Troubled links to the narrow land

Stephen Howe
13 June 2001

Like almost everyone with Israeli or Palestinian connections, I have spent the past months in a state of constant anxiety and depression. Bad news has become a way of life, pessimism a settled expectation. The only relieving factor has been that it enables one to find, by contrast, virtue in the sheer tedium of British political life. Bored rigid – again like almost everyone else – with last month’s general election here, I can bless the habits of civility which make such boredom possible, feel thankful not to live in an interesting place.

But mentally and emotionally I spend much of my time in that interesting place; mostly because of the ‘accident’ of marriage to an Israeli, with consequent regular visits, almost hourly phone or email contact, a huge roster of Israeli – and Palestinian – friends and conjugally-acquired family. It’s an association which I do not, of course, regret: but the places it takes me are not, today, ones I like very much.

Hopes fading

It is not only the steady drip of Palestinian deaths, or the more occasional but dramatic – certainly more fully and dramatically reported – Israeli casualties. Not only the flurry of ’phone calls which must follow each shooting or suicide bomb: it’s OK, no-one I know was on that particular bus, and no, our friends’ kids weren’t queuing for that club but the one just down the street… It’s not just the steady erosion of hope for any kind of long-term settlement that might be either just, or even more or less peaceful. It’s not merely the ever intensifying sense that almost everyone I talk to, or even read, on all sides, is retreating day by day into psychic dugouts, abandoning whatever openness to the other side they once had, rejecting both their readiness to compromise and – perhaps more importantly – their empathy for the other’s sufferings.

There are people – Israelis and Palestinians – that I just can’t talk to any more. Others, with whom conversation must avoid the slightest hint of politics. Too many late-night discussions have ended, literally, in tears. Leftish and liberal Israelis with whom I once found – perhaps, somewhere deep down, still would find – so much common political ground, now appear hardened, defensive-aggressive in their manner. For some, it’s as if all the endless ‘dialogue-and-reconciliation’ meetings we’ve shared over the past decade, all the steps in the unofficial (and often secret) peace process which made the official one possible, had never been. The recent, sudden death of the Palestinian who energised that process more than any other individual, Feisal Husseini (my wife and I were first introduced at a meeting with him, though I’d long since forgiven him for that), marked a grim symbolic hiatus.

Palestinian academic friends, meanwhile, tell me that their students, among whom fierce and open debate about everything from Arafat’s leadership to the morality of suicide bombing was once the norm, now present – feel forced to present? – a monolithic front, rejecting negotiations and applauding any or every act of ‘resistance’, however indiscriminate or futile. And all this is not just anecdotal: every opinion poll in recent months, on both sides, reveals ever harder attitudes, ever greater tolerance for one’s own party’s brutalities.

Even in the British news media, the middle ground has been evacuated, and all the weary old discourses of prejudice and self-righteousness have been recycled time and again over the past six months. The only novelty, perhaps, is that a new type of British Islamist commentator has appeared, voicing sentiments at least as brutish, intransigent (and as crassly ignorant) as those long familiar from certain Anglo-Jewish circles. One sinister manifestation of this was the attempt – happily quite ineffectual, it seems – to mobilise Muslim voters against MPs like Mike Gapes or Stephen Twigg, who were seen as too pro-Israeli.

Views restricting

On top of all this, I’ve felt as though the country’s very landscape, one’s sense of its spaces and places, the memories and the possibilities latent in them, is becoming ever more constricted, segregated, criss-crossed with both physical and psychic barriers. Some of that is obvious enough. Israeli army checkpoints, fences and ditches, make almost all movement difficult, unpredictable and wearying – even dangerous for most Palestinians. Since the new Intifada erupted, many have become prisoners in their own homes, or at best their villages and towns. Even the visitor is forced to feel this. Once, even a year ago, I would travel almost routinely by servis (shared taxi) between Jerusalem and Jericho, Bethlehem or Ramallah. Now, even when that is physically possible, I don’t think I have the courage for it.

