If the notions expressed in this presentation seem favorable, the reader is encouraged to pass copies on to others.
If the notions expressed in this presentation seem favorable, the reader is encouraged to pass copies on to others. Contacting me with reactions either favorable, unfavorable or other kinds of thoughts is also encouraged.
During our first twelve days in Palestine in early August, my wife, Sis, and I were part of the CPT Christian Peacemaker Team) Summer 2001 delegation. CPT has been operating year round and literally ’round the clock in and near Hebron since 1995. Its mission is to intervene nonviolently in the ongoing acts of violence against Palestinians in the occupied territories by IDF (Israeli Defense Force) soldiers, and the ever-encroaching inhabitants of the settlements. CPT’s mission is also to intervene nonviolently in the continuing and relentless harassing acts of humiliation and dispossession being committed by both. The aim of the interventions is to try to defuse each incident encountered. CPT calls this “getting in the way:” specifically getting in the way of IDF and settlers getting in the way of the desperate Palestinian need and right to exist, subsist, and thrive independently on their own land.
Palestinians have come to rely on CPT to help thwart IDF and settler belligerency. Members of the small permanent CPT contingent carry cell phones. The phone numbers are widely known in the Hebron community as are the red capped CPTers themselves. Literally no matter what time of the day or night, a call for help ringing through from a beleaguered Palestinian will prompt the team-just like fire fighters or EMTs back home-to rise up and immediately head for the scene of the latest confrontation.
Our getting in the way more than once inevitably put the delegation and Palestinians seeking CPT help under fire or at least prey to angry interference or clear threats of it by the IDF. One visit to a family not far from Hebron, which was being pressed, threatened, and slowly encroached by settlers coveting its land for years, resulted in a sudden show of force by an IDF patrol in a nearby outpost. Because of its strategic position, the soldiers can keep tabs on anyone driving into and out of the area.
They waited to make their move until it could be seen that we were leaving. As we walked down a dusty road to get back to our taxi, which could not drive all the way to the family’s modest two room cinderblock house because of a vast deep roadblock dug into and across the road to prevent vehicles from getting in or out of the village, a string of military vehicles poured out of the outpost and drove slowly past us. When we got to the roadblock a tank was waiting, its crew watching us silently and impassively as we swarmed around it taking pictures, and also as we crossed the ditch, got into the cab and drove off. Through our rear window, we could see the crew get back in the tank, start it up and head back to the outpost.
Our actions, besides taking place in Hebron and the countryside around it, also focused on Beit Jala, a mountain top town rarely out of the news these days. Beit Jala is contiguous to Bethlehem. Because of our activities there, we were publicly charged with being “provocateurs” by a high-ranking Israeli Defense official.
We acquired that sneering title, because often during our sojourn in Palestine, CPT would join in direct nonviolent interventions conducted by a young late twentyish Israeli nonviolent direct intervention peace activist, Neta Golan, her equally young nonviolent Palestinian-American peace activist partner, Heidi Arraf, and their partner, the Bethlehem headquartered Palestinian Center For Rapprochement Between People. When our CPT group linked up, the three were putting the finishing touches on plans for a campaign of “human shield” interventions by a recently organized phalanx of international Muslim, Jewish, and Christian volunteers from Europe and the United States, which would call itself the International Solidarity Movement.
The human rights enterprise they were helping to create has been formed in general to try to focus world attention on the need for a rising tide of creative direct nonviolent international interventions, which will contribute to the effort to end what the organizers describe as the daily “dehumanization of the Palestinian civilian population by Israel and its supporters.” Their more specific goal is to mount, when requested, interventions in areas where peril to life and limb is consistent and unrelenting. But the daily needs everywhere in Palestine are more that all similar international efforts combined are currently able to meet. That certainly was and continues to be the situation in Beit Jala.
The brand new International Solidarity Movement’s first human shield effort, the one in which CPT took part, besides trying to focus attention on the situation in Beit Jala, was also mounted to try to induce a halt in the almost nightly damaging and often totally destructive bombardments of homes and other buildings by IDF units stationed in and around the huge Israeli fortress-like settlement of Gilo.
Gilo is separated from Beit Jala by a deep wide ravine. Since the beginning of the current uprising often called Intifada II (translation: “the shaking off”), Palestinian militiamen have been answering, if not at times provoking, IDF fire with weapons that until recently did not have nearly the carrying power and thus the destructive and lethal ability to inflict damage to property and death to the inhabitants of Gilo, which, on the other hand, heavier IDF weaponry can and has been doing regularly to Beit Jala. For three nights some of us stayed in a large house behind a heavily shelled once opulent landmark, called the “castle.”
