I wanted to visit the large West Bank town of Jenin, so with a handful of Palestinian passengers I took an overpriced mini-van ride across the West Bank. Well-kept Jewish settlements dotted the small hills, alongside poor, dusty Palestinian towns. Farmers carried their produce on goats. The landscape was surprisingly green, and often beautiful.
The roads near Jerusalem and the settlements were smooth, but these soon turned into a pot-holed mess (often caused by Israeli tanks, I was told). We crossed a handful of checkpoints. I noticed that cars with Israeli plates could pass straight through while Palestinian vehicles were checked individually. Access to towns such as Jenin was hassle-free for me, as I was travelling around the West Bank in a period of ‘relative calm’. Had I come even a few months earlier, I was constantly reminded, I would probably have faced great difficulties passing Israeli checkpoints.
Jenin’s town centre was eerily deserted, the shops closed. It was Friday afternoon, a time of Muslim prayer. In the empty silence, I noticed that thousands of posters covered the walls. Written in Arabic, they showed men carrying guns promoting martyrdom in front of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. The faces of assassinated HAMAS leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi seemed to be everywhere.
The place was dusty and unclean, and the buildings decayed. I walked around the deserted market and a few people appeared and stared. I found my way to the refugee camp, site of an infamous Israeli invasion in 2002. A number of children started to follow me and to throw large stones in my direction. I shouted at them to stop but to no avail. I picked up my pace but the kids wouldn’t let me out of their sight. At last an old man appeared and screamed at the kids to cease. He spoke very broken English but told me that the children probably thought I was Israeli. ‘Not many people come here other than the Israelis,’ he said. That I was wearing green trousers resembling military fatigues probably didn’t help me!
The camp contained many re-built houses and walls. Water ran along the cramped, steep paths. I could see hundreds of houses sitting on small hills in the distance. I was expecting to see visible reminders of the Israeli incursion, but only traces of the destruction remained. When I found the Palestinian Red Crescent office, I learnt that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia had funded programs to rebuild the refugee camp.
One small building housed a makeshift hospital and a handful of male nurses and doctors. They were friendly and spoke broken English. One man, with growing rage in his eyes, said, ‘Sharon is the biggest terrorist. Tell the world this!’
I started chatting with Abdul Raouf, a nurse. He was 32 and had once lived in Zurich for a couple of years. ‘After 9/11,’ he said, ‘life for Muslims and Arabs in Europe was very hard; they think we’re all terrorists.’ He told me about life under occupation, about ambulances being fired upon and destroyed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). A burnt-out ambulance sat outside the Palestinian Crescent building. A few years earlier an IDF sniper had taken aim at the ambulance and the vehicle had caught fire. Inside the building I met the Palestinian doctor who had been in the ambulance. After 15 months’ treatment in a Jordanian hospital, the man still looked sickly. He had several visible skin grafts and the skin on his face appeared tight.
Raouf told me of many pregnant women dying at checkpoints because the Israelis wouldn’t allow their ambulances to pass. He earned 40 shekels for eight hours’ work and worked as a cleaner at another hospital to supplement his income. ‘Everybody here wants peace, to make a living and space for our children to play,’ he said. ‘This is our land. The Jews should go back to Europe.’
When I said that the Jews could not go back to Europe, he acknowledged that it was impossible: ‘They say that we should go to Jordan or Syria, but that’s not right. We will stay. Most people here think we can live with the Jews, but I don’t think so.’ He told me about a public hospital in Jenin that had 28 stretchers for beds and was trying to deal with 64 sick children in only seven rooms.
Next to the Red Crescent building was the Palestinian police headquarters, still half destroyed by the Israelis. I saw a handful of men in uniform trying to march in time.
As depressing as Jenin was, nothing there prepared me for my visit to Hebron. According to the Bible, Hebron is one of the most spiritual places in historical Palestine and this is partly why it has become fiercely contested territory. Often virtually inaccessible because of intense violence between the IDF, Palestinian militants and Jewish settlers, no place better exemplifies the apartheid-like policies of the Israeli State.
Around 500 Israeli settlers live among 170,000 Palestinians, and successive Israeli governments have supported the fundamentalist Jews who openly advocate Palestinian ‘ethnic cleansing’.
Unlike other West Bank cities, where I was comfortable discovering places and people myself, in Hebron I followed advice and found a guide. Gunhild Louise Forselv, a tall, lanky Dane whose blonde hair drew attention, was a senior press officer with the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH).