Restrictions on the other side are infinitely less onerous. But movement becomes ever more limited for them too. For years, hardly any Israeli has ventured into the occupied Palestinian territories, or even the East Jerusalem over which they proclaim their eternal sovereignty. Today, though, their no-go areas have become far more numerous and various. Many won’t even venture into any of the places favoured by suicide bombers: shopping malls and markets, buses or nightclubs. And many will no longer enter Arab areas even within Israel proper, to shop, eat, or socialise. There is some racism in that creation of a renewed internal apartheid. One will hear some Israelis openly proclaim that they no longer patronise Arab businesses ‘on principle’ (the ‘principle’ being, presumably, collective punishment for those who might dare sympathise with Palestinian nationalism). But also, and probably more than that, there is the matter of simple fear: lots of once-familiar places are now felt to be dangerous.

Yet the process of closing down space goes much further than any of this, in a deeper and more subtle, probably more lasting way. Different kinds of people have always had dramatically different mental maps of Israel-Palestine. Gazing at the same unremarkable bit of real estate, one person will see the remnants of an ancient Jewish habitation, symbol of the eternal covenant between People and Land. Another will see, perhaps, the reputed site of one of Jesus’s miracles. Yet another, the Palestinian village which was there before 1948, its buildings now utterly erased, its inhabitants languishing in some distant camp and dreaming of return.

Nowhere else in the world are so many different symbolic landscapes so closely intertwined, or sedimented on top of one another – in a fashion brilliantly evoked by scholars like Meron Benvenisti.

‘Nice’ and ‘nasty’ side by side

My own mental or emotional map – which also heavily determines my physical movements – has been more idiosyncratic. Obviously, I think that I’m ultra-alert to all the historical and political complexities of the land and the rival claims to it. But in my more simple-minded and self-mocking moments, I know that I have a cruder, more monochrome map. It’s divided, black and white, into Nice Israel and Nasty Israel. Those two countries may rule in adjacent suburbs, or neighbouring streets, or they may even jostle together in the same physical space. The Oslo agreement promised, or threatened, to create a ‘Palestine’ which was a patchwork of non-contiguous enclaves, intermingled with Israeli settlements and bases, linked only by a few designated special roads or even by tunnels and bridges. Maybe, I’ve imagined, the Nice and Nasty Israels are like that. Some future final settlement might repartition not only the Palestinian territories, but Israel, too. Then I would only have to deal with Nice Israel, and view the nasty one only fleetingly from a speeding car or bus.

Nasty Israel includes all the ultra-religious neighbourhoods, with their odour of sour piety and their multiple chauvinisms. It includes every district whose inhabitants vote for the Right. It contains, of course, the settlements in occupied territory – including those around Jerusalem. I have, on principle, never visited a West Bank or Gaza settlement, and never intend to. I have relatives by marriage who are settlers, and though I don’t think they’re bad people, I won’t visit them or have any avoidable contact with them. Nothing personal: they are, quite simply, living on stolen land.

In a way that’s perhaps inconsistent, for bits of the Golan Heights (annexed from Syria in 1967) are in my Nice Israel. My friend Uzi’s bar and nightclub in Meron Golan (where Israeli conscripts and UN peacekeeping squaddies from a dozen countries, their guns checked in at the door, compete (mostly) peacefully over the kibbutz’s young women), is clearly on the right side of my mental line. Indeed, I’ve harboured a daft dream that the long-frozen negotiations between Israel and Syria over returning the Golan to the latter might recognise Uzi’s bar – and maybe his apple orchards, and the nearby vineyards that produce the region’s best wines – as a specially protected, denationalised space.

Nice Israel also, obviously, contains all my friends and relations’ homes. It includes most of the remaining unspoilt countryside, and all the better beaches. Those places – albeit always depressingly few – with harmoniously mixed Jewish and Arab populations are there, as are the museums and galleries, and all my favourite shops, restaurants and felafel stands. Lots of the latter, as it happens, are Palestinian-run anyway.

