An Occupational Hazard
On my desk is a photograph of a large poster that had been crudely taped to the wall of a bakery in an Arab souk just inside the Damascus Gate to the Old City of Jerusalem. The poster shows a Palestinian man crouching on the ground, his back against a cinderblock wall, his mouth contorted in a silent scream, his eyes wild with fear. He is trying, in vain, to tuck a small boy under his arm, away from some immediate threat that they are both watching in horror. The boy is crying, his hands grasping the shirt sleeve of his would-be protector. Just to the left of these two are three bullet holes in the cinderblock wall at different distances from the man and boy, as if the marksman had been zeroing in on his targets. The poster chronicles a real event. Both father and son were shot dead. In English and Arabic the poster reads, Stop Killing Palestinian Children.
I am neither Israeli nor Palestinian, which gives me either more or less objectivity in reflecting on the Israeli occupation of Palestine. My only personal involvement in the issue is that my tax dollars are paying for large swaths of the current bloodshed and horror. Last fall I went to the West Bank to see my tax dollars at work, to see how my investment was paying off.
I have not lived in Israel, so I do not know what it is like to enter a bus or restaurant wondering if I will be alive when it is time to leave. I have only the slightest experience of this kind of fear from my El Al flight between New York and Tel Aviv. For 11 hours I watched the computer screen display our flight path, wondering where the most likely place was for us to be blown to bits. I had no intention of riding a bus or eating out in Israel.
Enlarge this gnawing anxiety beyond buses and restaurants and planes to anywhere at any time; add tanks, bulldozers, armored personnel carriers, checkpoints between you and everywhere you need to go, trigger-happy 18-year-old soldiers, tear gas, concussion-sound bombs and bullets exploding into shrapnel. This is the fear with which Palestinians live in the Israeli-occupied territories.
A Day in the Olive Harvest
A few days after arriving, I attach myself to a group of internationals attempting to help Palestinian farmers harvest their olives in villages around Nablus, in the Occupied Territory. Israeli settlers come down from their mountaintop homes to bite and club us. They fracture the leg of one 60-year-old American. It could be worse. Palestinian farmers have been shot at and killed, their hands and arms amputated. Oddly, a fractured leg doesn’t seem so serious anymore. My sense of the normal is changing.
As we try to enter the next village, we are stopped at the Israeli checkpoint. I have to keep reminding myself that this checkpoint does not divide Palestine from Israel, but two Palestinian villages from each other. One of us is detained and the rest remain with him to learn the outcome. I sit and watch the occupation at work. A group of Palestinian female college students is stopped, because the soldier questioning them says they’d kill him if they had a gun. There is no accusation that they have a gun. But there will be no university class for them today. They turn away frustrated, some crying.
An ambulance is denied passage. Workers and teachers try to pass. Some are allowed through, others blocked, others simply made to wait, and wait, and wait. I feel rage growing in me and wonder how much of this I would put up with before opting to become a human bomb.
We who live in the United States take much for granted about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians: Israel’s right to exist in safety and Palestinian terrorism, for example. Concentrating our attention on these two poles, around which most Americans, including myself, construct their understanding of what is going on here, also helps us avoid certain other issues.
If Yasir Arafat is to protect Israel from Palestinian violence, who is protecting Palestinians from Israeli violence? Why is a Palestinian suicide bomber a terrorist but the Israeli commander who orders missiles fired into a car in a residential Palestinian neighborhood not a terrorist? Why is Palestinian terrorism labeled terrorism and Israeli terrorism labeled security measures? Why is the United Nations not preventing Israeli incursions into U.N. refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza? Why are we even discussing the pros and cons of Israel’s Great Wall, built miles beyond the 1948 armistice line, annexing in the process Palestinian land, life and water? There should be nothing to discuss. What is really going on in the West Bank and Gaza: security measures or ethnic cleansing?
A Right to Exist
Next to the photo on my desk is another picture, also of the bakery wall in the Arab souk, a collage of 16 Palestinian men and boys, all dead, killed by Israeli soldierssomeone’s sons, perhaps relatives of the man from whom I just bought freshly baked baklava. I am afraid to ask him if the dead are his relatives, afraid to ignite a simmering rage. Does this people not have a right to defend itself against extinction? Where is its army? Its military hardware? Who has barred this people from their legitimate self-defense against an occupying force, the fourth largest military power in the world, and then demanded adherence to the international rules of war?
