“A Generation in Palestine, or at least Ramallah”
I change gears on my bike to plow through the pot-holed street. I cut in and out of the bottleneck that is Ramallah. Old men, veterans of multiple wars, smoke the day away in cafes. Women browse through sweat shop attire in air conditioned malls. I pass a glossy teeth-bleaching salon. SUVs purchased with international aid money idle in traffic. The whole Palestinian system is propped up by foreign aid. It seems that the international community is ready to stuff the mouth of the Palestinian leadership with dollars to keep them from asking too much, like statehood, or the ability to issue a travel visa to its citizens. On main street English graffiti lines the walls: “Fuck the system.” Indeed.
Since 1967 the West Bank has been under Israeli military occupation. Although occupied, it is technically a free market, meaning the world’s tasteless produce and bootleg T-shirts are allowed to flow generously into the territories, competing with Palestinian production. Thus this little slice of paradise is held hostage by the world economy and force fed cheap products from more powerful economies. Your average Palestinian is dressed in cheap Chinese knock-offs of Western styles, fashion victims of countries with monolithic TV programming.
As foreigners we walk straight out of those televisions. We flash in white skin, our fingers on the pulse of a good time. We circle the city of Ramallah like vultures, thousands of well-intentioned interns and international activists funneled through the occupied Palestinian territories every year. To understand how Palestine has become the proving grounds for those looking for their conflict scout badge, a flashback is indispensable.
In 1994, the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership in exile signed the Oslo Accords, allowing the pirates of the Palestinian Liberation Organization to return to Pachamama and set up shop. With the stroke of a pen a whole pack of freedom fighters were turned into bureaucrats. They called themselves the Palestinian National Authority, the P.A. for short. They chose Ramallah as their administrative capital, a stone’s throw from the long coveted Jerusalem. The P.A. was supposed to be an interim government that would lead peace talks during a transitional period after which Palestine and Israel would lie down together like lamb and lion.
Like any broke and burgeoning power, the P.A. was eager to lend an ear to any country who greased their palm. In exchange for the honor (and donor funds) to be the privileged partner for peace, the P.A., the charismatic Arafat at its head, forked over swathes of land to the Israeli state. While they parleyed Israeli settlements grew, Palestinians were evicted from their homes to create Israeli firing zones, or their homes were simply demolished. Thousands continue to be imprisoned without trial.
With donor money flowing, government buildings and villas sprouted like mushrooms on goat shit, and quite a lot of shit went down in the millennium. In September 2000, collective disappointment with the “peace process” led to the Second Intifada, a popular uprising. The spark that lit the Molotov was a controversial visit by Ariel Sharon, then the hardline Israeli opposition leader, to the esplanade of the Dome of the Rock (conveniently the holy place of both Judaism and Islam). Viewed as an attempt to underline the Jewish claim to the city of Jerusalem and its holy sites, violence broke out in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The five year conflict resulted in 1,010 Israeli to 3,147 Palestinian deaths and an overflowing photo album of Palestinian martyrs thumbed through by my generation. The uprising was given as justification by Israel to erect a twenty foot high wall that suitably annexed 9.5% of the West Bank. In 2006, a fratricidal power struggle broke out between Fateh, which dominates the P.A., and Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement. The bad boys of Hamas secured the majority during legislative elections but the International Community backed the Palestinian Authority, those that were comfortable sitting in on negotiations with Zionist cartographers behind not-so closed doors.
Today the P.A. is a Janus-faced figure that crushes local resistance on behalf of Israel all the while tooting their horns for symbolic victories. In 2012, the P.A. secured a UN observer state status. What this means no one knows, except maybe a change in the government stationary. Also in 2012, a photo from the Gaza Strip showed Hamas supporters dragging a suspected Israeli collaborator behind a motorcycle in the Gaza Strip. If they came to the West Bank they would have hey-day in the upscale neighborhoods that surround Ramallah. They’d speed by the café where I find myself, shouting Allah Akbar.
Meanwhile the synthetic poverty in the occupied Palestinian territories is branded and sold by the aid industry which directly removes from Israel the burden of responsibility for the destruction of Palestinian lives, livelihoods, and infrastructure. Voilà the intern-niks by the thousands continue to flow through the occupied territories.
That’s how I come to be here. When I arrive in Palestine it isn’t all-out warfare. Instead, pretty women with bleached teeth distract me. They walk out of gyms with some branded purses whose names I try to forget. Guys with footballer haircuts harass whiter girls that resemble the porn stars they’ve spied online. Meeting a foreigner is like a ten minute flight around the world, I guess. The lack of mobility under military occupation has rendered the West Bank unusually provincial for a crossroads, except in Ramallah where foreigners, particularly the vultures of my generation, are hunkered down in the rare bars on this side of the wall.
In Palestine, perhaps the world’s largest ghetto, I track the smell of tear gas like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. I strive to get shots with a DSLR camera of hooded adolescents throwing stones during riots. Amateur writer, too chickenshit to set foot in Syria, I get my fix in Palestine. I could find it though, that existential kick in the ass of war. I could get shot by soldiers if I needed that too, but not easier than I could be sideswiped by a SUV tearing out of the parking lot of a four star hotel. But that wouldn’t be exotic, now would it?
After the riots I fold back to a café or a bar. There are the same hooded adolescents sitting in the corner. They run through the events of the riot. They mimic the explosion of stun grenades and their gestures are the arc and velocity of their slingshots. They look alive, far more than me in any case, thumbing through non-fiction. I am disappointed when I notice them knocking back Coca-Colas. Glancing at the server with skin whitener on her face I question the authenticity of it all. After all the international flights and the research on a sixty-plus-year conflict, the facts don’t add up. The can of coke, horribly ordinary, throws off the equation. The smell of tear gas has been drowned out by café lattes. I watch young Palestinians laughing on their second round of coke. Their smiles are so large that it almost cuts their heads in half.
I wonder if you could get your teeth bleached in Chechnya, or a shot of Botox in a rebel controlled capital. I know that one can score a coke under military occupation, in a free market. I suppose that it’s like jet-set to exotic destinations for Palestinians also searching for authenticity. For those penned in between twenty foot high walls.