The Israeli-Palestinian scene: surveying the present and evaluating the future.
"STAND here," the Israeli soldier said to the crowd at the Qalandya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. He pointed to the ground, indicating an imaginary line, while another soldier looked on, smiling. The group of Palestinians, of both sexes and all ages, tried to crowd back behind the imaginary line. "No, here," the soldier said, moving the line. The crowd struggled. The soldier who was looking on laughed. It was hot, getting on towards noon, and the checkpoint offered little shade - there was only barbed wire on either side and armed men in front. It was Friday. Those Palestinians who were hoping to get to Jerusalem for morning prayer at al-Aqsa were disappointed. So far, there was nothing unusual about the situation.
Neta Golan had had enough, however. She is an Israeli-Canadian who is very active in the movement against the occupation. She is so active precisely because she has had trouble quietly watching the daily affronts and indignities of the occupation. After worrying briefly about whether we were risking closing the checkpoint altogether and making the situation worse for the people waiting, our group approached the soldiers. Neta asked the soldier why they were taunting the people. "They're animals," he said. "Really? Is this woman here an animal?" "No, no, it's not like that it's just when they're all in a crowd..." "...They're in a crowd because you're not letting them through." "They're terrorists. They just let off a bomb in Jerusalem." "These people here? This woman here is a terrorist? This child?"
Neta pointed out that she was Jewish too, and that she wished the soldier would understand the lessons of what happened to their people. She meant, I assume, that it would be a tragic irony if the people of Israel ended up inflicting something like a genocide on the Palestinians, after having suffered a genocide themselves. The soldier, however, missed the point. "What happened to our people will never happen again," he said.
It is precisely communalism that renders people able to feel only the pains of their group, to have aspirations only for their group, to believe that only their group has rights that deserve protection. But communalism is not the only problem in Israel-Palestine. It is also Israel's power to let its communalism run rampant over every aspect of Palestinian life. It is this daily, physical, spatial oppression that feeds Palestinian communalism and sends its children to blow themselves up in the most vindictive, criminal, and counter-productive form of revenge.
As Palestinians have been confined to ever smaller spaces, their tactical avenues for resistance have been systematically closed off by repression so that the most spectacular tactic of resistance is now the one tactic that has the effect of unifying Israeli society, rather than finding and pushing divisions that might exist in that society. A small, but growing, international movement in solidarity with Palestinians is trying to change that: to protect Palestinians from the worst repression and widen their options for resistance.The physical reality of occupationCheckpoints:
As we left the Qalandya checkpoint that day, we saw Israeli soldiers deal with a Palestinian parking violation - by slitting the tyres of the illegally parked car. As we left that scene, we happened to witness a soldier casually toss a sound grenade (a non-lethal 'crowd dispersal' weapon designed to create a loud noise that stuns those near the explosion) into a van. The passengers leapt out of the van before the explosion, then hopped back in and drove off as quickly as they could.
Checkpoints have more effects than just humiliation. They have thoroughly disrupted Palestine's education system. At the Surda checkpoint, north of Ramallah, a student from Birzeit University talked of the scheduling problems caused by checkpoints. "We study one month on, one month off, and it's going to take me six years to finish my three-year degree in civil engineering. A single soldier has the power to close a university of 5,000 students."
All aspects of the economy are affected as well. At Surda, a tailor talked of how he sleeps in the office in Ramallah, "as do all those who have the opportunity". His home town is 11 km from Ramallah, and would take no longer than 15 minutes to travel to by car. Surda checkpoint turns it into a three-hour commute in each direction, and introduces a random element (will the checkpoint even open at all?). He visits his family on weekends.
The medical infrastructure is also affected. At the maternity hospital in Jenin, a pharmacist described the supply situation thus: "We have IV (intravenous) fluids; but we don't have antibiotics, analgesics, maternity supplies. The wholesalers are in Ramallah - and they have to get through checkpoints for months our X-Ray machine has been broken, and maintenance people can't get here from Bethlehem."
At the checkpoint between Nablus and Jenin, travellers must get out and walk and cannot take the same vehicle from one point to another. "You can't move by car between Nablus and here," the pharmacist said, "so how can you carry equipment, X-ray equipment? Donkeys?" One method that soldiers use to control people at checkpoints is to take the identification cards of all the people waiting to cross, and then hand them back one person at a time. The ID cards are applied for at 16 years of age, and if they are lost, Palestinians are unable to travel for months.Gaza and settlements
The Gaza Strip takes the checkpoint system to its logical conclusion. With the sea to the west, an electric fence to the east, and Israeli control over both the Egyptian border to the south and the only exit into Israel in the north at Erez, the 360 sq km Gaza Strip is the world's largest prison. The prison population is 1,250,000 and has 58 per cent of the land or 210 sq km. Israeli settlers number 4,000 and have 42 per cent of the land, or 150 sq km, including most of the coastline and the best agricultural land. This means that the population density for Palestinians is 6,000 persons a sq km; for the settlers it is 27 persons a sq km, with each settler having 226 times as much land as each Palestinian.
