Israelis Now Face the Consequences of a Long Occupation

A veteran reporter could see during a recent visit to the region that it was at a violent inflection point, but she never thought the catalyst would come from Gaza

Israelis Now Face the Consequences of a Long Occupation
Israeli protesters hold signs and flags during a protest against the government’s judicial overhaul plan in March in Tel Aviv. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

On a warm, late spring day earlier this year, I had lunch at an East Jerusalem restaurant with a friend from Nazareth, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who works for an international human rights organization. We hadn’t met since I left the country in 2011, when a short reporting trip to revolutionary Egypt morphed into a decadelong absence from the region that I loved and loathed with equal intensity. Now, over a plate of vegan kibbe prepared by the restaurant’s Palestinian chef, a dynamic young woman with curly hair, my friend told me that a catastrophe was coming.

“You thought things were bad 12 years ago, when you left because you couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. “Well, compared to today, that was a golden time.”

The theme of a place quivering on the edge of catastrophe recurred in many conversations during that five-week visit to Israel and Palestine.

A journalist friend from Ramallah sat hunched over coffee in the shaded courtyard restaurant of the American Colony Hotel as she described, in an intense near-whisper, what she said was an unprecedented culture of fear among Palestinians in the city. People she had known for more than 20 years now refused to be interviewed, even on background. They had been crushed, she said. I asked her about the grassroots anti-occupation protests in villages like Bil’in and Nabi Saleh, where I had seen so much army violence in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Finished, she said. Crushed.

The presence of aggressive, heavily armed militarized police in East Jerusalem was far heavier than I remembered. Black-clad paramilitary police, their eyes hidden behind reflective aviator glasses, roared along Salah al-Din Street on motorcycles, cradling machine guns, pulling cars over when the drivers looked Palestinian. They strolled the alleys of the walled Old City, detaining people randomly as they went about their daily business — even children on their way to school. The stone steps in front of Damascus Gate, once a popular gathering place for young people who sat for hours, spitting sunflower seed shells and drinking cola, were now all but deserted. At the top of the stairs was a newly constructed pillbox-like police station with opaque windows.

In one of the alleys in the Muslim Quarter, I rounded a corner just as two Jewish boys, 13 or 14 years old and wearing the distinctive attire of far-right religious settlers, tackled two Palestinian boys, 9 or 10 years old, who had been kicking a soccer ball against a wall, and began punching them in their heads. A secular Israeli tour guide leading a group of Christian pilgrims pulled the settler boys off and told them to cut it out. One of the Jewish boys, covered in dust from rolling on the ground, yelled furiously, “I’m going to fuck them up!” It could have been just an ordinary altercation between boys, except that in this case it was political — and dangerous, because the police always sided with the settlers. It’s their job.

A Palestinian acquaintance who lived nearby said that an increasing number of religious nationalist Israelis had moved in over the previous few years and seemed committed to making the lives of their neighbors unbearable. In one case, he said, a family had drilled a hole in the floor of their recently occupied upper-level apartment so they could stare at and harass the Palestinian family below. As he spoke, I watched a young religious Israeli couple pass by, the man pushing a toddler sleeping in a Bugaboo carriage and carrying a newborn in a Baby Bjorn. His wife, who wound her headscarf in the style associated with the religious nationalist right, smiled and cooed at the toddler in the carriage. Tucked into the back of his belt was an automatic pistol.

In Nablus, a friend sat in her spotlessly clean living room, brushing away tears as she described the nightly gun battles that were audible in her middle-class neighborhood. Israeli special forces and Palestinian Authority forces took turns carrying out raids against various armed Palestinian militant groups in the lower city, arresting suspects who were then subjected to violent interrogations.

She spoke about the fear engendered by living in a society that was effectively an open fire zone. Lethal violence perpetrated against civilians by Palestinian and Israeli state actors — or, in the case of the violent settlers living in the Nablus area, by state-supported actors — occurs regularly, with impunity. The data is grim, but the videos shared in WhatsApp groups, some of which I saw, are worse.

The checkpoint at the main entrance to Nablus is a stress-inducing sight, with soldiers in battle gear sitting behind machine guns propped on sandbags. My friend’s husband crosses that checkpoint when he drives to visit his family. The settlers who live near Nablus are of the violent, racist variety and are notably emboldened by the far-right government. Hence, there is a near-stifling climate of fear.

My friend would not allow her 10-year-old son to take his brightly colored plastic Nerf gun when his father drove him to visit his cousins in the village; the soldiers at the checkpoint might think it was a real gun, shoot first and claim they had thought it was a lethal weapon later. There were almost never any consequences for the soldiers.

