Isolation and its discontents.

When I first moved to Israel, even before I fully understood the implications of the occupation, I could see that, for the most part, Jews and Arabs didn’t much know each other (and if I recall, that was what Israeli Jews called the Palestinians at the time, just: Arabs). The former ran the place, and the latter cleaned the streets, bused the tables, and ran the tchotchke shops in tourist-y areas.

I lived there for 14 years, during which time there was an intifada, a round-up and mass deportation of more than 400 Palestinians (we were calling them Palestinians by then) suspected of ties with militant Islamic groups, several waves of suicide bombing, a war with Iraq, and various “disturbances” such as the opening of the tunnel under the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. With each, the inter-cultural shoulder-rubbing grew less and less — and more and more violent in nature when it did happen.

One tool for keeping Palestinians away was the “closure,” or sealing of the borders between Israel and the Palestinian territories, allowing no Palestinians out for X number of days. I remember the first time a closure was imposed, in the course of the first intifada, and I remember it as oddly frightening. We were used to the guys at the grocery store, the ones working in neighborhood gardens, and their sudden, unprecedented disappearance felt very surrealistic. I remember talking with my roommate about “Well, God, what next? What happens now?”

As is the way of things, though, the unprecedented fairly quickly became the mundane, and now you would actually be hardpressed to find a Palestinian anywhere in Tel Aviv. Palestinian-Israelis picked up some of the menial labor, but most of it appears now to be done by foreign nationals, flown in to work, and flown back out as soon as possible (not that that’s created any ethical or social issues, or anything). In the eleven years since I left the place the level of contact between the two peoples has, if anything, withered even further.

If you happen to be the kind of Israeli who actually wants to lay eyes on Palestinians, though, it’s still hard: All of Gaza is sealed off, Israelis are frequently legally prohibited (by their own government) from entering certain areas in the West Bank, and even the roads on the West Bank are segregated — Israelis can mostly drive wherever they want, but Palestinians have to keep to certain (generally substandard) roads. And if you happen to be the kind of Israeli interested in active reconciliation, even with all of your good will, it’s still hard, because Gazans can’t get out any more than you can get in, and residents of the West Bank hoping to leave one section of the West Bank for another need to procure permits — permits that can be difficult to get and are easily revoked. Not to mention the massive wall now snaking its way down between Israel and the West Bank, a behemoth that cuts Palestinians off from each other, not to mention Israelis.

All these long years, this quarter of a century in which my life has been bound up with Israel, I have known this to be folly. I have known that you cannot stop fearing people if you never actually see them, and that when they die at your hands but you don’t know what they look like? It’s a lot harder to care.

The accumulating decisions to get rid of as many Arabs as possible were pointed, but I don’t know that there was a grand plan to achieve Israeli apathy. I am wary of conspiracy theories, mainly because they tend to be too neat and to presume too much intelligence on the part of the conspirators. But whether or not someone actually sat down 20 or 30 or 40 years ago and said “let’s slowly exploit each tragedy in this ongoing war in such a way as to drive the peoples fighting ever farther apart so that we can continue to oppress the other guy without our people throwing a fit about it” — doesn’t matter. That has been the devastating effect.

And Aluf Benn at HaAretz recently ran an important article suggesting convincingly that in at least one Israeli leader’s mind, there was in fact a great deal of forethought. In “Sharon’s real legacy,” he writes:

The policy of isolation is the real legacy of Ariel Sharon, who built the fence in the West Bank, left the Gaza Strip and pushed the Palestinians out of the Israeli labor force. Sharon did not believe in peace and was not interested in links with the “Arabs.” All he wanted was to protect the Jews from attacks by their “bloodthirsty” neighbors. Keeping them out of sight lets Israelis live as if there were no conflict, with only settlers on the periphery and soldiers on the firing line.

On my visits to Israel/Palestine in recent years, I have watched people of enormous good will on both sides of the divide waste hour after hour on paperwork and phone calls and rearranged plans, just to try to get physically into the same room. I’ve seen the roads that the Palestinians have to drive on, I’ve sailed past (with my Israeli plates) the endless lines of Palestinians trying to get through Israeli road blocks. I’ve stood next to the wall and goggled at the arrogance that put it there.

There are folks who are trying their very, very best to bridge the bloody divide between their peoples, and I literally get goosebumps (as I type, in fact) just thinking about what they do. Combatants for Peace, the Bereaved Families Forum, Friends of the Earth-Middle East — they are, jointly, doing the work of our better angels, work that far too many of us can never be bothered to do.

But the simple fact is that for many Israelis, the pain, suffering, hunger, and horrific death that the occupation causes on a daily basis for millions of people is invisible — and Israelis, being like most people, aren’t really seeking it out. As Aluf Benn says:

Because of the entertainment and indifference, the government doesn’t face public pressure to pull out of the territories and establish a Palestinian state, and the opposition to the American peace initiative is being led by the extremists on the right. Most Israelis simply don’t care; they gave up on the territories a long time ago. If Mitchell succeeds in his mission, they will hear about it and change the channel.


Note: An excellent source on the impact of these policies on the lives of ordinary Palestinians is Palestine Inside Out, by Saree Makdisi.


Israel/Palestine: the basics.

Israel/Palestine peace advocacy – places to start.

Israel/Palestine – a reading list.


  1. sue swartz

     /  January 21, 2010

    Seen it with my own eyes – and agree. Puts me in mind of this week’s Torah portion, Bo (“come” or “go” or both). God & Moses are in a push-pull with Pharaoh and his ever hardening heart and ordinary Hebrews and ordinary Egyptians alike are nothing but pawns in this existential game. I suspect that in the beginning, the overwhelming majority of Hebrews, enslaved and having a lousy time of it, want nothing to do with ordinary Egyptians; and by the 4th or 5th plague, ordinary Egyptians could care less about the plight of the Hebrews. Everyone’s own suffering takes precedence. Everyone’s own blindness helps them get through.

  2. amichel

     /  January 21, 2010

    If two peoples can’t live together without violence, isn’t separation preferable to war? The wall separating the territories from Israel indeed alienates the two peoples from each other, but were they not alienated before? The wall has prevented countless terrorist attacks against the Israeli people, and thus prevented deaths from Israeli retaliation. I would choose separation and alienation over terror and death any day.

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