The castle is perched on the brink of the ravine not far from the Beit Jala Lutheran Church compound that houses its orphanage. Later on, at the end of August, this presumed traditional sanctuary was invaded by the IDF during a brief reoccupation of the town.
Although the purpose of the human shield initiative was well known to Israeli officialdom, it did not seem to affect IDF’s intention to violently intimidate an end to militant Palestinian attempts to in turn violently intimidate Israel over the short run into ending 1) its violent civil and human rights repressions and 2) its expansion of old settlements and the building of new ones, while, also over the long run, attempting to intimidate Israel into participating in negotiations, which will result in their ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. To date the violence employed by both is having an opposite effect. Positions have hardened. Violent terrorizing acts, both Israeli and Palestinian, are a vicious tail wagging a helpless dog.
Violent extremism is a label that fits both Palestinian radicals and firmly entrenched Israeli officials masterminding the currently and aptly named unity government’s brutal repressions. “Beirut dÃ©jÃ vu,” I suggested to a Chicago Tribune staff writer who caught up with us in Hebron and cited the phrase a few days later in one of his reports.
The butane tank that supplies cooking gas to that house in Beit Jala where some of us CPT human shields stayed is on the outdoors side of the wall of the very comfortable bedroom graciously assigned to Sis and me by the owner. It is also located on the side of the house facing Gilo; and our bed was set up in front of that window. The second night we were there the tank was hit by an Israeli projectile.
Afterward the very shaken owner, who had heard the hit and saw the damage, informed some of us that happily the tank was nearly empty. In fact, he said that he had been planning to get a refill the next day. Had it been full, it was clear, the story might very well have been considerably different for all of us in the house at the time of the hit: Palestinian and CPTers.
I knew that the tank was almost empty, but Sis did not, although I thought she did. Now that I know that she didn’t, I can see why she was not at all amused at my reaction to the sniping and counter sniping that heated up again after we had gone to sleep late that night in that bed in front of that ominous window on the other side of the wall from the butane tank. Despite the renewed sniping and counter sniping, I had been deeply asleep and really did not want to wake up completely in order to move to a less exposed place in the house. Sis, however, thought it was a good idea, and was not at all pleased by my drowsy response to her anxious proposal that we retreat to the basement. Instead of moving out of our comfortable quarters I sleepily suggested, “Don’t light a match.”
Dodging bullets nightly is not the only problem the owner of that clearly once well to do homestead faced. Loneliness is another: safety for his wife and children prompting him to send them to Jordan weeks earlier. Now he was rattling around his large empty house with little to do during the day since his prosperous business based on tourism had long since gone down the tubes.
His is a story common in the occupied territories. One of the sadly most common sights there these days is once enterprising and industrious Palestinian men sitting in small groups out of the sun chatting or playing board games to make the time pass.
We delivered a care package for a friend in Atlanta to his friend in Bethlehem who ran a once thriving tourist hotel on Manger Street. The hotel has been shut down completely for months. When we got back to the United States, I heard from my Atlanta friend who told me that his Bethlehem friend had shown up on his doorstep a few days earlier looking for opportunities in Georgia to help care for his family, which he had to leave behind.
Once our group reached CPT’s combination office and dwelling place in an aged building in the center of Hebron, we understood why that ancient city had been chosen for CPT’s permanent base. Menacing harassing violence and counter violence is unremitting and constant. There are almost daily and nightly incidents of small to heavy weapon fire and counter fire. Settlers-protected by an indifferent IDF-rampage through Arab sections of town, at times attacking and killing children, while Palestinians are stealthily killing settlers, including their children, in murderous ambushes. Each claims that its violence is in reprisal to the others, not the cause.
There are frequent rumbles between stone-throwing Palestinian youth and the IDF often firing rubber coated steel bullets at the point where the Palestinian run sector intersects with the one bossed by Israel.
In Hebron, however, we learned that Palestinian kids are not the only ones who throw stones. We were pelted from above by epithet shouting settler progeny on the roof of their apartment in one of the “Zone H2” Israeli settlements. Zone H2 is an Oslo so-called Peace Accords designation for the eastern half of Hebron, which is under tough iron fisted Israeli military rule. Five hundred settlers living in the very center of the city have the run of H2, because about two thousand Israeli soldiers who are on never ending patrol in the streets protect them. They also man permanent outposts bristling with rapid-fire weapons placed strategically throughout the area on the roofs of Arabs dwellings commandeered from their occupants.
