Meaning in Occupation: A Westerner’s View of the West Bank

I saw a meteorite streak across the sky above the old city of Jerusalem one night. I was making my way across town into the Western (Israeli) part of the city when I was stopped in my tracks by the scene. It felt very meaningful. I told my colleagues about it the next day, mumbling something about it feeling ‘significant, surely?’. They asked if I made I wish on it. I laughed it off and said at the time I couldn’t really think about it, I was too dumbstruck by the vista and all the religious connotations that went along with it. 

Palestine -Ciaran Gillespie

Photo: Ciaran Gillespie

As I travelled around the West Bank the scene I had witnessed hung around in the back of my mind. Increasingly I felt I was the victim of the same type of spiritual magnetism that electrifies much of the atmosphere of the holy land. You can’t help but attach significance to the things you encounter in this place. This is especially true when a short car journey takes you from the holy sites of Haram-al Sharif, the Wailing Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to Bethlehem or the ancient city of Jericho (itself nestled in the shadow of the Mount of Temptation, where the devil seeks to sway a beleaguered Christ to commit avarice by offering ownership of all the land laid out before him).

The temptation exists to view the contemporary through the lens of the historical. The political conflict is regularly described in terms of the ancient grudge that manifests itself in the segregation lines of the ancient city of Jerusalem- with its Christian, Armenian, Jewish and Muslim quarters. The cynical observer might posit that since even before the crusades, these parties have been killing each other for control of this land and there is little hope that anything will change. But such observations do not pierce the skin of this place. We were lucky enough to spend one evening with great historian and sociologist Salim Tamari. He regaled a captivated audience with readings and anecdotes from a new book that charted some of the pre-1948 history of Jerusalem through the eyes of the famous Oud player, Wasif Jawhariyyeh. His descriptions of a culturally dynamic, yet spiritually homogenous Jerusalem were a delight and reflected a refreshingly positive outlook that one can only hope was not too embellished by nostalgia.


Photo: Ciaran Gillespie


It’s not hard to imagine a Jerusalem that existed under a more congenial atmosphere than that which prevails today. It is not difficult because it is clear to even the most casual observer that there exists an apartheid style segregation in the Occupied Territories. For years many in the west have managed to keep up the pretence that such an observation was controversial, outrageous or even racist. But such attempts at wilful obfuscation melt away you see the reality on the ground.

There are more than 550 permanent checkpoints scattered throughout the Occupied Territories, with an additional 400 ad hoc ones deployed in different areas each month. The short car journey between the above mentioned holy sites are punctuated with at least one of these stops- brief as they are when travelling with the luxury of diplomatic plates- they can take hours for Palestinians. Making such journeys in the beautiful evening dusk will have you driving, quite literally, through the shadows of the burgeoning settlements, positioned as they are, on the highest points in the hilly terrain of the West Bank. Security walls streak across the landscape, slicing through fields, old roads and even towns.

Palestinians are second class citizens here. A bus journey we make from Bethlehem to Jerusalem is interrupted when men in plain clothes, carrying assault rifles, board the vehicle and order everyone off.

“Where are you from?” one asks, “UK”, I respond.

“You are fine.”

Barring a few elderly people, the rest of the passengers are taken off the bus without a word of complaint. Once it is established there are no wolves in sheep’s clothing, they re-board and the bus moves off again. This is standard behaviour, a Professor at Birzeit University explains to me.

“They (Palestinians) have been domesticated. They no longer resist. They can’t.”

The academics here are frustrated. We are due to speak to an audience at the Kenyon Institute in East Jerusalem regarding a joint project between the University of Surrey, Belgrade’s Singidunum University, Al Azhar University in Gaza and Birzeit in the West Bank. We are scheduled to be joined by scholars from both Palestinian universities but are informed earlier in the day that they have been denied entry permits to Jerusalem.

“This has never happened to me before. It’s totally arbitrary” claims an exasperated Dr Ezbidi who is simultaneously dealing with the prospect that his German wife may be permanently denied a visa to get back into Palestine, where she has lived for decades. We meet with the British Consul General in East Jerusalem but are assured that they have no power to influence such decisions- these are made solely by the Israelis. We decide to proceed with the public talk using Skype in an attempt to make a point.

