entity that had betrayed the Palestinian people by signing away every part of Palestine except the West Bank and Gaza in the Oslo agreement.
That last bit was key. What I learned during our eight-hour tour was that Z is something of a maximalist, believing that the so-called 1967 borders — the ones that reigned before the Six-Day War, the ones that are the basis for the ailing two-state solution wherein a Palestinian country would be established in the West Bank and Gaza — were insufficient for him. I had always sort of assumed that the average Palestinian liberal had given up on the notion of a single, complete Palestine from the river to the sea, much as the Israeli liberals had given up on a grand Israel in the same space. And Z was certainly a liberal-seeming gent — he was a 31-year-old Millennial city-dweller, he’d gone to Hebrew University, he had traveled the world, he was fluent in Hebrew and English, he regularly interacted with Jews and Israelis, and he seemed cynical enough that he might just want an end to the insanity, rather than an expansion of disputed borders.
Not so, and not so with all but one of the many Palestinians I met and spoke to over the course of my trip. They firmly believed that no deal was legitimate or acceptable in which Palestinians weren’t allowed to return to every part of the country that they once inhabited before the 1948 War of Independence — or, in their parlance, the Nakba. Unsurprisingly, they all used that term easily and regularly, not stopping to explain to me what it was, most likely because it’s simply part of the air they breathe. For them, it would’ve been like stopping to explain to someone what American slavery was — it was so awful that to speak of it in simple terms would have defiled it. Z, being a tour guide, talked of it the way an Israeli might talk about the Holocaust, as a raison d’etre for resistance, though he never (thank Yahweh) spoke of the two as being morally equivalent.
But moral equivalency of other sorts was occasionally on display with Z, especially when talking about the “martyrs” of the “resistance” against Israel. This, of course, includes those whom one might label as terrorists. That latter word never came out of Z’s mouth to describe Palestinian suicide bombers or stabbers or gunmen. Instead, he compared people who engaged in violent struggle against the Israelis to George Washington, Nelson Mandela, and other heroes held up by the West who had engaged in combat against their oppressors. He said that, if there were fewer Israelis in settlements, there would be fewer attacks. This struck me as delusional, but what do I know?
We drove around Jerusalem, seeing sites where he said there once had been Palestinian villages prior to the exodus and demolitions of the Nakba, and looking out at Jewish settlements and at Palestinian areas that he said are bled dry by Jerusalem taxes despite receiving fewer municipal benefits. He said the people of those areas have severely restricted movement, but residents accept that reality because the alternative is ending up on the other side of the Separation Wall, which means you can’t easily travel into the city to earn your livelihood. We stood on the Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus and looked out at territory he sees as occupied but that I, on my college trip, had seen as a homeland. I could be getting all of these political claims wrong, and probably am. Please take it with a shaker of salt. I’ve tried researching and I find that each source seems so disputable or incomplete that I have no power to comfortably say what is true. I can only observe and report. I don’t smoke, but I did with Z, because I didn’t know how to process any of what I was hearing.
Z’s comments probably won’t come as a surprise to experts on the region, I suppose, but for me, they were chilling and enlightening. Here was a man very much like me — a well-traveled, college-educated, secular, bitter, curious thirtysomething — who was an apologist for Hamas, an organization that (a) ostensibly hates me simply because I’m a Jew and (b) would happily kill my Israeli friends and family in an effort to overthrow their government and establish Greater Palestine. Z said they provide for their people in Gaza. He said they were the only party that still shared his belief in that Greater Palestine. He said he liked that they haven’t given up armed struggle. He said they weren’t so bad and that their most egregious stances were mostly just posturing.
At the end of the tour, I asked Z what solution he dreamed about, beyond the secular-democratic-single-state one he spoke of so unenthusiastically. Did he dream of a full-fledged, river-to-the-sea Palestine with no Jews in it? He made an Ahhhh sound like someone who knows he’s being lured into a trap. I told him I wasn’t judging at all. He paused, then said, “It doesn’t matter what I dream of, because it won’t happen.” Well, there’s an answer in disguise, if there ever was one. I had to file this all away for later. Now it is later, and I still can’t quite figure out what I’m to make of it, other than this: if romantic, irredentist nationalism can thrive even within a person much like myself, something is deeply askew and the powderkeg is still quite dry.
I think of T, the armed grandpa.
After finishing up with A, I went to the Gilo bus stop to be picked up by the patriarch of that aforementioned non-blood cousin settler clan. I’d never met him, and was immediately charmed by his calm, buoyant demeanor and eminently grandpa-esque features, his eyes always squinted just so. He and his wife, B, are Modern Orthodox Israelis who live in Efrat, a community that’s part of the venerable Gush Etzion settlement within the West Bank, just south of Jerusalem. Efrat has been around since 1983 and, like all settlements, is considered illegal by international law — it’s the movement of peoples from a conquering state into conquered territory, some say — though the legal reality within Israel is significantly more complicated and not best described by yours truly. Nevertheless, if you’re an Israeli or an American tourist, it’s pretty easy to get to Efrat, which more or less functions as a gated-community suburb of a major metropolis. You’d never know the political valence of the streets you’re walking unless someone told you.
Weirdly, T and B don’t hide that valence, and even brought it up proactively — if briefly. Before I even left the country, during my planning correspondence with B, she wrote that they live “in the ‘occupied territories,’” not bothering to explain the quotation marks. Similarly, while I stayed with them, during a discussion about how Efrat has changed over the years of their tenure there (they arrived in 1993), B made a sarcastic remark about how “we’re an obstacle to peace.” I asked if she believed that, and she said no. “Pretty much everyone agrees we’re part of Israel now,” she said. Plus, she added, “It’s not like there were any Arabs here,” meaning this specific area, not the whole of the country. “There was nothing here.” I asked if she ever interacts with Arabs, given that there’s an Arab town just a few minutes’ drive away. She said there were a few Arabs who do menial work in Efrat — janitors and maids and the like — and that occasionally people go to a shared supermarket, but that’s it. As I would later learn, it’s illegal for Israelis to go to many Palestinian hubs without permission and illegal for Palestinians to travel to Israeli hubs without permission, all ostensibly for security reasons. So it’s not surprising that B doesn’t have much personal overlap with the Palestinian population. But she also didn’t seem particularly interested in trying. For his part, all the avuncular T said on the matter was, “We believe this land belongs to us.”
