Letter From Palestine
I'm sitting in a drab back room in the Gaza Strip's Deir al Bala refugee camp, discussing the latest stage of the Israel-Palestine conflict with a half-dozen or so young Palestinian men. The unadorned concrete walls reflect the crushing poverty of the place, though, as everywhere in the occupied territories, my hosts are exceedingly gracious, serving mint tea and tasty snacks. Opinion is unanimous: The Tel Aviv suicide bombing a week earlier, in which twenty-one Russian-immigrant kids were killed and about a hundred wounded, was a good thing, and many more such bombings are needed in order to throw off the yoke of Israeli occupation.
How do you expect to achieve liberation by killing innocent civilians, I ask? Won't this only unite Israelis against the Palestinians, weaken support around the world for your cause and give encouragement to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's murderous proclivities? "We've been suffering long enough--let them find out what it's like," says one man. "If every Israeli begins to feel as vulnerable as we've been feeling for years," adds another, "they'll realize they can't defeat us, and they'll finally end the occupation. Besides, maybe Russians will decide this is not such a safe place after all, and fewer will emigrate."
Such attitudes, which I heard frequently during an early June trip to the territories, reflect growing rage and despair, combined with a grim determination to continue the struggle, no matter what the cost. A number of Palestinians were strongly opposed to suicide bombings. But the frustration has been building for years, and it can only be properly understood in the context of the impossible conditions Palestinians have been forced to live under: The closures and pass laws, a form of collective punishment instituted even before the Oslo agreements were signed, have led to skyrocketing unemployment and made travel difficult, sometimes impossible. The intricate and Orwellian system of roadblocks and checkpoints is a daily humiliation that has to be experienced to be believed: It took me more than three hours to travel from Bethlehem to Hebron--roughly twenty-five miles. All over the occupied territories, I met Palestinians who believe the world has given up on their cause. Indeed, with the United States, as always, firmly behind the Israelis, Europe generally inclined to follow the US lead and even the Arab regimes giving only lip service to the Palestinian struggle, it's hard to argue with them on this point.
The Palestinians I talked to were just as harsh on their own leadership, excoriating the Palestinian Authority for its incompetence, corruption and brutality. The signs are everywhere: You can drive through Gaza and see, amid the shocking poverty, sumptuous palaces built by Arafat's cronies, many of them paid for by the crooked import/export monopolies they wangled after the Oslo agreements were signed. In Deir al Bala, there was still animated discussion and approval of the January assassination of Hisham Makki, the notoriously corrupt head of the Palestine Broadcasting Authority (the hit is widely believed to have been carried out by dissident elements of Yasir Arafat's Fatah organization). The PA has done little to relieve the suffering of civilians impoverished or made homeless by Israeli army closures and shelling, though it should be pointed out that the majority of its revenues, tax transfers from trade, have been withheld by the Israelis since the beginning of the intifada.
It's not just the corruption, of course. Palestinians are fed up with the entire Oslo "peace process," especially after last year's final-status talks at Camp David, where the United States and Israel made it clear that there would be no full withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, borders, as required by international law; no full withdrawal of the detested settlements; continued Israeli military occupation of the Jordan Valley and control over all borders and many of the natural resources, especially water; and continued Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem (with at best nominal Palestinian control of certain Arab neighborhoods). Even more insulting, Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak insisted that Palestinians renounce for all time the right of refugees to return to their homes and refused to accept any Israeli responsibility for their expulsion.
Especially outrageous to Palestinians is the fact that these talks occurred in the context of a rapid acceleration in settlement-building and continued land expropriations (most egregiously, for several hundred miles of settler-only bypass roads) ever since the first Oslo agreement was signed in 1993. Barak himself approved more housing starts than his Likud predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.
I saw how this works on the ground: I visited the village of Al-Khadir, near Bethlehem, the day after the army had set up new blockades that prevented the villagers from getting to 5,000 acres of their farmland, the lifeblood of their community, land that the nearby settlement of Efrat has had its eye on for some time, the villagers told me. This is often the first stage in a land expropriation: The government will prevent villagers from going to their fields, using various pretexts; then it will declare the fields "abandoned" and seize them. Finally, they'll be handed over to a new or existing settlement.
In an attempt to head this off, the villagers had set up tents next to their fields, to let everyone know they weren't giving up without a fight. I could see the Israeli tanks patrolling on the next hilltop. "Don't point at them!" one man told me. "They'll shoot at you." A few days after I was there, a coalition of villagers from Al-Khadir and Israeli anti-occupation activists marched up to the hilltop together and held a peaceful demo. The army ordered them to leave in ten minutes. After deciding that they weren't leaving quickly enough, the soldiers began to beat the protesters, breaking the arm of one Israeli activist, Neta Golan.