As if to prove the arbitrary nature of the permit system one of Dr Ezbidi’s students, Maisaa, is granted permission to attend the event. Maisaa lives a few miles from the Palestinian capital but has not been there for two years.

“The permit, to come here, usually only lasts a few hours and I don’t really know anyone there anymore, so I don’t know what to do with the time”.

Resentment at this restrictive treatment is not always spoken but can be felt. Peaceful atmospheres turn tense and violent over even trivial incidents. One afternoon, as we walked through the Old City, a group of IDF soldiers detained a young Palestinian who had been accused of shop lifting. He was taken around a corner for interrogation. A crowd began to form around the scene and in a few seconds a dozen more IDF teenagers, with automatic weapons and truncheons drawn, were sprinting through the crowded streets towards their comrades from all directions. The tension seemed to solidify in the atmosphere. Palestinian teenagers hovered at the edges of the crowd in groups within throwing distance and, as if on cue, shops in the immediate vicinity started rapidly shuttering their premises. We moved past the scene and I caught a glimpse of the detained boy, his face red and swollen from some unobserved impact. In this case the crowd dissipated and calm returned. A friend in the city told me that IDF soldiers mounted on horses had used tear gas in a disturbance a week later.

As someone from Northern Ireland, the permanent antagonism that results from an imbalance in the policing/security of a population jumps out as something familiar. There are many hundreds of ways one can be treated unfairly by a state bureaucracy. But there is little more immediate point of tension than being in the presence of a heavily armed teenager who you suspect has been trained to see you as a potential enemy due to a mere accident of your geographic or cultural heritage. And the unease spreads both ways.  Meeting some IDF soldiers enjoying (quite a few) off-duty drinks one night made it clear to me that these young people are not unaffected by the tasks required of them in implementing an occupation.


Photo: Ciaran Gillespie

A Meaning?

While these small anecdotal observations seem vital as you witness them, the most pressing issue in the international domain is the general viability of the Palestinian state. Although the settlements are illegal, they continue to proliferate. There are now so many that it is difficult to identify a Palestinian territory that has any integrity without anticipating the evacuation of settlements, something the Israelis are very unlikely to do in the West Bank. While we may study with great interest the various diplomatic manoeuvres that characterise the Middle East peace process, this inescapable problem has hobbled even the best efforts of the few neutral arbitrators in the international community in recent years. The result of failing to push for viable state is the normalisation of occupation and further degradation of even a viable West Bank, never mind Palestine.

Israel insists recognition of its right to exist must form the foundation of all future negotiations. At the same time, as any neutral observer can clearly see through its actions, Israel staunchly refuses to recognise the right of a Palestinian state to exist. It is dissolving the West Bank with accelerated settlement construction. By Oxfam’s figures, since the Oslo Peace accords in 1992, settlements in the West Bank have doubled. Israel controls 80% of Palestinian water supplies, has demolished more than 15,000 Palestinian structures and exerts control over 42% of the land in the West Bank. The blockade of Gaza has been repeatedly labelled illegal and an act of collective punishment by organisations like UNRWA, Amnesty International and Oxfam to name but a few. Commentators and politicians, including even David Cameron, have described the area as a de-facto prison camp. And while violence affects both peoples in the territories, it does so in an extremely asymmetric fashion.

One need only apply the rhetoric from many NATO states about the recent annexation of Crimea to the situation in Gaza to see the complete contradiction in standards. The Princeton Law professor and UNHCR special rapporteur on Palestine, Richard Falk once said he had the job of ‘liberating the discipline of international law from a sense of its own futility’. International law is most thoroughly undermined when its principles are used inequitably and with cynicism, as a simple means to publicly berate one’s enemies. It is reinforced most convincingly when used to judge the behaviour not just of one’s allies, but of one’s self.

I saw a metorite over the Old City of Jerusalem, but it had no meaning. It was piece of debris, burning in the atmosphere. Meaning, of the higher order type, is in short supply in this place, that is at least, when you look through the eyes of an outsider.