Nevertheless, quiet T was the one I was fixated on. Soon after I told B that I wasn’t planning to write about any of this conversation and she countered with, “You should!” they both offered to feed me a snack to tide me over until dinner. B suggested a peach and T got up to get it. As he did, I saw his pistol, sinking down in his ill-fitting grandpa pants. For the remainder of my 30-odd hours with them, I couldn’t stop looking at that gun. He wore it at all times: eating, reading, walking to Talmud study, even — most incongruously — while dancing and singing with his toddler granddaughter. Its existence makes sense, as settlers like him are no strangers to violence from Palestinian attackers. But still, I’m an American — so, a Jew with a handgun? Jesus, what’s happening here? It was to be a Shabbat visit, so as the sun lowered, T took me to the synagogue, and lo and behold, about a third of all the male congregants had their own handguns, too. Again: I get it, I know why they have them, but I couldn’t stop feeling sick. I’m not sure whether it was more upsetting that they had them or that nobody ever once talked about them. I’m ashamed to say that I was too much of a coward to even ask about them.
I stayed the night due to the lack of buses on Shabbat and, for the most part, everyone just wanted to talk about the sorts of things any religious Jew in the ‘burbs wants to talk about: family stories, biblical proverbs, local gossip, the quality of the food, new apps, and so on. I went for a walk around Efrat near the end of the Sabbath and it just looked like any other gated community in the world — clean streets, strollers, and prefab hilltop houses like the even scales on a Stegosaurus’ back. To their credit, T, B, and the family and friends who joined them for meals and kibitzing never said anything disparaging or violent about the Palestinians. They seemed to just not really be on their minds. They were a little wary when I told them about my tour with Z (“Was it an Arab tour company?” one asked) and recommended that I try to get more perspectives on my future tours, but that was about it.
As I took the post-sundown bus back to Jerusalem, a fellow Shabbat guest and I rode together and she commended me on keeping an open mind about settlers. “It’s not what people say, right?” she said. “No one’s ranting in the street.” It’s true, these did not seem to be the ideological, extremist settlers of popular discourse — B said they moved there just because it seemed like a nice, inexpensive place to live. But isn’t that scary in its own right, this notion that something as boldly provocative as settlement life can be so boring? I suppose it’s never too boring. Otherwise, why be a Jew with a gun?
I think of the dystopia of Hebron.
It’s not for me to give you the full picture of that divided city in the West Bank, a burg so volatile that a whole international protocol had to be signed about it 20 years ago. But suffice it to say it’s majority-Arab, minority-Jewish, and historically quite the hot spot for stabbing and shooting, not to mention spitting and stone-throwing. I had initially planned to go with the previous tour company, but opted to use a different one because the latter offered Palestinian and Israeli perspectives, which I felt I sorely needed, as my mind was already imploding from the one-sided — though indispensable — journey with Z. My group had sojourners from Spain, Jamaica, India, Argentina, Austria, France, the Netherlands, Canada, and California — though the latter had lived in Israel and now considered herself a “nomad.” We got our money’s worth.
We traveled from Jerusalem by bulletproof bus (a personal first, at least as far as I know) with our Israeli guide, E, who actually lives in the south of Israel. We weren’t with the Palestinian counterpart, M, because he’s a local Hebronite who therefore can’t leave town without a lot of paperwork. With E, we saw the sights: the street that was shut down to Palestinians during the Second Intifada and has never re-opened, some archaeologically notable locations, a very old synagogue, and the like. We ran into a smiling old Jewish man who exchanges niceties with E; right afterward, I learned from E and the nomad that he’s Baruch Marzel, an infamous Jewish extremist so far to the right that the political party he once acted as spokesperson for was shut down for being a terrorist group. He seemed nice enough when E was talking to him.
We talked to a spokesperson for the Jewish settler community in Hebron, a woman I’ll call Q. Her grandfather lived in Hebron in the pre-Israel days and was saved by a Palestinian during the 1929 Arab revolt, but her sympathy for the Palestinians today seems quite limited, because one stabbed her father to death in 1998. She told us that latter story, cried in its telling, and concluded it by saying, “This is our story.” She spoke harshly even of Benjamin Netanyahu, who offered to give her permission to build a Jewish structure after her father’s death — she thought it was too little, too late from the right-wing politician, who should have made that offer earlier and on the basis of Jewish rights to Hebron.
A deeply religious woman, Q believes in a one-state solution: a full and complete Israeli state including the West Bank, in which Palestinians would be second-class citizens without the vote. She said voting “isn’t a right” and that the Arabs don’t care much about voting, anyway. She said this new Israel would provide better living conditions for the Palestinians, so they’d have nothing to complain about, legal status be damned. She took out a map of the Middle East and North Africa that was color coded so the non-Jewish countries were one color and little Israel was another. She said the Arabs, if they don’t like it, can just leave and go anywhere other than Israel. I know Q doesn’t represent all Israeli settlers. I know that. So I can only speak of her, specifically, when I say this line of argument terrified me.
There was no respite for us travelers. We met up with M, the Palestinian local, and his picture of the present was just as bitter, and more hopeless. A young and sexily dressed gent, he wasted no time in showing how much the Jewish and Arab communities in Hebron hate each other. “You met with [Q]?” he asked. We said yes. “Did she cry for you?” We said yes. “She does that five times a day.” He said she’s just a “troublemaker” and that he has friends who have been killed by Israelis, but he doesn’t go around crying in public about them 20 years after they perished. He has his own problems with the status quo, and not just when it comes to the Israelis. He’s been teargassed by the Fatah-controlled Palestinian authorities in the past and, when we asked what he thinks of them, he chuckled and said, “I don’t wanna be in jail tonight.” He’s no fan of Hamas, either: “If I speak out here against Fatah, I will go to jail; if I speak out in Gaza” — where Hamas reigns — “I will go to Heaven,” he said. We walked the streets and he said, “Welcome to the best worst place in the world: Hebron.”
Like Z, he thinks the least-worst solution is a binational, secular, democratic state, which you could call whatever you want. Would it be named “Israel”? Who gives a shit, so long as Palestinians from around the world can return to any part of their homeland, settle down wherever they like, participate freely in national government, and not be subject to the Israeli military law that currently supersedes everything in the West Bank. He said the two-state solution is a con that Fatah and the Gulf States use to make money, though he didn’t explain how that worked. But the scariest part of his portion of the tour didn’t have to do with him, at all.
It was our meeting with a Palestinian shopkeeper, J. An elderly, leather-skinned, perpetually grinning old man, M introduced us to him and J proceeded to genially talk about the futility of coexistence. “Nowadays, it is impossible to live with them,” he said of the Jews. It’s not that there were no Jews historically in the area, it’s that “they took too much land.” Sure, there used to be Jews in Hebron in the pre-Israeli past, but “these new ones, I don’t like them at all.” “There’s no solution at all until they leave the city,” he said. “They must leave. We don’t want them at all.” The California nomad asked if he had any hope for a world where Jews and Palestinians get along. “No hope at all,” he said. “We say to them, ‘Go back where they came from. Leave Palestine to the Palestinians.” It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone call for the Holy Land to be ethnically cleansed of its Jews. It was not the last.
