Former CIA analysts
In mid-November, Hillary Clinton visited Israel and, following a meeting with Ariel Sharon, in remarks that presaged the praise being heaped on the now-comatose Sharon, began her campaign for president by praising the Israeli as a “courageous” man who had taken “an incredibly difficult” step by withdrawing from Gaza. The withdrawal, she claimed with remarkable disregard for reality, was intended as “a means of demonstrating that he is committed to trying to get back into a process” with the Palestinians. Clinton also stopped for a photo op during her trip, in what constituted an equally monumental lie. She stood on a hilltop inside the Israeli settlement of Gilo, an illegal subdivision populated by 28,000 Israelis on the southern edge of Jerusalem overlooking Bethlehem. Gilo is in occupied Palestinian territory. It was built three decades ago, illegally according to international law, on approximately 700 acres of land confiscated from Palestinian ownership. It is just inside the expanded municipal limits of Jerusalem — boundaries that Israel redrew when it captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967, then expropriated 25 square miles of Palestinian West Bank territory and annexed it, also illegally according to international law, to Israeli West Jerusalem.
Clinton stood on this spot and, striking an elaborate pose, gazing pensively off to the side, had her photo taken with the 26-foot-high concrete monstrosity that is Israel’s separation wall in the near distance behind her. Where she stood, the wall, like Gilo itself, is built on confiscated Palestinian land. On the other side of the wall, in the middle distance, was the dying little town of Bethlehem, now partially encircled by the wall and cut off from Jerusalem, its religious and cultural twin.
Already surrounded by nine Israeli settlements, including Gilo, by a network of roads restricted to Israeli use, and by what the UN estimates are 78 Israeli checkpoints and other physical obstacles to Palestinian movement, Bethlehem has had only limited access to its surroundings for years. Completion of the wall on its northern and western sides, separating it from Jerusalem, is the final closure on Bethlehem’s breathing room. A huge terminal went into operation in November, requiring travelers entering and leaving Bethlehem to pass through multiple turnstiles, x-ray scans, and permit checks. Palestinians must have hard-to-obtain permits to leave Bethlehem. The terminal is manned by both Israeli military and civilians. It functions like nothing so much as an international border, except that the guards and soldiers on both sides of this border are Israeli.
If you know Palestine, Clinton’s photo-op beggars the imagination. She no doubt knows nothing of the history of the area; she might even be excused for not knowing that Gilo is in occupied territory. But one would like to assume that she is a thinking, feeling human being, able to see at a glance the huge concreteness of the wall and the scar it leaves across the land and across Palestinian humanity. Yet her ability to stand in front of the wall and sing its praises is clear testimony to the power of denial, and the power of politics. Clinton made it clear that she had no intention of visiting “Palestinian areas” — by which she meant Palestinian areas where Israelis do not yet live — and her promise was triumphantly repeated in Israeli press coverage of her visit. Her constituents in New York and among Democrats eager for her presidential candidacy were undoubtedly also pleased that she refused to associate with those people, the Palestinians.
The wall, Clinton announced in its shadow, coyly mislabeling it a fence, “is not against the Palestinian people,” only against the terrorists. As if she knew. As if she knew anything about the situation on the ground. As if the wall selectively disrupts only the plans of a few terrorists and does not destroy the property, the land, the homes, the livelihoods, the very lives of 500,000 innocent Palestinians. In a statement posted on her website following the trip, Clinton affirmed her “strong” support for Israel’s “right” to ensure the safety and security of its citizens and to build a “security barrier to keep terrorists out,” and boasted that she had “taken the International Court of Justice to task for questioning Israel’s right to build the fence.” Apparently, we are supposed to be edified by Clinton’s cheek in taking an international court to task. Such steely determination on Israel’s behalf plays well in the U.S. political arena, where the utter immorality of the wall is of little import.
Squeezed in Nu’man
What Hillary Clinton does not know about the wall, about the Palestinian lives it affects, about anyone’s security, would fill a large volume. Take the little village of Nu’man, whose 200 or so inhabitants have lived throughout the 38 years of Israel’s occupation in a strange kind of limbo and are now facing the total destruction of their homes and entire village. We visited Nu’man in September and heard its story from the elderly mother of the village leader and her nephew, a young man who is also a leader in the village.
