The beginning of the storm

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On Sunday I walked by night from the dead, stone streets of shrinking Arab East Jerusalem across the green line to the bright lights, disco music and trendy restaurants of Israeli West Jerusalem’s Ben Yahuda Street. I wondered whether the young sybarites in this fashionable street knew what was happening to the Palestinians so close by. Did they know that 500 Palestinians had died since the new Intifada started last October, with 15,000 injured and 2,000 permanently disabled ?

The walk to Ben Yehuda Street is a strange journey through time. Young American girls with a smattering of Hebrew are discussing their High School exams in Cincinnati. A yoga teacher is taking a class in the middle of the pedestrian mall, his devotees lying around him on the ground. Only the young soldiers, boys and girls in khaki with M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders, remind you that there is a war going on throughout the West Bank and Gaza, the 22% of Mandate Palestine which many had hoped in 1993 would by now have become an independent Palestinian state.

In Palestinian East Jerusalem hardly anybody goes out at night because there is nowhere to go to. There are no cinemas and almost no cafes, let alone bars. For foreigners there are only the garden courtyard of the American Colony Hotel, that great symbol of a colonial past, and the pretty vine-shrouded courtyard of the Jerusalem Hotel near to the walls of the Old City. The lovely stone alleys of the Old City, one square kilometre encased in its great Ottoman walls, is as silent as a monastery after the souq has closed after dusk. Sitting under the vines of the cosy, family Jerusalem Hotel we drink Bethlehem’s Taybeh beer and exchange stories from the front, stories of Apache helicopter gunships dropping rockets on Gaza, the daily shelling of the elegant Christian city of Beit Jalaa with its Palestinian-American returnees, mortar attacks on Jewish settlements, the murder of settlers by Palestinians and vice versa, the burning by settlers of Hebron’s vegetable market, the assassination of five Palestinian checkpoint policemen on the Beituna-Ramallah road, the bulldozing of huge Arab olive groves in Gaza’s Rafah and the Palestinian suicide bombing of Netanya.

We discuss the report by former US Senator George Mitchell which calls for a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and Sharon’s government’s acceptance of the report with the caveat that there will be no freeze on settlements. Under international law all the settlements are illegal. Since the Oslo accords of 1993 which were to bring peace and economic dynamism to the region, the settlements have increased from 157 to 200 with 200,000 settlers in Arab East Jerusalem and 200,000 in the West Bank and Gaza. Arab East Jerusalem is now almost entirely surrounded by Israeli urban development.

Next door to the Jerusalem Hotel Arab Jerusalemites, both the elite and peasants – the men in flowing kafyas and the women in traditionally embroidered dresses – queue miserably outside the cage of the little Israeli interior ministry building for their permits to remain in the city. Two young Russian Israelis are checking their papers inside. I can hear the sound from the walls of the Old City nearby of the megaphones of Israeli army jeeps and the sirens of police cars. The ground shakes as Israeli F16s returning from Lebanon sound like bombs exploding as they break the sound barrier. This has all the atmosphere of a traditional colonial occupation.

We have stories to tell of violence all over the West Bank but Jerusalem remains strangely immune, despite the extreme tension between Palestinians and settlers in such a constricted space. Some see Jerusalem as a powder keg that will become a blood-bath if Israelis, and Arafat’s security men who discreetly administer the Palestinians, lose control. In the Old City the lovely stone alleys of the souq bustle with merchants before mounds of spices and vegetables, cheap kitchenware and masses of shoddy clothing. Young settlers in black flak jackets and pistols in their back jean pockets march like cowboys through the crowd. An Orthodox monk in his tall black hat strolls past a group of shepherded European pilgrims. At dusk the Orthodox Jews wander with their children through the city from the Wailing Wall and out by the Damascus Gate to the orthodox quarter of Mea Shearim, as they have been doing, unmolested, for centuries, since long before Zionism ever existed.

I am taken to a little courtyard of a Palestinian home in the heart of the Old City near Silsilah (Chain) Street, the focal point of Palestinian-settler confrontations. An apricot tree is growing up through a grill above its midget courtyard. The grill is to protect the family who lives there from heavy objects thrown down by the settlers. The homes of the settlers above are indicated by fluttering stars of David. I am introduced to an 18-year old boy whose arm is paralysed after he was beaten by settlers when he was eight. When we return to Silsilah Street with its view of the golden Dome of the Rock a little settler boy is pointing a toy gun from his grilled window at Palestinian children playing hopscotch in the street. We stand back anxiously but he laughs and says in Hebrew; ‘I wish they were real bullets’.

Recent poll show massive Israeli support for Sharon but most Israelis have little idea what is happening in the territories they occupy, nor do they care much for the settlers. This struggle is not between two people for the same land but the settlements permeate the atmosphere everywhere. They dominate the hilltops along the road south to Hebron and the road north to Nablus. In Hebron 270 settlers, protected by thousands of troops, live in the heart of a city of 100,000 Palestinians.

In central Hebron the soldiers at the checkpoint that divides confrontation- points allow my Palestinian television colleagues to move with me through the now silent and shuttered old stone market with its arcaded mesh protecting the merchants from the settlers above. Settler families with their children are eating and playing in an open tent near to Shuhada street, the principal focus of clashes, in a permanent protest against the Palestinians. One of my colleagues remarks to me on the willingness of parents to expose their children in this way, reversing the Israeli accusation that Palestinian parents allow their children to throw stones at Israeli soldiers. Beside the charred remains of the Palestinian vegetable souq hangs a giant photograph of the little settler girl killed by a Palestinian bullet. Calls for the expulsion of the Palestinians are scrawled on the metal shutters of the shops.

The war, if one can all this a war, intensifies each day. Everywhere Palestinians try to interpret the goal of Sharon’s massive response with F-16’s, Apache helicopters and tanks and – against stones – not water canon but bullets. Some believe that he is seeking a regional war under cover of which he can expel all Palestinians but this is far- fetched. America would never allow it; it would destabilise the entire region. It is more likely that Sharon wants not peace, but calm which will allow him to expand the settlements – the result of his own policy as housing minister under Netanyahu – throughout the West Bank, strengthen the pincer movement around Jerusalem and Judaise the Old City building by building. The Palestinians will then become forever a subjugated client state of an Israeli super power. If this is his dream it will not work. Although this new Intifada is a war between two armed groups, not a popular uprising like the last one, there is a new defiance among Palestinians that will not go away.