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The separation wall in Bethlehem.

Shifting sands The people of the West Bank are stuck in hellish game they never agreed to play

Hannah McCarthy looks at the changing landscape of the West Bank and how the people have coped.

Reporter Hannah McCarthy, based in Beirut, has been visiting the West Bank for weeks since the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas began last year.

She has documented the lives of communities in shock, suffering huge upheaval in the conflict and often daily terror by settlers in the area. Here, Hannah looks at the geography and history in the area, giving some insights into how its places and people have changed over decades, through the prism of an old board game…

WHILE I WAS reporting on the Israel-Hamas war, I came across an old Monopoly board based on Palestine in 1941. Here are some of my takeaways:

Jewish quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem

Screen Shot 2024-02-13 at 17.52.14 Jewish Quarter

Located on a narrow winding cobblestone street in Jerusalem’s old city is the Old Yishuv Court Museum. The small museum is filled with old household objects replicating life for a Jewish family before the Jordanian occupation in 1948 led to the expulsion of the small community of Jewish residents living inside the old city’s walls.  

In one of the rooms is an English and Hebrew language version of the boardgame Concern (Monopoly to us in Ireland) which according to the museum curator was devised in the early 1940s, at a time when World War Two raged and Palestine was still occupied and administered by the British authorities.  

A Concern board of British Mandate Palestine, first published in 1941 

Screen Shot 2024-02-13 at 17.53.57 Concern Board.

With Monopoly not available in Hebrew or for British Mandate Palestine, Benjamin Barlevi, a Polish Jew who emigrated to Israel in the 1920s devised a special version of Monopoly that was first released in 1941 as ‘Concern’.

The release year for Concern pre-dates the state of Israel’s establishment in 1948 in the aftermath of the Holocaust and before the mass displacement of thousands of Palestinians from their homes known as the Nakba

Believed to have held right-leaning views and a knowledge of biblical geography, Barlevi was keen to pass on his interests to the next generation through board games. As many Irish readers will likely know, the aim of Monopoly is for each player to become the wealthiest by buying, trading and collecting rent on properties. Meanwhile, opponents are slowly forced into bankruptcy and eliminated from the game. Perhaps many recall family bust-ups following an evening of Monopoly — it’s not a template for peaceful co-existence.  

Gaza featured as one of the properties on the Concern board 

Screen Shot 2024-02-13 at 17.54.48 Gaza featured as one of the properties on the Concern board.

The antique Concern board serves both as a time capsule for British Mandate Palestine and the vision of many early 20th century Zionists. The most expensive properties on the board are the coastal towns (now cities) of Tel Aviv (400 Shekels), Jaffa (200 Shekels) and Haifa (300 Shekels) while the cheapest are the Negev properties of Gaza (80 Shekels) and Beersheba (120 Shekels).

Gaza has long been poorer than Tel Aviv but the disparities are even more glaring today as the besieged Palestinian enclave faces mass famine and disease just miles away from the high-tech Israeli hub. 

The important religious cities of Jerusalem (380 Shekels), Bethlehem (250 Shekels) and Hebron (180 Shekels) are grouped together as Judea, a biblical term still used by religious settlers who occupy parts of Jerusalem and Hebron today.  

Israeli settler in the centre of Hebron, a large Palestinian majority city in the occupied West Bank

Screen Shot 2024-02-13 at 17.56.19 An Israeli settler in the centre of Hebron, a large Palestinian majority city in the occupied West Bank.

Metula (250 Shekels) along the Israeli northern border with Lebanon was one of the more expensive properties in 1941, before an effectively closed land border was imposed after Israel’s establishment in 1948 and the mass arrival of Palestinian refugees that has destabilised the fragile Lebanese state to this day.

Meanwhile, Metula today is almost a ghost town after Israeli residents were evacuated at the start of the war, as the militant group Hezbollah which controls southern Lebanon and Israeli forces began trading almost daily rocket fire.  

Ramallah, the political base for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank 

Screen Shot 2024-02-13 at 17.57.17 Ramallah

The 1941 Concern board doesn’t feature Ramallah which has since become the base for the Palestinian elite and the weak and corrupt Palestinian Authority devised by the Oslo Accords in the 1990s to administer parts of the West Bank while Israel maintains control over the majority of the territory.

Nor does the gameboard feature illegal Israeli settlements such as Ariel, which have grown into small, well-guarded Jewish cities in the West Bank that will not easily be dismantled to make way for any future Palestinian state.  

Ariel, a large Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank

Screen Shot 2024-02-13 at 17.58.22 Ariel

New Israeli cities such as Modiin and Rehovot have sprung up since the Concern board was devised. Meanwhile, no new Arab towns or cities have been built within Israel’s official border for Palestinian citizens of Israel who have limited options for places to live in the Jewish state.  

