A Different Kind of Despair


“Come to dinner when the war against Iraq ends,” Jamil said, as I opened the car door. He had just parked the sedan, a short distance from the Bethlehem military checkpoint, the one closest to Jerusalem.

“Is that what you call hospitality?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” he queried, in turn.

“Well, imagine I invited you to dinner, but told you to come only in the year 2008?” I retorted, with a small smirk on my face.

“You’re right,” he said. “The 1967 war, which you Israelis call the Six Day War, is still going on 35 years after it began. Also, the Americans thought they would rapidly defeat the Vietnamese but ended up occupying the country for many years, killing three million people, not to mention the 58,000 American soldiers who died.”

“On second thought,” he continued, “perhaps you should come to dinner next week and not wait until the Iraqi debacle is over.”

I stepped out of Jamil’s car and climbed into the waiting truck. It was about 5:00 pm, and we had just finished delivering food to 9 villages located on the southern outskirts of Bethlehem. We were now on our way back to Jerusalem.

Earlier that day, Ta’ayush — Arab-Jewish Partnership — activists had delivered 100 tons of food to small villages all over the West Bank, knowing that the Palestinian population had already begun suffering from the war against Iraq.

I am not only referring to the media blackout concerning the 180 Palestinians who have been killed by the Israeli military since January 2003. Just as important is the world’s failure to respond to the humanitarian crisis transpiring in the occupied territories — a crisis that is only deepening due to extended curfews and closures imposed following the outbreak of the war.

The World Bank recently published a report showing that the effects of the Israeli military siege are ominous. Twenty-seven months after the eruption of the Intifada, 60 percent of the population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip live under the international poverty line of $2 per day. The number of poor has tripled from 637,000 in September 2000 to nearly 2 million today (out of a total population of 3.5 million), with more than 50 percent of the work force unemployed.

People cannot reach work or their fields, and it is said that over half a million Palestinians are now fully dependent on food aid. Per capita food consumption has declined by 30 percent in the past two years, and there is severe malnutrition in the Gaza Strip — equivalent to levels found in some of the poorer sub-Saharan countries — as found in a recent Johns Hopkins University study.

It is this crisis that led Ta’ayush to embark on a food campaign. Yet the campaign is not only meant to provide humanitarian aid, but rather has a crucial political dimension as well.

In different parts of the West Bank, the Palestinian population is fighting everyday to hold on to its land, despite the harassment, constant intimidation and violence of the Jewish settlers and Israeli military. The food supply and solidarity visits organized by Ta’ayush are meant to strengthen the Palestinians, who are struggling against all odds, as the Israeli government constantly and systematically destroys their infrastructure of existence.

Moreover, by entering closed military areas the peace activists break the military siege, and thus undermine the political, physical, and psychological barriers set up by the Israeli government — barriers which deliberately obstruct all acts of solidarity with the occupied Palestinians and block collaboration between the two peoples. Indeed, the separation walls Israel is constructing will only continue to cultivate the seeds of hatred, thus adding fuel to the ongoing conflict.

Back at the checkpoint, the food truck drove slowly towards the guards. Together with my fellow travelers, I was asked to step down by Israeli policemen; we were subsequently detained for several hours since Jews are not allowed to enter Bethlehem.

While our lawyer was making phone calls to ensure our release, I had a short conversation with one of the policemen.

“Up until a year ago,” he said, “the Palestinians still had a glitter in their eyes. Now it’s all gone, a sign of total despair.”

“When someone despairs, he has nothing left to lose,” I whispered, asking the policeman whether he thought this would lead to more suicide bombings.

“No,” he said. “It’s a different kind of despair, more like the one experienced by the Jews in the European Ghettos.”

NEVE GORDON teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel, and is a contributor to The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent (New Press 2002). He can be reached at ngordon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il.

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