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Optimism vs. Reality

Struggling for Justice in Palestine

by KATHLEEN CHRISTISON

Editors’ note: The following talk was given in Santa Fe, NM, on February 12. Kathleen was one of three speakers, and her husband Bill was another. Bill’s talk appeared on CounterPunch on February 16. The event, organized by the Santa Fe chapter of Veterans for Peace, was an evening of talks and discussion along with videos, pictures, and graphics displays on "Palestine/Israel: Human Rights and Policy Perspectives."

We’ve been sated with optimistic talk about Palestine in the last few months: we have a cease-fire now; Ariel Sharon is disengaging from Gaza and may also pull Israeli troops out of some West Bank cities; George Bush and Condoleezza Rice talk all the time about two states living side by side in peace.

But I think we need to be very clear about what is really going on in Palestine. When you know what’s actually happening on the ground — which we all hope to describe to you tonight — you’ll see, I think, that there is no reason at all for optimism. Despite all the nice talk, there will be no real Palestinian state, and there will be no peace, anytime in the foreseeable future, and the responsibility for this will lie with Israel and the United States. The reason there will be no Palestinian independence, and therefore no peace and no justice, anytime soon is purely and simply because the Israeli government does not want it, and the United States does not want what Israel doesn’t want.

Israeli journalist Amira Hass recently put it pointedly: "There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be optimistic," she said. "The problem arises when optimism acts as an anesthetic, and when the optimists make do with talk and take no interest in bulldozers." She’s talking about the bulldozers that are still building the separation wall through Palestinian territories, that are still demolishing the homes of innocent Palestinians, that are still clearing Palestinian land in order to build more Israeli settlements and more roads that only Israelis may drive on.

Any map of the West Bank showing the route of the separation wall demonstrates very dramatically how this wall is squeezing the Palestinians into smaller and smaller territories. Keep in mind that the entire West Bank is only 22% of the original land of Palestine in the first place, so already the Palestinians have agreed to have their state in less than one-quarter of their original homeland. Now, however, when the wall is completed, they’ll be left with only about half of that 22%. And even that small portion won’t be contiguous. The area inside the wall is broken up into two very distinct sections. Jerusalem is in the middle, outside the wall; the Palestinians don’t get any portion of Jerusalem. And there are so many indentations and incursions into the territory — sections that jut into Palestinian territory and are meant to accommodate Israeli settlements and keep them on the Israeli side of the wall — that what’s left to the Palestinians cannot be considered to have any territorial integrity, and it certainly is not defensible.

What Amira Hass was saying is that, while American politicians and American commentators talk optimism but do nothing, what is actually happening in Palestine is that Israel is continuing with this wall construction and with other measures to take over Palestine. Let me just list some of the measures Israel is still pursuing in the West Bank and Gaza while Bush and Rice and Sharon and the media engage in empty talk about their optimism:

It is continuing, right now, to expand settlements and is building literally thousands of new housing units in areas confiscated from Palestinian ownership, both in the Jerusalem area and elsewhere along the wall. Hundreds of acres of Palestinian farmland that ended up on the Israeli side of the wall are being cleared by bulldozers to make room for new Israeli settlements. And Israel’s defenders try to claim the wall is not a land grab!

It’s estimated that approximately 90% of the Palestinians’ fresh water wells will end up on Israel’s side of the wall when it’s all completed. And they say this is not a land grab.

Israel has instituted a system of permits for Palestinians to get into the areas that are on the Israeli side of the wall. Palestinians must have a permit to get in to these areas to farm the land, even though this is their own land. But according to the new system, any Israeli and any Jew anywhere in the world is explicitly allowed to enter without a permit. Permits are issued to Palestinians only for six months at a time; they are often denied for no particular reason, and they are often not renewed, also for no particular reason. And they try to say this is not a land grab.

Israel continues to demolish homes: 12,000 since the occupation began, several thousand just in the last year alone. Very few, only about 5%, of all demolitions have had anything to do with terrorism. Most are done to clear land because Israel wants it for some purpose; several hundred have occurred in and around Jerusalem, where Israel simply does not want new Palestinian building, or any Palestinian population growth.

Israel continues to kill Palestinians, despite the optimism and the recent period of so-called "quiet." 139 Palestinians, about half of them children, have been killed by Israelis in the three months since Yasir Arafat died, while 16 Israelis have been killed in the same period. This is a kill ratio of 8 to 1. And yet we barely hear about this lopsided death toll in the media, amidst all the optimism.

I’d like to take two small Palestinian villages and give you a description of the conditions there to give you a couple of examples of what life is like under Israeli domination.

The first is the village of Jayyous, about which there has been some press coverage. Jayyous is a village of 3,200 people in the northwestern West Bank. The separation wall was built there in the summer of 2003. This used to be a prosperous farming village, living on 3,000 acres of olive groves, citrus trees, guava, and smaller crops. Many of us in the U.S. think of Palestine as a dry, desolate land, but this is not true. Jayyous is located in a rich agricultural area.

Fully 72% — almost three-quarters — of this village’s land ended up on the Israeli side of the wall. All six of the village’s fresh water wells ended up on the Israeli side of the wall.

Farmers must now obtain permits to farm their land. Those who get permits must pass through the one gate in the wall, which is manned only for about an hour two or three times a day — and then only when the Israelis feel like it. For instance, it’s not manned at all during the approximately ten-day period of the Jewish high holy days.

Last year, 15,000 orange trees died and an entire guava harvest was lost because farmers could not get to the land to irrigate it.

Much of the town’s land that’s now on the Israeli side began to be bulldozed in December, and is still being bulldozed, to build 2,000 new housing units for a nearby Israeli settlement. And Israel’s defenders try to say this wall is not a land grab.

