As we left East Jerusalem for Amman last week, on our way back home, we were struck by the cynicism of what appeared to be a concerted effort by the Israeli press and others in the media to justify, retrospectively, Israel’s siege and destruction of Jenin a year ago because it is now clear that U.S. and British forces are doing the same thing in Iraq.
Israeli papers and military columnists say, with evident satisfaction, that the coalition missile attacks on civilian marketplaces in Iraq should now make it easier for the U.S. to understand why Israel did what it did in Jenin.
Fighting “terrorism,” these papers suggest, is a messy business, and U.S. and British forces must now understand that this fight involves engaging with a civilian population and “getting your hands dirty,” as one paper put it.
Even a BBC television anchor, interviewing an Israeli military historian, made the comparison with Jenin, noting that when coalition forces enter Baghdad they may face the same kind of fighting that Israel did in Jenin.
The Israeli had the decency to point out that what Israel did in Jenin was immoral, but the BBC interviewer persisted, discussing the difficulties of urban warfare and comparing the Jenin and the Baghdad situations as if the killing of civilians who get in the way of urban fighting is simply one of those unfortunate obstacles that military forces must cope with.
In the effort to justify the military operations in each case, no one seems to focus on the dead civilians, the destroyed homes and buildings, the ruined lives, or the right of any population to defend itself from invading armies. It’s unsettling, not to say enraging, to see the actions of one murderous army justified by invoking the murderous tactics of another. How can this be happening? These commentators must not have seen Jenin. Maybe you have to have seen the destruction in Jenin to care about civilians.
Some people do understand. The courageous Israeli commentator Gideon Levy has been writing about former Israeli “warmongers,” now appearing as TV news experts, who glory in the destructive capabilities of cluster bombs and smart missiles that they unabashedly describe as “wreaking havoc,” “pulverizing,” and “raining steel.”
None of these experts, Levy notes, has bothered to mention the killing and destruction that weapons like these can cause among innocent civilians. Nor, he says pointedly, has any of them thought to wonder “what happens to a society whose spokesmen get so pathologically excited by weapons and killing.” We need a Gideon Levy in the United States.
The similarities between the Iraq war and the war that’s been raging for years in Palestine are growing by the day. A few days ago, American troops in Iraq shot up a car carrying seven women and children, killing them all. Or maybe it was ten or eleven women and children; we’re still hearing varying numbers.
This occurred in the area where several U.S. Marines had been killed a few days earlier by a car bomb, so of course, by some people’s lights, it’s understandable that the Americans would be frightened, on alert, on the defensive, and over-eager to start shooting — just like the Israeli soldiers who man checkpoints throughout the West Bank and Gaza and who shoot up Palestinian civilians with insane regularity.
What no one among the media swarming around these areas, no one at the Pentagon, no one in the White House seems to notice is that, if the Americans weren’t in Iraq in the first place, and if the Israelis weren’t in the West Bank and Gaza in the first place, Iraqi civilians and Palestinian civilians could go about their daily business without always being regarded as terrorists, without being murdered.
Israel is probably the only country in the world where both the government and popular opinion support the war in Iraq. One East Jerusalem man whom we came to know who exercises regularly at a club frequented by both Israelis and Palestinians told us of overhearing a conversation between two Israelis in the locker room.
One said, “The Americans and Brits are really doing a good job for us.” The other responded, “We’re all children of God.” This would seem to confirm the fears of some of us cynics that the war is, and has all along been intended to be, the beginning of a Judeo-Christian war against Islam. Of course, Muslims, in this worldview, are not the children of God.
The only souvenir we’re bringing home is an empty Israeli bullet shell found on the street in the old city of Nablus. Imagine having a foreign army’s shell casings lying in your streets. Imagine your streets torn up by a foreign army’s tank treads. Imagine your houses demolished by a foreign army’s bulldozers and F-16s.
A Ramallah man who has a three-year-old daughter tells us that, in her three-year-old world, Israeli tanks are the monsters that children elsewhere only imagine. Tanks destroy and terrorize. When she is angry with her older sister, she calls her sister “a tank.” This is the worst pejorative she can think of.
On our first encounter at an Israeli checkpoint, driving into Ramallah from Jerusalem, we had a minor argument with a brash young Israeli soldier. “What do you think of the IDF?” he asked as he looked over our passports. Thinking fast — not wanting either to endorse the IDF or so antagonize him that he wouldn’t let us through, we said something feeble like, “It’s all right for an army, but we wish you wouldn’t be so hard on the Palestinians.”
