The message cut through the narrow passageways and abundant staircases of Nablus with remarkable speed on 11 August: a huge group of tourists was on their way to the city, and the governate was in desperate need of local, English-speaking tour guides to lead these invitees throughout Nablus. In exchange for 100 shekels (about $30), each guide was expected to lead his or her group through the Ottoman-era Old City as well as to religious sites such as Joseph’s Tomb and Bier Yacob church — and, most importantly, to refrain from political discussion of any kind throughout the day.
Official guests of the Palestinian Authority, the 1,200 students of the Kabbalah International Center in Los Angeles — wearing matching white t-shirts bearing Arabic, English, or Hebrew messages of peace — streamed into Nablus throughout the day and ended their visit in the downtown area where the visitors took part in the inaugural launch of “Peace and Freedom Day.” As part of this new Nablusi celebration, governor Jibril al-Bakri, his deputy Anan al-Ateera, and a number of other community officials spoke about the need for peace and statehood and then led the crowd in singing peace-related songs. While the Nablus governate was the official coordinator of the day, several of the roughly 100 Palestinian participants, including tour guides, organizers and volunteers, were quick to suggest that the invitation for the Jewish mysticism group came at the behest of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
The themes of peace and freedom were discussed without reference to their political context and were simply described as abstract concepts that Palestinians should have the right to enjoy. Ironically, the organizers’ emphasis that guides not discuss political issues with their groups was, in and of itself, an affront to Palestinian freedom. Further complicating the matter was the logistical impossibility of leading people through the Old City, which was a bastion of the resistance movement and bore a heavy civilian burden during both intifadas, without referencing politics.
Indeed, the physical appearance of Nablus’ Old City remains visibly altered as the result of years of Israeli invasions. Even today, the 1,000-year-old buildings of the Old City still bear the signs of invasions and the military’s devastation. In all likelihood, this blanket ban on discussing what really happens in Nablus under Israeli occupation sought to disguise the politics of the visiting Kabbalists themselves.
Thinly-veiled “gestures of peace and unity”
Browsing the event page for the Kabbalah International Center’s current trip is particularly telling. Labeled “Israel 2011 with Rav and Karen Berg,” their itinerary not only designates the West Bank cities of Hebron and Nablus as “Israeli,” but also refers to Nablus as “Shechem,” the Canaanite and biblical name most often appropriated by the Zionist movement to indicate that the city is part of the ancient territory of Samaria rather than modern Palestine. The group heralded its time in Nablus as “a day hosted by the Palestinian Authority in Shechem in a gesture of peace and unity,” and these themes were made the focus of the day, but one cannot help but wonder: if politics were made taboo and the group itself makes use of Zionist language, then whose idea of peace and unity was on the table?
A recent Ma’an News Agency article on the event, as well as governate representatives, referred to the participants as “international activists” attending a “peace rally,” but upon further inquiry, both claims appear highly suspect (“Hundreds of international activists at Nablus peace rally,” 12 August 2011).
While the official message of the visit may well have been “peace and freedom,” the cooperation between the PA and Israeli forces to ensure a sufficient security detail for the conspicuous caravan of 25 luxury buses — as well as the PA’s blatant disregard for the Kabbalist group’s own politics — emphasizes the PA’s continued normalization with Israel rather than any display of international unity with Palestinians. As so few Palestinians were actually present, aside from bemused onlookers, it is difficult to see with whom these internationals had hoped to express their solidarity.
The PA’s continued cooperation with Israel
More than anything, the “Peace and Freedom Day” visit raises many questions. Why would a group of 1,200 “activists” with a pre-scheduled visit to the West Bank cities of Nablus and Hebron, both of which are hotbeds of political activism against Israeli occupation and settler-colonialism, gain unfettered access to the occupied West Bank while international human rights activists, academics, professionals and even casual tourists are often forced to conceal any trips to the other side of Israel’s wall for fear of detention or deportation?
Most recently, the Israeli government denied entry to hundreds of “flytilla” activists at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv simply because they declared their true destination was the occupied West Bank. In contrast, these student-guests of the PA in “Shechem” were not only welcomed with open arms by Israeli and Palestinian officials alike, they were provided with a full security escort by Palestinian security forces during their visit to Palestinian Authority-administered areas of the West Bank. Even though the group visited Hebron and Nablus, it viewed both as part of Israel, which appears to have made all the difference for navigating the Israeli government’s often arbitrary entrance requirements.
The Israeli government and its forces have actively helped, rather than impeded, the group’s visit, casting further doubt on the motivations of Nablus’ Kabbalist guests. This is in sharp contrast to its typical treatment of Palestinian, international and Israeli activists, who are more likely to face checkpoints, detention, tear gas or worse. It stands to reason that despite the declarations of the PA, these students were not activists at all — especially not in the eyes of the Israeli government.
Furthermore, at a time when the PA is facing an intense financial crisis, shouldering the costs of such a seemingly absurd event raises further questions about the PA’s governance decisions. A little more than a month before its impending United Nations statehood declaration, the PA has proven once again that it does not have the interests of the average Palestinian at heart. In fact, the PA has shown that it values continued cooperation with Israel and the international community more than it does peace or freedom for the Palestinian people.
Michelle Gyeney is researching the policy incoherence of development practice in Palestine and writes from the West Bank.