Over the past decade, there has been a proliferation of personal essays and book-length accounts by writers who have visited the Occupied Territories. Their aim has been to illuminate for a mainly Western audience issues previously ignored, or over-simplified, in the media of their home countries, and thereby to reframe international perceptions of the Palestinian people.
You will find Nasser Nawaja and the story of Susiya in Kingdom of Olives and Ash, a collection of essays edited by Michael Chabon and his wife Ayelet Waldman, as well as in This Is Not a Border, a collection of “reportage and reflection” from participants at the Palestine Festival of Literature (Palfest). In fact, the cluster of tents and caves that make up Susiya, nestled in the South Hebron hills, where villagers endure a daily routine of violence, including home demolition, harassment and displacement, is a frequent subject of international attention. The authors in these two volumes come from across the globe: South Asia, Europe, the United States and Latin America. They include J. M. Coetzee, Alice Walker, the late Henning Mankell, Michael Palin, Jeremy Harding, Selma Dabbagh, Raja Shehadeh, Dave Eggers and Mario Vargas Llosa.
The writers visit Gaza, talk to anglers and students, orphans and widows. They witness settler expansion in the heart of Palestinian neighbourhoods, in East Jerusalem, Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah and Shuafat. They record the damaged homes in the Muslim quarter of the Old City, crumbling as a result of the excavations carried out by Israeli archaeologists in search of sections of the Second Temple. They watch or pass through myriad checkpoints, where, in Qalqilya for example, tens of thousands of Palestinian workers must rotate through a metal cage. The turnstiles open and let in a handful before coming to a halt. They visit villages protesting against the Israeli expropriation of their land, and talk to residents in the decades-old refugee camps dotting the West Bank. They mourn the dissolution of Hebron’s Old City into a ghost town, and ponder the cosmetic progressiveness of Ramallah.
A third book, A Land Without Borders by the Israeli writer Nir Baram, follows the author in his quest around the West Bank and East Jerusalem to find a convincing answer to the question of the future of Palestinians and Israelis. The status quo, says Baram, is unsustainable for both Israel as a state and for Palestinians under occupation. It has also recently been further vexed by Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and accordingly move his country’s embassy to the city. This decision has broken with decades of US precedent and breaches international law, which considers East Jerusalem – containing the Old City and the al-Aqsa Mosque compound – as Palestinian territory occupied by Israel in the aftermath of the 1967 war, and sees the fate of the whole city as a matter for “final status” negotiations between the two sides.
In all three books, readers are given a humanizing prism through which to view Palestinians who for too long have been portrayed by the mainstream media as a caricature built in part by Israel’s highly effectivehasbara (propaganda) machine. Both Chabon and Waldman, for example, describe the importance of narrating the everyday.
We both began to realize that storytelling itself, bearing witness, in vivid and clear language, to things personally seen and incidents encountered, has the power to engage the attention of people who, like us, have long since given up paying attention, or have simply given up.
And they are right. Israel’s hasbara has dominated a story of Jewish security, wars fought in self-defence, a nation that made the desert bloom; it has even been argued (by Anat Berko of the Likud Party) that there is no such entity as the Palestinians because the letter “P” does not exist in the Arabic alphabet.
Over the past few years, many voices that have challenged the Israeli version of events have found their alternative views undermining mainstream prejudice. These challenges to opinion have been persuasively complemented by the brutality of Israel’s war machine. Operation Cast Lead, a twenty-three-day horror show during the winter of 2008–09, bombarded the overcrowded, besieged Gaza Strip mercilessly, killing 1,419 people. The war was, according to Israel, a response to the Hamas rockets being fired at the country from the Gaza Strip, and it ended the shaky ceasefire that had been negotiated six months previously. A year later came the attack on the Turkish Mavi Marmara, a vessel that carried humanitarian aid and attempted to break the naval blockade of Gaza. Two more offensives were launched against the Strip, the latest in 2014, resulting in the deaths of more than 2,100 Palestinians. There has been the stepping up of land grabs and settlement encroachment in the West Bank; the burning alive of a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem; the arson attack on a family that killed parents and a baby, leaving their four-year-old son as the sole survivor. This reached a breaking point in October 2015 with the so-called “knife intifada”. Palestinian individuals – a large majority of them under the age of twenty-five – carried out attacks against Israelis in the form of knife stabbings, shootings and car rammings on an almost daily basis, then, as the months passed, intermittently. Israelis may be victims too, but their nation’s narrative has nonetheless been slowly turning in on itself. The country’s brutality does not match its polite propaganda. And international visitors are part of a process that has seen the country assume a different shape in the global imagination.
Teju Cole, in his contribution to This Is Not a Border, writes, “As in other instances in which world opinion forced a large-scale systematic oppression to come to an end, we must begin by calling things by their proper names”. Maath Musleh, a Palestinian writer, says in the same book that “one cannot ignore the influence of these figures [foreign writers] and how they contribute to undermining the propaganda that Zionism relies on”. It is expected that these voices will shape government policy, revitalize a global movement of change, and put pressure on Israel as an occupying and oppressive state. This is a good thing. But the fact that Palestinians must endure the endless visits of well-meaning, privileged witnesses to their land, in the hope that the visitors will give credence to their tale, creates an uneasiness many find hard to stomach. Life under military occupation, to quote Palestine’s national poet Mahmoud Darwish, is less than life: “It is an approaching death”. In the past there was a belief that greater awareness from the rest of the world about the Israeli occupation might result in some sort of reprieve. Yet as the reality on the ground becomes increasingly dire with each passing year, the hopes of Palestinians are relegated to the shadows.