This ticked him off, and he started raging about Palestinian suicide bombers: there has been a bus bombing in early March in Haifa, on a bus route that he traveled frequently, and didn’t we know that he or one of his friends could have been killed? All Palestinians are dirt, he said, looking directly at our Palestinian taxi driver, and they’re all alike.
Now acutely conscious of his insults to our driver, we became a little bolder, agreeing that deaths in suicide bombings were tragic but noting that Israel has been killing Palestinians too. This really set him off, and he ranted on for a while with further insults to Palestinians and, when we didn’t respond, handed us back our passports and waved us on.
We resisted the temptation to point out to him that, as American taxpayers, we help pay his salary and he should stop acting like an arrogant bastard. We also resisted the temptation to tell him that, just as suicide bombings lead him to think that all Palestinians are alike and to treat them all shabbily as a result, his atrocious behavior might lead us to think that all Israelis are as arrogant and unpleasant as he is and to treat them accordingly.
Palestinians endure this kind of abuse every day of their lives, and most of those whom we told of our encounter laughed at our anger because this kind of disrespect and humiliation is the least serious aspect by far of what they face under occupation.
There are, incidentally, some very polite Israeli soldiers at some checkpoints, and we do not regard all Israelis as arrogant bastards. But, like Gideon Levy, we do wonder about “a society whose spokesmen get so pathologically excited by weapons and killing” and whose young soldiers are allowed to get off on humiliating an entire population.
The destruction throughout the West Bank and Gaza is unspeakable. There are really no words to describe it adequately. Frequent piles of rubble along city streets testify to homes demolished because some hapless Palestinian could not obtain a permit to build or because Israel decided a terrorist lived there. Piles of dirt block through-traffic on city streets and rural roads because Israel has decided that Palestinians have no right to travel here or there.
Some village roads simply end abruptly where Israel has built a limited access highway where Palestinians are forbidden to drive; concrete and steel and ugly cuts in the land have replaced the spectacularly beautiful terraced, olive-studded hillsides around Jerusalem where Israel is building vast highways to accommodate a few hundred thousand Israelis who don’t want to have to associate with the few million Palestinians in whose midst they live.
As a further measure to impede movement around the West Bank, Israel has dug trenches across some roads and occasionally around villages, where ugly mounds of earth now mar the landscape. In some areas the digging has cut sewer lines, encircling some villages around Nablus with raw sewage that people must somehow cross in order to leave the village; once beautiful olive groves are filled with trees totally or partially cut down or burned because angry Israeli settlers have decided they don’t like Palestinians.
Hilltops are covered by new Israeli outposts with ugly temporary trailers on cleared land where olive groves once stood; roads are torn up by Israeli tank treads, potholed or with deep cuts along their length because Israel thinks (1) that it’s a legitimate tactic of civilian control to rampage in tanks through city streets and (2) that exercising military control over another people’s civilian population is legitimate in the first place. In the spring rains, mud is pervasive because Israel has fully or partially torn up the paved roads, piled dirt in the roads, dug trenches, ruined sidewalks, torn up the landscape.
Israel is making a trash heap of the West Bank and Gaza. During a trip to Jerusalem in 1985, we went with a group to visit the Israeli settlement of Ofra and met with one of the early settler leaders, Schifra Blass. Blass, who had come from the United States to help build a settlement on Palestinian land, justified the settlement on the basis that this had been Jewish land millennia before and because, as she said, Palestinians in the neighboring town of Ramallah had made the town a trash heap.
Ramallah in 1985 may not have been a pretty town — we don’t know, never having seen it in those days — but what we have just seen in 2003 throughout the West Bank makes Blass’s assignment of blame to the Palestinians a serious misplacement of responsibility.
We have received an immense amount of support throughout this trip — support that is extremely gratifying and that in fact sustained us through both difficult and happy times. On a much smaller scale, we have also been criticized — not only for meeting with Yasir Arafat, as we reported earlier, but for not meeting with Hamas, for not going to Bethlehem, for not seeing Hebron, for agreeing with Jeff Halper’s criticisms of Israeli policies, even by an autistic man for having shown ignorance of the true nature of autism by conveying Halper’s labeling of Israel as autistic.
The most disturbing criticism came in an email message from a woman in our home town who suggested, even before we left Amman for Jerusalem, that our only interest in going to Jerusalem and Palestine was to “stick it to the Israelis.” We didn’t have a good understanding, she wrote, of the ambiguities in Israeli society or the extent of opposition to Sharon’s policies and didn’t know the extent of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation to bring peace.
Not only is it not true that we are unaware of the existence of “good” Israelis who oppose Sharon: we are well aware of and have made a point over the years, in talks and articles, of praising those courageous Israeli journalists, scholars, and activists who have defied their government’s oppressive policies by working with Palestinians to end the occupation and ease restrictions on Palestinians; until going to Palestine, in fact, most of our information on the degree of Israeli oppression came from precisely these Israelis.