In contrast there is no protection from either settler or IDF harassment for the thirty-thousand Palestinian whose homes are in Zone H2, penned up as they are in their dwelling places under an almost constant curfew imposed at the beginning of Intifada II almost a year ago. Life is at an almost complete standstill for the H2 Palestinians.
Meanwhile life continues at a more normal pace in H1, the western area contiguous to H2. It is administered by the Palestinian National Authority.
Compared to PNA-run H1, H2 streets are eerily silent, even during the busiest times of the day. They are almost empty except for the occasional privileged solitary settler and his or her multitudinous omnipresent IDF protective patrols. Life in H1, on the other hand, is typically boisterous and vibrantly teeming with Palestinians coming and going as they please, conducting their lives and business as usual, or at least as much as usual as the strangled Palestinian economy can enable: drastically curtailed as it is by IDF blockades of every city, town, and village in the occupied territories.
The blockades are designed to keep Palestinians boxed up in their communities and to make it very very difficult to stay connected to the vital amenities of life such as health care and employment. Roadblocks, like the one preventing us to drive to that home we visited ouside of Hebron, are much more extensive on the highways leading into and out of the larger population centers like Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin. Traffic is often backed up for hundreds of yards for hours when the roadblocks also serve as check points.
Palestinian, Israel based Jewish, and international human rights organizations have published myriad scrupulously documented reports of brutal IDF harassment of Palestinians trying to pass through them. A mother on the verge of giving birth was delayed for no good reason and for so long that she was finally obliged to deliver at the side of the road. An elderly heart attack victim died before the ambulance could reach a hospital because it too was held up for no apparent good reason. Men have been ordered out of their vehicles herded into easy to guard and menace clusters, and then made to stand under the hot sun-not permitted to sit down-for hours. The drive to Hebron from Jerusalem which in happier times takes not much more than a half hour can these days turn into a half day long ordeal. The same for Arabs living in Ramallah. Their trip to jobs in Jerusalem, which should only be a matter of a few minutes, may now take hours.
But there are times when for “security reasons” Palestinians are not allowed into Jerusalem at all. That was the case one weekend in July when the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury came to Jerusalem. Attendance at services at St. George’s Cathedral in East Jerusalem where the Primate officiated was pathetically sparse because of the travel ban.
Meanwhile settlers and other Israelis in automobiles and trucks sporting yellow and black license plates identifying them as Israelis can get from here to anywhere in the West Bank and Israel proper quickly because of a network of special highways built solely for their use. Palestinian vehicles with their white and green license plates are not allowed. Israel calls them by-pass roads.
By-pass what? Palestinians, of course!
The Holy Land’s main roads no longer lead to the places where for thousands of years one knew they would-ancient Arab villages and towns. Now there is this new system of comfortably wide blacktopped highways designed to provide easy safe access to the settlements, which over the decades through legalistic subterfuge, downright expropriation, and confiscation have been erected systematically and relentlessly on former Arab village sites or their farmland.
The traditionally easiest, if not the shortest distance between two points has been craftily skewed. By the simple expedient of diligently connecting Jewish sites with these new roads and steering them as clear as possible of the remaining Arab villages one can literally travel for miles in both Israel and the West Bank and avoid any manifestation of Arab existence.
In order to visualize the impact of this vast project on an already traumatically marginalized society, imagine all the freeway exits to Chicago’s South Side or Anacostia in Washington, DC being suddenly blocked with the only access to these “minority” neighborhoods by way of narrower and, as a result, terribly clogged feeder streets.
This astonishing remaking of the map in the West Bank and Gaza, this demeaning road project leading one away from a consciousness of the presence of Arabs is one of Israel’s end of the millennium bolder steps to remake history. Driving along these roads reminds me of one of Gertrude Stein’s novel thoughts, There is no there…there. A generation ago, Golda Meir echoed this same notion when she repeatedly tried to convince public opinion that there were no Palestinians. Now these new facts on the ground-main highways that denigrate the Arab reality-continue to encourage this demeaning perception.
Those highways are an example of U.S. tax dollars at work. Loan guarantees and outright grants despite the so-called Oslo peace process continued and still continue to perpetuate a condition in which there is less of a there…there for the Palestinians than there is for the Israelis. The West Bank and Gaza are the only place in the world with an extensive and extensively demeaning set of his and her, or-to be more exact-us against them roadways.
