Small Mercies: The People Have the Right To Visit Their Sea

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Oren Ziv/Activestills photos

In an unexpected gift, thousands of West Bank Palestinians have been streaming onto Israeli beaches through ragged holes in the so-called security fence, while IDF soldiers blithely look on - and sometimes help by turning on jeep headlights near dark to guide them back to the fence - possibly because, with rare humanity, they've seen “they were families with beach balls and food bags, not grenades.” For many years, three slivers of shoreline at the Dead Sea have been the only beach under Palestinian control, though of course owned by Israel; Gideon Levy describes it as a "realm of hallucination" and, as Arab lifeguards instruct visitors to, "Lie on your back," "the only place where a Palestinian can give orders to an Israeli." This summer, Palestinians started illegally crossing into Israel through gaps in the security barrier by Faroun, close to Tulkarem; in recent days, the day-trippers have spread to beaches in Netanya, Jaffa, Haifa, Tel Avid and other locations. As the crossings have multipled, they've become more well-organized, with Arab-Israeli buses now waiting on the Israeli side of the border to take West Bank residents to multiple beaches. The crossings defy both the Occupation and a Palestinian Authority coronavirus lockdown in the West Bank; while Israel's offered no explanation for relaxing its strictures, some believe it's meant either to boost Israel's ailing economy, or to slap down the power of the PA, which recently ended coordination with the Israeli government to protest their announced plan to annex much of the West Bank.

For thousands of families flocking to the solace of sand and sea without having to endure the brutal trappings of Israeli Occupation - lines, permits, barbed wire, security checks - the politics of their newfound freedom was secondary to its pleasures, especially as they confront the added hardships of the pandemic and its effects on an already ravaged economy. "The situation in the West Bank is at breaking point," said a man from Bethlehem at Jaffa's beach with his wife and daughter. "Having the fence open is allowing people to breathe a little." The beaches have drawn diverse crowds: Former prisoners otherwise banned from entering Israel, women in their 80s and 90s in traditional garb who hadn't returned to the sea since being forced off their land in 1948, young adults and children who, despite often living less than an hour's drive away, had never seen the ocean. For many, the precious glimpse of what "normal" could look like felt both bittersweet - parents urging their kids to enjoy it as much as possible because they might never see it again - and just. Said one visitor, "As far as I'm concerned, these are the beaches of Palestine." Many, backed by history, echo him in no uncertain terms. While an Israeli journalist witnessing the crossings tweeted with wonder that "the border between Israel and the West Bank was almost completely erased," a Palestinian man insisted simply, "For me, there is no border." Abd al-Kareem agreed:  After decades of genocide, banishment, disenfranchisement, ongoing oppression, “The people have the right to visit their sea.”

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