Life In Palestine

Lisa Taraki teaches sociology at Birzeit University, in the West Bank in Palestine, and also conducts research at the Women’s’ Studies Institute there. Tracing its history back to the 1920s, the university has been a focal point of questioning and education in the region. Through the years, 15 of the University students have been shot and killed in the wake of demonstrations that called for an end to occupation. When the area was under direct Israeli occupation, scores of students and faculty were often detained for lengthy periods without trial and some were deported. Between 1979 and 1992, the University was closed 60% of the time. The last closure lasted for 51 months, from January 8, 1988 until April 29,1992. During this prolonged period of closure, the University continued to operate underground with small study groups in makeshift arrangements outside the campus. Under such conditions, many students needed as long as 10 years to complete their four-year degree courses. In 1980, the Israeli occupation authorities issued military order number 854 which granted them full military control over such university matters as hiring of faculty, admission of students and the curriculum. The order affected Birzeit as well as all other higher educational institutions in the occupied territories. However, it was rescinded shortly afterwards due to the local and international protest it generated.


While the University has not been closed in over seven years, it still faces great obstacles because students are often arrested and detained sometimes for being members of the student council. Student from Gaza are often barred to travel to the West Bank to enroll at Birzeit. Moreover, the University is facing prolonged financial crisis due to the stalled peace process and the resulting poor economic situation.


Lisa Taraki was in Lahore for a workshop and was continuing on to Afghanistan where she was born and raised until the demise of her father who was an Afghan. The interview with Lisa was an attempt to understand the impact of the ongoing Israeli incursions and occupations on the daily lives of the people in Palestine. The following are some excerpts: 


You are not a Palestinian by origin and yet you have chosen to live in Palestine.


Yes, and have been living there since 1976. It is not an easy place to live but also it is a very difficult place to leave. Once you make the social and emotional investments necessary to live there it becomes very hard to leave.


What is everyday life like in the West Bank?


The space that we can move in is becoming more and more constricted. Before 2000 there was some mobility even though that was limited. However, since the first Gulf War Palestinians have been punished by increasing ghettoization. After the Intifadah broke out in 2000 the space available to Palestinians has been severely constricted. Many of the students at the university where I teach have to stay overnight to or for a week on end without going back because of the time wasted at check points etc. So they have to stay away from their parents and families. And the destruction that the Israeli army wreaked on Palestinians starting 2002 has not ended because they may not be physically present there all the time but they can come in any moment.


All the geographical zones created under Oslo, where “security” in zone A was under Palestinian Authority (PA), zone B was under joint PA and Israeli supervision and zone C where it was Israeli supervision, have collapsed. Now Israeli forces can come in any random, sudden invasion [into any of the zones] that could last for two hours or two days. One consequence of that is that life is impossible to plan. People cannot meaningfully chart the week. Life is constantly disrupted by planning and replanning.


A lot of middle class and even lower middle classes families have invested in mobile phones just because it is the only way to keep some tab on the safety of their children, to manage crisis. All this also destroys social relationships because people cannot visit family members in other towns or even in other parts of the same cities some time. So other than the constant state of emergency there are more serious challenges to the viability of Pelaestinian enterprises for instance, schools, universities and businesses.


At the university I can also see that the students are tired out from the commutting and the pressures of living in such a condition that they cannot concentrate on their work. Students from Hebron could cover the distance under normal circumstances in one hour or an hour and a half. But now it takes them five hours. It totally destroys the rhythm of their life.


Our university used to be an important center of political and cultural activity. Because of the uncertainity on the roads we cannot invite people to talk at our university any more nor is it possible for students to access such lectures. For several months last year and the year before, it was not possible to reach the university except by foot after a certain point. Under such conditions we have had to move various activities to other sites in Ramallah, which is relatively more accessible.


It also affects my personal life of course. Luckily I live close to the university, but colleagues who come from Jerusalem for instance find it really hard.


Are certain parts of the same city affected more than others? Which areas are more heavily targeted for Israeli incursions?


The most devastated are the camps. For instance Rafah camp has been almost destroyed by the Israelis. Villages are generally spared except those which are close to Israeli settlements or other strategic installations. But to get to these villages is not easy. Life inside a village may be possible but moving from one to the other is a problem. If somebody depends on work outside the village then they face a lot of problems. And of course many people do need to commute outside their villages for work or for business and then face all the uncertainties of checkpoints and arrests.

