Knife into society

by Toine van Teeffelen
Arab Educational Institute, Bethlehem

This Tuesday the mayor of Bethlehem, Anton Salman, was attacked with a knife. He got a deep wound in his right cheek that had to be stitched. It could have been even worse if the knife had landed higher or lower. The attacker was somebody from the Hebron area apparently motivated by revenge, as he did not receive a permit to sell corncobs on the street. After fleeing he was caught by Palestinian police in Hebron. In the evening a public demonstration was held in front of the Church of Nativity to express solidarity with the mayor and his family and protest against the lack of law and order. “An attack on the mayor is an attack on all of us.” In the aftermath people emphasized that decisions are needed, not rhetoric.

Among the issues coming up in the discussions at home and at work are the following.

First, it seems that the police are sometimes reluctant to enforce – or delay enforcing – the law, and arrest lawbreakers. The police are the representatives of the Palestinian National Authority on the street and have a credibility problem due to among other things the ongoing inter-party struggles in Palestinian politics. Due to the overall situation citizens are emotionally on the edge, and an arrest can easily lead to a quarrel or clash. When the municipality decided to regulate the bastaat (sales on the street), such as in the area in front of the Church, the attack took place.

Don’t forget here the broader context of occupation. In area C, over 60% of the West Bank, but also in area B where the Israeli army is supposed to keep law and order, there is actually no law and order agenda – rather the opposite. It is the “Wild East” where settlers supported by the army can make use of Israeli laws and army regulations to instigate a climate of fear and where properties and livelihood are at continuous risk. Palestinian criminals can take refuge there, crimes ranging from aggressive behaviour to chemicals dumping.

Next, there is the general question of how to control and develop public space. The authorities sometimes face insurmountable difficulties. The issue of traffic is a good example. In Bethlehem, like in other Palestinian places, we see from year to year a significant increase in the number of cars. It seems many households have actually two cars, new or old, bought or on a loan. Most car rides do not go beyond the urban conglomeration of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Car owners do not have permits to go to neighboring Jerusalem. So it is quite common now to stand in a queue in what was formerly a free road. As everywhere in the world, this increases irritation levels.

But it is extremely difficult for governing bodies in the present situation in the West Bank to identify public space solutions in the cities, and this too affects the credibility of public bodies. Besides the need to preserve the ancient buildings and homes, spatial planning requires a local-regional master plan. However, municipalities or other Palestinian authorities are not able to plan and implement public works near, let alone over the traditional boundaries of town. Tunnels and viaducts are not to be decided by the municipality or the PNA when they are in or next to areas B or C. Nor are there structural budgets for the implementation of larger public works beyond patching holes in assfalt roads. Which means that the Palestinian traffic network and public works in general remain hugely underdeveloped. If they can, Palestinian cars make use of the modern highways between the Israeli settlements and the settlements and Jerusalem.

There is a different factor which further affects the authority of the Palestinian public authorities. Given the fact that the Palestinian political system has been stuck now for quite a number of years, we see that other social structures than official governance bodies are becoming stronger, such as tribalism or expressions of religious identity. After the attack on the mayor, tribal leaders from the Hebron area wanted to come over to Bethlehem to arrange a reconciliation. This was refused, because it would only further weaken existing authority structures.

Largely due to occupation and a stagnant economy, there are huge levels of unemployment, especially under youth (not like in Gaza, but I believe youth unemployment levels here in the West Bank reach 40-50%). At the same time people see that some do actually profit from the occupation – or from international subsidies going to local or international NGOs. This is a criticism often heard. The ‘greed is good’ capitalism is certainly here present too. Many teachers or nurses and others working against low salaries are barely able to take care of their (extended) families. It is logical then that the inequality in economic chances eats into the vitals of society.

Is the situation hopeless? Of course not, but given the lack of any perspective on a just peace, Palestinian society is wounded and under considerable stress. Sumud or steadfastness is still there – in the humour against the odds, in the survival tactics, in the history and memories of social resistance, and in the political awareness as you see it during a public meeting as organized in front of the Church spontaneously after the attack. Still people are struggling to develop values of citizenship, to demand an independent judiciary and executive, create a sense of inclusive national identity, and so on. Yet it is a hard struggle.

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