Thursday, June 26, 2008

Occupation by Bureaucracy

Occupation by bureaucracy

[Originally published in the International Herald Tribune, 24 June 2008]

A cease-fire went into effect in Gaza last week, offering some respite from the violence that has killed hundreds of Palestinians and five Israelis in recent months. It will do nothing, however, to address the underlying cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Intermittent spectacular violence may draw the world's attention to the occupied Palestinian territories, but our obsession with violence actually distracts us from the real nature of Israel's occupation, which is its smothering bureaucratic control of everyday Palestinian life.

This is an occupation ultimately enforced by tanks and bombs, and through the omnipresent threat, if not application, of violence. But its primary instruments are application forms, residency permits, population registries and title deeds. On its own, no cease-fire will relieve the beleaguered Palestinians.

Gaza is virtually cut off from the outside world by Israeli power. Elsewhere, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the ongoing Israeli occupation comprehensively infuses all the normally banal activities of Palestinians' everyday lives: applying for permission to access one's own land; applying for what Israel regards as the privilege - rather than the right - of living with one's spouse and children; applying for permission to drive one's car; to dig a well; to visit relatives in the next town; to visit Jerusalem; to go to work; to school; to university; to hospital. There is hardly any dimension of everyday life in Palestine that is not minutely managed by Israeli military or bureaucratic personnel.

Partly, this occupation of everyday life enables the Israelis to maintain their vigilant control over the Palestinian population. But it also serves the purpose of slowly, gradually removing Palestinians from their land, forcing them to make way for Jewish settlers.

Just in 2006, for example, Israel stripped 1,363 Jerusalem Palestinians of the right to live in the city in which many of them were born. It did this not by dramatically forcing dozens of people at a time onto trucks and dumping them at the city limits, but rather by quietly stripping them, one by one, of their Jerusalem residency papers.

This in turn was enabled by a series of bureaucratic procedures. While Israel continues to violate international law by building exclusively Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, it rarely grants building permits to Palestinian residents of the same city. Since 1967, the third of Jerusalem's population that is Palestinian has been granted just 9 percent of the city's official housing permits. The result is a growing abundance of housing for Jews and a severe shortage of housing for non-Jews - i.e., Palestinians.

In fact, 90 percent of the Palestinian territory Israel claimed to have annexed to Jerusalem after 1967 is today off-limits to Palestinian development because the land is either already built on by exclusively Jewish settlements or being reserved for their future expansion.

Denied permits, many Palestinians in Jerusalem build without them, but at considerable risk: Israel routinely demolishes Palestinian homes built without a permit. This includes over 300 homes in East Jerusalem demolished between 2004 and 2007 and 18,000 Palestinian homes in the occupied territories demolished since 1967.

One alternative has been to move to the West Bank suburbs and commute to Jerusalem. The wall cutting off East Jerusalem from the West Bank and thereby separating tens of thousands of Jerusalem Palestinians from the city of their birth has made that much more difficult.

And it too has its risks: Palestinians who cannot prove to Israel's satisfaction that Jerusalem has continuously been their "center of life" have been stripped of their Jerusalem residency papers. Without those papers, they will be expelled from Jerusalem, and confined to one of the walled-in reservoirs - of which Gaza is merely the largest example - that Israel has allocated as holding pens for the non-Jewish population of the holy land.

The expulsion of half of Palestine's Muslim and Christian population in what Palestinians call the nakba (catastrophe) of 1948 was undertaken by Israel's founders in order to clear space in which to create a Jewish state.

The nakba did not end 60 years ago, however: It continues to this very day, albeit on a smaller scale. Yet even ones and twos eventually add up. Virtually every day, another Palestinian joins the ranks of the millions removed from their native land and denied the right of return.

Their long wait will end - and this conflict will come to a lasting resolution - only when the futile attempt to maintain an exclusively Jewish state in what had previously been a vibrantly multi-religious land is abandoned.

