By Chris Beall
Five years ago, as an undergraduate student studying abroad at the American University of Beirut, I enrolled in a political science course entitled “the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” While this course was my first real engagement with this topic, exploring the issue through the lens of political science came with inherent limitations. All of the century-long tragedies, misunderstandings and bloodshed that comprise “the Arab-Israeli Conflict” were presented in a sort of constantly stale, circumscribed air of game theory and shuttle diplomacy. Barely missed peace breakthroughs were reduced to equations of narrowly expended political capital. Even the real ugly stuff—Sabra and Shatila, for example—took the form of almost inevitable strategic miscalculations and overplayed hands.
Whatever was gained in terms of a basic understanding of “the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” I always felt there was something else missing. Five years later, having just returned from the region, I find this same absence in the way people are talking about Israel/Palestine. Across the entire discourse, “the Conflict” seems to always exist in a sort of phantom academic space, lacking depth or perspective. All the statistics, the body counts, the metrics of daily oppression happen in news columns, human rights reports and policy documents. They happen on paper. That’s it. Khalas.
Paper is important, no doubt. But for anybody even casually engaged with this subject matter, it is often too easy to lose sight of any underlying reference point here, to the extent that “the Conflict” begins to exist only textually, numerically, cartographically, perhaps photographically or in breaking news video feeds. Our thinking of “the Conflict,” and subsequently the solutions we form, no longer correspond to reality. Worse, we pass on and inherit this artificial discourse: we still talk about Israel/Palestine as if it were 1967, as if the State of Israel were still a tiny fledging newcomer in the international community, as if Arab nationalism were still a thing in the region, as if the world were still divvied up in a globe-spanning Cold War. The facts accumulate, the data snowballs, but the narratives framing “the Conflict” remain totally unchanged. The world keeps talking, without ever stopping to think what, exactly, we are talking about.
This past summer, as a Leitner Summer Fellow and Legal Fellow with Palestine Works, I interned with the Al-Mustakbal Foundation for Strategic and Policy Studies (AMF) in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank. AMF is a legal think tank that seeks to pave the way for private sector initiatives to help facilitate peace and justice for Palestinians. My role at AMF was to explore the ways that decades of past fact-finding efforts may be used to design future Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation systems. But during my time in Occupied Palestine, all the nuances and complexities that I’d been taught about the issue became irrelevant, and faded from my understanding of the conflict, to the point that it seems futile to even be talking about some “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” even less so, some laughable notion of an “Arab-Israeli Conflict.” The academic construct we know and study—to say nothing of the even more problematic public discourse—simply does not exist. In its place, I’ve been left with something more raw and elemental, more upfront and visceral: basic occupation, through and through.
You see it in the two-hour waits at Qalandia Checkpoint, where thousands of Palestinians (those fortunate enough to have Jerusalem residence status, or those granted rare mobility permits) cross daily from the Occupied West Bank into equally Occupied East Jerusalem. In the way that parents hold their kids up on their shoulders to keep them from being crushed by the swell of humans pushing forward to enter three long and narrow shoulder-width hallway cages, moving like single-file automatons in an industrialized slaughterhouse, all metal and turnstiles and razor wire.
You see it in the streets of Hebron, deep in the West Bank, where the Arabs going about life in their streets erect nets above their shops, to catch the trash that illegal (as ruled by the International Court of Justice and a U.N. panel) Jewish settlers living in the stolen houses above nonchalantly toss out their windows. The same nets that don’t stop the urine or human excrement intentionally splashed onto the Arab streets below. These streets being the new Arab commercial center, after their last ones were deemed Jewish-only and thus inaccessible. In the way the kids get their backpacks checked at the road barricade, every day, to and from school.
You see it in what passes for justice at the Ofer Military Courts (when, for whatever reason, you’re surprisingly granted access to these military detention hearings). In the teenage Palestinian defendant who was shot three times in the leg by Israeli forces as he walked home one night, on account of sparking his lighter. He claims to have been lighting a cigarette, which the IDF presumed to be a molotov cocktail. After a preliminary investigation that produced no evidence at the scene of his shooting, the prosecutor produces a report filed hours after the incident, detailing a molotov cocktail obtained 30 meters away and conveniently destroyed onsite and hence irreproducible before the court. The kid lands an additional 18 month sentence: just long enough to complicate what remains of his high school education, as if the original bullet wounds weren’t enough.
