At sunset on Christmas Day last year, hundreds of Palestinian Arabs from the once Christian towns of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour assembled outside the burned and gutted Paradise Hotel in Bethlehem to protest Israel’s blockade of their towns. The Paradise was damaged in October, during what the Israeli Army called its ‘incursion’ – a euphemism inherited from Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia – into towns under the nominal jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. Young men distributed dry sticks of olive wood to dip into a barrel of fire. In Arabic and English, white banners proclaimed ‘Jerusalem is also holy for Palestinians’ and ‘History repeats itself: yesterday Nero, today Sharon.’ Torches alight and banners aloft, the marchers sang the anthem of the American civil rights movement, ‘We Shall Overcome’, as they moved up the Caritas Road. Their route skirted the city’s main thoroughfare, sealed off for more than a year by the Israeli Army to anyone other than Jews visiting the site of Rachel’s Tomb. From a hilltop in a silent residential quarter, the vigil filed down to the junction where the main road to Jerusalem reopens – but only as far as the Israeli roadblock five hundred yards away.
The parade passed under fairy lights and neon stars – decorations put up for the benefit of Western pilgrims whose fear of aircraft hijackers, Israeli troops and Palestinian rebels had kept them far from Bethlehem on the anniversary of Christ’s birth. A few dozen Europeans and Americans, as well as priests and nuns, reassured the Palestinians that the Israeli troops were unlikely to open fire in their presence. Some of the foreigners’ T-shirts bore the insignia ‘Protection – Peuple Palestinien’ to indicate that they were freelance observers of Israeli conduct. Palestinians have asked for official observers authorised to report to the UN under the Geneva Conventions of 1949, a demand so far resisted by the Israeli Government and the US. The march stopped at the Israeli checkpoint blocking the exit from Bethlehem.
Palestinians cannot go more than five miles in any direction within the Occupied Territories before coming up against an Israeli checkpoint, beyond which most of them cannot travel. Some checkpoints are worse than others, but all of them have the authority to prevent Palestinians from going to their places of work, to the houses of their extended families, to schools, hospitals, farms, or anywhere outside their own villages and towns. The most public humiliation of Palestinians occurs at these checkpoints. I have seen soldiers beat and tear-gas civilians and I have read in Israeli newspapers of groups of soldiers forcing young men to undress and cross a checkpoint in the Gaza Strip wearing only their underpants, or dividing Palestinian women into two queues – those they judged to be pretty on one side, ugly on the other – before allowing them to pass.
Bethlehem’s residents, in common with Palestinians in the rest of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, may neither leave their town nor return to it without written permission from the Israeli authorities. Permits are difficult to obtain and stipulate fixed times of return, after which the holder can be arrested. Like the Israeli settlements of Har Homa and Gilo surrounding Bethlehem, the town’s checkpoint had begun modestly and grown. It was being expanded when the marchers came at Christmas; it now had a passport booth, a partially paved footpath around the side of the main road, a payphone, steel benches for those whose identity cards aroused suspicion, and tons of concrete to protect Israeli soldiers. Israeli workers, who were connecting electricity wires to a new kiosk in the middle of the central reserve, went on with their task during the marchers’ confrontation with the Israeli troops. Palestinian municipal engineers can wait days before getting permission to leave their cities to repair damaged electrical wires and water conduits, but nothing impedes work on checkpoints.
Israeli troops forged an armed human chain to stop the march at the checkpoint. Some of the troops were smiling and looked as likely to join the march as to block it. Others did not conceal their contempt for the demonstrators. Where the procession halted, an American Catholic priest and a Frenchwoman stood facing a soldier who seemed old enough to be in charge. ‘We are not going to hurt anybody,’ Father Michael Dougherty of Lansing, Michigan said. ‘We just want access to this place’ – he pointed north – ‘to Jerusalem.’ From the checkpoint, Jerusalem was a ten-minute drive. A young American marcher urged the soldiers: ‘Come, join us in Jerusalem.’ The older soldier ordered the demonstrators to disperse, but they held their ground. Over the next ten minutes, they pushed the soldiers back about a hundred feet to the concrete barriers through which cars must twist and turn to clear the checkpoint. There they stopped. Some of them sat in the road and chanted: ‘No violence, no violence.’ My driver, a young Muslim from Bethlehem, was enthusiastic. ‘Very good,’ he said. ‘Christians, Muslims, Jews together. It’s very good.’
