Former CIA Analysts
A few weeks spent in Palestine is always an assault on the senses, on the emotions. And after three trips to the West Bank in the past eighteen months, it is impossible not to draw some conclusions. For most Americans, the eleventh commandment of the politics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is Thou Shalt Not Reach Conclusions, for conclusions that Israel wants the land of Palestine without the people; that the Israeli settlements, the roads accessible only to Israelis, the land confiscations, the house demolitions, the destruction of agricultural land add up to an act of ethnocide against the Palestinian people; that Israel’s occupation and Israel’s land greed are the root of the conflict and the root cause of terrorism are too pointed for most people, too embarrassingly descriptive of an ugly reality impossible to ignore.
Without conclusions, American friends of Israel can live comfortably in denial, believing that although the occupation may be misguided, ultimately Israel is good and innocent, it is only protecting its security, the whole conflict is the Palestinians’ fault. But when you are in Palestine, when you see hundred-year-old olive groves bulldozed to make way for the wall, when you see entire city blocks bulldozed and cleared of homes where thousands once lived, when you actually watch a home being demolished, when you see huge Israeli colonies and small outposts on every hilltop, when you see markets closed because the wall has separated commerce from its customers, when you see destruction all around, denial is no longer possible. You must conclude that there is a deliberate scheme here. You must acknowledge the unthinkable, that Israel has been built from the beginning on the ruins of another nation, that Israel has all but destroyed another people in order to have a Jewish-majority state, that Israel is not moral as its friends claim, not a light unto the nations.
“You Are the Proof that Palestinians Are Not Alone”
What is perhaps most surprising is to encounter so many people, Israelis as well as internationals, who agree with these conclusions and who speak openly and almost casually about their distaste for Zionism and the flaws inherent in the system it has generated. For the second year running, at a work camp sponsored by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) to rebuild a recently demolished Palestinian home in the village of Anata, just outside East Jerusalem, we encountered more people than we knew existed, from more organizations than we knew existed, working to oppose the occupation and help Palestinians oppose Israel’s expansionism. These are people who put their own personal safety at risk and their own personal comfort aside in order to help Palestinians rebuild, protect Palestinians from Israeli settlers and soldiers, bring the Palestinian message to the world, stand in solidarity with Palestinians in distress. ICAHD itself, founded and led by Jeff Halper, is both an activist and an education organization, with a small core staff of Israeli and Palestinian experts, starting with Halper himself, who know every road in the West Bank, every settlement, the details of every Israeli expansion plan, every mile of the separation wall.
In addition, there are countless other volunteer organizations, including, among others, the International Solidarity Movement; Christian Peacemaker Teams; Ecumenical Accompaniers (who accompany Palestinians traveling in areas with a heavy Israeli settler presence). Some people return year after year, during vacation time or school breaks; one Quaker woman was there this year for her ninth summer. Israeli peace groups, including non-Zionist groups uncomfortable with Israel’s Jewish exclusivism and prepared to live in a Palestine in which Jews and Palestinians enjoy equal rights, are numerous. International volunteers also work with Palestinian medical and social relief organizations. During the two weeks of the work camp, we hauled cinderblocks and carried mortar with volunteers from France, England, Israel, Palestine, Canada, Australia, Scotland, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Sweden, South Africa, and the United States many of whom worked on other projects before and after the work camp. A group from Japan working with children in Gaza joined our camp for a day of hard toiling. These Japanese workers were true Stakhanovites.
Being with these individuals and these groups gives one a great sense of the possibilities, a sense that with this many people dedicated to achieving justice for the Palestinians, the struggle cannot possibly be lost. But a return home brings one back to the stark reality that very few Americans and, for all intents and purposes, no politicians of any political stripe care a whit. The stark reality is that neither John Kerry nor George Bush gives a damn how many Palestinians die while they laud Ariel Sharon’s efforts to “guarantee security for Israel,” or how many Palestinian lives and livelihoods are ruined when homes are confiscated or demolished, agricultural land and greenhouses bulldozed, water wells destroyed to make room for the wall that Kerry and Bush alike regard as a marvelous innovation in Israeli peacemaking. The stark reality is that over 90 percent of our congressional representatives vote with numbing regularity to endorse the deliberate strangulation of the Palestinian people.
