It seems the entire internet is extremely pessimistic about the new round of John Kerry-brokered peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. But seeing as most people online don't have a decent grasp on the Israel-Palestine situation, I decided to find out what the real world thinks about the issue. And since I live in Palestine, it was pretty easy to find people who will be directly affected by the outcome (or lack thereof) of the negotiations.
So what do the Palestinians think about the talks?
"It's bullshit," said Jaber Abu Rahmeh, a friend of mine from Bil'in, the village featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras. Residents of Bil'in have been demonstrating for more than eight years against settlement construction on their land, as the village has lost more than 1500 dunams (370 acres) to settlement expansion. Jaber's cousin Bassem Abu Rahmeh was killed by Israeli soldiers during a demonstration in 2009.
Jaber says the talks are a distraction to buy time for the Israelis to steal more land. He also believes the Israelis can't be trusted to hold up their end of the bargain—an understandable position given Israel's routine and ongoing violations of the Geneva Conventions.
"For us, it's a waste of time and for them they are saving time to plan everything," he said. "It's an occupation, and they don't respect any agreement. They didn't respect Geneva, they don't respect anything."
I also spoke to Mohammad Khatib, the coordinator of Bil'in's Popular Struggle Committee, the group that organizes the demonstrations. He wasn't much more optimistic than Jaber.
"You must understand that the Palestinian people get frustrated and lose the hope of the peace process because it took a long, long time and it's now continued for 20 years without any practical result," he said. "Even the results that it's achieved have made the situation much, much more complicated than before… All the actions that the Israelis are taking, they are not showing that the Israelis are willing to have a real peace."
The 20 years that Mohammad mentioned mark the time since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the agreement reached between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in 1993. The second round of Oslo Accords, signed in 1995, divided the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C. Israel maintains control over Area C, a whopping 60 percent of the West Bank, which is why it's able to decide what happens to Bil'in's farmland.
It's also why Israelis are able to continue building settlements with the protection of the Israeli military, which has full jurisdiction over everything in Area C. In fact, Israel published bids on Sunday to build more than 1,000 new settlement housing units while the peace talks are taking place, and the Israeli cabinet just approved a swanky new benefits package for a bunch of settlements.
I put the question to Lior Amihai, an Israeli who knows a lot about settlements. Lior works for Peace Now, a group dedicated to finding a way to a two-state solution. He's the deputy director of their Settlement Watch project, which does pretty much exactly what you would think it does.
Over the course of the conversation, most of which dealt with the awesome maps Peace Now makes of the 120-plus settlements in the West Bank, I got the sense that Lior is a pretty optimistic dude, and generally believes a fair solution will eventually come around one way or the other.
"Negotiations will fail and then they will blame each other; this is most likely what will happen. And then most likely the Palestinians will be the ones to be blamed," Lior told me. "We should already set the standards of what we're accepting and what we're not accepting. And this sort of regime that's inside the West Bank I think should be understood as something that's not acceptable."
But Lior's a leftist. Driving around to random outpost settlements in order to map them and then tell anyone who will listen how fucked up they are is a pretty extreme thing to do by the average Israeli's standards. So I found some average Israelis hanging out on the beach in Tel Aviv and had a couple of pleasant chats about the future of the region.
"I wouldn't expect a lot from this peace process," said Daniel Meyer as he sunbathed in Speedos. It sounds like you're not very optimistic, Daniel?
"I used to be, but every time I'm expecting something, even after the elections, nothing really changes. And I become apathetic to the situation… there's nothing really I can do."
I wandered down the beach a bit and introduced myself to Nadav Abramovitch, interrupting his game of paddleball, which might as well be Israel's national sport.
"It's an endless cycle. I really don't see any possible way—we don't want them here, they don't want us here," Nadav said.
So what's the solution?
"Eventually, like, it's gonna happen again and again until someone will, you know, they eventually will collapse."
Collapse? You mean one side's gonna wipe the other side out?
"Yeah, something like that."
