The Crisis in the West Bank

Although it’s been decades since he left Palestine, building a life for himself and his loved ones in the Austin area, memories of olive trees and hills, of family and him sharing meals under an orange sun, flowed through Ahmad Zamer on most days. Having been able to visit the West Bank a few years ago, Zamer could still hear the people conversing in the town square, the men and women sharing jokes, asking him how’s been, even as he sits in his house thousands of miles away, skyscrapers along the impeding horizon.

But that sliver of normalcy and good feeling has been replaced, rather swiftly, with the screaming of people buried under rubble, of others waking up each day, finding yet another building reduced to piles of bricks and twisted metal.

“You always hold out optimistic hope that it doesn’t happen to you, although it’s happened to us before,” Zamer explained, “But it’s been a different scale of violence now. It’s shocking,” he added, his voice drifting.

During Israel’s recent onslaught over Gaza, Zamer lost a dozen members of his family from an Israeli airstrike. He’d lose 35 on another day, snatched from him in a matter of mere moments.

Since the beginning of October, the number of Palestinians who’ve been killed are now over 20,000, with many others still unaccounted for, lost under the wreckage of buildings and homes. The Israeli state has also targeted hospitals, refugee camps, and even UN-designated zones, killing innocent women, children and men in droves.

“It’s a slaughter,” said Hatem Natsheh, a close friend of Zamer’s, and also someone who’s managed to rebuild his life in the U.S. Natsheh has remained committed to the Palestinian cause for liberation and for the creation of a secular democratic nation with equal rights for all. However, the last few months have been dispiriting and traumatic. Natsheh, like many Arab Americans, had voted for Biden in the last presidential cycle, and now have become embittered and frustrated over that choice. As a progressive, Natsheh himself remains committed to progressive cause of economic and political equality, of fighting for labor and human rights. However, the fact that the Biden administration has been insistent on delivering more military aid to the far-right dominated Israeli state, disregarding the critical situation millions of Palestinians find themselves in, has been painful to reckon with.

“It’s not been easy, I’m telling you,” he admitted, also in regards to Bernie Sanders having refused, until recently, to even mention the word “ceasefire”. As a delegate for Sanders, this has felt like a betrayal.

“At the beginning of all of it, I wasn’t doing too well,” said Jade, whose grandparents became refugees in the original Nakba and is studying to be a human rights lawyer in the Midwest. The images of children in shock, and others having been injured or killed, have stuck to her, like grime. “Seeing all the images of dead children has been difficult since my brother also died at a young age, so I know what the death of a child can do to a family. I can hear my own mother screaming while carrying my brother’s body when he was little, and I can hear that when seeing these images of other peoples’ children,” she shared.

The trauma, however, cannot be reduced to the Israeli attacks on Gaza, although the attacks themselves merit focus given the intensity of harm. What is occurring in Gaza, especially with the Israeli ground invasion, has been rightfully identified as ethnic cleansing, as another Nakba. Plans have been considered for Palestinians in Gaza to be moved into the Sinai Peninsula or to simply be dispersed around the Middle East.

Still, the Israeli imposition on Palestinian life has been targeting Palestinians generally, including those who have managed to remain in the West Bank.

Both Natsheh and Zamer speak to family members in the West Bank, who relay to them stories of harassment and fear.

“My family has added an extra lock to their doors,” Zamer said about some of his family members’ coping responses to the intensification of Israeli settler violence that’s been ongoing. Some of this violence and taking over of Palestinian land in the West Bank had been taking place prior to the latest Israeli assault on Gaza even.

Despite Israel’s recent decision to pull back its troops from Gaza, and some of its attempts to suggest Palestinians never wanted a real political solution in the region, the situation in the West Bank must not be overlooked, or allowed to be treated as marginal. Instead, the situation in the West Bank, from Palestinains being attacked by Israeli settlers to more Palestinian land also being taken, reflects the broader issue, which has always been about settler colonialism and an appropriation of Palestinian land and power.