How ignorant they all are, these politicians who are supposed to represent us, about the realities of life under the dominion of Israel. How ignorant they all are of the facts: that Israel daily destroys or steals homes and land from Palestinians because Jews want these properties, that more miles of the impenetrable, permanent concrete barrier wall are built every day on Palestinian land, that Israel killed 385 Palestinians, 40 of them children under the age of 15, during the five and a half months in which Israelis recently enjoyed a respite from suicide bombings. Kill ratios of 385 to 29 more than two Palestinians killed every day versus one Israeli killed every week are good for Israel, and what is good for Israel is good for U.S. politicians as well. This is also good for the media, which gets a rest from hard reporting on human conflict. Americans have not heard anything from the mainstream media about almost 400 newly dead Palestinians.
Since we were in Palestine last year, new miles of the wall and new Israeli-only roads have been built. New destructions of markets and homesteads have occurred. But little of this makes it into the mainstream press. For two weeks in August, ISM activists led a non-violent march along the length of the wall, from Jenin in the northern West Bank to Jerusalem every day scores of protesters simply walking along the wall but few would know this from watching TV news in the U.S. or reading the New York Times.
How cavalierly they all the politicians and the media and the friends of Israel forget about the Palestinians as human beings with basic human rights like the rest of mankind; how cavalierly they write off the Palestinians as unworthy of those rights guaranteed to us Americans and of course to Israelis: the rights to life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness, security against foreign occupiers. How cavalierly they ignore common human decency. Like that proverbial tree falling in the forest, we international volunteers and peace groups must wonder if anyone hears us.
We take heart, however, from one fact in particular: Palestinians hear us, and that after all is what it’s all about. Palestinians know that ISM volunteers stay with families whose homes are demolished in illegal Israeli acts of collective punishment, giving them strength and some little bit of hope. Palestinians know that groups of internationals will help them with the olive harvest next month, in areas where the wall has blocked Palestinian owners from reaching their own orchards. Palestinians know that Christian groups will protect children on their way to school from the harassment of angry, racist Israeli colonists. Palestinians know that ICAHD volunteers will rebuild a home here and there in an act of defiance against the occupation and of solidarity with Palestinians. Palestinians know that not all Americans are like their government, or even like most of their opposition presidential candidates. Salim Shawamreh, whose house we rebuilt last year under ICAHD’s auspices and who is now an ICAHD board member, spoke at the ceremony marking the completion of this year’s house. Palestinians often think that no one anywhere in the world knows or cares about their plight, he said, but addressing the international volunteers “You are the proof that Palestinians are not alone.”
“The Price People Should Pay to Be Free”
The wall is “the biggest crime against humanity in the last fifty years,” he says. Juliano Mer Khamis, director of the recently released motion picture Arna’s Children, spoke to the work camp after an evening showing of his powerful movie. He is himself a powerful presence handsome, forceful, angry on behalf of the Palestinians. Mer Khamis is the son of the Arna of the movie’s title, a Jewish Israeli woman born and raised in the Galilee, and a Palestinian father from the same region of Israel. The parents were communists, never Zionists, and Arna spent much of her life working on behalf of Palestinian liberation. For many years, only the family’s Jewish identity rubbed off on the son; like many children of mixed marriages, Mer Khamis initially identified aggressively with the power and superiority represented by his Jewishness, even joining the elite paratroops to prove his loyalty to the Jewish state. Until, that is, one day when, while on duty at a checkpoint between Palestinian and Jewish areas inside Israel, he encountered a carload of his own extended Palestinian family and was ordered by a superior officer to harass and humiliate them. After he refused the order, slugged the officer, and served eighteen months in a military brig, his thinking, his politics, and the center of his self-identity changed.
Mer Khamis worked with his mother on the youth theater project that is the subject of Arna’s Children. The movie is the story of Arna’s efforts in 1994 to organize a theater group for young Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp. Although girls were also involved, the movie concentrates on half a dozen Palestinian boys in their mid-teens. This was a period, just after the signing of the Oslo peace agreement, of considerable optimism in both Israel and Palestine, and the movie shows happy young people totally engaged in their amateur theater work. Ten years later, the hope and hilarity of young people working together have been extinguished. Arna herself is dead of cancer, and all but one of the Palestinian teenagers is dead, either the targets of Israeli assassination, or killed fighting Israeli forces during Israel’s siege of Jenin in April 2002, or in two cases in suicide attacks inside Israel. Seeing the human face of these young kids turned militant leaves the audience drained.