Most Gazans have not been able to leave the strip since the intifada began in 2000. Most Gazans used to be employed in Israel and commute. This means that the majority of Gazans have not had any work in nearly two years - the unemployment rate is estimated to be 67 per cent. Gaza is (barely) surviving on a tradition of hospitality and foreign aid.
Within Gaza, checkpoints have ensured that people cannot travel from the north to the centre, from the centre to the south, or in the reverse direction. Checkpoints are located near settlements, that have their own roads, water, and electrical infrastructure so that when power supply to Palestinians in Gaza is cut off (as it is for several hours each day), it is not cut off to settlers. Settlers even have their own licence plates: Israelis have orange plates, Palestinians have green. A frequent sight at checkpoints is a long queue of green-licence-plated vehicles even as an orange-plated vehicle zips through without any problems.
'Protection' of settlements by soldiers at checkpoints reaches absurd levels. Amira Hass reported the killing of 10-year-old Abd a-Samed Shamalekh, in Ha'aretz on July 2, 2002 in what seems to be a reprisal for a makeshift rocket attack by Palestinians against a tank near the Netzarim settlement. Earlier, on June 28, 2002, Ibrahim Lalooh was shot from a tower near his home, which happened to be near the Fardalom checkpoint and settlement, when he was moving some laundry. After the shooting, his wife went to investigate, and was shot dead.
The economic and educational strangulation is more extreme in Gaza than in the West Bank. At the Palestinian Technical College, the Dean described an institution dying a slow death. "The college started in 1996. Graduate employment steadily increased, until the intifada. Now it's gone down, and is plummeting. Part of the problem is the economy - students can't pay for transport to and from school. With supplies, we have had some help from France; Jordan promised equipment for labs but this has stopped. The countries are afraid they'll be accused of terrorism if they supply our science labs."
Enrolment is dropping. "We had 700 new students last year, 400 this year, and expect worse numbers next year. Our new students are coming from central Gaza only, because students from the north or south don't want to try the checkpoint every day. Our planning horizon shortens to trying to get home safely tonight."
In the July 10, 2002 issue of Ha'aretz, Amira Hass reported the statistical reality of Gaza's dying economy: "In April 2000, 3,773 trucks brought goods worth some NIS 97 million into Gaza from Israel. In April 2002, that figure was down to 979 trucks carrying NIS 27 million worth of goods. In May 2000, 5,087 trucks brought NIS 126 million worth of goods and in May 2002, only 2,309 trucks entered the Gaza Strip from Israel with NIS 66 million worth of goods (5 NIS approximately equals $1)."Incursions
If the checkpoints are slowly choking the Palestinian society and economy, and the settlements are slowly stealing Palestinian land and resources, it is the daily incursions into communities in places such as Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem and elsewhere that are the most visible and murderous part of the occupation.
In Jenin, for example, residents watch television the night before to find out whether there will be curfew the next day (there usually is). The curfew timings are announced on television. Will it be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.? Will it be after 3 p.m.? During curfew, tanks and armoured cars drive around the city shooting from machine guns at anything that moves.
Sometimes the army will wait until curfew is lifted and people come out before they start shooting. This occurred several times in June, resulting in a number of deaths. On July 11, 2002, journalist Emad Abd al-Aziz, a journalist working for Reuters, was shot from a tank-mounted gun at a distance of about 4 m in Jenin. He died the next morning. As the International Solidarity Movement's (ISM) July 12 report indicates, this attack was a 'collective punishment' for the Israeli Army's own blunder in Jenin: "An Israeli armoured personnel carrier (APC) intentionally drove into an electricity pole, knocking it down and subsequently causing the live wires to land atop the APC. Soldiers in accompanying tanks and jeeps then opened fire on crowds in Jenin, which were out stocking up on food during the lifting of curfew. Now, the Israeli Army is 'retaliating' for its own blunder by imposing a 24-hour curfew and threatening to 'shoot to kill' anyone who steps outside. Seven civilian homes have been occupied in the city and four homes have been blown up by the Israeli military."