NAKBA 2.0

According to scholars like Rashid Khalidi, himself Palestinian, the Palestinian situation is one shaped by disposition of land and resources beginning in the formation of the Israeli state in 1948, whereby Palestinians were forced off their land, herded into refugee camps, or compelled to find some form of dignified living in other parts of the region. All in all, this disposition, similar to what had been experienced by indigenous peoples in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, and other parts of the globe, would mark the Palestinian people for decades to come, as a right of return to the land they once had would become a major part of their liberatory struggle and search for justice.

Khalidi writes in The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine,

For all Palestinians, no matter their different circumstances, the Nakba formed an enduring touchstone of identity, one that has lasted through several generations. It marked an abrupt collective disruption, a trauma that every Palestinian shared in one way or another, personally or through their parents or grandparents.

The crisis in Gaza is a very clear example of this continued disposition. Total the land and force people to flee, making it difficult for them to rebuild what little they might have had: that’s been the strategy of the Israeli state that has been targeting the dense region of the Gaza strip, as it imposes an embargo that leads to mass starvation and lack of basic resources. Once more, such strategies have echoes of previous colonial tactics, such as the British Empire’s decision to create policies that caused mass famine and economic instability across parts of South Asia at the turn of the 20th century and during WWII. This pattern would repeat across parts of Africa as well, not to mention the corraling of populations as a means of stealing more land, or as a means of punishing resistance, as was the case in Kenya after WWII, with concentration camps set up by the British colonial regime.

The West Bank has been part of this overall strategy too, even if it hasn’t faced the same level of death and starvation that we’ve seen for decades inside Gaza. Nevertheless, since the early 1990s, the seizure of land, and the surrounding of Palestinian life with Israeli state apparatus and Israeli extremists, has been its norm.

Legal scholar, Noura Erakat, stated in Justice for some: Law and the Question of Palestine,

As of late 2015, the Israeli settler population in the West Bank numbered more than 600,000, a 200 percent increase since the advent of the Oslo peace process in 1993. Israel’s settlement enterprise carves the West Bank into more than twenty noncontiguous landmasses separating approximately three million Palestinians into as many groups that stand apart from one another, thus undermining any sense of territorial contiguity or national cohesion.

Natsheh, who visited family in the West Bank in 2018, the first time in thirty years he’d been able to step on Palestinian land, remembered the joy of seeing his family, and of seeing the landscape brimming with greenery and life. Part of the experience of being back was fairly normal, as he made the rounds of meeting friends and family, of sharing experiences, of hugs, and kisses on the cheek.

And yet, even then, it was impossible not to pay attention to the Israeli settlements all around them, circling them.

“You can tell the settlers are armed,” he said, paying extra attention to his surroundings as he’d venture around, visiting and talking, getting to know the land once again. Israeli forces too were seen managing the movement of people, mainly Palestinians in the region, despite the West Bank being promoted as primarily controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and Fatah, a rival to Hamas.“If you’re Palestinian, you are being harassed by Israeli forces, by settlers, you have to go through checkpoint after checkpoint,” Natsheh described, “It’s tiring. It’s basically a form of hell.”

The beauty of the trees and the land can start to fade into a brutal routine of being targeted by the Israeli occupation forces and the monsters its occupation breeds. A sense of dread and disappointment can start to seep into you, said Natsheh.

Since early October, the pace of land being stolen, of Palestinians falling under Israeli state domination, has only intensified. As Israeli jets fire upon buildings in Gaza, Israeli occupation forces and settlers have increased their land seizures in the West Bank.

Bel Trew at the Independent writes, “Israeli human rights groups say this is the single biggest land grab since Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, and likely amounts to the war crime of forcible transfer.”

The situation for Palestinians in the West Bank has grown more tenuous, more dangerous over the recent months, with nothing set to change anytime soon. The strangulation of Palestinian life in the West Bank has been, at times, nearly unbearable, according to Natsheh and Zamer, both of whom remain in touch with family members, desperate for an end to the occupation and violence.

““There’s no freedom of movement,” Zamer said about his family’s situation in the occupied West Bank, “I talk to them every day. I worry that one day I will call them and no one will answer.” He paused. “That’s how I feel right now. It’s too much.”

