Ramallah, March 23 — Hanan Ashrawi tells us bluntly that the principal aim of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon and his right-wing, Zionist fundamentalist government is to make sure that no Palestinian state ever exists as a viable entity. Their goal, she says, “is not just dismantling the infrastructure, the structures of Palestinian statehood, but dismantling an identity: not just preventing formation of a viable Palestinian state but eliminating a nation and a people.” Ashrawi is a Palestinian legislator and former spokesperson for the Palestinian negotiating delegation who is known widely in the United States as an articulate, plain-talking, down-to-earth spokesperson for her people, easily able to relate to American audiences and speak to Americans in their own political dialect.
Ashrawi describes Israel as having returned to a strain of fundamentalist Zionism, reminiscent of 1948, that denies Palestinian identity altogether. It is attempting actually to deconstruct the Palestinian presence, to render it docile and compliant. Anyone who tries to assert himself, to stand up for Palestinian rights, is put down; no resistance is permitted. Israel, Ashrawi asserts, “is sending the message to the Palestinians that you are totally at our mercy, we’ve robbed you of any independence, you’re broken. Sharon has tried this before, and he’ll keep trying.”
The message that Ashrawi sees is clear wherever you go in the occupied West Bank. When we flew from Amman to Tel Aviv a week ago, the small commuter airliner flew at just 8,000 feet on a bright, cloudless day, giving us a striking bird’s-eye view of Israel’s massive encroachment on this Palestinian territory. An Israeli settlement or outpost stands on virtually every hilltop, commanding the terrain around it, cutting off one Palestinian town from another. There are over 200 of these Israeli settlements in a territory of about 2,000 square miles, a huge insertion of a Jewish/Israeli presence and identity into a Palestinian landscape.
Established settlements are easily identifiable by their uniformity: rows of ticky-tacky looking much like a new American suburban development, with identical shapes, identical red tiled rooftops, identical rows of tall trees taking up precious ground water that is denied to Palestinians. The new outposts, about 30 or 40 of them seized by wildcatters, but with government sanction, in the two years since Sharon came to office, are also readily recognizable by the open cut in the hilltops on which they sit, where trees have been cleared away and trailers or “caravans,” as they are called here, have been brought in as temporary housing. A vast network of limited-access highways (“settler roads,” the Palestinians call them) on which only those with yellow Israeli license plates may drive, connect these settlements to each other, further scarring the landscape, destroying Palestinian olive groves and agricultural land, further isolating Palestinian towns from each other What else could be the intent of this gigantic expropriation of another people’s land except the denial and dismantling of Palestinian identity that Ashrawi describes?
Turning to U.S. policy toward the Palestinian-Israeli situation, Ashrawi expresses dismay that, at present and for the foreseeable future, the narrative in the United States is “purely Israeli,” to a degree that she says is scary. For the first time ever, “we have a U.S. administration that adopts wholesale the Israeli version.” Ideologically, Ashrawi says, the Bush administration and the Sharon government are “not just tightly knit, there’s a real overlap” in the way they think and the way they determine policies. The U.S. speaks entirely according to an Israeli script and does so for the first time at the decision-making level. This is no longer just a matter of Christian fundamentalists allying with Zionist fundamentalists in think tanks and advisory bodies outside the administration, she notes, but “it’s in the Defense Department, in the White House. It’s an ideology that’s lethal.” The situation is made far more difficult, furthermore, because “the media is accepting a packaged message,” she says. “I have never seen such a monolithic approach to this conflict. It’s unprecedented in scope and magnitude.”
Yet Ashrawi can still see reason to hope. Asked if she shares the dismal vision of Israeli peace activist Jeff Halper, who has written in scathing articles about Israel’s physical and political absorption of the occupied territories into Israel that he sees little remaining hope of ever establishing an independent, viable Palestinian state, Ashrawi asserts that she is not willing to say it’s too late. “If there is a will, the settlements can be removed.” She acknowledges that it’s hard right now to count on any movement in this direction, but she is emphatic that the Palestinians will not succumb to Sharon’s attempt to break them. Asked where the breaking point comes, she says she sees a greater likelihood of acts of desperation by Palestinians than of surrender or flight out of Palestine. Palestinians tend to regard the current difficulties as another historical phase that will pass. Demography is in the Palestinians‚ favor, she says, but her hope for the future rests on more than just demography. “There’s a social cohesion and an identification with the land that are very important. Originally we’re all peasants who are completely bound to the land. The source of our self-value is tied to land.”
So the Palestinians are determined to stay, Ashrawi notes. After their experience in 1948, when over 700,000 fled what became the state of Israel in the belief that they would be able to return when the fighting stopped, Palestinians cannot now be fooled into leaving “temporarily.” The majority, she asserts with a large smile, “are staying because they know the price of leaving.”
Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, who directs a medical relief organization in the West Bank and Gaza, shares Ashrawi’s somber assessment of the present situation and also her long-term sense of hope. Barghouti’s most immediate concern is preparing for a possible total curfew imposed by Israel in the midst of the Iraq war, which would prevent Palestinians, already barred by checkpoints from seeking care at hospitals, from reaching any medical help at all. But Barghouti has also been involved in politics and heads what he and a few others are calling the Palestinian National Initiative, which puts itself forward as a third choice between the ineffective Palestinian government and the radical Hamas. “You cannot have true democracy and reform,” Barghouti believes, “without elections.” He and his organization are working to bring forth a new generation of Palestinian leaders not captive of either the Fatah/Palestinian Authority leadership or Hamas.
Barghouti’s principal fear at the moment is that under cover of the war in Iraq Israel will kill more Palestinian civilians on the pretext that they are terrorists and the international community will largely ignore the killing. In the last three weeks alone, as many as 90 Palestinians have been killed. He sees the killing of American peace activist Rachel Corrie last week as an indication that Israel feels it can act as it pleases while the world looks elsewhere and also as a deliberate effort to intimidate the young internationals who worked with Corrie to try to protect Palestinians against Israeli depredations. Barghouti also fears that Israel will attempt a large-scale “internal transfer” of Palestinians under the cover of the war. This could involve forcibly moving Palestinians out of villages near Israeli settlements, in order to create buffer zones around the settlements, or expelling Palestinians living along the route of the “separation wall” that Israel is building inside the West Bank. Construction of the wall, now underway in the northern sector of the border area between the West Bank and Israel, has thus far resulted in the expropriation of large tracts of Palestinian agricultural land, the separation of Palestinian towns from their farmlands, and the destruction of numerous wells that supply water to Palestinian towns and villages. Current planning by Israel’s defense establishment, as described today in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, envisions a vast increase in the amount of land to be incorporated into Israel behind the fence, in order, as the paper reports, “to get as many Jews and as few Palestinians as possible into the western [Israeli] side.”
Despite his dire forecasts for the immediate future, Barghouti sees no alternative for the Palestinians but continued struggle for an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza. Although some Palestinians and some Israeli peace activists have begun to advocate a one-state solution in which Palestinians press for citizenship in a single Israeli state established throughout all of Palestine, Barghouti believes Palestinians cannot give up on the two-state formula because it remains the only solution the international community will accept and because it is the only way for Palestinians to achieve real self-determination. He sees three reasons to be hopeful for the future: Palestinians are gaining more international support, more Americans have begun to recognize what is happening in Palestine and object to unquestioning U.S. support for Israel and, perhaps most important, the Palestinians themselves are undeterred in the struggle against Israel’s occupation. “There are good, resilient people on the ground here,” he says, who will not give up. “We are like South Africa in the 1970s,” which gives him great hope.
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.