Gaza and Jerusalem

Nakba Day protest. Berlin, 14 May.

At our six-year-old daughter’s dance finale, an American Jewish physician sat down next to me. “It’s a great day, isn’t it, with the embassy in Jerusalem?” His wife, a lovely woman from Beersheva, tried to intervene: “I don’t think Joe is the one to say that to.”I decided to respond anyway. “I always asked ‘what will be the price in lives?’ Now we know the answer. A friend on Facebook said today that the embassy could as well be in Afula. I say move it to fucking Afula.”

The dance performance that followed was for me a happy moment in a day marked by sadness and anger. At the same time, crowds of mourners accompanied the young bodies of twenty-somethings and teenagers in Gaza as they were washed, wrapped, and buried. In suburban Arizona we watched a dance of life; in Gaza, there was a dance of death.

I went to bed the night before knowing that it would happen, just as we all knew for months that dead bodies would be the result of Trump’s decision to move the embassy. How many Palestinian lives would the Moloch of nationalism demand for this shift? Was moving the US embassy a 50-minute drive up the road worth a one-day cost of at least 62 human deaths – more are in critical condition and will probably die – and all the grief that comes with it? Palestinians registered their protest in the only currency that anyone seems to notice: their lives.

Nikki Haley’s day-after denial before the UN Security Council that there was a link between Gaza border events and the US embassy move to Jerusalem was plain foolishness. It was as clueless as Trump’s early December announcement that the transfer would advance the (non-existent) peace process.

The Gaza-Jerusalem link is a powerful one. After the 1948 loss of Jaffa, once the cultural and business capital of Palestine, Gaza had only Jerusalem as a centre of Palestinian national identity. It was clear Gaza would resist any symbolic severance of Jerusalem from Palestinian control and Hamas issued immediate calls for a new intifada.

At the same time, Jerusalem is the most powerful of cultural symbols for Jews. As a political capital, the city is an intractable problem. The problem’s duration over 70 years only compounds difficulties.

Countries are due respect for their sovereign choice of a capital. International law squabbles over west Jerusalem’s status are an excuse for non-recognition, and no other country has its national capital disputed. Israel is unique in not having its choice of capital recognized.

This move should have been undertaken in the early 1950s. At that time, US and other diplomats did not want to live in the ‘capital village’ of west Jerusalem, which had been heavily shelled by Jordanian, Egyptian, and Iraqi forces. Tel Aviv was more cosmopolitan, amenable, and secure. Diplomats pointed to the open legal status of divided Jerusalem and kicked the issue down the decades.

Jerusalem in 1948 had fewer than 150,000 people, roughly two-thirds Jews and one-third Arab. Today the city has nearly 900,000 residents and is no longer divisible once again with barbed wire and anti-sniper walls. Accommodation might be made for a small autonomous Palestinian government compound but that would not satisfy Palestinians.

The brutal truth is that Jerusalem has been ruled by its conquerors for thousands of years and we are no different today. There were 19 years of military teko (stalemate) between 1948-1967 under conditions that no longer exist. Since its 1967 conquest, Israel would sooner give up Tel Aviv than relinquish Jerusalem.

No conceivable Israeli government could give up control of Jerusalem; no conceivable Palestinian government could settle for less than sovereignty over pre-‘67 east Jerusalem.

In this radical dichotomy, liberal or progressive ideas of co-existence become irrelevant: no viable solution to the city’s governance will satisfy both Israel and Palestine. The Hamas leadership knows this hard truth and responds with its own absolute declarations that Jerusalem is one without east-west divisions; that the Palestinian Islamic faithful will conquer the city; and that they will cleanse the city of Jews.

Into this mess marched American idiots. Jerusalem attracts an endless line of people, Donald Trump and his sycophants included, who believe that material displays of power can change the city to reflect their vision. Architectural mementoes of departed imperialists litter the city. Romans, Byzantines, early Muslims, Crusaders, Ottomans, British, French, Russians, and now Americans with their embassy. The architecture remains; the foreigners, their purposes, and their madness disappear.

It is surreal folly to propose, as do the Trump Administration and a few misguided Democrats, that opening an embassy building will bring the conflict to a peace negotiations table. This provocation exacerbates the situation by rubbing symbolic salt into real Palestinian national wounds. It is highly unlikely now that Palestinians will agree to attend any negotiations sponsored by the United States or where the US plays a significant role. Jerusalem has become an obstacle, the first matter on the table rather than the last.

For Israel, these days have been a Pyrrhic victory, one marked by Palestinian death and few other embassies shifting to Jerusalem. While Palestinians died in Gaza, the high, mighty and wealthy sat in a temporary embassy blathering platitudes, accepting God’s blessings from evangelical philo- and anti-Semites, counting the days left in end-time, and checking cell phones for news updates on how many protesting Amalekites had been smitten down.

The asymmetry between imperial power and the impoverished commons manifested blatantly. Michelle Goldberg correctly labelled it all a ‘grotesque spectacle.’ On the other hand, a commentator such as Shmuley Boteach – the self-proclaimed ‘America’s rabbi’ who once weirdly proposed paying the Rwandan Army to occupy Gaza – celebrated the embassy opening without even noticing that Palestinians were dying. International media easily captured the yawning gap between an event sponsored by profoundly reactionary nationalist elites in the United States and Israel and the desperate realities of Palestinian life in Gaza.

Much as some progressives avoid the conclusion out of sympathy for underdogs, Hamas bears heavy responsibility. It misappropriates the term ‘open-air prison’ when its government conceives of itself as a spear pointed at Israel’s belly, and the Strip would fill with Iranian-supplied weapons and rockets if there were no blockade. Hamas indulges in ugly public liquidationist and genocidal fantasies of Jew-killing. The neighbours on the other side of the border trust Hamas only for more of the same.

Hamas will continue promoting border martyrdom for months and years. It is a winning strategy. Each mass casualty scene becomes another Amritsar or Sharpeville massacre. Hamas calculates that the winner in these scenarios ultimately is not the one doing the shooting. Every Palestinian death is a victory: the more dead, the better. A cynical calculation from reactionary theocrats who treat death as an ally, to be sure, but an accurate one.

Both Israel and Palestine remain trapped in the odious death-illogic of nationalism: the nation grows stronger through death, whether inflicted against enemies or visited upon ourselves as martyrs. More death makes a better world for the living and those unborn who will come into a remade world.

Too many Palestinians and Israelis agree that someone must die: they just disagree about who.

Progressive politics need to ask how to encourage two conflicted nationalisms to arrive at peaceful terms and co-existence, to repudiate promises of death for enemies or border-crossers.

We need hearts to move, not embassies.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.