EYE IN FOCUS: Biden, Palestine and the chances of a two-state solution (Part One)
The US Biden administration is getting ready for power. Will it reverse the one-sided politics of the Trump administration? Will the Palestinians move closer to the establishment of its own state and put an end to the occupation? In the last few weeks, under the pretext of coronavirus restrictions Palestinians have been prevented from praying Friday Prayers in Al-Quds. The US President-elect has stayed silent. However, some world leaders including Turkey's president Erdogan has condemned the move and vowed to defend the right for Muslims to pray there. MUSLIM EYE focuses on Wajahat Ali's exclusive report first published in the The Atlantic Magazine on Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank Over the next few Fridays, we will be republishing here his compelling series of articles.
Al-Aqsa, At Last
Our final day in Israel coincided with Friday prayers, so Abdullah and I decided to try again to pray at al-Aqsa, hoping for a better outcome than the last one.
I waited for the imam past the Jaffa Gate, near the Muslim Quarter. I reflected on the past two weeks and thought of where I had been around the same time the previous Friday: meeting at a Jerusalem train station with the writer and historian Gershom Gorenberg, the author of the influential book The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967–1977. Gorenberg made aliyah from America some 40 years ago and lives in Jerusalem. He had arrived for lunch on his bicycle wearing a black shirt, black pants, and black gloves, his round face surrounded by a thicket of scraggly black-and-white hair. We discussed the creation of the settlements, religious nationalism, and the future of Israel.
Gorenberg told me he believes that “the two-state outcome is still the best bad plan we have” for Palestinians to eventually have self-determination and for Jews to maintain self-determination and a democracy. He believes the settlements are the greatest hurdle to achieving this end. “Every additional room that is built in a home in a settlement is a deliberate impediment to having that,” he warned. Ultimately, he said, Israel has to encourage Jews living in settlements to “move to the Jewish state.”
I told him I didn’t think that was going to happen.
Gorenberg then said something that I wrote down in my notebook and starred: “I’ve lived here for 40 years and nothing important that has happened was expected.”
At Haram al-Sharif, Abdullah and I entered unperturbed by soldiers, and I thought of Gorenberg’s hopeful words. It was a perfect Jerusalem day, sunny but not humid, with a subtle wind. No one could have guessed that just recently this place had been the site of violent clashes.
Abdullah and I walked toward the wudu station to make ablutions. The golden Dome of the Rock was on our left. Kids kicked soccer balls, giggling, as their mothers and aunts sat in the shade. Elderly men relaxed in chairs, circling their prayer beads, talking. Teenagers took selfies in front of the dome. A young couple, visiting from America, held hands as they walked across the compound. Abdullah and I entered the Dome of the Rock, passed by women who were offering their prayers, and walked down the steps to the small cave cut into the rock from which Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven. I offered a prayer, taking my time to appreciate the space. We walked out and sat on the steps in between the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa, waiting for the call to prayer.
Is this land worth all the pain and suffering and bloodshed? I couldn’t ask God, because I’m convinced that he’s now an absentee landowner. He sold Abraham’s children a lemon.
Sitting there, I prayed that the many Palestinians I had met who had never been allowed to visit al-Aqsa could stand next to me in Juma prayer. I prayed that Palestinian kids would be able to run freely around the city without fear, not worrying about upsetting a soldier or neighbor. I prayed that men like Daniel Luria would be able to come up and say a prayer, and maybe find release from their absolutism. I prayed that Jihad Rashid, the father of two martyrs, and other Palestinians who use and abuse religion to validate hate and sanction violence would realize that they didn’t have to give their life or their children’s lives to defend this place.
I prayed for all those Israelis and Palestinians suffering from a permanent state of rage, hijacked by this small volcano the size of New Hampshire, which simultaneously inspires love and loathing, madness and inspiration. As a result of engaging with Zionists, I found that once you allow a space for conflicting narratives, even those that might repulse you, the characters take up room in your mind and your heart. You can no longer unsee or unfeel them. You have to negotiate their presence without compromising your core principles. Yossi Klein Halevi had somehow conjured two dozen ways that Muslim extremists could destroy his people—but he also kissed my Muslim babies and looked at them lovingly, yearning for grandchildren.
Throughout the trip and afterward, I kept asking: Is this land worth all the pain and suffering and bloodshed? I couldn’t ask God, because I’m convinced that he’s now an absentee landowner. He sold Abraham’s children a lemon.
I prayed for the settlers. I’m convinced that their zeal to redeem the land has transformed it into a golden calf—an idol, placed on a pedestal where even God, Jewish morality, and democracy can barely reach it. And I’m convinced that the settlements have become the Achilles’ heel of Israel’s security. Each new settlement beyond the Green Line is paving another road to insecurity and fear, and continuing the cycle of violence, in which generation after generation will sleep with one eye open.
One of the most startling things about the West Bank is the fixedness of the settlements. These are not tent camps and hipster organic farms; they are massive cities of Jerusalem stone. Even the far-flung ones, the ones that could in no way be merged into a contiguous Israeli state, project a feeling of permanence and domination over the landscape.
If everyone in the region has a shot at interpreting God’s will, then I’ll offer my own vision. I believe that Jews and Palestinians are religious cousins, more alike than different. They have lived together in the past, eaten each other’s olives, worked each other’s fields, married each other’s family members. Learning to live together again should not be impossible. But this isn’t happening, not anytime soon. So as a realist, I support a two-state solution, one that gives the Jews something of what they want but also treats the Palestinians in a way they haven’t been treated, not by the Israelis or their Arab brethren—with fairness, respect, and an acknowledgment of the right to self-determination. But the political will to reach this solution is missing. The two-state solution has become the inshallah of peace plans. “God willing,” one day maybe, but most people in the West Bank know the two-state solution is just a mirage, a convenient talking point for politicians and diplomats.
On my final day in Jerusalem, I recalled a famous saying of the Prophet Muhammad, who was circling the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam and the figurative house of God on Earth. He looked to it in awe and reverence, ultimately concluding: “But by Him in whose hand is Muhammad’s soul, the sanctity of a believer’s blood and property in the sight of Allah is greater than your sanctity!”
Two things stand in the way of actual peace. The first is the yearning of some Palestinians for all the Jews to leave. Israelis are not going to make peace with someone who tells them that their leaving is a condition for such a peace. But the second problem—perhaps the even bigger problem—is the settlements, and the exclusivist attitude that motivates the people who live in them. A two-state solution is, theoretically, the best in a basket of bad solutions. But given the dismal realities on the ground, what might be better, alas, is a one-state solution that absorbs all the Palestinians as citizens of Israel and gives everyone an equal vote and equal rights. Ironically, this might be the only thing that many of the most hard-line settlers, and many of the most unbending Palestinians, agree on.