VIOLENCE AS NORM

Ahmad Abusharkh, a nurse in Chicago, also has family in the West Bank. He explained how through the Palestinian authority, the Israeli government has managed to repress actions of Palestinians trying to exhibit solidarity with their kinfolk in Gaza. Although the Palestinian Authority aims to build towards Palestinian statehood, so far, it’s become a vessel for elements of Israeli control over the years by continuing its security cooperation with the IDF. Much like South Africa, the West Bank under the existing Fatah government has become what some would describe as a Bantustan, an area that’s designated for Arabs, and portrayed as somehow autonomous but is very much a sliver of land in which sovereignty has still been denied. In many ways, the West Bank has also become a place where Palestinians are corralled, rather than provided the resources and rights a group would need to be sovereign, or to live a just and dignified life.

“We have family members who are afraid to go out at night”, Abusharkh explained, “The settlers are terrorizing people and everybody knows that they will not be punished. Everybody knows that the settlers to a certain degree can do whatever they want. There’s a lot of fear in the West Bank about the way the repression and the genocide in Gaza will continue to spill over to them, will spill over to repression in the West Bank.”

In 2023 alone, 483 Palestinians in the West Bank were killed. In October, assault rifles had been distributed to Israeli settlers, eager to wield violence against Palestinians across the West Bank.

Yagil Levy, a professor of political sociology and public policy, writes about the situation inside the West Bank,

As Israeli military operations continue in the Gaza Strip, a parallel escalation of violence is unfolding in the West Bank. This includes intensified army attacks against Hamas targets and a reported increase in Palestinian fatalities. Alongside these developments, there has been a rise in violence by settlers, apparently aimed at pushing Palestinians from their homes and extending Israeli control in certain areas.

He adds,

The violence itself is not new, but two things are worth watching. As the attacks spread, there’s growing evidence that soldiers and settlers are working hand in hand. And there are signs that settlers are increasingly worried about a political shift after the war in Gaza—and trying to change the West Bank landscape while they can.

“They just go in and do whatever they want to do,” said Natsheh, speaking about the Israeli settlers feeling ever more emboldened. “They’re arresting people, blowing up houses, destroying infrastructure, bulldozing the streets. It has been miserable for the people living in the West Bank. Miserable.”

Zamer reiterated the fear that family members will also perish in the West Bank, or be driven out from their homes, left to fend for themselves.

“The pressure on them has been constant,” said Zamer, “They’ve had their olive trees taken by these right wing settlers. The settlers come out and act like hooligans, attacking people, taking property as they wish.”

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk stated in regards to the intensification of harassment and attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank, “The use of military tactics means and weapons in law enforcement contexts, the use of unnecessary or disproportionate force, and the enforcement of broad, arbitrary and discriminatory movement restrictions that affect Palestinians are extremely troubling.”

The routine, nearly everyday, for Zamer, Natsheh and many others in the Palestinian diaspora has been to put aside time and learn about what’s been going on with family and friends thousands of miles away. It’s both a process of replenishing, as they manage to maintain connections with those they care about deeply, but of course, it’s a reminder of the constant horrors and troubles that so many have endured, and in the case of the West Bank, are set to experience for the years ahead, regardless whether a ceasefire over Gaza is finally implemented, however porous.

The reality has been the West Bank, despite it being controlled by Hamas’ rival, Fatah, and despite it being seen as nominally “autonomous”, has been a target of the Israeli settler agenda for decades now. Settlers themselves have consistently been moving into the territory, with the backing of Israeli state forces, and have the very clear intention of taking over the land completely for a greater Israel.

“We want to close the option for a Palestinian state, and the world wants to leave the option open. It’s a very simple thing to understand,” said Daniella Weiss, a settler in the West Bank, in a recent interview about her interests and the interests of other settlers like her.

“Palestinians already could not go wherever they wanted to go, it takes hours just to go from one village to the next,” Natsheh described, pulling from his own experience when visiting. “That’s just gotten worse. And that won’t change either.”

