After spending two and a half weeks traveling through Israel and the West Bank this December and following media coverage of Israel/Palestine, I am, in varying degrees, confounded, depressed, and inspired by the perplexing intricacies of its daily life and complexity of its politics.
The Gordian Knot that is Israel/Palestine is being pulled ever tighter by an ongoing series of military, political, and economic crises beginning with Operation Protective Edge this past summer. This fifty-one-day attack on the Gaza Strip was followed by increased clashes between Palestinians and Israelis, including several attacks on Israelis at tram stops along Jerusalem’s light rail and at a synagogue. Conflict between the Israeli Defense Forces and Palestinians further escalated after the compound in late-October.
Meanwhile, deep internal divisions have wracked Israeli politics. After facing opposition from cabinet ministers over a proposed “Jewish State” bill that would define Israel as a Jewish nation-state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dissolved parliament. Israelis will return to the polls in March 2015, just over a year after the most recent elections. Scandals and mud slinging abound in the lead-up to elections. The most recent debacle involves the arrest of some twenty-five Israeli officials (including members of Yisrael Beitenu, the party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman) on charges of the corrupt use of public funds.
Following Protective Edge, the economic and material situation in Gaza has deteriorated severely. Exacerbated by siege and intense flooding, the massive damage caused to Gaza’s infrastructure this summer has made life even more difficult for those trapped within its borders. To make matters worse, approximately 42,000 government employees, including teachers and health care providers, have not received their salaries for months despite expectations that the newly formed Fatah-Hamas unity government would be able to bring some financial stability to the Strip. Unsurprisingly, this autumn has seen a significant increase in the number of Gazans attempting to cross into Israel.
In the face of so many insuperable obstacles, however, the vast majority of Palestinians and Israelis carry on with their lives in an almost unsettling way. The nonchalance with which people drive to work, chat in cafes, and shop for clothes and groceries can seem bizarre given the macrocosmic conflict that is ever-present in political rhetoric about and media coverage of Israel/Palestine.
My experience during a visit to the al-Aqsa compound in late-December encapsulates the sometimes jarring juxtaposition of occupation and humanity. Entering the compound required a half-hour wait inside a narrow corridor, a passport check by an IDF soldier, and passing through a metal detector. Before entering the compound itself, I walked passed a long row of IDF riot shields and several armed soldiers.
Inside of the complex, and in sharp contrast to the militarized exterior, Palestinians sat in dappled sunlight reading and discussing the Qur’an. Near the al-Aqsa mosque, several young boys had dug a large stone into a patch of sand and were using two men’s prayer mats to transport sand to create a launch point from which they did front flips.
This anecdote captures the persistence of quotidian life – people worshipping, children playing – despite circumstances that could potentially prevent any type of routine or normal existence for Palestinians and Israelis. This past year has been a particularly devastating one, and prospects for positive change among Israeli and Palestinian political leadership seem bleak. One can only hope that individuals and civil society organizations persevere in their resilience.