As we talked, we could hear her son playing Minecraft in his bedroom, shouting instructions in English at a virtual friend who lived in Belgrade. She rubbed her eyes again and said, “They let you have just enough so that you have something to lose.” She and her husband wanted to leave, to emigrate. They wanted to take their carefully raised son, with his Spider-Man bed sheets, his Minecraft, his soccer and music lessons, and his fluent English, to a safer place.

Early the next morning, I was standing on the balcony drinking tea when my friend’s son came out, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He wrapped his arms around my waist to hug me and we stood together for a few minutes, looking down at the early-morning traffic. There must have been a wedding the previous night, I said. I heard firecrackers.

“Oh no,” he said. “That was gunfire. Firecrackers are illegal in Nablus.”

On my second morning in Tel Aviv, in a bit of a fugue state from the combination of jetlag and reverse culture shock, I walked to the corner cafe and ordered the first of three espressos. I drank it while sitting at a communal table with my laptop propped in front of me, listening to snippets of conversation from nearby tables.

“Excuse me,” a young man said to me in English. “Is this seat taken?” I smiled and indicated that he could have the empty place next to me. After a few minutes, I glanced over and saw that he was reading “The Vanishing Half,” a novel about the psychic toll that passing for white takes on a black woman in the contemporary United States. Speaking in Hebrew, I said that I had heard the book was very good and asked if he was enjoying it. “I’m sorry,” he answered in English. “I don’t speak Hebrew.” The fashionable tattoos on his forearms, his slim black T-shirt, cutoff jeans and hairstyle were all so typically hipster Tel Aviv that I was a bit taken aback and asked where he was from. “Nablus,” he answered. My eyebrows hit my hairline. How?!

Tareq, which is not his real name, had learned via a Facebook group about a private initiative that provided internships at Israeli high-tech companies for Palestinian graduates from West Bank universities. He applied, was accepted and had managed to stay legally in Tel Aviv for more than two years. The NGO took care of renewing his permit, and he managed to keep himself in work with short-term contracts at various high-tech companies. With his perfect English (self-taught, he said) Tareq didn’t need Hebrew in secular, worldly Tel Aviv, among the tech bros and digital nomads. He shared an apartment with two Israelis and spent most of his nights at clubs. He loved Tel Aviv, he said, and he had figured out how to assimilate with the right clothes and the right body language. “I learned that if you act white, people treat you as white,” he said, paraphrasing a snippet from the book he had been reading in the cafe.

At a subsequent meeting, Tareq acknowledged, in an emotional two-hour conversation, that the cheery picture of easy assimilation he had painted was incomplete. He felt both very free in Tel Aviv and very afraid. He was terrified of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of being stopped by police and asked for his ID card. He was enraged that the doorman at a popular nightclub turned him away based on his name — although, he added, his Israeli friends had responded to this incident by launching a Facebook campaign to shame the owner, threatening to boycott the club until he backed down and grudgingly apologized. But even with his supportive friends and his permission to be in Israel, Tareq felt his existence in Tel Aviv was precarious. Few companies would hire a Palestinian from the West Bank — he said that interviews went well until human resources realized how much paperwork was involved — so he was forced to work as a short-term contractor, without any of the benefits or protections to which a citizen was entitled. His permission could be withdrawn at any time, without notice or explanation. And he could not face returning to conservative, occupied Nablus after liberal, free Tel Aviv.

But when I offered Tareq a ride in a taxi to visit his family, he accepted. It saved him the stressful experience of traveling by public transportation while Palestinian, with the long waits at checkpoints and the risk of arbitrary detention. I’d hired a Palestinian driver from East Jerusalem to transport us from Tel Aviv to Nablus and then back again. It was expensive, but worth it. With yellow Israeli license plates we were waved through the minor checkpoints, questioned only perfunctorily at the main one, and permitted to drive on the better-paved roads that were off limits to drivers with green-and-white Palestinian Authority license plates. The round-trip journey, about 90 minutes each way, cost me 1,300 shekels, or $320. By contrast, a round-trip easyJet flight from Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv to Gatwick Airport in London goes for less than $180.

Tareq’s presence turned out to be a very good thing, since we needed his human navigation knowledge when Waze, the GPS navigation system, balked at being directed to enter Nablus. As we approached the city, it warned, in Hebrew and Arabic, “Danger! You are entering a forbidden zone! Turn back now! Danger!” This happened to be right near the place where violent Israeli settlers had staged a pogrom just a couple of weeks earlier, attacking Palestinians and setting fire to their homes while soldiers stood by and watched.