Father Dougherty said to the soldiers: ‘We are giving you three minutes, and then we are going to the monastery to pray.’ This was less a challenge than a compromise. It acknowledged that the troops would obey their standing orders not to allow Palestinians into Jerusalem. The Greek Orthodox Monastery of Mar Elias lay a few hundred yards beyond the checkpoint. They would go there, pray and then return to Bethlehem. The Israelis appreciated the gesture, and Father Dougherty was told to wait for a senior officer with whom he could negotiate.
Instead, a column of covered jeeps and an armoured personnel carrier pulled up. Troops in full battle gear hit the ground. The driver of the APC, visible in his lighted cab, laughed when he spotted the crowd. The blue light on his roof spun round, and he revved the engine, introducing new tension to what could almost have been described as cordial banter between the occupying army and its occupied subjects. The fresh arrivals slapped one another’s hands and backs the way American high school football players do at the start of a game. That was when the American and European protesters joined hands in a protective cordon around the Palestinians.
An Israeli soldier ordered Father Dougherty and the Frenchwoman, both of whom were of an age to have marched against the war in Vietnam, to follow him. For about ten minutes, an Israeli officer in a darkened jeep spoke to them. Another officer ordered the journalists to leave. A few reporters went to their cars on the Jerusalem side of the checkpoint, but most dissolved into the demonstration. Father Dougherty returned to announce the officer’s decision: ‘We can go to Jerusalem, but the Palestinians cannot.’ ‘We’ were the foreigners. The marchers agreed that this was unsatisfactory. ‘We have decided it is not possible to go to Jerusalem,’ Father Raed Abusahlia, a Palestinian Catholic priest, announced through a bull-horn. ‘So, we’re going back and will return here again on the 31st.’
On that day journalists and television crews came to Bethlehem to watch the marchers try again. There were no reinforcements waiting for them at the checkpoint. The reinforcements were already deployed a mile into the city, in what is called a ‘B’ area, on the Caritas Road.[*] The morning’s demonstrators included international supporters who had also been there at Christmas, as well as the Latin Patriarch, the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch’s private secretary and the Muslim Mufti of Bethlehem. I recognised a few Israeli peace activists from a demonstration in Jerusalem two days before. There were also many nuns and priests, Palestinian children with different coloured balloons, an Italian delegation led by the formidable MEP Luisa Morgantini (whom Israeli soldiers would beat at another checkpoint a few days later) and supporters from the United States, Britain, France, Holland and Belgium. Opposite them stood Israeli jeeps, an armoured personnel carrier and a unit of combat troops. One soldier poking out of the personnel carrier’s roof had his tripod-mounted automatic rifle pointed at the crowd. None of the demonstrators appeared to be armed. The Israelis allowed the marchers to march from area B up to, but not beyond, the Bethlehem checkpoint. There, they were permitted to say prayers. When the prayers and singing ended, the Palestinians returned to Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. The Israelis and Westerners went back to Jerusalem.
A successful crossing of the same post took place in April 2001, when it was less heavily fortified. In her contribution to Roane Carey’s collection of essays, The New Intifada,[†] the Israeli peace-activist Gila Svirsky describes what happened after a small group of Israelis marched into Bethlehem to join Palestinians on the other side of the checkpoint. ‘We were infused with a burning sense of doing the right thing,’ she writes. The demonstrators pushed and the Israeli soldiers pushed back.
There seemed to be a stand-off, and the soldier pushing me said, ‘You don’t have a chance against us,’ and I heard myself say, ‘You have no idea how powerful a moral purpose can be,’ and one of us was apparently right, because soon I felt them giving way, and our group was pushing them backwards, and we were moving forward. They dropped back and regrouped, and again we had our pushing game, and this went on for nearly half an hour, until they could not contain this powerful group, and we pushed through their entire cordon and broke through to the group of Israelis cheering us on and waiting at the checkpoint.
