The Israeli army has dug a trench around the entire city of Jericho. Now, the city’s 30,000 residents must enter or leave through a single Israeli checkpoint. Israeli police are at their maximum deployment along the border with the occupied territories, having called up trainees, volunteers and the army.
Who could blame them? Another bomb went off this weekend in the city of Netanya, killing four people and once again visiting horror on a quiet Israeli town. Angry Israelis beat a Palestinian bystander unconscious and were, according to The New York Times, about to tie him to a car and drag him through the streets, until the police stopped them. “Too bad” they were stopped, remarked a Jewish Israeli observer. The Palestinian lynching victim is now in hospital in serious condition.
I have no doubt that when Israelis get killed and hurt their suffering is real. And their fear is real. But I also have no doubt that Israelis are becoming increasingly detached from reality. They are more blind than ever before to the conditions that have brought them to this pass. While their own suffering and fears are intense, Israeli society seems completely incapable of comprehending the scale of the suffering and collective fear that they are imposing on the Palestinians under their occupation and the reaction these conditions are generating.
Over the weekend, 6 more Palestinians were killed by Israeli occupation forces. The dead included a nine-year old boy standing near his home, a thirteen year-old boy who had been throwing stones at armed soldiers, a mentally-handicapped man, and a 43-year old mother of three out walking with her sisters. Her sobbing sons were shown on Al-Jazira, but their anguish like that of all other Palestinians is invisible in Israel.
I recall the first time I went to Jerusalem in September 1996, just weeks before the outbreak of clashes which claimed 60 Palestinian and 15 Israeli lives. I spent the first day visiting family in the occupied West Bank, negotiating checkpoints with my cousins, and witnessing for the first time the overbearing presence of an occupying army. As we traveled around, I was struck by my cousins’ intimate knowledge of every landmark and every trick for evading the checkpoints and trying to continue with a “normal” life. They could point out each new Israeli settlement, and tell me whose land it was built on, whose orchards were taken, whose house was demolished.
The next evening I was invited to dinner with some American friends in West Jerusalem. We enjoyed a lovely dinner in a trendy restaurant overlooking the Old City across the valley. Fashionable Israelis and well-dressed tourists savored their wine and their food. Afterwards we strolled past expensive boutiques, small art galleries, street cafes with ironic names, and beautiful glittering customers. I could have been in Rome, or Amsterdam. For sure I was a million miles away from what was going on just five, perhaps six miles away in the occupied territories. Gaza might as well have been on another planet.
Were these Israelis, enjoying a pleasant evening, aware that this lifestyle, and their ability to enjoy it safely are directly related to what they are doing, what is being done by their army, to an entire nation next door?
I oppose completely the targeting of civilians and the use of suicide bombs against them, but except for those outrages, perhaps the war that is being waged against the Palestinians by the Israeli state would never reach Israelis. They would continue their life unmolested as they did in the years before the 1987 Intifada broke out, believing that occupation, cheap labor and wonderful hummus in Ramallah could go on for ever. It is this that convinces many Palestinians that when Israelis say “if only there was no terrorism, then we could make peace,” they are lying. The years of greatest calm in the occupied territories were always the years of greatest land confiscation, and settlement expansion. The calm years were those when Israel’s economy flourished on the backs of Palestinian workers allowed into Israel and paid a miserable wage no Israeli would tolerate. So the Hamas and Islamic Jihad spokesmen who welcomed the latest bombing (although without claiming responsibility for it), make it clear that as long as Israel continues its occupation and aggression against the Palestinian population, Palestinians will try to make sure that Israelis feel the same pain that Palestinians are feeling. This is now the grim logic of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Even the usually “liberal” Haaretz issued a defiant editorial in the wake of the Netanya bomb blaming the Palestinians for “escalating” the violence and affirming that Israel is the victim. Not a word about the unprecedented siege imposed on the Palestinians. Not a hint of comprehension that Palestinians are human beings like Israelis, and that some of them are subject to the sad rule of human relations that violence begets violence. No sense that each day millions of Palestinians endure the most oppressive and humiliating conditions imposed by an occupying army with quiet dignity and without resorting to violence. No sense of wonder that more Palestinians do not resort to violence in the face of pervasive, constant state and settler terrorism. “The Israeli public may be angry and hurt by terrorist attacks like the one in Netanya, but its response may be to dig in its heels – and even indicate indifference, apathy and adaptability – not panic, and not surrender,” says Haaretz (Terrorism Shall Not Pass, March 5, 2001). No, Israel will never surrender to the Palestinians who are ‘besieging’ them.
While newspapers lament the cycle of violence and foreign governments call for “restraint,” the roots of the occupation dig deeper into the soil. According to the same Haaretz last week, there were more housing starts in the occupied territories in 2000 than in any year since 1992. And with each of those housing starts more land is taken, more orchards destroyed, more settler roads stretch into the horizon, entrenching the apartheid order necessary to maintain their existence. Unemployment among Palestinians has skyrocketed and hunger is becoming a real problem. The Eid Al-Adha (the Muslim feast of the sacrifice) brings little for Palestinians to celebrate this year, especially if they tune in to the Israeli media, where politicians vying for posts in Sharon’s cabinet compete with plans to visit ever greater vengeance upon the Palestinians.
One day, I believe, Israel will reach the conclusion that it must indeed end its occupation–for real. But that day is still a long way off, and I fear that many more bloodstained dawns lie between here and there.