We have a picture taped above a computer at home, sent to us about a month ago on the email circuit, of a naked Palestinian man who has just been strip-searched by Israeli solders in the West Bank city of Ramallah and relieved of his clothes altogether, now surrounded by other Palestinian men trying to cover him. It is obviously a cold, rainy day. The other men and a young boy standing off to the side are bundled in heavy jackets; the pavements are wet. The offending Israeli soldiers stand around in the background, next to a tank in the middle of a city street. Such a sight would probably be incongruous in any other city, but not in Ramallah or elsewhere in the occupied Palestinian territories, where Israeli tanks control Palestinian lives.
Having just experienced the particular penetrating, bone-chilling dampness of a couple of rainy winter days in this region, we’ve been thinking again of this photograph, which so strikingly captures the complete humiliation that Israel daily inflicts on the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians under its total domination.
Humiliation is only one of the mundane aspects of Israeli control. Death and destruction are the real order of the day: 15 killed in Gaza one day, six the next, “only” one yesterday. Few in the United States ever notice these daily atrocities and, as war in Iraq looms and takes up the headlines in the American press, fewer still know or care.
After being involuntarily diverted from our intended mission of traveling to Iraq with a peace team that will report on the plight of the Iraqi people, we hope now to do the same for the Palestinian people. The rest of our peace team did finally obtain Iraqi visas the day after we were denied ours, and they left last Thursday for Baghdad. It was a sad parting; we are frightened about their fate if the U.S. does launch this war, and we desperately wanted to go with them. Instead, we will leave Amman on Saturday for Arab East Jerusalem, where we expect to stay for a couple of weeks seeing what we can see, doing what little we might do to help, trying to testify to what the Palestinian people endure under Israel’s harsh U.S.-financed, U.S.-endorsed occupation.
The Palestinians need the kind of witnessing that we would have done in Iraq just as much as the Iraqi people do. Over three million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza, which have been under Israeli military control for the last 36 years. During the two and a half years since the Palestinians began their second uprising against Israeli control, they have lived at the total mercy of assaults by Israeli military forces and vigilante attacks by Israeli settlers, often under curfew, usually unable to travel freely on roads blocked by checkpoints or totally destroyed by roadblocks, always unsafe, subject to confiscation of land, sniper shootings, air assaults by helicopters or fighter jets.
While over 700 Israeli civilians and military have been killed in suicide bombings and hit-and-run attacks by Palestinians, more than three times this number of Palestinians, the vast majority civilians, have been killed by Israelis.
“Will you go to Jenin?” everyone here asks, referring to the West Bank town and refugee camp virtually destroyed by Israel during its month-long siege of the West Bank in April last year.
Following house-to-house fighting between Palestinian fighters and Israeli soldiers, Israeli bulldozers literally flattened entire residential blocks in the center of the refugee camp, and over fifty Palestinians, including both fighters and civilians, were killed, four times the number of Israelis killed. The killing and destruction were officially declared not to be a massacre by the UN and various human rights organizations, none of which were allowed by Israel to investigate on the scene. But no Palestinian can imagine any other word but “massacre” to describe fifty-plus killed in a small town, homes demolished, sometimes with residents still inside, thousands of square feet reduced to rubble, and Israeli officials refusing to let any outsiders in to view the damage.
Jenin has become the universal symbol for Palestinians of the second great catastrophe in their history, the first being their dispersal and dispossession in 1948. Jenin and Israel’s siege and reassertion of control over the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the full-scale physical destruction throughout the territories, may spell a death knell for Palestinian national hopes, obviating for the foreseeable future, perhaps ever, any chance for real independence in a small part of Palestine. We will try to see what is left of Jenin.
Jenin is only the most obvious place of suffering. Other towns have seen devastation as well, particularly Nablus, where ancient mosques and residential areas were destroyed during last year’s siege. Most cities have been under near total lock-down for the last year; Nablus endured a 24-hour curfew for something like four months last summer and is still subject to frequent curfews. Israeli tanks drive into Ramallah every night, and soldiers conduct middle-of-the-night, door-pounding, house-to-house searches. The town is under curfew from six o’clock every evening. The 150,000 residents of Hebron are under virtual total curfew, constantly subjected to shooting, beating, ransacking by 400 militant Israeli settlers in the town, settlers so ferocious that their rampages are occasionally directed against Israeli soldiers who stand in their way.
Not surprisingly, poverty has grown rampant since the intifada and Israel’s crackdown began. An article just yesterday in the Jordan Times cited a new poll conducted in the West Bank and Gaza by a local university showing that fully 77 percent of residents now have a per capita income of under two dollars a day. In estimates of the income gap between rich and poor throughout the world, two dollars a day is commonly cited as the point denoting the world’s very poor.
Almost half the world’s population lives below this low poverty line; in the occupied territories, the proportion is an incredible three-quarters.
In Ramallah, the West Bank’s principal city, a startling 80 percent live on a daily per capita income of between 10 cents and two dollars.
Besides the killing, which has taken approximately 2,500 lives in as many months, there is the regularity of property destruction. Israeli soldiers demolish scores of houses almost daily on some pretext: to build a road for Israelis (never for Palestinians), to clear an area for Israel’s security (never Palestinian security), to clean out some alleged nest of terrorists.
Thousands of homes have been destroyed in this way, more thousands of civilians left homeless. If Americans hear about this, they hear the pretexts, not the consequences for innocent civilians. A typically mindless, unconcerned AP story recently reported that in mid-February Israeli forces demolished the home of a Palestinian militant killed in November 2000 and that the militant’s mother had died in the collapsed rubble of the house. The AP reporter commented absurdly that it was unclear why the woman had remained in the house because Israelis usually warn residents to leave before bulldozing houses. The reporter apparently thought it a greater oddity that a woman should remain in her house than that Israel should destroy a house that once belonged to a fighter killed more than two years ago.
You can see the West Bank from most places in Jordan, everything is so close. The hills across the Jordan River or on the other shore of the Dead Sea are usually layered in haze, another world altogether, despite the nearness. Standing with a group of Palestinians looking across the river a few days ago, we heard one say quietly, “I get so angry looking there and thinking about what they have done to us.” Yes, we will try to see what has become of Jenin, what the Israelis have done to the Palestinians.
Bill and Kathleen Christison are former CIA analysts who worked for a combined 44 years in the agency before retiring in 1979. The Christisons were traveling to Iraq with a 10-member “Iraq Peace Team” under the sponsorship of Voices in the Wilderness, a humanitarian organization formed in the mid-1990s to oppose the sanctions imposed on Iraq after the first Gulf war. Following a visa denial by Iraq due to their past US government intelligence employment, the Christisons traveled to Palestine. 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.