The hour before dawn

An Israeli soldier prevents Palestinians from crossing a checkpoint on Wadi Al-Nar (“The Valley of Fire”), the only road that Palestinians may travel between the north and south of the West Bank. (Musa Al-Shaer)

Returning to Jerusalem yesterday, an Israeli soldier at the Bethlehem checkpoint glanced at my passport and mumbled “Did you enjoy the visit?” “Yes” I replied. “Well,” he said pointing towards the town “it stinks in there. I smell it every day.”

Taken aback, I asked “What do you mean?” He simply repeated his comment and waved me through.

The previous day at the al-Hamra checkpoint, south of Jenin, I watched a soldier order people out of their cars. It was 7:00 a.m. and the slopes of the hills down one side of the valley were bathed in soft dawn light. Songbirds flitted from tree to tree, the valley floor was lush and green, and the sky a pristine blue. A long line of cars taking Palestinians to work had already formed and the soldier was strutting up and down in Chaplinesque fashion, his rifle comically large in proportion to his diminutive frame.

Passengers - even local UN personnel - were subjected to shouted instructions to line up in front of him and then harangued as he jabbed his finger repeatedly in their direction. His aim was to humiliate and the process continued until appropriate signs of submission were displayed. Only then were the passengers permitted to continue on their way. The charade took hours and did nothing for Israel’s security. But then, security was never the soldier’s intention.

All Israeli checkpoints are on Palestinian land - under military occupation since 1967 - and incidents like the one I witnessed are commonplace demonstrations of the racism that infects the Israeli armed forces. The contrived sloppiness of soldiers in their dealings with Palestinians in the occupied territories is further evidence of their mindset - a young woman conscript blowing bubbles of gum as she questions Palestinians standing in front of her, her stubble-chinned male counterparts ostentatiously filling their mouths with food while doing the same thing, others drinking coffee and puffing cigarette smoke nonchalantly while yelling at their victims.

These actions are anathema to Palestinians, for whom dignified behavior and bearing in public are of paramount importance. Palestinian women, scarved and tidy, do not eat, drink or smoke in public. Palestinian men, generally well-educated and cultured, dress as smartly as their straitened circumstances will allow. Nor is the soldiers’ behavior, which is designed to demean and humiliate, confined to the military. The border police and traffic police act in similar fashion.

Israelis have recently complained about a perceived rise in European anti-Semitism. They might want to take a closer look at their own institutions as purveyors of racism and be mindful of the fact that, once conscripts have completed their stint of military service, they return to their communities carrying toxic attitudes with them.

A successful military career in Israel is a stepping-stone to success in the political arena and it is not unreasonable to suppose that ex-soldiers carry army-inspired prejudices with them when they enter the Knesset. Therein, perhaps, lies a partial explanation for the construction of the apartheid wall, now acknowledged as a ghastly mistake by many politicians. Maybe the idea wouldn’t have taken root had those involved not been conditioned during their formative years in uniform, and maybe it also explains why the wider Israeli public fails to oppose the project in larger numbers.

If Palestinians were not thought of as second or third class human beings, would the concept have been given serious consideration? Would it really have been thought acceptable to incarcerate Palestinians in the world’s largest ghetto, to pen them in behind five hundred kilometers of concrete and razor wire with large and forbidding swathes of no-mans land on both sides - a barrier which cuts through neighborhoods and divides villagers from their fields and their water and separates whole Palestinian communities from schools and hospitals?

It appears that Ariel Sharon’s government did not foresee the negative global implications of the apartheid wall. And the implications could be dire. Watchtowers, machine gun emplacements and blocks of concrete up to nine meters high make uncomfortable viewing and are not images that a public relations campaign can easily tone down. Furthermore, it is likely that the myth of the vaunted security benefits may be rapidly exposed. With tension running high and large numbers of Israeli settlers refusing to move and continuing to reside within the perimeter of the wall, violence will continue. It is a question of “when” not “if” violence explodes on the Israeli side of the barrier.

This moment in time is the Palestinian equivalent of the hour before dawn - their darkest hour. It is also a moment when the Jewish state itself is imperiled. Israel displays scant inclination to withdraw to the 1967 borders and seems intent on completing the wall without delay. If that is indeed the case, the Palestinians may decide to abandon their aspirations for a two state solution and instead co-opt the global anti-Zionist sentiments aroused by television images of their plight to mount an anti-apartheid style campaign for a single state - incorporating Jews and Palestinians - from the Jordan river to the sea. The campaign would be hard for Israel to counter, particularly if it is accompanied by demands for democracy. One person, one vote is, after all, President Bush’s messianic mantra.

Current demographic trends indicate that within ten years Palestinians will become the majority in a single state. And what would be wrong with that? I have yet to meet a Palestinian unwilling to accept living alongside Jews on equal terms, pooling resources and sharing the vast potential of the Holy Land. Surely such an arrangement is preferable to the insanity occurring today. Only the colonial concept of Zionism stands in the way.