Diary

Yonatan Mendel

It happens twice a year. The beach between Tel Aviv and Jaffa fills with Palestinians from the West Bank. For many children this is the only time they get to visit the seaside, even though their homes in the Occupied Territories may be no more than twenty or thirty kilometres away. There are draconian restrictions on the movement of Palestinians living in the West Bank (the residents of Gaza live in an open-air prison of their own). Yet every year, during Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan, and during Eid al-Adha, two months later, the Israeli authorities momentarily become ‘humane’, allowing Palestinians from the West Bank – but only those with security clearance, meaning no record of even the mildest political activity – a one-day ticket to Israel. This is not the usual work permit that states place of work and name of employer, but a card that enables travel to anywhere in Israel, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Jaffa, the centre of Palestinian cultural life before 1948, is most people’s first choice. It was once the largest, most cosmopolitan of all Palestinian cities, with more than eighty thousand inhabitants, a vibrant port and prospering orange groves, with at least six movie theatres – the Orient, the Apollo, the Nabil, the Farouq, the Rashid and the Alhambra. Following the Nakba it lost 95 per cent of its population, and now, after seventy years of Israeli ‘modernisation’, it is a suburb of Tel Aviv – there isn’t a movie theatre left. But with its striking minarets and the view of the rocks by the old port, it still enchants the Palestinian imagination. The famous al-Manshiyah beach remains hugely popular, even though what was once a Palestinian neighbourhood now sports a trendy Israeli seafood restaurant, as well as the Irgun museum, dedicated to the neighbourhood’s destroyers.

How does Jaffa look on a Palestinian day out? The promenade remains totally Israeli. Young and old, many of them super-fit, power along on feather-light bikes, hoverboards or electric scooters, or jog with iPhones strapped to their arms. Ordinary pedestrians are on maximum alert. Then there’s the stretch of grass below the promenade, above the beach, filled almost entirely with Palestinians. They sit in family groups, the boys chasing round playing football. There is at least one shisha on the go, surrounded by a huddle of men, and each family has a small barbecue. The women are covered, and many men wear the old-fashioned short-sleeved white shirt known as a ‘granddad’ in Hebrew. Below the grass is the sand. The dry, hot section at the top of the beach is occupied by Tel Aviv hipsters and foreign tourists. The books they read are in English, sometimes French, possibly Japanese. The air is filled with a mixture of Dutch, Swedish, English and French, punctuated by loud bursts of Hebrew. For Israelis and non-Israelis alike, the objective is to get a tan. Everyone takes pictures on their phones: the tourists takes snaps of the sea and the Israelis take selfies with the water behind them.

Closer to the sea, on the wet sand, the crowd is Palestinian again. Fathers act as volunteer lifeguards, shouting at their children not to go in too deep. The air reverberates with Arabic. Young men take photos of marks in the sand, usually a heart pierced by an arrow – a boy’s name on one side, a girl’s on the other. The waves soon wash these graffiti away, but the photo has already been sent home – perhaps to a fiancée behind the Separation Wall. Older Palestinian women in long black dresses go paddling.

Out in the water is really the only place where Israelis and Palestinians meet. They look at one another, awkward, slightly embarrassed. ‘Where are you from?’ I dare to ask a man swimming near me, trying to keep my Arabic from sounding officious and threatening. ‘From Ni’lin,’ he says – a Palestinian village that has suffered tremendously from the Separation Wall, with many residents cut off from their farmland. ‘I was in Ni’lin once on a solidarity demonstration,’ I tell him. He doesn’t react for a moment but then says: ‘We just want to live our lives.’

On a day by the sea like this it hits you how differently the two sides respond to the conflict. One side experiences it on a daily basis, suffers its consequences, and wants it to end; the other goes about its business – and leisure – at its own pace, in no real hurry for change. One society lives in the thick of it, the other beyond it. For Jewish Israelis the conflict has become so ‘manageable’ that many can imagine it as a thing of the past, bursting out occasionally only because of the bothersome character of Palestinians. Everything conspires to convince them of this, including the tourists on the beach. In 2000, 2.67 million tourists visited Israel – a local record. In 2001, following the Al-Aqsa intifada, the number halved. But tourism is on the rise again, with Israel’s ‘thousands of years’ worth of recommendations’, as one tourist industry campaign puts it. Records keep being broken: 3.5 million visitors in 2015, 4.1 million three years later. The tourists on the beach in Jaffa are not pilgrims to the Holy Land; they’re not on Zionist jollies or visiting their aunts in Ramat Ha-Sharon. This is tourism responding to Israel’s self-marketing as a ‘true crossroads of the world’. The government has been at pains to sell itself as a normal, fun country: it can host the Eurovision song contest! Or a stage of the Giro d’Italia! It can put on a fantastic Pride Parade, and lure Jennifer Lopez and Jon Bon Jovi to perform in its parks. At the same time it has worked assiduously to represent any criticism of the state as antisemitic or as coded support for terror. The strategy seems to be working.

