What Occupation? News From the Good Palestinians

Without context, cheerful reporting minimizes consequences and air brushes the challenges of the Israeli occupation

“The Wall,” near Qalandia checkpoint in Ramallah | Photo: Leah Wawro

The June 6th NY Times Sunday travel section boasted a breezy article entitled “Ramallah Attracts a Cosmopolitan Crowd,” which felt more sinister than the usual come-to-once-dangerous-places-and-sip-groovy-drinks travel story. Michael Luongo focused on the hot new music, restored Art deco houses, and the idea that this city has become “a destination for thousands of young North Americans, Europeans and offspring of the Palestinian elite.”

Coming the same week as the catastrophic raid on the Gaza flotilla and the spin war between Israel and most of the rest of the world, a bit of good news could be refreshing. It’s nice to know that Ramallah hosts arts festivals, good dining, and a growing tourism industry, yet the tone of this article minimizes the consequences of the Israeli occupation and air brushes the challenges of living under occupation.

Luongo quotes a French theater manager as describing Ramallah as “‘a mirror city of Tel Aviv;’” he refers to “Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank,” the accompanying map is frozen in history with a neatly marked Green Line along the ‘67 borders, with no settlements, no separation walls, no closed military zones, and no bypass roads. There is a mention of “barrier walls” and an Australian refers to “‘a forceful interrogation’” at a checkpoint, but there is no overall context.

While Luongo describes “day trippers from Jerusalem,” he fails to mention that because Ramallah is in Area A, Israeli citizens are technically unable to enter the city. He seems equally oblivious to the fact that the people from Ramallah are imprisoned, rarely able to day trip to Jerusalem, always at the whim of Israeli security and a strict permitting system. Their “mirror city” of Tel Aviv might as well be in Australia, except that Palestinians actually have a greater chance of seeing Melbourne than sitting on a beach in Tel Aviv.

The two colored photos create an odd juxtaposition with a breast popping woman arching backwards in the embrace of a laughing man right above the menacing guard towers of the Qalandia checkpoint at night, Free Palestine graffiti clearly visible on the concrete walls. By mentioning the challenges of an Italian-Palestinian chef working under occupation, (the difficulty in obtaining ingredients, while of course trying to buy local,) the only PC words Luongo left out were sustainable and organic. He makes this situation feel normative, could be New York, hard to find fresh cilantro and the strawberries just lack, je ne sais quoi? How bad can occupation be when young people are enjoying the nightlife, swinging to pulsating dance rhythms, puffing nargila and sipping wine in local bars?

Despite this artful PR, the problem is that the occupation is real bad, the economy on the West Bank is crippled by the multiple checkpoints and restrictions. Many Palestinians spend hours every day negotiating permits, obstructions, trying to get to work or school or any of the other myriad tasks that we take for granted. There are still Israeli incursions, Jewish settlements are continuing to carve up the land, and nonviolent activists are met weekly with Israeli tear gas and rubber bullets. No matter how much the Israeli government wants us to believe this, Ramallah is not the future capital of a Palestinian state.

The other subversive element to this travelogue is that underlying this description of very Westernized Palestinians is the assumption that these are the “good” ones, the reasonable Palestinians who are just like us. They are not like their brothers and sisters, the angry, hungry Gazans with their hijabs and kaffiyas and Hamas-loving young men.

This disturbing bisection suits the narrative that if only the Gazans behaved more like their counterparts in the West Bank, there would be someone reasonable with whom to negotiate. This framing ignores much of recent history: the aggressive military attacks by the Israeli Defense Forces on much of the Gazan infrastructure, compounding the longstanding humanitarian disaster produced by years of closure and political isolation. This is added to the corruption and compliance bordering on complicity that often has characterized the Fatah leadership, and the years of peace processing micromanaged by the US and Israel, which has never led to peace. Once again, there is no context.

Curiously, this kind of sales pitch feels like the underside of Brand Israel, an international campaign launched in 2006 to bring Israeli music, art, and science to the rest of the world, conflict-free. But this region is more complicated than a pretty face, and no amount of PR will make that go away.


Alice Rothchild is a medical doctor and author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams, reviewed in this month´s Vienna Review of Books.

See: The Voice for a Just Peace: Seeing the Human Face

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