Asked during a discussion after the movie if he supports suicide bombings, Mer Khamis never says yes or no but answers with a long description of the Palestinian situation. Palestine, he points out, is a unique guerrilla situation: there are no jungles and no mountains in which to hide in order to attack and ambush the Israelis. “All they have is their suicide attacks.” He notes that “the intifada with stones,” the first intifada in the late 1980s, “where they die in front of the camera and the world sympathizes,” turned into an armed intifada when Israel responded to stones with Kalashnikovs, which occurred on the first day of the second intifada in September 2000. Israel has pushed the Palestinians farther and farther, Mer Khamis says, provoking greater militancy with each step, so that it could justify its actions before the world. Suicide attacks are the Palestinians’ last steps, justifying any oppressive measures in Israel’s eyes. These include assassinations and, the worst, the separation wall.
An Israeli official summoned Mer Khamis for a meeting after the movie was released, thinking it could be used for pro-Israeli propaganda because it shows an Israeli woman helping the Palestinians. But Mer Khamis countered that rather than paternalistically “helping” Palestinians, in fact Arna “strengthened these boys to fight for their rights.” She turned her back on Zionism and was fighting against Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. The boys are now almost all dead, and Mer Khamis says that in Jenin today you simply don’t see the age group between 18 and 29, but he says this is the price people should pay to be free. He quoted one of the boys as saying that he would rather die on his feet than live on his knees. This is the only way to be free, Mer Khamis affirms. (Undoubtedly, neither Mer Khamis nor the teenagers of Jenin have ever heard of Patrick Henry or any of those other revolutionary heroes whose memorable pronouncements on freedom we Americans purport to live by for ourselves, at any rate.)
Over the long term, Mer Khamis is optimistic for the Palestinians, but he believes the fighting will go on for years more. Conflicts can be solved only when they reach a peak, he says, and Ariel Sharon’s role is to bring this one near its peak. But it will get worse before it gets better. The first intifada trained the leadership of the second intifada, including the teenagers of Arna’s theater group; youngsters today, some of them pictured singing a militant song at the end of the movie, are being trained for leadership of the third intifada, sometime in the future. Optimism comes at a heavy price.
An interesting aside: One of the teenagers is shown in the movie saying that he had initially been suspicious of Mer Khamis because he is a Jew, until he clearly demonstrated his sympathy for the Palestinians. Asked after the movie why the Palestinians focused on his Jewishness when he is actually as much Palestinian as Jewish, Mer Khamis observed that, for Palestinians, Israel is not a culture but an apparatus of oppression, and they think of “Jews” as soldiers. They are not anti-Semitic in the way many in the West are; they don’t hate Jews, only Jews seen to be oppressors, and this is the only face of Judaism that most Palestinians see.
The Inevitable Consequences of Zionism
On off days at the work camp, ICAHD staff took the group on political tours of Palestinian and Bedouin areas inside Israel. The tours proved to be a dramatic illustration of the discrimination and racism inherent in a system designed specifically to maintain a Jewish majority a system based on the superiority of Jews over anyone else. Palestinians, including Bedouin, living inside Israel are citizens of the state. They can vote in Israeli elections; Bedouin, although not other Palestinians, serve in the Israeli military. As a matter of law and of the institutional arrangements inherent in Israel’s status as a Jewish-majority state, however, Palestinians and Bedouin, because they are non-Jews, do not receive anything like equal rights or services from the state.