Cities are different from villages and receive a lot more Israeli invasion partly because often the camps are in or near the cities. Nablus has been under siege by the Israeli army for months. In Hebron there is a constant Israeli presence. Ramallah was very severely attacked and bombed because of the PA presence but recently it seems there has been some agreement with the Americans and thus the Israelis are going light on Ramallah these days.


Certain areas are hit more often. Practically all of Arafat’s headquarter was leveled to the ground. Most of the areas hit frequently are working class although this is not necessary. The camps are most often the targets of Israeli incursions and attacks and they are definitely predominantly working class.


The most critical aspect of these Israeli strikes is that they can come at any point at any place. It does not necessarily have to do with where resistance came from, but usually there is some connection between where there is more active resistance e.g. from the camps and where the Israeli army strikes most often. Gaza has the most active resistance from camps but in the West Bank there is not as much except of course Jenin. You must have heard what happened in Jenin. In Ramallah most of the resistance is unarmed because of the PA presence. Therefore, it mostly takes the form of children, young people throwing stones, Molotov cocktails and burning tyres.


It is incredible though……somehow as soon as the first Israeli army jeep shows, children come out from god knows where and start throwing stones. Of course the Israelis shoot back and if you are caught in the middle of that it can be truly horrible. And of course this is a completely disproportionate fight.


This resistance is truly amazing. For those outside of this situation though it is hard to understand exactly how it functions. Is it organized? Is it a sign of complete desperation?


I would say, not necessarily desperation but enthusiasm and passion. Desperation does not apply to stone throwing and marches. People are not resigned when they resist. And there has to be obviously some organization as well. The main groups organizing are Fatah, affiliated with PLO and Arafat, and Hamas and. Islamic Jihad.  Some other groups had a vibrant popular base until 1990s but their influence has decreased now. These were primarily the left groups. After the Oslo accord it became really difficult for the left groups to compete with Hamas and Fatah in attracting the street. In the 8 years after Oslo all kinds of popular organizing deteriorated. After Intifadah started Fatah/Hamas found it easier to mobilize because they were operating on nationalist and Islamist ideologies and no real ideological shift was required of the population.


Another factor certainly was co-option of the left through two mechanisms. On the one hand they were inducted into the bureaucracy by PA and on the other they were ”absorbed” by the growing NGO phenomenon. But a culture of cynicism and resignation has flourished, fed by real and perceived corruption, mismanagement, and ineffectiveness.


The support for Hamas is strong by class and by region. Hamas does not have strong support in the middle class but the middle class is not large. PA itself does not learn the lesson that America is having to learn in Iraq or Israel should learn from Palestine…..that repression does not help.


Resistance in Palestine is increasingly also associated with what is called ‘suicide operations’. What explains the prevalence of this form of resistance?


There is a lot of obfuscation, and mystification of this issue. I would hate to give a stereotypical answer. Resistance requires resolve and enthusiasm it cannot be an act of desperation. We need to get into the head of the people spreading the discourse of  martyrdom. However, we can see that it is not happening in a random way. To buy explosives here and there and to be able to detonate them etc. needs some organized processes and training. Some people have started to collect biographical information about the men and women who conduct such martyrdom operations. A lot of these people had relatives killed assassinated—there is a great deal of personal motive involved and perhaps that is the ultimate sacrifice.


The ambience in which Hamas and Al-Aqsa recruit is also important. The martyrdom operations are not generally carried out by middle class persons. Refugee camps are most often the recruiting grounds for these operations. Recent Israeli policy has been to immediately destroy the family home. And inspite of this the martyrs continue…..this goes beyond the generally stated reason: desperation. We need to understand the context and other motives of these young people. Personal biographies are thus important to understand how Hamas discourse is internalized.


But it must be understood that by and large people in Palestine are empathetic to the actions of the martyrs. There are of course some who think that politically this is not the best tactic to pursue; but even they are empathetic to the martyrs. A very small segment of intelligentsia is saying that Hamas is using wrong tactics. For instance Hanan Ashrawi and some 70 intellectuals recently took out an ad in a newspaper appealing to Hamas to not get involving in the killings. However, even those who may not condone the tactics, at least understand who the real oppressor is. Also in this charged atmosphere nobody wants to be labeled.



The Israeli society must also be going through significant changes. What is your sense of the changes in Israel?


The general consensus is that the left is moving to the right. The Zionist left is finding itself in a very difficult position. For them to face the consequences of the racist policy is a critical situation. Oslo floundered at the final stages. There was no common ground at that stage. In retrospect the Oslo accord was a great mistake for Palestinians.


