“The news from Palestine is so bad, it makes me want to be there”

Above: Nick Pretzlik and friends in Gaza amidst the ruins.

The bad news is relentless:

- Last week the Israelis announced closure for the whole of the West Bank — the movement of people beyond the immediate vicinity of their homes was banned.

- At the weekend, UNRWA issued a statement that they can no longer supply food to the 1.2 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. UNRWA has run out of money.

- Two days ago, four Israeli soldiers died when their tank rolled over a mine.

- Yesterday, fourteen Palestinians were killed in a number of incidents.

- Last night eleven Palestinians were killed in Gaza.

- Today the Israeli High Court — in contrast to the arrangements for Israeli citizens — refused a petition to issue gas masks to Palestinians in the event of war with Iraq.

Closure of the West Bank is hard for the Palestinians, but that UNRWA has no money, is that really such a disaster? Surely the Israelis will take over responsibility for food supply. As the occupying force, they are obliged to do so, aren’t they? Well, yes; but the Israelis don’t agree! The fact that they have sealed off Gaza from the world, that unemployment exceeds eighty per cent and people lack funds to feed themselves cuts no ice.

Although Israel exercises sole control over the entrance and exit from Gaza, it refuses to accept responsibility for ensuring the population does not starve. With malnutrition at Central African levels, Israelis resort to Kafkaesque contortions of logic. Rickets, anaemia, and diabetes — not their problem. According to the Israeli government, the Palestinians have brought the hunger on themselves. All the Palestinians have to do is throw in the towel, give up their land, and slip away into someone else’s country, and, hey, presto!, the problem is solved.

To read such news in London is hard; seasoned with announcements of house demolitions and human rights abuses makes it doubly so. I know from my experience in Palestine that reports which reach the media represent only the tip of the iceberg of catastrophes visited on the Palestinians. It was easier for me by far to be on the spot; to be immersed in events.

When I reflect on my stay in the Occupied Territories (the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) the memories, which come first to mind, are not the instances of horror and humiliation, but the gentler experiences — families united and supportive, communities acting cohesively, the hospitality and the generosity. I remember how people had time to help each other, to lend a hand, to offer and provide support. That is what I remember and, maybe, that is how it is elsewhere in times of crisis. In Palestine, however, such behaviour is embedded. It goes with the culture and even a visitor like me — a citizen of the country, which was the architect of Palestine’s misfortune — brings it to the fore. In Jenin and Qalqilya it took an hour or two to walk a few hundred yards along a street. Invitations to tea, to coffee, to chat are proffered so charmingly and with such persistence they are hard to refuse. “What are you doing? Where are you going? Where are you staying? Would you like to stay with us? Have you eaten? Do you understand the Palestinian problem? What does the world think? What about George Bush?” Each answer sparks a discussion, each discussion fuels a question.

I was regularly apologising for the British Prime Minister’s support for US foreign policy. Generous as ever, though, Palestinians told me “Nick, the fingers on one hand are not all the same”. Palestinians simply cannot understand Tony Blair’s infatuation with the messianic Bush. How does one explain it? Will someone explain it to me?

It is not just people and events which slip back into focus; the landscape too. Sitting at my desk in London I can picture again the fertile plain and the strips of colourful crops to the east of Jenin, the broad valleys of lush green spread out below the rounded bulk of the mountains to the north of Nablus and the bleached rocks of the Palestinian hills looking down on Qalqilya and the coast beyond. I can recall that feeling of space, of distant horizons, the sense of history, the unbroken link to Roman times. I am aware of the olive trees — the symbol of Palestinian identity — following the terraced contours; gnarled and ancient looking, they compliment the rock-strewn terrain. Like the Palestinian villages, which merge harmoniously into the folds of the hills and have been part of the landscape for millennia, the olive tree adds to the Biblical feel.

Ten kilometres to the south of Jerusalem are the beautiful hilltop towns of Bethlehem and Beit Jalla. They command some of the most majestic views in Palestine — all the way to the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea. But not for much longer. A ring of intrusive and illegal Israeli settlements will shortly encircle them both. Tops of hills are being shaved and levelled, thousands of olive trees cut down, settler-only roads constructed and vineyards and citrus groves ripped up by lumbering bulldozers.