Not only do they face the kind of de facto discrimination that blacks have faced in the U.S. their schools are inadequate, their municipal services are inadequate, they face job discrimination, their towns often sit next to toxic waste dumps and other environmentally hazardous sites but because Israel is explicitly a Jewish state, Palestinians are unable by law to enjoy the benefits of the state provided to Jews or in any way to live in the state as Jews do. The state owns 94 percent of Israel’s land and holds it in trust specifically for the Jewish people, meaning that Palestinians cannot buy land even land they once owned before Israel was created and they were dispossessed. They usually cannot even rent state land. They are not permitted, by law, to move into Jewish cities or the Jewish neighborhoods of mixed cities. Despite a high birth rate and growing population, Palestinian towns and cities cannot expand their municipal limits. Many Palestinian and Bedouin towns are not recognized at all by the state, meaning they receive no services whatsoever from the government, including electricity and water, and are subject to demolition whenever they build residences, mosques, schools, or municipal buildings. As a matter of government policy, the state rings Palestinian towns with Jewish towns in order to limit Palestinian growth. In some mixed cities, the authorities are actually building walls to shield Jews from having to see or deal in any way with their Palestinian fellow citizens.
Most significantly, as a matter of law and because Israel defines itself as the state of Jews everywhere rather than a state of its citizens, no Palestinian, even those who once lived on the land before 1948, may immigrate to the Jewish state. The only way Israel was able to establish itself in the first place as a state with a stable Jewish majority was by dispossessing and expelling most of those Palestinians who lived on the land before 1948; it maintains its Jewish majority by barring these natives and their descendants from returning.
We were able to witness some of the effects of this racism on a trip to several Bedouin towns in the Negev where, because the towns are unrecognized and no schools are provided, children must walk miles in the desert heat to reach schools in recognized villages; where nuclear and chemical wastes from Dimona and other neighboring plants seep into the ground, contaminating the water and the earth; where demolition orders are pending on virtually every building; where Bedouin who loyally served the state in the military receive none of the benefits for which Jewish veterans are eligible; where Jewish towns are being deliberately planted to prevent Bedouin expansion.
We also visited the Palestinian city of Baqa in north central Israel, where the separation wall has split a thriving town that lay astride the 1967 border, half inside Israel, half in the northwestern West Bank. (Baqa was one city in 1948 but was split in two by the 1949 armistice line, the western half remaining inside Israel, where its residents became Israeli citizens, and the eastern half coming under Jordanian rule in the West Bank. Western and eastern sections were reunited physically, although not legally, when Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, and the city again essentially functioned as one until the wall irrevocably split it.) In August 2003, in order to make way for the wall, Israeli tanks and bulldozers destroyed a market area that straddled the border. Described as the most vigorous open-air market in the West Bank and used by Jewish Israelis as well as Palestinians from both Israel and Palestine, the once-bustling market area is now dead on both sides of the border; almost 150 market stalls and several private homes were demolished, and what shops and stalls remain intact have closed for lack of business.
The massive 25-foot-high concrete wall bisects the principal east-west commercial road and separates families, divides commercial ventures, and separates people from service providers. A system of permits now allows only slightly more than 100 named individuals, out of a city of thousands, to pass from one side to the other through a single gate in the wall, operated by Israeli soldiers. Our group left its mark, out of sight of the Israeli soldiers, by writing protest messages on the wall in a variety of languages, but this was small satisfaction against the realization of the destruction of lives represented by the wall, and against the sobering knowledge that Israel treats its own citizens in this way only when they are not Jews.
We witnessed a similarly discriminatory situation in the twin cities of Lod and Ramle, well inside Israel, near Tel Aviv. Once entirely Palestinian towns, both were almost totally emptied of their Palestinian inhabitants in July 1948, thanks to a forcible expulsion led by a future Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. Those Palestinians who escaped expulsion and their descendants now make up 25-30 percent of each city’s population, living for the most part in the slum sections of cities otherwise populated by Israel’s poorest Jewish immigrants. These are the poor suburbs of Tel Aviv, and Lod is the location of Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport.
As elsewhere in Israel, Palestinians in Lod and Ramle are unable to expand their neighborhoods. We drove through one residential section where Israeli authorities had placed huge boulders to prevent Palestinians from building. Walls not as high as the separation wall in the West Bank but just as solidly concrete are being built in both cities to separate Jewish from Palestinian neighborhoods. Several Palestinian (but no Jewish) homes have been demolished to accommodate the wall. Our guide, a sympathetic Israeli doing a doctorate in urban planning with particular emphasis on how Israel institutionalizes its racist policies, pointed out one spot in Ramle where Palestinian boys regularly scale the wall to play soccer and basketball in a field on the other side very near a Jewish residential neighborhood. The Jews are outraged that Palestinian kids can enter their neighborhood, and a Ramle city official whom our guide interviewed for his dissertation confessed that he felt he had abdicated his municipal duties by failing to keep the Palestinian boys out of the Jewish side. In Lod, the Israeli military and police have actually established a checkpoint in one spot between Jewish and Palestinian sections at which cars are stopped and questioned. Our bus was stopped and, although we were allowed to pass into the Palestinian section, a police jeep followed the bus, lights flashing, until we drove out of the city limits. Israelis are obviously uncomfortable when outsiders witness the state’s racism.