I think of the t-shirt vendor.
The day after Hebron, I had no tours scheduled, so I wandered the Old City. For some reason, I felt compelled to buy a commemorative shirt. I wanted it to have some kind of special meaning for myself and I decided I wanted it to feature Handala. He’s a character created by the most famous Palestinian cartoonist of all time, the late Naji al-Ali. A refugee of the 1948 exodus, al-Ali’s heyday was the wild 1970s and ’80s, when the Palestinian question exploded onto the world stage thanks to events like Yasser Arafat’s address to the United Nations, a rash of plane hijackings, and the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Al-Ali was hardly an endorser solely of nonviolent resistance: he regularly showed sympathy for armed combat against Israel. To be fair, he also criticized Arab leaders and denounced anyone who undermined the cause of Palestinian liberty and self-rule. Whatever his political specifics, for a Jewish reader, his work is, to put it mildly, awkward to look at — whenever he depicts Israelis, they have giant hook noses that would make them look right at home in Nazi agit-prop.
Nevertheless, as a lover of cartoon art, I have to separate out Handala from the logographic anti-Semitism around him and isolate the character as something very worthy of note. He appears in nearly every al-Ali cartoon, and almost always in the exact same pose. He is a boy in ragged clothing, a sprinkling of wiry hair upon his head and no shoes on his feet. He stands with his back to the reader, his hands clasped behind him, gazing intently at whatever is happening in the cartoon. He is a potent image, one I have to admire, as he is not a combatant, not a hijacker, not a politician, and not even a participant. He is an observer, and a passionately committed one. He looks squarely at everyone — Israeli, Arab, American — and, in doing so, puts us in his miniature panopticon. Comfortable people like me treat the destitute and displaced as though they’re invisible, but Handala says we are not invisible to them. Handala knows what you’ve done. Handala doesn’t care about your self-justifications. Handala is always watching.
I wandered the market sections of the Old City without seeing any Handala, then came to a vendor whose sign declared that he makes custom shirts. I asked him if he had any Handala designs. He lit up and mumbled to himself in Arabic as he shuffled through a pile of printable designs. He showed me one that simply depicts Handala in his typical gazing pose. I said I wanted it. But he had another offer: he shuffled some more and showed me one with Handala in the bottom-left, looking at a map of the Holy Land filled with the colors of the Palestinian flag. Arabic text accompanied it, and I asked the vendor what it said. He smiled: “It says, ‘Love Palestine, we will return.’” No, I say, that one’s way too extreme for me. He went about printing my Handala shirt on a hand-operated machine and I remarked to him that it’s more than a little odd how he also sells shirts with Israeli Defense Forces logos on them. “What are you going to do?” he said with a shrug. “But there are some” — and he pointed at the still-visible “we will return” design — “that I cannot show.” He gave a conspiratorial smile, and I couldn’t tell how I felt about the fact that he was so comfortable offering me this anti-Israel samizdat. Who does he think I am? And how is that different from who I think I am?
I think of H, the weary youth leader; I think of D, the Christian who threatened suicide.
I went to Bethlehem with the first tour company, the one Z worked with. As one might expect, the spin was very Palestinian-leaning, but I felt I was getting better at incorporating one-sided arguments in a healthy way by that point. Maybe I wasn’t. L, a portly Arab Jerusalemite driver, picked up a small group of us in front of the Jerusalem YMCA, then crossed over into the West Bank. We picked up Y, the guide, who was a slick talker in a white t-shirt that blared its support of Orlando, Florida. He informed us that his family once lived in a town west of Jerusalem, but was uprooted in the 1948 exodus and ended up a few miles to the east, within then-Jordanian territory. He’s been there his whole life. He told us this Nakba story quite matter-of-factly, and I felt bad for the tour members who didn’t know the region’s history. I feel like everyone should have assigned reading before landing at Ben Gurion. Then again, what reading could everyone possibly agree on?
As we drove through desert towns on our way south, I constantly saw graffiti of the Dome of the Rock, the preciously holy Jerusalem site that West Bank Palestinians can only visit at the caprice of the Israeli government. You see images of the Dome everywhere in the West Bank; a religious symbol casually made into a rallying logo. We stopped near a Christian monastery in the desert and Y joked that it’s like it’s run by Saudis: women aren’t allowed. He then riffed on the Gulf states: “They’re stupid, they are very stupid. We don’t need aid or money from them. We just need the end of the occupation.”
We arrived in run-down Bethlehem and were driven around the various paintings left in the town by Banksy and other graffiti artists in recent years. One piece was a massive Donald Trump whispering to the wall that he’s going to build it a brother. Another was a glowing tribute to Leila Khaled, a Black September plane-hijacker (Y took care to praise her by saying she could have killed people she hijacked, but didn’t). We stopped at The Walled-Off Hotel, the bizarre combination hotel / café / museum / art space that Banksy’s team has set up right next to one of the sections of the Separation Wall earlier this year. The hotel is supposed to … well … uh, I can’t exactly say what goal it’s trying to accomplish, much less whether it accomplishes it. It’s a lushly furnished, well-air-conditioned, new-car-smell’d spot that might be making fun of colonial decadence, or might just be colonially decadent. High on coffee and curiosity, I bought a bunch of books by Palestinian authors from the gift shop inside. I later wondered who, exactly, got all the money I’d just spent. My stomach dropped as I started to wonder that about everything I’d bought on the trip.
Speaking of capitalism: Y is a Banksy entrepreneur. He had set up a gift shop next to the hotel where you can buy Banksy- and Palestine-related memorabilia, and while I was browsing, I struck up a conversation with L, the driver. He told me he supports Hamas, because they’re not corrupt (in his eyes) and give aid money directly to Palestinians instead of keeping it for themselves. That said, he doesn’t like any parties, really, and when I asked him what’ll happen after current Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas dies, he simply replied, “This is a big problem.” Indeed. We got back on the bus and L drove us to the Aida refugee camp. As we passed a United Nations car, Y told the group, “We call them United Nothing here.” We saw more graffiti, endless graffiti: Handala with a family of little Handalas, Harry Potter summoning a skeleton key (the Palestinian national symbol for the Right of Return — as if to say we still have the keys to the houses you took from us), Muhammad Ali, an image of Theresa May with “I LIKE IT HARD” written below, more Trumps, and so on. I only saw one swastika.