One of the symbols of the current desperate situation is Tantur, the Institute for Ecumenical studies, founded by Notre Dame University’s legendary president emeritus, Theodore Hesburgh. Tantur occupies a compound alongside the main road leading to Bethlehem and Hebron. In the past, when we visited, it was teeming with enthusiastic interfaith scholars, and Jewish, Christian, and Muslim peace activists engaged in earnest dialogue and other kind of bonding events designed to smooth the way to reconciliation. Now Tantur is a near ghost enterprise on seedy grounds bordering a notorious roadblock checkpoint leading from Jerusalem.
As much as Tantur once was a tidy inspiring symbol of the hope-despite mounting ever increasing troubles-that many dared to harbor in those earlier times, it stands now as the mournful overgrown symbol of the rock bottom expectations and desperate disillusionment being felt by a rising tide of those whose creativity and steadfast faith in the nonviolent quest for justice with mercy are urgently needed more than ever. Tantur at the roadblock is an immovable witness to the current triumph of violent divisiveness over reconciliation.
For example those Hebron settler kids pelting us from the roof of their apartment also were screaming, “Whore!!! Pig!!!” at our diminutive middle-aged spinster Muslim translator who lived across a narrow lane from the settlers. She shrugged the profanities off, because by now she is accustomed to them, and because names are the least of her worries: the settlers have installed a catwalk from their apartment to the roof of her family’s; and they often sneak over at night to worry and harass them. But she could not shrug off an IDF patrol, which instead of acting on our complaints about the unruly kids pelting us from above, instead harangued our translator because she was violating curfew by being with us in the street. So we shifted our intervention-happily successfully-to keep the usual IDF abuse from turning even uglier.
One of the soldiers asked us, almost plaintively, “Why do you want to help these people? We are here to make peace.” Our translator immediately answered with all the conviction of the terrible events that have continued to engulf her and all Palestine since the beginning of the so-called Oslo Accords peace process back in 1993. “Yes, you do want peace,” she said mockingly, “a piece of Palestine here, a piece of Palestine there until you have it all.”
The next day out in the country we visited a mountain top Arab farm whose crops were typically in danger of dying on the vine, tree limb, and in the ground because of IDF blockades and nearby settler continuing harassment and creeping encroachments. We could see an invasive scar on their ancient land caused by a new access road, which settlers were illegally trying to bulldoze across their territory.
The blockades also threaten every farmer’s attempt to get his or her produce to market before it spoils. More than fifty years of collective punishment and collective income debilitation are also taking their toll on Palestinian agrarian efforts. They never know when and where the next grove of olive trees, other crops, or farmhouse will be destroyed.
The relentless expropriation or confiscation of land, if Israel’s “land for peace” proposals had prevailed at Camp David last year, would have dejure sliced the West Bank part of the Palestinian state into three permanently separated, therefore, noncontiguous apartheid-era South Africa Bantustan-like areas. However, the exercise is already the defacto condition in not only the West Bank but also Gaza.
Besides being penned up in those territorial cages, another increasing problem is water to subsist on. Israel has absolute control of all the water in the territories. The approximately two million Arabs living in the West Bank get a scant fifteen percent while the approximately four hundred thousand settlers’ homes, industries, agricultural projects, and huge protective military establishment get all the rest. Despite the disparity, Palestinians complain that they pay as much as four times more than Israelis for their meager insufficient share of water. Not only that, settlers are notorious for severing Palestinian water lines and then, shielded by the IDF, preventing them from connecting back up to the system.
One Israeli official explained this disparity in a major Israeli newspaper by claiming that Israel is a first world developed nation and Palestine is third world and grossly underdeveloped, so Israel naturally is in need of and entitled to the lion’s share of water. Of course, in the face of such self-righteous justification, Palestinians are no in position to develop and thrive.
One of Zionism’s most celebrated claims is the one that crows that Israelis made the desert bloom in what had been an arid desolate region. The truth is that Palestinians were making the desert bloom long before they taught late arriving Zionists how. One of the most pleasant soothing experiences we enjoyed while in Hebron was sipping coffee one morning, while chatting with our Arab hosts in the cool breezy shade of their dense grape arbor, which was shielding us completely from the hot midmorning sun.
By withholding a fair share of water the Israelis apparently are trying to create conditions by which in time it may no longer be possible to enjoy such a civilized experience in the occupied territories.
