How important do people feel the Palestinian- Israeli conflict is to their well-being? I often wonder. As a journalist I carry this question with me into the field, but avoid asking it directly.

For example, Palestinians will usually say that occupation is unjust, they suffer from it and that it has to end for everything in their lives to improve. I usually disregard these statements, and attempt to obtain a deeper understanding of the way people live, think and behave on both sides of the conflict.

I actually came to the conclusion that when it comes to the struggle, people’s ideas and beliefs are changing drastically from what they were decades ago. It’s safe for me to say that in Israel and Palestine, the general public reached the conclusion that there are more important issues in their lives to worry about.

Yes, people don’t care as much anymore. However, the circumstances that brought about this state of affairs in each nation vary considerably.

I specifically remember a few incidents from the time close to the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN last year. As the excitement succeeded in putting Palestinians on the world news map again, I met locals who couldn’t care less. For them, nothing would really improve on the ground, because their daily challenges – checkpoints, a weak economy and lack of a clear future – will continue to exist, they have no quick fixes.

Aside from the diplomatic strategies for demanding statehood and its political ramifications, these people know that with or without a country, with international recognition or without, they would still be severely economically challenged. Especially when the past 20 years haven’t shown that the Palestinian interim (as Oslo states) Authority succeeded in providing better living conditions for Palestinians.

Not only that, some have actually come to see the conflict as an excuse for not finding solutions to some of their problems. They say, “We need to end the occupation first and then we will think about other issues.” I am not defending the occupation, but I believe we can try to improve other parts of our lives while we strive for independence.

For example, we have many economic challenges, some of which can lead the PA to not be able to fulfill its commitments to the people. I don’t deny the blatant interconnectedness between the Israeli measures and the Palestinian economy, particularly when the Israeli authorities decide to punish all Palestinians by withholding Palestinian tax money they collect on behalf of the Palestinians. However, not improving the private sector, not fighting corruption in our institutions is not entirely related to the conflict.

ON THE Israeli side, there’s also that sense of desperation and disconnection between the leadership and the people.

Last summer’s social protests in Tel Aviv clearly demonstrated that Israelis want economic reforms and a better system that can save the middle class from vanishing. Tycoons’ power in Israel is turning the country from a once socialist state to a rampantly capitalist one.

I’ve heard it from some Israelis: “we think the government is spending more time, energy and money on security and less on the lives of Israelis,” a different situation from that of previous decades.

It’s similar here, because until last Tuesday, Palestinians seeking a civil service job had to have a clearance from the PA’s preventive security forces to be allowed to assume their duties. In addition, the Palestinian attorney-general decided to block some news websites a week ago because of “undesired content,” directed against the Palestinian president.

The conflict has made unconventional measures more accepted, because the nation is facing a threat and it is not the best time to play by the rules. For example, terms like “security,” “Iran nukes,” “war on Gaza” and “Gilad Schalit” have been used in Israel to divert attention from domestic concerns, like discrimination, racism and economic and social demands, to name a few.

It might be surprising to know that I came across many Palestinians who really think Israeli annexation of the West Bank would be better for them. “At least bring us back to where we were before the first intifada,” some people have told me.

They base that on the fact that a worker in a shwarma restaurant in Israel, for example, would earn NIS 10,000 a month, which is almost double the salary a director-general in the Palestinian Authority’s institutions earns.

Again, economics!

Needless to say that this kind of thinking wasn’t common, let alone openly expressed, particularly not in the years of the first intifada, for example, a time when Palestinians felt a greater sense of unity as a society and faith in themselves as freedom seekers.

What I want to say is although we still have ideological and patriotic people, and many of them, economics has become of greater importance in the lives of people frustrated and exhausted by poverty. It moves people to take to the streets, more than political problems do.

Mothers from both sides have told a team from the Women Without Borders organization, “Why should my son and not the sons of politicians suffer in order to defend the country?” This is an obvious shift from the time when more mothers were proud of their children’s patriotic role, and reflects people’s distrust of politicians.

In general, the not-so-great performance of the Israeli Left, and the no-so-great performance of the PA along with other regional and political factors, played a role in people’s disenchantment with the conflict as well as to their own societies’ issues.

A 19-year-old working as a fisherwoman to support her poor family in Gaza wasn’t much of a story that the public related to. In a sea full of male workers with barely any women, it was obviously not the safest environment for this woman to work.

Recently in Israel, an uproar was created after a young crowd watched and cheered as a reportedly drunk woman engaged in group sexual activity on a Tel Aviv’s beach in the middle of the day.

Socially, or politically, stories such as the these were unlikely to pass easily in the good old days, when both the Israeli and the Palestinian societies each believed in their own culture, people and national goals.

The comparison between the Palestinians and Israelis might seem far-fetched as each one of them has its own uniqueness, and I am not saying that the two communities are facing the same issues. However, some similarities can be found between the two people’s struggles among themselves and might stress the need for thinkers, analysts and the elite to address this problem.

This social disintegration is a key element of driving people to the extremes and more toward the Right. Losing faith in one’s people and nation threatens our societies’ identities, foundations and future aspirations, and furthermore negatively affects our ability to create peace – the only way we can guarantee a bright future for coming generations.

People do not care as they once did, and we should be worried. It seems our leaders are more concerned with remaining in power than with actual change, with progress and achieving peace. I fear this is now politics as usual here.

The writer is a Palestinian freelance journalist and producer working in the West Bank. nidatuma@hotmail.com

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