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Read the writing on the wall

Read the writing on the wall
Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, depending upon the enthusiasm from their American counterparts for the fiasco that is the ‘peace process’, have been meeting for over four decades now, in order to find a resolution, or at least indulge in some public posturing, to the protracted conflict. Once again, the ‘peace express’ has started haltingly to move, thanks to the eagerness to broker a solution by the US Secretary of state John Kerry, and the diplomats are meeting in Washington in order to end the conundrum within nine months, a self-imposed deadline. However, as has been the case in the previous attempts to negotiate peace, the odds are too much in favour of Israel, the occupier, and against the stateless people of Palestine, to reach an amicable solution. For nearly half a century, Israel has occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and since 1967, it has colonised the territory with settlements for its own people, the Israeli Jews, while ceaselessly extracting and exploiting the mineral and other natural resources of the Palestinian region and splurging billions to bolster living conditions for the Israeli soldiers and settlers.

The charade of peace 
The major milestones in the chequered history of the Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace process’ have been the 1949 Lausanne Conference, the 1978 Camp David Accords, the 1991 Madrid Conference, the 1993 and 1995 First and Second Oslo Conferences, the 1997 Hebron Protocol, the 1998 Wye River Memorandum, the 1998 Sharm el-Sheikh, 2000 Camp David Parameters, 2003 Road Map and the 2007 Annapolis Conference. Needless to say that there have been several so called attempts at brokering peace, but most of the times, the negotiations have been but an eyewash to force down even more Israeli presence in the occupied territories of Gaza and West Bank. With Jewish refugees in these occupied lands and Palestinian people, reduced to being refugees in their own land, the status of Jerusalem and water détente among several concerns of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how have the ordinary people responded to the ongoing crisis that they have lived with almost all their lives?

Interestingly, the answer to this question lies in the rapidly changing demographics of not only Israel, but also the occupied territories of Gaza and West Bank. In the last two decades, especially after the 1993 Oslo Accord, the number of Israeli settlers has more than tripled, a rate far outpacing the growth of Israel’s own population. Hence, the occupied territories are undergoing a curious shift with more and more Jewish settlers opting to live there, frankly because of the enormous monetary and other incentives provided by the Israeli government that has been lavishing its defence and infrastructure capital to bolster its presence in these regions. The latest example is the Israeli state’s plans to build an extensive railway network through the West Bank. However, in the aegis of Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel has upped his claim that it’s interested in peace, and wants to beat out a ‘two-state solution.’ Although fraught with problems, the Israeli side has shown some signs of thawing, with the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners, as a sign of their good intentions. Yet, at the same time, it has also announced the building of about 1,200 new homes for Israeli settlers in West Bank, clearly  the honey to sweeten the bitter pill that is the news of the prisoners’ release for the hardline parties in the coalition government that has Netanyahu at its helm.

Actions speak louder than words, and by the look of it, whether or not the Israeli occupation is a temporary enterprise (if four decade-long colonisation with no signs of decreasing intensity of the settlements could be deemed temporary), the prolonged conflict and the rocky peace process have attracted enough attention from the people, both Palestinian and Israeli, as well as others representing global media outlets, artists, poets, writers, photographers and painters, singers and rappers, etc., who have used the canvas of the struggle to eke memorable and breathtaking forms of art. It is through art and its radical, razor-sharp edges that the people, disenfranchised and displaced as they are, have sought to counter Israel’s policy of ‘maximum Palestinian geography with minimal Palestinian demography.’

Canvas for a cause
In the rough and tumble world of Palestinian liberation struggle, art and politics have been inextricably and interminably. One of the most potent and visible forms of political art, therefore, remains the street expression that is graffiti. Graffiti has been a tool of the intifada, or the resistance movement, since the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Palestinians of every shape, size, creed and colour, have resorted to painting the public walls as a means of protesting the occupation. Graffiti artists, in the beginning, were often treated harshly, incarcerated and tortured, by the Israeli forces, but young Palestinians, especially the digitally-armed guerilla artists, have carried on the legacy of street art in their bid to keep the resistance alive. Not only Palestinians, sympathetic Israelis have also contributed enormously to spread the word, create awareness on the brutalities of occupation by writing on it as well as speaking about the nakba (Arabic term for occupation) at global conferences in Europe, America and Asia.

