Palestine Diaries


When I told the Israeli border official who interviewed me that I was going to Ramallah, she sneered and wrinkled her brow: “Okay.” Why would anyone go there, she seemed to say. There was no mistaking her disapproval. Looking at my US passport, she wanted to know about my family tree: my father’s name, and my father’s father. “Tirlok Singh,” I recalled hesitatingly, “I was a baby when he died,” I added with a bit more conviction. For a moment, she scrutinized my visage for some discernible trace, or sign. Then I was allowed in, rather more easily than I had imagined.

The road to Ramallah is characteristic of the geography of apartheid. It feels as if there is a lane for every car on the generous freeway that leads away from Ben Gurion airport, testifying to the prosperity of the people who live here. The landscape is verdant and austere at the same time. My Palestinian driver points out a routine check point he passed through on the way in, “only Arabs must stop there,” he says ruefully. We pass several large towns, “set-tle-ment-s,” he says slowly, accenting each syllable and an extra one to be sure he is using the correct English word. I nod. The sign of new building is visible everywhere; huge cranes dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. “Buildings without people,” my driver remarks off-handedly, the ever-present reminder of a manic dispossession that never ends.
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Settlement construction. Photograph by Nikhil Pal Singh.
These scenes fade almost as quickly as they appeared. At the exit for Ramallah the road narrows suddenly, dangerously even. Passing through a cramped gate, tire shredding spikes forbid any change of direction. And just as suddenly we are on the bumpy, fragile roads of the West Bank. Layers of formal and informal barriers now separate you from that other world. Barbed fences and freeways are apparently inadequate to ensure your separation.  Young, heavily armed conscripts of the Israeli army glare from elevated checkpoints as we pass beneath them. We are entering “area C” which comprises more than sixty percent of West Bank territory over which Israel retains full control, including settlements (and the bulk of mineral and water resources). No Palestinian life is permitted here, so garbage and debris accumulate steadily on the roadways relegated to Palestinian passage. Walled settlements dot the hilltops, linked to pre-1967 Israel and to each other by a separate network of roads, bridges, and tunnels. Effectively superimposed, or imprinted upon a land inhabited by 2.5 million Palestinians, this apartheid infrastructure daily mocks the dream of a “contiguous and viable” Palestinian state.
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Map of West Bank apartheid road network. Image courtesy of
How is it possible to explain the situation here, I think, when so many people in the United States, in Israel, and elsewhere are still to discover the elementary notion of Palestinian humanity? The “facts on the ground” as Israel likes to say are widely known and well documented. However, much remains mystified until we grasp that what Palestinians call the nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, and what Israeli historian Illan Pappe has precisely labeled as the ethnic cleansing of Palestine was not a singular event, but a continuous and on-going process. However one judges Oslo and its failure during the late 1990s, the past two decades have witnessed an accelerated and systematic dispossession of Palestinian houses, lands, and resources. The basic Israeli problematic has remained the same: how to take as much Palestinian land with as few Palestinian people as possible.
This was made starkly evident when we heard first-hand accounts of the evictions and settler occupations of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah in eastern Jerusalem in 2008-2009. If the occupied territories are characteristic of apartheid, or, policies of separate and unequal development and law, eastern Jerusalem is undergoing a process of “Judaisation,” via the systematic population transfer of Palestinians beyond the boundaries of what Israel now calls “greater Jerusalem.” Zoning, building, permit, and residency restrictions are used to stifle Palestinian development within the city, while the steadily advancing Wall effectively separates over 100,000 Palestinians from their residency within it. At its most brutal, the Israeli army’s forced evictions and home demolitions, and occupations by Jewish settlers (often from the United States or the former Soviet Union) make Palestinians, many of them refugees from 1948, refugees once more. This was the most heart-rending thing we witnessed, matched only by the courage of the elderly Palestinian woman who returns day after day to sit on an old rusty chair in front of the house stolen from her. Almost 200,000 Jewish settlers now live in eastern Jerusalem. In a mirror of the West Bank occupied territory, their communities are heavily fortified. A state of the art light rail system engineered by the French transportation giant Veolia knits these communities together with the western half of the city.