But this woman’s effort to exonerate Israeli society because there are some ambiguities in it, or because a minuscule proportion of that society actively opposes the government’s policies, is a bit of a whitewash. It is not “sticking it to the Israelis” to report on what the Israeli government is doing in the occupied territories, and even to do so without constant reference to those few Israelis who oppose the government and its policies.
Israelis as a society elected the Sharon government to do their business for them, and Israelis as a society must therefore share the responsibility whenever the government’s actions arouse criticism. All of Israeli society lives within no more than a few miles of Jenin and Nablus, of the Palestinian lands confiscated for Israeli roads and settlements, of the Palestinian homes demolished, of the Palestinian installations bombed to rubble, of the checkpoints.
Not to know, not to care, that this is happening is far more than a mere ambiguity. It is a gross dereliction of responsibility, and all of Israeli society must be called to account — most particularly because Israel is a democracy and has a choice. The fact that some Israelis do know and do criticize does not exonerate “the Israelis” as a whole.
As Gideon Levy has said, one must wonder about “a society whose spokesmen get so pathologically excited by weapons and killing.”
There is ambiguity in Palestinian society as well, and Palestinians react very differently to Israel’s policies and Israel’s domination over them. Some become suicide bombers; the vast majority do not.
The vast majority are willing to live in peace with Israel, and have been willing for the last couple of decades, if Israel will give them a decent small state that’s truly independent and sovereign. The vast majority do not care about vengeance, as long as Israel will leave them alone.
We met Palestinians who are angry, Palestinians who are resigned, but not many who hate. One woman spoke with anger of what she and her neighbors endure and after a long disquisition said simply, “We are down now. But when we have our breath, we will know our target. We will make them eat what we eat.”
One man, on the other hand, more despairing, less angry, said that “God is very angry with the people here.” When asked if he meant that God was only angry with the Israelis for what they do in the occupied territories, he said, “No. God must not like the Palestinians either, or he’d help them.”
Actually seeing the West Bank and Gaza was truly eye-opening, despite our having worked on the issue and the conflict for 30 years. Flying over the West Bank and seeing the pervasiveness of Israeli settlements, driving its highways past huge concrete blocs of Israeli apartments that dot the once pastoral hillsides around Jerusalem, gives one a different perspective that cannot be gained even from extensive reading or from seeing films and photographs.
We had always wondered why Israeli settlers wanted to live isolated in what seemed to be ghettos throughout the West Bank — heavily fortified, to be sure, but ghettos nonetheless — surrounded by Palestinians: 200,000 Israelis (not counting the equal number who live in Jerusalem) living among 2,000,000 Palestinians. But when you are there, it comes home to you with graphic immediacy that it’s the Palestinians who, despite their far greater numbers, live in the ghettos.
Israeli settlements occupy the hilltops and the upper hillsides, a commanding presence looming over Palestinian cities and villages in the valleys or on lower hills. Israeli highways bisect Palestinian areas, cutting one Palestinian town from another, enclosing them, trapping them. The land allotted to Israeli settlements and military bases constitutes 42% of the land area of the West Bank; Israeli highways take up another 17% of the land area.
Tanks and checkpoints enclose Palestinian towns. Walls and barbed wire fences enclose the entire Gaza Strip; a wall, now being built well inside present West Bank boundaries, will soon enclose a considerably smaller, Israeli-defined, new West Bank. When before in history has an entire nation been caged, fenced in behind walls that function like a prison or a concentration camp?
Palestinians in both Palestine and Amman made a point of telling us that Arabs like and respect the American people, have always loved what America stands for, but now hate the U.S. government and its policies. We heard this so often that the message almost became a ritual.
It’s a sincere message nonetheless; Arabs throughout the Middle East have always been careful to distinguish between the American people and their government, have always welcomed and admired Americans despite always knowing about and deeply resenting U.S. support for Israel.
Things are changing, however. The war in Iraq, the abandon with which the U.S. military is killing Iraqis, and the unquestioning support the U.S. gives to everything Israel does in Palestine are together beginning to blur the distinction between the American people and the government and to turn all sentiment into hatred, for people as well as government.
It needn’t be this way.
Bill and Kathleen Christison are former CIA analysts who worked for a combined 44 years in the agency before retiring in 1979. Kathleen is the author of the highly recommended Perceptions of Palestine, a definitive overview of US Foreign Policy on the Palestinian issue, and The Wound of Dispossession. Bill and Kathleen live in Santa Fe, New Mexico and are visiting the occupied territories.