Sunday, March 16, 2008

Palestine Burning

-Nablus, West Bank - March 2008
-Taken from 'Seventy-Five Arabian Nights'

As with so many things in occupied Palestine, what began as mere routine quickly gave way to ruthless humiliation. In a ramshackle yellow service taxi we had soared into the West Bank’s fertile green hills, leaving Jericho behind us. The Israeli controlled highways are fast and smooth, effortlessly slicing through a rural patchwork of valuable farmland (often walled off from its Palestinian owners), and Jewish settlements, where columns of drab pre-fabricated suburbia stare down at the cars below. Only when you veer off towards ‘Area A’, Palestine’s nominally PA-controlled network of urban communities, viciously severed from each other by chains of IDF-monitored checkpoints, does the reality of your surroundings begin to impose itself.

At this particular roadblock, a pair of young army conscripts barked at the driver to pull over and switch his engine off. We were ordered out of the creaking vehicle and lined up at gunpoint by the side of the road. Plucked out at random by the glaring soldiers, I was told to unpack the boot. Sweating in the midday sun, they continued to spit angry instructions at me in Hebrew even after it became obvious that I couldn’t understand what was being said. Our motley crew of fellow travellers, including an elderly Palestinian lady and a teenage child, watched on helplessly as I was made to virtually dismantle the back of the taxi. With the bags on the ground, struggling to simultaneously hold up the door and pull out the spare tyre, I appealed to one the Israeli men for help, but was met with an angry dismissal. Then, with a contemptuous nod, he demanded that the baggage be reloaded. As the other passengers, now released from their open-air military line-up, came to help me, an Israeli van – distinguishable by its yellow number plates – roared up to the checkpoint, horn tooting and music blaring. The door swung open to reveal a gang of tanked-up Israeli youths returning from a day-trip to the Dead Sea, beer cans in hand. Laughing raucously they waved at the soldiers, who ran over with smiles on their faces and greeted them cheerfully. A teenager proffered a camera, and one of our weapon-toting subjugators obligingly snapped away before grinningly bidding the boys farewell. Behind him, our own Nablus-born teenager, of a similar age but a different universe, looked on incredulously before climbing back into the car. Under the glares of the soldiers, we rattled off.

After three days in Palestine – the briefest and most unsatisfactory of glimpses into this multi-layered world – the one thing that struck me more forcefully than anything else was the relentless banality of military occupation. In Balata refugee camp in Nablus, a key centre of the armed resistance to Israel, I sat sipping tea in the family home of a local PFLP 'martyr', assassinated during an IDF incursion into the city only a fortnight before. In Nablus city centre, I watched a mournful demonstration by local mothers, as quietly dignified as they were smouldering with anger, holding up framed photographs of sons currently locked away in high-security prisons beyond the 1948 border. Many of them were struggling under the weight of three or more such pictures, each of a different child. And in the northern town of Azzoun, I saw men and women who live half their lives under military curfew, incarcerated in their own houses and terrified of opening their own front doors, lest a bullet from a sniper or a rocket from a helicopter gunship be dispatched without warning towards them. Yet despite being confronted with these moments of high-intensity trauma – a trauma ingrained so widely and deeply throughout the Palestinian community, a trauma which consequently finds no natural outlet through the sympathy of those around you (who can effectively comfort you when a family member is killed, if everybody else has already gone through a similar wearying experience?) – the real shock, from an outsider’s perspective, is the grinding, ceaseless small-scale degradation and inconvenience of daily life in occupied Palestine.

The checkpoints, subjecting Palestinians to hours of queuing each day simply in order to move around in their own land, constantly under remorseless and unfriendly scrutiny by Israeli soldiers, are just one example. The stranglehold they have inflicted upon Palestine’s economic hubs, of which Nablus was once the most prominent, has forced unemployment to spiral out of control; in some parts of the old city, the figure is as high as 80%. But they are only the tip of the iceberg, and it is only by being here that one can appreciate how extensively the brutality of Israeli policy stretches into people’s day to day existence, and consequently how multi-faceted the resistance to the occupation really is. There is not just one struggle for liberation, but rather hundreds and thousands, being played out every day by everybody from armed brigades to groups of shopkeepers, from trade unions to tired and desperate individuals.

A single day can provide a typical snapshot. On Thursday, near Qalqilya, over four hundred protesters gathered to oppose the demolition of a children’s playground on Palestinian land, which had only just been completed two years ago when the Israeli bulldozers moved in. At the same time, in the village of Deir Al Ghusun, locals assembled at the ‘security’ fence that runs like an ugly scar through this land and, here, cuts off village farmers from their own fields. Farmers have to apply to Israel for permits to access one of three agricultural gates in the fence, which open thrice-daily for an hour at a time; despite repeatedly submitting applications, the majority of farmers have seen their requests for permits rejected without explanation, depriving them of their only source of income. And in the nearby town of Tulkarim, an Israeli chemical factory was pointed out to me. Originally built in Israel proper, the factory’s neighbours petitioned the courts to shut it down as its fumes were destroying their land and poisoning their air. The courts complied, and the factory has now been rebuilt on the outskirts of Tulkarim, the judges of this democratic nation having given their de facto consent to the choking of Palestinians instead. Play areas, fields and factories; beyond the smoke-trails of the Qassam rockets that dominate Western media coverage of this region, Palestinian civilians struggle ceaselessly day-in, day-out against the encroachment of the occupation into every corner of their lives.

