Across a Troubled Divide

The Palestinians are split not just by politics and geography, but by their own cultures, too, according to a Tufts anthropologist

The apricots that grow outside Bethlehem are rosy-golden, tiny and sweet. During their brief early summer season, they can be found at produce stalls in East Jerusalem. Like the mostly elderly women who sell them, the apricots have been secreted into Jerusalem from the West Bank in an elaborate choreography of people and goods circumventing Israeli controls on who and what enters the city.

For the sellers, it’s worth the risk, because these apricots—mishmish in Arabic—fetch a better price in East Jerusalem. And the Palestinian customers who buy them there cherish these native fruits, which only grow outside a handful of West Bank cities and are available for just a couple of weeks during the year.

That exchange—encompassing the economic, the political, the cultural and the personal—says much about the relationship between Palestinians living in the West Bank and those living inside Israel.

Amahl Bishara, an assistant professor of anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences, recently spent six months doing fieldwork in the region, studying the relationship between Palestinians living on both sides of the so-called Green Line, the boundary that marks the pre-1967 borders of Israel with the occupied territories. Bishara’s work is arguably the first to focus on the interactions between the two Palestinian populations. It’s a relationship between two communities with much to bind them, and much to separate them as well.

“What I’m most interested in is how the two communities connect to each other, because there are such deeply entrenched institutional and political reasons for them to be separate,” Bishara says. What she found was “two communities that manage two very different sets of challenges and thus have two sets of strategies, as well,” even though they also share culture, history, language and, in many cases, family.

Bishara is in a particularly good position to understand these issues. A Palestinian-American raised in the U.S., her father came from the Galilee region of northern Israel, and is an Israeli citizen. (Her mother is a Swedish-American from Connecticut.) Bishara’s husband grew up in the West Bank’s Aida refugee camp, located on the border between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. That is where Bishara, her husband and their baby daughter, Zaha, lived while she conducted her research in 2011.  For her research, she examined three areas of the Palestinian experience: civil society and political activism, media and agriculture.

About one-fifth of the population of Israel—some 1.5 million people—are Arabs, primarily Palestinians. Arab residents of Israel generally hold Israeli citizenship; however, many Palestinians living in East Jerusalem and Syrians in the Golan Heights—areas that were annexed after the 1967 war—have rejected citizenship in favor of “permanent resident” status. The neighboring West Bank has a population of about 2.3 million Palestinians (and just under 300,000 Jewish settlers), and access between the two areas for Palestinians is tightly controlled by the Israeli military.

Bishara’s work “is about opening conversation on a topic that is difficult for people to talk about, and also about helping Palestinians to think about how their legal status affects how they relate to Palestinians in other places,” she says. “And perhaps it is for all of us to think about how our legal status as citizens, refugees, immigrants, stateless people, etc., affects how we relate to other people.”

Worlds Apart

Bishara’s research took her throughout Israel and the West Bank, from cauliflower fields to crowded cities, where she witnessed Palestinians who were as much divided as united by their identities.

Take the taping of an American Idol-style talent competition, a collaborative effort between a production company based in Bethlehem in the West Bank and a satellite television station based in Haifa, in Israel. The show drew Palestinian contestants from the West Bank, Gaza (a Palestinian enclave along the Mediterranean) and Israel.

Though they were all Palestinian and they were curious about each other, “I didn’t see that much interaction among audience members, because people were there to root for the person from their hometown,” Bishara says. Throughout her travels across the Green Line dividing the communities, Bishara discovered that “perhaps there were fewer activities and institutions that brought Palestinians from these two communities together than I had anticipated. So understanding the lack of connections was really important to my work. I wanted to understand whether Palestinians saw these divisions as problematic.”

Of course, Palestinian culture—like cultures everywhere—was never completely uniform. “Palestinian society is really diverse. It always has been,” Bishara says. “Before 1948, people would have said life on the coast was very cosmopolitan, lived differently than life in the mountains. There was a lot of cultural diversity among the cities, and that’s continued today. Within the West Bank, Bethlehem is culturally different from Hebron, even though it’s only a half-hour away, and Hebron is different from Ramallah. Inside Israel, you could say the same thing.”

For example, Hebron is known for its grapes, its glass blowing, its entrepreneurship and its religious conservatism, while Ramallah is known for its progressivism, its artistic and cultural institutions and its history as a summer resort, located in the cool hills north of Jerusalem. And then there’s Bethlehem, which has a deep Christian history and is a center of international tourism. But the differences are not cleanly divided between the areas that became part of Israel and those that became known as the West Bank. Instead, those differences have evolved from the unfolding history and politics since 1948, and the twists and turns of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“Each side feels very disconnected from the community on the other side, and experiences certain anxieties about Palestinians from the other side,” Bishara says. “I think of it as a relationship vacillating between suspicion and solidarity. There is solidarity, because they feel that they are one people and they have to stand by each other, but there is suspicion for a lot of complex reasons.”

For example, while individual Palestinians inside Israel have differing opinions on the use of suicide bombings as a resistance tactic, there is also a generalized “visceral fear” within the community about such attacks, because they jeopardize the security of Palestinians inside Israel, with increased scrutiny from the Israeli police and military. In addition, there is the possibility that a community member could be mistaken for an assailant—as well as the possibility that Palestinians could be injured, since they, too, are members of Israeli society.

Disappearing Common Ground

Each community is also dealing with its own brand of isolation. For West Bank Palestinians, that isolation is physical. They are not allowed to enter Israel, except with permits, which are difficult to obtain. Prior to the uprising known as the “second intifada” in the early 2000s, “Palestinians from the West Bank used to work inside Israel, and that was a pillar of the Palestinian economy that was basically removed,” Bishara says.  

Without the ability to come together in the same space, building significant or lasting ties is difficult, she says. The Internet and social media, while promising tools for maintaining connections, are still not ideal for forging new relationships, Bishara says. Civil society and political activism are the areas that have suffered most as a result. “There is very little common [political] organizing on both sides of the Green Line,” Bishara says.

In the case of the Palestinians inside Israel, the isolation has been cultural. “Palestinians inside Israel were cut off from the rest of the Arab world for many years,” Bishara says. Only since the peace agreements with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 did Palestinians from inside Israel start having more contact with their counterparts in those countries. “Now, with satellite stations and Al Jazeera [the Arab-language news network], the world opens up to them and is much more accessible,” she adds.

Ultimately, each community has had a radically different experience of physical and psychological security. “Inside Israel, Palestinians can have citizenship. They can travel with ease; they have great health care, basic services from the state,” Bishara says. However, as non-Jews in a Jewish state, “they live constantly with second-class status, knowing the national identity of the state excludes them as non-Jews. They are always outsiders, in that sense.”

In the West Bank, it’s the opposite. “The Palestinian Authority is not a state, and it operates under and within the occupation, and what that means is complete economic instability, and people feel a looming sense of insecurity,” she says. “But it’s a society where Palestinian identity is not threatened.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at


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