Palestine-Israel: "One Minute to Midnight"

— David Finkel

"WE HAD THREE weeks without shooting in the West Bank. There has been a truce.  Today Sharon has blown it up. I have just gotten used to not hearing gunfire every night in Ramallah.  Now for sure it is going to start again .  .  ."

Allegra Pacheco, a U.S.-born Israeli attorney who defends Palestinian prisoners in Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, spoke with our group in East Jerusalem on January 14, the final day of our visit to the West Bank and Israel.  Earlier that day, the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon had resumed its targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants, killing Raed al-Karmi, the leader of a Fateh military organization in Tulkarem.

Within twenty-four hours, Allegra's grim expectations were fulfilled when Palestinian militia groups took credit for abducting and killing a 71-year-old Israeli civilian driving with a longtime Palestinian friend outside Bethlehem, and shooting two women (one fatally) at a gas station near an East Jerusalem Israeli settlement.  Undoubtedly these murderous reprisals were committed without the approval, and against the orders, of the ineffectual political leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Not that it mattered.  Israel immediately launched new incursions into Tulkarem, Nablus and other Palestinian population centers (shooting directly into a crowd in Ramallah) and fresh assassinations of Islamist militants; a Fateh militia gunned down a bat-mitzvah party in Hadera; Hamas and Islamic Jihad carried out a new series of suicide attacks on civilians in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; Israel responded with tightened closures and further assassinations.

Before the last week in February, Palestinian military attacks on Israeli military outposts were showing increasing success, while Israel turned its arsenal of assault weaponry on civilian refugee camps and Palestinian towns.

This is the latest turn of the death spiral in which the Israeli state has locked its own people along with the Palestinian population.  There is no need to elaborate here on the fact that neither side can "win" this war as it is currently being waged—a fact that numerous commentators have correctly observed.

More important is an underlying pattern frequently noted both by Israeli and Palestinian observers.  Whenever the level of violence recedes to a point where the government of Israel comes under international political pressure to resume negotiations, Sharon will carry out a provocative action to ensure that the cease-fires agreed by armed Palestinian groups (Islamic and nationalist) break down.

In this way, Sharon is able to permanently evade implementing the recommendations of former U.S. Senator Mitchell and CIA Director Tenet—not that the United States is putting any meaningful pressure on him anyway.

Any illusions on this point were shattered on Friday, January 25, when president George W. Bush stated his "disappointment" with Arafat's failure to stamp out terrorism.  Bush's remarks on that occasion, although barely coherent and probably not written out for him in advance, indicated openly what the administration had already communicated to Sharon: Anything is permitted, short of (for now) a mass population expulsion or the assassination of Arafat.

One can only speculate on what extreme contingency plans the Sharon government may be holding in reserve, just in case the expansion of George Bush's "war on terrorism" creates the proper opportunity.  Right now the "red lines" that Sharon can't cross are drawn not by the United States, but by an internal revolt of hundreds of Israeli reservists refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza.

That is the state of affairs as this report is being completed—and likely to be worse before it goes to press.  For the most part, however, I want to concentrate on a less reported story that is often lost against the background noise of spectacular atrocities.  That story is the destruction of daily Palestinian life, and the systematic undermining of a viable potential independent Palestinian state.

This process of economic and social destruction, calculated, scientific, cynical and cruel, in the end is what counts—even more than the assassinations, and infinitely more than rhetoric about "reviving the peace process" which died in September, 2000 when Sharon "visited" the Temple Mount.  It is meticulously monitored and recorded by a network of Palestinian civil organizations and Israeli human rights groups; all the facts are readily available in English.

If completed—and it is well underway—this process would leave the main Palestinian cities strangled, without industry or a national economic center, and the countryside a series of isolated semi-rural slums.

Colonialism and Apartheid

"I think this may be the first place in the world where you have these three factors.  There's a military occupation that has lasted for thirty-five years.  There's a unilateral war against the civilian population, which Israel wants to make it appear as a war between armies.  And the whole population is subjected to seizures and closures, with 220 checkpoints, 300,000 trees uprooted and over four thousand houses destroyed including 870 in Jerusalem alone .  .  .