We met with X, the leader of a nonprofit that works with kids in the Aida camp (which, it should be said, looks basically just like a slightly dingy part of town, and you don’t really know when you’re entering or leaving it) to create “beautiful resistance” in the form of arts and other nonviolent skills. He spoke in a depressed, exhausted tone, and was a bit of a study in contrasts. On one hand, he was an ideal partner for anyone concerned about the plight of Palestinian refugees, what with his harsh aversion to armed struggle and his belief in the power of a child’s heart. On the other hand, he’s still a firm believer in the Palestinian national cause. While he spoke to us, I saw a small poster on his office wall, reading, “in Lidda, in Ramle, in the Galilee” — i.e. places that are part of Israel, not the West Bank or Gaza, and are therefore theoretically off the table in two-state-solution negotiations — “We shall remain / like a Wall on your Chest. / And in your throat / Like a Shard of Glass, a Cactus Thorn. / And in your Eyes / A Sandstorm.” Above those words screamed the poem’s title: “HERE WE WILL STAY.” He had an embroidered illustration of a skeleton key above his desk.
It was, at that point, clear to me that Americans delude themselves when they say being a peaceful Palestinian moderate inherently involves believing in the two-state solution. I can only speak anecdotally, but almost all the Palestinians I met — none of them jihadi extremists — were extremely opposed to that outcome. The only solution for them was one that allowed Palestinians to return to the places they were expelled from in 1948. The only solution for them was one that gave them full rights in those places. I must emphasize that, with the exception of that Hebron shopkeeper and a man I will mention in a moment, none of these Palestinians — none — expressed any animosity for Jews. But they loathed Zionism and what it has wrought. As X, a gentle soul who runs a children’s nonprofit and hates terrorism, put it, “Any state that says it’s only for one people? That is racist, in my view.” The only solution for him and nearly all the other Palestinians I met was one that, by definition, would mean the end of Israel as a primarily Jewish political entity. Think what you will of whether or not that’s a goal worth pursuing; I can only tell you what I heard.
As we left the meeting, there was a smattering of gunfire in the distance. Y was unperturbed and later reported, after conferring with a local, that it was Israeli soldiers firing rubber bullets in the direction of Palestinian kids playing soccer. I would later hear a small explosion and be told by someone else that it was probably a small teargas canister far away. No big deal: “This happens every day,” Y said of this sort of thing. We visited the Church of the Nativity with F, a Palestinian guide, but I was unable to focus on any of the ancient religion. The only thing that stuck out for me was when F pointed out a symbol on a mosaic floor and said it originated in the “north of the country,” but that “When I say ‘the country,’ I don’t believe in the two-state solution, so I mean …” and then he trailed off. I assume he meant that the whole kit and caboodle, including Israel, should always be Palestine, but like any good diplomat, he knew the value of constructive ambiguity.
No such ambiguity was present when I met with D in Bethlehem after the tour. A friend of a friend, he’s a Palestinian Christian from neighboring Beit Sahour. “I would never teach my child that Palestine is just the West Bank and Gaza,” he told me in the café of the Walled-Off Hotel. “Never ever. I would shoot myself first.” He owns a small business that’s not doing so well, but his demeanor was surprisingly cheery, especially while goo-goo-gaa-gaa-ing with his toddler and speaking with his white, American wife, who joined us. Nevertheless, his rhetoric was despairing when it came to his beloved Palestine.
“Zionism is really fucked-up. Zionism is a cancer,” he said. “The two-state solution is an imaginary idea, but people believe it and that’s sad.” His family apparently owns land that he says Israel wants to use for development, and they offered him money for it, but as he put it, “That’s disgusting, and I would never sell.” A thirtysomething, he talked about how his childhood house was used as a safe spot for fighters in the First Intifada and said that “resistance is a right.” He, like Z and L, defended Hamas, saying, “They have their own shit, every party does,” but that they don’t want an ISIS-like caliphate; they’re just “an Islamic party” and he doesn’t think they persecute Christians like himself. To be fair, he didn’t vote for them. He just thinks they get a distorted rap from the wider world.
We linked up with U, who lives in another Bethlehem-adjacent refugee camp, the much-larger Dheisheh. Trash in the streets, unfinished buildings with children playing on the ledges, densely packed abodes. There was a great deal of graffiti, but no Banksies to be found. Instead, you saw more Handala, lots of stenciled faces of dead Palestinians, and — most shockingly to an American — smiling Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafats. “The camp is a witness to a crime that Israel committed,” U mused. He said the refugee camps are “a continuing Holocaust.” He said Israel tries to “break” the refugee camps by funneling drugs and crime into them, but that they never fully succeed. He said he thinks Israel uses a strategy of having soldiers cripple Palestinians instead of killing them, just to strain the community with disabled people. He wants one Palestinian state, which Jews would be free to live in. As he put it, “We’re willing to live with Jewish people, but it’s hard to live with Zionism.”
But the most interesting thing U said — and which D echoed later — was about comfort. Back in Hebron, Q had said Palestinians would stop complaining if their standards of living rose, but U doesn’t think so. He knows plenty of angry Palestinians who are doing well for themselves — and he’s one of them. He’s earned enough money to buy himself some property outside the camp, and as we stood in his unfinished new house, he said something I’ll never forget: “Prisoners, water; these cannot distract from the main issue: the Right of Return. When the Israeli Zionist gangs came and attacked people and made them leave their homes — that’s the main part of the conflict. Even the comfortable people want the Right of Return. Just because they’re comfortable outside doesn’t mean they don’t want to come home.” Once again, Americans underestimate the sorrowful maximalism of Palestinian nationalism for all kinds of Palestinians at our own intellectual risk.
We said goodbye to U, then D and his family and I decamped to a restaurant, where we all smoked cigarettes freely — Palestine has no laws against indoor smoking, so you experience that sort of thing everywhere. I asked D whether he feared that a single, democratic, binational state would give rise to a kind of revenge government in which an anti-Jewish party like Hamas would take control and bring about a brutal ethnic war. He agreed that it’s a fear, but hopes that smart people would be in charge and prevent such a thing. He hates everything about the leadership of the Arab world today — Fatah, the Palestinian Authority, other Arab countries — but he adores Arafat. “I love this man,” D said with a smile while recalling the late and deeply controversial Palestinian icon. D said Arafat was clean and that any accusations of corruption only stemmed from the actions of people around him. He wistfully recalled being a child and making eye contact with Arafat during a surprise appearance in D’s town. But Abbas? “He’s nothing like a human being.” I must emphasize that I met absolutely no one who had any confidence in the current Palestinian government.
