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Photo by Chris Handros/Getty Images
Occupational Hazards

Enemy at the gates: a Palestinian boy looks at an Israeli checkpoint in Ramallah.

Essays on and eyewitness accounts of the Israel-Palestine conflict
Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Under Siege

As one Israeli commentator pointed out this week, since the beginning of this wave of Palestinian attacks in fall 2000, more Israelis have died in car accidents than by suicide bombings. Dying at the hands of someone who hates you for your citizenship (or religion) somehow feels different.

But no matter how horrific Israel’s losses have been at the hands of Palestinian suicide bombers, nothing—absolutely nothing—excuses the cold-blooded Israeli attacks upon the civilian population of Palestine that continue as you read this. Reports from Israel suggest Ariel Sharon’s government intends to wage this “campaign” until all of Palestine has been subjected to it.

The attacks doubtless seem to many Americans like just another war—more tragic, perhaps, because “they’re always fighting over there,” but basically an unsolvable mess the United States is only tangentially related to. We’re not, of course. The United States is inextricably linked—by weapons sales, aid programs, investment, and the eyes of the world—to whatever Israel does. And this is no “ordinary” war; it is not even a war, because with few exceptions the “enemy” is not shooting back, is not even present. And in the course of the resulting death and destruction, Israel is violating just about every known convention for how humanity has agreed to conduct itself during its most inhumane moments.

Consider these recent accounts:

 

“The Israeli aircrafts have already started firing at Aida Refugees’ camp. . . . The Israeli soldiers do not care anymore at whom their guns are pointed.” —George Rishmawi, Bethlehem

 

“More than 150 Israeli tanks invaded Bethlehem area from all directions. Heavy shooting and shelling is regular all morning long. The Israeli army is moving towards the Church of Nativity. Bethlehem is sliced into a dozen isolated areas. Soldiers and Apaches are shooting at any moving target.” —Ghassan, Bethlehem

 

“Tonight we have heard numerous reports of 30 Palestinian policemen executed in cold blood by Israeli soldiers in a building where they sought refuge on Irssal Street in Ramallah. This was after five Palestinian officers were executed by being shot to the head and then had their corpses thrown on the pavement for hours on Friday. Ambulances are prevented from reaching their destinations and two hospitals have either been broken into (Arabcare) or shot at (Nazer Maternity Hospital). . . . One of the employees of the Sakakini Center had the Israeli Army burst into his village (Kobar) yesterday, destroy belongings and arrest his younger brother, alongside 30 other young men from the village.

“The cleaning lady of the center lives in a house with an outhouse for toilets. For three days the Israelis have been posted by the door to her house and preventing all exit. When the eldest today sneaked out to the outhouse, the Israelis caught him and beat him. His schoolteacher father tried to intervene, the Israelis beat him and arrested him.

“One of the board members of our center was arrested with all the employees of the office building where he was working late Thursday night. They were all blindfolded and had their hands tied and placed in one room for 16 hours. The Israelis destroyed some office furniture and stole hard drives from computers. They all untied themselves once they realized the Israelis had gone on to bigger prey.

“My next-door neighbor’s 70-plus-year-old father lives near Yasser Arafat’s office. The Israelis broke into his home Friday, broke everything with the butts of their rifles (TV, sinks, furniture, etc.) and then stole some money.

“There are reports also of Israeli soldiers breaking into banks and change offices and jewelry stores and stealing money and jewelry.” —Adila Laidi, director, Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, Ramallah

 

“Israeli tanks were waiting outside the front of the house. Israelis have been going into houses taking food and leaving. Also, they have been going into houses and taking all men ages 15 to 50. Some have been taken away. Others have been stripped and left in the street for several hours in the cold and rain.

“This morning the President of the Red Crescent Society (Red Cross) (Younis Al-Khatib) was taken from his office by Israeli soldiers, made to crawl on his hands and knees in the street in the rain, and then arrested. Many medics have been arrested. PRCS officially announced that there is no ambulance service for the sick and injured in Ramallah. Israelis will not let ambulances pass, and the medics are taken away.” —Caroline, Ramallah, as told via phone to a Seattle friend

 

“Things here are shifting again slightly, but not enough. There are still large numbers of wounded in Manger Square in the center of the old city, and many dead lying in the streets or in houses from which they cannot be removed [update this second: the family who had two members killed by a tank shell have managed to get them out]. The mosque, in which people were hiding, was shelled by tanks, and there are 150-200 holed up in the Church of the Nativity; we’ve just spoken to one of them and no medics have been allowed through but nuns have been attending the injured. Injured in Deheishe refugee camp have also been denied access to hospital, and we’ve just watched from our window as Israeli troops surrounded and searched a Red Crescent ambulance. Another ambulance was crushed by a tank this morning in Beit Kala. A group of internationals attempted to accompany an ambulance to Manger Square to get humanitarian aid to those trapped, but they were fired on; apparently the Israelis had chosen (without telling anyone) that they would use their clocks, and not Palestinian time, to time the curfew and thus decided to shoot at people. . . .

