‘Palestinian Territories’ or ‘State of Palestine’, rich and poor, desert and urban, modernity and antiquity — Palestine is a land of contradictions. The region has been controlled by multiple peoples throughout its history — including (beyond the current two) Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Ottomans, British — and many more. An ancient culture broadly defined as ‘Arabic’, it is a matrix of all these historic influences — and so much more.
The West Bank region of Palestine is indeed a desert climate and topography containing a number of small towns and villages — and several larger cities, including its capital of Ramallah and the area known as East Jerusalem, which are well urbanised and densely populated. Shopping malls, museums and art centres, parks, government facilities, public transportation including metro — like any city, though perhaps with greater challenges than most. Palestinians number 6.7 million living in their home territory (2.93 mil West Bank, 1.88 mil Gaza Strip, 1.89 mil Israel, primarily East Jerusalem) — and another estimated 6.3 million diaspora, in Jordan, Chile, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the Americas, and more. Across 5 countries, 1.5 million Palestinians currently live in 58 refugee camps, and 5.25 million hold UN refugee status. According to a 1965 resolution, most Arabic countries will permit residency but not citizenship for Palestinians, as it would interfere with their right of return.
Income disparity and the dichotomy of rich and poor is pronounced in Palestine’s West Bank region. Wealthy business tycoons and their families live in a manner very similar to their global counterparts; others live in ways akin to that of developing countries, including food and water scarcity. The economy is heavily dependent on foreign aid and has suffered sanctions and blockades over the years, including recent pronounced reduction in US aid programs; tourism, particularly to religious sites, is another significant source of income. One outcome of the Palestine Investment Conferences of 2008 and 2010 is Qatar’s commitment to the construction of a planned city near Ramallah, to be called Rawabi.
Street art abounds everywhere in Palestine — on the wall, that separates Israeli from Palestinian territory, but also on every other available wall, or so it would seem. Frequently political, it just as often displays Palestinian cultural features — and the universal longing for, and attachment to, home and homeland. Palestinian culture is often identified with that of Arabic, particularly Levantine, to include such values as family solidarity, hospitality, and honor, as well as clearly defined gender roles and patriarchal systems.
With underpinnings of all those historic cultures previously mentioned, and the uniqueness of their 20th century experience — first of British mandate followed by the creation of the State of Israel — Palestinians also differ culturally from other Arabic peoples in many ways. In finding ways to deal with the difficulties of their circumstance, education and intellectual pursuit, including public debate of issues critical to social development, has become an especially high value, along with entrepreneurship; resourcefulness and resilience are key. Civil society has been described as active and dynamic, moreso than in other Arabic societies and also out of necessity; in politics, pluralism and openness, transparency and accountability, are alongside but increasingly replacing patronage and corruption.
Much has been made of the wall that divides Israeli from Palestinian peoples — as a necessary security measure based on terrorist acts of previous decades; as a barrier to employment and an improved economy; as an unbridgeable social divide; as an illegal occupation. The wall has also served as a continual source of political messaging, by Palestinians as well as foreign supporters. It provides a striking image of ‘barrier’ — of sociopolitical separation and divisiveness, exclusion and marginalisation.
In a longstanding conflict such as that experienced by the Palestinian people, with extensive walls, refugee camps, continual military presence, resistance forces, aggressive politics, acts of terrorism, economic sanctions and blocks to employment, cultural compromise, and other trauma and hardship — there are always psychosocial repercussions. Profound insecurity typically brings distrust, social dissolution, increased risk of mental health problems, issues with authority, emotional detachment, self-destructive behavior, heightened sensitivity to perceived rejection / exclusion / criticism, increased interpersonal conflict including violence, learned helplessness, and a general susceptibility to abuse — or extreme defensiveness against same. All of these are to be expected, in varying degree, among those living in Palestinian territories — alongside a powerful resilience, determination, and innovation, for survival.
Over the years, many efforts have developed to bridge the gap between Palestinians and Israelis. One such, adjacent to the wall in Bethlehem, is Wi’am: The Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center, a civil organisation founded in 1994. According to their website, “wi’am” in Arabic means “cordial relationships” — the development of which is their express mission, through an integration of the traditional Arabic conflict resolution method of “sulha” with western models. Though the conflict, after all these years, seems insurmountable, there is still hope to be found among the Palestinian people.