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The Palestinian Autonomy

Several months ago I sat in for parts of the Professional Education for Creating Water Retention Landscapes, in Tamera, in the role of back-up translator for a francophone contingent from Togo. About fifty people had traveled to Tamera to study sustainable water management and lake-building; the participants mostly represented existent or planned projects. In one round, they each talked about their main motivations for studying the subject. The facilitating team had given some possible ideas as suggestions: Have you come because of ecological concerns? Maybe political awareness of water issues? Are you worried about desertification? Do you have a wish or need for local food and water autonomy in your projects or communities? Perhaps you have a spiritual connection to water?

There were groups from across Europe of course, but also several from Africa, the Americas, and the Near East. This latter included five Palestinian farmers, all of whom without exception had the same leading concern: autonomy. And each of them spoke this word with feeling, with a palpable tension and intensity… an almost too-real emotion in the midst of a fairly technical curriculum of hydrology and earth-moving. I took this as an insight into their situation, a shared exhaustion with living at the mercy of a hostile authority that controls a scarce resource.

Stepping out of an exploitative, centralized system—instead of fighting it—can be a purely pragmatic response, and a reasonable one. But the effects of local autonomy are greater than simple survival for marginalized people. It is a way to resist central authority, but this misses the depth of the transformation that autonomy represents: The “centrality” of a centralized system depends on the existence of the periphery; if the periphery opts out, there is no center. The authority, control, and potential for manipulation and exploitation, are simply gone. Autonomy is fundamentally revolutionary.

When this is the conscious motivation, in places like Tamera or Fayez’s farm here in Tulkarm in the West Bank, then autonomy becomes peacework. We use terms like “autonomy” and “autarchy,” because that’s the usual jargon, but the goal is not rugged individualism or a survivalist siege mentality; to goal is an open and trusting network of local production and exchange, based on choice and complementarity, and not on control or dependence. We mean regional autonomy. And on an even deeper level, autonomy just isn’t the right word. The true goal is independence and sovereignty, the power to choose; to freely enter into exchange or not, based on mutual support, without fear or need.

Until recently, the subversive nature of local resource sovereignty went largely undetected. Those in positions of power are so accustomed to active resistance and calls for reform; that the idea of someone simply stepping out of the system—creating alternative models outside of the centralized picture—was seen as nothing but a quaint hippy pastime if it was noticed at all. This is beginning to change: In many countries, in recent years sunshine has been essentially nationalized and privatized; solar energy cannot be generated off-grid without permits from—and taxes to—the relevant authorities. Likewise, in more and more countries, rainwater belongs to the state and to the public and private water utilities, and cannot be collected even on private property without a permit.

Centralized control of resources is not only a modern convenience which, in the case of a conflict like Israel-Palestine, may be used by the powerful against the weak. It is rather part of the a system of thinking and acting that inevitably leads to the illusion of scarcity, and then creates conflict. It is “scarcity thinking” that motivates hoarding, centralization, and finally divides the world into the powerful and the weak. It is, in other words, the system of exploitation and war. Our hope for Tulkarm is not only to allow a friend to flourish despite oppression, but to support Fayez in his revolutionary peacework. He has been working for decades to create a different way of living, to build another model of human life based on cooperation. The permaculture agriculture techniques, water management, and energy technology we are supporting here, are neither weapons nor defenses in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle; they are a path out of this and all conflict, a model of an alternative in which the abundance of nature can be seen, and the pointlessness and absurdity of the conflict are revealed.

Heading to Tulkarm — Global Campus, 2013

I’ll inaugurate this blog with a visit to the occupied territories of Israel-Palestine. I’ll be there as part of the Tamera Global Campus, to build some simple, off-grid solar technology on an organic farm in Tulkarm in the West Bank.

Right now I am in the Lisbon airport, after a night in a cheap hostel in Baixa-Chiado, on Praça Luis de Camões. Unlike anywhere else I have been in Lisbon, I didn’t really like it. It was crowded and noisy of course, but not crowded and noisy in an interesting way. It could have been anywhere… or at least, anywhere in Europe where bored, young people congregate when they have energy but no passion; when they have the means to travel and party, but no particular curiosity or aim.

One of Lisbon’s charms is that it looks and feels different–calmer, more peaceful and comfortable with itself–than any other big city I know. But Praça Camões at 2am could have been the coffee-shop district of Amsterdam, or central Prague, or somewhere along the Kurfürstendamm… any architecturally plausible Euro-backdrop sought out by revelers, to give an air of cool to public drunkenness and empty conversations. In the hostel itself, day and night an assortment of astonishingly beautiful young people from all over the western world flirted, with an affected banality and the unconscious but clear goal of having–literally–no culture. I mean no culture in the sense there was no way of knowing where these people were from; they spoke perfect English learned from sit-coms, wore the same globalized, branded fashion emerging from the same sweatshops of the developing world. They sought out the same cheap alcohol in the same nightclubs, playing the same derivative globalized pop-music under a house beat; and then hollered in the streets until at least dawn, in that inebriated mixture of exuberance, privilege, repressed rage, bonhomie, and primate aggression; which as far as I know was perfected by rapey American fratboys in the 80s, and then pitched to the world as some kind of virtue.

These were intelligent and interesting young people, with complex histories and old souls. They were probably quite well-informed and idealistic, to the extent their imaginations and self-interest allow. But what was sacred in them, they hid; what was false and without meaning, they promoted and nourished. The striking woman from Slovenia and the tall Portuguese university student, as they chatted in the kitchen, both radiated a general, anchorless ambition, expressed in the form of demeanor and CV, rather than any real vision. The studies they were in, the internships they dreamed of: European Law, “Business,” finance, international institutions. They are so ready to work so hard, to give their energies to processes and structures that tormented their parents, that are impoverishing their countries, and that will destroy their futures. And yet nothing else seems to occur to them.

Praça de Luis de Camões is not a conflict zone in the usual sense, but we do live in a globalized world: The violence in Israel-Palestine depends directly on political expediency, ignorance, and Christian apocalypticism in the western world. Exploitation of human beings and of the natural world depends on the kinds of consumerist choices these young people make every day. And I’m not really much less complicit than them, anyway. I don’t know where the most urgent work is: Tulkarm? Portugal? Schaerbeek? Wesley Heights?

That last question was a rhetorical one: The most important peacework is inner peacework, as a general rule and especially for an angry, judgmental, hypocritical, neurotic, consumerist basket-case like me. My job as a peaceworker right now is to not judge the Erasmus demographic of Praça Camões, and I’m not doing too well.

I’ll continue with this inner work. For the next few weeks, it just so happens I’ll be doing it in the Occupied Territories. I’ll be keeping my brain and hands busy building a solar dryer.

See you there.