No clear: Answers Losing hope in the West Bank
The world has changed so much in four decades. But, the Palestinians remain stateless, stuck in a refugee camp and fearful of Israeli settlers and soldiers. Worse, they have much less freedom today than in the past
NEW YORK: When I was a law student backpacking through the Middle East in 1982, I met two Palestinian university students on a local bus in the West Bank. We got to chatting and they invited me to their homes, so I jumped off the bus and spent a day with them in the jumbled alleys of the densely populated Dheisheh Refugee Camp. We had a good time together, for they told me about their Arabic studies at Bethlehem University, and I was then hatching a scheme to study Arabic myself in Cairo. We were all excited by education and full of youth and dreams. I wrote their names in my address book, but we never made contact again — until now.
After 41 years, I dug up my old address book and found their names. I wondered: Are they still alive? Have they moved abroad? At this grim moment, what do they think of Israel, Hamas and America? With the help of a local reporter who called around at the Dheisheh camp, I was able to locate them: Saleh Molhem, now 63 and graying, and Mahmoud Qaraqei, now 60. One reason it was possible to track them down is that Palestinian refugees aren’t very mobile. Both were still living in the same refugee camp. They remembered me and invited me to pay another visit.
It was wonderful to see them again, but our reunion was also a window into Palestinian frustrations: The world has changed so much in four decades, but while I’ve traveled the world and had a fulfilling career, they remain stateless, stuck in a refugee camp and fearful of Israeli settlers and soldiers. Worse, they have much less freedom today than when I met them in 1982. Back then, they could travel easily around Israel and find work there; on a weekend they could relax on Israeli beaches. “I used to drive to Tel Aviv for the day,” Mahmoud told me. Now they live under a stifling system of checkpoints and passes that make travel difficult even within the West Bank, and the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attack has made everything worse. Because of road closings by Israeli authorities, I couldn’t even get to their homes. We ended up meeting at a Bethlehem restaurant, but to get there I had to leave my Israeli car at a blocked road, clamber over a berm constructed by Israel and then catch a Palestinian taxi.
“I cannot go anywhere,” Mahmoud told me. “I want to go to a doctor in Hebron,” also in the West Bank, but he said that’s now not possible because of road blockages. Israelis say that if Palestinians have less freedom, that’s their own fault. They note that it was a rash of suicide bombings by Palestinians that led to the creation of barriers and checkpoints, here and in Gaza. When I first met them, Saleh and Mahmoud were full of lofty goals for travel and careers; they seemed optimistic. Now they are embittered and quick to believe the worst of Israel. “The only good Palestinian is a dead Palestinian,” Saleh said, describing his take on Israeli attitudes. Both had hoped to attend graduate school abroad — Saleh wanted to earn a Ph.D. in Arabic studies in Egypt, and Mahmoud hoped to earn a master’s in Spanish in Spain — but they say an Israeli crackdown made that impossible and their chances slipped away.
They both became West Bank secondary school teachers, but each said he was fired many years ago by Israeli authorities. Mahmoud said that Israeli officials dismissed him after he was jailed for 18 days for breaking curfew many years ago. Saleh said he was never arrested but was dismissed by Israeli officials for failing to keep students from throwing rocks at Israeli forces. They later found teaching jobs at United Nations-run schools for Palestinian refugees, and both are now retired. I can’t verify their accounts, and Israel’s version may be different. The Middle East is full of alternative narratives, each real to those inhabiting it, and Israel’s is focused on threats from Palestinians.
Gaza dominates the news these days, but at least 132 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, including 41 children, the United Nations says, along with one Israeli soldier killed by Palestinians. More than 900 Palestinians have been forced from their homes in that period.
These are longstanding problems, but they have gotten worse over the past few years and especially in the past few weeks.
“Settlers have been exploiting this war to violently expel shepherding communities,” said Rabbi Arik Ascherman, a human-rights activist in Israel. The United Nations said recently that there had been an average of seven settler attacks on West Bank Palestinians a day since Oct. 7, often with guns and frequently with the support of Israeli security forces. When I’ve spoken to settlers in the past, they’ve argued that they are just protecting themselves from Palestinians and that in any case, God gave them the entire area. “This is the deed to our land,” Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations told fellow envoys in 2019, holding up a Bible and referring to the West Bank as well as Israel. It was good to see President Biden on Oct. 25 denouncing “extremist settlers attacking Palestinians in the West Bank.” Settlers “have to be held accountable,” he said. “And it has to stop now.” Jessica Montell, who runs a human-rights group called HaMoked, said that there has also been a wave of arrests of West Bank Palestinians in the past few weeks. One reason Palestinians feel threatened is that Israel’s security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is a far-right figure who was once convicted in an Israeli court of supporting an Israeli terrorist group and more recently displayed a portrait in his home of an extremist who murdered 29 Palestinians. “It’s not hyperbole to say the Israeli equivalent of the K.K.K. are sitting in this government,” Montell said.
Perhaps for that reason, Saleh and Mahmoud were nervous about meeting me and cautious about what they said — a far cry from the way they had spoken freely when I first met them. After lunch, we said our goodbyes. I joked about meeting in another 41 years. They said darkly that they weren’t sure that they would survive even another few hours. There was a heavy silence.
We parted, all of us less spry than we had been the first time. They were fairly ordinary Palestinian men who had mostly kept their heads down; they had avoided politics and had not lost family members to the conflict. But they had lost freedom and dignity. There are untold numbers just like them who never make the headlines but are stewing inside.
I remembered two young men full of promise and warmth, animated by hope and inhabiting a world in which Israelis and Palestinians interacted regularly and didn’t much fear each other. It is wrenching to see such change. As Saleh and Mahmoud became dads and grandfathers, they were shorn of a future, of vitality, of hope. And that, I think, is the core of the Palestinian problem.