Steven Friedman, a professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg, recently told me that “few if any South Africans in the resistance would have criticized the ‘conflict tourists’” because most saw “international pressure on the regime as a key weapon”. To belittle the aims and achievements of well-intentioned allies would be capricious. But to fawn over their presence, kindness and interest would be equally fanciful. The exploitation of Palestinian life has rendered Palestinians resentful and tired. Friedman reassured me that, under apartheid in South Africa, “some of us expressed the same irritation as you”, but “isolating apartheid overrode any concerns about being exploited”. I understand this. And yet I cannot help feeling uncomfortable whenever I am in contact with, or read the works of, foreign writers in Palestine, seeing my country and my people and my life through their eyes. What they bear witness to exists in a transient form; for Palestinians it is our life itself.
Reading about ourselves leaves us feeling vulnerable – exposed, even. Having normalized and internalized the policies of the Occupation as a day-to-day fact, we are in a sense not quite ready for the deep reflection that must force us to confront the reality of how tough the situation has become. The wall, the Gaza blockade, the checkpoints, the settlements – all are concrete manifestations of an occupation aimed at dividing and separating Palestinians from themselves, and, as Darwish put it, from any view of the horizon. Our fixation with talking to international visitors, and the ease with which they are accepted into our homes, tends to mask the deep fragmentation of our society. Land-grabs and concrete barriers have carved the Occupied Territories into bantustans that have inevitably resulted in social divisions and estrangement.
The lack of communication between those living under the boot of Israel has exposed, and indeed caused, another glaring hole: the absence of a viable, sustainable, representative Palestinian political movement on the ground. International visitors can identify their role as observers and act as messengers to their own communities, yet the gradual manifestation of international pressure must be led by a call for action from the oppressed. Here, the South African analogy is not applicable. The US will never give up its $3 billion annual military support to Israel, nor will it cease its diplomatic backing in areas like the UN and other international forums. America also sees it as a moral justification to support Israel as a Jewish state, a connection to the suffering inflicted on the Jews during the Holocaust. A homegrown political movement that works in the interests of Palestinians is vital for any future built on justice, tolerance and freedom. And while the call to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel (BDS) came directly from Palestinian civil society, it remains largely a tool for the international community – even if it has thrown open the debate about unconditional support for Israel, forced some to confront Israel’s dominant narrative, and taken into account the perspective of the Palestinians.
As the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie asks in This Is Not a Border, “But what can writers do?” She answers with a verse from the renowned Pakistani revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who spent years in exile in Beirut in the company of Palestinians. “Though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed / in rooms where lovers are destined to meet / they cannot snuff out the moon.”
Writers can write. They are couriers, bridging the gap between ignorance and knowledge. But there remains the unsettling idea that foreigners writing about Palestine will get more traction than a Palestinian on the same topic. Their access to the territories that most Palestinians are expelled or banned from is understood to be a privilege; but what purpose does it serve to focus on that privilege? It would surely be more useful to leverage it into taking the conversation forward, rather than to manufacture stereotypes from it. Yet the stories these writers produce have become tropes in themselves. Nawaja and the suffering of Susiya are now part of the fixed architecture of occupation tourism.
I remember several years ago, when I was a young freelance barely out of university, travelling up and down the West Bank. Once I went to an area in the Jordan Valley to interview a Bedouin family whose home – a collection of tarpaulin, wooden sticks and metal pipes – had been demolished yet again on account of its location (in Area C ), under Israeli civil and security control, as stipulated by the 1993 Oslo Accords. It was extremely hot; there was no running water or electricity. The well-watered green lawns of the Jewish settlement of Mehola were visible in the near distance. Visible, inaccessible. The patriarch of the family lay on his side on a mattress opposite me in the tent, and inbetween drags of cigarettes answered my questions in a well-rehearsed manner. The younger children, barefoot, lively scarecrows with luminous eyes, showed me their new baby goat. I then asked if I could take photos of the reclining patriarch, which he agreed to. When I asked if I could take a picture of his wife, who was invisible the entire time, working to keep the supply of tea and coffee going from behind a blanket that acted as a room divider, he shrugged. She heard me and poked her head out.
“Why?” she asked, her sharp eyes glittering in the semi-darkness of her makeshift kitchen. The bluntness of her question stopped me. “You think you’re the first one to come here and interview us?” No, I didn’t think that, I replied. I just wanted a face for the story so people –
She cut me off. “You think because you write in English your words are going to reach a larger audience?”
She saw my face freeze, and her lips curled into a mirthless smile. “You think that by getting our story out there, you will somehow have helped us? This isn’t the first time the army came and destroyed our home. We’ve had foreign journalists and NGOs come here as well. Will your words help us to rebuild? Will they stop the army from coming? Will they help us to live our lives normally?”
With every question I felt further humiliated, dumbstruck by her candour, my naivety, the truth that was staring me in the face. She said that my article wouldn’t change a thing.
“No, you may not take a picture of me”, this great woman concluded, and flung the blanket divider back into place.