The other village I’d like to describe is Anata, just outside East Jerusalem. Bill and I have spent a couple of weeks in each of the last two summers in Anata, helping rebuild homes demolished by the Israeli authorities.

Anata is a town of about 9,000 people. It’s in an area designated during the Oslo peace process to remain under full Israeli control. The Palestinian Authority has never had any authority in Anata, so the town’s very dismal circumstances are entirely Israel’s responsibility.

Anata used to subsist on a quarry industry and on some agriculture, but Israel has confiscated most of the quarries and cut off or confiscated the agricultural land. Four Israeli settlements and two Israeli military bases, all built on land confiscated from Anata, surround the town.

Many houses in Anata have been demolished, not because the owners are suspected of terrorism, but because Israel simply doesn’t want them there: it won’t issue building permits, and when people build anyway, the homes are bulldozed.

There are almost no public services in Anata. There’s no hospital, only a clinic with a nurse and a doctor who comes once a week. The nearest hospital is only about a mile away inside Jerusalem, but as West Bank residents, people from Anata are forbidden to enter Jerusalem. There are public and private schools, but half the teachers live outside Anata and are having increasing difficulty getting to work every day.

Anata had a bus company but it closed down when Israeli checkpoints made travel almost impossible. The town bought one garbage truck a couple of years ago with donations from the EU, but the only dump is in a neighboring town that is now several checkpoints and two segments of the wall away. As a result, there are trash heaps around every corner in Anata.

As a result of all this misery and deprivation, unemployment, crime, and drug use are growing, the town is lifeless and without purpose. The residents can’t work, can’t get medical help, can’t build, can’t worship as they used to in Jerusalem, don’t have decent education, and can’t escape. Construction on the wall began last summer, and this will make every aspect of life in Anata far worse. And they wonder why the Palestinians are fighting against this Israeli occupation!

These are not just isolated examples. This is what the occupation is like everywhere. We must never lose sight of the fact that the source of the problem, the source of the conflict, is not terrorism, it is not the Palestinians. It’s the occupation: Israel’s continued domination over the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem with their 3.5 million Palestinians. The bottom line is that Israel’s occupation continues and is intensifying, despite all the optimistic talk — and no one is doing anything to stop it. Israel is committing ethnocide against the Palestinians. It is trying to ethnically cleanse Palestine, get rid of the Palestinians, squeeze them into smaller and smaller areas, make life so miserable for them that they will simply give up and leave. Simply put, Israel wants all of Palestine, and no one is trying to stop this process.

Defenders of Israel will say that the wall and the checkpoints are there to protect Israelis from Palestinian terrorism, but what they don’t say is that most of these restrictive measures were in place before the peace process broke down and suicide bombings began. The number of Israeli settlers in Palestinian territory doubled during the years of the so-called peace process, the hundreds of miles of roads built for Israelis only on confiscated Palestinian land were there before the Palestinian intifada began, the checkpoints that impede Palestinian movement throughout the West Bank were there before the peace process collapsed, the electrified fence around Gaza that prevents Gazans from moving freely was there throughout the years of the peace process.

No one — none of the optimists — is discussing ending any of these oppressive measures now that we have a so-called cease-fire. In fact, the cease-fire is entirely lopsided: the Palestinians have pledged to give up all violence — promised to end all opposition to the occupation — but Israel is not committed to do anything that will end the occupation.

Israel’s actions and policies in the occupied territories have always been governed not by the issue of when and how to give the Palestinians true independence in a small state in the West Bank and Gaza, but rather by how harshly any given Israeli government needs to act to keep the Palestinians under control and without true independence.

Israel’s oppressive measures have gone so far that the notion of a two-state solution is now virtually meaningless. So much Palestinian land has been taken — confiscated and bulldozed and asphalted over — that there is simply no physical place to put a real state anymore. Advocacy of two states at this point is just an empty slogan; it is merely a way for George Bush to make nice sounds and for some peace activists to salve their consciences without having to think or do anything. As Amira Hass said, optimism is a problem when it simply serves as an anesthetic.

There is a terrible human rights disaster occurring in Palestine, and we Americans are paying for it and supporting it. So many people, out of a false sense of solidarity and sympathy with Israel, have erected a wall around themselves that keeps them from knowing what’s happening in Palestine and that blinds them to the human rights and justice issues there. This issue is not a Jewish issue. It’s a universal issue; it’s a political issue of a state’s behavior toward another people. It’s an issue, most of all, of justice. And justice, we all know, is blind to color and to religion and to ethnicity. Justice shuns the tendency to view this conflict or any other from only one perspective.

And so the question I believe we should all think about, as Americans who pay for all this, is how can any of us, no matter what our religion or our ethnicity or our political inclinations, consider it just for Israel to keep the occupied territories, or any portion of them, when this is all that remains of the Palestinians’ original homeland? How can we consider it just for Israel to confiscate Palestinian land in order to build ethnically exclusive settlements and build a network of ethnically exclusive roads? How can we consider it just if Israel cuts off hundreds of thousands of people from their jobs and their schools and their livelihoods by constructing a cage for them? How can we consider it just for Israelis to bulldoze hundreds of homes — great swaths of people’s homes — for no other reason than that they happen to stand in the way of Israel’s plans?

How can we consider it just to deny Palestinians the right to struggle against this foreign domination? Palestinian terrorism is reprehensible, but I think we need to be aware that Israel’s occupation, which is just as reprehensible, came before Palestinian terrorism. We can condemn the tactics, but justice demands that we not refuse Palestinians the right to struggle for freedom. And in the end, justice demands that we force Israel to stop oppressing another people.

KATHLEEN CHRISTISON is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession. She can be reached at: christison@counterpunch.org