On Friday I witnessed a more direct illustration of the violent nature of the occupation, this time at a regular action in the village of Bil’in. Palestinians and local villagers march ever week here to the concrete wall that divides Palestine from Israel, swooping off from the 1967 Green Line into the former to scoop up the most valuable land and reliable water supplies for the latter. The demonstration is an interesting one because it highlights the complex tiers of the mass resistance to Israel. On the one hand, it is one of the most high-profile scheduled protests, often attracting a high level of support and media coverage (not least because it regularly provokes an aggressive response from IDF soldiers). On the other hand, some feel the protest has been hijacked on two fronts – the first by ‘resistance tourists’ eager for their own taste of tear gas (the day I attended, international activists easily outnumbered Palestinians), and the second by the local municipal elite, who use the demo as a fundraising exercise to extract money from foreign donors. Consequently some committed campaigners spurn it altogether, evidence that internal contradictions within the struggle extend far beyond the much publicised divisions between Fatah, Hamas and other organised factions.

Aside from all of this, my experience of Bi’lin showed me simply how institutionalised a culture of violence has become within the Israeli military, which, it must be remembered, constitutes an illegal occupation force and as such has both judicial and moral obligations to those it is suppressing in Palestine. The protest was small by recent standards; some believe that the non-violent resistance movement has slipped to its lowest ebb just as the realities of occupation have reached their fiercest, a state of affairs which, if genuine, represents a worrying vortex of despair amongst Palestinians and suggests there is little hope for a stable outcome to the latest rounds of peace talks. As we marched towards the fence with Palestinian flags held aloft, we could see IDF soldiers bunkered up in their positions through the wire. Protesters spread out along the perimeter, forcing the army forces to do likewise, and they begun to shout warnings in Hebrew. The shebab – young boys who throw stones across the fence – launched a volley from their slingshots and, in response, the Israelis unleashed hell. Canister after canister of tear gas screamed over the fence, scattering the crowds, followed by rounds of ammunition – rubber bullets – being fired through mesh. Another attempt was made to get close to the gate dividing the Palestinians from the Israelis; the IDF responded by charging through the narrow militarised strip and into the olive groves where we were huddled, firing at will and setting off sound bombs. One protester was hit in the head and retreated behind a tree, blood pouring down his face. Another was maced in the eyes; a third shot at close range in the leg, gouging out a huge chunk of flesh from his thigh. An international activist was set upon and dragged back to the Israeli side, certain to face deportation; several more were nastily beaten up trying to stop the arrest.

As with the non-violent struggles described above, the shock for me came not in the details of what happened, but in the ways in which these details have become such a jaded part of life here, such an essence of Palestinian existence. And with it, a depressing realisation that a generation of Israelis and Palestinians are growing up with no experience of each other except through the prism of violence, hate and condescension. Young Palestinians are faced with gunshots and abuse from their tormentors, verbal and physical; young Israeli conscripts at Bi’lin are confronted with a simmering rage against them that erupts in a hail of rocks. This is not to propose any moral parity between the two – the Israelis are annihilating this land with advanced technological weaponry, and its occupants are resisting in self-defence in whatever ways they can (I refer to those struggling against Israeli incursions into their territory, not those who travel into 'Israel proper' to attack civilians). But it does suggest that a particularly dangerous path lies ahead if – or perhaps when – the current attempts to mediate between the two sides fail.

Which, finally, brings my point to a close. Under the grim blanket of occupation, the machinations of high politics – Abbas and Olmert, Haniyeh and Barak – seem strangely distant. But one thing is clear – any peace reached through the Annapolis talks will have no legitimacy on the streets of Nablus or elsewhere in Palestine if the PA continues doing its utmost to sideline those who command the respect, albeit often grudging, of huge swathes of the Palestinian population (through their rejection of Hamas and effective condoning of Israeli repression of the Hamas government – and the civilian population – in Gaza), and equally if the Israeli government does it best to brush away the last crumbs of credibility Abbas is still clinging on to by undermining him at every opportunity. And if the 'peace' has no legitimacy amongst those who crave it most, the PA will never be able to deliver the security guarantees Israel is demanding from an independent Palestinian state, with the result that the infrastructure of occupation will continue to blight this land. Hence the irrelevancy one attaches to the peace talks at the checkpoints, the farmland and the playgrounds. This occupation is not just about Al-Aqsa 'martyrs', Islamic Jihad missiles, and huge military incursions. It encompasses a far greater sphere of penetration into Palestinian society than anybody, including myself before I came, can comprehend without visiting this place first hand. And yet whilst politicians fiddle, Palestine is ablaze – not always with the pyres of violence, but rather with the flickering flames of daily, banal repression. Those at the top seem to be showing little interest in quenching these flames; if the current talks continue to remain so fraudulent, they too are liable to get burned.