Peace is a long way off

Beer Sheva, on the northern edge of the Negev desert in southern Israel, is a frontier town. It consists of a small old quarter and a larger, modern, high-rise section dotted with building sites, interspersed with three lane ring roads — “Dallas by the Desert,” complete with MacDonald’s golden arches and featureless plazas. The inhabitants — predominantly Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe — are dauntingly nationalistic. The Israeli flag flutters from rooftops, lampposts and cars and hangs on strings across the streets. Half the population carries a gun and wears a uniform of one sort or another.

The surrounding country is more Texas cattle terrain — rolling savannah, big sky, huge horizons — than the desert traditionally home to the Bedouins. In this region the Bedouins are semi-nomadic. They live off the land farming and herding cattle, camels, sheep and goats. Their methods are sustainable and appropriate to the environment.

Since 1948, when the state of Israel came into existence, the Bedouin have been forcibly removed from their land and replaced by Jews from around the globe. The Judaization of the Negev is well advanced.

Khalil, his wife, and five children are Bedouins. Over cups of tea and pieces of cake he explained how he was evicted from his farm in the Negev a couple of years ago and resettled in one of the seven designated Bedouin ghettos around Beer Sheva. There was no work available. Crime, drugs and alcoholism were rife, and, for women in particular, there was absolutely nothing to do. Worse, there were costs associated with being in a town; municipal services expenses to be paid.

After two years, Khalil packed up his possessions and took his family “home.” Now they live in a simple abode with a zinc roof close to his fourteen brothers and sisters. His father and his father’s two wives share the spartan accommodations. They have a few head of cattle, two camels and some chickens, cultivate a small plot of wheat for cattle feed, and have a couple of olive trees and a berry bush. They have returned to their roots.

Khalil is under no illusions. Even though his family are farming their own land, he is doing so “illegally.” Khalil is aware of Israel’s determination to eradicate the Bedouin’s indigenous culture — he has seen too many communities destroyed, mosques and cemeteries bulldozed, and knows what has happened to others. At any time the Green Patrol — the local Israeli militia — may demolish his home. The courts give him no protection, although he is an Israeli citizen.

The Bedouins form part of the Palestinian Israeli population — 20% of the total population of Israel who are Palestinian and hold an Israeli passport. In 1948 — after the creation of the state of Israel — Israel was left with 150,000 Palestinians inside the new Jewish state; 800,000 had fled to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. That initial 150,000 has now grown to over one million.

In the years following 1948, four hundred Palestinian villages were raised to the ground and one quarter of those Palestinians, who remained in the country, became internal refugees. Sixty percent of all Palestinian land was confiscated. Jewish villages and towns were built over the erstwhile Palestinian communities. No compensation has ever been paid. Not only that, but many of the towns where the Palestinian refugees settled have never been “recognised” by the state. Like the Bedouins in the Negev, they are effectively “illegal” and as such receive reduced municipal funding and inferior services. Although, with the passage of time, the internal refugees were given Israeli citizenship, the threat of demolition still hangs over their heads.

Tension in the Palestinian Israeli community is mounting. There is so much discrimination — Palestinian Israeli property rights are curtailed, many towns and villages across Israel are reserved for Jewish residents only, state benefits and social security are reduced and there are employment restrictions — that people will not be able to bear more stresses and disappointments.

The national power company, Israel Electric Company employs ten thousand people. Not one is Palestinian Israeli. The state telecom company Beziq employs a similar number. Eight are Palestinian Israeli. Democracy and freedom exist in Israel, but you have to be Jewish to enjoy it.

Tension is further fuelled by the current harassment of the popular Islamic Movement and the imprisonment of its leadership. The recent threats to open the Al-Aksa mosque in Jerusalem to Jewish worshippers are also inflammatory, as is the experience of the nine Palestinian Israeli members of the Knesset — the Israeli Parliament. Eight have been physically attacked in the last three years. Seven required hospital treatment.

Palestinian Israelis do not have equal rights to the Jewish population. The Courts are skewed against them and freedom of speech is increasingly limited. They have the vote, pay their taxes and expect equality. Not only do they expect it, it is also their right under the United Nations International Covenant on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, to which Israel is a signatory.