"The purpose in my opinion is the destruction of any potential for a Palestinian state.  We have had three delegations here from South Africa tell us that in the worst days of South Africa they didn't see anything like this."[—Dr.  Mustafa Barghouthi, director, Health Development Information and Policy Institute (HDIP), Ramallah] [See note 1]

"Is this an issue of colonialism, or is it apartheid?  It's really a peculiar combination of both. And I would have had this same discussion before this recent Intifadah.  In fact it's this experience that explains why the Intifadah broke out .  .  .

"Every Jew can go everywhere he or she wishes; but a Palestinian from [East] Jerusalem cannot go to live anywhere in Israel, and if he chooses to live in the West Bank or Gaza he will lose his Jerusalem residency rights.  Since 1991 we have a pass system that is reminiscent of South Africa, only tougher.  It is one of the most simple and effective means of controlling Palestinian life."—Amira Hass, a reporter for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz [See note 2]

The brief state of "quiet" in the West Bank that prevailed during our trip, and coincidentally ended the day we left, began after Israel's pre-Christmas invasion of Bethlehem.  During that incursion, as we learned on a visit to the International Center of Bethlehem, a Palestinian vocational and cultural institute, residents were trapped for days in their homes by tank fire, and one young man was gunned down in Manger Square by an army sniper.

Needless to say, the Christmas tourist season was a dead loss. (Even a delegation of Russian parliamentarians staying at our East Jerusalem hotel was unable to persuade Israel to allow Arafat to leave Ramallah to attend Orthodox Christmas.)  Bethlehem's leading hotel, the Paradise, was gutted by Israeli tank fire, as were several nearby homes.

But in the quiet interludes, the absence of gunfire does not mean peace for the population, eight years after the Oslo agreements were supposed to herald the end of the occupation and a new era for the peoples of Israel and Palestine.

  1. Freedom of movement does not exist.  There are over 200 permanent road blockades ("checkpoints") and numerous other mobile ones. The normal 15-minute drive from Ramallah to East Jerusalem has become so burdensome, often taking two hours or more, that people often don't even try. To get from Ramallah to Bethlehem, about twelve miles, can take up to six hours.

    The West Bank is now criss-crossed with modern limited-access highways, like the U.S. interstate system but better maintained (with our own tax dollars, no less).  Checkpoints at each end block drivers with Palestinian license plates from entering.  The Israeli settlers can drive freely without contact with Palestinian communities on these apartheid "bypass roads."

  2. The Palestinian economy, which began to deteriorate shortly after the Oslo accords (after a brief initial construction boom), has collapsed since the eruption of violence in late 2000, triggered by Ariel Sharon's provocative trip to the grounds of the al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem.

    Figures supplied by Mustafa Barghouthi's organization show a 51% decline in annual Gross Domestic Production per capita, which now stands at around $800, compared to the Israeli level of $18,000.

    In the Occupied Territories (including Gaza), 60% of the population lives below the official poverty line defined by an income of U.S. $2 per day.

    "Up to now there haven't been cases of famine," we were told at the offices of the Israeli human rights organization B'tselem, "but the components of the diet have been seriously degraded."

    Rates of childhood vaccination have fallen so that Palestinian health workers fear possible measles or other epidemics as early as this spring.  Patients in rural villages find the roads blocked when they try to get to hospitals for things like dialysis or even to give birth.  B'tselem documented a horrific case of a six-hour odyssey for a woman from a northern village to reach a hospital a few miles away for urgent kidney treatment.

  3. Israeli settlements—illegal under the Geneva Conventions governing military occupations—which were supposed to be frozen under the Oslo accords pending "final-status" negotiations, have instead exploded, doubling the number of Israeli settlers to around 400,000 (8% or so of the Jewish Israeli population).

    About half of these live in a vastly expanded "Greater Jerusalem" annexed by Israel.  In Israeli discourse these are "Jerusalem communities," not settlements at all. Jeff Halper, coordinator of The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) who carefully monitors the expansion of settlements and the comprehensive plans for joining them together, explains that the purpose and the effect "is to make the occupation essentially invisible" in the eyes of the Israeli and international public.