Zamer related to how things would deteriorate in the years to come, expressing fear over what comes next for the people he loves and those he may not yet but are part of the general Palestinian population. Zamer spoke, again, about the land, how beautiful it can be to simply step outside one’s home and see the orange sun peeking between the hills. Or to stroll into the farmland, the grass below looking neon green, the trees growing new limbs shrouded also in bright green colors.

“We need a one state that’s democratic and secular,” he stressed, “We need it before it’s too late.”

LIBERATION TIME

The West Bank serves as a reminder that the Israeli war on Gaza is a general war on a possible Palestinian state, and future.

Even if a ceasefire were to finally be realized, the Israeli state, so long as it remains controlled by such extremists and settler interests, shall persist in finding ways to seize more land and to find ways for more Palestinians to either be compelled to flee, or to find themselves marginalized under an expansive Israeli state.

The cultural theorist and popularizer of the term “Orientalist”, Edward Said, had written about a one-state democratic secular state in 1999, explaining,

I see no other way than to begin now to speak about sharing the land that has thrust us together, sharing it in a truly democratic way, with equal rights for each citizen. There can be no reconciliation unless both peoples, two communities of suffering, resolve that their existence is a secular fact, and that it has to be dealt with as such.

This does not mean a diminishing of Jewish life as Jewish life or a surrendering of Palestinian Arab aspirations and political existence. On the contrary, it means self-determination for both peoples.

The only real solution then, for Palestinians too in the West Bank, is for the emergence and flourishing of such a state in that region. For years, such an idea has been relatively marginal in the U.S. and other parts of the “West”, itself a political construction mediated through myth-making and delusion. Still, the subject of Palestinian liberation, and the recognition of just how difficult life has also become for people in the West Bank, the sheer scale of Israeli settlements, has become more and more a part of the U.S. left’s discussion, as well as discussion among liberal and progressive groups. Over the years, we’ve seen the emergence of organizations such as Jewish Voices for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine.

In recent polling, an increasing share of Americans are skeptical about existing U.S. policy towards Israel. A large number of young people have expressed dissatisfaction with Biden and his abiding faith in the far-right Netanyahu administration.

“More people around the world are identifying with the Palestinian cause as a struggle against colonialism and for democracy,” Abusharkh said, as someone also deeply involved around socialist organizing and Palestinian liberation, “It’s definitely different than where the movement was several years ago even.”

The liberation for Palestine, as Natsheh describes, is a liberation struggle for all progressive forces throughout the world, from the cities and towns faced with deindustrialization and police harassment across the U.S. to the villages of Yemen struggling against Saudi oppression. The world as is, shaped by a contingent of U.S. capitalist and imperialist interests, along with their “allies” from inside Israel to the Egyptian junta, is a world rife with inequalities and extreme injustices, not to mention political instability.

“Israel would not maintain a system of domination without the U.S. maintaining a system of domination over the global south and working people,” Jade explained, “Our struggles are all interlinked. Our liberation is only guaranteed by uplifting each other.”

A world in which the West Bank and Gaza are free is a world in which the world has become far more open for more progressive and socialist horizons for the world’s majority, whether that is someone African American seeking financial stability in the American Northeast, or someone Asian American cleaning offices in Silicon Valley, or someone in the West Bank, finally free to grow as many olive trees as their heart desires.

Amilcar Cabral, one of the world’s most insightful anti-colonial thinkers, stressed the interlinking of national liberation struggles with the general struggle for a more humane planet. Cabral, who led the struggle for Guinea-Bissau against the Portuguese occupiers who received support from the U.S. and other Western governments, emphasized this with as many different audiences as he could, from people in Italy, to African American activists in New York City. Cabral himself believed in the Palestine cause for freedom, aligning with his own, and with the fight against apartheid in South Africa in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, prior to when he was assassinated by Portuguese agents.