The "operations" conducted during these incursions often involve some form of reprisals against the families of militants or suicide bombers. Such reprisals include house demolitions and arrests of family members. This is clearly illegal and against fundamental legal principles, but the Israeli government goes still further, killing bystanders who range from clearly marked journalists like Abd al-Aziz to a seven-year-old like Bassam al-Sahdi, who was killed on June 26, 2002 by gunfire from a tank in the Jenin camp. Bassam's crime was one that many children in Jenin and elsewhere in Palestine are guilty of: being in the vicinity of a tank.The closing of political space
In 2001, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, who had called for Israel "to deliver a military blow that clearly shows terror will not pay", suggested that the Palestinians deserved something of what they were getting because they had not tried non-violent resistance.
Malcolm X, an African-American leader from the 1960s, wondered why people were so interested in teaching African-Americans non-violence instead of teaching white Americans in the police or the Ku Klux Klan non-violence. Here, too, one wonders why Friedman is so much more interested in teaching the Palestinians non-violence, rather than teaching the Israelis non-violence. Certainly, it is the Israelis who kill more people and hold vastly more power over the life and death of Palestinians than vice-versa.
Still, a non-violent strategy could work for the Palestinians. Israel sees itself as a democracy, indeed as 'the only democracy in the Middle East' (West Asia). Sharon and his supporters depend on terrorist attacks from Palestinians to win them the support that they need for their own terror campaigns in the Occupied Territories. One of the main reasons a non-violent strategy has not been adopted (and there are others) is that the costs of such a strategy have been unsustainable for Palestinians. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) has opened fire on non-violent demonstrators and on children throwing rocks at tanks (which, given the threat to the soldiers in the tanks, could be construed as a strictly symbolic, nonviolent action). That kind of violent repression is a closure of the political space for non-violent resistance. Palestinians are working with solidarity activists from outside Palestine through the ISM and trying to reopen that space.
Neta Golan talked about the role of the ISM: "What we want to do with the ISM is keep an avenue for popular struggle open. When we accompany Palestinians, because of the racism of the whole system, the army doesn't treat us as targets the way they treat Palestinians. We want to expose the racist nature of the conflict by doing this, and also simply try to protect people so they can try to resist politically."
In the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, for example, internationals formed a cordon around workers as they repaired a broken sewer. The sewer had been damaged by Israeli bulldozers, and when workers tried to repair it they were fired upon by the IDF. It was becoming a public health problem and the workers asked for help from the ISM. The action succeeded and on June 27, the sewer was repaired. With larger numbers of internationals, campaigns to dismantle checkpoints or block incursions could succeed. Another initiative of the ISM is a 'buy Palestinian' campaign. An alternative to a mere boycott of Israeli goods, it would provide consumers with information on how to support the Palestinian economy while also applying pressure on Israel.
Such tactics need international support and solidarity to succeed. There are actually a number of scenarios that could lead to a just outcome in Palestine, and they would be expedited by the adoption of such strategies by Palestinians and internationals.
The first scenario is the emergence of a massive movement in Israel that is serious about peace with justice and is willing to make major concessions. In order to continue, the occupation needs a substantial amount of support among the Israeli population; and an Israeli movement that could wither away that support would be enough to end the occupation. The "Courage to Refuse" movement, in which over 400 conscientious objectors in the Israeli military have refused to serve in the Occupied Territories, is an encouraging development in this regard.
The second scenario is the emergence of such a movement in the United States, strong enough to force changes in U.S. policy towards Israel: as the patron of Israel and its provider of unconditional military and diplomatic support, the U.S. could make Israel go along with a sensible solution. Such a policy is not in the interest of U.S. elites, however, and would have to be forced upon them by U.S. citizens.
The third scenario is one in which international pressure from the grassroots up, in countries not limited to the U.S., leads to an international intervention of some kind. Robert Fisk suggested this scenario in May 2002: "So I'll make a rash, fearful prediction. After Bosnia and Kosovo and East Timor, we have grown tired of regional wars. And I think that, in time, we will close down the Middle East war. With Russian and E.U. and U.N. support, there will, eventually, be American and NATO troops in Jerusalem. There will be a Western protection force in the West Bank and Gaza - and in Israel. The Israeli and Palestinian armies will have to return to barracks. Jerusalem will be an international city. The Palestinians will have security. So will the Israelis. Yes, it will be a form of international colonialism. Yes, it will mean foreign occupation for both sides. But it will put an end to this filthy war."
The alternative to such developments is a continuation of the slow asphyxiation of Palestinian society, punctuated by murderous incursions and, less frequently, by suicide bombings. Such an escalating spiral of state terror and retail terror entails expanding risks for people throughout the world. As a consequence, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that should concern all people of conscience.
Justin Podur visited the West Bank and Gaza under the auspices of the International Solidarity Movement in June-July 2002.