All of these official, state-mandated discriminatory measures against the non-Jewish population are the inevitable consequences of establishing a state on the basis of Jewish exclusivity and Jewish-majority rule. For Israelis, the more they can keep Palestinians out of sight and out of mind, the better. Invisible is good from the Jewish perspective; gone altogether would be far better, but this is something the Israelis have not yet been able to achieve. They’re working on it.
To cap this picture of the impact Zionism has had on Palestine’s native population, the group also walked through what little remains of a Palestinian town in the Galilee that Israeli forces erased from the landscape in 1948. Saffuriya, about five miles north of Nazareth, was a farming community of over 4,000 people with a history going back to Hellenistic times. Archeological excavations have revealed the remains of a Roman amphitheater; the ruins of a sixth-century Christian church are still evident; Muslims conquered the town in the seventh century; Crusaders built a castle there, which was later captured by Saladin; an Ottoman ruler built a fortress, still prominent today, on the town’s highest point in the eighteenth century. Israeli forces attacked the town in July 1948, and most residents fled north to Lebanon. A small number remained or reinfiltrated, but according to Israeli historian Benny Morris no friend of the Palestinians but an honest historian Jewish authorities wanted Saffuriya’s approximately 7,000 acres of cultivable land for new Israeli villages and also feared that, if left alone, the town would return to its prewar population. As a result, in early 1949 the authorities trucked the remaining Palestinian inhabitants to other villages, distributed the land to three Israeli farming villages, and demolished Saffuriya’s 700-plus homes.
Our group was led by a young man, the grandson of Saffuriya residents who now lives in Nazareth, through tall weeds and past huge prickly pear cactus something every Palestinian recognizes as the certain indication of an abandoned Palestinian village to stand on the long-abandoned site of Saffuriya. We stood in the old cemetery, looking up at the hillside that had once constituted the built-up area of the town. The young guide stood in front of the hill and showed us a large wall calendar with a picture of the same location dating from the 1930s. The picture shows a sizable town, houses spilling down the hillside, agricultural lands below, and the square Ottoman fortress at the top of the hill. Today the fortress is still there, but no houses remain; the hillside has been densely planted with tall pines by the Jewish National Fund. Americans are familiar with the Jewish campaigns of past decades to raise donations for tree-planting in Israel, supposedly an effort to help Israelis “make the desert bloom.” Here we saw evidence of the human tragedy that enabled the planting of many of those trees. Clearly, in an Israeli context, trees are better than Palestinians. Another of the consequences of Zionism.
The Logic of the Occupation
Trying to visit the small Christian Palestinian town of Zababdeh in the northern West Bank one Sunday morning after the work camp was finished, we encountered the arbitrariness of Israel’s domination close up. Invited to visit a Palestinian Melkite Catholic priest who is the friend of some American friends of ours, we left Jerusalem at 9:00 in the morning in a car driven by a Palestinian friend, Ahmad, who has a Jerusalem ID card, as well as yellow Israeli license plates, and speaks Hebrew and English, in addition to Arabic. For Palestinians, in this most surreal of environments, the origin of one’s ID card and the color of one’s license plates are critical to getting along in life. Possessing a Jerusalem ID card is the only way a Palestinian can enter the city without a special, hard-to-obtain permit. Having yellow license plates, as opposed to the green and white plates of the West Bank, is the only way a Palestinian can drive through most checkpoints or drive on the many limited-access roads built for Israeli settlers.
