By Mariam Barghouti
If I were given a dollar for the number of times diplomats, journalists, activists, and policy-makers have asked me “Have you thought about speaking with Israelis?” I could buy myself a chateau in Yaffa.
I choose Yaffa because that question rings loudly in my head whenever I visit the city. It is where my great-grandfather was killed in 1947, and where my grandfather spent his childhood and adolescence. Like most Palestinian cities, Yaffa is de jure banned to most Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza by Israel.
I was able to visit Yaffa some weeks ago, when the District Coordination Office (DCO), a part of the Israeli army’s Civil Administration that manages the day to day aspects of the occupation, issued me a travel permit. Permits are difficult to get, because they are conditional on strict yet arbitrary criteria that Israel determines.
On an intimate level, getting a permit takes a toll in that it affirms that we are only allowed to enter historic Palestine as tourists. Our visit is to remain an ephemeral experience, never with a possibility of remaining or returning.
More generally, the permit system is a reminder that Israel dictates all Palestinian movement, determining where we can go and how often we can meet one another. Even cities like Gaza, which are considered Palestinian districts, are barred from certain groups of Palestinians — I am more likely to meet fellow Palestinians from Gaza abroad than in Palestine, for example. Those in Gaza seeking to leave the strip for medical attention, often for treatment that is only available to them in the West Bank or Jerusalem, must also go through Israel’s permit regime. No matter the reason, Israel has assumed the role of providing permission for our movement — permission that can be revoked at any given moment.
I watch the beach waves undulate back and forth in Yaffa. I hear Hebrew all around me, mixed with the laughter of youth. Men, women and children lounge under umbrellas whipping in the sea breeze. Occasionally, Arabic escapes from the mouths of Palestinians who are of the city.
In 1948, after Zionist militias occupied Yaffa, a quarter of Palestinians were forced to flee. Israel’s Absentees Property Law allowed for the official confiscation of the emptied Palestinian homes and lands. Yaffa’s Old City has been turned into an Israeli artist colony. I walk feeling so foreign, yet the city is so loud with its Palestinianisms.
I watch as Israelis roam freely, wondering if the ongoing violations of rights and injustice ever occur to them. A young woman, a police officer, walks with a pistol on her hip. She doesn’t look older than 18. Her long, jet black hair matches her black skirt. The purse over her shoulder reads “Forever Young” in big, bold letters. Have too many generations passed to recognize the history in which Israel drowns? Have decades of negating injustice normalized a new form of justice?
I enter one of the art galleries near the sea. The curator is Israeli. She watches as two young women walk in speaking Arabic loudly, laughing at this reality we were experiencing. The Israeli woman asks where I am from. “Ramallah,” I say, quickly. A privilege of traveling with a permit is not having to conceal my identity out of fear of arrest.
She smiles and says: “Oh, I would love to come party in Ramallah.” My heart sinks. My veins feel like they are burning. I feel so angry, so hurt. All I can muster is a labored “When Palestine is liberated, there will be a massive party. Until then.”
I want to shout at her. I want to ask her if she ever questions her position, if it ever occurs to her what the history of that ancient building she carefully crafts her art in used to be. It is no wonder that the Palestinian plight is so camouflaged for Israelis. Our existence is narrated in the voices of an exaggerated heroism of soldiers and armies, of security complexes, of fearing the Arab and yet, somehow, fetishizing us.
The first time I saw my grandfather cry was a few blocks away from here, at the Clock Tower Square. It took my grandfather years of heartache, of resistance, of life in exile, to be afforded the “right” to visit the city he is from, decades after he was forced out. His old age graced him with the ability to visit — his fragile bones, atrophying body, and wrinkled, leathery skin mean he is not the threat he once was to Israel. He held the stones of the Clock Tower and called for his father, long dead. There he was, my 88-year-old grandfather, crumbling in front of a large stone clock in a city he holds so dear but can only temporarily come back to.
At some point in the evening, an older woman hears my Arabic and asks where I am from. “Ramallah,” I say again, this time as I eagerly wait for my bucket of fried shrimp at a Palestinian-owned restaurant in Yaffa.
Although Yaffa used to be at the core of Palestinian economy, Palestinians who have remained are struggling to survive as second and third-class citizens. It is an injustice reflective of Israel’s Jewish supremacy, where privileges are often afforded not only to Israeli-Jewish citizens but especially those of Ashkenazi (European) origin. I made sure that every penny I would spend would support the Palestinians who remain, despite all odds.
The woman, also waiting for her own order, smiles back. I finally ask her where she’s from. “I am from Akka. But the old Akka,” she says in Arabic.
I was excited. Akka, a city in northern historic Palestine, had captivated me in a manner which I cannot describe in words. I learned that many Palestinians romanticize the struggle in a similar way. It has become a necessary coping mechanism, given the incessant feelings of loss; to hold on to what is us in some beautiful way. To remember that while our reality may be tragic, we are not a tragedy.
I smile from cheek to cheek wanting to hug the woman, to smell Akka off her flesh. To feel like I saw Akka in Yaffa that night.
Something in the way Arabic rolls off her tongue feels outlandish, though. She said Akka al-Qadeema (Old Akka) with so much pride and such a true sense of belonging — but it turns out she is Israeli. A settler.
I feel betrayed. We focus on the settlers in the West Bank, but somehow purposely ignore the settlers of Akka, Yaffa, Haifa, and Safad. Israel built its entire state by forcing Palestinians out. What’s worse is that this is still happening today.
Israel’s discriminatory land policies make it even more difficult for Palestinians to keep or own lands. As the state annexes and settles over more occupied land, it keeps the Palestinians living in those areas under military rule, disenfranchised. Israel feels so emboldened, it demolishes homes even in areas meant to be under full Palestinian control.
Before departing the table, the woman looks at my friends and I and asks if she could take a picture of us. Not with us, but of us. Were we exhibits? My mind returns to the art gallery.
I wonder if some decades from now settlements like Ariel and Modi’n will be drawn into maps as part of Israel, with Palestinians merely as “exotic” passersby to be photographed and fetishized rather than recognized. It terrifies me. I wonder if the woman recognized what she was saying in her broken Arabic, of the city that I can only see in momentary glimpses. It is hours — days, weeks, maybe some months if we’re fortunate — before my permit expires, when I would have to make my way back to the West Bank, or else Israel will deem my presence in my own ancestral city as “illegal.”
“Have you thought about speaking with Israelis?” I have. More times than I can recall. I find that the Israelis who call out the occupation and recognize their settler-colonial position do not join Palestinians in “dialogue” but actively refuse to tolerate or participate in the continued displacement and oppression of Palestinians.