Aust at crossroads on Israel-Palestine

In the West Bank city of Hebron, a group of Palestinian children kick around a soccer ball until it bounces towards armed Israeli guards stationed metres away at a checkpoint.


The kids of the Old City, the scene of past violence from both sides of the conflict, know this could turn out a number of ways.

When the bright yellow ball meets the guard, the soldier begins juggling and chasing it with a smile, his machine gun and combat gear bouncing along.

Monitors from the European civilian observer mission TIPH also smile and watch on. They’re here to take notes and report on any human rights breaches.

Even when the observers leave, the two sides continue this play for a number of minutes.

It’s a surreal moment when guns mix with childhood cheer.

But life is far from normal around these parts, and when another armed guard kicks a ball wide onto Shuhada Street the scene opens up to the reality.

The kids won’t be allowed in there. Palestinians have been barred from walking through the once-bustling thoroughfare after the 1994 massacre nearby at the Ibrahimi Mosque.

The street is now virtually a ghost town with rusted-over old shopfronts, barricaded buildings, propaganda graffiti, and reminders of the military’s watchful presence with its occasional walk-bys and watch towers.

About 800 Israeli settlers here are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians – and the tensions could be cut with a knife.

Indeed, along the walls is graffiti depicting two smiling cartoon figures representing an Arab and a Jew shaking hands. The Arab holds a knife behind his back.

An American-accented settler walks by arguing about the Syrian conflict. A guard walks close to protect him.

The quiet street finally ends past an unmanned checkpoint onto a busy street where Arab market holders selling produce shout over loud traffic.

Palestinian life continues on.

The same resilience was on display when I met a family in the Jordan Valley village of Fasayil who’d just seen the demolition of their home, leaving a mother standing around her furniture and whitegoods as her young children played around the remains.

In the complex maze of West Bank areas under Palestinian Authority or Israeli government control, this construction was presumably deemed illegal.

I asked the father what he was still doing there, waiting in the cold winter air with those kids.

“Where am I supposed to go,” he replied incredulously.

That’s the question that will inevitably befall the international community as it decides what next for the deadlocked peace process.

And it’s a question Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may face when he makes his historic visit to Australia this week.

On the 50th anniversary of the occupation, 2017 is shaping up as the year in which the Israel-Palestinian conflict could take a new turn.

In a major shift, the United States under Donald Trump appears to be moving away from its insistence on a two-state solution for an independent Israel and Palestine.

But in some ways this underscores the reality on the ground. The continual build up of settlements during the occupation has put such a resolution at risk.

And there’s no signs of it abating: In the past month there have been even more settlement announcements and a recent controversial law passed to retroactively legalise West Bank outposts on private Palestinian land.

Even 65 per cent of Palestinians in a recent poll said the two-state solution was no longer viable.

Australia, which is holding firm to two-states, must decide whether it can shift to something more meaningful or allow its policy to languish as a hollow and pointless idea.

Mr Netanyahu’s visit will give it that opportunity.

* Rashida Yosufzai travelled to the West Bank in December 2016 courtesy of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network.