It doesn’t stop with tourism. In July 2017, Israel celebrated its lowest unemployment rate for decades, at 4.1 per cent. In May this year the figure fell to 3.6 per cent. Between 2008 and 2018, its economy grew by 35 per cent, almost twice the OECD average. On other measures – wage inequality, poverty rate – Israel is doing very badly. But that has no bearing on people’s thinking about the conflict. In parts of the country, denial has never been stronger. Over the last decade, with Netanyahu’s victories in 2009, 2013, 2015 and again this year, many Jewish Israelis have ceased to think that solving the conflict is a priority. Segments of this group believe that it is time to annex the whole of the West Bank and build the third Temple. Others, more moderate, argue that time is on Israel’s side: cultivating a ‘post-conflict’ attitude makes sense because at some point in the future Israel will simply impose an agreement on its own terms.

Israel now dominates the entire territory of what was once called Historic Palestine or Eretz Yisrael, nowadays Israel/Palestine or Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories. You can’t enter any part of this territory without Israeli permission. Israeli military operations take place anywhere in it, including the areas under ‘full control’ of the Palestinians. It is inconceivable that the Palestinian police (there is, obviously, no Palestinian army) could make a series of arrests in Israel and remove suspects to the West Bank ‘for further questioning’. Yet this happens every day in the opposite direction because Israel is the only sovereign power in Israel/Palestine: it controls Israeli and Palestinian land, airspace and territorial waters. This state of affairs has enabled Jewish Israelis to glide on a thermal, convinced that the conflict isn’t as bad as it used to be – in the 12th year of the siege of Gaza, the 52nd year of the occupation and 71 years after the Nakba.

Thanks to Netanyahu’s insistence that they face an ‘existential threat’, centrist and right-wing voters believe that there is only one solution to the conflict’s core issues: Israel must remain on top. Palestinian refugees? UNRWA must be dismantled, Arab and European countries will naturalise the refugees, compensation will be funded by the international community, led by Saudi Arabia, and no refugees will return to Israel. Jerusalem? Both parts, West and East, including the Old City, will constitute the capital of Israel, and Israel only. Palestinians can have the area outside the Separation Wall at the eastern city limits and call it whatever they want. Settlements? Area C in the West Bank, which makes up about 61 per cent of the territory occupied in 1967, must become part of Israel. Palestinians will have to agree to this, and in return they can get scraps of land, preferably desert – some of it donated by Egypt. The handful of settlements that remain outside Area C will not be dismantled; Israel will continue to secure them as ‘disputed territories’. A Palestinian state? Why not? It won’t be a sovereign nation-state like Israel and its neighbours. It will be impossible for family, friends or tourists to bypass Israeli border protocols and enter Palestine directly. Palestinians will not be responsible for their own security matters and will remain without an army. Their ‘state’ will have no genuine territorial contiguity, and its citizens will live in broken-up areas of land across six or seven cities. They will not be allowed to use the term ‘bantustan’. Still, they can have their own flag, and make their own decision about whether to have their capital in Ramallah or Abu Dis; the international community will be encouraged to support their economy and ‘quality of life’. If they want a maritime port, they can negotiate with Egypt. If they insist on an airport, they can talk to Jordan.Everything has been worked out. We won’t even know they are really there. We hardly know it now.

Last month, a month like any other, this habit of not noticing helped a majority of Israelis to ignore the fact that the police and army had razed a group of buildings, containing seventy Palestinian flats, in Wadi al-Hummus, part of the Sur Baher neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, on the grounds that they had been built too close to the Separation Wall. Few people paid attention to the news that an Israeli sniper had shot a ten-year-old boy, Abd al-Rahman al-Shtiwi, in the head during the weekly demonstration in Kafr Qadum on the West Bank; or that Israel had been condemned by Reporters without Borders after five journalists were wounded covering demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza; or that the Israeli government had undertaken to deport Omar Shakir, the Israel-Palestine director at Human Rights Watch; or that Ateret Cohanim, an Israeli-Jewish group dedicated to the Judaisation of the Old City, had gone to the Supreme Court in an attempt to expropriate the Imperial Hotel in the Christian quarter from its owner, Waleed al-Dajani, and evict its residents.

Not everyone ignores this reality. Alongside 1.9 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, there is still a part of civil society that wants a just solution to the conflict and imagines Israelis and Palestinians – from all over the country – on the same beach, more than once or twice a year. But Trump, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, his Israel adviser, Jason Greenblatt, and David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel (or Israel’s ambassador to the US – I find I’m confused), have given Israelis a free pass to go on imagining the post-conflict future in terms of the present overwhelming power imbalance between Israel and Palestine. This was seen in the US argument for winding up UNRWA, the decision to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to a ‘united Jerusalem’, the closure of the PLO office in Washington, and the ‘deal of the century’ – whose details are yet to be published, though there’s good reason to believe it will favour the stronger over the weaker side.

Kushner’s ‘peace to prosperity’ workshop in Bahrain in June is part of the unfolding ‘deal’. All that is known about it will seek to address the Palestinian economy, somewhere down the line, while ignoring the causes of the conflict and the horrors inflicted on Palestinians now. You could be forgiven for thinking that this has everything to do with the fact that Trump is a businessman. But as far as we know, Israel has had a significant say in the so-called ‘deal’ and pressed for a focus on the Palestinian economy in the hope that improvements in ‘quality of life’ under the occupation today will allow it to dictate the terms of a political settlement tomorrow. On 17 September, Israeli voters go to the polls again, five months after the last elections. As far as the conflict is concerned, the aim – yet again – will be to ‘manage’ it, to remove it from public debate. Thanks to a little help from Israel’s friends – the US, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia – there will be no hope of addressing the real issues that lie behind it. This much seems sure to go according to plan.