“Palestine Inside Out” by Saree Makdisi

by Joshua H. Liberatore

In the wake of Israel’s hugely disproportionate and widely condemned, three-week incursion into Gaza that left over a thousand Palestinians (half of them civilians) dead, many more gravely wounded, and tens of thousands homeless, I heartily recommend that all Americans buy and read Saree Makdisi’s Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation, a remarkable work of reportage on the daily humiliations of living in occupied Palestine. Makdisi is a literary scholar, a specialist in Romantic English poetry at UCLA, and in many ways, writes in the grand tradition of his uncle and philosophical mentor, the late Edward Said. Although there are many fine books about the Palestinian plight – Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle and Said’s own The End of the Peace Process come to mind – Makdisi takes a fresh approach to the nagging questions of one of the least-addressed calamities of the post-World Ward II era. Instead of focusing on the broad political and military injustices inherent in Israel’s 60-year occupation of historic Palestine, or the United States’ role as Israel’s financial, material and diplomatic backer in the project, Makdisi focuses on the mundane details of life in Israel’s three lock-and-key bantustans: East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank: property zoning laws, building restrictions, residency regulations, curfews and checkpoints, limits on family reunification, border crossings, visa applications, long lines at the Ministry of Interior, the daily difficulty of movement and commerce.

    The list goes on and on. Makdisi argues persuasively that each tiny aspect of life in the Occupied Territories – even the most basic rituals of birth, marriage, and death – is circumscribed by Israeli authority and administration. Through endless paperwork, repeat application processes, bureaucratic hurdles without cease, Israel not only occupies the physical space that is objectively recognized by the international community – including the United Nations – as belonging to Palestinians, it also systematically demoralizes the rightful occupants of that land through constant logistical hassle and legalistic pressure. In support of its more obvious twin projects of forceful isolation of Palestinian communities (witness the current blockade) and Jewish settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel’s concomitant goal – as broadly articulated by its more frank politicians – is to slowly but surely encourage ordinary Palestinians to back their bags and leave.

    But the strength of Makdisi’s portrait of a Palestine turned inside out – as the book’s title suggests – is not just in its descriptive power and its generous cataloging of rarely-heard Palestinian voices. Makdisi is also making a very convincing argument that the much-lauded two-state solution, which Israel has been lackadaisically brokering for the past 30 years, under pressure from Europe and the United States, is by now a physical and demographic impossibility. The American backed-Road Map is equally a fiction. Despite the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Jewish settlers – coming everywhere from Brooklyn to former Soviet Republics – have been aggressively building barracks communities and hogging resources in East Jerusalem and the West Bank since the 1967 war. These settlers are well-armed, thoroughly entrenched, and jealously defended by the Israeli army that continues to administer Palestinian land in defiance of international law, several U.N. resolutions, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are not leaving. Neither will the millions of Palestinians disappear.

    The Palestinians – who make up a full 20 percent of Israel proper – and, despite Jewish settlement, the overwhelming majority in the Occupied Territories – present a formidable “demographic problem” to the Zionist project, which insists that Israel is not the state of its citizens but the state of the Jewish people. The only reason Israel hasn’t formally annexed the Occupied Territories already – after all, it has shown no qualms about being there and staying – is because the resultant demographic shift would make Palestinians not only a numerical plurality but quite possibly a majority as well. So, the status quo, illegal and immoral as it is, has served the purpose of maintaining the fiction that Israel’s identity is shaped by religion rather than functional citizenship or basic residency. Transferring these respective populations in the interests of achieving a clean, two-state solution (with Gaza and the West Bank separated by Israel and, presumably, a divided Jerusalem on the model of cold-war Berlin) seems far-fetched at best, not to mention inconsistent with the principle assumptions of modern democracy to which both parties lay claim, with hearty applause from the West.

    With the difficulty (and indeed historical failure) of such a solution in mind, Makdisi rather joins the growing chorus of observers who are advancing a one-state solution, a corrupt version of which has already existed since 1967. This idea is anathema to many ideological Jews as well as Evangelical Christians (and even some liberal-leaning Americans), who are apparently loath to see the Holy Land shared by Jews, Muslims, and Maronite Catholics. Is it such a romantic idea, asks Makdisi? Is it less conceivable, less sustainable than the veritable apartheid of the status quo? In practical terms, it’s the most feasible solution, if only Israel can accept the basic tenet of modern civilizations that a nation is made up of citizen-residents not ethno-religious pioneers.

    When I had the chance to hear Makdisi make his case in person this past fall, at a book signing in Washington, DC, he was pummeled with angry questions from local liberals and partisan naysayers who behaved as if he were recommending the Faustian bargain of the century. He looked into his audience and asked, “I’m I too American for believing that this is possible, for two peoples to live together in the same society?” The hiss of skepticism that greeted this question appalled me. Ruffled, but not intimidated, he went on to cite several examples of peoples who once harbored centuries-old animosities toward each other but who eventually laid down the sword and accepted a mutual existence: Irish and Protestant, English and French, southerner and slave. It’s not perfect perhaps, and it’s not easy, but neither is it unprecedented. I found Makdisi – then and in his excellent book – to be a brave advocate for a just, pragmatic solution to the so-called Middle East “peace process,” which has too long focused on the ideological “process” rather than the pragmatic outcome of realizable peace.

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