Israel and the vertical politics of interruptions

The US President insists that he has come to listen. And in choosing to get around by helicopter and not on the roads, it seems he intended to avert his gaze. But the weather can be unexpected.

25 March 2013

Barack Obama has made his first visit to Israel and Palestine as President of the US. It just so happens that he is commemorating the 10 year anniversary of the war in Iraq by visiting a place that has been the site of a much longer one.

Regarding the purpose of his visit, the President made it clear beforehand that he comes without any agenda. Maybe he's decided that's the better course of action, given the new coalition government which Ami Kaufman describes as “Achdakglalim (אחדקגל”לים),” (NARSYCWhiGs in English) - “Nationalist, Ashkenazi, Religious, Secular, Young, Capitalist, White, Guys" - who in turn have made it clear that there is little chance for negotiation politics  as usual. The settlements are not going anywhere, the idea of a settlement freeze, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's precondition for negotiations, is off the table. 

The mayor of the Shomron Regional Council (the municipal body governing Israeli  settlements in the West Bank), Gershon Mesika, called the new coalition a "wet dream." This, after Tzipi Livni, the woman who was supposed to be the glimmer of hope for a two-state solution, signed on as head of Peace Negotiations, only to suggest at the Herzeliya Conference on March 12 that we shouldn't hold our breath. Change, quite clearly, will not be coming from top-down.

Again, President Obama stated plainly enough that he comes without a 'big plan' for Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, the US President insists, he has come to listen. And by choosing to get around in a helicopter and not on the roads, it seems he intended to avert his gaze.

The President wasn't going to drive through a military check-point, and the President wasn't supposed to have seen the Separation Wall up close, concrete piled 28 feet high outside of Bethlehem. Or, for that matter, the guard's towers that line the wall, and thoroughly convey the feeling of living in a panopticon.

But unexpected weather saw to that, and his visit to Bethlehem became less of a visit and more of a pilgrimage when he was forced to see the journey from the ground, rather than the sky. Perhaps it was a humbling experience for the President.

Who knows, maybe in the midst of all this, President Obama got a glimpse of protesters demanding that he use his unique position to push politicians into rethinking their distinction between living apart and living in common, by setting up tents in Bab Al Shams once more.

Or the activists wearing shirts and masks of Martin Luther King to remind the President that his own right to be a president, despite his particular skin colour, was the result of a struggle, too.

No, the president wasn't supposed to see any of that; he had just come to listen to politicians discuss the phenomenon of conflict. But sometimes, these disruptions can make a difference.

Stop believing in authority: start believing in each other

Next month will mark the ten-year anniversary of Anarchists Against the Wall. Anarchist activists in general, and this affinity group in particular, are the people to thank for having put up check-points in the middle of Tel Aviv to bring awareness to Palestinians' dwindling freedom of movement in the West Bank. A lot of folks from this group are those who took part in defending people against the expulsion of Palestinian families (to make room for settlers) in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheik Jarrah in 2009, eventually drawing thousands to join in, and bringing an awareness to the world of Israel’s policies of settlement expansion in the heart of East Jerusalem.

Anarchists Against the Wall joined the village of Bil'in in their weekly demonstrations, successfully rerouting the path of the Separation Wall in 2009. They were the first to set up Palestinian 'settlements' in Jerusalem's E-1 area as far back as 2007, the precursors to this past January's Bab Al-Shams, Bab Al-Karame and Al Asra. Quite clearly, there is real change coming from the bottom-up, disrupting the notion of politics-as-usual, like unexpected weather.

It was much of a surprise to the rest of us when President Obama ecouraged us young people to have what can only be described as chutzpah to take on the government's inaction in the now-famous speech he gave in Jerusalem. “Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.” Indeed.

We should take a moment to consider what it means to say we'd prefer not to look at something that is the inescapable reality of someone else's life - what a position of privilege we are speaking from. To literally fly over them, and to avert our gaze. President Obama seems to have understood someting about plans and interruptions on his trip to Israel and Palestine, and had the courage to share it with us younger folks and university students. Now, I think it's our time to make a strong wind blow.

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