Witness in the Territories

Witness in the Territories


In the last days of March, at the end of a five-day voyage with seven fellow members of the International Parliament of Writers (IPW) through the battered archipelago of reservations that make up the Palestinian territories, I met for breakfast at the King David Inter-Continental Hotel in Tel Aviv with two young

leaders of the so-called refuseniks, the members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who have publicly declared their refusal to serve in the occupied territories. These men are not peaceniks or pacifists; they’re not of the left or veterans of the now-demoralized Israeli peace movement; and they are certainly not cowards. They are Zionists, university-educated, articulate, patriotic sons of Israel, and their stand has become in these terrible dark days the most serious challenge that anyone has put to Israel’s moral credibility from inside the family.

We met alone and at their request. They wished to meet with me, they said, because of my role as president of the IPW and leader of the delegation, but mainly because they had learned from the Internet that I was an American who had been involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s and ’70s. They wanted avuncular advice from someone who, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was thought likely to identify with their decision to stand apart from their nation’s oppressive policy against the Palestinian people. This conversation took place two days after the sickening suicide bombing of the Passover celebration in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv, and a day before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared PLO chairman Yasir Arafat his “enemy” and launched Operation Defensive Shield with a brutal assault on Ramallah. The young men knew that everything was now about to get much worse for both the Palestinians and the Israelis, and they needed to decide what to do next. My advice was simple: Make it a single-issue movement; broaden your base to include women and men from every rank and Israelis of every type; and keep it in the family. Then speak truth to power.

At this writing, there are 404 refuseniks, with ten or more joining their ranks every week. Events of early April may accelerate that rate, or they may have the opposite effect. We cannot know. I asked them what had moved them to separate themselves from their brothers and sisters in the IDF and invite rage and confusion from their fathers and mothers and prison sentences from their government. What had made them willing to be called at best naïve and at worst cowards and self-hating Jews? For this is indeed what these young men face daily in the Israeli press and in their homes. Their eyes were opened, and their minds were changed, they said, when they were assigned to duty in the West Bank and the other Palestinian territories. There they saw everything that I and my fellow writers in the IPW delegation had seen in the preceding five days as we traveled from Tel Aviv to Ramallah, passed through the cities and towns of the West Bank and descended into Gaza, where we visited the refugee camps, gazed mournfully on the violent destruction of whole neighborhoods and villages, witnessed the deliberate, calculated humiliation of the checkpoints and saw for the first time the appalling scale, dominance and encroachment of the Jewish settlements.

Our delegation had traveled to the Middle East from four continents: From Africa came the Nigerian Nobelist Wole Soyinka and the South African poet and memoirist Breyten Breytenbach; from China, the dissident poet Bei Dao; from Europe, the Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo, Portugal’s Nobelist José Saramago, Italian novelist Vincenzo Consolo and the French writer and secretary general of the IPW, Christian Salmon; and from North America, myself, a novelist of the United States. We came in response to a plea from one of IPW’s founding members, the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, to express our solidarity with him and his fellow Palestinian poets and writers whose living and working conditions have increasingly come to resemble house arrest. The International Parliament of Writers is not a human rights organization or an NGO; it is simply a loose collective of poets and storytellers committed to aiding in as concrete a way as possible our fellow writers who find themselves under physical threat or political control because of their work as writers. Darwish and his colleagues, most of them based in Ramallah and elsewhere in the Palestinian territories, have for a year and half been enduring conditions that we believe are intolerable, conditions that must be condemned by those of us who are free.

By the same token, in expressing our solidarity with Darwish and his colleagues and in bearing witness to their intolerable circumstances, we were expressing solidarity with the people whose daily lives and history are celebrated in the poetry and stories of the Palestinian artists. To stand beside Neruda is to stand beside the Chilean people; to celebrate Whitman is to celebrate the American people. Governments and politicians, I’m sorry to say, usually have to look out for themselves. We came to the Palestinian territories, therefore, to see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears what was happening to the Palestinian people.

And so we passed with them through the checkpoints, alongside old women with groceries; pregnant women and mothers with babies; somber, frightened schoolchildren; men and women going to work or coming home from their jobs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and all of us forced to walk a half-mile in the hot sun by heavily armed, stone-faced Israeli soldiers. We entered the narrow streets and open-sewer alleys of Ramallah, and viewed dumbstruck the wantonly destroyed homes and public buildings in the refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza. We listened to students and faculty sustaining against nearly overwhelming opposition their beloved university at Bir Zeit, and saw, with dismay, the looming, rapidly expanding settlements. We witnessed firsthand the abject poverty and powerlessness of the majority of Palestinians. Grim statistics gained a human face. Hopelessness and suicidal desperation exposed its roots.

