In April 2005, Nick Dearden travelled around occupied Palestine to witness the effects of over four years of Intifada and thirty years of occupation with the indie Glasgow band Belle & Sebastian. The following are his impressions.
Hani Amir climbs out of his battered Renault and walks to his front door - through an electrified gate, past an 8-meter high concrete wall, over some barbed wire, and across a militarised road. Hani’s house, which he built himself, is a half-built structure that lies between Israel’s Separation Wall and a settlement with a 5,000 strong population that the Israeli government is attempting to incorporate into what considers to be its side of the wall. Hani and his children live in a militarised no-man’s land.
“Settlers throw stones at the house in the night,” he explains, “and soldiers from all over the West Bank come to shit in my garden.”
Hani’s grandfather was killed in 1948, after being forced out of his home by Zionist militias during what Israelis call the war of independence and Palestinians call al-Nakba, or the catastrophe. Hani made what he could of life, building an extensive and flourishing nursery and opening a local restaurant. But all that ended a year ago, as the Israeli Army demolished most of his property to make way for the Separation Wall. As he speaks, a military jeep with wailing sirens speeds down the army road a few feet from our chairs.
“People ask why I don’t leave,” Hani says, “but this is my house - I can’t and I won’t!”
In 1996, journalist John Pilger wrote a book entitled Heroes that proposes that the real heroes of our age are the millions of impoverished people across the globe who carry on their lives in dignity even though those in power have judged them to be “in the way.” Hani is just one of the 450,000 Palestinians directly affected by the Wall, one of the anonymous whose very existence is built on the battle ground between the world’s haves and have-nots.
Several miles up the road, a middle-aged man ashes his cigarette from his first floor bedroom doorway, which now opens to an eight-foot fall. “My house was in the way,” he explained to us, and so half of it was demolished. He can now touch the Wall from his living room.
His neighbour Omar Khrieshe fared less well. We are offered tea from the garage he’s lived in since his newly-built house was gutted and occupied. The Separation Wall runs through his house and his roof has been turned into a military outpost. Having erected a steel staircase from the outside, Israeli soldiers now keep lookout from the fortified watchtower, receiving new recruits who pull up in armoured tanks parked on the “Israeli” side of the wall.
“You can see from our home that we were once a hard-working family” Omar tells us. Now they have nothing.
Beyond these small examples, 73,000 farmers have been cut off from their land by the Wall. Tulkarem used to be part of the “bread basket” of the West Bank, but last year had to import wheat, the first time in living memory. Seven hundred livelihoods were dependent on Barta’a Sharqiya, a market town, until it was destroyed to make way for the Wall. Jamal Juma, coordinator of grassroots campaign group Stop the Wall asks us, “What if such a disaster was to happen to people in Tel Aviv? This isn’t even mentioned in the papers.”
He is led to the conclusion that the Wall represents “an expulsion project,” a view backed up by the United Nations Human Rights Special Rapporteur last December when he wrote that the Wall serves to achieve: “the incorporation of settlers within Israel; the seizure of Palestinian land; the encouragement to Palestinians to leave their lands and homes by making life intolerable for them.”
Construction of the Wall began in June 2002, and represents a new phase of the Israeli Occupation. Upon the signing of the Oslo Accords a distant ten years ago, the Israeli government realised that having control of the Palestinian people was untenable when all it really wanted was control of their land and resources. The best strategy was to establish a Palestinian Authority to worry about the people - and provide vital services such as healthcare, education, garbage collection, and so forth - while Israel maintained effective control of the territory.
The Wall was sold to the international community as a means of protection against terrorism. But, as the United Nations General Assembly has declared, its route through Palestinian land, leaving many Palestinians on the “Israeli” side of the Wall, negates this justification.
The apartheid structure of the West Bank is further evidenced by the road system. Israeli settler-only roads allow the illegal inhabitants to drive as quickly as possible from one outpost to another. Meanwhile, Palestinians are forced to travel on separate roads - pot-holed and circuitous tracks that add hours to journeys that once took only minutes.
A system of tunnels and bridges will soon allow the Palestinian roads to cross the settler roads. Israel will also add gates to the tunnels, while possessing the keys, so that Palestinian movement can be brought to a standstill whenever the Israeli army decides. In the words of Juma, “The Israelis will hold the key to our ghetto.”
But Palestinians like Hani and Omar refuse to die on their knees. Outside Omar’s house, the Wall features a “Guernica”-inspired mural of screaming people, dogs and pigs — like a medieval vision of hell. Next to this symbol of the arbitrary suffering inflicted by the Wall is found the motto of Palestinian resistance - written in enormous letters - “To exist is to resist.”
Route 60 is one of the many highways destined to become a settler-only road. Fenced off from the road are Palestinian villages, which look like dilapidated prisons through the wire, separated from the gleaming and sprawling modern planned construction of the settlements.
