Political Backdrop to West Bank Visit

This is first of a three part article by Dianne Feeley reflecting on her recent trip to the Middle East. Read the second part or the third part directly.

This fall I spent two weeks in Palestine/Israel. Although based in Jerusalem, I traveled north to Nablus and Ramallah and south to Bethlehem and Hebron. Every day I read in Ha’aretz and the Jerusalem Post about the ongoing negotiations between Fateh and Hamas over constructing a coalition government made up of technocrats who have links to those parties but are not members. It was expected that by the end of November such a government would be in place. But as of the first week in December nothing has been announced.

Forging this agreement is seen as key to sidestepping the embargo that Israel, the United States and the European Union have imposed since Hamas won the democratic elections in the Occupied Territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip) last March. Although Israel had signed an agreement to collect various taxes for the Palestinian Authority (PA), since the elections the Israeli government has refused to hand over the $60 million a month that it collects. While I was in the West Bank most government offices were shut and there were few public services. Schools (except where Hamas teachers kept classes going) were not in session.

While I was in Jerusalem the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in order to shore up his shaky coalition, invited Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing National Union Party, to join the cabinet as Minister for Strategic Affairs. Lieberman’s party, which is based among Russian immigrants and organized along almost classic fascist lines, calls for the “transfer” of Israel’s Arab population-that is, he wants to strip them of their citizenship. While Lieberman had previously served as a junior cabinet minister under Ariel Sharon, he was then a minor appendage to a strong government. Today, in the opinion of veteran Israeli peace campaigner Uri Avnery, Lieberman is incomparably more dangerous, as he has been brought into the cabinet by a desperately weak and collapsing coalition government.

During my visit memorial services were held in Tel Aviv for Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister assassinated 11 years ago by a right-winger, who opposed any transfer of lands to Palestinians. This year was the first time no “political” speaker was invited to the Rabin family’s service. Instead the keynote was delivered by David Grossman, the novelist who initially supported the war in Lebanon, but came to oppose it (and whose son, Uri, died there on active duty).

Rabin and Grossman are contradictory “peace” figures. Nonetheless the 100,000 who attended the memorial represent the liberal wing of the Israeli peace movement. The following morning, when the Israeli Cabinet holds its weekly meeting, the movement’s more radical wing demonstrated against the military siege underway in Gaza.

A Prison Called Gaza

Shortly after I arrived, the Israeli army launched its “Autumn Clouds” operation, blockading the Gaza Strip by air, land and sea. Since the Israeli bombing of the electrical plant last summer half of Gaza’s electrical supply has been cut off. Both the water pumping and sewage systems remain severely damaged. For the 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza, the situation is dire: The rate of poverty stands at 80%, unemployment is above 40% and, with the border closed, about three-quarters of the people are short of food.

The army invaded Beit Hanoun, a northern town of 30,000, positioning snipers on rooftops, invading houses and detaining males over the age of 15. Soldiers set up a barricade in front of the mosque, trapping those inside. Then, on the first Friday in November, a Palestinian radio announcer urged women in the town to go to the mosque. A crowd of about 1,500 gathered, and stormed through the first barrier. The soldiers opened fire, killing at least two women and wounding others. I read an account of one woman who joined the demonstration that day, telling her children she’d be back in a little while. She ended up in the hospital, her leg amputated.

Israeli spokesmen expressed concern not over the deaths and injuries, but over the fact that two men, dressed as women, had managed to escape.

The following week the army shelled a residential area of Beit Hanoun, killing 19 civilians (including 7 children) and wounding 40 others. (The attack was in response to the launching of Qassam rockets into Israel the previous day.) Responding to the outcry of this shelling against a civilian population, a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Force claimed that a human or technical error caused the “unfortunate mistake”; the Minister of Defense ordered an investigation.

B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, called the military’s response “meaningless.” They pointed out that launching such an operation is almost certain to result in civilian causalities. Under international humanitarian law this constitutes a war crime. Meanwhile U.S. Ambassador John Bolton vetoed a mild UN Security Council resolution condemning the attack, making the United States an accessory to the crime.

[On November 15 the UN General Assembly finally passed a resolution condemning the shelling, with 156 voting in favor, seven voting no (the United States, Israel, Australia, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau) and six abstentions (Canada, Ivory Coast, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu).]

This was the tenth invasion of Beit Hanoun since the Israeli pull-out from Gaza last year. Over the course of these invasions the army has destroyed 450 houses and killed more than 90 townspeople, one-third of them children.

Why does the army keep returning to Beit Hanoun? They claim the army must respond with force to the launching of Qassam rockets aimed at Israeli towns. According to Israeli army figures, over the last year three Israeli civilians have been killed and dozens wounded by the 1,000 or more home-made rockets launched from the Gaza Strip. Yet since the June 25 kidnapping of Corporal Gilad Shabit, the Israeli army has killed more than 375 Palestinians in Gaza. More than half were civilians, 80 were children. Eight hundred more have been injured.

Force and more force is the government’s answer, demonizing all Palestinians and claiming there is no leadership with which they could possibly negotiate. Unfortunately 51% of Israelis, according to a recent survey, are in favor of a broad army operation against Gaza, involving both air and ground forces. They believe such action is necessary against “terrorists.” But notice it’s a bare majority. On my visit to the West Bank and Jerusalem I was fortunate to meet both Palestinians and Israelis active in challenging that policy.