We went through the checkpoint, past tense-looking soldiers who lay on their bellies behind sandbags, their machine guns pointed at the passing cars. The street in lower Nablus was lined with garages that had signs in Arabic and Hebrew advertising car repair services. Once, in the “golden time” my friend had referred to at the restaurant in East Jerusalem, Israelis had driven here to have their cars fixed, because the services in the occupied territories were much cheaper than in Israel. While they were waiting, they would eat the city’s famous knafeh, a sweet cheese dessert.

For me, visiting Nablus was a pleasure. The winding, hilly city has beautiful architecture, an ancient bazaar, delicious food and attractive views. Sitting on a terrace overlooking the city at dusk, as the call to prayer emanates from dozens of mosques and echoes polyphonically from the hills, is a romantic experience. But I can leave after eating the delicious food and looking at the beautiful view. For my friends, the occupation is omnipresent.

When I admired a street in the ancient old city, they told me that Israeli forces had killed 17 Palestinians there in a raid. When they invited a friend to join us at a cafe near the ruins of a Roman coliseum, she texted that she would be late because she was stuck at an army checkpoint. When I admired the beauty of the Roman ruins, they said they knew the army would confiscate the site soon, ending access to their last outdoor recreation spot. When I gestured at the terraced landscape dotted with picturesque villages, they pointed out the Israeli army base, the listening post and the settlements on the hilltop. It was easy to understand why they felt so hemmed in and dehumanized.

Back in Tel Aviv, I told my friend Katia (not her real name), who is a respected policy analyst, about the level of violence and despair I had seen in the West Bank and Jerusalem. I theorized that the situation, always untenable but sustained by force and coercion, was now simply unsustainable. The climate of hopelessness and rage — against the Israeli army, the settlers, the repressive and thoroughly discredited Palestinian Authority — was combustible. Add on the seeming indifference of the Arab leaders and a world that welcomed Ukrainian refugees while closing its doors to Palestinians, and you had the trigger.

We worried and theorized about the situation, which she knew well. But we almost never talked about Gaza, the most intractable problem of all, although the periodic wars, or military operations, with their many civilian casualties, the dead children, were agonizing to watch. A couple of Hamas rockets had, in fact, landed near Tel Aviv just a few days earlier.

But we had no way of knowing the situation in Gaza firsthand. Getting permission to cross the Draconian checkpoint at Erez was complicated for anyone, but impossible for Israelis. I hadn’t been there since 2006, when the army ended access to Israeli citizens, even journalists with foreign passports. Sometimes, in conversation with people who subscribed to a confederation model for Israel-Palestine, I would ask how Gaza fit into the picture. The response was an uneasy shrug and the assurance that something could be worked out. The details, they assured me, could wait.

Katia and I were having this conversation while sitting at an outdoor table in the warm sunshine, surrounded by attractive, relaxed people who seemed to have all the time in the world for a leisurely coffee on a weekday afternoon. A mutual acquaintance passed by with his 4-year-old daughter on his shoulders and stopped to say hello. He was gay, lived nearby with his partner, and taught human rights law. The daughter, who had bright blond curls and wore a pretty sundress that matched her blue eyes, attended an English-language kindergarten. She was already bilingual, he boasted. I noted that “bilingual” did not refer to Arabic and Hebrew.

“Will I see you at the Saturday protest?” he asked, as the little girl waved goodbye. I assured him that I would be there. Somehow, people did manage to find one another, among tens of thousands of demonstrators, at what had de facto become the most important social event of the week: the weekly protest staged against the Netanyahu government.

I turned to Katia and asked what would become of this place of radical contrasts and deep uncertainty. In Tel Aviv, gay married couples lived happily in a sunny Mediterranean city full of fashionable people, artists, intellectuals and rich tech bros who divided their time among Silicon Valley, Europe’s capital cities and multimillion-dollar apartments in the neighborhood where, 20 years earlier, I had paid monthly rent of just $500 for an unrenovated but spacious, light-filled, Bauhaus-style apartment. Now, the construction of luxury apartment complexes could barely keep up with demand.

All this prosperity and confidence existed even as a far-right governing coalition that included overt, unabashed fascists was poised to pass legislation that would make the independent judiciary effectively subservient to the legislature. The opposition “democracy” movement is funded and organized by high-tech CEOs who seem utterly indifferent to the rights of Palestinians living under a 56-year-old military occupation — possibly because many of them had served in elite military intelligence units.

And yet, the West Bank and Gaza are less than one hour’s drive, in opposite directions, from the salubrious delights of Tel Aviv’s cafes, art galleries, clubs and beaches.