Nice Israel is a relaxed, indeed hedonistic, small Mediterranean country with an unusually rich archaeological heritage and cultural life. Many of the best bits of old Vienna or Berlin and of New York, of Moscow and of Cairo, mingle there. But it has a better climate than any of those places. Its capital is quite definitely Tel Aviv – more specifically, maybe, Shenkin Street – not Jerusalem. Nobody in Nice Israel cares much if you’re black or white, gay or straight, and certainly not whether you’re Jewish or not. It is, by now, almost my second home. All the prejudices, and all the guns, have been left in that other, antithetical place, Nasty Israel.

Differences blurring

But now the landscapes on my personal map, the key symbolic spaces of Nice Israel, are disappearing, or threatened. Even Shenkin can’t feel quite the same since two of the street’s characters – owners of a bar I’d been fond of – were murdered. They’d gone to a Palestinian village to buy plant-pots. Obviously they had not thought it possible that people like them – hip, artistic, hedonistic, pro-peace and pro-Palestinian – could ever be seen as ‘the enemy’ there. A gang of Islamic militants proved them wrong.

Or take the recent Tel Aviv nightclub bomb, which killed nineteen young people, mostly Russian and Ukranian teenage girls. It is not only the horror of the event itself which struck at my heart, but its location, and what happened afterwards. Both the bomber, and the thugs who immediately cast around for revenge, smashed another bit of Nice Israel.

The bomb’s location was once a frontier zone, first between Jewish Tel Aviv and Arab Jaffa, then between Nice and Nasty Israels. This was a piece of land long scarred with conflict: it was fought over, and in 1948 part of it was for some while a no-man''s-land. There’s even a still-derelict tract running down to the sea, which was bulldozed by the British colonial rulers in 1936, in retaliation for Arab guerrilla attacks. When I first knew it, over ten years ago, the district in general was pretty run down, with a heavy presence of drug dealers and prostitutes – despite, or perhaps because of, the flashy tourist hotels to its immediate north, and the fake-picturesque redevelopment of Jaffa’s old harbour to the south. At the centre of the shabbiness was Tel Aviv’s strangest and most poignant ruin: the Hassan Bek mosque. It stood empty and half-wrecked – but it did stand, when almost every other trace of Palestinian and Islamic life in Tel Aviv had been wiped out. Latterly it has been renovated, with painful slowness, and restored to its religious functions after a fifty-year gap.

To see, at each successive visit four or six months apart, the revival of that fine old building had felt like an important symbol of a kind of restitution, and a kind of reconciliation between Arab and Jew. Just south of it, though, are sites that mean more to my irreligious (or greedy) self: the Abulafia bakery and Hindawi’s wine merchants, each the best place of their kind in many miles. Such places, Arab owned but with a mostly Jewish clientele, prospering amidst the wreckage of a bloody recent past, have also come to symbolise something important for me. And meanwhile, the surrounding district has gone slowly up in the world: a Dolphinarium, new restaurants and wine-bars, above all a rash of Israel’s coolest new nightclubs. This became another key site of Nice Israel: and with the mosque, the bakery, the wine merchants and so on, it was one that embraced rather than obliterated Palestine too.

Dreams of no return

So the events after the nightclub bomb seemed, again, symbolically quite awful to me – trivial though they possibly were compared to that horror itself, and sentimentalist though my reactions might be. A mob besieged the mosque, trapping worshippers inside, screaming ‘Death to the Arabs’, hurling rocks, trying to burn the building. They also attacked, firebombed and partly destroyed Abulafia’s bakery. The Israeli police – so it was, predictably, alleged – did little to stop all this. Meanwhile, equally predictably, as all the murdered Russian girls were being interred, there were cries for revenge, and (not for the first time) a squalid little argument about whether some of them, children of religiously mixed marriages, were ‘Jewish’ enough for a religious burial. The mother of one, as it happened, was a Muslim. But there were no reports of prayers for her at the beleaguered Hassan Bek, or any other mosque.

I’ll certainly go back to Israel, and I still hope that one day I’ll visit a genuinely sovereign State of Palestine too. I’m not at all sure, though, that I’ll ever see Nice Israel again – the country of my happier memories, my more utopian hopes.

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