    Halper showed us in detail how the expanded Israeli-controlled Jerusalem will literally cut the northern half of the West Bank from the southern.  To get some idea of the scale of the project, consider that pre-1967 East Jerusalem comprised 6.5 square kilometers, while the post-1967 land annexed by Israel for "Municipal Jerusalem" was 70 square kilometers—a more than tenfold expansion!—including the lands of twenty-eight Palestinian villages that were never part of Jerusalem.

    But this is only the beginning.  "Greater Jerusalem" takes in 440 square kilometers with an outer ring of settlements, satellite cities, presently housing 70,000 settlers with a planned Jewish population of 250,000 in fifteen years.

    Then comes the final solution for Palestinian Jerusalem, set out in an Israeli government plan approved under Shimon Peres in 1995, when the "peace process" was in full swing:

    "Metropolitan Jerusalem transforms Jerusalem from a city into a region.  It encompasses the entire central portion of the West Bank, from Beit Shemesh in the west to Mitzpeh Jericho in the east; from Ramallah in the north to Bethlehem in the south.  Since infrastructural, economic and residential planning is guided by the metropolitan conception, Palestinian cities such as Ramallah, Bir Zeit, el-Bireh, Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jallah will be turned into satellite cities dependent, to a certain degree, on the industrial parks such as Shaar Binyamin that Israel is building on Jerusalem's `metropolitan borders' .  .  .  The metropolitan area also creates an exclusive Israeli `corridor' from Tel Aviv to Amman .  .  ." ("Obstacles to Peace.  A Critical Tour of the Jerusalem-West Bank Interface," ICAHD, www.icahd.org)

    Regarding the long-deferred proposed solution of establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, Halper firmly states that "it is now one minute before midnight.  It is a matter of two or three years, at most, before the settlement program—not so much as a matter of demographics, but rather of control—makes it impossible to achieve the minimum requirements for a viable Palestinian state."

  4. The growing Palestinian population is hemmed in by an exquisitely designed bureaucratic system to prevent new housing construction.  To apply for a housing permit, we were told on a tour conducted by the Christian Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center Sabeel, requires a $25,000 up-front payment.  The money is non-refundable and permits are denied in almost all cases—except for collaborators or in exchange for bribes.

    Naturally, people build their homes anyway, without permits, and the army sends bulldozers to demolish them. Typically, the demolition occurs after men have gone to work and children to school, so they return home to find everything destroyed.  There are today a thousand demolition orders against homes in East Jerusalem alone, and two thousand in the rest of the West Bank, leaving people in a state of perpetual insecurity and terror in their own homes.

    None of this, of course, even comes close to the situation of people in refugee camps who have nothing at all.

A Dubious Future

"I was the Dean of Science at Bethlehem University.  The Israeli government thought I did such a good job that they rewarded me with a vacation at `Ansar 3' [the prison camp in the Negev—ed.] After spending six months with the political prisoners I met there, I could never go back to my academic world.  So I became involved in community work.

"When this research institute was created in Jerusalem, I was served with a green card forbidding me from living in my home town. So the institute was set up here [the edge of Bethlehem] as close as possible to Jerusalem.

"Less than 745 million cubic meters of water lie underneath Israel, but they control 1750—they took the rest from Lebanon, Golan and the West Bank. We, the Palestinians, are the only party that isn't using one cubic meter from the Jordan River.  Israel takes 85% of the West Bank aquifer's water.  People in Gaza are drinking poisoned water.  Any day now I am expecting an outbreak of some disease.  .  .

"What do I offer for solutions?  Nothing.  All I can say is that America became the new God in the world.  There is no other power.  And Americans have a moral responsibility.  I told Arafat, go to the United States to educate the public, especially the American Jews.

"They will not kick us out but they will make life so miserable that we will leave.  My wife keeps asking me to leave.  I say I will be the last one to turn out the lights."

