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Peace Processed: Israelis and Palestinians Further Apart Than Ever

Protesters in the West Bank. Photos by P.J. Tobia/NewsHour.

WEST BANK — The mixed group of a few dozen Palestinian activists and Europeans milled about in front of a coil of razor wire that blocked off the street near the town of Izbet-at-Tabib in the Palestinian West Bank.

On the other side of the wire stood 12 Israeli soldiers in green fatigues, riot kit and plastic crowd-control shields. They wouldn’t be needing any of it today and looked bored. They stood around, staring dispassionately at the protesters a few feet away, sweating in their heavy gear.

The protesters were more animated, but not by much.

The children in the group had been given Palestinian flags, and two young boys began a sword fight with theirs. Some of the adult protesters milled about, taking pictures of each other and the scene with smartphones.

The protest leaders, Israeli Assaf Yacobovitz, from Tel Aviv and Palestinian Bayan Tabib, mayor of Izbet-at-Tabib, led a vigorous chant:

“1-2-3-4, occ-u-pation no more!”

The marchers had come from a village just down the street. Their starting point had been a school in Izbet-at-Tabib that they said the Israeli military would soon be bulldozing. The military says that the school was built illegally and the demolition warrant is valid.

The protest leaders were from a group, Combatants for Peace, made up of former fighters from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, who came together to forge relationships across the widening divide that now separates these two peoples.

The NewsHour team was there as part of a story we were producing on that divide. With so many on both sides having given up on any chance for a lasting peace or two-state solution, we were searching for those who were still trying to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

“It’s a model of being together, working together, standing on the same moral stance, on the same moral place together,” Yacobovitz told NewsHour senior correspondent Margaret Warner before the march began. “If Israelis protest against the occupation (and don’t) join forces with Palestinians, it creates a totally different effect which doesn’t permeate in the mentality of the Palestinians in the same way.”

Later, standing before the razor-wire coil, his chants having fallen on the seemingly deaf ears of the Israeli soldiers, he tried another tactic.

“Because these soldiers are not responding to us,” he shouted into a bullhorn. “We will (speak to them) in another way, using our non-violent method.” He paused.

“Using theater!”

The protesters formed a semi circle and began doing a kind of interpretive dance that, I think, represented how Palestinians are trapped in their territories, unable to build meaningful lives.

Again, the soldiers were unmoved.

“We have an American camera crew here!” he shouted, gesturing at our cameraman. I cringed, with the sinking feeling that this entire show had been constructed for the benefit of our cameras and those of the local media in attendance.

This is the state of the Palestinian protest movement here. Gone are the days when thousands filled the streets of Ramallah, only to be beaten, arrested and fired upon by Israeli soldiers, bringing indignant ripostes from sympathetic governments and world bodies. On this day, the resistance in the West Bank amounted to street-theater and children playing at swords, while the soldiers they were supposed to be resisting seemed, at most, mildly annoyed.

It mirrors the broader reality.

Palestinian leadership is divided, with Hamas controlling Gaza, which we also visited, and the Palestinian Authority running the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority is led by Mahmoud Abbas, whose hand has been greatly weakened by not being able to pay government workers. The Israeli government collects tax revenue on behalf of the authority and then turns the revenue over to keep the West Bank’s government and infrastructure running. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has withheld the revenue in retaliation for Abbas’ bid for Vatican status at the U.N. last year. (On Wednesday, Netanyahu’s office announced that it will release duties and taxes collected last month to the Palestinian Authority.)

The Israeli government hasn’t seemed much interested in restarting talks with the Palestinians (although they frequently say they do), refusing to negotiate with Hamas (whose stated objective is to destroy Israel), and besides, saying that they don’t have a unified government to negotiate with.

Combined with the massive walls that have been erected around Palestinian territories, and creeping Israeli settlements, this state of affairs has led to a widened gulf between the two sides of this conflict.

In dozens of conversations with Warner over the last two weeks, Israelis and Palestinians — from people on the street, to deep-thinkers who have spent a lifetime trying to bridge the divide between these two people — said that both sides were further apart in every way, socially, economically and politically, than ever.

Yossi Alpher and Margaret Warner.

Yossi Alpher is part of that last group. A former official in Israel’s clandestine service, the Mossad, he’s spent that last 10-plus years co-editing the Bitter Lemons blog, a web magazine that solicited essay contributions from all sides of the conflict, from Hamas leaders to Israeli settlers as well as region watchers around the Arab world and the United States. The other editor of the blog, Ghassan Khatib, is a Palestinian who lives and works in Ramallah. Warner interviewed both for the upcoming broadcast piece.

Last year, the pair decided to fold the magazine. Among the reasons, they say, was the hardening of attitudes on all sides. Khatib, in his sign-off letter wrote, “Palestinians and Israelis are barely conversational.”

“For four years, there has been no peace process,” Alpher told Warner, while the two sat beneath a lemon tree in his back yard, the kind the web-magazine was named for. “It is much more difficult for Israelis and Palestinians and people of good will to sit down and speak productively when they know they are not feeding into any formal process, on either side, and when they probably feel … that negotiations, even if renewed, are pointless. Are hopeless.”

Yet negotiations or no, people must live.

In Ramallah, at a trendy cafe, 20- and 30-somethings sipped mocha lattes and smoked hookas. At one table, a group of pretty girls with dark hair an bright eyes celebrated a birthday, pulling smart phones from Louis Vuitton bags, to commemorate the moment with pictures uploaded to social networks.

In Bidya, on a Friday night, young men hang out on the main street, laughing and smoking cigarettes, giving shout-outs to friends in passing cars who blast techno-pop so loud that their speakers distort. They gel their hair to the moon and put on their best clothes, leather jackets and pre-stressed jeans.

Mohammad Taha with his friends.

“We work all day, and when Friday comes we just hang out on the street,” said Mohammad Taha, 22. “There’s a nightclub down the road, but we never get to go.”

Back at Yossi Alpher’s place, in his walled garden, as the sun was setting, washing the yard in red-gold light, we asked about the tree. It wasn’t very big, just a sapling, but already bore a few plump lemons.

The old tree was much bigger, he explained. But it died. He’d recently planted this new one and these were among its first fruit.

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