We’ve been very busy in East Jerusalem and the West Bank since we arrived six days ago, racing against the clock trying to fit in as much as we can in case the Israelis impose a total curfew on the West Bank because of the war or impose a closure that cuts off travel between Jerusalem and the West Bank.
So far we’ve traveled to Nablus and Jenin and have had a series of fascinating meetings in Ramallah, the principal West Bank city. Thanks to some great contacts and wonderful help from the friends of friends who know these people, we’ve been lucky enough to have meetings with Hanan Ashrawi, who’s widely known throughout the U.S. from the days in the late ’80s and early ’90s when she was the spokesperson for the Palestinian negotiating delegation and appeared frequently on television; with a physician who directs the principal medical relief organization in the occupied territories; and–this is amazing to us–with Yasir Arafat himself.
Hanan Ashrawi is a very warm, gracious woman, and we had a long talk about prospects for the future, the need (but the lack of much hope) for changes in U.S. and Israeli policies that lead directly to so much hardship and despair in Palestinian society, and what the war in Iraq is likely to mean. The physician, Mustafa Barghouti, emphasized the dire medical situation for most Palestinians, who already have extreme difficulty getting medical help and are likely to be without help altogether if there’s a curfew. Arafat and three of his advisers gave us almost an hour, again talking about U.S. and Israeli policies and the grim outlook for the future. We’ll give you more details on all this as soon as we can catch our breath and collect our thoughts.
The trips to Nablus and Jenin were dramatic and depressing. Although we’ve read quite a bit about the Israeli attacks on these and other towns in the West Bank and Gaza, actually seeing the extent of the destruction–and in particular seeing the huge open area in the middle of Jenin, probably the size of a large city block in a major American city, where once thousands of people had lived in a tightly packed warren of multistory buildings and where now there’s absolutely nothing but pulverized rubble flattened and bulldozed over–literally takes your breath away. It strangles you to drive into this “plaza” and suddenly see nothing and know what happened here, and it’s impossible to understand how one people could do this to another for the sake of keeping land. Suicide bombings, horrific and indefensible though they are, cannot justify destruction on a scale like this.
Getting around is not easy, and we’re discovering the full extent of the travel restrictions Palestinians endure. We’ve tied up with an excellent taxi driver who lives in East Jerusalem and so has yellow Israeli license plates, which are a sort of ticket to free travel, and who’s highly experienced at getting journalists, medical people, UN people, etc. around, but even he, being a Palestinian, has occasional trouble at checkpoints. We’ve now gone to Ramallah, about a 20-minute drive north of Jerusalem, three times, as well as to Nablus and Jenin, and every time has been a bit of an adventure. The first time we ourselves got into a minor argument with a smart-aleck Israeli soldier who wanted us to tell him what we thought of the Israeli army, the IDF, and didn’t particularly appreciate it when we told him we wished the IDF wouldn’t be so hard on the Palestinians. Once, coming back out of Ramallah at night without our favorite taxi driver, we had to be dropped off on the Ramallah side of the checkpoint since no car with West Bank plates can enter Jerusalem, walk through the checkpoint (in the rain, as it happened), show our passports to some Israeli soldiers who bad-mouthed Ramallah and suggested we couldn’t possibly have enjoyed ourselves there (Palestinians are all terrorists, you know), and try to find a Jerusalem taxi at the other end to take us back to the hotel. Yesterday, trying to enter Jenin, the Israeli soldiers wouldn’t let our driver’s taxi in, so the driver and we had to walk the approximately two miles between this first checkpoint and the next one before finding a ride inside the checkpoint to take us into Jenin. Coming back, we did the same walk–after passing the first checkpoint while the Israeli soldiers fired several rounds from their weapons, just to worry us probably.
This has all been a very graphic demonstration of how much Palestinians, wherever they go, live at the mercy of one or two or three 19- or 20-year-old Israeli soldiers who may be bored, or scared, or intoxicated with his own power, or just plain an SOB.
Bill Christison joined the CIA in 1950, and served on the analysis side of the Agency for 28 years. From the early 1970s he served as National Intelligence Officer (principal adviser to the Director of Central Intelligence on certain areas) for, at various times, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa. Before he retired in 1979 he was Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis, a 250-person unit.
Kathleen Christison also worked in the CIA, retiring in 1979. Since then she has been mainly preoccupied by the issue of Palestine. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.
The Christison’s can be reached at: email@example.com