One evening in Ramallah, after a dinner hosted by Darwish and other members of the city’s intellectual and artistic community, I strolled with the Palestinian novelist Izzat Algazawi to a high ridge behind our hotel and looked out on the broad, moonlit valley below. My companion pointed out Jerusalem, barely seven miles in the distance, glowing like the center of the universe, the glittering capital of all the world’s religious dreams, it seemed. Closer to hand was a Jewish settlement, looking like a suburb of Denver. With its smartly laid-out streets and mini-malls, multistory dwellings and apartment complexes, its postmodern infrastructure up and running, all of it brightly illuminated by a grid of streetlights, it seemed to have been placed intact and overnight onto the rocky hillside by a flotilla of gigantic spaceships. Below the settlement, not quite adjoining it, an Israeli military encampment was laid out with geometric precision like a game board, observation towers at the corners, barracks and storage depots placed strategically between the towers, searchlight beams sweeping the grounds inside the compound and patrolling the rugged, rock-strewn, moonlit terrain beyond. And further down, in the shadows adjacent to the city of Ramallah, was a cluster of darkened, mostly cinderblock cubes, a refugee camp, and the only light coming from down there was the pale moonlight reflected off the corrugated iron roofs. Jerusalem, the settlement, the military post and the refugee camp–all four washed by the same moonlight, all four visible from the same point on a nearby ridge in Ramallah, but none of them visible to each other.

At his request, we met with Arafat in his now-shattered compound, knowing that to some at home we would look like a bunch of Jane Fondas hugging Ho Chi Minh. Even so, we were not concerned with public relations and felt no particular need to appear “evenhanded” in our inquiry. Nonetheless, we also met with Israeli writers and peace activists. Wole Soyinka and I sat with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, at his invitation also, and listened to his version of the events in the Middle East since 1947. This is a perspective, however, the Israeli perspective from right to left, that we in Europe and the United States have no difficulty obtaining daily from our popular media. The Palestinian perspective is not so easily accessible.

Each of the eight writers brought his own experience, temperament and political inclination to bear on what he saw and heard, naturally. We had no party line, no official stance or position. In order to imagine the nature of reality for the Palestinians, we needed the quotidian details, the daily particularities of their situation; but we did not need to hear yet another litany of interrupted peace processes, broken treaties, deceptions and rejections in order to get the picture. Analogies and comparisons drawn from what we already knew provided us with insights and gateways to understanding. Soyinka and Breytenbach could see obvious parallels to apartheid in South Africa, as well as the differences. I could make comparisons to the English “settlements” in seventeenth-century Ireland, and note that in North America, after the Europeans militarily overwhelmed the Native Americans, their policy of relocation and containment corresponded in certain distressingly familiar ways to Israel’s policy in the occupied territories since 1967. We spoke of parallels to the Balkan conflict and the strategies of ethnic cleansing, to China’s treatment of the Tibetans, and so on. One of us, Saramago, even made a comparison to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews (a comparison, incidentally, quickly rejected for obvious reasons by the other members of the delegation).Yet nothing really compared.

And that, of course, is a big part of the problem for every one of us who wishes for nothing more than peace, freedom and security for all Israelis and Palestinians. Nothing really compares. Consequently, peace activists on both sides, intellectuals, academics, poets and storytellers from every nation, and especially those men and women holding the power to make policy for the Israeli government and for the Palestinian Authority–all of us have to go deeper into our imaginations than we have ever gone before. Before anything else, the mindless brutality of Sharon’s assault against the people living in the occupied territories and the mind-numbing attacks by Palestinian suicide bombers against the Israelis must be ended. We can’t, as usual, turn to the United Nations or the United States or to any other third party–although almost everyone we met on our journey, whether Palestinian or Israeli, believed that a third party was necessary to end the conflict. But that’s been tried and has failed too many times.

This is why I felt ever-so-slightly uplifted on my last day in the Middle East, when I met in Tel Aviv with the two young Israeli men who are called refuseniks. Here, I thought, is the only possible way out of this horror. The men and women who make up the occupying army must refuse to serve. Only then will their tragically desperate opposites, the suicidal young Palestinians who believe that they have no meaningful future except as human bombs, begin to believe that their lives might be worth living instead. Only then can the negotiations begin.

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