These internal Israeli issues receive little coverage outside Israel, but in the long run they are as important for peace as the Road Map itself.

The Road Map for peace, now on the table, focuses on the Occupied Territories - the West Bank and Gaza. During three weeks in the region I have yet to meet a single Palestinian or Palestinian Israeli — apart from some residents of East Jerusalem and neighbouring towns like Bethlehem and Beit Jalla — who believes it will bring sustainable peace.

It was interest in the Road Map which drew me to Jenin. The inhabitants there are feisty, but also pragmatic. Their views can be taken as a litmus test for the Road Maps acceptability.

Even in quiet times, Jenin is not an easy place to enter. And these are not quiet times. After the recent spate of suicide bombings, the town was officially ‘closed’ — sealed off by the Israeli occupying army. At the final checkpoint before entering the town, a soldier flicked open my passport.

“You are from Britain?” Part question, part statement “Yes” I said. “Is that good or bad?” He looked up “It is good as long as you are with Bush.” I grinned. So did he. “Can I go in?” “Why you want?” I told him about helping a boy in the refugee camp, and raising funds in the UK to pay for the boy’s operation. He thought for a moment, then consulted with a second soldier. “OK British. Be careful.” “I will” I said and walked on up the road feeling rather pleased with myself.

At times Jenin can be surprisingly tranquil. I am writing this in a walled garden on the edge of town, adjacent to the refugee camp. The time is 10 o’clock in the morning and already it is hot. Birds are singing, the mimosa is out, roses are in bloom and oranges and lemons hang on tree branches.

Nothing appears to have changed since I was last here a few months ago — traffic is still chaotic, horns honk, pavements are crowded, stall-holders hawk their wares and music blares. However, like elsewhere in the Occupied Territories, money is scarce and life has become harder.

Yesterday morning Said, the falafel maker, did almost no business from his stall in the centre of town, nor did Hamoudi the kebab vendor. Little Nairn, whose coffee seasoned with cardamom is unrivalled, even he sells less than before. Poor Nairn — charming, minuscule, and married to Hanan the huge — his son was arrested three months ago for possessing a gun and is imprisoned indefinitely. A couple of weeks before my arrival twenty soldiers ransacked Nairn’s house. They smashed in the door at 2:30 in the morning and forced him, Hanan and their daughter to lean face and hands flat against the wall until 6:30. “Nick, the soldiers they destroyed everything”

Last night I sat on the roof of Jamal’s house next to the mosque in the refugee camp. We sipped tea infused with sage with his neighbours Izzaldin and Mohammed overlooking the wasteland that used to be the centre of Jenin camp before Israeli bombs and bulldozers flattened it in March 2002. All three men had stories to tell.

Izzaldin’s eleven-year-old daughter was shot in the chest by an Israeli sniper as she stood in the window of her home. She bled to death on the living room floor. Mohammed’s family had been substantial farmers for generations until one day the Israeli authorities, without warning or compensation, confiscated their land. And Jamal.

Jamal’s leg was smashed by a tank shell — his hip, his knee and his ankle were shattered. He used to earn money abroad as a pipeline welder, now Jamal will not work again. He told me with barely suppressed anger, “I can never forget; too many people killed, too many houses destroyed.”

All three described Jenin as a prison. They also spoke of the wells annexed by Israel — and how what was their water is now sold back at exorbitant prices on an intermittent basis. They told a similar story about power supplies, at times the Israelis shut down the town’s own electricity plant. The three neighbours were riled about the curfews and closures. They spoke with sadness of the demise — as a consequence of the occupation — of Jenin’s prized watermelon industry. The melons were renowned from Lebanon to the Gulf for their succulent sweetness.

The Road Map will only be accepted by people like Jamal, Izzaldin, Hamoudi, Nairn and Said if it is not a fudge. They have suffered too much and too long to accept a plan which permits the apartheid walls and electrified fences to remain, a plan which leaves settler roads and key settlements in place, and allows Palestinian water resources, airspace and borders to remain under Israeli control. Even if the current generation can accept that, I doubt that their children will. And what about the status of East Jerusalem and the crucial issue of the right of return for the Palestinian refugee diaspora? All these matters have to be addressed and, until they are addressed, Palestinians will not hold their breath.

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