D, more than anyone else I encountered, was explicitly forgiving of violence. When I brought up terrorism, he issued a firm but odd delineation: “Resistance is defending your home; terrorism is scaring other people to leave their homes.” His wife pointed out that that didn’t make much sense, and he had no retort. But it does make sense if you look at it through the lens of Israelis not deserving to think they live in a place that is their home. Speaking of homes — D talked about the recent killing of a Jewish family in their house by a Palestinian and D’s main thought on the matter was, “He can choose a better target, but also, the other side does this.” When I told him about T, my gun-toting distant relative, D chuckled. “Hey, if I’m somewhere I don’t belong, if I’m in the jungle, I’d prepare myself, too,” he said.
We parted ways and they dropped me off at a checkpoint so I could leave the West Bank and return to Jerusalem. They, of course, couldn’t cross it. It was late and the checkpoint was all but abandoned. I walked through this ghost structure, filled with labyrinthine corridors and harsh fencing, its person-corralling skills being wasted on little old me. Nevertheless, it was somewhat exhausting to get through the whole thing, meaning I could only wonder what it’s like when it’s at full capacity, with people hoping to get to work, or a crucial appointment, or a hospital. A bored guard, barely old enough to buy pornography, looked at my passport and waved me through while another one watched TV on his phone, an arm resting on his machine gun. I haggled with a cabbie to drive me back to Jerusalem, because the buses were done running for the night. When we hit on a price, I said, “That’s good!” He replied, “Yeah, good for you.”
I think of R and H, the emigrating couple. I met them in Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. I arrived early so I could take some time to sightsee. The whole city center was alive with the electricity of Union Square on a summer’s day, and the street art was rampant and political. Palestinian flags, skeleton keys, an image of someone tearing apart the Balfour Declaration — the spigot of national feeling had been turned to its widest aperture. I visited the Yasser Arafat mausoleum and its accompanying museum and hoo boy, that adventure could take up 13,000 more words. Suffice it to say that the mausoleum was underwhelming but the museum was one of the fanciest, cleanest, most elaborate pieces of hardcore propaganda I’d ever seen.
In it, Arafat was portrayed as the Palestinian Superman — endlessly virtuous, incapable of making mistakes, and always placed before the nigh-insurmountable odds of defeating the Zionist foe. All terrorism was framed as resistance (except for some bombings by Hamas, which the viewer was very firmly told was the fault of Hamas and not Arafat). And all of that paled before the part where you walk over to the compound in which Arafat was besieged during the Second Intifada and see his offices and humble bedroom, allegedly untouched since his death. It is truly a bizarre experience to be within smelling distance of Yasser Arafat’s gun and kaffiyeh, I tell you what.
But Arafat’s dead, and I can’t ask him what he thinks about the present or the future. For that, I had to turn to R and H, a pair of upper-middle-class Palestinian Millennials who are planning to hightail it out of the place they call home. R has American citizenship, having been born there, and H says the Israeli government is only too happy to expel another Palestinian from his homeland, so the paperwork hasn’t been too much of a problem. If you didn’t bring up politics, you’d think these two had little to worry about — one’s an architect and one works in tech security, and they hardly live like refugees or neglected farmers. But again, I have to emphasize, Palestinian nationalism — in my limited experience — knows no class boundaries. People are dissatisfied with the status quo, and the proposed two-state future is unacceptable to them, either. R and H, like the others, are perfectly fine with Jews, but think Zionism is racism and that it’s insane to see a country that explicitly prefers one group over another in the 21st century and rules over that latter group with military control.
For the younger R, it all stems back to the Second Intifada, when her childhood house was placed under siege. A tank stationed itself outside her door, she said, for three months, forcing the family to live on whatever food they had lying around the house. After those months, she was allowed a few hours outdoors, but still ended up missing six months of school. Fighting raged throughout her city. “I never imagined I could see war and evil like I did,” she told me. How on earth, she said, can she find sympathy for a regime that did that to her at such an impressionable age? H shares R’s feeling that Israel’s response to the Second Intifada made him realize he would never have true freedom so long as that government lingered in the background, whatever its reasons for use of power may be. And he, like D and U, emphasized that comfort isn’t the issue. After all, they’re not starving, and they’re still deeply disillusioned. “Even if the Palestinians are like the refugees in Jordan, where they’re accepted and comfortable, how can you say they can’t come back?” he asked me.
Indeed, R and H think the comforts of consumerism are crippling Palestinians. In recent years, they’ve seen more buying and less producing, more use of credit and less earning of capital. The Palestinian Authority is the laziest and most extravagant entity of all in this regard, they said. As we drove around at 3:30pm, there was a bottleneck of cars on the road and they said it was because the government closes up shop around 3. “Not much of a government if they do that,” R remarked. “Fatah are basically a dictatorship,” she added, pointing out that Abbas was never really democratically elected. Not that they like Hamas, mind you — but they do get why they were elected. I pointed out that it seems like outsiders use the fateful and never-truly-acted-upon election of Hamas in 2006 as evidence that Palestinians shouldn’t be allowed to vote. She had a deft counter: “Well, Americans voted for Trump! Should they not get democracy?” It was, in her mind, mostly a fuck-you vote that no one understood the full consequences of.
Hamas wouldn’t like R and H much, either: R doesn’t practice religion and H is only mildly Muslim, and they’re both sick of religious justifications for what goes on in this little slip of land. They just want equal rights and an end to military rule. But there’s a curious twist in R’s argument there. She would actually rather have a return to pre-Oslo, direct military rule than to continue living under what she sees as the farce of the Palestinian Authority. It would stop the sugarcoating, she thinks: right now, anything bad that happens, the Israelis can blame on the Authority and claim it shows how the Palestinians can’t self-govern. In her eyes, the Israelis are still ultimately in control, with their border control, regulations on resource use, reservation of the right to use deadly force for security reasons, and indefinite detentions. “This is very convenient,” R said. “They don’t have to deal with your shit, but they take all your privileges.”
They also hate that the Israeli government retains so much data about them, their families, their actions, and their comings and goings — a policy for which they have no easy recourse: “They have the history of all your life, basically.” And the checkpoints! And the Israeli-only roads they don’t have access to! It takes R four to twelve hours to get to Amman to fly out (West Bankers are not allowed to use Ben Gurion), despite it being only about 68 km away. All of the indignity adds up and makes one quite antipathetic to those causing it. These are the hearts and minds that should be easiest to win, what with their cozy economic status and international outlook. But no, they couldn’t be less happy with any of the actors in the peace process. Screw it, they’re getting out of the joint.
I think of ever-worried Mohammad Sabaaneh.