Graffiti art has mushroomed almost everywhere in the occupied territories, but they are particularly conspicuous on the West Bank wall, the 440-kilometre-long brick and mortar edifice that has divided Palestine from itself. Tracing the history of the intifada and nakba, the spray paintings make dramatic sights and brilliant political statements. Laced with irony, humour and boldness, these stencil and spray arts depict the changing contours and vocabulary of the revolution, with change of guards and fall or rise of leaders and their journeys equally charted through innovation on the canvas of the Wall.

Intriguingly, the Wall has attracted famous graffiti artists from around the world, and the most popular and evasive amongst them, the British artist Banksy, has been a star performer, doing impromptu drawings and paintings on the Wall, attracting curious visitors and passers-by to stop over the witness the unfolding spectacle. In a much-narrated anecdote, Banksy recalls his conversation with a Palestinian man, who congratulated the artist on his good work. But when Banksy thanked him for his kind words, the man said that nothing is more unwanted than the Wall, and by beautifying it Banksy was doing more disservice to the liberation struggle than his intentions and political inclinations would allow him to! Hence, he would rather that the Wall was left bare and emptied of all the radical art that has turned the monument of oppression into an ironical blackboard of revolution mantras.

Such are the glaring contradictions of any protracted struggle and the creative self-expression it gives birth to. Not only the West Bank Wall, spray paintings litter the walls of various cities including Haifa and Jaffa. In fact, activists from Jerusalem, the longstanding bone of contention at the heart of the land-bred religious identity war between the Arabs and Jews, have made it a mission to paint graffiti on the doors and walls of governmental buildings, flyovers, doorways of Israeli Jewish houses, a tradition that has been kept alive since the ethnic cleansing of 1948, when the state of Israel was born to grant a country for the Jews in the wake of the colossal shame of witnessing the Holocaust take place in Europe, the self-proclaimed pinnacle of civilisation.

Of remembrance and revolution
At several places on the West Bank Wall, as well as other walls and doorways, are spray-painted in mammoth calligraphy the words ‘Remember Gaza’, or ‘I am not a terrorist,’ ‘Make hummus, not war.’ Other flourishes of creativity are seen in depictions of New York’s iconic Statue of Liberty waring a hijab and shedding tears. Many others condemn the systematic apartheid practiced by Israel, cutting off the Palestinians from the Israeli settlers on the other side of the Wall. In Gaza city, art students and anyone with access of colours, paints and other equipment, create beautiful and soul-wrenching impressions, expressing solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The colourful graffiti are often in contrast with the monumental sorrow of the state people, a bit like Van Gogh’s bright colours that hid behind a tortured soul.

Popular political expressions have always been indicative of the socio-cultural and economic mood of a country, its people. Living under Israeli siege, the denizens of Gaza and West Bank have been left with no other option but to either resort to armed struggle, or express discontent through creative and humorous means of art. Reclaiming the streets, the walls, the public parks and gardens, the open spaces of the cities now shackled and fettered by the ever-escalating military presence – particularly the ruthless militia that is the Israeli Defence Force, as well as by militants from Hezbollah, who routinely carry out rocket and bomb attacks in these regions – has been a tough and only partially successful endeavour. The graffiti artists, or the graffito, as they are called, however, carry on their relentless mission to describe and depict the Palestinian refugee’s rights, the lack thereof, the abject squalor, unemployment and poverty problems, all created by Israeli blockade. Over the decades, street art has transformed from a dangerous work laden with risks, often fatal, to an accepted and milder form of resistance, and the forces too have softened their stances.

Art for peace's sake

Today, Israel is increasingly facing cultural boycott from the liberal intelligentsia, although, thanks to the American state throwing its weight behind Tel Aviv, political and economic sanctions are but a distant dream. Nevertheless, the latest peace process, initiated by John Kerry and enthusiastically picked up by the Israel’s justice minister Tzipi Livni and Palestine’s chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, still gives some glimmer of hope.  
But, the process itself has become an obstacle to peace, but Israel is losing the plot. Art is supplanting the official narrative, giving real peace a chance.
Angshukanta Chakraborty

Angshukanta Chakraborty

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