Nor have the democracy movement leaders addressed the undeniable fact that, for all the commitment of the protesters, who kept showing up, week after week, the movement had failed to stop the government from pursuing its plan to end the judiciary’s independence and thus Israel’s right to call itself the only democracy in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s far-right government was solidly in power and impervious to the protests. There were only two things that could stop the legislation: violence, which would be catastrophic, or an election, which Netanyahu would not have to call unless his coalition collapsed. And his coalition would collapse only if he reneged on his promise of judicial overhaul.

I don’t know what will happen, Katia said. The level of uncertainty is so high that people are freaking out.

Tel Aviv was undergoing a radical, frenetic renovation that an observant friend compared to Paris during the Haussmann era. The main streets and squares had been completely dug up for an intra-urban light rail and underground train system; the work caused epic traffic jams, which reminded me of Bangkok or Cairo. Every single block of the city, from the garden suburbs of the north to the “gentrified” former slums of the south, was home to at least one major residential or commercial building project. From Sunday morning until Friday afternoon, when the Jewish Sabbath brought 25 hours of quiet, the city vibrated and clanged from jackhammers, heavy trucks, bulldozers, excavators and hammers.

During a time of deep, anxiety-inducing uncertainty about the viability of the state’s basic institutions, the municipality of Tel Aviv was excavating and building the infrastructure for a city of the future.

The Saturday night democracy demonstrations were entering their 20th week. Attendance felt important, although only a tiny minority of Israelis seemed remotely aware of the cognitive dissonance in chanting “de-mo-KRAT-iya” (democracy) to protest Netanyahu’s plan to end the judiciary’s independence even as the army they had all served in continued to maintain a system that deprived nearly 5 million Palestinians of their basic civil rights. Standing about 30 meters away from the milling mass of protesters waving Israeli flags, chanting “democracy!” and singing the national anthem, was the anti-occupation bloc — a few hundred committed leftists who waved Palestinian flags, chanted “hourayah!” (freedom in Arabic) and brandished placards that read, in Hebrew and Arabic, “There is no democracy with occupation.”

I took a photo of them and texted it to my friend in Nablus, wanting to show her that, in the heart of Tel Aviv, under the shadow of the ministry of defense, there were Israelis who cared about Palestinians. About an hour later, she texted me back. “Thank you for sharing.” No “habibti” (an Arabic word meaning “my love” or “my darling”), no kissy emoticons, no red hearts. I realized from her anodyne response that she didn’t want the sympathy of some well-meaning leftist activists who saw her as a victim. She is an educated, middle-class woman and she wanted, I think, to be seen for what she was — their equal, who should have the same basic rights as they had.

During my last week in Tel Aviv, a scandal broke out in Hebrew on social media. Rawia Aburabia, a Bedouin academic who is a well-known figure in Israeli civil society, posted a long statement in a WhatsApp group for civil society activists; it went viral on Facebook, where I read it. The Tel Aviv protest organizers, she wrote, had invited her to speak at the Saturday night demonstration. After she accepted the invitation, they called her back and told her that she could talk about anything — except the occupation. Outraged, she told them she refused to be censored and would therefore not speak at the demonstration.

I called Rawia and confirmed that events had occurred as written in the viral social media post. I asked how she interpreted the incident. She responded: “This incident demonstrates that the protesters want rights and democracy for Ashkenazi Jews and that’s all.”

My flight out was the following morning. The first thing I saw upon entering Ben Gurion Airport was the check-in counter for Emirates Airlines. On the wall above was an advertisement offering low mortgage rates to serving officers in the military. In the duty-free shops, women wearing abayas and niqabs browsed the Dior makeup and the Prada perfumes. A pilot wearing an ID card on a lanyard that was stamped with the words “Air Cairo” asked a salesperson about the price of AirPods for his iPhone. Two men wearing spotless white dishdashas and ghutrahs stood in front of me in the express security line and were waved through. These scenes would have been unimaginable a decade ago. I was bemused, amused and uncomfortable to see that the Israeli government had apparently achieved its dream of normalizing relations with the Arab world while ignoring the Palestinians.

A week later, Rawia Aburabia posted on Facebook that she had been subjected to the humiliation of the full “security” treatment at the airport. She was taken aside for questioning while ground staff removed the contents from her suitcase and threw them back in before allowing her to fly to her academic conference in Europe.

Something has to give, I told Israeli friends in Montreal as we discussed my trip. I theorized that the violence would start in the West Bank, where the death of the frail and widely loathed president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, would lead to a power struggle among various armed factions. The army would use this as an excuse to reoccupy Area A, which would release generalized violence that would spill over into Israel. And then, chaos.

But I forgot about Gaza.

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