The Laugh Heard from the West Bank

My grandfather’s voice over the phone was quiet, but I could picture his mise-en-scène clearly. Sitting on his favorite chair in the veranda, he would be sipping his tea, occasionally pressing his glasses back up over the bridge of his nose to better watch the sun set over his small West Bank town of Nablus. He waited patiently as I fumbled through our tried-and-true conversation topics: family, the weather, regional politics. Finally, in a desperate attempt to revive our conversation, I asked for his thoughts on Barack Obama’s proposed freeze of Israeli settlements. His response was a long, rumbling laugh. It emanated over the phone, deep and resounding, and when at last I thought it was (thankfully) over, my 74-year-old grandfather sputtered and coughed and proceeded to laugh some more. What surprised me about his laughter was its genuineness; my old crosspatch of a grandfather truly saw humor in Obama’s attempts to stop the expansion of Israeli settlements.

Israeli settlements are technically defined as “civilian communities” existing outside of Israel’s geographic boundaries. The international community maintains that any settlement that has been established in the West Bank is an illegitimate one. Yet, there are currently more than 280,000 Israeli citizens who call the 121 West Bank settlements home. The underlying assumption surrounding the institution of these communities is that the land upon which they have been built belonged to Palestinians pre-1948. However, the fact remains that today the existence of these settlement projects are in violation of Article 49 of the Geneva Convention, which states that “an occupier may not forcibly deport protected persons into occupied territory.”

Furthermore, the way in which the Israeli government has implemented the settlement policy has grossly disregarded the basic human rights of Palestinians. For one, Israel claims that the reason for the establishment of road blocks and checkpoints between Palestinian villages and cities is the maintenance of the safety of Israeli settlers. But it has had the effect of essentially cutting those cities off from one another and making travel between them for work and school much more difficult, and in some cases, impossible. For another, the establishment of these large communities, in such proximity to Palestinian towns and cities, leads to an unfair and discriminatory distribution of vital resources between them. This has a devastating impact on the fundamental living standards of Palestinians, including, but not exclusive to, their right to an adequate standard of living, housing, health, education, and work.

It is important to note that Obama’s push for a “settlement freeze” is not inclusive of pre-established Israeli West Bank settlements. Noting its timing is also helpful; talk of a settlement freeze reached its climax during Fatah’s Sixth Conference, and most Palestinians, sans their respective cynical laughs, believe that the US is pushing for this settlement freeze in order to keep their faith in Fatah alive and prevent Palestinians from supporting Hamas, the more “radical” of the two Palestinian leadership groups. Finally, Palestinians are well-aware of the fact that even as Netanyahu discusses the potential terms of a settlement freeze, he has also condoned the continued building of 800 settlement units in the West Bank.

Yet, Palestinians are also well aware of the fact that the continued Israeli appropriation of Palestinian land poses a serious threat to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state, on both a literal and ideological level. For example, this summer, Israel passed legislation banning the word Nakba (i.e. the word “catastrophe” referring to the establishment of Israel and eradication of Palestine in 1948) from Israeli textbooks, and precluding the Palestinian names of villages from being written on signs and roadmaps. Thus, not only does Israel wish to physically arrogate what was once “Palestine,” it also seeks to erase the entire concept of a “Palestine” from the global imagination.

When there exists an endeavor to excise the notion of a Palestinian state, it is with good reason that Obama’s commitment to a settlement freeze is received with laughter rather than a sincere response.