“In Ramallah, a group of 2,000 Israelis (Gush Shalom) and Arab Israelis attempting to deliver food and medical supplies were stopped and heavily teargassed. One truck of aid was allowed through, but the soldiers then emptied it and stamped on the medical supplies, leaving the food on the ground.” —Sarah Irving, International Solidarity Movement, Bethlehem

And so they come in, account after account, endlessly detailing a systematic attack by a marauding army upon a helpless, impoverished civilian population: denying food, denying medical supplies, denying care for the wounded, stealing what they like and destroying the rest, arbitrarily arresting, beating, torturing, and even executing large numbers of people for the crime of being Palestinian and male, and specifically attacking neutrals—not just medics, but journalists and internationals who can tell the world what Israel is doing.

Photo by Chris Handros/Getty Images

All of these are violations not just of the Geneva Convention, but just about any international law or standard relating to warfare that can be imagined. This is not an invasion, but an attack upon civilians who have already lived under Israeli military rule for 35 years. That military is now carrying out calculated actions thought by many to be unimaginable in the 21st century. For much of the world, the United States—which, to the extent it has said anything at all, still seems to blame Yassar Arafat for this spectacle—is equally culpable.

For the last two days, I have been trying to distill what needs to be written about these atrocities, and United States complicity in them; instead, the list keeps expanding. This is due, in part, to the presence of the “internationals,” courageous activists from around the world bearing witness and acting as shields in the worst of the attack areas. As it happens, I know no less than four of them. Two, in fact, are volunteers (and personal friends) with the community newspaper I help publish in Seattle, Eat the State!; they had offered ahead of time to write of their experiences for ETS!. One was in the group that was shot at on Monday; the other is waiting, nervously, in the Azza refugee camp near Bethlehem, having refused a U.S. embassy offer of evacuation. Another international is a former intern at Seattle Weekly, where I work.

Personally knowing people who are in the midst of this catastrophe makes a difference, but it shouldn’t.

Another ETS! volunteer went on a similar delegation in January; here’s what happened to his host family in Ramallah:

 

“Our friend Mahmoud (47 years old) and his son Majd (18 years old) were arrested and taken out of their apartment in Ramallah this morning. . . . All the other Palestinian males in their building were also arrested. Israeli soldiers have been going from house to house for days, arresting all Palestinian males under 45—and apparently some that are older.

“At this writing [Tuesday] there have been at least 14 summary executions of prisoners in Ramallah, with reports of many more than that. One report describes prisoners in a large room being roughly divided into two groups, one group to be held, one group to be shot.

“Mahmoud . . . was released tonight. Mahmoud is currently in too much pain to stand up. After being beaten and kicked in the back while in custody, he was released and allowed to walk home—about seven miles. . . . Several older men were released with him. Mahmoud’s son Majd is still in custody, along with all the other young men. It is Majd’s first arrest. The family is hoping he will come home alive.”

For all of the Palestinian families hoping their sons, husbands and fathers will survive, there is something we can do. The United States still has, if it so chooses, tremendous influence over this situation. If these scenes, and countless more like them, do not fit your idea of civilized behavior—let alone democracy—call the White House. Call your congresspeople. Call your local talk shows, write and e-mail letters to the editor, get in touch with international aid groups. This is a horror unfolding before our eyes, and the United States, alone among international actors, has the power to make it stop; we alone, among outraged people around the world, have the power to petition a government (outside Israel) that can make it stop. Let’s use it.

—Geov Parrish

Geov Parrish writes frequently for AlterNet, the Seattle Weekly, In These Times and WorkingforChange.com, where this article originally appeared.

Responsibility Is a Two-Way Street

I’ve been forced to think a lot these days about Israel and Palestine, who are and will be permanent neighbors. Especially as a Jew, a progressive, a human being, I do so with a very heavy heart.

Both sides and their supporters are responsible, even if not equally so, and both sides and their supporters are acting irresponsibly. Both sides have legitimate concerns (e.g., independence, safety, justice), but use illegitimate methods (e.g., dehumanizing the other, violence against civilians, collective punishments). So while I strenuously oppose the violent and brutal methods of both sides, I’m entirely sympathetic to the legitimate concerns, fears, and grievances of both sides.

Both countries deserve to live in peace, both sides deserve to have their children grow up safely and happily, both countries deserve to be free, both countries are losing key people due to brain drain, both populations deserve to be active participants in their collective destiny rather than subjugated by their authoritarian power-hungry leaders.

