Fayrouz Sharqawi is the Local Mobilization Coordinator at Grassroots Jerusalem, a Palestinian organization amplifying Palestinian voices from Jerusalem in order to help create a Palestinian long-term strategy for the Palestinian capital.
Coexistence of Normalization?
Around ten years ago, when I was a student at the university, I needed to take part time jobs to pay my rent. One job I took was to help with the logistics of a trip by an American group to visit “Israel and Palestinian territory in order to learn about the political situation”. The program included a visit to the Lipski plastic factory in the settlement of Ariel in the north of the West Bank. Speaking to the guests, the manager of the company said they were “proud to prove industry can be a model to foster coexistence,” loudly emphasizing that the factory hires Palestinian workers.
The manager’s words infuriated me, and I thought to myself: how dare he speak of co-existence when his factory is built on lands seized by force from these very same people he is proud to say he hires? When the water his factory uses is at the expense of these people’s own thirst? When the settlements and their industrial zones are aggressively eating up more Palestinian lands, drying them of natural resources, severing the West Bank and suffocating the Palestinian economy?
Normalizing the occupation means engaging in any type of political, economic, cultural or educational relationship with Israel, in a way that suggests that the current reality of colonization is ‘normal’. From a Palestinian perspective, it simply means having such relations while disregarding the fact that this occupation State is continuously demolishing our homes, suffocating our economy and brutally controlling every single aspect of our lives.
Considering the case of the Lipski factory as an example of coexistence might, to some, seem ridiculous and rude. The Israeli industrial zones in the West Bank are the economic engine of the illegal settlement blocs, and one of the greatest obstacles to building a viable Palestinian economy. These settlement blocs strategically commandeer main transportation routes, appropriate water resources and agricultural lands, and destroy the flow of Palestinian goods. Accepting the description of the Lipski CEO would clearly be an act of normalizing this economic colonization.
Some not so clear cut cases are those of “peace-building” initiatives between Palestinians and Israelis. These initiatives, starting as early as the 1970s (between Israelis and 1948 Palestinians) and enhanced following the signing of the Oslo Agreement in 1993, bring together Palestinians and Israelis to foster “dialogue and build peace”. The rationale stated behind such initiatives is to develop mutual understanding and bring the participants closer together. According to Rabah Halabi, a Palestinian academic who developed and implemented such dialogue projects for over two decades, the ultimate objective being that the oppressed understand the fears of the oppressor. The goal, then, has been to normalize and preserve the existing situation, by attempting to make Palestinians empathise with their oppressors.
When I was a student, and not half as politically aware as I am today, I also took a job as an interpreter at “dialogue groups” between Palestinian and Israeli youth. During these “dialogue-meetings”, I always felt unease. Something in the dynamics of the group bothered me, but I never could explain what, not even to myself. The settings supposedly secured a “neutral atmosphere where both sides were equal”. Yet, as a Palestinian, I did not feel free or powerful. Even though participants enjoyed freedom of expression within the group, it did not feel the two sides were really equally powerful.
Moreover, after each meeting, I would head to my neighborhood and think how easily the officer asking for my ID on the way could be someone from the Israeli group; how someone’s mother could be the judge signing the demolition order of my uncle’s home tomorrow, or the arrest warrant of my friend the day after. I was expected to tolerate how the Israeli participants justify such actions (using the “magic word” – security) or, at best, alienate themselves as individuals from their Government’s policies. I was angry that I eventually quit my job because I could not handle the dissonance.
Today, I can explain the negative political implications of such projects. First, while they have proven to fail in bringing about real change, they create a fake impression that there is a keen Israeli will to solve the so-called “conflict”. Second, as Halabi states, Israeli participants believe that in order to have peace, they must hold control, and any Palestinian speaking out with a firm tone is a threat to the convenient status-quo where they call the shots. As a result,
It is impossible to build peace between the oppressor and the oppressed. No true peace can be achieved while maintaining policies of Zionization, colonization and control. The military occupation, ethnic cleansing, land theft and killing must end before we can sit and talk as equals. Peace and normality cannot co-exist with oppression.