Our hosts were Muslims: three brothers and their families. They lived across the street from one of the oldest settlements in the West Bank, Kiryat Arba. We had been asked to spend the night as human shields, because the settlers’ steady expansion through encroachment was now threatening their home. Like tentacles attached to a voracious beast, settlers had recently stretched out once again to occupy vacant land next to the family’s compound and seemed to be positioning themselves to launch a nighttime grab of their house. The night we stayed with them at their request, the settlers held a noisy convocation underneath a tent pitched not far from the roof where we sat in the energizing cooling breeze that unfailingly takes over as darkness begins to set in. As darkness finally descended, it mercifully obscured a huge sign that the settlers had made during the day and set up in the vacant lot so that it was impossible for us not to see its short provocative if not menacing message, which urged, “Death to Arabs.”
During a long conversation, the oldest brother emphasized two important points; that while the Palestinians right to resist Israeli oppression-even violently-is acceptable under international standards and laws, 1) both Israeli and Palestinian terror violence is wrong, and 2) that he is an admirer of Ghandi. He proved it by telling us some of the things that the great 20th century apostle of nonviolence said. Then when asked who should lead Palestine when Yassir Arafat is no longer leader, he said unhesitatingly, “Hanan Ashrawi,” which refuted a prevalent notion that all Muslim men are vehement anti-feminists and spiritual chauvinists.
After the CPT delegation left Palestine for home, Sis and I stayed on for another week in East Jerusalem connecting with various Israelis (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) and Palestinians (Christian and Muslim) involved in direct nonviolent actions in support of the struggle to reacquire all of the twenty-two percent of the land that was still in Arab hands prior to the Six Day war in 1967.
Orient House, the mainly Arab East Jerusalem headquarters for a number of Palestinian institutions, a key symbol, and a kind of unofficial capitol for Palestinian independence aspirations, was occupied by Israel shortly after we relocated. The seizure, it was announced, was in retaliation for the horribly lethal terror bombing of a restaurant near the center of Jewish West Jerusalem. In protest we reconnected with Neta Golan, Heidi Arraf and their International Solidarity Movement volunteers.
For a time, the protesters lodged an inevitably futile attempt to remove the metal barricades blocking the street leading to Orient House being safeguarded by grim determined Israeli police in blue typically police style uniforms and even tougher potentially meaner Border Guards in brown typical IDF style combat uniforms.
Although our actions were certainly confrontational and provocatively assertive, they were nonviolent, despite what the Israelis later charged when trying to throw the book at some of the protesters who were singled out for arrest. Several times mounted police attempted to drive their horses at us.
But that is when Neta’s and Heidi’s prior experiences and training came in handy. Veterans of previous attempts to remove roadblocks and other actions to frustrate IDF belligerency in the West Bank, the two women had instructed us to drop to the pavement and lie down as soon as a mounted charge got too close. Which we did. And the tactic worked! Horses are not humans; they will not stomp on helpless people when they are lying down-no matter what their ideology or complaint.
Although I was never struck, I was shoved and pushed a few times by charging police or Border Guards. Once I was sent sprawling into a tall broad bush across the intersection from the barricades. Before I could scramble up, Neta Golan was shoved down on top of me. Apparently the “PeaceBuilder’s” T-shirt I had been wearing did not cut any ice with our adversaries. It was brand new and clean when Sis put it on me that day. By the end of our two days of protest it was smudged, scuffed, and torn.
There were long periods when we sat in the street under the hot late morning and early afternoon sun directly in front of the barricades collecting our wits and energies for another run at them. Sis and others kept us supplied with bottles of water. Sis also hunted up Palestinian flags for us to wave, which was clearly displeasing to the police and Border Guards. First chance one of them would get, he or she would dash at a flag waver and snatch it away.
After awhile, the voice of a Muezzin could be heard issuing from the loudspeaker of a nearby Mosque in the call to prayer. About six Palestinians in our little group of international interventionists and also in the crowd of civilian and press onlookers spread their prayer rugs in the street a short distance from us and began to prepare to pray. One Young Muslim, who appeared to be a leader, dressed in brightly clean white garments stood before the others speaking with great intensity. Then I lost sight of them as bystanders moved between those of us resting on the ground in front of the barricades and the Muslims just a few feet a way. Suddenly Sis came bursting out of the group and rushed over to me wide-eyed and angry. “While the man in white was praying,” she sputtered, “soldiers came up and started beating him.”
In an earlier intervention last spring, Neta Golan’s arm was deliberately twisted and twisted behind her back by an angry Policeman until it broke. In fact the morning after we first met her about ten days earlier, the cast was removed; but at the time of our direct intervention on the street leading to Orient House, the arm was still troubling her; so, she said, she was about to undergo physical therapy treatments.
At the same intervention where Neta’s arm was broken, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Rabbis for Human Rights and others were arrested for their part in the nonviolent action. Ascherman’s group and another one, Israeli Committee Against House Demolition, often take stands alongside Palestinians and international supporters, in their interventions in the territories.