After only a short time, it becomes avidly apparent that the settler colonial project constitutes the core logic of the Israeli state. It is operative from the most intimate to the structural scales of everyday life. It leaves not one aspect of the society or the territory untouched. A continuum exists between the most normalized aspects of Israeli society and the most extreme settler outposts. Every type of space and resource is reserved and controlled in the interest of the privileged caste — from parking spaces to university places — to the most vital resources: land, air and water — in an effort to make Palestinian life less and less possible here. This is a futile project, as the Palestinian people are not going anywhere. Still, nothing prepares one for a visit to Hebron, where some 800 Jewish settlers have colonized the ancient eastern part of the city that is home to some 35,000 Palestinians. Literally occupying the houses and air space above the main market street, settlers dump refuse on top of the Palestinian merchants below who must in a sense imprison themselves for their own protection beneath chicken wire and makeshift tarpaulins. An everyday indignity, these attacks are intentional, and are meant to strangle the commercial life of the Arab street and make it prone to further settlement.
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On and above the market street of Hebron. Photographs by Nikhil Pal Singh.
Using typical licensing and permitting pretexts that exemplify the banality of evil under occupation, the Israeli army plans to demolish a solar panel installation that provides electricity to forty Palestinian families in a nearby village. This action as one local elder puts it, “will take the village back to the stone age.”
The process of Jewish settlement and the forms of military and settler violence that are its predicates traduce any pretence to liberal-democracy. They illuminate how the Israeli state is an enforcer of ethno-religious privileges and prerogatives rather than a medium of law. As a counter to this, Israel frequently points to the enfranchisement of approximately 1.5 million Palestinians who live inside the borders of Israel constituted in 1949. Subjected to military rule during the first two decades of Israel’s existence, Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel have made some gains in political organization and representation in recent years. At the same time, conversations with Palestinian-Arab citizens in Israel reveal that their lives too are governed by a host of exceptional legal proscriptions, and special scrutiny from the security services. Once again, it is important to recognize how policies toward Palestinians inside the green-line are continuous with the broader policies of colonization, occupation and “Judaisation.” Palestinian and Bedouin minority communities not only face discrimination in key areas of housing, education, and immigration, they have also seen their homes demolished and lands targeted for Jewish settlement, particularly in the Galilee and the Negev. New draft laws in the Knesset, and proclamations by notable public figures repeatedly threaten to deprive them of their rights, particularly if they express political dissent. Recently the Israeli high court upheld a 2003 law denying Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel the right to live within Israel with their Palestinian spouses from Gaza, the West Bank, or so-called “enemy states,” including Iraq, Syria, Iran and Lebanon (This of course contrasts with the “Law of Return” by which any person recognized by the state at Jewish can settle inside Israel, or the settlements and receive instant citizenship, residency rights, housing and education subsidies). A further policy of separation that adds a dimension that might be termed emotional apartheid, it was enshrined by the high court in the inflammatory language of preventing “national suicide.”Echoing the old eugenicist rallying cry, “race suicide,” the law has one essential purpose: to forestall the biological and social reproduction of Palestinian life within Israel, that is ethnic cleansing, by another name and by other means.
The permanent justification for these appalling violations of Palestinian human rights and human dignity is defense of Israeli security in the face of terrorism. This claim is frequently underpinned by thinly veiled anti-Arab racism, as when Israeli politicians like Ehud Barak describe the surrounding Arab region as a “jungle,” (presumably populated by less than human Arab peoples). An exemplar of liberal Zionist opinion, Barak has at least honestly reflected upon what is increasingly self-evident. Israel’s de facto one state solution within the territory from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River can only sustain its Jewish (supremacist) character by sacrificing any pretense to democracy, that is, avowing the forms of apartheid and discrimination that structure its relationship with millions of Palestinian citizens and non-citizens.