We drive from Jerusalem down to the Jordan Valley and north along a route paralleling the Jordan River. Although considerably longer, Ahmad calculates that this is an easier route than straight north through the West Bank because we can avoid the notorious Huwwara checkpoint near Nablus, where Israeli soldiers get off on extremely harsh treatment of Palestinians. After about an hour, we turn left, heading back into the heart of the West Bank toward the Hamra checkpoint. After this, we will have a clear, checkpoint-free road to Zababdeh. It is very quiet here, only a few cars waiting to get through the checkpoint in each direction. By mid-morning, it is beginning to get hot, and the Israeli soldiers are already bored and irritated. When our car approaches the checkpoint and stops, the soldiers begin to harass Ahmad, who has gotten out of the car. Put out your cigarette, turn off the engine, give us your ID card, why are you here? Ahmad is friendly but not obsequious. He puts out his cigarette but demands to know why this is necessary. Because sometimes Palestinians throw cigarettes at us, the soldier says inanely.
Ahmad explains our purpose. Zababdeh is a Christian village, the priest is a Christian, there are no terrorists there, we are Americans. No luck. The soldiers say that no one with a Jerusalem ID and no foreigner may enter the West Bank. Obviously, we have been in the West Bank all along, but this logic seems not to matter. We all plead our case, we in English with the one soldier who speaks English (and is obviously originally an American), Ahmad in Hebrew with the checkpoint CO. No luck. They say we can call the district headquarters and put in an appeal, but this could take hours. They wave us off to wait at the side of the road. We would leave, but they have kept Ahmad’s ID card and refuse to return it. This is worse than taking his clothes or confiscating his car. As we wait, Ahmad steams. “They each have a role,” he says. “This one is to deal with the foreigners; that one is to get permissions [from higher authority]; that one is to give shit. Each one has his job. He feels he is the God of everybody.” Periodically, each of us tries to talk to one soldier or another, no longer pleading for passage but simply for the return of Ahmad’s ID card, but always to no avail. Finally, after an hour and a quarter, the American-Israeli soldier comes to the car and tells us that we two Americans can “enter” that is, walk through the checkpoint and pick up a taxi on the other side but Ahmad cannot.
When we make it clear that we will not abandon Ahmad, they finally return his ID, and we leave, retracing our steps down to the Jordan Valley. We head farther north and again turn left toward the heart of the West Bank, trying another checkpoint. By now, it is noon, and the temperature outside is 104 enough to create some sympathy even for Israeli soldiers. One soldier, outside a guard tower overlooking the checkpoint, is so bored he is sound asleep, head tilted back in his chair. The soldier in charge here is nicer, at least not out to humiliate Ahmad, and he does not take Ahmad’s ID when he goes to his guardpost to call someone about how to handle us. Again we wait for an hour, held captive by the “nice” soldier’s repeated tantalizing assurances that he is trying to get authorization for us to pass. Again, however, after an hour we are turned away.
This time the story is that Ahmad can enter, but we cannot because we are foreigners. In Israeli thinking, this is apparently not a contradiction. It is the logic of the occupation. We return to Jerusalem almost six hours after leaving. Were Israel not controlling Palestinian lives in the West Bank, we could have spent this six hours driving directly north to Zababdeh, visiting with our friend the priest for three hours, and returning directly to Jerusalem. We call the priest when we return to Jerusalem. “This is what we go through all the time,” he tells us. “Please tell this story when you go home.”
Somewhat to our surprise, we have encountered American aid workers, contractors working for USAID, at our East Jerusalem hotel both this year and last. They have all been on contract from private companies building wells and rebuilding roads for Palestinians. The irony of this is inescapable. Last year, speaking to one of these Americans, a supervisor whose subordinates were working on roads in Ramallah, we commented on the irony, wondering at a US government that was financing Israel’s destruction of roads all over the West Bank as its tanks rampaged through cities and countryside, and was then financing the reconstruction of the same roads. The same applies to wells, which Israeli tanks and bulldozers regularly destroy and contaminate. Oh, this contractor said, harrumphing a bit uncomfortably, we don’t get into politics; it would make life and work too difficult if we took sides in the conflict. Indeed. Difficult too if they were to challenge the illogic of their US paymasters. This year we made the same point to another contractor whose team was working on wells, but his response was belligerent: nobody has ever destroyed his wells, he insisted, entirely missing the point that he is the one who is repairing Israeli damage. His contract, he declared self-importantly, is worth $7 million. Gee, this might buy the wing of one of the many F-16s the U.S. donates to Israel every year.
