Sunday, April 29, 2007

15 Minutes Of Fame

I've returned to Jerusalem for a few more days to finish off the area before heading north. The main thing I wanted to do was to see the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock from the inside. A tricky task as there are two layers of guards (one Israeli and the other Palestinian) to ensure that non-Muslims don't manage to step inside the buildings, heaven forbid! Now theoretically I can be a Muslim due to my parents, but the guards weren't buying that. It seems that the criterion for getting in is that you either look like you're an Arab (or Pakistani or Indonesian, although I didn't see any of either) or that you speak Arabic or at least have an Arabic name. Now this struck me as being rather ridiculous as there are many groups of people who would consider themselves Muslim and yet would not fulfil those criteria, such as the less devout Turks and their various Turkic cousins (Uzbeks, Uighurs and Azeris), or even the Hui Chinese. They wouldn't even stop to listen to my arguments (Iranian brought up in secular Europe), which doesn't seem to be a very enlightened or welcoming way to behave, although I guess that's what religious disputes can do to people.

There was more of the same on my various day-trips into the West Bank. It's strange, but I was talking to an Israeli who told me that, until recently, he had been baffled by CNN news reports about happenings in Palestine because of the names that are used for the different towns. Nablus is the Arab rendering of the Latin name Neapolis, but Jews know the town by its older name of Shechem. And then there is Hebron, which the Palestinians call al Khalil. Confusing to say the least. Hebron is second only to Jerusalem for religious divisiveness as the town contains the tombs of Abraham and his family and therefore constitute the second holiest site in Judaism and a pretty holy place for Muslims and Christians as well. As with the Temple Mount/al Aqsa comlex half of the site belongs to the Muslims and is a mosque, whereas the other half is a synagogue run by the Israelis, with associated guards, walls and barbed wire running down the middle. Since after the Crusades Hebron had been a predominantly Muslim town with a sizable Jewish minority, that is until 1929 when there was a pogrom against the local Jewish population forcing the remaining families to be evacuated by the British to prevent further bloodshed. The town, along with the rest of the West Bank, fell to the Israelis in 1967 and Jewish settlers began to move back into the centre of the town a few years later. This small group of orthodox settlers numbers only about 100 families, but their presence has caused Hebron to become something of a tinderbox and continual sore-point amongst Palestinians. The settlers are guarded by about 100 IDF soldiers and their enclave is heavily fortified and surrounded by razor wire. The unlucky Palestinians whose homes bordered on the enclave have had to move out to create a buffer and the area around it is slowly seeing an exodus of the remaining Palestinians due to the restrictions imposed upon them (e.g. curfews when the settlers want to walk through their part of town). I saw this myself as I was visiting towards the end of the sabbath and the Palestinian in the area were already beginning to close their shops (those that are still operational, as most of them are permanently out of business) for the Jewish procession despite the main bazaar still being as lively as ever. A pity, as the old centre of town is truly pretty and deserves some TLC to spruce it up a bit. Walking through the cobbled streets a tourist will inevitably be approached by a local. There is nothing ominous about this, the Palestinians are just desperate to show outsiders a different aspect to Hebron rather than the shocking media headlines. The main two grievances seem to be the occupation (understandable) and the lack of money. Since Hamas got elected last year a Western boycott has meant that most people who work in public services have not received their salaries for six months or more, personally I'm surprised they still bother going to work at all. The Palestinians see the boycott as horribly hypocritical, proving that they only want a democracy if it suits their interests. The argument for withholding funding, that Hamas wants the destruction of Israel, is particularly stupid because Fatah's charter says almost exactly the same and yet the West has no qualms about supporting them. That said, the standard of living of the West Bank Palestinians certainly isn't the worst I've seen in the Arab world and there is a certain degree of order and cleanliness that I had not expected. I even got to air my views on the subject to the people of Hebron and become a minor celebrity when, in the minibus to Hebron the guy sitting next to me started a conversation. It turned out that he was a journalist at the local radio station and he invited me for an interview to be broadcast the next day on Radio Khalil.

It is therefore no wonder that the town is a hotbed of Hamas and Fatah support and, although the locals are generally friendly and happy to see tourists because they bring an air of normalcy and some much needed money to the troubled town, it is impossible to have a rational discussion about the situation because eventually every political debate veers into religion (for many Muslims they are the same thing) and ends up getting clogged up with dogma and unbending faith. In this respect the two peoples are very different: because the occupation looms so large in the lives of the Palestinians it hijacks every conversation; for the Israelis, on the other hand, the Palestine situation is often purposefully avoided because it brings up difficult and divisive issues which cannot easily be solved and make the day depressing, and they would much rather be getting on with life.


lunkhead said...

There will never be a solution to that problem until the Palestinians respect Israel's right to existence.

Erik said...

Sure, I agree there must be mutual trust and respect (and thereby right to existence), it's just that the Israeli's and the international community didn't give Hamas (who, let's not forget, were democratically elected) the chance to show what they would be like in power (as it's always easy to pose and make grandiose statements when in opposition, but once in power one must always be more pragmatic). The immediate rejection of Hamas only made the Palestinians more angry, more distrustful of the West and pushed them in the other direction making them more radical.

If I were to draw a parallel with Northern Ireland, the peace process has only moved along by having a dialogue with the IRA and giving them a stake in poewr, and they have thereby become far more mellow and reasonable.

Inihtar said...

There have been so many trade embargos and withholding of aid to countries whose governments the West doesn't approve of. While the intent of this might be to force the governments to meet the donors' expectations by seeing the impact on the people, all too often, these governments don't really care about what the people go through. So in the end, the governments continue on their way (and find ways to fatten their own pockets) and it's the people who suffer.