You see it simply in talking to people, in the cafes playing backgammon or in bars drinking beer—Muslim, Christian, atheist, no matter. Your list of quotes grows, a theatre-of-horrors of aphorisms: “I just want to know what the sea feels like” (on life-long movement restrictions); or “Our government cares more about trees than people” (on the demolition of Israeli-Bedouin homes to make room for the expanding Yatir National Forest); or “When God hates a man, he makes him Palestinian” (self-explanatory).
Somehow, the daily realities that I so briefly experienced in my short 11 weeks across the West Bank and Israel get diluted and muddled out in a discourse about land swaps, statistics, political boundaries, negotiating priorities and domestic approval rates. The fallacy of allowing these sorts of issues to stand in for the entirety of “the Conflict” obstruct and deny the vast majority of circumstances that actually comprise what we’re talking about. In reality, what the world treats as a political game actually carries important and tangible human consequences, which should not be ignored.
STATISTICS, FACTS AND TRUTH
None of this is to say that statistics, fact finding, or policy formulation don’t have role to play in all this. Rather, my concern is merely how these tools are employed. Currently, the work being done in the territories remains paralyzed by a stubborn determination to achieve an unrealistic political end goal, which in turn offsets the prospect of peace.
For example, I know from my work that Israel’s separation wall appropriates 9.5 percent of the West Bank’s land area. I know that Israeli military courts in the West Bank have 99.7 percent conviction rates for whatever unfortunate creatures get rounded before them. I know that 85.2 percent of the fertile and mineral-rich Jordan Valley has been declared off-limits to Palestinians. That Israel and its settlers have diverted over 80 percent of available water from West Bank aquifers. These kinds of statistics and figures are everywhere, and I know all of this because it has been researched and documented through the hard labors of lawyers and researchers and human rights advocates, who are not paid nearly enough for the important work that they do. These sorts of numbers add color to what we think of “the Conflict.” They show us what it looks like, what we are dealing with, what kind of stakes we are talking about. But in the absence of a discourse that recognizes the human costs of these findings, the question remains: what are we actually talking about?
The term “facts on the ground” originated in the parlance of Israeli settlers, who in anticipation of Israel being forced into political concessions took it upon themselves to incrementally alter the foundational makeup of Israel/Palestine. Crudely, if you build enough rich and lush illegal Israeli settlements encircling Palestinian East Jerusalem, then the very idea of a Palestinian East Jerusalem becomes starkly unworkable from the standpoint of some final status agreement. And these guys were successful. Since the Oslo Accords, the number of illegal settlers living in the West Bank has more than doubled, from 262,500 to at least 520,000 today. Yet, while these facts on the ground have surely frustrated the peace process, I believe that they have done absolutely nothing to change our discourse about the “Conflict” or what we believe the end goal of talks should be. We envision a solution in the form of two sides willingly coming to the negotiating table, because we envision “the Conflict” as two sides locked in a century of zero-sum politicking and combat.
But such a conception of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is a false one. In my time over there, I never once encountered any semblance of it. It’s still by all means a military occupation, and of course there are frictions involved. But while the constantly disproportionate and asymmetrical episodes of violence are always tragic—for all parties involved—they are completely predictable products of a wholly willful and unnecessary occupation: one which implies not some adversarial struggle to be hashed out and negotiated, but rather a systematic assemblage of cruelty, in which, recent flare ups included, the daily and relentless oppression flows almost entirely one way.
This was my experience as a Leitner Summer Fellow working from Occupied Palestine: a bizarre package of disillusionment and hope bundled all into one. Until we shift our focus from solving “the Conflict” to blatantly and concretely calling for an end to the occupation, the hard work of our researchers and human rights fact-finders will remain dormant. For now, we’ve acquired a whole vocabulary and lexicon in a language that we do not yet speak. But when the discourse changes, I believe we’ll suddenly find ourselves fluent in a language that promises both action and tangible change. At which point, we’ll ironically unlock the true and horrific impact of the “facts on the ground” on the people of Palestine. I’ve no doubt that lawyers and human rights advocates will play some role in this process, but returning from my summer in Occupied Palestine, more than anything else, I’m left with the realization that this “Conflict” expired a long time ago, and that it’s time for our discussions to follow suit. Whatever we do, the survival of Palestine can no longer hinge on some idealized, long-awaited political solution to all of this. It’s time, instead, for a fresh discourse: the type that’s lessons cannot be learned from a political science course, but instead seeks both guidance and legitimacy in its struggle toward upholding basic and universal human rights.
Chris Beall was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. He interned last summer with the Al-Mustakbal Foundation for Strategic and Policy Studies through Palestine Works in the West Bank.
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.
Photo courtesy of Chris Beall.