A Rabbi for Human Rights contingent was with CPT when we rode out one morning to a site outside another village near Hebron where angry, confused, and utterly helpless Palestinian shepherds had assembled to show us the remains of their cave dwellings, which had been destroyed: filled in and blocked with rubble by Israeli bull dozers. We were accompanied by a CBS cameraman and some print reporters.
Our caravan making its way through roadblocks from a Palestinian zone into a zone under complete control of the military was monitored by an IDF contingent, which quickly rolled up in a variety of military vehicles. They vented their anger at us on the three Palestinian van drivers who had been hired to carry us to the demolition site and then bring us back. First the soldiers tried to separate them from us (to do what?-we could only anxiously guess) by insisting that they follow them back to Palestinian territory. Not wanting to trust the soldiers with the drivers in their custody out of our sight, it was insisted that three CPTers go along with them. Then they drove off, while the rest of us made our tour of the area.
Later when we were reunited, the three CPT monitors told us that when they reached the Palestinian zone, the soldiers took the drivers’ keys and attempted to drive away leaving them and the rest of us potentially stranded. But the CPTers stood calmly in front of the IDF vehicles preventing them from driving off. After a few minutes standoff, the soldiers relented, gave back the keys, and left.
When it came time for Sis and me to head back to the U. S., we were sure that we had been in Palestine during the very worst of times. As bad as the situation had been during earlier trips, nothing had ever seemed as desperate as what we had just finished observing and experiencing. Since getting back, however, the situation, it seems to us, has gotten exorbitantly worse. So we are more alarmed now than when we arrived in late July.
In the almost one year since the uprising began, the toll has been far more costly in lives and the continuing steady erosion of Palestinian possessions and rights than in any comparable period since the forced mass dispersals that took place in the wake of the wars in 1948 and 1967. Life in Palestine-physical and emotional-is at shockingly low ebb.
For us the most dramatic change was the absence of enthusiasm-exuberance actually-which was a notable and noble characteristic of the first Intifada: the time when Palestinian pride reached exciting heights because their creative nonviolent resistance to Israeli brutality had garnered seemingly significant gains from Israel and Israel’s number one ally, the United States. In the midst of their euphoria the gains seemed actually to be significant concessions. However, now they know better.
Now they know that Oslo was an ambush forcing them into a blind canyon from which it appears there may be no escape. Oslo has turned out to be a kind of shell game operated by the Israelis backed by the U. S., which has lead, seemingly inexorably, to Camp David. At Camp David, President Clinton, who was anxious to create a lasting heroic peacemaker legacy for himself, instead created unforgivable and lasting mischief by dropping any pretense of official U. S. impartiality to make concrete specific proposals of his own, which at the very least would have institutionalized a further reduction of Palestinian territory as far as negotiations are concerned and funneled the scope of talks concerning Jerusalem and the question of return into another potentially excessively limiting context.
After experiencing that shock, Yassir Arafat and his associates were never able to successfully penetrate an incredibly successful PR war waged by the U. S. and Israel to tar him as an incorrigible obstructionist. Palestinians have never been able to really successfully state their rather bleak case to the American people, to explain that they made a major concession, a major compromise, with respect to how much land should be theirs long before they agreed to come to Camp David, in fact, long before they signed on to the Oslo accords.
Their significant concession, their significant compromise was and remains that where land is concerned, all that they insist on retaining is the twenty-two percent currently under the thumb of the IDF, the twenty-two percent that was in Arab hands before the 1967 war. Any further territorial concessions after that significant pre-camp David, pre-Oslo compromise would be seriously debilitating to Palestinian territorial unity and national viability. No wonder Yassir Arafat would not make a counter offer.
And that is why (except in the United States) attempts to thoroughly demonize Arafat, not only around the world but also inside Palestine, are not succeeding. As troublesome and worrisome as his leadership based to some extent on cronyism and incidences of heavy handed domestic coercion has been, as difficult as the effects of his unwillingness to emphatically end radical Palestinian terrorist militancy has been on them (and of course Israelis), Palestinians, nevertheless, are as unwilling as he to give in any more to Israel’s incorrigible militarism on behalf of its blatant colonial rule over the territories.
If it is ever suggested by a foreigner, especially an American, that Palestinians might do better with another leader, the response-again especially to an American-is invariably, “You get Israel to end the occupation, and we’ll take care of Arafat.” Which is probably very much like the answer (and just as logical) that a Minuteman back in our Revolutionary War days might have given had it been suggested to him that life might go better for Americans if they got rid of George Washington.