We first met in the early spring in New York City, when he was promoting his new collection of work, White and Black: Political Cartoons from Palestine. We spoke for well over an hour, and as I walked away from the conversation, I realized I didn’t know nearly enough about the conflict to write intelligently about what I had just heard. I was going to piss off someone or other, so I sat on my hands until I could meet him again in Palestine. We arranged to do so, and when he picked me up at an American-themed Ramallah cafe called Vintage, he had a look of furrowed-brow concern on his face. It never went away. We arrived at the modest apartment where he lives with his wife and young daughter and he immediately began talking, then didn’t stop doing so for a full 20 minutes. He picked up a cigarette and was so busy talking that he forgot to light it during that whole time. He has a lot on his mind.
He idolizes Naji al-Ali and has multiple images of the man’s face around the studio portion of his home. Like the work of al-Ali, it’s often hard for me to look at Sabaaneh’s cartoons when they depict Jews or violence. That’s not a statement on his form — his art is often stunningly beautiful, depicting agonized figures in even-more-agonizing settings, conveying a chiaroscuro sorrow that’s rare in modern political cartooning. And there’s much he draws that’s noble and easy enough to process: Palestinians walking along a Separation Wall that has been twisted into an infinity loop, a group of Palestinians trying to dance while wearing chains and surrounded by the Wall, Santa Claus getting stopped at a checkpoint, and the like. But there’s a lot that pushes the boundaries of good taste. Jewish concentration-camp prisoners climbing out of their own cage in order to man the guard tower of a Palestinian prison. Israeli soldiers with big noses. A Palestinian youth being put into a meat-grinder that produces the blood-dripping words “MADE IN ISRAEL.”
And then there’s Wonder Woman. Around the release of this summer’s Wonder Woman, discussion swirled about the politics of its Israeli star, Gal Gadot. A veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, Gadot had expressed her support of her country’s 2014 war in Gaza and her status as the star got the film banned in Lebanon. Sabaaneh doesn’t care much about superheroes, but felt compelled to weigh in and, a few days after the film’s release, drew a cartoon of Gadot as Wonder Woman stabbing a Palestinian infant to death. It is, as the kids these days say, a little extra. Nevertheless, Sabaaneh thought it was necessary: “She supported the idea of the Israeli defense army killing the people in Gaza, and it was very important for us to criticize her,” he told me. “Maybe she killed some Palestinians. That’s why I should criticize her and I should invite the people to boycott this movie.”
None of the 39-year-old’s work pulls punches, and is almost punishingly earnest at all turns. He was born in Kuwait, where his Palestinian-born father had a job as a government administrator, but Sabaaneh has spent the vast majority of his life in the West Bank, either near Jenin or in Ramallah. He started his artistic career out largely by drawing portraits and just doing little cartoons on the side. But he was radicalized during the Second Intifada when a family asked him to do a portrait of their son, who was killed in clashes with Israeli forces. The deceased’s brother asked for an extra one of himself as a dead martyr — a chilling request for young Sabaaneh. Before he even finished the second portrait, the kid actually did die, and Sabaaneh realized he couldn’t do portraits of dead children anymore. He’d stick to cartoons.
That career has led him to a regular gig doing political cartoons for Al-Hayat al-Jadida, the official newspaper of the Palestinian Authority. Like everyone I met, he’s hardly a fan of the Authority, but he isn’t allowed to criticize them in his printed work. However, he told me they worked out a deal with him whereby he can publish PA-critical cartoons in other online channels, such as his page on the site Cartoon Movement. He’s not just critical of them and Israel, though — he also takes aim at Hamas, periodically ridiculing them for corruption and hypocrisy. He claims he’s even on a Hamas blacklist, as a result.
Nevertheless, the Israeli government arrested him in 2013 on charges of “association with an enemy organization” — Hamas. Sabaaneh says the accusation was likely tied to the fact that his brother, an activist and writer, had been possibly associated with members of Hamas; but Sabaaneh believes the real reason he was imprisoned was because of his cartoons. “They think I incite the people to kill Israelis, and this is something stupid, because you can see all of my cartoons,” he said. “I don’t have any cartoon inciting anyone to kill another one.”
He served time for about five months and says he was in isolation for more than three weeks of that sentence, but he never stopped creating cartoons while there, using whatever materials he could find and obscuring any political messages until he could get them out and finish them later. Despite all this, Sabaaneh didn’t become an international hero for free speech — despite some outcry from a few fellow cartoonists and the Committee to Protect Journalists, Sabaaneh has never been a household name or a cause celebre. He’s still out there in the hustle, struggling to make money in a world he finds unjust. He also teaches at Arab-American University and works with Palestinian artistic group The Freedom Theatre, and is attempting to branch out from single-panel political cartoons into full-fledged narrative comics, as his book tour abroad allowed him to see that Westerners are more interested in those sorts of things.
But there was just so much despair and disappointment in Sabaaneh’s voice throughout the whole time we talked. He talked about detention, about his niece being born and raised without seeing her imprisoned father, about how little attention anyone seems to pay to Palestine these days, about the Kafkaesque experience of trying to fly in and out of Palestine — ostensibly a place with self-government, but which still requires Israeli permission and screening for entry and departure. I asked him about what kind of solution he’d like to see for the future, and he sighed. “I don’t think … “ he trailed off. “Even if there is any solution, it will not be now. I don’t think this generation, this kind of Israeli government, will support any peace process or go on with this peace process.” But if you want a hint as to his feelings about the two-state solution, well, just look at the drawings of skeleton keys in his work. He’s not sure if his cartoons are accomplishing much of anything. But he also says he doesn’t believe in inciting violence, so he tries not to incite any in his work — “I’m just trying to do something about the human perspective in Palestinian life.” He just keeps going.
When we were done talking, Sabaaneh drove me through the hopelessly congested streets of Ramallah toward the infamous Qalandiya checkpoint between that city and the roads to Jerusalem. For whatever reason, my bus to Ramallah hadn’t been stopped, but my bus out was. Two youthful Israeli soldiers marched onto the bus and demanded everyone’s identification. I showed my passport and we were on our way. It wasn’t that hard, I suppose, but it was still upsetting. If you’re dealing with this every day, sure, you won’t go insane, but it must be like driving with the parking brake on at all times. It grinds.
I think of B, the aging technocrat; I think of N and G, the liberal pragmatists.
Back in Jerusalem the next day, I was more or less losing my mind. I still am. I met with B, who has been around a while. He was born in the Old City and now lives in Jericho, and other than the Hebron shopkeeper, he was the oldest Palestinian I spoke with. He was entirely disenchanted by the nationalist cause. Indeed, he was disenchanted by just about everything and everyone. A longtime human-rights activist, writer, and lecturer, he was a man in the Thomas Friedman mold — more interested in jobs than anything else.
