By Deirdre Mac Dermott
I recently returned from a week-long women’s trip to Palestine and Israel, organized by Global Exchange, and sponsored by Code Pink, a woman’s peace group formed in response to the threatened war in Iraq, and the White Dog Café, a restaurant in Philadelphia. The trip was organized to honour Rachel Corrie, a young American girl killed by an Israeli army bulldozer, as she tried to prevent the destruction of a Palestinian home in Gaza. There was some international publicity at the time of her death in March but since then a deafening silence, especially in the US media. We wanted to see for ourselves the kind of conditions that would lead to such a standoff and to get a better understanding of the current conflict in the Middle East.
We were particularly interested in seeing the so-called “security fence” being erected by the Israelis. The Apartheid Wall, as it should more properly be called, is actually a series of walls and fences, in some places an eight foot high wall with watchtowers, in others an electrified fence. It is being built rapidly around practically every Palestinian village and town in the West Bank. Most of the northern section in the most fertile area of the West Bank is already completed. Supposedly it is to protect Israeli settlers from Palestinian violence; In fact, it is a blatant land grab that has continued in spite of the Road Map or any other peace initiatives. The wall does not follow the Green line that marks the 1967 borders but in many places cuts far into Palestinian territory. The Israelis want a 150 meters of land on either side of the wall and to achieve this they bulldoze houses, confiscate land, demolish orchards and olive groves and displace Palestinian families, who may have lived on the land for generations. Their policy, as was explained to us by a British woman with Wall Watch, an Israeli monitoring group which documents human rights abuses, is one of more land and fewer people and they want those people to be Israelis. To this end, they continue to build settlements all over the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, which has always been Palestinian. Annexing the land around the settlement, they then build the wall, which further reduces the areas of Palestinian autonomy. Fences are cordoning off East Jerusalem itself; “the Jerusalem envelope” which is gradually eroding the amount of land available to Palestinians, leading to overcrowding and high rents in the city. Bethlehem, just ten minutes from Jerusalem, is being decimated by the wall which snakes its way through the town, cutting off families and denying people access to work and land and holy shrines. In all areas where the wall is being built, people’s homes are demolished, often overnight, not allowing them time to salvage anything.
It was defying house demolitions in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, that Rachel Corrie lost her life. We visited the spot, the house of a doctor, where the bulldozer crushed her. Our guide told us that there had been 63 houses in the village — now all that’s left is a barren expanse of land and, in the distance, the wall and the Israeli lookout tower. The house she died defending is still standing; we could hear the children calling softly to us from inside. The guide told us that the driver looked right at her before her crushed her and then reversed back over her again. Rafah is full of the demolished ruins of houses and the ones still standing are pockmarked with bulletholes. The people told us that the tanks drive along firing and they also shoot at them from the wall. The small contingent of international volunteers from ISM, the International Solidarity Movement, stays in houses nearest the wall to try and protect them. There is still a feeling that a foreigner’s presence may dissuade the Israeli army from some of its worst practices, though the death of Rachel has shaken that conviction. It’s hard to describe the destruction and despair in Rafah, subject to daily incursions from the Israeli army and sleepless nights as the bullets pound into the houses. “Welcome to the other side of the moon”, Mr. Raji Sourani, from the Palestinian Human rights watch, had greeted us as we first arrived in Gaza where 1.2 million Palestinians live in an area of 360 square kilometers, an area being made smaller still by Israeli settlements. Israel controls 42% of this area where they have settled 6000 people. It was in Gaza that we met the family of Khalil Bashir, whose three story is house is occupied by the Israeli army on the top two floors, while he and his family sleep in one room on the ground floor. This educated and cultured family are being tortured by the presence of military in their own home simply because there is an Israeli settlement built not far from their land.
Despite having read much about the situation of the Palestinians, nothing really prepared me for the reality of the occupation, its effect on the Palestinian population and also on Israeli society. What struck me most vividly and what I had not expected was the day-to-day harassment and the sheer difficulty encountered by the Palestinians is trying to lead their lives. We met with the Israeli committee against House Demolitions who told us about the network of new roads, which are only open to Israelis. These beautiful, modern by-pass roads, which connect various Jewish settlements, often run alongside and contrast greatly with the roads the Palestinians must travel. In many places, roadblocks are erected just outside towns and the populace must leave their vehicles, traverse the roadblock on foot for maybe a half mile and obtain another vehicle, bus or taxi at the other end, making their journey slow and expensive. They may encounter this several times on a stretch of road, so that a short distance can take them hours to travel. Imagine the difficulty getting to work or to a neighboring village. Outside Ramallah, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, we saw young boys running between the roadblocks with wheelchairs to carry the elderly and horse and carts ferrying people back and forth. The party line is that these barricades are for security but the army polices them sporadically, leading me to believe that they are there simply to make travel difficult for the local populace.
There are also Israeli army checkpoints along roads and at the entrances to towns, which can be barricaded off for no reason and at any time. Bat Shalom, an Israeli peace group, told us that over 60 newborns had died at checkpoints because their parents could not get them to a hospital. In the towns and villages surrounded by the wall life is even more difficult. There may be only one opening and it is used at the discretion of the Israeli army, thereby denying farmers access to their fields and greenhouses. Families cannot visit other relatives in different villages and all travel is restricted by often impossible-to-get permits. In Bethlehem we stayed with a middle class Christian Palestinian family who told us they had not been to Jerusalem, whose lights we could see, in seven years — no permit.