We trek around another checkpoint, having been refused entry by Israeli soldiers into the Palestinian town of Beit Furik. We pass through Nablus on the way. It is not a pleasant walk. We cross rock and rubble and seem always to be going up or down hills. We play hide-and-seek with Israeli patrols, because we are not permitted to cross the Israeli security roads that crisscross the area. Palestinians are shot for doing so. A woman I am with falls and breaks a rib.
I see absolutely nothing of beauty. While heading into a narrow valley between two sizable hills, the smell of sewage grows steadily stronger. I think, How careless people are here. When we get to the bottom, what I thought was a creek turns out to be a four-foot-wide stream of gray, raw human sewage. I learn later that Israeli soldiers redirected the Nablus sewer system to discharge its contents into this previously freshwater creek. We cross the creek over a narrow plank of metal together with Palestinians who are making their daily commute between work, school and home, a daily journey that is not only dangerous to their health but hours longer than necessary, because the Israeli checkpoint blocks the most direct route from here to everywhere else.
In October the Israeli Supreme Court handed down a decision in a case challenging the intentional creation of this running, raw-sewage creek, which the plaintiffs claimed was an act of bioterrorism. The court found that this open flow of sewage does not present a significant health hazard. It said the diversion was necessary for Israeli security.
Elsewhere in the West Bank, in the town of Jayyous, Israeli occupation forces order the Abu Amar family out of their home. The family was told they must have a permit to live there because their home is now located in Israel. When Israel’s Great Wall was built around Jayyous, the Abu Amar home was walled into Israel and out of the Palestinian village. Their children must now pass through a gate in the wall, controlled by Israeli soldiers, on their way to school and back. Sometimes they are allowed through, sometimes not. Villagers in Jayyous send packages of food, clothes and other necessities to their now annexed neighbors. But the Abu family is not the only victim of the Great Wall here. The Jayyous farmers have been walled out of their farmland. They are not allowed to use the gate.
View From the States
In December Ireturn home, but an American friend remains in Nablus, under curfew, under siege. The international press has gone, ordered out by Israeli Defense Forces. How easily the media obey these days, whether embedded or not. My friend stays on with a group of internationals to accompany a Swedish medical team. They do this to heighten the cost to the Israeli forces of hurting the medical volunteers. There is reason for this. Israeli soldiers have used medical-relief volunteers and others as human shields in house-to-house searches in Nablus. They also routinely prevent ambulances from bringing injured and ill Palestinians to the hospital.
A suicide bomber has struck again in Israel, and the siege of Nablus is a consequence. My friend sends reports by e-mail. She is the now famous American also slightly injured at the December anti-wall demonstration in Ma’sha, where Gil Na’amati, an Israeli soldier-turned-protestor, was shot in both legs by other Israeli soldiers.
I read that while the bodies of four teenage rock throwers, shot by Israeli solders, were being carried through Nablus, one of the pallbearers himself was shot in the head. Three other marchers were shot in the back. Perhaps the teenagers were suspected of terrorist activity or were even known terrorists. Perhaps they were innocent.
But there is no chance for anyone to know, because there was no trial to test the suspicions against these youth. Due process before death would be in order. But everything is out of order here in Israeli-occupied Palestine. There is no order. Everything is arbitrary, including life and death. Including the truth. Later, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz will report that these four youths were killed in a battle with occupation forces. Ha’aretz received its information from Israeli forces.
What if these youth were simply fighters against the Israeli occupation? Isn’t that allowed? To fight the foreign forces occupying their land? Didn’t Americans once do that?
I must admit to having a different view of stone-throwing Palestinian youth now, as well as of the occupation itself, and what its real goals are. What else are these youth supposed to do as Israeli armored vehicles ride through their refugee camp streets, taunting, shooting, demolishing Palestinian homes and worse? I can no longer pass easy judgment. I am no longer sure how I would react after years of this, generations of this. What are rocks compared to tanks and bullets? I left Palestine with fewer certainties than I had when I arrived.
I do not have a stake in any of this, really, except that I am paying for the Israeli occupation, and so I find that I, along with the entire world community, am rather heavily invested in an unacceptable occupational hazard. This occupation has inexorably pushed Israel and the United States to accept atrocities as a road map to Israeli national security. Dare I say it? The Israeli occupation is giving ethnic cleansing an acceptable rationale. To observe life in the West Bank leaves me with no other description. The handwriting, as they say, is on the wall.