He thought Palestinians were fed up with all of their political leadership — he predicted that 70% of the population would reject Hamas in a hypothetical election tomorrow, and that the PA is keeping Palestinians as figurative “hostages” in two-state-solution negotiations so they can benefit financially and politically from the global attention. But who will replace Abbas as head of the PA when he dies or leaves? “If you ask me who will replace Abbas, I will say, ‘Abbas,’” he said with a chuckle. The point of the joke is that Abbas has done nothing to cultivate a new generation of leaders, acting as though he and those around him will live forever. He recalled a conference in Ramallah about what will happen after Abbas, which he said the PA raided, detaining the attendees and forcing them to sign commitments not to have such conferences in the future. “The Palestinians today have more frustrations than they would if they had direct Israeli occupation,” he said, echoing R. “Every Palestinian today realizes that daily life is moving backward since Oslo,” he told me. “But we have to blame ourselves — the US and Europe can’t fix this. We need more voices against Fatah and Hamas.”
B had no solutions. In fact, he didn’t even want to talk about solutions, at least of a one-state or two-state variety. “It’s too early to talk about a two-state solution,” he said. “Palestine is not ripe enough for a state. You have to build bridges of confidence, and there’s a deep gap of hatred, so how can the sides meet?” For him, the only solution is a near-term one: more jobs. He believes Palestinians prefer to work in Israel or Jerusalem, rather than in the Palestinian Territories, because they pay’s better. He just wants more work permits for his people; we can figure out the bigger questions later. He thinks American activists in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement are misguided — they’re seeking to cripple industries that employ Palestinian labor. He thinks refugees can be bought off, to an extent — they’ll give up the Right of Return if they’re lucratively compensated for the land they lost. This, of course, flew in the face of what people like D, R, and H had told me, and put B closer to Q, of all people, but it’s still a seductive argument. B thinks Palestinians need to do more to distance themselves from those who fight the Israelis — they “need to stand up and condemn stabbings,” he said. I asked him what, at the end of the day, he wants. He paused, then said, “A kind of dignity and equality.” I asked him if he means that economically, and not politically. He said yes. “I don’t see Israel as the enemy of Palestine — I think we are our own enemy.”
It was a somewhat disheartening conversation, mostly because I mourned for the fact that this guy who had been around in the struggle for so long couldn’t bring himself to even dream of what a just ending might look like. He could only look to the near future, which is understandable, and perhaps even the only plausible way to go. But what are we to make of a world without dreams, where the only goal is the next job? Isn’t that the world we already live in? Shouldn’t we hope for something more? Or is hoping for more merely going to lead to more dream-fueled violence?
All of this on my mind-grapes, I wandered the city until the appointed time when I was to meet with N and G, two twentysomething Israeli Jewish liberals. Our conversation was brief, and left me with a similarly mixed bag of emotions. Both have completed their military service, and both feel great sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. N told me she works with a number of groups that try to bring everyday Israelis and Palestinians together to converse and interact, something that’s legally quite difficult to do, due to travel restrictions. She thinks a binational, democratic, one-state solution is possible, but G disagrees. He, lefty though he is, firmly believes in Israel’s right to defend itself and thinks that a two-state solution with a tightly guarded border is the only way out. He thinks the occupation of the Palestinian Territories is “Israel’s greatest mistake in its 70-year history,” and that it must end, but only on terms favorable to Israel’s security and safety. N was less sanguine about the militarism of this position, but had no real counterargument.
The thing that stuck with me from talking to them, though, was this: they said they never got taught about this stuff in school. Teachers didn’t bring up the 1948 exodus. They didn’t learn the details of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They were taught about Israel’s wars with Arab states, but not with the Palestinians in its midst. All of that was left out or downplayed. There were school trips to visit Poland and learn about the Holocaust, but not to the West Bank to learn about the Nakba. Not that the two are equivalent, of course — I would never say that. But to act like one is a factor in the country’s history and the other simply doesn’t exist … that seems like a recipe for disaster. Whatever the conclusions you come to about the Nakba may be, you should have to learn about it in any good curriculum about Israel, no? You may conclude that it didn’t matter much, or that it was justified, or that it didn’t happen the way Palestinians say it happened. But to avoid it altogether leads to the worst kind of public: an apathetic one. I didn’t come to many conclusions while here, but one thing I feel very passionately is that any Jew coming to Israel on a Birthright-esque trip should have to learn about the conflict. Even if it’s propaganda, that’s better than nothing, to be honest. We simply cannot allow ourselves to pretend it doesn’t exist, just because things are relatively quiet now.
I think of the South and the tallest of the walls.
On my final day in Jerusalem, I took a day trip to Gaza. Well, not exactly Gaza, itself — no American without reams of permits would be allowed to even set a pinky toe in that Hamas-controlled strip of coastal land. But that first tour company offers trips to the area surrounding it. I was expecting the trip — led once again by Z — to be the most dangerous of them all, especially given that there had been rocket fire nearby and some light bombing just a few days before my appointed trip day. I almost canceled. But I was assured that it was safe, so I just didn’t tell my mother I was going beforehand.
It ended up being pretty quiet. Boring, even. It was mostly just a lot of driving around the Israeli communities of the south, with Z telling my pair of tour companions about his spin on the history of the conflict. We went to an Israeli community right on the border of Gaza and looked at the massive walls protecting them from the Hamas-controlled territory. I expected to feel something about them, but only felt a kind of dull awe at their size. We went to Erez Crossing, the primary way in and out of Gaza, and it was a ghost town. We sat on a bench outside it and Z got pretty worked up as he told us of the 2006 elections and how Hamas won, fair and square, and their victory was taken from them. How can it be, he asked, that Israel and the world community respect democracy but then wrest the Palestinians’ decision away from them, just for security reasons? He decried the blockade of Gaza, as well as the periodic wars Israel wages on it. He said Hamas isn’t usually the ones firing the rockets — he thinks it’s other groups within there, and that Hamas doesn’t want war. He sees so little hope in a world where democracy is disrespected. He called Oslo the “second Nakba,” in which Arafat “gave away 85% of Palestine” by agreeing to a two-state solution. I joked that Arafat was treated like a superhero in his museum; Z countered that he sort of was, until he became “an asshole” with Oslo.
As we drove back toward Jerusalem, we came across a broken-down car. Two Israelis stood outside it. Z didn’t hesitate — he stopped his own car and took out his jumper cables to help them. They weren’t able to get their vehicle going again, but not for lack of long minutes of trying. Z wished them a good shabbos, as Shabbat was approaching that night. He got back in the car and joked, “This is part of the tour: to show that Arabs and Jews don’t hate each other.” I guess they don’t, necessarily. But simple lack of hate doesn’t fix anything, really. I guess it’s better than nothing, but by that point in the trip, it had become clear to me that animosity isn’t the only issue — if it were, you could just hope that everyone would calm down and stop being an extremist or whatever. You could hope for better leaders and an end the culture of victimhood. You could just wish for peace. But the problem is that peace has winners and peace has losers. The real problem is incompatible dreams.