The TIPH is a civilian observer mission staffed by personnel from Europe; it was set up after a massacre in 1994, when a settler killed Palestinian worshippers. Its main task is to monitor and report misconduct by either side in the conflict, although they are not permitted to intervene directly and have no military or police functions. The official TIPH mandate is to assist in efforts to ‘maintain normal life in the City of Hebron, thus creating a feeling of security among Palestinians’. I soon discovered just how difficult that was.
‘We have no agenda, such as ending the occupation,’ Gunhild told me. I asked her how the IDF responded to their presence (‘our relationship is average’), the settlers (‘they dislike us, often calling us "Nazis"’) and Palestinians (‘kids sometimes throw stones at us out of frustration, but mainly we are liked’).
The city is divided into an H1 area and an H2 area, an arrangement agreed upon in the 1990s. The intention was to delegate responsibility to both the Palestinian and Israeli authorities, but in reality the arrangement resulted in de facto Israeli control. The result is a Palestinian population virtually kept prisoner in their own homes with their markets and roads closed.
Driving in a four-wheel drive with reinforced windows (for protection against Jewish extremists), we entered H1, where Palestinians are allowed to walk but not drive. The buildings were run-down and IDF patrols stopped almost every Palestinian man. The streets were virtually deserted, however. ‘This is supposed to be the busiest day of the week,’ Gunhild told me, ‘but everybody stays inside.’
We spotted a couple of young male settlers with dark beards and untucked white shirts, both carrying automatic weapons. These were representatives of the infamous ‘hilltop youth’, an extremist Jewish rabble who threaten violence against Ariel Sharon and regularly attack Palestinians.
We entered H2 and got out of the car to look around. I was told to keep my hands visible at all times and not to make eye contact with any Jewish settlers. ‘Sometimes they’ve beaten up members of the TIPH,’ Gunhild said. In this part of town, only IDF and settlers’ cars were allowed. Palestinian land and houses were routinely stolen for ‘security purposes’. Areas that were once thriving were now routinely deserted. Many boarded-up shop fronts were sprayed with the Star of David, a crude way for settlers to claim the property as their own. Comparing this behaviour to 1930s Nazi Germany was considered outrageous, Gunhild said.
The Christian Peacemaker Teams released a series of photographs taken in Hebron in recent years that showed the attitudes of many settlers to the Palestinians. Some of the graffiti in English included: ‘Die Arab Sand Niggers’; ‘Exterminate the Muslims’; ‘Watch out Fatima, we will rape all Arab Women’; ‘Kill All Arabs’; ‘White Power: Kill Niggers’; ‘Gas the Arabs’; and ‘Arabs to the Gas Chambers’. It was hard to believe that anybody, let alone Jews, would want to emulate Nazi behaviour.
As we walked through the deserted streets, Gunhild told me that many Palestinians were not allowed to walk down the same roads as Jews, forcing them to leave their homes through neighbours’ doors or alleys. Only old men were still selling their wares because they were too old to move away and start a new life. Fences, gates, barbed wire, aggressive IDF soldiers and constant settler provocation made Palestinians prisoners in their own city.
The West Bank settlers were more extreme than those in Gaza, according to Gunhild: ‘It’s more religious here, rather than political.’ The week before I visited, a 15-year-old Palestinian boy had been shot dead by the IDF. He allegedly wielded knives while approaching the soldiers. We both wondered why the boy had to be killed. Gunhild said young soldiers wanted to prove their masculinity and show who was boss. Boredom was a significant factor. The IDF have complete control over the area, being able to issue orders to demolish houses, bar access, close shops, take land and impose curfews.
Virtually all the shops in the souks (or market-places) were closed. Sheets of wire mesh were suspended above the markets. Gunhild explained that this was to prevent settlers, living on the levels above, from throwing rubbish and faeces onto the Palestinians, although the meshing was already groaning under the weight of discarded bottles, clothes and rubbish. As we walked through the market, a Palestinian man approached Gunhild and told her that he and his friends had been sitting and talking in their courtyard when a soldier stationed above them in a guard tower had told them to ‘go home’. No reason was given for the directive.
The difficulty of TIPH’s mission was underlined early in 2006 following worldwide Muslim outrage over the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons that were seen as insulting the prophet Mohammed. Around 300 Palestinians attacked the observer mission in Hebron, threw stones, smashed windows and tried to set the building on fire. Sixty unarmed TIPH members were inside at the time but were unharmed.
A week before the protests, 11 Danish members of the mission had left Hebron after receiving threats from local Arab extremists. Gunhild told Associated Press that TIPH had decided, in consultation with the Hebron Governor, to keep a low profile and to temporarily cancel patrols. She claimed that Palestinian groups had guaranteed the mission’s safety just days before the attack.
This is an extract from Antony Loewenstein’s new book My Israel Question published this week by Melbourne University Press (RRP: $32.95)
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