This was a rare success. A young Israeli woman called Neta Golan told me what happened on 30 December 2001, when Palestinians, together with Israeli and overseas supporters, demonstrated at the Surda checkpoint between Ramallah, the unofficial capital of the West Bank, and Bir Zeit, the site of the Palestinians’ largest university. ‘Palestinians dismantled the checkpoint,’ she said. ‘They knocked down the watchtower. They threw down the sandbags.’ The Army responded with tear gas. ‘The foreigners wouldn’t move. There were Americans, Italians and French. The soldiers got out of the tank to pull people away. They kicked them, but they could not get through. We effectively opened the road for a few hours.’ The checkpoint was moved closer to Ramallah with the result that students and teachers had a longer walk to the university. At a previous demonstration, against the theft of land around Bethlehem by the Israeli settlers of Efrat, where Neta Golan’s uncle is on the settlement council, a border policeman twisted her arm behind her back with such force that he broke her elbow. Golan and other activists fear that the Army may one day fire on Israeli demonstrators in the Occupied Territories, as it has on Palestinians, making them useless as shields. Jeff Halper, an Israeli academic who heads the Committee against House Demolitions, said he thought Israelis were too tribal to shoot Jews. A few days after our conversation, he was beaten by Israeli police during a protest against the destruction of nine Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem.
A new multi-million dollar system of bypasses – that is, roads that bypass and divide Palestinian areas – from which Palestinian cars are excluded is under construction, paid for by the US. Professor Halper, who took me on a tour of it, said it was part of Israel’s ‘matrix of control’ in the Occupied Territories. Other elements are the control of water resources, the establishment of electricity grids, the construction of industrial zones – and military positions to protect the entire network. Halper has prepared a map that shows the intended final result: two parallel roads – one along the central West Bank ridge from north to south, the other the new Trans-Israel Highway, intended to shift Israel’s centre of population growth inland. A ladder of bypass roads linking the two highways indicates, in Halper’s view, that Israel regards the settlements as permanent.
Dr Moustafa Barghouthi, the founder of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, said at a press conference in East Jerusalem in January that the checkpoints were making it almost impossible for Palestinians to get medical treatment. The three main Palestinian hospitals are in Jerusalem, and checkpoints prevent most Palestinians in the Territories from reaching them. Women in labour have been forced by soldiers to give birth at the checkpoints. In some cases, the babies died; in one instance, so did the mother. Having told the foreign media of these and other hardships, Dr Barghouthi was arrested by Israeli police and taken to the notorious Russian Compound interrogation centre for questioning. Although he was born in Jerusalem, he lacked an Israeli permit to visit the city. The police later delivered him to a checkpoint on the road to Ramallah, where he lives. He answered journalists’ questions about his detention, and was arrested again. The police released him after an hour with a broken knee and bruises on most of his body.
According to the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, Israeli security forces and settlers killed 455 Palestinians in 2001; this figure does not include babies who died at checkpoints, patients who died for lack for adequate care and other deaths brought on by occupation and restriction of movement. B’Tselem’s total for people killed between 29 September 2000, when the uprising began, and the end of 2001 is 1095 – 867, or 80 per cent of them, Palestinian.
An Israeli friend of mine – an ex-soldier – has a Hebrew newspaper advertisement pinned to his bulletin board. It reads:
Our right to defend ourselves against extermination does not give us the right to oppress others.
OCCUPATION entails FOREIGN RULE.
FOREIGN RULE entails RESISTANCE.
RESISTANCE entails ISRAELI REPRESSION.
REPRESSION entails TERROR and COUNTER-TERROR.
Holding on to the Occupied Territories will turn us into a nation of murderers and victims of murder.
LET US GET OUT OF THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES AT ONCE.
The ad appeared in Ha’aretz on 22 September – not last September, but September 1967. That is, three months after Israel conquered the Territories and ten years before Likud won its first Parliamentary elections. Since it was published, 400,000 Israeli settlers have colonised the confiscated Palestinian lands in occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Israeli lawyer Allegra Pacheco says in The New Intifada that ‘since 1967, the Israeli military has consistently violated nearly every provision of the Fourth Geneva Convention.’ She cites the torture and deportation of Palestinians; the annexation of East Jerusalem; the construction of more than 150 Jewish settlements; and the illegal transfer of more than 400,000 Israeli civilians into the Occupied Territories, as well as
repeated collective punishment, including the ongoing closure since 1993, which has limited freedom of movement for 99 per cent of the Palestinian population; demolition of over 8000 homes and villages in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and Gaza; pillage of Palestinian natural resources, including water, quarries and trees; and the illegal appropriation of over 70 per cent of the Occupied Territories.
