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From martyrs to elections

Returning to Bethlehem after an absence of around nine months, one of the first things I noticed were the new posters. Even by the summer of 2004, the pictures of the shahid were fading, and recent additions were few and far between. A year on, and the faces of martyrs have been replaced by aspiring politicians, a reminder of the local elections that took place in the Bethlehem district not so long ago. Perhaps this is an example of the kind of ‘reform’ urged on the Palestinians by the U.S. and her allies.

The city streets are livelier in the evenings now, as the young men cruise around in their cars, and families take the opportunity to go for a late stroll. Behind this superficial improvement in life here, however, is a crippling unemployment rate that has become most people’s foremost concern. Many here have been out of work for months, if not years, and those lucky enough to be in employment are taking home a salary so low it is almost as insulting as it is gratefully received.

Wander towards the outskirts of Bethlehem and you will soon see the biggest change to the landscape here, the Separation Wall. Cutting into the north of the city to enfold Rachel’s Tomb, and stripping Beit Jala and Beit Sahour of much of their arable land, the Wall is turning Bethlehem into a giant prison. Up by the new checkpoint (or ‘terminal’), the Wall has been turned into an art gallery of graffiti, ranging from polemical slogans to bitterly ironic artistic masterpieces. A monstrous snake rears its head, while a lion tears its prey to pieces. ‘American Money/Israeli Apartheid’ is stamped across one section, ‘Welcome to the Ghetto’ on another.

People here now refer to the second intifada has something in the past, an uprising that, in the words of a friend who works in a phone shop in Bethlehem, ‘nobody won, and nobody lost’. Certainly, there is an inescapable feeling both on the ground and amongst political observers, that a new phase has commenced; witness the continuing disintegration of Fatah, and the changes in how Hamas relates to, and participates with, the Palestinian political institutions.

Crucially though, Israeli occupation and colonization policies are also entering a new phase, albeit with continuity of purpose. The ‘disengagement’ plan, or more realistically, the redeployment of Israeli armed forces and settlers, in Gaza, alongside the continued construction of the Wall and settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, brings a feeling of déja-vu, as well as representing a fresh development.

The signatures on the White House lawn, and the Oslo ‘peace process’ were the closing credits of the first intifada, an uprising that appeared to have wrought success in achieving a greater recognition worldwide of the Palestinian plight, as well as galvanizing and politicizing large swathes of the Palestinian population. Rather than ushering in an end to occupation, however, the Oslo years instead were a time of settlement expansion and the fragmenting of the West Bank, disguised as Palestinian autonomy and cloaked with the superficial trappings of statehood.

Now, there seems to be a repetition of aspects of this model. The intensity of violence that characterized the first few years of the second intifada has subsided, though the IDF remains as willing as ever to use violence to suppress resistance of all kinds to its monopoly of control in the Occupied Territories. Ariel Sharon, for all the talk of either ‘betrayal’ or ‘conversion’, is simply implementing the next act of politicide against the Palestinians that is part of a tradition that includes Oslo, Lebanon in the 1980s, settlement construction, and extends back to the expulsions and village erasures of Al-Nakba.

Showing the Wall in Bethlehem to some visiting Americans this week was a reminder of how this latest occupation policy can not be understood outside of the context of colonization policies in the Occupied Territories since the settlement program began in the early 1970s. The visitors were mystified as to the rationale for the route of the Wall, until its connection to the settlement blocs was pointed out; and this not a conspiracy theory, but a proud boast of Sharon, who with exasperation continually stresses to the Gush Katif supporters how he is actually Zionism’s most sturdy defender.

Post-first intifada there was a new vocabulary of Areas A, B, and C, and a new framework for internal Palestinian politics. The Occupied Territories were carved up, Palestinian urban areas were isolated, Israeli settlement blocs were consolidated or built from scratch, and the Palestinian Authority dealt with difficulty in its role as both representative of the colonized, and policeman of the colonizer. In 2005, the route of the Wall delineates the boundaries of Palestinian ghettoes that, in the absence of total ethnic cleansing, amounts to the best possible scenario for Israeli colonization ambitions. If a pattern does indeed exist, it of course suggests something else; the inevitability of a third intifada.

Published in the Palestine Chronicle.

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