Separation will always require threats or actual violence; a genuine peace will come not with more separation, but with the right to return to a land in which all can live as equals. Only a single democratic, secular and multicultural state offers that hope to Israelis and Palestinians, to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Banned in the USA (Almost)

Banned in the U.S.A. (Almost)

[A shorter version of this piece was originally published 8 June 2008 in The Washington Post]

I didn't think America was a place where bookstores barred people for their viewpoints, until it happened to me last month, right here in Washington, D.C., the city of my birth.

I had been scheduled to appear at Politics & Prose, one of the city's best known bookstores, to talk about my latest book, Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation.

Then, at the last minute, the bookstore owners realized that my book questions the viability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (mostly because, after 40 years of intensive Israeli settlement, there's no land left for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, almost half of which is now taken up by Israeli infrastructure)—and that it concludes with an argument in favor of a single democratic, secular and multicultural state in which Israelis and Palestinians could live peacefully as citizens with equal rights.

My appearance at the bookstore was immediately cancelled.

"I do not believe that your book will further constructive debate in the United States," one of the owners wrote, seeking to justify the sudden cancellation. "A single state is not a solution."

Needless to say, I was dismayed to have had my invitation to speak on an urgent issue abruptly rescinded just because I express a different point of view from the one sanctioned not just by the White House and State Department but also, apparently, by a supposedly independent bookstore.

My own cancellation fits into a larger pattern, however.

The Irish poet Tom Paulin, of Oxford University, had been invited to speak at Harvard University a few years ago; apparently with the blessings of Harvard's president, his appearance was cancelled because of his views about Israel/Palestine.

Professor Joel Beinin of Stanford University had been invited to speak about Israel/Palestine at a school in the Silicon Valley early last year; his appearance was cancelled when the school came under outside pressure.

Professor Tony Judt of NYU had been invited to speak about Israel/Palestine at the Polish Consulate in New York the previous fall; his talk was cancelled after the consulate came under pressure from the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

Both Judt and Beinin are Jewish, incidentally; but both believe that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as Israelis. Apparently that point of view has no place in American discussions of the conflict.

Neither, it seems, does President Carter's assertion that—by creating two different road networks, maintaining two different legal systems, and granting rights to one population that it forcibly denies to another living in the same territory—Israel is practicing a kind of Apartheid.

Nor does the assertion, by Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, that a powerful but informal lobby stifles the free discussion of Israel and Palestine in the United States: Mearsheimer too has had at least one long-standing invitation to speak abruptly rescinded—ironically confirming his and Walt's argument for them.

The fact that senior scholars from the nation's major universities (and even elder statesmen) are prevented from speaking—or are drowned out by emotional invective—simply because they do not toe an official line suggests that the civic culture on which our country was founded has broken down, at least when it comes to the question of Palestine and Israel.

However, the fact that more and more people are encountering silence, intimidation or censorship when they question the conventional wisdom, or official policy, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is a sign that more and more people are starting to ask questions in the first place. So the attempt to deny alternative points of view a forum (or to angrily shout them down if they succeed in reaching a public) is a sign not of the strength but of the weakness of those who adhere to the official line. As the great English poet John Milton pointed out three centuries ago, only those who worry that their own position is faulty have something to fear from letting other points of view be heard.

Today that fear has reached new levels.

But can we as a nation really afford not to hear each other out as we evaluate our policies in the Middle East?

And should Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular not be allowed to speak? Or should they be allowed to speak only if their erstwhile audience gets to tell them what they should say? What then is the point of a conversation? What is the alternative to conversation? Does foreclosing conversation not simply empower those who say that it's a waste of time?

Anyway, what is so unspeakably wrong with saying that justice, secularism, tolerance and equality of citizens—rather than privileges granted on the basis of religion—should be among the founding values of a state?

And what does it mean that one can be barred from expressing such a sentiment at a liberal bookstore in the capital city of the United States of America?

[Postscript: After receiving letters of protest and eloquent entreaties by bloggers, Politics & Prose decided to reissue my invitation.]