If we deprive the sorcerors of their magic words, we hear the real words that apply to the West Bank and Gaza: occupation, colonisation, checkpoint, demolition, confiscation, murder, terror, fear. The term ‘peace process’ can no longer mask the reality, except in the US. What is needed is a language, not of peace, but of decolonisation. The Western world knows what ‘decolonising’ means. It means you leave. Your settlers go home, and you do not regulate borders that are not yours. The best you can hope for, as the Americans knew in the Philippines and the British discovered in Kenya, is a long lease on a military base or two. Later, it dawns on the decolonising power that the bases are a waste of money, and they give them up. Decolonisation ends the state of war between the occupier and the occupied. It is followed by mutual recognition, diplomatic relations and trade. As with Britain and India, independence can leave the two sides on better terms than before. Negotiations – Oslo, Wye River Plantation, Sharm el Sheikh, Camp David et al – do not signify peace, so long as their only function is to alter the terms of occupation. To declare peace without removing the settler plantation, returning the land to its owners and withdrawing the occupying army is to connive in a deception.
Israel maintains the occupation only with the financial, military and diplomatic assistance of the US. On its own, it cannot afford to pay for the building, servicing and protection of settlements while maintaining the welfare of its citizens. So far this year, the Government has failed to agree a budget, but it proposes to reduce spending on poor families, the elderly, local authorities, the health service, the unemployed and the handicapped, hundreds of whose wheelchairs regularly blockade the Knesset in protest. The settlement budget is to remain untouched. The US, meanwhile, has announced a military and civilian aid disbursement to Israel of $5.2 billion for the year – almost $1000 per Jewish Israeli. This extravagance is unmatched by American aid to any other country. It is not debated in the American media, and is rarely if ever questioned in Congress. Sometimes, Arab politicians and commentators portray the US as an innocent pawn in the clutches of a strong Zionist lobby: in fact the American-Israeli relationship is based on mutual self-interest, as perceived by both countries’ rulers. In his memoir, My Mission in Israel, 1948-51, America’s first Ambassador, James McDonald, quotes the rationale for US support of Israel that a ‘high Israeli official’ proposed to the Embassy in 1948:
1. The United States has a firm friend in the state of Israel, which is oriented toward the West politically and culturally and which, up to now, is deeply grateful for US support.
2. The Arab states, weak, vacillating and of dubious friendship toward the West and the US, as evidenced in World War Two, have already been offended . . . and what has been given cannot now be undone.
In 1958, as Noam Chomsky writes in his introduction to The New Intifada, the CIA concluded that ‘a logical corollary’ of opposition to Arab nationalism ‘would be to support Israel as the only reliable pro-Western power left in the Middle East’. In 1967, Israel humiliated Nasser, the hero of Arab nationalism, along with his Soviet-supplied Army and Air Force. Israel’s demonstration of military prowess endeared it to Lyndon Johnson, who stepped up military and economic assistance to the levels which persist to this day. Israel was a Cold War ally in the oil-rich Arab world at a time when America’s own forces were failing to neutralise Soviet arms and local nationalists in Vietnam. I remember hearing Moshe Dayan tell a UCLA gathering in 1973 that Israel was fighting America’s war in the Middle East against the Communists. American aid to Israel, he said, was more a matter of self-interest than generosity.
The collapse of the Soviet Union did not alter the Israeli role. Chomsky quotes the former head of Israeli military intelligence, Shlomo Gazit: ‘Israel’s main task has not changed at all . . . Its location at the centre of the Arab Muslim Middle East predestines Israel to be a devoted guardian of stability in all the countries surrounding it . . . to protect the existing regimes: to prevent or halt the process of radicalisation and to block the expansion of fundamentalist zealotry. The sentiments of the ‘high Israeli official’, and those of Dayan and Gazit, hark back to the promise that Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, made in the 1890s when he spoke of a Jewish state that would hold back the tide of ‘Asiatic barbarism’. The latest incarnation of this ‘barbarism’ is the terrorism that the US pays Israel to fight against. Israel has provided the US with sites in the Negev for military bases, now under construction, which will be far less vulnerable to Muslim fundamentalists than those in Saudi Arabia. It assisted the US with intelligence on Muslim fundamentalists after 11 September and, unlike the ‘weak, vacillating’ Arab states, it did not require Americans to genuflect to Arab and Muslim public opinion. All that it expects, and receives, is unconditional support for its occupation and wartime levels of military assistance.
