When Boris Johnson announced his plan to suspend parliament, I was visiting Orkney with my wife, Penny. It was the last week of a month-long stay in Scotland, and it took a day for the news to reach us. We were having tea with some English friends on 29 August when they heard what had happened. They began to fume: he’s done it again. They worried how this would undermine their country’s democracy. It was a curious twist: I am usually the one bearing bad news about the state of my country. For a brief moment, we traded anxieties – although mine were of a more existential nature. Even in Scotland, the bad news from home was constant: the expansion of Israeli settlements, the threat of annexation, and the steady tally of death and injury in Gaza, all eating away at what remained of my Palestine.
A few days later, just after Johnson had expelled 21 MPs from his party, we flew home. The driver who picked us up from the airport took the usual circuitous route to get us to Ramallah, crossing three checkpoints on the way. At each one, we held our breath and hoped the soldiers were not in a bad mood. As always I felt the shock of returning home, seeing our parched hills at the end of summer and my noisy, crowded city; I had a sudden and pervasive sense of precariousness.
None of the parties contesting the elections are talking about the occupation or putting forward proposals for ending it
On the way our driver informed us without betraying any emotion that Israel was no longer allowing traffic from Jerusalem to pass through the notorious checkpoint at Qalandia into the West Bank, forcing drivers on to circuitous routes through other checkpoints and compounding the misery there. “They are digging and placing cables” on the road to the checkpoint, he said. Then with typical sardonic Palestinian humour he added: “Perhaps they are planning to present us with a gift.”
His other news was about Benjamin Netanyahu’s triumphant stroll through the old city of Hebron, where he spoke in front of the Ibrahimi mosque, a holy site for Muslims and Jews, who know it as the Tomb of the Patriarchs. In 2000, Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to al-Aqsa mosque sparked a second intifada. But this time Palestinian protest was muted. Some signs were held aloft and a murmur of anger was heard.
Netanyahu acted triumphant. He assured the 800 Jewish settlers who dominate a city of more than 200,000 Palestinians that they will “remain here for ever”. By paying his first visit since 1998 to the most populated Palestinian city in the West Bank – without setting off a strong protest – the Israeli prime minister was highlighting his almost total control of the territory. It was a transparent stunt to boost his popularity before the upcoming elections. But it did demonstrate how thoroughly Israel has dominated and subdued the Palestinian population under its occupation.
Every time I return to Ramallah after a few weeks away, I’m struck by how much my world has shrunk. Movement between Palestinian cities is restricted, and travel to Gaza impossible. Gaza is about 50 miles away from Ramallah; I have not visited for 19 years. The Oslo accords divided Palestinian territory into three categories. “Area C” is under Israeli control, “Area B” is under joint security control by Israel and the Palestinians, and “Area A” – the smallest – is administered by the Palestinian authority.
Since Donald Trump became US president, the Israeli settlers in the West Bank have hastened their takeover of more and more Palestinian territory in the areas under Israeli administration – including the land around Ramallah. No longer do the settlers justify this by the law of the land as Israel interprets it, nor by Israeli court decisions. It is now simply the Bible. They declare: “This land is ours even if the Palestinian can present proof of ownership, because God gave it to us.”
Ramallah is now the de facto capital of the struggling Palestinian Authority. It suffers from overcrowding but enjoys none of the benefits of statehood. A few days before our return, the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, declared that it would cancel the division of the land into three “areas” and put the whole West Bank under PA sovereignty. But this was a hollow declaration, and the PA will be forbidden from implementing it. In July, Israel demolished dozens of Palestinian apartments in an East Jerusalem neighbourhood where the PA is supposed to control planning – and the authority was powerless to stop it.
Last week Netanyahu promised that if re-elected he would annex one-third of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, the West Bank’s most fertile area. This was another election stunt: in reality, annexing the land will change nothing. It is already under total Israeli control, and the settlers who live there enjoy all the rights and privileges of Israeli citizenship.
I’ve returned carrying a large number of books because ordering one takes many months – if it ever arrives. But it isn’t only books that are delayed. The mail that has to go through Israel is barely functioning. Living conditions in my hometown under Israeli occupation are going from bad to worse with the economic exploitation by Israel proceeding unchallenged. Most vegetables and fruits that we used to buy from local greengrocers were local produce. Now they are mainly Israeli and often are grown on Palestinian land that the settlements now cultivate.
Among Palestinians, despair is widespread. “The times are rotten,” my nephew Aziz told me upon my return, echoing Hamlet. There is growing awareness here that Israel’s international campaign to demonise criticism of its colonial policies as a form of antisemitism is succeeding. And there is no hope to be found in Israel: none of the parties contesting the elections on Tuesday are talking about the occupation or proposing how to end it. Instead they are competing to see who can promise the most to the settlers.
This is the gloomy political atmosphere to which I have returned. I shall miss the walks in Edinburgh’s parks and the green hills around it. I had hoped that we could spare one of the hills around Ramallah and turn it into a park. But given the scarcity of the land left here to grow, this proved impossible. This congested city is left with no open areas to breathe, and with few of its traditional buildings and trees that gave the place its character.
After a month away, I found my garden had lost much of its greenery except for the plumbago – which I found in full bloom. I will revive what can be saved, and in the future concentrate on planting only drought-resistant shrubs. And I must try to remember what I have learned during more than 50 years of occupation, about how to live here on my own terms without losing myself to hatred or anger. For whoever gets elected in Israel this week, it will make no difference to our future in this land.