Mahmoud Rashwadi lives on the other side of this global divide. He speaks to us from his porch, where we sit drinking sweet tea beneath construction metal and collapsing concrete. His traumatised children run for cover when they see us coming, and we soon learn why. The Israeli Army has already attempted to demolish their house, being too close for comfort to the settler road. Inhabitants of the hilltop settlement above urinate on the house. Mahmoud shows us a cave that he claims his family has possessed for over 1,000 years, and where his children and wife hid when an armed band of 100 settlers attacked and smashed up the house. He shows us the stumps of olive trees torn up by settlers during their rampage.
Route 60 takes us to Hebron, where a few hundred of Israel’s most ideologically extreme settlers have managed to bring a city of over a hundred thousand Palestinians to a standstill. Hebron appears to be a typical Middle Eastern city - where city traders shout about their products and try to lure the passing masses into their stalls. But walk further down the main street and the crowd slowly dies, the stalls sell fewer goods, and eventually life ceases, with shuttered stall after stall, symbolising Hebron’s 70 percent unemployment rate.
Four years ago this area was the bustling heart of Hebron - the entrance to the Old City. Now Palestinians rarely venture here, avoiding the humiliation of the fortified checkpoints where they are abused and detained by Israeli soldiers.
Even more dangerous are the 400 settlers themselves, who have lived above the market since the 1970s. Above the streets of the market metal mesh has been erected to protect the Palestinians below from the garbage hurled at them from the settler blocks. The mesh sags under the weight of the trash, preventing the sun from shining on the market. Here and there a paving stone has been hurled through to try and break the mesh, and to hit any Palestinian unfortunate enough to be standing beneath. Scrawled in Hebrew along the walls are uncompromising slogans such as “Death to All Arabs.”
Ten years ago, the US-born a Jewish fundamentalist Dr. Baruch Goldstein entered the Ibrahimi Mosque and murdered 29 praying Muslims, and injuring about a hundred more. While such an act may appear to be the work of an unhinged fanatic, Goldstein’s grave has now become a place of pilgrimage for thousands of fundamentalist settlers.
Although settlements are illegal under international law, and obstruct the creation of a future Palestinian state, they continue to be constructed at break-neck speed. While some settlers are fundamentalists - many from the United States - others are lured by Israeli-issued economic incentives to move into Palestine. Over a million Jews have emigrated to Israel/Palestine from Russia, Ethiopia, and elsewhere in the last ten years, providing a temporary solution to Israel’s “demographic” problem that the indigenous Arabs will outnumber Jews in the whole area of Israel/Palestine in the near future. Just as cynically, immigration from the Third World also helps diminish Israel’s dependence on Palestinians as a source of cheap labour.
While the Bush administration half-heartedly and periodically claims such settlement expansion to be “unhelpful,” it is ultimately happy to continue bankrolling the operation. Besides its neoconservative enterprise in Iraq, Israel remains the U.S.’s number one source of foreign aid in the world, receiving at least $3 billion a year. In turn, the Israeli government offers generous subsidies to Israelis who move into the settlements, costing the Israeli state $400 million a year, not including defence expenses. The chain of cause and effect is obvious; the U.S. remains convinced that such a rogue state in the Middle East is central its strategic interests in the region.
We witnessed the stark contrast between settlements and surrounding Palestinian villages in Jerusalem. The Ma’ale Adumim settlement resembles the American suburbs of Hollywood films - the surreal perfection of the Truman Show with flower beds in the center of the road, green gardens, and standard eight-bedroom houses. Just a mile below the hilltop settlement are the “homes” of dispossessed Bedouin who were literally loaded onto cattle trucks in 1998 and moved from the site of the settlement’s expansion. Now they live in corrugated metal and wooden shacks, held together by wholesale food packaging. Their children hold out their hands and ask for money as soon as they see us. Soon the settlers won’t even have to look at the Bedouin any more, thanks to the construction of the Separation Wall.
The heroes of this situation are the Bedouin, who took all peaceful and legal action open to them before they were forcibly removed. They are joined by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), a group which brings radical Israelis to protest in the Palestinian territories - a place in which most Israelis wrongly believe they would be shot on sight.
Israel recently announced the creation of 3,500 new housing units in Ma’ale Adumim. Jeff Halper, coordinator of ICAHD believes this to be part of a strategy to build a “settlement corridor” from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, which will ultimately kill any hope of a viable Palestinian state. Jospeh Berman is a young ICAHD activist who wants to become a rabbi. He showed us the Jerusalem settlements from a Palestinian basketball court, the end of which had been demolished, for no apparent reason other than to ensure the local kids had no sports ground on which to play. He told us that settlements were often expanded on top of bulldozed Palestinian homes. He repeated the words of an Anata resident whose house had been demolished four times: “It is a quiet transfer policy; such actions say one thing: Leave this place.”
“There’s one good thing about Gaza,” our guide jokes. “From here it’s only a local phone call to hell.” For four years it has been virtually impossible for Palestinians from the West Bank to enter this other part of their country, or for those within “the prison” to leave it. But now hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has become the unlikely hero of some on the Israeli left, by promising to withdraw from all settlements from the Gaza Strip within the coming months. This has been heralded by international media as the beginning of the end of the occupation. But Palestinians have their reservations.
