Disengagement and Diaspora

As the continuing violence in Gaza shows, Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan is disaster before it has even begun. The problem is that there is alive in Israel today a myth of absolute security: the fantasy that if Israel can completely dominate Palestinian movement then peace and prosperity will ensue for everyone. The truth is that no people could ever acquiesce to domination, and peace without justice is a hopeless quest. 38 years of violent occupation have born a devastated space for peace.

Diaspora is not a simple thing, or even a single, tangible event. If it’s about exile, it’s not simply about physical exile. To be in Diaspora is to be withdrawn from the world, disconnected from the basic joy of the human experience. The most terrible consequence of continued violence is this disconnection–the destruction of even the memory of community. “Disengagement” is not its antidote.

There is a metaphor for our world in the experience of the people of Hebron. 500 years ago Muslims and Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition came to Palestine and many settled in Hebron, as neighbors. They built mosques and synagogues, roads and schools–they built a community, where generations lived together in peace.

Today, the Jewish settlements built in Hebron since the 1967 war are surrounded by high walls and razor wire. Outside the wire, Palestinian children at Cordova Girls School have to walk a tortuous route over steep hills because the normal entrance to their school is across from a settlement. Unfortunately, the settlers stone the girls if they come too close.

Walking the streets of Hebron’s once vibrant Old City is a shocking experience. Where scores of shops and swarms of people used to crowd its narrow cobblestone streets, today those same streets are nearly empty. The shops are closed, the people gone. Years of harassment by settlers, by soldiers at multiple checkpoints, and months of house arrest under military “curfew” have taken their toll. Despite offers of free rent and subsidies by the Hebron municipality, few Palestinians want to live or shop there any longer.

Kiryat Arba, Hebron’s biggest settlement, is equally shocking. The streets are clean, the roundabouts graced by beautiful olive trees–taken perhaps from orchards demolished by the Israeli military. There are no checkpoints, no soldiers with guns stopping people for security checks, and, despite being in a city of 100,000 Palestinians, there are no Arabs present. There are also not that many Jews. As many as half the homes are empty, because, despite the subsidies and offers of luxuriant housing, not many Israelis want to live in communities as obviously dysfunctional as this one.

Most shocking of all in the Holy Land is the physical reality of the Wall: the “separation barriers” Israel is building in Palestinians areas. All of Gaza, and some towns in the West Bank have already been completely encircled by the Wall, turning them into virtual prisons. In other areas the Wall is smashing through Palestinian neighborhoods, severing streets and families, and separating Palestinians from other Palestinians–rather than from Israelis. How is this about “security?” Even after the Wall is finished, a million and a half Palestinians will still live inside Israel.

Israeli law forbids Palestinians from visiting Israel, or even Jerusalem, and likewise forbids Israelis–except for settlers–from visiting Palestinian cities. Absolute security seemingly demands separation. I met an Israeli activist who spends most of her free time defying this law, helping Palestinians get travel documents and cross checkpoints. Yet even she is terrified of what may happen when the Occupation someday ends.

Many Israelis openly talk about “transfer” as a means of solving this “problem”–throwing the remaining Palestinians to Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Most say it will never happen. Yet the memory of 1948 remains, as do the millions of Palestinian refugees, living in surrounding countries, whom the world has forgotten for the past 57 years.

To look at the giant terminals being built outside the Walls encircling Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem is to stare nakedly into the heart of our inhumanity. These structures are reminiscent of nothing other then cattle pens: to be used to herd Palestinians who dare ask permission to visit other towns. The price for Israel’s absolute security is absolute insecurity for 5 million Palestinians. And, of course, it’s a lie. Israel was supposed to be a safe haven for Jews, but instead Israel is the most unsafe place on the planet for Jews. As this crisis has clearly shown on all sides, to base either your security or your freedom on another’s insecurity is a recipe for disaster.

I mourn the violence committed on all sides of this conflict. War and terror is throwing our entire world into Diaspora. I mourn the existential fear, born out of the Holocaust, which so many Israelis suffer from. The Palestinians have become the final victims of that catastrophe. Israel’s fear is a greater wall than any barrier Ariel Sharon could ever dream of. After 2,000 years, the Jewish people have finally returned to their promised land. And, yet, living there–they are still desperately trapped in, and surrounded by, diasporas of their own making.

RAMZI KYSIA is an Arab-American activist and writer. He recently spent 3 weeks in Palestine/Israel with the Fellowship of Reconcilliation and Christian Peacemaker Teams.