Ramallah Revelations

Saturday, July 23, 2011

> "MY FAVOURITE MOVIE is Life is Beautiful," Refaat Sabbah tells me. "I love
> the way the hero protects his son from the experience of the concentration
> camp. I try to protect my children from the horrors around us too," he adds
> with a gentle smile. "I notice my daughter doesn't draw guns and tanks."
> We are sitting in a covered porch in his modest home in a downtown Ramallah
> neighbourhood. The night before, Israeli troops nearly destroyed Yasser
> Arafat's compound nearby. Refaat and his wife Soreida were up all night. The
> shelling began at 2 a.m. and continued until 6 a.m. The children -- a girl,
> nine, and a boy, four, slept through it. Not so the little girl next door,
> who has been crying ever since.
> This is life in Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian
> territories. Refaat is the founder and head of the Teacher Creativity Center
> here, and Soreida works with women's groups. They are intelligent, charming,
> and passionate about life. Like many activists I meet here, they are
> remarkably without hatred or bitterness. Sabbah tells me that he tries to
> avoid crossing the checkpoints that surround Ramallah so that he won't get
> too angry with the Israelis.
> I am in Palestine. Even the term makes me a little uncomfortable -- I am
> Jewish, born and bred. I went to Hebrew school. My first battle for equality
> was to insist on having a bat mitzvah in my 13th year: in those days, only
> boys had the coming-of-age ceremony. My father was a major fundraiser for
> the United Jewish Appeal, with most of the money going to Israel. Israel is
> supposed to be my homeland.
> I went to the Palestinian territories recently as part of a fact-finding
> trip organized by Alternatives, a Montreal-based organization with a history
> of 20 years of work with groups in Israel and Palestine. I accepted the
> invitation because I had become increasingly disturbed by the Israeli
> occupation of the territories, and the uncritical support for Israel by
> Canada's organized Jewish community.
> What I saw was both deeply disturbing and strangely inspiring. The
> inspiration came from people I met on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian
> divide. I was already aware of the brave people of the Israeli peace
> movement who stand up against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land,
> land that Israel agreed to withdraw from under the Oslo accords. What I
> didn't know was that there is a strong, growing movement of activists in the
> Palestinian territories who call themselves the democratic opposition. Most
> work through the non-governmental organizations that provide what is left of
> social services in the Palestinian territories. Like Refaat and Soreida,
> these are compassionate people with a strong commitment to democracy,
> equality and peace. As one told me, "I only wish the Israelis realized that
> their best hope of security is a strong Palestinian state. The rest of the
> Arab world hates them, we don't -- we know them, they are our neighbours."
> While the outside media rarely mentions the democratic opposition, their
> popularity in Palestine is growing, and some plan to run for office in the
> coming elections early in the new year. The most prominent figure among the
> democratic opposition is Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, president of the Union of
> Palestinian Medical Relief Committees. "What we are witnessing," he argues,
> "is an annexation of the West Bank -- the same process as in 1948 when the
> state of Israel was founded on previously Palestinian land. This is a war of
> settlements, and the ultimate goal is to annex the West Bank. The current
> struggle," he added, "will decide if there will be two independent states --
> Israel and Palestine -- or one apartheid state of Israel."
> Barghouthi's words have echoed in my head since my return to Canada, as the
> Israeli aggression has stepped up. While there, I saw the series of
> checkpoints as a new Berlin Wall in the making. Now, they're building the
> wall.
> Visiting the West Bank is a frustrating experience because of the
> checkpoints, while living there seems almost impossible. On the first day
> that we visited Ramallah, the checkpoint on the road linking the city with
> Jerusalem closed at about 4 p.m. The scene we observed while waiting for the
> bus to take us back to Jerusalem was not unusual. Palestinians working in
> Jerusalem and living in Ramallah couldn't get home, so frustration grew as
> the afternoon wore on. A few walked forward to speak with the guards, and no
> one would leave, despite orders to do so from the soldiers. Then, the
> soldiers fired tear gas to disperse them.