Nu’man lies a few miles northeast of Bethlehem, not more than five miles as the crow flies from where Clinton stood admiring the wall. Few people in Israel and the U.S. had ever heard of Nu’man until just recently when Ha’artez correspondent Gideon Levy revealed that Israeli Border Police, a notoriously vicious lot, had probably tied a Nu’man resident, father of nine children, to his donkey and then spooked the donkey so that it ran and dragged the helpless man to his death. Although the Border Police deny any culpability, the practice is common enough, according to Palestinians, to have acquired a name, “the donkey procedure.” Ha’aretz thought to publish an editorial criticizing Israelis for the kind of apathy that allows this sort of thing to happen frequently to Palestinians without anyone noticing, but the criticism is at least 38 years late.
The small village of Nu’man is in a rural area just inside the municipal limits of Jerusalem, but in 1967 when Israel required all residents of the recently captured territories to register and obtain residency cards, Nu’man’s inhabitants were given West Bank IDs, meaning it is illegal for them even to be in Jerusalem — to be in their homes, to live where they live, to have been born where they were born. This anomaly was never a major problem until the 1990s, at the height of the so-called peace process, when Israel imposed closure on the West Bank and Gaza and required that Palestinians have permits before they could enter Israel, including annexed Jerusalem.
Until this point, Nu’man’s children had attended schools in Jerusalem, but eight years ago they were barred from Jerusalem and required to go to school in Bethlehem. Like hundreds of tiny rural villages throughout the West Bank, Nu’man depends on other nearby towns and villages, in this case Bethlehem and surrounding villages, for virtually all vital services — not only schools, but medical services and groceries. But the village is gradually being squeezed on all sides and cut off from its neighbors. To the north, Jerusalem is no longer accessible. The wall, which encircles the village on the east and south, has separated it from several neighboring villages and, when completed, will cut it off from Bethlehem. On the west, the large Israeli settlement of Har Homa is encroaching on village land. Israeli authorities have informed the village that the settlement intends to expand to a hillside literally only a stone’s throw away from Nu’man’s homes, all of which have been issued demolition orders.
Israel’s contention is that these homes, a few of which have already been demolished, were built without permits. And of course this is true. The village, whose inhabitants are Bedouin, has existed since the early 19th century, well before Israel was created and about a century and a half before Israel invaded and occupied the West Bank in 1967, annexed a large swath of land to Jerusalem, and began imposing its own permit regulations, its own laws, and its own expansionist ambitions on another people. Several years ago, Israel tried to buy Nu’man’s land, but the villagers refused. The Israelis then cut off the village’s water and electricity, but the people existed on wells and were able to get electricity from Bethlehem. When these steps failed to empty the village, Israel began encircling and squeezing it.
Fatma, the village leader’s mother, and her nephew explained all this to us matter-of-factly, with remarkably little emotion. Our friend Ahmad interpreted for us. But near the end of our meeting, Fatma began to tell a long story that we did not at first understand, until tears began to roll down her cheeks as she talked. As Ahmad explained the story, one of Fatma’s sons, a lawyer, is married to a woman, also a lawyer, who has a Jerusalem ID card. About a year ago, their five-year-old daughter became ill and Fatma’s son went into Jerusalem, carrying his West Bank ID card, to buy medicine for the girl. He was arrested for illegally being in Jerusalem and was held for six months, under Israel’s occupation “law,” which allows Israel to detain anyone for six-months without bringing charges. The day before Fatma’s son was to be released, the Israelis imposed a second six-month sentence, and just two days before we met her, after the family had prepared a welcome-home celebration for him, her son was sentenced for a third six-month period.
While we sat somewhat mute, unable to react adequately to this (typical) example of Israel’s nightmarish occupation, Fatma’s nephew Yussuf struck a hopeful note. Noting that Nu’man, and the Palestinians in general, have neither airplanes nor tanks nor guns, he said they will fight non-violently. Nu’man’s story is getting out, he said — a Swedish film crew was in the village this very day — and “maybe this will give us power.”
This puts us sadly in mind of a video we recently saw of a group of teenage folk dancers from the Ibdaa Cultural Center at Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, in which one boy comments that foreigners come all the time to Dheisheh to help the Palestinians, but nothing ever changes. We could not share Yussuf’s optimism. Nor did our friend Ahmad, who commented after we left, “It doesn’t help if you’re a lawyer like her son, or a professor. It only helps if you’re a Jew.” Harsh but true. Nu’man is not a threat to Israelis. It’s just in the way — in the way of expansion plans for Israeli Jews.