In a speech on Guinea-Bissau society to an audience in Milan, Cabral would explain,

To end up with, I should just like to make one last point about solidarity between the international working-class movement and our national liberation movement. There are two alternatives: Either we admit that there really is a struggle against imperialism that interests everybody, or we deny it. If, as we would seem from all the evidence, imperialism exists and is trying simultaneously to dominate the working class in all advanced countries and smother the national liberation movements in all the underdeveloped countries, then there is only one enemy against whom we are fighting. If we are fighting together, then I think the main aspect of our solidarity is extremely simple. It is to fight—I don’t think there is any need to discuss this very much. We are struggling in Guinea with guns in our hands, you must struggle in your countries, as well—I don’t say with guns in your hands, I’m not going to tell you how to struggle, that’s your business; but you must find the best means and the best forms of fighting against our common enemy—this is the best form of solidarity.

Such a message of solidarity is one we must have with the people of Gaza and the West Bank, with the Yemenis, with people facing deportation procedures in Pakistan, with people experiencing police aggression across the U.S., with people finding it increasingly difficult to dream after a long day of low-wage work, regardless of skill.

The struggle in the West Bank will persist, for true autonomy and freedom, and so we must continue to find a way to remain connected with that struggle, knowing full well our rights and freedoms are intertwined, as black and brown people, as people seeking liberation, and our own version of a calm afternoon peering ahead and watching the sun descend along the horizon.

REALITY LOOMING

As the sunlight snuck past the blinds, peering into the living room, Natsheh was already on his phone, staring at the graphic images of children with their eyes wide open, of older children begging for their parents and grandparents to wake up, shaking them until others finally pulled them away. Every day, when it’s still pitch black outside, Natsheh can’t help but stir, images and doubts having piled up in his gut, his body feeling pulled apart. Every day, he makes it a point to watch the videos of what’s been taking place in the land he was born and raised in, fear and anger forming sweat on his brow.

“It’s a very…” he paused, searching for the words, as the reality of the crisis loomed over us. “It’s just very surreal. Sad, and surreal. You have to go to work. You have to do what you can to get by but with all this…happening.”

For Natsheh, he is still committed to progressive politics. He is still committed to the fight for racial and economic justice, here and abroad. But the crisis, the sheer scale of it, the Israeli bombing, the fact that even certain “progressives” such as Bernie Sanders have been so slow in calling for a “ceasefire”, has weighed on him, even as he’s trying to do “normal” things, such as go to work, or cooking dinner.

As much as there are signs of people caring, and more importantly, with increasing scrutiny and condemnation of Israel by the UN, the reality remains that thousands of lives have been lost, been taken. The reality remains, according to Natsheh, that the bombings have continued, the targeting of refugee camps, and churches. The reality is that when the bombings stop, the seizure of land shall persist, and there’s always the danger that people’s attention spans might fluctuate, losing sight of the dispossession that’s been happening in the West Bank. Based on the pattern we’ve seen over the last few decades, the land dispossession in the West Bank will only increase, with the backing of the Israeli government, as the Knesset is dominated by far right demagogues eager to take direct control of the region.

“This has been a new level of violence that won’t really end,” Natsheh emphasized.

For many too, there’s the fact that witnessing all this violence, seeing it on screens, the terrible loss and pain felt by people in Gaza and the West Bank, can also serve to demoralize.

Jade talked about a video of a young boy seen crying after another Israeli attack, that being her motivation, even though on some days, it’s just difficult to absorb everything that’s going on.

“I keep him in mind,” she said, “That kid has to get out of this, to go and have a normal life, to get ice cream, to have a crush on somebody. That kid is in the back of my mind, almost always.”

Zamer insisted on how critical it is to remember the survivors, and all those who need solidarity now. Giving into pure cynicism would mean, in effect, giving up on a world that’s better for them, and best for everyone impacted by similar issues of colonialism, exploitation and domination. The West Bank too will start to have more videos being shared of more people losing their lives, losing their land. It can be overwhelming and yet, there’s no other choice but to maintain a connection and sustain a level of activism and solidarity that could save those who will survive the Israeli state apparatus and its domination.

“There are people who are still living who need us,” Zamer exclaimed. “We cannot get too emotional right now. We must keep working to save those who are still living. We must remember that.”

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