Pass Go — The bankrolling of illegal real estate development in the West Bank 

Unsurprisingly, the game of Monopoly was first popularised in the US, a laboratory for market capitalism and real estate speculation. Most right-wing settlers in the West Bank, however, have not had to reckon with a truly free market to buy their properties or develop their businesses.

Instead many receive large subsidies and cheap mortgages to live comfortably in the occupied Palestinian territories. Even Ireland has had a role to play in the economic bolstering of illegal settlement activity in the West Bank: last year, it was revealed that over four million euro of Irish state funds had been invested in nine Israeli businesses operating in the occupied West Bank – a situation which the government has said they are working to resolve.  

The new financial and travel sanctions imposed by the US and the UK (but not the EU) on extremist and violent settlers in the West Bank could impact the flow of cheap money to the illegal settlement particularly because of how interwoven Israeli and US banks are but the economic support for settlers in the West Bank provides them with a significant advantage over neighbouring Palestinians, who earn around 8 percent of what the average Israeli earns.  

Screen Shot 2024-02-13 at 17.59.13 ClovisIRex / Sketch App ClovisIRex / Sketch App / Sketch App

The Palestinian city of Nablus (250 Shekels) in the northern West Bank was a desirable property for those playing the old version of Concern but decades of Israeli military occupation has stalled the largest Palestinian city’s economic development compared with the cities that stand inside Israel’s 1948 borders.

Even attracting business from fellow Palestinians living in Israel or elsewhere in the West Bank has been difficult for businesses in Nablus amidst onerous Israeli military restrictions in place since 7 October

Screen Shot 2024-02-13 at 18.01.44

Last month, I spoke with a server at a tastefully decorated new pizza restaurant that had opened in the old city of Nablus just before the war began and which was now struggling to survive as the main roads out of the Palestinian city with 160,000 residents had been closed.

The three hours I later spent at the military checkpoint which controlled access to one of the only roads out of Nablus that was open certainly made me think twice about a return journey anytime soon.  

Screen Shot 2024-02-13 at 18.03.11

In the historic Palestinian city of Jenin (180 Shekels), I spoke with Yousef Awad who received support from both the Swedish and Israeli government after the Oslo Accords to study in Sweden to become a tour guide in Jenin.

Screen Shot 2024-02-13 at 18.03.46 Yousef Awad

But frequent military raids on the refugee camp in the eastern part of Jenin have made foreign tourism a difficult sell for even those with an appetite for risk and adventure, while most stores in the city’s once bustling old city are shuttered.  

Screen Shot 2024-02-13 at 18.04.35

At the cultural centre Awad owns in Jenin are pictures from the 90s and early 2000s of groups of Israeli and Palestinian children on trips to Washington DC when cross-community projects happened, similar to many which happen regularly today in Northern Ireland.

Last March, I asked a community leader at Burj al Luq Luq, a Palestinian community centre in Jerusalem’s old city if the centre ever organised games with the local Israeli children. The Palestinian man responded angrily: “No, and we wouldn’t want to organise those types of matches. I know that’s not the answer you want but this isn’t a Hollywood film.” 

More Palestinians were killed in the first two weeks of the latest war on Gaza than were killed in the entirety of The Troubles. The experiences of Palestine and Northern Ireland are increasingly incomparable, as the former experiences a violent escalation and death toll that eclipses anything ever experienced by the latter.  

Go to Jail / Free Passage to Egypt 

It is perhaps inevitable that an American game like Monopoly would feature jail time. On the Concern board in the old Yishuv Court Museum, I noticed that instead of a ‘Go to Jail’ square in the corner, there was a square offering passage to neighbouring Egypt.  

Screen Shot 2024-02-13 at 18.05.01

Today, the mass forced displacement of Palestinians to Egypt increasingly appears in mainstream public discourse in Israel, although often described as “voluntary migration”.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has warned that any mass displacement across the border would undermine Egypt’s four-decade-old peace treaty with Israel — but it’s an anxious warning.

As Israel announces plans to extend its military operations to Rafah and talk of Israeli settlements in Gaza grows, Egypt has bolstered the number of walls and checkpoints around its border with the war-torn Palestinian enclave over fears that Israel will use the war as an opportunity to force hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee into Egypt. 

Screen Shot 2024-02-13 at 18.05.29 The separation wall in Bethlehem.

The US has said it is opposed to the mass displacement of Palestinians and that Israeli military operations in southern Gaza have “gone too far,” yet American weapons continue to flow to Israel. As top EU diplomat Josep Borrell said this week: “If you believe that too many people are being killed, maybe you should provide less arms in order to prevent so many people being killed.”  

Meanwhile, the lives of Palestinian civilians in Gaza and the West Bank remain subject to the rules of a hellish game that they never agreed to play. 

Hannah McCarthy is a journalist based in Beirut.