Hillary Clinton will most likely never hear about Nu’man. Even she would have some trouble justifying Nu’man’s treatment as something that ensures the “safety and security” of Israelis, so she deliberately chose not to see it, not to see Palestine or Palestinians at all.
Cut Off in Qalqilya
If you’re Jewish in Israel or Palestine, or an ambitious whistle-stopping American politician, it is easy not to see the wall. To see it figuratively, you have to be open-minded, a rare quality where seeing Palestinians is involved. To see the huge concrete structure literally, you have to be in Palestinian areas, in East Jerusalem or deeper in the West Bank, so not many Israelis or their political visitors see where the wall cuts a village off from its land, or runs down the middle of a busy commercial street, or cuts directly across a street, or winds through a residential neighborhood, looming right outside the front door of a private home. So hardly anyone except Palestinians and their friends truly knows about the wall. Where it comes near Israeli settlements, as in Gilo, Israelis are able to see it, but usually only on the settlement’s outskirts. In the few places where the wall runs along Israel’s border, attractive landscaping on Israel’s side hides its ugliness from Israelis.
On the Israeli side of Qalqilya, for instance, the principal Palestinian city in the agricultural heart of the West Bank, the wall can barely be seen. Qalqilya sits adjacent to the Green Line, just inside the West Bank, and it used to be an agricultural and commercial center for the area, a place where both Israelis and Palestinians came to shop and do business. But the wall, erected here almost three years ago, encloses the city on three sides and most of the fourth, cutting it off completely from Israel, placing almost 2,000 acres of its land on the Israeli side, and leaving only one road out of the town, to the east. This road was closed except to permit holders until about a year ago. Now it is still controlled by Israeli soldiers and movement is restricted. Israelis can still not come to shop.
Last February, during the usually life-giving winter rainy season, the entire Qalqilya area flooded after seven consecutive days of rain because the concrete wall prevented runoff. Backed-up sewage caused by the wall created a further problem. According to the armistice agreement that established the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank in 1949, Israel provides an outlet to the sea for sewer water from the Qalqilya region. Because the wall has blocked the drainage channels, a system of gates was established to provide for runoff. These are controlled by the Israelis, but Israeli attention to the gates is at best spotty (as is also the case with the gates controlling farmers’ access to their land), and during the period of heavy rains and floods, the gates went unmanned for three days. As a result, sewage mixed with flood waters, and an estimated 200 acres of land was polluted, causing a devastating crop loss for hundreds of farm families.
When we met with Qalqilya’s deputy mayor, Hashim al-Masri, in September, he described an economically devastated city. Qalqilya once had three principal sources of income, now totally cut off or severely limited by the wall. Approximately 12,000 residents once worked inside Israel; now only about 300 sneak in to work illegally. The town was also an agricultural market center, selling fruits and vegetables to Israelis as well as Palestinians. Now 80 percent of this market has been lost because most of Qalqilya’s land is on the Israeli side of the wall. Produce from the Qalqilya fields that ended up on Israel’s side of the wall is now being sold all over the West Bank by Israelis, al-Masri said, with the result that what Qalqilya is still able to grow and sell goes very cheaply. Finally, the town was once a business and commercial center for both Israelis and Palestinians, with what al-Masri said was a business capacity more than three times what was needed for the town itself. Now less than 25 percent of that capacity is left. Israelis cannot get into the town, shops are closed, commerce is dying.
Al-Masri estimated that Qalqilya had lost more than 65 percent of its economy. Approximately 12 percent of the residents have left to move farther into the West Bank. The city’s distress is evident in streets lined with closed shops, in a market area obviously not thriving, and in the prevalence of donkey carts used for ordinary transport by people unable any longer to afford cars.
Steven Erlanger of the New York Times visited Qalqilya in November, but his principal concern was not what the wall has done to Qalqilya — he mentioned the “separation barrier” only in passing, as the only thing that separates Qalqilya from the Israeli town of Kfar Sava. He was more interested in the fact that al-Masri and his four fellow members of the city council are all members of Hamas and what this means for Israel. Hamas swept the local elections in June; al-Masri is serving as acting mayor because the mayor, another Hamas man, was elected while in an Israeli prison, where he has been languishing, without charges, for over three years.
