Sandy Tolan is associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communicaton and Journalism at USC, and author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. His book about playing music under occupation in Palestine will be published in 2014. He blogs at

It's -the -occupation,-stupid
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK – SEPTEMBER 21: Israeli soldiers take up a position during clashes with Palestinian stone throwers at the Qalandia checkpoint on September 21, 2011 near Ramallah, West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to submit a letter to the U.N. Security Council to petition for statehood during the UN General Assembly. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

It’s the show that time and the world forgot. It’s called the Occupation and it’s now in its 45th year. Playing on a landscape about the size of Delaware, it remains largely hidden from view, while Middle Eastern headlines from elsewhere seize the day.

Diplomats shuttle back and forth from Washington and Brussels to Middle Eastern capitals; the Israeli-Turkish alliance ruptures amid bold declarations from the Turkish prime minister; crowds storm the Israeli embassy in Cairo, while Israeli ambassadors flee the Egyptian capital and Amman, the Jordanian one; and of course, there’s the headliner, the show-stopper of the moment, the Palestinian Authority’s campaign for statehood in the United Nations, which will prompt an Obama administration veto in the Security Council.

But whatever the Turks, Egyptians, or Americans do, whatever symbolic satisfaction the Palestinian Authority may get at the UN, there’s always the Occupation and there – take it from someone just back from a summer living in the West Bank – Israel isn’t losing. It’s winning the battle, at least the one that means the most to Palestinians and Israelis, the one for control over every square foot of ground.

Inch by inch, metre by metre, Israel’s expansion project in the West Bank and Jerusalem is, in fact, gaining momentum, ensuring that the “nation” that the UN might grant membership will be each day a little smaller, a little less viable, a little less there.

How to disappear a land

On my many drives from West Bank city to West Bank city, from Ramallah to Jenin, Abu Dis to Jericho, Bethlehem to Hebron, I’d play a little game: Could I travel for an entire minute without seeing physical evidence of the occupation?

Occasionally – say, when riding through a narrow passage between hills – it was possible. But not often. Nearly every panoramic vista, every turn in the highway revealed a Jewish settlement, an Israeli army checkpoint, a military watchtower, a looming concrete wall, a barbed-wire fence with signs announcing another restricted area, or a cluster of army jeeps stopping cars and inspecting young men for their documents.

The ill-fated Oslo “peace process” that emerged from the Oslo Accords of 1993 not only failed to prevent such expansion, it effectively sanctioned it. Since then, the number of Israeli settlers on the West Bank has nearly tripled to more than 300,000 – and that figure doesn’t include the more than 200,000 Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem.

The Oslo Accords, ratified by both the Palestinians and the Israelis, divided the West Bank into three zones – A, B, and C. At the time, they were imagined by the Palestinian Authority as a temporary way station on the road to an independent state. They are, however, still in effect today.

The de facto Israeli strategy has been and remains to give Palestinians relative freedom in Area A, around the West Bank’s cities, while locking down “Area C” – 60 per cent of the West Bank – for the use of the Jewish settlements and for what are called “restricted military areas” (Area B is essentially a kind of grey zone between the other two). From this strategy come the thousands of demolitions of “illegal” housing and the regular arrests of villagers who simply try to build improvements to their homes.

She is a student at Al Kamandjati (Arabic for “the violinist”), a music school in her neighbourhood (which will be a focus of my next book). She was recalling a time three years earlier when a van she was in, full of young musicians, was stopped at an Israeli checkpoint near Nablus. They were coming back from a concert.

“I told him, ‘It’s a violin.’ He told me to get out of the van and show him.” Ala stepped onto the roadside, unzipped her case, and displayed the instrument for the soldier.

“Play something,” he insisted. Ala played Hilwadeen (Beautiful Girl), the song made famous by the Lebanese star Fayrouz. It was a typical moment in Palestine, and one she has yet to, and may never, forget.

It is impossible, of course, to calculate the long-term emotional damage of such encounters on children and adults alike, including on the Israeli soldiers, who are not immune to their own actions.

Humiliation at checkpoints is a basic fact of West Bank Palestinian life. Everyone, even children, has his or her story to tell of helplessness, fear, and rage while waiting for a teenaged soldier to decide whether or not they can pass. It has become so normal that some kids have no idea the rest of the world doesn’t live like this.

“I thought the whole world was like us – they are occupied, they have soldiers,” remembered Ala’s older brother, Shehade, now 20