As well as controlling the roads and travel Israel also controls over 80% of the water supply in the Occupied Territories. Water is often distributed 80% to the settlers, the rest to the Palestinian villagers, despite their greater numbers. At Ma’ale Adummim a huge Israeli settlement outside Jerusalem, we watched two people swim in and Olympic-sized pool while our guide explained that nearby villages survive on 60 liters of water per person per day, less than 1/6 that of the average settler. This lack of water also effects the ability to grow crops on what little land the Palestinians have left.
Everywhere in Palestine there are children, many, many children, dressed in their neat school uniforms, their eyes bright and faces curious about strangers. They will point out the bullet holes in their houses, show you shell casings they have collected, describe with gestures what happens during the Israeli army incursions. They love to have their pictures taken and will crowd around, the boys pushing to the front, the girls shyer. They pointed out to us where Tom Hurtnell, a young English volunteer, was shot in the head as he ran to grab a child who was caught in gunfire. These children are seen as a danger to the Israeli state, and the high birthrate is one of the reasons the Israelis are so keen to confine the Palestinians in little “Bantustans” and to deny them civil rights. In Hebron, an Arab town with about 400 Jewish settlers, Chris Brown of the Christian Peacekeepers Team told us of escorting children to school through army barricades, where the soldiers point guns at them, and past hostile settlers who hurl abuse and sometimes physically attack these children. Over 600 Palestinian children have died in the current conflict, many at the hands of the Israeli army, which seems to have declared war on babies. We visited a school in Ibarra where the children sang to welcome us and as we looked at their little faces, it was hard not to cry at the sheer hopelessness of their future.
Before my visit to Palestine I pictured house demolitions as bulldozers knocking down little tin shacks. This is far from the reality. The Palestinians we met seem to care deeply about 3 things; family, land and home. Their houses are built solidly of stone, sometimes 2 or 3 stories high, designed to catch the wind and let in light. The effect of demolishing these houses is devastating — it impacts the man’s view of himself as a provider for his family and destroys the family’s economic base, sense of security and peace of mind. There is often a random nature to the demolition –one person may have a demolition order for months before anything happens, others may only know about it the day before. The end result is frustration, anger and despair, poverty, overcrowding, and disease. Over 10,000 houses have been demolished, a form of collective punishment expressly forbidden by international law. We met a man who was rebuilding his house for the fourth time, determined not to leave his land but, as we looked at the army post on the hill above his house, we wondered how long the new structure would last.
Everywhere we went in Palestine we met with people who are desperate and hopeless. In many different villages, we heard people say that the whole community is living in a prison. Often there is only one gate in the wall and it is open only at the Israeli army’s pleasure. Farmers are cut off from their olive trees and greenhouses, unable to make a living and support their families. Ma’sha used to be a thriving market town but because the wall goes right through where the market used to be, the village is dying. In Tulkarm, a town completely surrounded by the wall, we took part in an n anti-wall demonstration organized by Palestinian and Israeli women, planning to meet at the checkpoint in the wall. We marched with the Palestinian women and children to the checkpoint where the immediate Israeli army response was to fire tear gas into the peaceful protest, scattering mothers with babies in arms. The sheer courage it takes for these people to organize a demonstration is humbling as they may be met with tear gas, rubber bullets and real bullets and their children are often the targets of choice.
The Israeli occupation thrives on control and bureaucracy. Curfew is a much-used tool. The walled city of Hebron has been under curfew for 600 days of the last two years, a 24-hour lockdown, only lifted for a few hours every few days so people don’t starve to death. No wonder people think they’re living in a prison. Actual prison is a grim reality. Israel uses military law and emergency measures, including administrative detention, or internment without trial, to enforce the occupation. Basically, Palestinians can be imprisoned for almost anything and for nothing. Many Palestinians we met had spent time in prison and some had been tortured. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights estimates that over 11,000 Palestinians were arrested in 2002, including many women and children, Over 350 young people still languish in Israeli prisons. The Israeli army acts with impunity and some of the settlers function as paramilitaries, openly carrying guns. The penalties for killing a Palestinian are mild, one settler receiving a sentence of a short period of house arrest!
I wish there were something hopeful I could say about the situation in Palestine but it’s hard to be optimistic. The Occupation is an affront to the Geneva Convention and International Law on so many levels but the international community does nothing. The Israeli government seems intent on grabbing so much land that any eventual Palestinian state will not be viable. The Wall looks very permanent and is separating the West Bank into many small, isolated regions and denying Palestinians the right to work, travel and support their families. Israel controls the infrastructure, the roads and the water. Settlements and the building of the Apartheid Wall all have continued unabated, despite international censure. The Israeli government seems to have no interest in making peace but is trying to demoralize and exhaust the Palestinians until those with the means leave and those left accept any kind of settlement, even one that leaves them living in Bantustans with neither rights nor autonomy. The Israeli peace movement, though dedicated, brave and committed, is small and their morale is low– the rest of the state seems content to countenance any atrocity in the name of “security”.
I am still haunted by the misery and hopelessness we saw in the occupied territories and the names of the villages and the faces of the people we met buzz in my head and keep me from sleep. Palestinians everywhere expressed their hope that if the international community knew the truth things would change. What is being done in Palestine is on a par with or worse than what happened in South Africa and only the outrage and actions of righteous people everywhere will change the very bleak future for this beleaguered nation.