The Israeli occupation and military incursions are illegal and immoral, not to mention counterproductive, ultimately. (As terrible as it is, though, it is not a holocaust or genocide. The Israeli army is physically capable of doing so, and if it were so inclined would be killing much more than hundreds of Palestinians a year.) The vitriolic and virulent anti-Jewish (not just anti-Israeli) speech and actions of the Palestinians are frightening, dangerous and deadly. (See www.memri.org for English translations of the Arabic media.) I think it’s true that Yasser Arafat is encouraging Palestinian violence against civilians (e.g., he still refers to suicide/homicide bombers as “martyrs,” not murderers, and he at least nominally directs the Al-Aqsa Brigade), yet he doesn’t necessarily have the power or the legitimacy to fully stop it. I think it’s true that Ariel Sharon is a war criminal and, instead of being in jail where he belongs, is on a new warpath.

Each side is all too effective at provoking and demonizing the other. As usual, the people suffer. As historical and religious cousins, in addition to being neighbors, Jews and Muslims need to find ways to discuss, debate and disagree—even hate each other—without descending to violent attacks.

Both sides are engaging in terrorism, and Israel’s is being materially and ideologically supported by the United States (with billions of dollars in aid and full diplomatic support) while Palestine’s is being materially supported by Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Qatar (which provide tens of thousands of dollars to the usually impoverished families of the suicide bombers) and ideologically supported by most of the Muslim countries (which incessantly extol the Palestinian cause and demonize “the Jews” in order to distract from their own authoritarian and corrupt systems).

Both sides are not only inflicting damage on the other side, but also on themselves. Both sides are killing children, the other side’s as well as their own. As we should know, the means do not justify the ends—the means create the ends.

I sincerely believe that Israel should end the occupation, dismantle the settlements, remunerate refugees, and treat Israeli Arabs equally and fairly, etc., which is the just thing to do. This would alleviate many of the problems, but it would not end all the violence, to say the least. Palestine also has responsibilities, including the condemning and stemming of violence. The other Muslim nations also have responsibilities, not least of which should be financially building Palestine rather than verbally attacking Jews, and worse. Further, Hamas wants all of Israel and Palestine to be an Islamic country ruled by Islamic law, presumably similar to a Taliban-like or Iranian-style clerical-fascist dictatorship. It should also be noted that even before Israel was a state, during World War II, some top Palestinian leaders sought to ally with Hitler to pursue a final solution against Jews. Their dream/nightmare continues unabated.

Some have asserted that the issue of Jewish historic suffering is “entirely irrelevant to the present day circumstances”. However, it is relevant and important because Jews have been blamed, threatened, maligned, attacked, ghettoized, bombed and killed for thousands of years, all over the world, continuing into the present and unfortunately very likely into the future, mostly by Christians but also by Muslims. Many Jews who are traditionally liberal and progressive often become right wing around these issues, due to the legitimate historical, present, and future fears of deep and pervasive anti-Jewish hatred and violence.

For many Jews, with the tragic history of multiple genocides (uncountable pogroms, the Inquisition, the Holocaust), and with so relatively few Jews in the world (only about 13 million in a world of over 6 billion people), any attack against Jews is seen in the context of group survival and continued ethnic existence. Let alone bullets and bombs, when Palestinians (almost exclusively men and boys) throw rocks, they are symbolically stoning the “infidels” (i.e., Jews and all other non-Muslims, in addition to gays, rape victims but not rapists, women adulterers, but not male ones, et al.), symbolically enacting and exacting the death penalty, thereby playing on the realistic fears of Jews, secularists and others.

I frankly don’t understand why so many people, especially those on the left, consider the suicide/homicide bombings against civilians understandable (aside from in a social scientific sense, even if not “excusable”), inevitable, or the like. Why would it be “inevitable” for Palestinians and not for African-Americans, South Africans under apartheid, Native Americans and other indigenous people, East Timorese, Tibetans, Romani, Basques, Dalit, Kurds, Northern Ireland’s Catholics, et al.? Like all others, Palestinians make choices, even if those choices are constrained by their culture, and it is unfair to rob them of their agency. There are always other alternatives.

As I have long believed and advocated, the Palestinians would be much more effective against the Israelis if they engaged in a relentless mass movement of nonviolent civil disobedience (including marching into and around Jerusalem/al-Quds in the hundreds of thousands). The entire might of the Israeli army with all its U.S. funding and weaponry would eventually be virtually powerless against this most potent weapon. U.S. and world opinion would be more firmly in the Palestinian camp, as would many more Israelis. Furthermore, this would help build Palestinian civil society alongside the fight for a Palestinian state, instead of damaging the prospects for both.

Israelis also need to increase their civil-disobedience campaign to end the occupation and to reduce the militarization of their society, ensuring their security through the positive peace of justice rather than repression and war. Likewise, Americans in particular, but others as well, need to pressure their government leaders.

As we have long been saying in the movement, if the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow. We need to lead them to peace with justice in Israel and Palestine.

—Dan Brook

Dan Brook teaches sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. His essays have appeared the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Peace Review and Z Magazine. He can reached via Brook@california.com.


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