Gaza is the poorest area of Palestine. Lying in rubble are houses, shops, schools, the port, and even the government buildings that will supposedly be the administration centers after the supposed withdrawal. Kids play around open sewerage and live in one-room shacks similar to those in the poorest slums of Dhaka. But this is not Dhaka - for only a stone’s throw from the squalid refugee camps lies a little taste of the West - 4,000 settlers dot Gaza’s landscape in oases of lush fertility. Although these settlements are purportedly about to be removed, their extravagance has bled Gaza of its most precious resource - water. As Gaza’s settlers prepare to leave, albeit unwillingly, 1.2 million Palestinians will inherit control of one of the most densely crowded pieces of land in the world, with no access to the outside world, few natural resources, and its entire infrastructure to rebuild after years of continuous Israeli invasions.
Only when one reaches Rafah - the border line between Palestine and Egypt - does one realize that the violence these people have seen has been an even heavier burden than poverty they suffer. We met a numbed 21-year-old Mohammed, who, in his own words, “can’t sleep properly at night without the sound of gunshots.” He’d like to be a journalist and shows us his horrifying collection of cassettes - U.S.-supplied Apache helicopters shooting at peaceful demonstrators, kids with limbs hanging off, the injured scrambling for ambulances as missiles continue to rain down, a boy who’s just witnessed the killing of his 10-year-old brother by soldiers behind a ten-eter-high steel fence smearing his face with the sewerage running down the streets.
We visit Mohammed’s home in the Rafah refugee camp and we are transported to a sci-fi world of horror. Tanks and bulldozers rumble across the rubble of 1,500 destroyed houses; faceless soldiers scan the horizon from watchtowers. Palestinian kids play football through their ruined homes and gardens - a dangerous game as three teenagers proved only a week later when they were killed by soldiers when their ball went too close to the watchtower.
Even the light colour of our skin doesn’t buy protection in this contemporary Beirut, as a school dedicated to the memory of slain peace activist Rachel Corrie reminds us. Graffiti on the wall bears homage to Rachel and to her former ISM colleague Tom Hurndall, also killed by the Israeli Army: “You were here to save our lives - we will never forget you.”
The Gaza disengagement will not be the end of the Occupation. It is a decoy to divert international attention while Israel continues to build the Wall and expand settlements in the West Bank and control the land and resources, while relinquishing its responsibility for the people as per international law. After Oslo collapsed because Palestinians were still subjected to the same misery, poverty, and humiliation, as before, Israel continued this unilateral strategy, brutally suppressing Palestinian resistance. Sharon’s own words on the disengagement could not be clearer: “The Palestinians understand that this plan is to a large extent the end of their dreams … In the unilateral plan, there is no Palestinian state.”
On our drive out of Gaza we see the lines of young men removing layers of clothing before they can enter the heavily-militarised industrial area where they work for one-third the salary of an Israeli. Israel is seeking Western aid for the creation of many similar industrial zones, which are claimed to give Palestinians much-needed employment prospects. But nothing makes more obvious the faultline of a wider global divide of poverty and power than these “export processing zones” where the goods keeping the wheels of corporate globalisation turning are produced in environmentally-destructive sweatshops.
Leaving Gaza, we get an idea of the daily lives endured by Palestinians. We walk through the endless corrugated corridor at Eretz checkpoint. Voices from massive speakers above scream at us: “Move forward. Stop. Turn around. Back up.” An hour later we leave, relieved.
Along the Faultline
The Palestinians have become symbols of global struggle because their situation represents the extreme inequality so pervasive in the world. While some of the world’s population experience unprecedented wealth, the majority, because of their race or religion or location, live in a daily struggle against a system that offers no choices, no freedom, and no peace.
Beyond the violence, poverty, humiliation, and daily denial of human rights, and beyond the headlines of suicide bombings, Palestinians are challenging and subverting the system, carrying out their lives in peaceful resistance to the inhumanity to which they are subjected.
Our final heroes are two Palestinian rappers who live in the Gaza Strip and embody this spirit. Through their songs they express the anger, resistance, and hope of hundreds of thousands of kids from the Palestinian street: “Do you remember, or do you choose to forget/ that your army, against us, aggressed/ My voice will continue to echo, you’ll never forget/You call me terrorist, when I’m the one who’s oppressed.”
Dressed like Eminem, the Palestinian rappers explain, “We are not making this music to become celebrities or to get rich. We have something to say we want the world to know what it’s like to live in Palestine … Rap is our way of resisting the occupation, it’s our weapon.”
Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect these Palestinians from additional harassment.
Nick Dearden is a Senior Campaigns Officer for the radical anti-poverty group War on Want. He works to highlight Western complicity in some of the world’s most intractable conflicts including Palestine, Colombia and the Western Sahara. War on Want was formed from the trade union movement 50 years ago and fights for long-term poverty eradication through supporting groups resisting poverty in the Third World and campaigning against those institutions and organisations responsible for poverty in the West