Still Trying to Talk about Occupation

For the past two weeks, emails have flooded my inbox: Israeli tanks have reoccupied Nablus and Jenin, the Israeli Defense Forces cut off the water supply and all electricity in Ramallah creating a potentially catastrophic public health disaster. Nine children spent two days in the bathroom of their home in Bethlehem last week. On the other side of the bathroom door lay the bodies of their mother and brother, who were killed last Tuesday morning. For over 48 hours Israeli forces did not allow the removal of the corpses. Two nineteen-year olds in Ramallah killed in cold blood, one because he was trapped alone and afraid and walked out the door trying to make it to a neighbor’s home, another beaten and left to bleed to death because he asked to use the bathroom.

On the radio, Amy Goodman interviewed the father of Suraida Saleh, a 21-year old Palestinian-American, who was killed holding her nine-month old baby, as she and her husband drove to her father’s house in Ramallah, seeking refuge. Her father tells her story, wondering why the American consulate hasn’t helped him bury his daughter. Suraida’s story begins with her birth in George Washington hospital in Washington, D.C., it ends with her burial, several days after her death, in a makeshift mass grave dug in a hospital parking lot surrounded by Israeli tanks in the West Bank.

And in Jeniné we don’t even know for certain how many Palestinians were executed in Jenin. Journalists have been denied access to the camp. Eyewitnesses from nearby villages, and survivors who escaped the slaughter have reported bodies being removed to mass graves in trucks, buildings being razed with families still inside. Reports range from one to five hundred killed, thousands injured. Ambulances and medical personnel have been denied access to the wounded, many are bleeding to death.

Continual televised updates on all the major networks remind us of the deaths of Israeli civilians in the recent spate of suicide bombings each time Palestinian deaths are reported. Yes, the killing of Israeli civilians is horrific, I don’t know anyone who would disagree with that. But the killing of Palestinian civilians is equally horrific. Over a thousand have died over the past 18 months, approximately 400 Israelis, and around 1250 Palestinians. And that doesn’t include the still unknown tally of Palestinian deaths from the past week, a tally potentially running into the hundreds.

After all but two major West Bank towns were brutalized, President Bush made his first speech kindly asking Israel to cease and desist, to withdraw immediately, and nothing changed. The worst of the violence, in Jenin, took place after that speech, and after Sharon’s telephone statement to the President that he would “expedite” his military operations. Last I looked in a dictionary, to expedite something meant to speed it up, not to stop.

The key point in all of this is that none of it is new. This violence did not begin on March 30 when the Israeli Defense Forces rolled into the West Bank (again), nor with the recent bombings that have taken place in Israel. It did not begin this past January, nor on September 11, nor 18 months ago with the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada. This “meltdown” (as CNN characterized it) has been ongoing since 1967. Yes, it waxes and wanes; there are times where talk of peace is all the rage, and times when violence dominates screen and press. But the foundation, the root of the violence on both sides, is the uncontested yet often hidden fact of the 35-year Israeli military occupation of Palestine. The latest Israeli military actions in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin, Nablus, and other West Bank towns are the latest colonial crackdown on the uncooperative residents of an occupied land.

But we’re still not allowed to talk about that in mainstream US media. We’re not allowed to mention that this is a military occupation that is illegal under international law and in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. We’re not allowed to talk about the fact that illegal Israeli settlements have been built continuously since the 1970s, when Ariel Sharon was Israel’s Housing Minister. Housing subsidies have encouraged several hundred thousand Israeli Jews to move into the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Last week on NPR, an Israeli family who moved into East Jerusalem housing during the current violence was interviewed. They said that they had received a $12,000 housing subsidy from the Israeli state and an additional $40,000 in low interest loans. These settlements ensure Israeli military, economic, and political control over the occupied territories and cripple the possibilities for a viable Palestinian State.

We’re also not allowed to remind people that this is a military occupation that has been supported unconditionally by the United States since the day it began, politically, financially, and militarily. Approximately one-third of the U.S. budget for foreign aid goes to Israel each year. Yes, our tax dollars purchased the bullet that killed Suraida Saleh, and that bullet probably had “Made in the U.S.A.” engraved on it. But shhhh, that’s a secret.

And somehow expectations that the United States can “broker peace” persist. We are supposed to look at Secretary of State Powell’s peace mission to the region with hope. Living over here, with food, water, electricity, and the ability to leave our homes without fear of being killed, we like to talk about peace. But the only way that we can realistically talk about peace, is by insisting that we talk about occupation as well.