I didn’t have to wait long for Ziad, the plumber, to come to my house. It had been a year since the current Palestinian intifada broke out in September 2000, and unemployment was at record levels. When Ziad and his two assistants took a break, I offered them coffee and we chatted. Like many Palestinians nowadays, one of the men kept birds. “I have over 200,” he said. “I emptied one of the rooms of the house for them. They are great fun and very good business. So many people now want to buy birds. They’re beautiful creatures.”
“Do you have a parakeet?” I asked.
“Parakeets are expensive. You can’t get one for less than 2,000 shekels. And they are sensitive birds. They’re too much of a risk.”
Ziad, a boyish-looking man with a round, content face and a quivering voice not unlike a bird’s, boasted: “I had two.”
“What happened to them?” I asked.
“The settlement of Psagot is only a few meters away from the living room where I kept the parakeets. When the intifada began there was heavy firing from the settlement. The female parakeet with the beautiful plumes had a heart attack and her feet collapsed under her. The poor thing was crippled. She had to use her beak to move about. Her male companion was so annoyed he kept poking her. I suppose this was his way of encouraging her to stand on her feet again. We were worried he would kill her. So we separated them. But they missed each other and were constantly calling from across the room. It was so moving to see how they cared for one another. They were so noisy that we almost had to abandon the room for them. Anyway, the sick bird didn’t live much longer. One day I didn’t hear them calling. I went to check and found the female bird dead. Her companion now had no one to communicate with, and he fell silent. It was such a sad sight. I was tempted to pick up the dead parakeet, go to Psagot, knock on their huge gate and tell them, ‘See what you’ve done to my bird?'”
“And did you get a companion for the male?”
“No. I had to sell him. He didn’t fetch much. People only buy pairs. But I couldn’t afford to buy another bird.”
I was surprised to hear this. I had always assumed Ziad was well off. He had told me that he was born in Kuwait, where his father had worked for twenty-five years. I thought everyone who worked in Kuwait became rich. I had misread his sunny face as a reflection of an affluent and protected background. He was, he told me, happy to be back. “There is nothing like being in one’s own country. I never want to be in exile again.”
One year after this conversation, when I called Ziad again, he announced that this would probably be the last job he would do for me. He had decided to immigrate to the States.
“I always thought you would be the last man to leave,” I said. “Remember you once told me how happy you were to be here? What happened?”
“I don’t have enough work. For the past six months I’ve had to pay my workers out of my own savings.”
“Would you rather have stayed in Kuwait?”
“That wasn’t an option. You see, before the Gulf War my father worked as a foreman for a large road-construction company. He was doing well. Then when the war started the owner of the company, who was a Qatari, fled the country and my father lost his job and severance pay. As Palestinians, we were no longer welcome in Kuwait. We had to pack up and return with very little to show for my father’s twenty-five years of hard work. Soon after our return, my father suffered a stroke, which paralyzed him. He died one year later.”
I looked for signs of pathos in Ziad’s face but didn’t find them. Resilience and pride enlivened his eyes as he proceeded to describe to me how he managed to succeed against all odds:
“With the building boom after the Oslo Accords I had plenty of work. One of the big jobs I handled was on the mansion of a high-ranking Palestinian official. He constantly told me, ‘Use the best material, the most expensive. I want the best.’ When the house was finished, the intifada started. A few months later the Israelis bombarded the house with their helicopter gunships. The guy refused to pay. Negotiations continued for a year. He was always surrounded by so many guards. When I finally managed to see him, he would call an assistant and magnanimously tell him: Pay Ziad everything. But it was all empty talk. I didn’t get paid. Finally I was offered a deal. One of his assistants told me, ‘Take half of what is owed to you or nothing.’ I took the half and kept silent. I had so many bills to pay to suppliers and workers. It was like dealing with the mafia. I was always told to send the bills to Arafat’s office. This private mansion was financed by public money. Every one of this official’s men wanted their share, and I was left to beg for what was owed to me. It was intolerable. I tell you, the shooting from the settlements, the economic crisis, the confinement–all that I could live with, but to be stabbed in the back by one of my own people, this was the worst. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. I no longer want to live here. My father-in-law has a grocery shop in Florida. I’m taking my family and getting out of here.”
