Success and pitfalls of Palestinian anti-normalization

On May 28 a Jerusalem Hug event near Damascus Gate was attacked by a half-dozen Arab men who claimed to be “anti-normalization” activists.

A handout supporting a Palestinian hunger striker. (photo credit: Courtesy)
A handout supporting a Palestinian hunger striker.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On May 28 a Jerusalem Hug event near Damascus Gate was attacked by a half-dozen Arab men who claimed to be “anti-normalization” activists. Arab media reported that youths were trying to “prevent the establishment of effective normalization near Damascus Gate and the Aqsa mosque.”
Evidently this was viewed as a successful “direct action” to stop the “normalizers.”
The attack on the peace event is the latest in a string of actions taken against coexistence and peace groups. The “anti-normalization” agenda is a fascinating phenomenon. At the same time that Palestinian officials work with Israeli officials in the international arena, on issues such as getting the PA to drop its bid to suspend Israel from FIFA, on the ground local young activists think they are stopping “normalization.” So what is anti-normalization? What is its logic? Is it successful? The crusade against normalization has as its central theory that Israel uses moderate and peace-minded Palestinians to create a veneer of normalcy. When Jerusalem Fatah leader Ahmad al-Ghoul spoke with Ma’an news about why he opposed the Jerusalem Hug event, he claimed that the organization had “deceived Palestinians into joining it by luring them [with] permits to enter Jerusalem.” He argued that coexistence or peace organizations like this “equate the victim and the executioner and show the world a picture of Palestinians and Israelis living in peace and love.”
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In the worldview of anti-normalization the theory is that while peace activists holding hands next to Damascus Gate and singing brings together Jews and Arabs in an example of coexistence, this makes Israeli rule appear benign.
The main thrust of anti-normalization activists is devoted to pressuring Palestinians not to cooperate with Israeli Jews. Professor Mohammed Dajani fell afoul of this in March 2014 when he took students from Al-Quds University to visit Auschwitz. He told an interviewer at Moment Magazine what happened next: “Students marched to my office holding placards that said ‘depart you normalizer’ and handed my secretary a letter warning me not to come back to the university.”
Dajani was critiqued in the Palestinian media. In another interview the professor noted that while Palestinians do not object to organizations that discuss moderation and peace, “They are against normalization of relations with Israel and the Israelis. But you cannot disconnect one from the other... if you believe in moderation you believe in peace and reconciliation... you can’t make peace with the other without dialogue with the other.”
But the anti-normalization agenda says it is better to sever relations with Israelis entirely, whether it is academic cooperation, peace hugs, research or anything.
A Palestinian woman who works with Israeli peace activists and appeared on a radio show hosted by Israelis told me she was criticized by her friends as a “normalizer.”
“They said I should cut off all ties with Israelis and Jews,” she said.
The violent attack on the hug event was indicative that those who think they are opposing “normalization” often can’t tell the difference between Palestinians, Israelis, Jews or foreign activists.
The men who showed up and assaulted people attacked indiscriminately film crews, European activists, Palestinians from the Jericho area. It didn’t matter.
TO REALLY understand what is at play in the anti-normalization agenda one needs to go back to the Oslo years. When there was a vibrant two-state concept, Palestinian civil society felt it could work with Israelis toward that goal. In the old days before the intifada and the construction of the separation barrier (often called “security barrier” by Israel or “apartheid wall” by Palestinians), there was a great deal of mingling between Palestinians and Israeli Jews. But the second intifada changed all that and many Palestinian activists came to see even the most moderate peace groups as actually functioning as an extension of Israeli policy to keep Palestinians as permanently without a state and under control of Israel.
The Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is very clear: normalization is “the participation in any project, initiative or activity in Palestine or internationally that aims to bring together Palestinians and Israelis without placing as its goals resistance and exposure of the Israeli occupation and oppression against the Palestinian people.” PACBI argues that any work involving dialogue or reconciliation is unacceptable because it is not in the framework of struggle against Israel’s actions. Ironically, the real targets of their manifesto (which is worth reading in full online) are other peace groups like OneVoice, which clearly support a twostate solution.