—Dr. Jad Isaac, director, Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem [See note 3]

In fact, although Dr. Isaac says he offers "nothing" for a solution, he has produced a comprehensive map showing how the territory for a viable Palestinian state can be constructed even out of the present mess. "It will not happen in my lifetime," he says, "but somebody might remember it."

It is almost beyond comprehension that such brilliant research and organizational work could be sustained with no expectation of practical results.  The immediate solution of this crisis is known to the whole world, yet blocked by the overwhelming power of the United States and Israel together with the blockages in Israeli politics.

The situation is made more depressing by the fact that the established leadership of the Palestinian Authority offers no strategic leadership or vision.  Understandably, the great majority of Palestinian activists are not about to voice sharp criticisms of Yaser Arafat while the chairman of the PA is kept under humiliating house arrest in Ramallah, but there is unmistakable frustration.

It must be stressed that beautiful schemes designed by sympathetic outsiders are essentially meaningless.  There is no doubt that Palestinian opinion remains firmly committed to a state in all of the occupied Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and to the right of return of refugees; while even the liberal left in Israeli Jewish opinion, voiced to us by Meretz party leader Yossi Sarid, regards the right of return except for limited family reunification to be "national suicide for Israel."

It is necessary to be absolutely clear that no meaningful electoral left exists right now in Israel.  What does matter is the persistence and gradual rebirth of the activist anti-occupation left—formations like Women in Black, Gush Shalom, a new layer of reservists refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories, and Ta'ayush (Arabic for "partnership"), a campaign in which Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel (including Meretz youth) organize solidarity activities to break the siege of Palestinian towns.

There is also a newly organized International Solidarity Movement (ISM), which is bringing activists from Europe and North America for principled non-violent direct action against blockades, closures and destruction of Palestinian fields.  Right now, such activism and education in my opinion should define the priorities for the international left and solidarity movement, rather than our own "programmatic solutions."

In order to change the balance of forces so that constructive solutions become possible, we need to focus on the appalling human rights situation; on the need for international protection for the Palestinian population; and on the self-evident racist injustice of a state which is energetically recruiting thousands of Jews to escape the economic collapse in Argentina through emigration to Israel, but which cannot find room for even the most desperate of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

There are, to be sure, visionary solutions going far beyond a two-state partition of the small territory of historic Palestine in which the Palestinian people would be sovereign in 22% (or less) of their homeland. [See note 4]

The human rights attorney, Allegra Pacheco, is among the very small minority who foresee "a united country from the (Jordan) river to the (Mediterranean) sea, with full and equal rights for everyone who lives here."

Her daily work, however, consists in the hopeless task of defending Palestinian prisoners before Israeli military courts where secret evidence and confessions extracted through torture are the everyday norm. She recalls how the judges refused even to look at the marks on the wrists of her client Abed al-Ahmar, a human rights worker detained and tightly handcuffed in his cell. (His is one of those adopted as prisoner-of-conscience cases by Amnesty International.)

"I ask myself why we even go to the court, making it look as if there is some kind of due process where there really isn't anything," she says. "But I have all the documents, all the affidavits, all the records, because one day there will be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in this country, and then these judges and prosecutors and interrogators and the government ministers will have to testify and take responsibility for what they have done."

Notes

  1. The week before meeting with us, Dr. Barghouthi was arrested and questioned in Jerusalem for holding a press conference, released at a Jerusalem-Ramallah checkpoint, then rearrested and dragged off by border police (an incident filmed by foreign observers) during which he was nearly choked and suffered a fractured knee.
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  2. Hass is the only Israeli journalist who actually chooses to live in the West Bank. Based in Ramallah, she is also the author of Drinking the Sea, a book about life in Gaza where conditions are much worse.  To read her articles and other informative coverage, consult the Ha'aretz English website (www.haaretzdaily.com)
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  3. ARIJ monitors in great detail the distribution and use of resources and land in the West Bank and Gaza, and produces extensive maps and data on these subjects.
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  4. See, for example, the eloquent statement by Naseer Aruri, "An End and a Beginning," Against the Current 93, July-August 2001.
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from ATC 97 (March/April 2002)

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