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“Morbid Symptoms” in Palestine

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A few nights ago, in the West Bank city of Nablus, I was awakened by sustained volleys of gunfire near the hotel where I was staying. The Hotel al-Yasmeen, is located in the town’s old al-Qasaba market district  –  yes, it’s the “Casbah” — whose narrow streets and alleys had been the scene of frequent armed clashes between various Palestinian resistance groups and Israeli security forces over the years, including other times that I had been visiting.

Disregarding the warnings of the hotel staff, I ventured out into the market to visit with several friends who were shopkeepers in the Qasaba.  Everywhere, almost all the food stores, workshops and market stalls were closed and sealed behind the ubiquitous steel shutters that protected them during the night. The market remained nearly deserted as shots continued to ring out sporadically from various directions.

My friends were embarrassed when I asked them what was going on.  They assured me , somewhat wearily, that this was not a clash with the Israeli army, but instead the fighting was between two extended Palestinian family networks, the Halawe and the Hamame, who were struggling for influence in the city and competing over “protection money” exacted from the city’s merchant classes.  It was an internal bid for power, which was mildly opposed only by a few Palestinian security units.  Three Palestinian policemen were said to be wounded in the fighting.

However, the Israeli army, which did not hesitate to invade Nablus at night, in violation of the Oslo Agreement, to confront or arrest Palestinian activists or to seize illegal weapons, stayed out of it entirely.  Apparently they regarded armed clashes between Palestinians with benign tolerance.

This sad state of affairs was on my mind at a meeting later that evening with a group of visiting Italian solidarity activists. They were mostly students from formerly “Red” Bologna, but one of the young women proudly introduced herself as coming from Sardinia, birthplace of the famous revolutionary and theorist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci, who spent the last 11 years of his life in Mussolini’s prisons, died in 1937 at the age of only 46. His ashes were later interred in Rome’s non-Catholic (“Protestant”) Cemetery, not far from the graves of the British poets Keats and Shelley.

In prison, Gramsci wrote voluminously, though out of necessity in somewhat veiled “Aesopian” language, and became a source of inspiration to postwar radicals when his Prison Notebooks were posthumously published in the 1950’s.

Among Gramsci’s well-known observations about his own time, which saw the rise of Fascism, is this one:

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Nothing can better describe the internal situation in Palestine today.  (And not just Palestine, of course!)

The political situation is bleak these days on both sides of the former “Green Line.”  The old project for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza has reached a dead end. The Oslo process that began with high hopes more than twenty years ago is thoroughly discredited, along with the Palestinian Authority that was its creation. It is obvious now, as critics like Edward Said wrote at the time of the Oslo Agreement, that no Israeli Zionist parties of the “Left” or the Right were ever prepared to grant true statehood to any Palestinian territory within the Land of Israel.  Everyone now understands this, apart from cynical Israeli propagandists and wishful-thinking US politicians.

As a result, the old leadership and the Palestinian political parties in the Occupied Territories have mostly lost their legitimacy.  The activists of the First Intifada generation of the 1980s are exhausted after spending years in Israeli prisons and seeing their hopes for a Palestinian state fade. And despite determined resistance on a local level in some West Bank villages, most of the population – apart from a minority who profit from connections to the Palestinian Authority or the well-funded NGOs — is hunkered down in the hard daily struggle for survival.

In the largely Arab populated “Triangle” area of central Israel (“1948” as it is referred to by most Palestinians) where I am staying  now, crime is also widespread and largely ignored, if not actually encouraged, by the Israeli authorities. The crowded ghetto city of Taibe, with its mean streets and depressed economy, is sometimes jokingly referred to here as Tshikago (“Chicago”) for its high instance of violence and gang murder.

Despite some hopes raised by the joining of the various Palestinian parties in Israel under the United Arab List in the last Knesset elections, Israel’s minority is facing growing repression from the increasingly rightwing Zionist society and government.

Not surprisingly, here as in the rest of the Arab world many are turning to religion in response to the failure of the various liberation and nationalist or socialist projects.  More women are covered now, even in the urban centers that were formerly much more secular.  Many of the population practice a religious-inspired political quietism or wait for some apocalyptic solution for the existing impasse.

In the Israeli-Palestinian town of Qalansuwe, where I have many friends, the leftist Democratic Front (Hadash in Hebrew, Jabha in Arabic) has lost much of its influence.  The mayor of the town is now from the Muslim religious party – and the defiant statue of Salahaddin that once dominated the town square has been taken down as against religion and replaced by an Arabic text: Udhkuru Allah (“Mention God”).

It is from this context of paralysis and despair that the wave of individual suicidal attacks by Palestinian youth has risen.  Some have called it the “Knife Intifada.”  Israel and its supporters abroad refer to this phenomenon as a new wave of “terror” – even though the targets are overwhelmingly military or police forces of the occupation.

The courage and self-sacrifice of the mostly teenaged attackers, who are frequently executed on the spot by Israeli security forces, is universally recognized by Palestinian society, even if most also mourn the loss of life without any discernible political purpose. Rather than responding to “incitement” by the Palestinian leadership, as Israel charges, the PA is doing its best to frustrate these attacks.  In fact, the youthful knife wielders are acting out of individual despair and their sacrifice expresses a rebuke to the ineffective leadership of their elders as much as anything else.

Nevertheless, in this moment of failure and “morbid symptoms” it is also true that nearly every Palestinian expresses a sure confidence in their eventual success, even if the time frame may be vague or long-delayed.  It is hard to find anyone here who accepts that the Zionist project is permanent, at least in its present form —  or that the liberation struggle will ultimately fail.

Here, it’s worth remembering another of Gramsci’s famous aphorisms:

“The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned … [what is required, despite] pessimism of the intellect, [is] optimism of the will.”

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Jeff Klein is a writer and speaker on Middle East issues who travels frequently to the region.  An earlier version of this piece, with illustrations, can be found in his occasional blog: “At a Slight Angle to the Universe.” He can be reached at jjk123@comcast.net.

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