And for what purpose? To accommodate the expansion of Jerusalem? As the consequence of urban sprawl? Not at all! These settlements have nothing to do with such prosaic matters and everything to do with the isolation of Palestinian communities — the creation of ‘Bantustans’. Although some of these settlements are already completed and others are in the process of construction, occupants have not yet been found. They await the arrival of the one million immigrant Jews that Sharon is trawling the globe to entice to the Occupied Territories — ‘facts on the ground’ for the Zionist concept and not one penny of compensation to the Palestinians, whose land they will occupy.

In the face of the hardship I witnessed, it says a very great deal about the Palestinians, their culture, and behaviour that my memories are so positive. And perhaps, at this juncture, it would be appropriate to add another little known fact. In Palestine, crime — corruption excepted — is virtually non-existent, and yet there are few police. The few police that do exist cannot wear a distinguishing uniform; to do so would make them a target for Israeli assassination.

The Occupation, and the methods required to enforce it, have corrupted Israeli society almost as much as they have brutalised the Palestinians. If you visit Jerusalem, for example, and are looking for character, colour, laughter, tradition and a sense of belonging, then go to the Palestinian quarter in East Jerusalem. The Jewish areas are dead by comparison; the people in general bitter and anxious. They may shut their eyes to what is being done in their name, but it leaves them feeling uncomfortable.

In Israel much is swept under the carpet. Many Israelis maintain the belief that Palestine was an empty land at the close of the nineteenth century. They still stubbornly refuse to discuss the Palestinians’ right of return on the basis of the myth that Palestinians exiled themselves voluntarily in 1948 — ignoring the information available today, which catalogues the terror and massacres perpetrated at that time. And yet a Falasha from Ethiopia, with the most tenuous of connections, is given that right. No wonder Israeli soldiers look ashamed when they repeat the mantra “they [the Palestinians] should not be here” as an explanation for their own brutal behaviour.

The soldiers know, as the world knows, that there were seven hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs living in the land called Palestine in 1900 and only six thousand Palestinian Jews. They also know that in 1948 the policy of ‘transfer’ already existed and that massacres, such as Deir Yassin, were part of that policy to encourage the flight of the Palestinian Arab population. Events of more recent times are also denied or ‘spun’. The massacres at Sabra and Chatila carried out by the Lebanese Christian Phalange in 1982 with Israeli connivance, even they are denied today. That Sharon was found by the Kahan Commission to have been “personally responsible” at the time and had to step down from his post as Defence Minister is now forgotten. When Belgium last week suggested that he could still be tried for his involvement, the response from Benyamin Netanyahu was to state that in making such an announcement “Belgium is not only hurting Israel, but the entire free world, and Israel will respond to it very severely” (Closure and curfew for Belgium perhaps? Maybe a house demolition or two?). The facts are irrefutable, yet Netanyahu has spun the situation to make Belgium’s approach appear an unwarranted attack on freedom. Who can follow such logic? It is simply the Israeli version of ‘Bush-speak’.

To deny the past is to deny the future. Palestinians exist and so do Israelis. The Occupation is a disaster for both. If it were not for the outdated and redundant notion of a Zionist state, both parties could coexist alongside each other. For hundreds of years Moslems, Christians and Jews lived peacefully together in the Holy Land. It is true that during the Crusades they failed to do so, but the Crusaders, descending southwards from Europe, were hardly discerning; they massacred Moslems, Jews and Christians alike.

Faith is a cornerstone of Palestinian life. For most Palestinian Arabs - Moslem and Christian - their faith is intense and unshakeable, not dogmatic or fundamentalist, but traditional and practical. Along with family and community values, faith is essential to the survival of Palestinian identity. Of itself, it neither threatens nor competes, but is a support and strength to a people in desperate straights.

Palestinians do not threaten Israel. They threaten Zionism. If Israelis could come to terms with their past, and abandon the concept of a Zionist state, the monstrous instrument of house demolition - the D9 Caterpillar bulldozer - could be used for construction, justice for all would be possible and a viable state might emerge.

Nick Pretzlik’s writings and photography from Palestine can be found on www.whatmatters.org.uk