Friday, April 01, 2005

It#s 11 o'clock in the morning. I find it difficult to get up. I'm not sure about smoking that spliff last night.. I try to write the Eleanor way: in bed, in my sleeping bag. With my laptop on my tummy.

Notre-Dame is a big Catholic complex opposite the old city, with a church, a convention centre and a guest house. It's quite hideous in its Parisian architecture, completely out of place. I went there yesterday to hear a presentation on Israeli and Palestinian public opinions. I went mainly to hear Dr. Khalil Shikaki: I've been reading him for a few years now and found him one of the best commentators on Palestinian affairs. He and his Israeli colleagues are conducting a series of public opinion polls in Israel and Palestine, in the last five years.
One of the ideas behind Dr. Shikaki's and his Israeli colleagues work is to fight prevailing stereotypes in both societies as to the other side's beliefs. To put more clearly: even when a majority on both sides supports more-or-less the same political framework for a peace settlement, both sides believe that the other side rejects it. Both sides believe that they want peace and the other side doesn't. Palestinian-Israeli opinion polls, conducted every few months, and try to publish their findings as much as possible, so that people have a better picture of the other side's opinions.

I try to follow Dr. Shikaki's lecture, with all the complicated graphs and coloumns. It's a bit difficult to understand. The person behind me, who was reading carefully a newspaper clipping with a magnifying glass, dropped the glass to the floor. I looked back and see that his heavy breathing is snoring.

Dr. Shikaki presents the conclusions of the latest survey. For the first time public opinion on both sides shows clear support for what is called here the Clinton framework. This consists of a two-state solution, dismantling of most settlements, Jerusalem the capital of both states, return to 67' borders with minor changes, and a solution for the Palestinian refugees (in which only few of them will be allowed back into Israel). The major difference is that Israelis want to get there very slowly, step by step, and the Palestinians would like to see it happening as soon as possible, being sick of interim agreements which only prolong the occupation. And for the first time since 2000, Palestinian public opinion is resolutely against the use of violence against Israeli civilians (suicide bombings).

As someone there said, the next two years are perhaps the last chance of a viable two-state Israel Palestine solution. Is it going to happen? I personally doubt it. Israelis are totally focused on the pull-out from Gaza, and the clash with the settlers there. They are happy about the ceasefire and the end of the suicide bombing, but they fail to see that for the Palestinians the daily reality of the occupation has hardly changed. The Palestinians in West Bank or Gaza are living in a huge prison, where movement between cities is often practically impossible; the economy is doing miserably, with no jobs, most Palestinians live in dire poverty. The Wall is continued to be built, and in a few months it will cut East Jerusalem from the West Bank. If nothing changes in that respect, if the roadblocks are still there and the economy stifled, will it be possible to sustain the level of Palestinian support in Peaceful settlement, and the opposition to violence? The current Palestinian President, Mahmud Abbas, is identified with the Oslo process. If he fails, I'm not sure his successor would be as keen on the two-state solution. Nothing will happen of its own accord: the Israeli government is reluctant to give up its totally control over Palestinian lives; the only party with influence here is the US, but it is only mildly interested in what's going on, so the chances of meaningful negotiation taking place anytime soon seem slim. Perhaps I'm wrong; perhaps - like a lot of Israelis believe - the pullout from Gaza will create its own momentum.

As I go out of the lecture, I notice that the heatwave is over. It's much colder, the sky overcast and dark, and storms of sand sweep the streets. The dust flies into my eyes as I'm cycling against the wind.

* * *

Last night I visited my friends Yoav and Lily. I told them the usual squatting tales: this time its about the landlord's visit we had a few months ago, which became a strange and confusing situation. Yoav was of course sarcastic, taking the landlord's side. But he's not alone: all my friends here do the same. "You don't really think you're in the right there, do you? I mean, it's his house". Again and again I find myself explaining: the house was empty for years on end; the last tenants made it a hazard for the neighboors, dumping their shit into the neighbours garden, so the council evicted them and and declared the house condemned. We came in not to make it our property but to live in a place nobody else cared about. We are making good of something which was left to rot. What makes it his house? He hasn't been there for decades; he hasn't taken care of it; he can't live there because the toilets cannot be used (we use a composting toilet); he hasn't even paid the mortgage. In a few years it will be the bank's house.

But then we come to talk about yoav's house. It's what we call "Arab house": a Palestinian house that was left during 48', when many Palestinians had to leave and became refugees. The house is in Abu Thor, a the neighborhood which was partly taken over by the Israeli army in '48. "This was the the last house before the border; the next street was Jordanian territory, right here, below our window" yoav says. "You can see the bullet marks on the iron railing" he shows me the twisted bits of metal. The empty houses in the Israeli side soon became populated by Jewish immigrants. The other part of the Abu-Thor was under Jordnaian rule, and since 67 it is a mixed neighborhood, Israeli-Palestinian. Not much integration, but not much tension either. Israeli and Palestinian Kids play football in the big yard. But they don't play with each other.

Yoav and Lily bought the house 6 years ago. "Have the original landlords ever come to visit?" I ask. Yoav says he believes the house was owned by Armenians, but they probably rented it out. During the last renovation, before they moved in, he saw some people hanging around the house, looking at it in a strange way. They didn't say anything. Maybe they used to live here.
But no one ever knocked on your door, with a big suitcase in hand, I ask.
No, they say.

I sometimes think about this in London; it complicates squatting for me. When Mr. Balahi showed up at the door, I could not help thinking about Palestinian refugees and their houses, and about the house my grandmother had to leave in Poland. Who is the rightful owners of these houses? And how should we think of the people who moved into these houses, in Palestine, in Poland? Ruthless usurpers? Intruders? Squatters? Refugees seeking a haven? The story can be told in so many ways. A good starting point is to hear as many stories as possible, to tell stories not from one vantage point.

"Maybe I've told you this already" I said to Yoav "But when I was here two years ago, I went to an election meeting with a Parliamentary candidate, member of the ex-Communist bloc. The meeting took place in Ein Karem, in an old 'Arab house'. The village was taken over in '48. I asked him about the right of return for refugees. "The rights of refugees have to be acknowledged. But I don't think this is the main problem, and it can be solved in negotiation, through political agreement" he said, partly evading the question. There was a murmuring approval in the room: the crowd was Jewish, Liberal lefties. I looked at the room, the beautiful stone walls: this was a Palestinian house, once upon a time. The people that lived here are today refugees. You're sitting in their house - shouldn't you acknowledge this in any way? And how can you be so sure the problem is solvable, for them?"
"But they can't go back to the houses. They will get compensation. That's the only possible solution" said Yoav.

I didn't disagree with him: I don't see a possibility of massive return of refugees into Israel. And I don't like the discourse of 'right of return'; I'm pessimistic about the chances to rectify the past after 60 years, and I don't like to think of politics in terms of 'rights'. A few years ago I read someone saying: "Why can't people on both sides understand? We can't redistribute the past, and probably we cannot redistribute the present, but at least we can try to share the future together, as equals". I like to think this way; sharing the future is difficult enough, so sharing the past is probably impossible. But I belive we should at least face the past. We should talk about how people were forced to leave their homes. We should talk about what happened in '48, we should listen.

"When my parents go hiking, and they go a lot" I said to Yoav "they can pay careful attention to some archaeological site from 3000 years ago, or the remains of a Roman house, but they totally ignore the traces of Arab villages that were destroyed after '48. They're not interested in knowing their names, and the stories behind them. It's as if they don't see them at all. It's as if they try their best not to see them".

Yoav suggested we go to the Dir-Yasin memorial, next Thursday. I said I'll come with him.


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