I'm checking in from Deheishe Refugee Camp in Bethlehem on the West Bank, under Israeli military occupation. The Palestinians I have met-in homes, offices, cars and the streets-in my short travels to Jerusalem, Gaza and Ramallah have been wonderfully gracious, welcoming, and open hearted.
Everything is good, for me that is. Today is one of those precious few days that in Palestine are called "very quiet." That means that, as of noon today, "only" two Palestinian teenagers were killed, one in Gaza and the other in Jenin camp. This "quiet" today meant that it took Barbara Lubin and me three hours to make the trip from Ramallah to Bethlehem. That journey should take no more than half an hour. Someone without a car or the money to pay for a private taxi would easily take another couple of hours more than we did to make the trip. At present, unless a Palestinian has some pressing, immediate reason to travel from Ramallah to Jerusalem, the Israelis will absolutely not allow them to do so. Not even to visit a mother or a spouse. Many of Barbara's friends have been isolated from their families for months due to this viciousness.
To get from Ramallah to Bethlehem (via Jerusalem) we had to pass through three Israeli military "checkpoints" and to detour around numerous places where the Israelis have purposefully destroyed the roads. Sometimes this destruction is for what the Israelis say are military reasons; many times it is simply to cause havoc in the lives and business of Palestinians.
Yesterday, as we drove from Gaza to Ramallah, we found ourselves at the main entry to the city. However, the entry has been destroyed. So, to enter, we had to drive for 45 minutes on one of those exclusive Israeli-only "bypass highways." Finally the detour led us to a spot that was a stone's throw from where we started the detour, but this time inside Ramallah. We were allowed to take that "shortcut" because we were in a United Nations car; otherwise it is much worse.
One of the reasons today's trip took us so little time is that, by chance, we ended up in a taxi driven by a Palestinian who holds Israeli citizenship at the military checkpoint on the way out of Ramallah. Otherwise, at each checkpoint, we would have had to change taxis once we got through the checkpoint. Even our Israeli citizen driver was not allowed to drive into Bethlehem, so we did have to change there.
Being here it's hard to suppress the thought that the Israeli government is monstrous. They are not just militarily controlling Palestine. They think of every possible inconvenience and humiliation to inflict. Israeli teenagers with guns are free to harass, ignore/make wait, and humiliate anyone they please. The idea that the Palestinian Authority is in charge of anything is pretty farfetched. Palestinians are treated like cattle, made to walk several hundred meter long gantlets, often literally in cages, to pass Israeli checkpoints-that is, those few that are allowed through. Homes and businesses are plowed under by the hundred. Children are mercilessly killed; disease unchecked. The infrastructure is destroyed. The Gaza Strip is appalling. It is one of the poorest areas in Palestine, despite the fact that it has miles of beautiful beach on the Mediterranean. In Gaza City, it is really hard to find buildings that don't have bullet holes or that have not been reduced to rubble by bombing or shelling.
The poverty in the Gaza refugee camps (where those who formerly lived in what is now Israel are shunted) makes Gaza City look positively like paradise. The central market area is gruesomely poor, more than half the houses are bombed out, the water is non-existent or poisoned. The children's playground is the hamtrack of an Israeli tank. Shelling is daily; incursion and curfew frequent. No one has work. No one knows what new pains tomorrow will bring. Men leave their families in the morning to avoid being asked for a shekel (20 cents) for food by their children. It's a disaster.
Anyone who, like myself, might be imagining the Israeli "settlements" in the West Bank or Gaza as some kind of rustic pioneer thing need to be disabused of the notion. The settlements are gigantic (up to 50,000 person) Darth Vaderesque suburban housing developments, with all the "conveniences." They are state-subsidized, a core of settler zealots are organized residents, and many of the rest living there are just enjoying the cheap housing prices.
They are almost always placed high on hills and otherwise strategically located for defense purposes, just as in the medieval days where every lord put his castle on a hill with a moat and/or wall around it. They rise out of the hills like grotesque citadels-we're not talking about single family homes with lawns, but of 20 story gigantic condo complexes that are deliberately awe-inspiring, esp. massed by the dozens on top of hills. They appear like fortresses. Unbelievably ugly but awesome, they remind me of the Stalin-era housing projects in Moscow or the Robert Taylor homes in Chicago. But in fact they are quite beautiful inside. Ah, "nation building."
While Israel occasionally makes deals like Oslo, they have never stopped building the settlements. There are now 250,000 people living in new settlements ringing, literally choking, Jerusalem and cutting it off from the rest of the West Bank, especially Ramallah just to the North. Not infrequently Israeli rockets are fired from the commanding heights of these settlements, down upon the surrounding Palestinian towns. Not infrequently they are targets for the Palestinians. Israeli settlers now controls 40 percent of Gaza, supposedly under the control of the Palestinian Authority according to the Oslo agreements. Half a million Jews now live in settlements on the West Bank.
Yesterday we visited what the press likes to call "Arafat's compound" in Ramallah. Actually it's the governmental center of the Palestinian Authority. You probably know that the Israelis just recently pulled back from the third occupation of the compound since Sept. 11, 2001. Well, now there is literally only one building left standing-Arafat's residence; the other seven or eight or whatever they were are rubble. There are still two tanks dominating the street at either side of the compound, and Arafat is still under "house arrest" inside.
Something that is little talked about in the U.S., even progressive circles, is the starkness of the class divide among Palestinians. While the majority of Palestinians are jobless and large numbers of small business have been destroyed by gunfire or by the curfews or by the inability to move goods, there is a thriving small capitalist and professional elite. With the exception of the occupation, nightly shelling, roadblocks, etc., their lives are remarkably like a middle class American. Beautiful houses and apartments with all the latest appliances, computers, cell phones, satellite tv. It's pretty crazifying to live that way in the midst of an occupation. To give you an idea, one couple I met is buying a condominium in Ramallah that will cost $160,000 (US). In other words, there is a market that will bear that price for a condo, a price that is higher than in many U.S. cities, despite the almost daily shelling, etc. This elite sometimes has old roots, but much of it was created post-Oslo by the government, new business opportunities, the NGOs and the United Nations.
Much of the secular left is tied into the NGOs and the UN and lives an ironically cushy life amidst the occupation. Many activists went into business post-Oslo, hundreds into the government. Others were just spent and gave up politics. Many Palestinians returned from abroad after Oslo in hopes of building a life or a business; some thrived, many were destroyed. And of course many others built up their military underground. The mass movements, so vibrant in the first Intifadeh lost many of their leaders to these efforts. But the fight goes on. However pessimistic I might find many of the Palestinians I talked to, almost to the person they are convinced that ultimately they will survive and prevail. As far as they are concerned, Israel will never "remove" them; they aren't going anywhere.