During the 1980s and ’90s, tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip worked in Israel. They learned Hebrew and built relations with their Israeli employers. They watched Israeli television (there was little else available), and many developed a cautious but unmistakable admiration for Israeli politics and public accountability. When Palestinians talked of building a state, it was not uncommon to hear members of their elite refer to Israel as a model. They witnessed the robust (sometimes brutal) nature of public discourse in Israel, and many liked what they saw.
In turn, Israelis would venture on weekends into the West Bank, where they would get their cars fixed, shop for vegetables and snack on plates of unparalleled hummus. They attended weddings of their Palestinian employees and their children. Some Israelis and Palestinians even went into business together.
The relationship between the two peoples was hardly that of equals. It had a colonial quality not unlike that along much of the American border with Mexico. But when the guy repairing your balcony did not show up for work because of a closure of the West Bank and could not earn his pay, his deprivation meant something to you, as an Israeli. You knew him; you trusted him; you knew about his family. And when you, a Palestinian worker, saw your Israeli employer’s mother growing ill, you understood his anguish. You knew the woman; you liked her.
When the Oslo peace process fell apart in 2000 and a Palestinian uprising erupted, the common wisdom that quickly developed was that the two nations needed not greater intimacy but complete separation. Israel built a barrier, barred most Palestinians from entering (replacing them with Asians on temporary visas) and made it illegal for Israeli citizens to enter Palestinian cities. At the same time, a movement took hold among Palestinians aimed at cutting off contact with Israelis. This has grown into what is known as boycott, divestment and sanctions, or B.D.S., which seeks to isolate Israel internationally.
Meanwhile, the growth of Arab satellite television channels — Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and the Lebanese Hezbollah station Al Manar — led Palestinians to stop watching Israeli TV and to identify increasingly with the broader Arab and Muslim worlds. Today in Gaza almost no one watches Israeli television and the only people who know Hebrew or know any Israelis as human beings are over 40. Moreover, the growth of the global digital economy has allowed Israel to build an economy largely separate from the nations around it. Trade with its neighbors is insignificant; it is essentially a thriving European-level economy surrounded by poverty.
Israelis — especially in the heartland around Tel Aviv, where two-thirds of the country lives — can now go weeks without laying eyes on a Palestinian or ever having to think about one. In Gaza, Israelis do not exist except in a kind of collective nightmare. In the West Bank, the Israelis are mostly settlers and soldiers. Apart from a few pockets of industry and shopping where Palestinians are employed, interaction is highly limited.
Ethan Bronner, “A Damaging Distance”, The New York Times (13 July 2014), SR3.