> A few boys, whom I had seen earlier gathering rocks, started throwing them
> at the soldiers. That's when the soldiers started shooting. People ran in
> all directions. "Come, come," one man yelled. He waved at us to take refuge
> behind a car parked nearby. We weren't frightened because it seemed
> impossible that they were using live ammunition -- but they were.
> As extraordinary as the experience was for us, it is a daily ritual here.
> According to Barghouthi, these checkpoint dramas are simply a method of
> harassing Palestinians, like the thousands of students at Birzeit University
> living in Ramallah who must cross a checkpoint twice -- there and back -- to
> get to school, walking more than a kilometre each way. The checkpoints
> divide the West Bank into 120 different areas. If you want to go from one
> area to the next, you cross a checkpoint. You never know if it will be open,
> and it's impossible to know how long you will wait. If you're sick, old or
> pregnant, you still wait. If you want to visit your aging parents in the
> next village, you need permission from the Israelis. "We cannot breathe,"
> one woman said, jammed against us in the crowd at a checkpoint. "We cannot
> work, or take care of our families. They have taken away our lives."
> In Canada, we hear much more about the horror of suicide bombings than about
> the killing of Palestinian civilians. According to the Palestinian Red
> Crescent Society, 1,599 Palestinians -- 85 percent of them civilians -- have
> been killed and 19,452 injured since September, 2000, when the second
> intifada began. In the same period, 563 Israelis have been killed and 3,545
> injured, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
> The suicide bombings, as terrible as they are, are not the reason for
> Israeli aggression in the Palestinian territories. The real reason is to
> protect ever-expanding Israeli settlements. But the bombings do provide a
> moral and political justification for the occupation. The Israeli peace
> movement that was so powerful only a few years ago is now isolated, with 70
> per cent of Israelis supporting the aggressive policies of Prime Minister
> Ariel Sharon.
> Adam Keller is a Jewish activist from the peace group Gush Shalom. "It is
> very difficult," he told us. "Like all Israelis, I am afraid of the suicide
> bombers. Every day we live this fear, never knowing if our families or we
> will be victims. But what makes me different is that while I believe they
> are wrong, I understand that this is the only way Palestinians feel they can
> fight back against the terrible injustice being inflicted on them by my
> government."
> The checkpoints, 24-hour curfews, mass arrests of adult males, rotating
> invasions, strafing and bulldozing of houses, occupations of cities and
> refugee camps, and refusal to allow Palestinians to work in or trade with
> Israel, are all justified by the attempt to stop suicide bombings. Now,
> they're building a wall around the West Bank. What next?
> My experience convinced me that Israeli aggression simply plants the seeds
> for more suicide bombings. Everywhere we went were posters of "martyrs,"
> both suicide bombers and young men posing with machine guns who were killed
> resisting the Israeli invasion last April. In one refugee camp, young boys
> wore photos of the "martyrs" in pendants around their necks -- like saints'
> medals. "I am not afraid of the Israelis," Refaat Sabbah told me. "I am
> afraid that violence is becoming a positive moral value in our society. And
> from that we will never recover."
> All the activists we met oppose the suicide bombings, both morally and
> politically. But they are frustrated that no one in the outside world asks
> why so many young people are desperate enough to blow themselves up. The
> week after our visit, a large number of Palestinian intellectuals and
> activists made a public statement condemning suicide bombing and calling on
> extremist Palestinian groups, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to stop
> recruiting young people for these acts of terror.
> The state of Israel is not in danger. The Palestinians have no army, and
> other Arab countries are not leaping to their defence. Only Israel has the
> power to stop the escalating violence. Surely memory is not so short -- and
> Israelis can remember when they were a people without their own land or an
> army to defend them, and with a strong, proud identity and history of
> resisting persecution. What struck me most in my visit was how similar are
> the Palestinians and the Jews. One man in East Jerusalem asked me: "If you
> are Jewish, why don't you support the Israelis?" I responded that I couldn't
> accept that my people, who suffered for so many centuries, could turn around
> and persecute another people. There is no justice in that -- and where there
> is no justice, there will be no peace.