Palestinians, Contained

The Wall has made it much harder for young Palestinians to know Israel--and understand its people

  • Joachim Ladefoged / VII for TIME

    Ramzi Thaer Rafik lives with his family in a small apartment in a West Bank town. He doesn't know any Israelis

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    Illicit Day Trips
    A handful of Israeli peace activists have defied their government in order to reach these isolated people — and take them shopping. They smuggle Palestinians across checkpoints in their cars — Israeli Jews sail right through — for illicit day trips to the fleshpots of Tel Aviv. "I want people to grow up knowing each other," says Ilana Hammerman, an Israeli book publisher who could face criminal charges for carrying young Palestinian women to the beach and the mall.

    The trips are a symbolic effort against an everyday reality that takes Ramzi up and down the highway to school, down to the store, maybe up the hill to sneak under the gate into the soccer field, but always into the backyard to feed the white pigeons that can go where they like. His daily life is circumscribed not only by his parents but also by the Israeli checkpoints at Qalandia, 5 miles (8 km) to the southeast, and Bilin, 5 miles to the west. Life uncoiling in a confined space produces pressure that builds so slowly as to be measured across years.

    Three years ago, 71% of Palestinians favored reconciling with Israel, according to a survey conducted for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty. This summer, a new survey found only 61% in favor. Least enthusiastic of all were the youngest asked: among Palestinians ages 18 to 24, only 46% favored reconciliation. More dramatic was the drop in the percentage of Palestinians who said they could imagine having a Jew as a neighbor. The question was premised on the assumption that Israel had pulled its 100-plus settlements out of the West Bank. Still, just 38% answered yes, down from 50% three years ago. Among the youngest, just 1 in 3 can imagine living near a Jew — the same ratio found among supporters of Hamas, the militant Islamic group that has taken over the Gaza Strip. In fact, surveys show that young Palestinians are the least likely to support direct negotiations with Israel, to believe that Palestine will ever be a state or to say Hamas should abandon its denial of Israel's right to exist. None of which suggests time was on the side of either Israeli or Palestinian negotiators, even before direct talks collapsed in recent days. "You go to most places, including America, and the older you are, the more conservative," says Jamil Rabah, a director of Near East Consulting, the Ramallah pollster that prepared the surveys. "Not in Palestine. Here, the older you are, the more liberal; the younger you are, the more conservative."

    When You Can't See the Other
    Rabah attributes the shift partly to the rise of political Islam across the Muslim Middle East — and partly to Israel's pushing Palestinians into that very community, not least by taking as its own nearly the whole Mediterranean coast, which historically kept Palestinian elites, at least, oriented to the West.

    As late as 1967, some Palestinians often saw impressed Israelis who on weekends would drive over to Ramallah to snap pictures of Rabah's grandfather's villa. "Now it's reversed," he says. High-tech Israel has an enviable quality of life, one that young Palestinians would like to experience for themselves. But neither side visits the other.

    "The lack of these field trips prevents the Palestinian youth from seeing the developed ways of the Israelis, the way they live," says Ali Othman Salama, the janitor at the Ein Arik secondary school. "Not only do they not see normal Israelis," says Salama, who worked in Israel for 20 years and felt it did him some good, "but they witness the violence of the soldiers."

    A few Palestinians manage to make their way across the border. "It's a very beautiful area," says a teen who borrowed his father's ID to sneak aboard a Red Cross bus to visit a brother jailed in Israel. But most of the new generation hear more of what was. "We're from Ramla originally," Ramzi will point out upon introduction, naming the village his grandfather was driven from in 1948 and which his family still refers to as home. In the spirit of resistance, the boy was named for an uncle who was killed in 1991 while fighting Israelis near Gaza alongside his friend Anis, for whom Ramzi's brother is named. "I don't know — I guess they had a Hamas feeling, like they wanted to battle," says their father with an admiring smile. "I named my sons after my brother and my neighbor —" "So that people don't forget them," Ramzi says from the couch. "And always remember them."

    At the school, principal Jamil Saadat asks students what comes to mind when they hear the word Israeli . The replies are not descriptions but abstractions: "Crimes." "Settlements." "Killing of children." Finally a girl named Ismahad raises her hand. "Strange," she says. "Strange people. Very rude."

    A few minutes later, Saadat, a steadfast supporter of Fatah, lays out the basics of the two-state solution Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wants to negotiate with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: abandonment of Israel's hilltop settlements, a shared Jerusalem, a sovereign Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. How many would support it? In a class of 34, just five hands go up. The rest of the 10th-grade computer-science class insists upon getting all of Palestine back — every acre, from the Jordan River to the sea, the way it was before 1948.

    And you think, In most of the world, the future belongs to the young.

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