“A lot of eyes are fixed on Qalqilya” because both Fatah and Israel are shocked at the Hamas victory, Erlanger wrote earnestly. He went out in search of ordinary Qalqilyans in the market who would discuss al-Masri’s performance, and he found enough dissatisfaction with Hamas’ restrictive rule to make an article. Erlanger himself was concerned about Hamas’ attitude toward Israel, noting early in the article that Hamas “advocates Israel’s destruction” and asking al-Masri about what he called the Hamas “commitment” to establishing a Palestinian state in all of Palestine and thereby destroying Israel. Wondering about the kind of threat Hamas might pose to Israel from a small town sitting besieged and helpless behind a massive concrete wall would seem to be a serious upending of reality, certainly out of proportion to any actual danger to Israel. But this was clearly Erlanger’s principal concern; he seemed unable to conceive of an Israeli threat to the Palestinians. He mentioned nothing about the floods of February, or the jobs lost to the wall, or the fields left fallow, or the huge agricultural loss, or the general economic strangulation.
Another example, like that of Hillary Clinton, of not seeing the wall even when it and its consequences stare you in the face.
Bil’in: A Sequel
We wrote in September (“Travels in Palestine, Part One: Horror Story,“) about meeting with the mayor in the small village of Bil’in; he is actually head of the village council, a man named Ahmad Issa Yassin. Bil’in has lost three-quarters of its land to the separation wall and has staged non-violent anti-wall protests every Friday since February, with the participation of hundreds of Palestinians from Bil’in and nearby villages, Israeli peace activists, and internationals. The protests are continuing even though almost no one in the West or the Western media sees these either, any more than they do in Gilo or Qalqilya. Israel’s violent response to the peaceful protests also continues, also more or less unseen.
Steven Erlanger did finally record the protests for the New York Times in October, eight months after they had begun, but he managed to minimize the significance of the protests and of the village’s loss of land to the wall. Calling the interplay between protesters and Israeli soldiers “almost joyful” and likening the confrontation to a kabuki dance, Erlanger emphasized that the Israeli military has backed off from its earlier confrontational mode and now only wants to “protect” the “barrier” from the protesters. He quoted an Israeli commander as saying, with a straight face, “We don’t want to bother them in the village or the fields” — as if the wall and the confiscation of the village’s agricultural land that it entails are themselves no “bother.” In a remarkable verbal circumlocution, Erlanger noted that the Israelis had become concerned that their earlier use of batons, stun grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas against protesters “made it look as if” Israel was repressing dissent. Well, duh. Erlanger did not see fit to interview any Palestinians, not even village leader Yassin.
At about the time Erlanger was making excuses for them, the Israelis began resorting to middle-of-the-night raids to arrest and intimidate village residents. Erlanger did not see these either. Since October, several young men from the village have been seized in the nighttime raids and detained for various periods for “damaging the foundation” of the wall. Two of Ahmad Issa Yassin’s nine children are among those arrested during multiple raids on Yassin’s house in November. Both sons were among about a dozen fined $200 each and sentenced to four months in jail. One son is 28 years old, married with two children and a third on the way. The other is only 14. We met this boy, Abdullah, in September and thought him even younger — a smiling, clean-cut boy, who is Yassin’s youngest child. He is at Israel’s notorious Ofer military detention center.
Bil’in’s residents are continuing their struggle undeterred. Just before Christmas, they acquired a trailer and set it up on village land lying on the Israeli side of the wall, proclaiming it an “outpost” of Bil’in, much as wildcatting Israeli settlers establish settlement outposts on nearby hillsides and live there in trailer villages. Israeli soldiers immediately dismantled the Bil’in “outpost,” using sledgehammers and a crane, but villagers replaced it with a tent and a few days later moved another trailer onto the same spot and built a small shed to mark their claim. Israeli soldiers removed this trailer too, but the shed remains for now, under threat of demolition.
When we visited him in September, Yassin pointed to his now-jailed son Abdullah and expressed his worry about the kind of future that lay ahead for his children and grandchildren, and for the future of an entire village being strangled by Israel. Yassin himself is without a job or a livelihood, having lost his permit to work in Israel when the intifada began in 2000 and now having lost his productive olive trees to the wall. We gave him a button carrying a quote from Howard Zinn: “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.” Yassin was quite taken with the quote and asked if we had more of the buttons that he could pass out. “We are people who want a future to live in peace,” he said. “We don’t want war and blood and killing.”
But Bil’in is in the way of Israel’s plans, and in the West Bank that’s all that counts. Until Israeli leaders and the American politicians who toady to them begin to see what is happening right before their eyes, begin to see the human lives that they and their occupations and their walls are destroying, nothing will change. Ahmad Issa Yassin’s children will remain in jail.
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.
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.
They both can be reached at email@example.com.