In April 2005, Glasgow indie-band Belle & Sebastian agreed to visit Israel and Occupied Palestine to witness the effects of over 4 years of Intifada and 30 years of Occupation. While they are used to taking on social justice causes in their home town of Glasgow, nothing prepared them for the devastation they would see, or for the bravery of the new heroes in the fight against a world divided by poverty and race.
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, now a half-demolished structure that he built himself, lies between Israel’s Separation Wall and a 5,000 strong settlement that the Israeli government is attempting to incorporate into its own side of the wall. He 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 from his home by Zionist militias as Israel was founded. 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 concludes, “but this is my house I can’t and I won’t!”
In 1996 journalist John Pilger wrote a book entitled “Heroes” which 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 the powerful have judged them to be ‘in the way’. Hani is just one of the 450,000 Palestinians directly affected by the Wall, whose name you don’t know but 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 drops his cigarette ash from his first floor bedroom doorway, which now opens onto an 8-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 fared less well. Omar Khrieshe offers us 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. Erecting 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 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? Yet this isn’t even mentioned in the papers.”
It all leads him 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 purposes of the Wall are: “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.”
The Wall was initiated in June 2002, and represents a new phase in the Israeli Occupation. From the signing of Oslo the Israeli government realised that having control of the Palestinian people was onerous when all it really wanted was control of their land and resources. The best strategy was to use a Palestinian Authority to worry about the people health, education, garbage collection and so forth while Israel maintained effective control of the territory.
The Wall was sold to the international community as 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, makes a nonsense of this justification.
The apartheid nature of the West Bank is further entrenched by the road system. Israeli settler-only roads allow the illegal inhabitants to get as quickly as possible from one outpost to another. Meanwhile Palestinians are forced to drive on separate roads pot-holed and circuitous tracks which add hours to their journeys.
Soon a system of tunnels and bridges will allow the Palestinian roads to cross the settler roads. Israel will also add gates to the tunnels, keeping possession of the keys, so that Palestinian movement can be brought to a standstill whenever the Army decides. In the words of Jumal “The Israeli’s will hold the key to our ghetto”. Nothing could more clearly expose the Orwellian nature of the Israelis’ professed concern with Palestinian “contiguity”, the same justification used to imprison Black South Africans in racist homelands containing depravation which White South Africans never needed to see.
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, we also find the symbol 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 towns 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 the cave, which he claims his family have 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 ideological 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 locked market stall after stall symbolising Hebron’s 70% 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 fortified checkpoints where soldiers abuse and detain them.
Even more dangerous are the 400 settlers themselves, who have lived above the market since the 1970s. Above the streets of the market a piece of metal mesh has been erected to protect the Palestinians below from the garbage hurled at them from the settler blocks. Now the mesh sags under the weight of garbage, blocking out light to the market. Here and there a paving stone has been hurled through to try and break the mesh, and any Palestinian unfortunate enough to be standing beneath. Scrawled in Hebrew along the walls are slogans as uncompromising as “Death to All Arabs”.
10 years ago, a Jewish fundamentalist, the US-born Dr. Baruch Goldstein, entered the Ibrahimi Mosque and murdered 29 Muslims at prayer, injuring around 100 more. While such an act may appear 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 given economic incentives to move into Palestine. Over a million Jews have emigrated to Israel/ Palestine from Russia, Ethopia and elsewhere in the last 10 years, in order to solve Israeli’s ‘demographic’ problem that Arabs will outnumber Jews in the whole area of Israel/ Palestine in the coming decades. Just as cynically, immigration from the Third World also helps diminish Israel’s reliance on Palestinians as a source of cheap labour. While the Bush administration half-heartedly and periodically claims these settlement expansions are “unhelpful”, it is ultimately happy to continue bankrolling the operation. Israel remains the US’s number one source of foreign aid in the world: at least $3 billion a year from one developed country to another. In turn, the Israeli government offers generous subsidies to Israeli’s 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 US remains convinced that a rogue state in the Middle East is central to American geo-strategic interests in the region.
We witnessed the stark contrast between settlements and surrounding Palestinian villages in Jerusalem. 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, well watered gardens, and standard 8-bedroom houses. Just a mile below the hilltop settlement lie the ‘homes’ of dispossessed Bedouin who were literally loaded onto cattle trucks in 1998 and moved from the site of the settlements 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 in between them the very symbol of the global apartheid that separates the First World from the Third World.