Against this, all that Arafat has been able to offer is a sub-client entity, in the form of the Palestinian Authority, with himself as the head man. The US has been perfectly willing to give him a place, if not at the table, then at least in the kitchen. Under Arafat there has been no enthusiasm for developing a mass movement of Palestinian Arabs with extensive and carefully nurtured support networks in the two countries that matter: Israel and the US. Arafat, like every other modern Arab leader, fears popular movements that question his right to make all the decisions.
He came to prominence in the 1960s, thanks to lavish funding from the conservative Arab oil states, which were intent on preventing the rise of Palestinian populists such as George Habash, who threatened the rich Arabs as much as he did the Israelis, unlike the nationalist and pragmatic Arafat who had no ideology, feared democracy and discouraged alliances with democratic forces abroad. In an essay on the lessons of the anti-apartheid and American civil rights movements in The New Intifada, Nancy Murray writes of Arafat’s inner circle: ‘They preferred cultivating the “experts” and influential policy-makers rather than “wasting time” trying to create a grassroots movement.’ Edward Said’s observation that ‘only a mass movement employing tactics and strategy that maximise the popular element has ever made any difference to the occupier and/or oppressor’ meant nothing to him. When Arafat set up his Authority, he assembled a security force of 40,000 to watch over a population of three million. Opinion polls in the West Bank and Gaza Strip showed that the Palestinians’ preferred model was Israel with its elective democracy. Arafat instead chose Syria, which was exactly what Israel and the US expected of him. When he established secret military tribunals – rather like those America plans to use for al-Qaida supects – Al Gore turned up in the West Bank to congratulate the Authority on its commitment to containing terrorism.
The roots of Arafat’s politics, and his political instincts, are to be found in the history of the modern Arab state. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1919 foreign powers, not voters, have placed almost every Arab leader on his throne or in his Presidential palace. British and French imperial forces crushed Arab popular uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s and installed compliant chiefs. Nowhere has the suppression of popular movements been more consistent and more pronounced than in Palestine. Almost from the outset, the task of channelling Palestinian discontent fell to the leaders that the occupying power approved. Native Palestinian notables had ‘expected to emerge as the country’s rulers once Great Britain granted Palestine its independence’, the historian Ted Swedenburg wrote in 1986. But they were wrong to believe that Britain would grant them an independent state, just as Arafat is wrong to look to Israel and the US for the same thing now. To read Swedenburg’s account of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the leading Palestinian of his day, is to see the historical pattern that Arafat is repeating: ‘He moved in two directions at once, trying both to maintain good relations with the British by reining in the national movement and to retain credibility with the populace by adopting a militant posture.’
Surrounded by Israeli tanks in his Ramallah headquarters, Arafat is now arresting some of the Palestinians Sharon wants to see behind bars. If he imprisons everyone on Sharon’s wish-list, his people will desert him. If he fails to arrest enough of them, Sharon will dispense with him. When Haj Amin’s obeisance to Britain had made him untrustworthy in the eyes of his people and thus useless to Britain, the British moved in to arrest him. He escaped, spent much of the Second World War in Germany and returned to Palestine in time to lose the 1948 war to Israel and watch three-quarters of his people become refugees. The discredited old leader was succeeded by his once loyal follower, Yasir Arafat, a man who at first promised the Palestinians something better.
[*] The Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into A, B and C areas. Every tiny A zone of nominal Palestinian control is surrounded by a B area of Israeli security control combined with Palestinian administrative rule which is, in turn, encircled by a C area under total Israeli security and civilian control. On my first visit to the territories after the 1993 Oslo Accords, the plethora of checkpoints reminded me of wartime Lebanon. Amnesty International reports the the Palestinian A areas are divided into 227 small ghettos – even in Lebanon there weren’t as many as that.
[†] Verso, 354 pp., £45 and £13, 21 September 2001, 1 859 84377 8.