Later, at the airport in Amman, Jordan, as we prepared to fly home, we encountered four young Americans at the departure gate, all dressed in desert fatigues without insignia, all muscular and thick-necked, all obviously enjoying their loud conversation about the numbers of RPG rounds their installation had taken on this or that night. They were clearly coming from Iraq, heading for a home leave; they did not have the demeanor of troops on their way home for good. As they continued their conversation, largely for the benefit of those of us around them, Jordanians and Americans, who were not so privileged to live in the macho world of Baghdad, a young woman in civilian dress arrived at the gate and, in the same boisterous manner, struck up a deliberately easy-to-overhear conversation. What did they do in Baghdad, she wondered? Personal bodyguards for Ambassador John Negroponte. Were they working for Blackwater (the now notorious company that has sent hundreds of so-called “contractors” i.e., armed mercenaries to Iraq to do guard duty at prisons and at military installations)? Yes. It soon came out in the conversation that she too had been in Baghdad a few months earlier, working in some kind of legal capacity inside the Green Zone. They all fell to comparing their living arrangements they seemed to inhabit sections of the Green Zone with names like Paradise Hills, or perhaps it was Paradise Gardens and their own experiences dodging mortar rounds and RPG fire. One of the young men, asked “how it is these days,” lamented that it was bad, now that the idealism has gone.
We had to wonder, when was that, that there was any idealism? But we didn’t ask. We cringed at the knowledge that Americans like this transit Amman all the time, en route to and from Iraq, leaving behind an impression of Americans that grows worse by the day. And Americans wonder why Arabs cannot abide us anymore.
Our good-bye to the Middle East last year had a bit of romance to it. After we had left Palestine across the Allenby Bridge to Jordan in August 2003, we spent the evening before our flight home from Amman with some Palestinian-Jordanian friends who own a home and orchard in the hills north of Amman. Arriving in the late afternoon, we talked for a while and then went out to the orchard to pick figs. Eating figs right off the tree in this beautiful setting was like being transported to the hills of Tuscany, far away from the tragedy of Palestine and the turmoil of Middle East politics. We could look across the Jordan River and down at the entire West Bank. As night fell, the lights of Jerusalem and the West Bank began to blink on. Our Palestinian friends pointed out the lights of Nablus opposite us, those of Jenin farther north. Jerusalem was a huge display of lights far to the south. What are these near lights just across the river, we asked, knowing there was no sizable Palestinian town in this area. That’s an Israeli settlement, our hosts said, and the group fell silent.
Leaving was sadder this year. The memory of the wall, the visual evidence from all over Palestine of Israel’s cruel destruction in the name of making life comfortable for Jews, and the memory of Israel’s racist treatment of its non-Jewish citizens were still vividly with us as we left Palestine and a few days later left Jordan. The wall in particular haunted and still haunts us. Supporters of Israel are fond of saying with considerable sarcasm that the wall is only an inconvenience to Palestinians and, they claim, only a temporary one at that while those Jews murdered and maimed by Palestinian terrorism are permanently murdered and maimed. But there is something special about the in-your-face brutality of the wall. It destroys permanently, it ruins lives and does so permanently, it is a permanent blight on the landscape (even if it is eventually torn down, the olive groves and agricultural land that it destroys will not grow back soon), it is a permanent blight in people’s lives. Several Palestinians who protested the wall in peaceful demonstrations have been permanently shot to death by Israeli soldiers. The wall’s massive physical size and the casual disregard for Palestinian lives of those who defend its construction leave those who have stood in its shadow, dwarfed by its monstrous presence, dumbfounded, at a loss for words to describe it. But the feeling of immense sadness is palpable.
Just yesterday a woman from France who had been part of the work camp wrote us that she had been thinking about the destruction and desolation in Palestine, comparing it to the beautiful landscapes near her home in the French Alps; she said that “finally it broke my heart.” Palestine tends to have that effect on you.
Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. He served as a National Intelligence Officer and as Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis. He is a contributor to Imperial Crusades, CounterPunch’s new history of the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kathleen Christison, a former CIA political analyst, is the author of Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy and Wound of Dispossession: Telling the Palestinian Story. They can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
They can be reached at: email@example.com.