The heroes of this situation are the Bedouin, who took all peaceful, legal action open to them before they were forcibly removed. But they are joined by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, a group which brings radical Israelis to protest in the Territories a place in which most Israelis wrongly believe they would be shot on site.
Israel recently announced the creation of 3,500 new housing units in Ma’ale Adumim. Jeff Halper, coordinator of the Committee believes this is part of a strategy to build a ‘settlement corridor’ from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, which will ultimately represent the death knell for the creation of a Palestinian state. Jospeh Berman is a young Committee 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 to play on. He told us that settlement expansions were often built on top of bulldozed Palestinian homes. He repeated the words of an Anata resident, whose house has 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 4 years it has been virtually impossible for Palestinians from the West Bank to enter this other section of their country, or from those within “the prison” to leave it. But now Israeli Prime Minister Sharon has become the unlikely hero of some on the Israeli left, by promising to withdraw all settlements from the Gaza Strip within coming months. This has been heralded by international media as the beginning of the end of the Occupation. But Palestinians have other explanations.
Gaza is the poorest area of Palestine. Houses, shops, schools, the port, and the very government buildings which this territory is supposedly about to be handed over to, lie in rubble. Kids play around open sewerage and live in the sort of one room shacks familiar from 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 landscapes in oases of lush fertility. Although it seems these settlements are about to be removed, they’re extravagant lifestyle has bled Gaza of its most precious resource water. As Gaza’s settlers prepare to leave, albeit unwillingly, for richer pastures, 1.2 million Palestinians will inherit control of the most densely crowded piece of land in the world, with no access to the outside world, few resources, and its entire infrastructure to rebuild.
Only when you reach Rafah the border line between Palestine and Egypt do you realize that the violence these people have seen outweighs any poverty they suffer. We met Mohammed, a 21-year-old numbed by his experience who, in his own words, “can’t sleep properly at night without the sound of gunshots”. He’d like to be a journalist and showed us his horrifying collection of cassettes US-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 his 10 year old brother being killed by soldiers behind a 10 meter high steel fence smearing his face with the sewerage running down the streets.
We visit Mohammed’s home in Rafah refugee camp and we are transported to a science fiction horror world. 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 discovered only a week later when they were killed by soldiers as their ball went too close to the watchtower.
Even the colour of our skin doesn’t buy protection in this contemporary Beirut, as a memorial school dedicated to Rachel Corrie reminds us. Graffiti on the wall bears homage to Rachel and to British victim Tom Hurndall “you were here to save our lives we will never forget you”.
The strategy of Gaza does not represent an end to the Occupation. It is only the other side of the strategy dictating the building of the Wall and the expansion of settlements in the West Bank: control the land and resources; relinquish responsibility for the people. When Oslo collapsed because Palestinian lives continued to be characterised by misery, poverty and humiliation, Israel continued this strategy unilaterally, after initial and brutal suppression of Palestinian resistance. Sharon’s own words on 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 clothes before they can enter the heavily militarised industrial area where they work for one third the price of an Israeli. Israel is seeking Western aid for the creation of many similar industrial zones, which claim to give Palestinians much needed employment prospects. But nothing makes clearer that Israel and Palestine represent a faultline in a wider global project than these “export processing zones” where the goods which keep the wheels of corporate globalisation turning, are produced in standards of environmentally-destructive sweatshops.
Leaving Gaza, we get a small taste of the daily lives of Palestinians. We walk through the endless corrugated corridor of 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, in overt form, the apartheid nature of the world around us. While some of the world experience unprecedented wealth, the majority, because of their race or religion or location, live in a daily struggle against a system which offers no choices, no freedom, no peace.
Beyond the violence, poverty, humiliation and daily denial of human rights, beyond the headlines of suicide bombings, Palestinians are challenging the system, subverting the system and living 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 sum up 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.”
NICK DEARDEN works for the London-based War on Want. He can be reached at: email@example.com
Also look at: Belle & Sebastian http://www.belleandsebastian.com/ Stop the Wall www.stopthewall.org International Committee Against House Demolitions www.icahd.org Rafah Today www.rafahtoday.org Slingshot hip hop project www.slingshothiphop.com
Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect these Palestinians from additional harassment.