It is surprising to those who think they are helping Palestinians to realize how deep this animosity goes. An article about Balata refugee camp in Nablus in Haaretz quoted a nurse as saying “part of the effort to normalize the occupation is these tempting offers of medical or economic cooperation. The Israelis know we need this in order to improve our lives and it also helps their image inside Israel and abroad.” Thus Israeli groups trying to provide medical care for Palestinians are portrayed as doing it primarily for propaganda purposes and “normalizing” the situation.
The real story is that there is a total disconnect between Israeli Jewish society and Palestinian society. The total separation of these societies, that accelerated during the intifada, is almost complete.
Jewish Israelis don’t go to Palestinian areas, they don’t have Palestinian friends and they don’t have Palestinian colleagues.
The tiny bits of contact are seen as “normalizing.” The events Israelis hold in which they think they are supporting Palestinians, like holding a party complete with beer in Tel Aviv to “support the South Hebron Hills,” or posting on Facebook to help a Palestinian who needs medical treatment in Gaza, take place in a cocoon. They “help” Palestinians they never meet.
Some of the logic behind the critique of the coexistence groups can be understood.
Israeli coexistence groups that run programs in the West Bank take place at the behest of the Israelis. Palestinians can’t go to Tel Aviv to participate usually, so they feel, in the words of one, “like we are in a zoo and people come to coexist with us when they want. Then we go back in the cage and they go home.”
Another part of the story behind anti-normalization is that it is basically a middle class phenomenon of ideologically educated activists and elite intellectuals, or what was once called the “haute bourgeoisie.” Poor Palestinians, some tens of thousands of whom travel to work in Israel, are not accused of normalization, nor do they care about normalization.
At the same time the governing officials of the Palestinian Authority know they must interact with Israeli authorities over everything from receiving tax payments to water and security issues. As much as they might hate that cooperation, it takes place daily, as evidenced by Jabril Rajoub’s negotiations that resulted in a climbdown from the FIFA suspension demand. Of course for doing so he was ridiculed on social media and said to be “working with the Zionist enemy” on Facebook, but he was not a “normalizer.”
So the targets of normalization become academics, and a few pockets of Palestinians here and there who want to engage in dialogue work. The real massive infrastructure of Israeli-Palestinian interaction, whether it is workers, cement companies, electricity, hospitals, fire departments, and things like that are not part of the “normalization” story, even though if you read through the PACBI and similar statements, they logically would be. That’s because while some people in Balata may be annoyed that a peace group helps a Palestinian child and then brags about it abroad, they aren’t actually annoyed when a child needs emergency care and is transported by the Red Crescent to Jerusalem.
One Red Crescent volunteer said it made him physically sick to have to go through the checkpoints and deal with Israelis, but the greater desire of seeing a person in need receive treatment justified it.
In Jerusalem, anti-normalization activists will sometimes target Palestinians who want to study at Hebrew University or work in West Jerusalem at a good job.
But blue-collar workers who wash dishes are not castigated. Normalization due to necessity is acceptable; normalization due to choice is seen as a demon.
For most Israelis it doesn’t matter, because they are not interested anyway in coexistence or peace work or academic collaboration. There is almost a schadenfreude mentality that sees the “peaceniks getting what they deserve,” when peace groups are attacked. That feeds a cycle of “see, look what the Palestinians are, we told you so.”
The question for Palestinians should be what is being accomplished through anti-normalization. It has been almost 10 years of trying to prevent normalization.
Most contacts with Israelis are at a bare minimum. Yet the goal of opposing Israel’s policies is not being achieved.
The Israeli partners have been ditched, the international partners have let the Palestinians down. Anti-normalization may have run its course. But to what end? Follow the author on Twitter @Sfrantzman