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Reporter's notebook

In the West Bank, a single state of mind

Individualism beats out ideology among Palestinian youngsters, who prefer Western clothing to radical Islam

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinians walk by a shop selling heart-shaped pillows for Valentine's day, in the center of the West Bank city of Ramallah, on February 14, 2015 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Palestinians walk by a shop selling heart-shaped pillows for Valentine's day, in the center of the West Bank city of Ramallah, on February 14, 2015 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

It was a relatively short trip: five Palestinian cities and East Jerusalem, from Jenin in the north to Hebron in the south, in less than two months, with stops in Bethlehem; Ramallah, of course; and Nablus. The purpose: to try to understand what the Palestinian public wants — or, to put it another way, to see where relations between Israel and the Palestinians are headed.

While of course it is hard to reach unequivocal conclusions based on random visits to six different cities, it still seems that the same general topics came up in almost every meeting, at least with the young Palestinians. Concepts such as intifada, jihad, and suicide attacks are so 1990s. The new discourse in the territories focuses on jobs, travel abroad (mainly to the Gulf Emirates, to strike it rich), getting far away from the Palestinian groups and concentrating on building a better personal future — a discourse that is almost identical to that of average young Israelis.

One senior Palestinian Authority official with whom I met told me that 10, 20, 30 years ago, he and the members of his generation talked about the struggle against Israel, the Palestinian homeland and Fatah. “Today they have Facebook, and everybody wants to make money quickly,” he said. “They don’t care as much about the ‘collective.’ They focus on the ‘I.’”

This may sound like optimism to the Israeli public. But behind this stance hides a pessimistic view of the situation — a view that actually poses a threat to the Zionist vision. The “average” young Palestinian, who is disappointed in the Palestinian Authority (and in Fatah), is more supportive of Hamas, but only at the ideological level. He is in no hurry to join the ranks of Hamas’s military wing. To him, “armed struggle” sounds like a nice but unenticing slogan.

Read Avi Issacharoff’s series of articles:
Stuck between Israel and the PA, Shuafat refugee camp seethes
In Ramallah, Abbas’s top negotiator says they’re running out of patience
With jobs in short supply, will Bethlehem slouch toward bedlam?
In Hebron, they support Hamas but dream of Tel Aviv
In Jenin, once the ‘suicide bomber capital,’ a fragile transformation
Tensions rising, Nablus braces for an intifada of hunger

As surprising as it may sound, radical Islam is not on the rise in the West Bank either. It is hard to find supporters of the ideology of Islamic State or al-Qaeda. The young people care much more about getting the right haircut and buying Western-style clothing.

So what remains? What is left is these young people’s realization that they must now concentrate on themselves and their families and better their economic situation. The years will go by, demographic trends will assert themselves and the Palestinians will become the majority between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Or, in other words, the two-state solution is dead for them. Long live the binational state.

One young man in the Deheishe refugee camp near Bethlehem explained these things to me simply. “Look at what is happening with the settlements,” he said. “How can we talk about a Palestinian state? So we will wait. In the end, we will be part of one state. Israelis and Palestinians. You will have to give us rights. And do you know what? I don’t even want to vote for your Knesset. But let me fly abroad from Ben-Gurion Airport.”

And so the West Bank is enjoying relative calm these days. There are almost no violent incidents. The economic situation is not good but it is not catastrophic either, as opposed to the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Authority and its security agencies maintain law and order relatively well; there is no feeling of chaos in the streets, as there was during the years of the Second Intifada.

New construction in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, with the Arab village of Wadi Fukin in the foreground, on June 17, 2015 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
New construction in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, with the Arab village of Wadi Fukin in the foreground, on June 17, 2015 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

While Hamas still enjoys public support, it realizes that since both the Israeli and Palestinian security forces are going after its people, it had best keep a low profile. Israel also takes measures from time to time to improve the situation, and mainly to keep calm, in the West Bank. So while the Israeli occupation goes on, at least it is an occupation of the deluxe variety.

But there are exceptions. First there are the refugee camps, particularly Balata near Nablus and Shuafat near Jerusalem. The economic, security and social situation there is poor, with rampant crime, soaring unemployment and an extremely low standard of living. One can still hear talk about the intifada in the refugee camps. While it is not at the same level of intensity as it was in the early 2000s, such talk still goes on. The ferment in Balata against the Palestinian Authority, for example, creates anger toward Israel too.

Second, there is East Jerusalem, where proximity to the Temple Mount and the absence of the Palestinian Authority take their toll, creating a volatile and tense atmosphere that suggests that Jerusalem’s wave of terror attacks is far from over, as we saw on Sunday.

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