OK, that cheered me up. Thank you, Nadav. I was beginning to get discouraged.
After talking to Nadav, I found Alona Bar-Yona, who explained to me why Israel can't give any of the land it's stolen back to the Palestinians.
"It's like if my family, they have a big land of grass around their house and all the time there are people in this grass and they throw stones at my parents' house, and my parents will say 'We want to let you build here,' but some of those people that live on their grass, alone, they say to my parents 'Those people will not change their opinion and they will continue to throw stones at your children.' So what should my mother do? What should she do, you understand?" I took this as a rhetorical question and rather than responding let Alona continue. "I cannot let you build a house on my land as long as you want to kill me. And they want to. Some of them. Not every one."
The problem with Alona's metaphor is that when she says "my land" she actually means "their land." The reason settlements are settlements rather than just being towns is because they're built on land that Israel is supposedly temporarily occupying as an emergency measure. But since the emergency has been going on since 1967, the year of the Six-Day War, Israel has had a lot of time to make its "temporary" measures permanent in the form of settlements (unequivocally illegal under international law) and the building of a gigantic wall that also encroaches on land belonging to the Palestinians.
Unfortunately, as I discovered, the US Congress' opinion on the settlements is apparently pretty close to Alona's. At a press conference in Jerusalem, 37 Democratic members of Congress met the press and waxed philosophical about the peace process. The ranking member of the delegation, Steny Hoyer, is the House Minority Whip, making him the second-most-powerful Democrat in Congress, a kind of Tonto to Nancy Pelosi's Lone Ranger.
Hoyer is completely unable to understand that the Palestinians still consider Jerusalem their capital, and want the Eastern half of it as a condition for any possible peace deal. Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, and the international community still considers it occupied territory rather than an uncontested part of the Israeli state. Hoyer courted controversy a couple of years ago when he said settlements in East Jerusalem aren't really settlements, a sentiment he doubled down on during the recent press conference.
"'Settlement' may have a different meaning in your mind than it does necessarily in mine," Hoyer said when asked if the congressional delegation would visit any settlements. "The expansion of Jerusalem, as a city that has natural growth to it, is one thing, from my perspective."
Henry Waxman (L).
Things got even worse when Henry Waxman, a senior Californian congressman who looks a bit like a naked mole rat that somebody dressed up in a suit, jumped in to say that settlements are "not the central issue" in the peace talks.
I caught up with Waxman after the press conference to, well, press the issue. Waxman, visibly annoyed with my line of questioning, stuck to his proverbial guns.
"I don't think it's a central issue in the talks," he repeated. "I have to work out, uh, the other issues. And what a Palestinian state would look like."
Although I was unclear on why it's Waxman himself instead of, say, the Palestinians who has to work out what a Palestinian state would look like, I asked him what the central issues are.
"Oh. Boundaries. Security. Um, the recognition of the rights of the Jewish people to have their country recognized as a Jewish country," he said, apparently missing the fact that the issues of boundaries and security are impossible to solve without doing something about the settlements.
I don't think Hoyer and Waxman's opinions would be too shocking to Mahmoud Zwahre, a (Palestinian, of course) member of the Popular Struggle Committee from the village of al-Maasara.
"Mainly, let's say that we are against the negotiations, not because we are against the negotiations as a principle, but because of the atmosphere the US creates… you know the American position has never been neutral," Mahmoud told me. "I'm not optimistic to be in 1993 with 100,000 settlers and in 2013 we have more than half a million settlers."
Of all the people I talked to, I didn't find a single one who was optimistic about the negotiations. The congressmen are a possible exception, but I think their views are less "genuine optimism" and more "political posturing."
The response that stuck out the most to me was from an Israeli girl on the beach who didn't give me her name. While rolling a cigarette, she summed up perfectly the general attitude toward the peace talks.
"It's boring," she said without really looking at me. I asked her why she thinks that.
"I'm sorry, I'm very busy right now," she said, and went back to rolling her cigarette.
Follow Andy on Twitter: @HanDetenido
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