Letter From Palestine

Letter From Palestine

The mood in the occupied territories is one of growing rage and despair.


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.

For the Palestinians, the settlements are a red line; any compromise on full withdrawal is to them unacceptable. Unfortunately, the fact that international law is on their side (indeed, Israel’s extensive destruction and seizure of Palestinian property is a “grave breach” of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and can thus be considered a war crime) is less germane to the immediate talks than that Washington and Tel Aviv have all the power and can call the shots. Sharon is unwilling even to freeze new settlements, insisting first that all the “violence” (only Palestinian violence, of course) must stop, followed by a lengthy “cooling-off period” and “confidence-building measures,” i.e., renewal of security cooperation that would involve the PA’s arrest of anyone Israel considers a threat. But the Palestinians know that seven years of such cooperation and confidence-building have only solidified the Israeli occupation and impoverished them further. Everyone I talked to roundly rejected a resumption of what they consider a sham peace process. The only Palestinians invested in Oslo, in fact, are Arafat and his PA yes men. But they know full well that any attempt to re-establish their role as Israel’s gendarme–the minimum demand of the Sharon/Peres government–will meet with overwhelming rejection by the population, certainly if it’s not accompanied by a substantive Israeli counteroffer, which Sharon has so far been unwilling to give.

During my visit, I didn’t see much evidence of constructive new strategies of resistance. Between the despair of suicide bombings and the veiled capitulation of the Oslo process is a vast area of opportunity yet to be seized. No consistent effort has been made to engage the majority of Palestinians in this intifada–kids throwing stones at checkpoints and poorly disciplined fighters shooting at settlements and bypass roads (especially irresponsible is the firing from heavily populated areas, where the Israeli response with excessive force has been frighteningly destructive) are no substitute for a coordinated mass movement. For example, peaceful demonstrations and marches against the closures and settlements could inspire the world community and bring new allies to the cause, but such efforts have been tried only sporadically.

Sharon himself has not been able to overcome his bloody past. A June 17 BBC documentary on his role in and responsibility for the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut, in which 1,000-3,000 Palestinian civilians were butchered by Israel’s Phalangist allies while under close Israeli army supervision, has caused an uproar in Europe (Nation contributor and editorial board member Richard Falk, who was interviewed for the show as an expert on human rights law and gave credence to the war crimes allegations against Sharon, has received anonymous death threats as a result and is now under police protection). Sharon, the architect of the Lebanon war and Israel’s defense minister at the time, was condemned by an Israeli commission of inquiry in 1983, which said he “bears personal responsibility” for the massacre.

The day after the BBC documentary aired, a Belgian court, responding to a complaint filed on behalf of twenty-eight plaintiffs and witnesses charging Sharon and others with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, opened an official judicial investigation. (Recent Belgian legislation allows for criminal investigations even of heads of state for such crimes.) And Human Rights Watch, in a statement released on June 23, also urged a criminal investigation into Sharon’s role in the killings. The organization said that “as Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon had overall responsibility over the Israeli Defense Forces and allowed Phalangist militias to enter the camps and terrorize the residents for three days.” It’s unclear how all this will affect the latest geopolitical maneuvering; it will probably damage Israel’s attempt to curry favor with European heads of state and may even correct the US media’s memory lapse vis-à-vis Sharon’s past.

The latest signs from the region are ominous. After the recent killing of a settler near Hebron, Israel carried out a scorched-earth campaign, demolishing dozens of houses and wells, destroying fields and expelling hundreds of occupants. This was followed by the demolition of dozens of homes in the Jerusalem-area refugee camp of Shuafat and in southern Gaza. For its part, Hamas has vowed revenge and more suicide bombings in response to the Israeli army killing of an 11-year-old boy in Gaza. Some members of the Israeli Cabinet, along with much of the press and army high command, have for a while now been clamoring for a major invasion of PA-controlled areas and wholesale liquidation of “terrorists” and the PA itself–perhaps even accompanied by a partial “transfer,” i.e., expulsion, of the Palestinian population. As veteran journalist Uzi Benziman put it in Israel’s leading daily, Ha’aretz, on July 8, “The coming war is a matter of destiny, an inevitable development, whose outbreak depends only on the timing of the next terror attack and the number of resulting casualties.”

Given Palestinian determination to resist, this could result in a bloodbath and thereby set the entire region aflame. It’s not out of the question that demonstrations could topple unpopular regimes in Jordan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Surely Colin Powell and his advisers are aware of these dangers. They seem to have no coherent strategy, however, for coping with them. The tinderbox is awaiting a match.

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