A Palestinian driver rammed his bus into a packed bus stop Wednesday, killing seven Israeli soldiers and a civilian. It is unfortunately true that all too often a seeming identification of “terrorism” with Palestinians has clouded all reasonable discussion, coverage, and rational thinking about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The myths and distortions that have been assumed as reality have been appropriated by one side and cast a shroud around any deeper understanding of the conflict. The question is: what is the reality behind what happened at that bus stop?
The bus stop was located in what Israel calls Azur, an Israeli settlement established in 1948 on the lands of the Palestinian village Yazur, 6 kilometers from Jaffa. On the 11 December 1947, Jewish immigrants launched a terror attack against the Yazur village coffee house killing six Palestinians. On 30 April 1948, this Palestinian village was under complete control by Jewish forces and subsequently cleansed of its more than 4,000 Palestinian inhabitants, now refugees. The village has been mostly destroyed with the exception of two village shrines. Two small structures have been converted into commercial buildings. The site contain modern apartment blocks from two Israeli settlements, namely Miqwe Yisrael and Azur.
What explains the Palestinian driver’s actions? Khalil Abu Olbeh, the bus driver, had no ties to any Palestinian faction. This is not strange. Opinion polls show that since the past few years, most Palestinians in the Westbank and Gaza have lost their ties with any factions.
According to Abu Olbeh’s relatives, Khalil was distraught over the large number of Palestinian casualties over the past few months. Between September 28, 2000 and February 13, 2001, 359 Palestinians were killed and eleven Palestinians have been assassinated of which 89 percent were civilians. In that same period more than 12,000 Palestinians were injured, including 1,500 with permanent disabilities.
Heavy shooting in the southern Gaza Strip the past few days had left Abu Olbeh particularly aggrieved. But to friends and relatives, his emotions were in tune with the rest of the neighborhood, and nothing seemed amiss with the 35-year-old father of five.
Khalil Abu Olbeh had been driving Palestinian laborers from Gaza to jobs in Israel for the past five years as an employee of the Israeli bus company Egged. Abu Olbeh was among 15,000 Palestinians who had been permitted to return to their jobs two weeks ago after Israel had eased an earlier closure of the Palestinian areas. He worked as a taxi driver in Gaza, but it brought in little money.
For the past four months, Khalil Abu Olbeh had been unemployed because of Israel’s closure of the Palestinian areas. Since September 2000, Israel has tightened its policy of closures and curfews, a violation of international law as a collective punishment.
Living conditions in Gaza and elsewhere have been deteriorating. Before the recent Intifada, the unemployment rate for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was estimated at anywhere between 11 percent and 24 percent. During the past few months, however, that figure has risen dramatically because of the estimated 125,000 Palestinians unable to reach their jobs in Israel.
The economic results have been devastating: the families of these workers now suffer from a complete lack of income, threatening their ability to sustain themselves. With an unemployment rate of 38 percent, over 30 percent of the Palestinian population are living under the poverty level, earning less than $2 a day.
The impact of these measures on the Palestinian civilian people has been disastrous. The economic gains Palestinians saw during the first half of 2000 have been completely erased. Workers have been unable to reach their jobs in Israel, and are therefore unable to earn money essential for the well being of their families and central to the local economy. Industry and agriculture have suffered both in financial and material terms, and development has all but ceased. An additional outcome of the closure policy has been the general inability on many occasions to transfer wounded individuals to and from hospitals in different locales.
Many Palestinians seeking medical treatment for chronic conditions and emergencies have been denied access to hospitals and clinics, either by being held up at checkpoints for inordinate amounts of time or because of the siege surrounding many towns and villages in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The refusal of the Israeli authorities to comply with international humanitarian law, specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Israeli authorities said they were certain that Abu Olbeh’s actions were deliberate. Perhaps they were, perhaps not. The day before Abu Olbeh drove his bus into the bus stop packed with Israeli soldiers, Israeli forces assassinated 50 year-old Mas’oud Ayyad. Elsewhere in the Gaza Strip, at Netsarim Junction, Israeli soldiers opened fire at a group of unarmed demonstrators, killing 14 year-old Bilal Tawfiq Ramadan with a live bullet to the heart, at one point sending a United Nations mission scurrying for cover as shooting erupted around them during a visit to a refugee camp. Perhaps a refugee camp hosting the native inhabitants of the Palestinian village Yazur, who could see their place of origin in the newspapers, now called Azur.
The author is a Dutch-Palestinian political scientist, human rights activist and is affiliated to the the Palestine Right to Return Coalition (Al-Awda).