What Palestinians clearly felt entitled to expect at Camp David-or perhaps at least hoped for-was to simply negotiate when and how Israel would finally get out of the entire pre1967 twenty-two percent, including the settlements. Instead it became clear that Palestine was expected to finally come to terms with how much more of the twenty-two percent it was willing to concede to Israel.
It was a shock for us to encounter the terrible post Camp David depression into which many admirable longtime Palestinian motivators seem to have fallen, because of the deterioration of the quality of Palestinian life that has taken place since Intifada II began and their disillusionment with Arafat, which along with concerns about his leadership has accompanied his advancing age, beset as it is by visible infirmities. One spiritual leader in Bethlehem confided to us his mournful conclusion that “God has abandoned us.” Another well known inspiring, popular, immensely effective Palestinian spiritual leader, headquartered in Israel, also confided that for the first time he is having a terrible “identity crisis” with respect to his Israel citizenship. And outside a village near Hebron a man whose modest home has been demolished three times, asked us not to give his name, because his being willing until now to seek international publicity to expose the IDF actions has only brought reprisals against him and his family, and the dreary and expensive task of rebuilding again, again, and again. “Why should I help sell newspapers in the United States,” he asked, “when all it does is get my house knocked down again.” Even Sis, after years of teaching alternatives to violence to American children, in a conversation with World Vision International’s Jerusalem representative, Tom Getman, felt compelled to ask, “Am I asking children to commit suicide, by turning the other cheek?”
Every Palestinian well known or virtually anonymous, expresses the same cynicism with respect to the U. S. position. How Americans can watch Palestine twist slowly slowly in the wind of Israeli demonizing duplicity not to mention official U. S. complicity, which has enabled the relentless disintegration and depletion of their economy and society, remains a source of bewilderment and confusion. And a frightening mystery.
More than one Palestinian and Israeli human rights activist asked us plaintively, “Why does the United States treat Palestinians like the Indians?” It does not compute for us either, although we do comprehend the malign ambitions, which are ascendant here at home, in a way that some Palestinians and their Israeli supporters may not.
A journalistic hero of mine for decades has been Ed Bliss, who for years was Walter Cronkite’s number one news writer. When Sis and I returned from Lebanon back in 1985 and attended our first RTNDA (Radio and Television News Directors Association) national convention since getting back to the U. S., I ran into Ed and was able to catch him up on our story. He subsequently wrote a newspaper column based on what he learned from our conversation, which ended this way: “The families of the [hostages being held in Lebanon] say that for the past year they have been ‘stonewalled, misled and lied to’ by the administration. I can’t testify to that. However, I do recognize lack of accomplishment.” With respect to Palestine/Israel, where American administrations and lack of accomplishment in a human rights context are concerned, Ed Bliss’ words ring as agonizingly true today as they did back then.
Why does the United States treat the Palestinians like Indians? Because that’s what America does!
The inevitable result of U. S. official neglect has been the turn to the war of terror being conducted by both sides. Intifada II Palestinian suicidal terror is Masada-like murderous zealotry; while Israel’s relentless reaction is reminiscent of ancient Rome. And, I think, the outcome will be much the same, unless the U. S. finds a way to intervene as constructively and nonviolently as our little CPT team did. So I’d like to think that the situation in the occupied territories is more analogous to Vichy France during World War II, except-unfortunately-this time the U. S. clearly favors the occupier.
Why does the United States too often react slowly to humanitarian outrages? Why was it so slow to react to World War II stories making their way across the ocean, clearly verifying the genocide, which was taking place in Europe? Then later in Rwanda? Cambodia? Because too often that is what America does.
Which raises the inevitably inflammatory issue of the use of the word Holocaust to describe the Palestinian calamity. Palestinians and their supporters are criticized for describing the issue that way in connection with their struggle for independence. That is because it can be claimed that it is stretching a point to compare the deaths of six million humans, some of whom were not Jews-although obviously credible records assure that Jews constituted the vast majority of the murdered-to the smaller number of Arabs murdered by Israel.
So perhaps it would be more productive to use a more precise but nevertheless dramatically accurate label in that context, since framing the issue in Holocaust terms often diverts the crucial argument into a semantic squabble over statistics: how many State of Israel sponsored ethnic murders and other human rights outrages does it take to make a second Holocaust? However, if the shoe fits, and it does, what we have here is not a failure to communicate but perhaps a failure to communicate equivalently; e.g. there is enough evidence to assert that what Israel is inflicting on Palestinians on a daily basis in the occupied territories surely are pogroms of shocking magnitude: pogroms as vile, vicious, destructive, and horribly violent as the ones in Russia and Eastern Europe, which were the genesis of the movement that became Zionism. Will Broadway ever produce a Tony Award winning Palestinian version of Fiddler on the Roof?