Nonetheless, there is an increasingly dangerous element creeping into public discourse within this feverishly demographic state. As the land for a future Palestinian state shrinks, or becomes fashioned into a series of nominally self-governing, self-sustaining ghettos, so too does the political space for a solution modeled on the idea of two states. While, most Israeli Jewish politicians tend to avoid the rhetoric of “final solutions,” prominent figures like Likud Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman have openly envisioned the large-scale forced transfer of millions of Palestinians from the land of “greater Israel.” Indeed, the main political dynamic within Israel today arguably does not actually involve the Palestinians at all. It primarily revolves, rather, around a conflict between maximalist settlers who reject the idea of two states, and rational Zionists who hope to establish an internationally recognized border between Israel and a Palestinian “Bantustan” before time runs out.
From the Palestinian-side as well we heard again and again the idea that “the two state-solution is dead,” and the project of the Palestinian Authority (PA) was “maxed out”. That is, it was little more than the outsourcing of the occupation (with the Europeans and the Americans picking up most of the cost). This is not the place to meditate upon the strategic political choices facing the Palestinian freedom struggle in the current moment. It was clear to me during my visit that Palestinian resistance not only remains stubborn, but that it also may be rediscovering its proper object. For the real challenge today, and arguably the only path to a just and humane peace in this land is the egalitarian transformation of Israeli settler-colonialism across the manifold and differentiated regimes of Palestinian subjugation, from the occupation, to the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem, to the shrinking space of Palestinian citizenship within Israel, to the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
Politicide, that is the active destruction, deliberate non-recognition, and geographic fracturing of Palestinian collective life and political subjectivity has been a central part of the Israeli and US denials of Palestinian self-determination for more than half-a-century. An equally insidious dimension of the transfer project, what Nur Mashala terms “memoricide,” or the active effacement of Palestinian history and public memory has upheld it. As dire as the situation is today, what I saw makes me believe that these strategies will not outlast Palestinian collective resistance. Ramallah may be a simulacrum of self-determination — self-government on Israeli terms — what Palestinians mordantly refer to as the five-star occupation, (reflected by the PA’s own lavish new offices, ringed by a massive security wall that effectively redoubles the architecture of the occupation itself). Nevertheless, there are everywhere reminders here of the vibrant and compelling life that Palestinians have built on the horns of Israel’s dilemma.
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Wall art in Ramallah. Photograph by Nikhil Pal Singh.
The real, and justified near-term pessimism among ordinary Palestinians is leavened with a spirit of curiosity, generosity, defiance and possibility. This includes the stubborn recognition that living well is a kind of revenge, particularly among the younger generations of Palestinians inspired by the Arab Spring. As Dr. Khalil Hindi, President of Birzeit University put it to us, “Palestinian people, despite their trials have never lost faith in humanity.” The call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) endorsed by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations in 2005 is perhaps the most hopeful sign of this. As Noura Eraket writes, BDS grounds the Palestinian struggle within “universal frame of international law and human rights norms,” and provides a “central Palestinian reference point and authoritative guide to global solidarity.”
Visiting Palestine as members of a delegation of scholars in support of the US Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) we were specially attuned to the role that knowledge production, dissemination, and exchange plays in both upholding and challenging relations of unequal power. When people oppose academic boycotts on the grounds of academic freedom, it is necessary to ask, “whose academic freedom?” As we observe in our statement, Israel routinely denies academic freedom to Palestinian scholars and students. Israeli academic institutions are broadly complicit in the face of Palestinian scientific, educational, medical, social, cultural, and political suffocation.  Many are directly involved in violations of Palestinian human rights and international law — from expropriating Palestinian land to providing demographic, sociological, medical, technical, and scientific research for military and security services in the occupation, to providing preferential treatment for Israeli soldiers and reservists, to policing Israeli and Palestinian dissent.