Many who, like Ziad, have the means are leaving Ramallah, “one of the seven microcosms” in the new terminology of the Quartet, the great-power coalition now directing the sluggish Middle East peace process. Apart from Jericho, every city has been made into a kind of protectorate that is dependent on the good graces of the Israeli military commander who controls it. Palestinians keep birds in cages, and the Israeli army keeps Palestinians under siege in conditions hardly different from being confined to large cages.
For nearly two years, the residents of Ramallah have been unable to drive their cars outside the borders of town. Every exit is closed with huge mounds of rubble or controlled by an Israeli checkpoint. The town is surrounded by Israeli settlements on every side. At night their lights lace the surrounding hills. Bird-watchers are on the increase in Ramallah. I wonder whether the heightened interest in flying creatures is a substitute for the freedom of movement people so desperately crave.
Not only is vehicular access to the surrounding countryside prohibited, walking is also hazardous. Hill-walking was never a popular activity among Palestinians, despite the countryside’s unique beauty and proximity to urban centers. But the knowledge that the hills are there, to be used for the occasional picnic during the few luscious months of spring, meant much to people.
Now the border is where the last house stands. Buildings constructed beyond this line are demolished by the Israeli army, with its immense bulldozers. In one of the strange twists of history, Palestinians have now been confined within the borders of the expanded Jewish state in what are effectively Palestinian ghettos. Within these crowded enclaves they are allowed to govern themselves while being denied the right to enjoy the natural resources of the rest of their country. Condemned for their evil nature, vilified as incorrigible terrorists, they have become the victims of reverse anti-Semitism.
At random and in the dead of night they are vulnerable to the attacks of vigilante Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers, who drive into Palestinian areas in armored personnel carriers and tanks. Sometimes they force all the male occupants of a refugee camp aged 15 to 50 out of their homes and banish them for one, two or three days. At other times they assassinate men whom they deem to be guilty and demolish the homes of their relatives. Then they leave as freely as they came in, making sure to pile up the mounds of earth and rock that block the entrance they used to attack the community.
Contrary to the claims of the Israeli government, the present spatial relationship between the Jewish and non-Jewish residents of Greater Israel did not emerge in the past few years in response to suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. It has been in the making since 1979, when the land law was changed by military orders to enable Palestinian lands to be claimed as “public land” for the sole and exclusive use of Israeli Jews. The borders of Israel were systematically expanded and the noose around Palestinian areas of habitation was tightened through various land-use planning schemes, until the ownership balance was utterly transformed. The Israeli Jews living in the West Bank, who make up less than 10 percent of the population, now control 50 percent of the land.
Nothing in the Oslo Accords challenged this perversion of the law, which enabled the theft of the land. Nor are proposals made in the much-awaited “road map” for the re-examination of the spurious process by which Jewish settlers have acquired Palestinian land. A settlement freeze is proposed, without the implementing mechanisms that would enable it to materialize. The endpoint of the plan, a Palestinian state with provisional borders, is just another name for the self-governing protectorates that are scattered within the as-yet-unchallenged sovereign territory of Greater Israel.
As happened after the Oslo Accords were signed, the international community would be encouraged to shower the Palestinian people in the “new” Palestine with generous donations to distract them and sweeten the bitter taste of their final surrender and defeat. Dubious economic development would replace genuine liberation. The dream of Greater Israel would become an internationally recognized reality, and those hardy Palestinians without alternatives and with the tenacity to endure would be allowed to remain in the Jewish state, only now they would be in showpieces–bright and shiny gilded cages.