A bitter irony, however, when using that term, is that pogroms are what sparked the Zionist migration to Palestine at the beginning of the last century. Israel would love it if the Palestinians would finally pick up and leave. So, there the comparison must end. Then there is the currently raging debate over the Zionism is racism issue. However, focusing on that somewhat aging phrase as the crux of the debate, I think is the wrong hill to take one’s semantic stand on. It only serves to divert attention from the real issue today: not what Zionists may or may not be doing to Palestinians, but what the State of Israel is doing to them. Naming the state of Israel as racist is the more precise way to bell the racist cat, just as it was semantically the way to bell South Africa not too long ago.
Nevertheless, we know that there is a claim before the bar of public credulity that the real aim of every Palestinian is to get Israelis to pick up and leave not just the territories but Israel proper too. And I am sure that such an impossible daydream does exist in the minds of many Palestinians obsessed and oppressed by the reality of the made-in-Israel-abetted-by-the U. S. A. nightmare they are being forced to endure. Indeed the late East Jerusalem Palestinian leader, Feisal Husseini, is reputed to have told an Egyptian interviewer shortly before he died that Oslo was a “Trojan Horse” for the Palestinians, just as much as it has surely proved to be a Trojan Horse for a critically large segment of Israeli society, which still views the longest military occupation in the last hundred or so years as solely a simple case of to the victor belongs the spoils.
Yet more than one Palestinian man or woman in the street reacted to the story of Feisal Husseini’s reported candor essentially in the following manner: that’s a nice dream, but not a good idea, because Israel and the United States have the big guns. But there has to be a limit to the amount of giving we must be expected to do. So we cannot settle for less than getting the back twenty-two percent of land still in our hands before it was taken from us in 1967. Israel gets everything else, which is a lot more than they started out with in 1948.
And so Intifada II has turned murderous with both Israel and Palestinians committing self-righteously applied terror because of substantially different positions with respect to the concept of compromise. Yet, here in the United States where it seems that Palestinians still can’t win for losing, most often only they are the ones portrayed in black hats. Yet, I am old enough to remember that it was despair, similar to what Sis and I encountered everywhere we traveled in Palestine this summer, which drove the battered Jewish remnant in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II to finally turn to violence before it was too late for most of them to survive. Should we be surprised then-no matter how much we disapprove of terrorizing violence-to find the penned up Palestinian remnant in the West Bank and Gaza resorting to the same kind of potentially futile practice today?
While in Palestine, I ran across a news item in the English language edition of a leading Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, in which an IDF spokesperson trumped the onerous made-in-America term “collateral damage.” Our Desert Storm warriors used “collateral damage” to euphemize the deaths of innocents caught in the all too obvious terror bombings of Baghdad. But when confronted with the deaths of two children and several uninvolved adults in the assassination of two Hamas political leaders, not military leaders, in Nablus in early August, an IDF spokesman shrugged them off as simply acceptable “standard deviations” from the assassination motivated goal of the attack. So-again-what we have here is not a failure to communicate but cynically nuanced transmuting communications designed to rationalize and obfuscate disgraceful state administered terror into tolerable margins of error. Echoes of the Vietnam War, when a zealous U. S. military public information officer crowed straight faced to the press that our forces had to destroy Ben Tre in order to save it.
How do Americans who care deeply about the effects of such sophistry react to the resultant pain and outrageous rationalizing justifications? Not easily. Certainly not by simply saying that they agree that our policy in support of Israel is wrong, and that we worry about what our country has become, because Palestinians have been hearing that from the likes of us for years. But, despite the relentless letdowns-the betrayals actually-and all the heartbreaking signs to the opposite, what is astonishing is that so many in Palestine still have hope that the United States will do the decent thing despite Palestinians jaundiced expectations and dormant enthusiasm.
So job one for us here in the United States, it seems to me, is to stretch our minds and energies, as they clearly have not yet sufficiently been stretched. We need to stretch our compassionate and humanitarian proclivities mightily, in order to find ultimately successful ways to address Palestinian gloom and our failures to revive and reclaim their fast fading hopes. We need to do that because that is also what some Americans have always done and will continue to do, even though they apparently are still in the minority, and also because they, at least, recognize lack of sincere accomplishment when they hear and see it.