Amazing Sorrows

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“Amazing sorrows.” That’s how poet Naomi Shihab Nye describes the recent events in Palestine/Israel. How better to describe the events engulfing that beleaguered corner of the world? Amazing, but not because of the angry Palestinian protests. Given the failure of the peace process to adequately address the human, civil, and national rights of the Palestinians, this explosion-with its grim ramifications for Palestinians and Israelis alike-was predictable. Amazing, but not because of the brutal Israeli response. Live ammunition, anti-tank missiles, rockets, and helicopter gunships have been launched against Palestinians before. Amazing, rather, because fifty-two years after the original dispossession of the Palestinians, despite resolution after resolution by the United Nations, the most basic rights of Palestinians have yet to be fulfilled. And sorrow-because who will give life back to those killed? Wholeness to those injured?

Like many Americans, I have been horrified by the recent escalation of violence. In less than a month almost 130 Palestinians have been killed, including at least 30 children. Over 5000 Palestinians have been wounded, their medical needs sending Palestinian hospitals into crisis. The injuries suggest that Israeli soldiers are utilizing shoot-to-kill tactics, targeting upper body parts–eyes, chest, stomach, head–with devastatingly predictable consequences. In a violation of the Geneva Conventions, Israeli military forces have prevented the wounded from reaching hospitals and have shot at and killed ambulance drivers and medics. Israelis civilians have attacked Palestinian communities both within and without Israel, while the army has stood by and at times participated. Mosques and churches have been attacked and burned. In the course of the violence, at least seven Israeli Jews have been killed, settlements have been fired on, and Joseph’s Tomb, a Jewish shrine, has been ravaged.

Each day that passes brings worse news. The brutal killing of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah by a Palestinian crowd–inflamed by, among other things, television images of the body of a Palestinian man tortured and killed by settlers–was swiftly followed by Israeli rocket attacks on Palestinian cities, with civilian casualties. Exchanges of gunfire between Israeli settlers and Palestinians have brought heavy tank fire on Palestinian residential areas. Israeli forces are destroying Palestinian olive groves and agricultural lands, and Palestinian towns have been placed under virtual siege. The downward spiral continues.

To some extent, all analysis falters in the face of death’s reality. Like many, I still cannot clear my mind of the image of twelve-year-old Mohammed al-Durrah, killed by an Israeli sharpshooter as he huddled behind his father, Jamal. They were on their way home from looking at a second-hand car when they found the intersection blocked. As they crouched behind a concrete barrel, seeking shelter from the shooting, an Israeli gunman wounded the father and killed the boy. An ambulance driver, Bassam al-Bilbeisi, who tried to approach was also killed. In the images capturing Mohammed’s last moments, Jamal is

frantically thrusting his son behind him with one hand, waving the other arm wildly as if in an attempt to ward off the bullets.

For such loss of life, what justification can be found? Consider eighteen-month-old Israa’ Abdul Azeem, killed in her car seat when settlers fired into her father’s car. Ten-year-old Samir Tabanja, hit by helicopter machine-gun fire while standing in his family’s courtyard. Twenty-one-year-old Shadi al Wawe, shot by an Israeli soldier while making a phone call on the roof of his house. Eighteen-year-old Mahmoud Abu Obeid, his head blown in half by ammunition fired by Israeli helicopters. Seventeen year old Asel Asleh — an Israeli citizen and peace activist — chased by soldiers into an olive grove, beaten severely and then shot in the neck at close range.

There has been a flurry of blame-casting, including the accusation that Arafat orchestrated the demonstrations. But such charges understate the extent of real frustration among Palestinians. The trigger for the events was Ariel Sharon’s visit, with a 1000-man police force, to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem on September 28, and the massive Israeli military presence deployed there the next day. Sharon — whose raid on the Jordanian village of Qibya in 1953 killed 75 people; who oversaw the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that left over 20,000 dead; and whom an Israeli investigation found indirectly responsible for the massacre of 2,000 Palestinian men, women and children at Sabra and Chatila — represents, for Palestinians, decades of murderous bloodshed and oppression. That his visit was received as an incitement should surprise no one.

But Sharon’s visit was merely the catalyst. The underlying cause of the current violence is the cumulative failure of the “peace process” to address Palestinian rights. As Israeli human rights lawyer Allegra Pacheco has noted, the Oslo Accords never guaranteed Palestinians self-determination, freedom from occupation, or full equality. Instead, it set in place a framework that would nullify UN resolutions and international conventions-in particular, UN Resolution 194 (calling for the repatriation and restitution of Palestinian refugees) and Resolutions 242 and 338 (calling for Israeli withdrawal from territory occupied in 1967). The interim agreements merely clarified that what Palestinians stood to gain was a reinforcement of the status quo-occupation and inequality-under a different name. These agreements forecast an entity hemmed in and fragmented by Israeli “bypass” roads, riddled from within by settlements, dominated economically and militarily by Israel, lacking control of its borders or natural resources, vulnerable to closure and military incursion, and denied meaningful authority over occupied East Jerusalem, which lies at the heart of Palestinian identity. The proposals put forward at Camp David this past summer, specifying the annexation of large blocks of settlements built on Palestinian land, merely furthered this vision.

Last month I joined 4000 people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds in a march in Washington D.C. affirming the long-denied right of Palestinian refugees to go home. This month thousands of people have rallied across the U.S. and the globe, calling for a halt to Israeli military force, for international protection for Palestinian civilians, and for an international inquiry into the violence. These are the first steps. With these must come awareness that the fragments offered the Palestinians cannot nourish a vision of peace. Otherwise, we face the prospect that the “amazing sorrows” of this past month will become daily sorrows in a future without hope.

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