Opposition to BDS is also sometimes framed by hysterical though unfortunately typical equations of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, a fabrication that is given a sense of historical verisimilitude by the genuinely anti-Semitic uses of boycotts within Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Accounts such as these systematically occlude Nazism’s more complex genealogy. As commentators from Hannah Arendt and Aimé Césaire, to Enzo Traverso have reminded us, National Socialism was not only an anti-Semitic state; it also marked the anomalous emergence of an aggressively expansionist, ethno-nationalist, settler-colonial regime in the heart of “civilized” Europe itself. The most cutting of all historical ironies in the contemporary world is that the Israeli social and political model today represents the most blatant example of settler-colonialism in a putatively post-colonial world. That is why it is such an offense. Arendt rightly reserved the term totalitarianism for those regimes whose forms of domination monstrously transcended utilitarian aims and became absolutely world-destroying — a proper distinction. Yet, she also anticipated that “totalitarian solutions” would “survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.” Such is the state of Israel today.
And what of the United States, the country that subsidizes Israeli apartheid to the tune of 8.6 million dollars per day? Many plausible explanations have been proffered for US support for Israel, including historic guilt for the Jewish victims and refugees of Europe, the establishment of imperial proxy relations in the heart of the world’s energy resources, and the influence of specific lobbying entities inside the US Congress. Yet, an explanation that may require further exploration and elaboration is how Israel becomes a political-cultural representation of the oldest of US national conceits: the settler colony as the beleaguered defender of the Western outpost in a savage and ungrateful world. More than a “special relationship,” US politicians from across the political spectrum tend to imagine Israel as part of a single political community — one whose unity, even across radically dispersed geography and jurisdiction, is precisely defined by its precariousness and justified paranoia in the face of existentially threatening “others.” Shadowed by the history of racism — the denial or refusal of any other human precedence in the zone of enclosure — the settler colony has proven uniquely resistant to decolonization. Persistently disavowing the violence that institutes its rule, it can never be secure, and so it violently doubles-down on its own escapist illusion: “a land without people for a people without a land.”
As the brilliant and courageous Haneen Zoabi points out in a recent interview, what is new in the Israeli situation today is not settler colonialism which has been the policy of the state of Israel since its inception; it is the breaking apart of the legitimating formula in which Israel is imagined as a “Jewish and democratic” state. “Democratic, when and only if Jewish,” would be a more accurate formulation. Indeed, settler leaders increasingly decry Israeli squeamishness around the term democracy. As veteran settler leader Benny Katzover puts it, “We didn’t come here to establish democracy, we came here to return the Jewish people to their land.” Under these terms, support for the millions of indigenous people of this land, the Palestinians, who live here side by side and in exile, and whose demands for equal rights, equal sovereignty, and historical and political recognition already constitute an enormous concession on their part, is increasingly seen by Israel as a threat to the survival of the state itself. This is at the core of the hysterical response to the critique of Israel today — for it is Israel that demands the unwavering equation between Zionism and Judaism, and it is the Zionist project today whose political instability and moral and ethical bankruptcy is visible to anyone willing to see it clearly.
Palestine/Israel is a small place. The drive from Ramallah back to Ben Gurion airport took what was by now a familiar route. Hilltop settlements and several of the hundreds of military checkpoints that dot this land monitor all our movements. Stopped and interviewed by soldiers at the entrance to the airport, I was asked if I had any relationship to my Palestinian driver. For a moment I thought of saying yes, since he and I had become a bit friendly. It was not the first time that I thought it better to hold my tongue. The young soldier was impressed by the iPhone displaying my boarding pass, but he was also concerned that I might be paying too much for the roaming charges. When he let us pass my friend shrugged, “They never say hello to me, even though they stop me here almost every day.”
Nikhil Pal Singh is an Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University. He is the author of Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy, which was recognized as the best book in US civil rights history by the Organization of American Historians in 2005. His collection of the writings of legendary civil rights activist Jack O’Dell, Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder, was recently published by the University of California Press. Singh is currently finishing a new book, Exceptional Empire: Race and War in US Globalism, forthcoming from Harvard University Press. He recently visited Palestine/Israel as a member of a delegation of scholars sponsored by the US Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
Top image: Wall art in Ramallah. Photograph by Nikhil Pal Singh.

Nikhil Pal Singh