I think of my seven-minute ride.
After returning from the Gaza area, I hopped in a cab outside the Damascus Gate to ride to a much more lax Shabbat dinner than my one with the settlers. The driver welcomed me in, we haggled over price, and got going. It was to be a short trip. He asked if it was my first time in “Palestine.” I awkwardly said I had been “here” before, not getting into the name game. He asked my name; I said it was Abraham. He, took joy at hearing this and pointed out that it was a very special name, this Ibrahim. “Did you visit the Ibrahimi Mosque?” I told him that I had indeed visited it, back in Hebron. “You know what happened there?” I did — as we’d learned on the tour, in 1994, a deranged Israeli right-winger named Baruch Goldstein entered the Ibrahimi Mosque and opened fire on Palestinian worshippers, killing 29 and wounding another 125.
“I was shot there,” the driver told me, pointing to his back.
“By Goldstein?” I asked, incredulous.
He looked at me with indignation — ”Yes!”
“That’s crazy!” I said, somewhat dismissively. No way he could be telling the truth, right? What are the odds? But he was defiant in his claim. He said he used to live there but, through some legal wrangling involving his father’s place of birth, had managed to move to East Jerusalem for better opportunities. I was silent for a while. Overwhelmed. Jesus, this fucking trip. What was I supposed to say? I just cut to the chase: “So, one-state solution or two-state solution?” I asked.
His voice became grave. “Someday, everything will change,” he said. There was no joy in his voice, but no pessimism, either. There was something else, something that made the car feel ten times smaller all of a sudden.
“So … one state?” I said.
“With no Jews?” I said.
He paused, then merely said, “I believe in God.”
I didn’t know what to say to this Palestinian Travis Bickle, and have no memory of whether or not I said anything, but it didn’t matter, because the short trip was basically over at that point. He smiled, wished me well, didn’t tell me I would die in a rain of fire, and helped me get my bag out. When I arrived at my Shabbat destination and told the story, the patriarch of the hosting family rolled his eyes and said, “Yeah, and in the meantime, he gets free health care and a good police force and …” Someone cut him off and said, “Yeah, but you could say that about Native Americans, right?” I’m not sure I agreed with the metaphor, as Native American reservations are not exactly the greatest cities in the world, but I saw what she was trying to say. No matter what, the scary thing was how little the story interrupted the Shabbat conversation. Clearly, this is something they’re used to. Maybe that’s good. Maybe they understand something I don’t, given that I’m still a babe in the woods. But I could hardly pay attention during dinner, and I’m not sure whether it was because I was mad at the cabbie’s call for ethnic cleansing, or at the locals for acting like he had no chance of taking that belief in God and acting on it.
That driver was the last Palestinian I conversed with during this trip, but the thoughts of what I saw and heard haven’t left me. After that Shabbat dinner, I hightailed it to Tel Aviv, far from the West Bank (though not too far for bombs, should things go truly pear-shaped someday) and all of my interviewing. The American-Israeli friend I met up with on my second night in Tel Aviv told me he used to be on the political right, and now thinks Israel provokes the Palestinians too much … but that he mostly just doesn’t think about the conflict at all. The bartender, overhearing us, said we were having the only conversation about the conflict he’d heard at the bar in as long as he could remember. The next day, I took a tour of Old Jaffa, the 5,000-year-old city to the south of the ever-so-young Tel Aviv. It was once home to tens of thousands of Arabs, but after the eruption of 1948, only a fraction remained. Our zippy tour guide, a cheerful Israeli twentysomething, spoke of Jews, Egyptians, Armenians, and Frenchmen in the great, ancient port — but the word “Arab” never arrived upon her lips. Nevertheless, she concluded every stop on the tour by asking us to say sababa, an Israeli term loosely translated as “it’s all good.” It’s derived from Arabic.
And now I write to you from the quiet North of the country, by the banks of the Galilee, where my trip is about to conclude. I’ve traversed the local area, including that other disputed territory, the comparatively quiet and under-populated former Syrian spot known as the Golan Heights. My host here at my bed and breakfast is a nice, middle-aged Gentile from Minnesota who married an Israeli man after moving here in 1973 with her Christian parents. Her folks were so-called Christian Zionists, committed to helping establish a Jewish Israel for their own biblical reasons, but my host doesn’t really buy into organized religion. The only evangelizing she’s engaged in is telling me about how “Israel has a bad reputation, but I love this country” and that “I want you to know that the Jews, they’ve been here forever. There’s continuity. People say, ‘They took more land than they deserved,’ but just look around at the history and you’ll see.”
I have, indeed, looked around at the history, going from one placid Jesus-era pilgrimage site to another, and it leaves me cold. The notion of “who was here first” really doesn’t matter to me. But if it leaves me cold, it also gives me a sense of cold comfort — at least I don’t hear anyone hating each other or talking about the coming reckoning. It’s just fields and mountains. I feel guilty. I should be back there in the West Bank. I should be talking to more people. I should be getting a fuller perspective. But it’s an asymptote, isn’t it? I’ll never reach that point of full knowledge or complete conversation. Nevertheless, I have a newfound hunger to try.
Which brings us back to our original question. What would a Palestinian superhero look like? I may be out of line here, but I have to say that I think we already have one, and he’s not wearing any shoes. Handala is the Palestinian superhero. He doesn’t have all the answers for us, but no superhero ever really does. Instead, he merely uses his superpower for good. But what is the superpower of this dusty child, abandoned by a world gone mad? Well, if Superman has X-ray vision, maybe Handala has X-ray observation.
Like all great superheroes, he’s infinitely reproducible and adaptable to a given moment, as long as you retain his visuals and his core power: he looks. It’s no small thing, that power. How many of us can truly say we look at the injustices and quandaries of the world with all the intent and intensity available within us? Handala uses his power justly — not to peek at people in their underwear or spy on them for a government. No, he gazes at the whole system. He judges. He doesn’t even tell you his judgments, because his gaze is enough for you to realize what you’ve done wrong.
This Palestinian superhero is who I will try to learn from. That doesn’t mean I endorse the views of his creator. He’s been appropriated by groups I don’t like, but hey, so have the American flag and the logo of the Punisher. And Hashem knows I haven’t figured out where I stand on this ever-more-yawning divide of a conflict. But I’m starting to figure it out, and I won’t stop now. I will attempt to channel his powers of super-vision. I will not let the sufferers of this struggle, be they Israeli or Palestinian, be invisible to me again. I will observe. It won’t fix everything. But it’s a start.