Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Day 32 (July 4): Ramallah

Reclining in my seat, the cool, crisp Middle Eastern evening breeze which I have grown to love washes over me. In this part of the world, this time of day is intoxicating. As the sun sets, each time more spectacular than the last, and the sky darkens, the night air is electric. I am just outside downtown Ramallah at a little place called Sangria's, outside in the garden, smoking shisha and feasting upon the Palestinians' interpretation of a Philadelphia Cheese Steak sandwich, which is as tasty as it is off the mark from the original. A large projection screen behind the bar, which stands in the center of the garden, plays a football game which seems to have many of the locals in a frenzy. Mostly populated with young, secular (and generally wealthier) Palestinians and foreign NGO workers, this place has come to be quite important to me. For one thing, it is one of the few places one can buy a cold beer in Ramallah; for another, the relaxing and idyllic evenings I enjoy after work, accompanied by a glass of red wine.

The pleasure of the evening and the warmth of Palestinian hearts can entice one to forget their suffering and humiliation. Sometimes, at times like this, it is almost possible to forget about the occupation, about oppression and suffering and justice. Living in a place like this reveals to the observer in the starkest possible terms ideal justice is an illusion; one cannot speak about justice without speaking also about power. As such, there will never be justice for the Palestinian people. The power differential between Israel and the Arabs, Palestinians in particular, is stunning; moral differentials even more so (not accidentally). Somehow, though, life goes on, people survive, live, love, and struggle. These are the only universal factors among human beings – we all have to live on this planet, work on it, and eventually to die on it; it is against these limiting conditions which humanity is constantly struggling. I would hate to refer to myself as “jaded” by what I have seen here, but there may be no other more accurate term. I arrived as a ideological follower of Bakunin, Luxembourg, and Marx, full of faith in human nature; by the time I leave here I may finally give in to Sartre and Camus.

Of all the empires and great tyrannies that have existed throughout the whole of human history, that of the United States is perhaps the most intriguing and interesting. Laced together with private investment, a system of informal and formal economic arrangements subjugates much of the world to American “ownership,” serving as the periphery supporters of the center of the global economy in the US. This system is reified using violence if necessary, which in essence translates into maintaing a system of class exploitation around the world using any means necessary and feasible. The truly amazing part is the frequent appearance of self-rule, such as exists in a much more primitive form in Palestine. World governments are tied to their imperial benefactor for the same reason as NGOs have become tied to the interests of Western donors ahead of domestic grassroots constituencies. They need the funds, they need the arms, they need to maintain the stability of the class structure which upholds the state itself in its present form. Washington is the source, and it can cut off its patronage at any time if a state should act outside of the narrow range of the interests of US elites. Further, autocratic and tyrannical aspects of existence have expanded, such as private control of capital and resources, while state measures to protect the poor from the ravages of market forces are slowly eliminated for their "inefficiency."

I feel I need to return for a moment to the topic of NGOs in Palestine, because it is quite important to what has happened to Palestinian civil society since the mid 1990s. The dramatic growth of the NGO infrastructure during these years seems to have heavily taxed fragile Palestinian civil society, serving as its substitute in many respects. Thus the Palestinians have been left with a civil society which is more reactive to outside pressures than domestic needs and concerns. Several of the NGOs in the West Bank are despised, even attacked by frustrated Palestinians. Worse still, many of these NGOs were created with the peace process in mind; now that there is no such credible process, the NGOs, and the Arabs who work for them, merely go through the motions of working for peace, simply because there is nothing else to do. Meanwhile the NGOs, increasingly desperate for funding, take on any project which can bring some income, reducing their already weak connection with the domestic grassroots.

The misery and deprivation of the Palestinians is awful, and it will continue unwaveringly. There is little hope for the kind of broad-based cooperative social movement which would be needed to end the occupation or abate Israeli crimes. The Palestinians themselves are heading for permanent division between the West Bank and Gaza, probably by the end of January when Abbas is legally obligated to run for election. This will lead the Hamas party to declare the office “vacant,” and proclaim First Deputy Speaker Ahmad Bahr President of Palestine. Most states, while rhetorically supporting the Palestinians out of popular pressure, have thrown up their hands at the rejectionist unresponsiveness of US/Israeli policy and abandoned the Palestinians entirely. Arab states, seduced by large sums of US aid which will mostly be spent on armaments and pocketed by the elites, have also cynically left the Palestinians to fight their battle all alone. The pathetic and disorganized American left, which can barely bring itself to protest the Iraq war, is also letting the Palestinians down. The constant expansion of the settlements and their growing permanence is making the removal of even a substantial number of them unlikely.

Not long after the wall is complete, which is forming a new political boundary between Israel and the Palestinian territory, the Israelis will unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank, similar to the policy used in Gaza. The remaining land, resource-poor and noncontiguous, will be left to the Palestinians under the auspices of the US/Israeli-backed military dictatorship of the Palestinian Authority. It will be completely dependent on Israel economically, as well as for the basic means of survival for the millions of people who will live there. It is possible, as a substitute for the right of those approximately 5 million who were driven from their land by Zionist terrorists and the IDF to return, that they too will be dumped into the prison of the West Bank. This will allow Arab governments to finally and permanently wash their hands of the problem of Palestinian refugees, and the elite can get on with making money in collaboration with the large Israeli business class.

It's a grim picture. There is no justice, only power, a phrase which should ring familiar when other historical events are considered. There is no savior. There is no God, and there is no help. Sitting here, with the night breeze in my face, all I can think of is the beauty, shortness, passion, and turmoil of human life.

I take a sip of my untouched red wine and try once more to be free for just a few moments.