The Israeli left have made a huge deal of martyrs as if that has driven the Israeli left to the right. We have to remember that the Intifadah started one and a half years before the martyrdom operations. Where was the Israeli left then? Why did they not support the Intifidah when the martyrdom operations had not started?


At the same time that the traditional left is moving right we see the radicalization of some elements of the Israeli society including the refuseniks in the army. Many there are refusing to serve in the occupied territories or in the army at great cost to themselves and their families. At this time right wing is dominant in Israel and the left may need to wake up after 10 years to make a historic compromise.


Palestinians and Israelis have in the past worked together and even now the phenomenon does exist. However, as the Israeli left moved rightward the activity diminished. There is some renewed activity due to the wall that Israel has constructed. International groups like International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and the Grass Roots International Protection have also facilitated some contact between Israelis and Palestinians for Palestinians (GIPP). The have also helped focus international attention on the illegal wall that Israel is constructing across Palestinian land. In addition, a group of Israeli women monitor some checkpoints to be at least a kind of witness to the harassment that goes on there. In co-ordination with ISM or independently some Israelis have helped Palestinian farmers with their olive harvest. Timing is critical for olive harvesting and if you are not able to get enough manpower for the harvest you may lose your harvest.


Co-operation between the Israelis and Palestinians is a very delicate issue and we really have to ask what kind of co-operation is possible. Palestinians have been urging the international academic community to join the academic and scientific boycott started in UK. It is on the same lines as the boycott of the apartheid regime in South Africa. This puts and end to any kind of “normal” academic and scientific relations between the Israelis and Palestinians, as long as the occupation continues and as long as Palestinians are denied academic freedom. Many argue that normal relations are not possible because of the state of control by the Israelis, so it is no use pretending. Also this puts the Israeli academics on the spot to say what are you doing about this situation? So it is possible to work together in anti-occupation activities but not on others.


The general perception is that the settlements are the most Zionist and anti-Palestinian presence in Israel. Is that correct?


Certainly the Zionist movement is a right wing movement. But the settlers are not even the majority or even half of the population of Israel. It is within the main Israel that problems exist. As you know there are two main streams of Jews, the Ashkenazi Jews (the European Jews) and the Sephardi Jews (Middle Eastern/Spanish). Paradoxically the Sephardis were more racist initially because they were Arabs fighting against Arabs (Palestinians). But the Ashkenazi population has been buttressed by recent wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union.  It is claimed that up to 30% of these are not even Jews and have moved to Israel to claim that benefits of being an Israeli citizen. Anyway, this new wave of Ashkenazi Jews tends to be very racist and Zionist.


The fear within Israel of course is that the birth rate of the Jews, even Sephardi Jews, is lower compared to the Palestinians. The new Russian and Eastern European Jews serve the purpose of creating some kind of population balance against the Palestinians and also provide an important source of labour supply. Their presence has increased and now they have their own newspapers in Russian. The politicians that they produced are generally very right wing.


Israel is like other places not homogenous and of course the different shades of Judaism also clash.


Representations of Palestinians in mainstream media tend to be very homogenizing, as if the Palestinian identity is one large monolith. What are the key divisions within the Palestinian identity?


The objective reality is that different classes experience life differently. The life experience of somebody in a refugee camp is very different from somebody who leads a middle class life, teaches in a university and sends her children to private school like I do.

The national issue has kept the class issue in the background either through force or through urgency. But this cannot be completely successful. We are all occupied [by Israel] but in different ways. If a Palestinian was employed as a wage labourer working in Israel then in the current situation he is unemployed and now it is all finished for him. 


Not that the communist party in Palestine did not devote itself entirely to the national issue. To begin with we had a very weak left and because Palestine did not industrialize the Palestinian labour force was scattered. As a result it was hard to organize or to develop the proletarian consciousness.


The period after Oslo ushered in a different era. It was almost a ‘normal’ state; we had our own police force etc. During this period a new awareness of rank and hierarchy began to appear. For years we were under occupation and in a situation where no body really had clerks, chauffeurs and cars etc. Even the rich had been careful to not flaunt their wealth. Now the demonstration effect is clearly visible.


Class antagonism is expressed in different ways in every day life. How does this difference manifest itself? Recently for instance there was a murder at a checkpoint. A Palestinian who owns a shop in Ramallah killed another Palestinian from a refugee camp. This led to an orgy of youth destroying middle class symbols. There was a clear sense of refugee camp against upper middle class bourgeoisie. Of course there are also religious divisions and the youth from the refugee camp were almost going to burn a church because the murderer was a Christian. It only stopped with the intervention of a Fatah official.


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