I had been told that flying to Tel Aviv was like flying to no other place in the world. This turned out to be correct; before even allowed to my gate I was extensively questioned, (including a few inexplicable questions, like “What is alchemy?”) and searched. Fortunately, my answers were satisfactory enough to get me on the plane.

I was going to Israel as a member of a small delegation to visit Christian Peacemaker Teams, a small group of committed Christians who are, somewhat quixotically perhaps, trying to help improve the situation in the Middle East through their simple non-violent presence. They are based in Hebron, a large city located south of Jerusalem in the West Bank. Hebron is one of the tensest locations in the ongoing conflict, with plenty of extremists on both sides, and I had been warned that I would be going into something very much like a war zone. Of course, all the literature I had read was insufficient preparation for what I was going to see.

Israel is a nation which lives in a constant state of fear, bordering on paranoia. Young people in uniforms with machine guns are ubiquitous, and even the police are all armed with automatic weapons. No soldier is ever without his gun, even when he is running with a bouquet of flowers to catch his bus, as I saw on my first day in Jerusalem. Getting to Hebron, where the Christian Peacemaker Team lives in a primitive apartment (email, of course, but no hot water or flush toilet) was a difficult task in itself. We were supposed to go into the West Bank after one day in Jerusalem, but we got a call from CPT that there was shooting and that no taxis would be running. We made it in the next day, after navigating the system of checkpoints and roadblocks which make access to the West Bank from Israel proper difficult.

The checkpoints and roadblocks are one of the most ubiquitous reminders of Israeli occupation in the West Bank. The seal around cities and towns is not hermetic, so any “terrorist” who wants to fire small arms at an Israeli tank is not prevented from doing so, while soldiers and enormous piles of dirt blocking the roads stop pregnant women from getting to the hospital and shut down schools. (Schools are often taken over for military bases anyway; this happened to the first school in Hebron, and then to the second one after it was found to replace the first one. During the first Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in the late eighties, school lessons were broadcast on television because children would have gotten shot in the streets.) Any economic activity, or even the transport of food, becomes very difficult under this regime. And effective planning (of demonstrations, for example) is impossible. The psychological effect of this Kafkan siege is very noticeable. It started to get to me after a few days as well; in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, travelling ten miles can take up to an hour.

The old city of Hebron, which has streets so narrow and winding that one can hardly see the sky above, was utterly deserted, except for the occasional soldier. We learned that the city was under curfew, and had been more or less continuously for the past week. This means that no Palestinians are allowed to be on their own streets (Hebron is a city with a population of 120,000 Palestinian Arabs, Muslims and a few Christians, with 250 or so Jews, who are protected by 1,200 soldiers). The curfew is strictly enforced; at least one mentally retarded Palestinian has been shot on the streets in broad daylight by young soldiers who are disinclined to ask questions.

We walked past the compound where the Jewish settlers live, surrounded by soldiers who protect them from their Palestinian neighbours. Conspicuously placed in the front of the compound is a shrine to the “martyr” Baruch Goldstein, who, in 1994, walked into the Hebron mosque and massacred 31 unarmed people at prayer, and was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher while reloading to fire again. After that incident, the military, instead of punishing the militant settlers, (who, considered extremists even by fellow religious Zionists, believe that “one thousand Arabs are not worth one Jewish fingernail”) put Hebron under curfew for forty days, and killed an additional thirty or so people in the subsequent demonstrations. Hebron has been pretty tense since then.

The curfew, which was only lifted, and then only in the morning, a few days after our arrival, is not the only means by which the Israeli occupation force in the West Bank keeps the Palestinians repressed and under control. It has been Israeli state policy, since the West Bank was occupied in the Israeli-initiated Six Days War of 1967, to confiscate land in the West Bank in order to build settlements. During our stay, we drank tea and ate traditional Palestinian food with several families whose homes had, for no logical reason, been ordered demolished and whose lives were now conducted under the spectre of immediate homelessness; roads or settlements were to be built on land which they had tended and inhabited for generations. With more than 1.3 million refugees in their midst, Palestinians are used to caring for the displaced, and extended families feed and shelter the homeless. But this does not make the psychological and financial pain of having one’s own house destroyed by an occupying army any more bearable.

Land is confiscated to build settlements, then more is confiscated in order to build roads to the settlements, slowly turning the West Bank into a large piece of mouldy Swiss cheese. Particularly insidious is the way which settlements like Gilo, built illegally on Palestinian land, are now circling East Jerusalem, allowing Israel to make the claim that Jerusalem, whose greater area is home to more than 300,000 Palestinians, should belong solely to Israel. Settlements are also military installations; in Hebron we saw several machine gun nests and artillery installations, which are usually used against either unarmed demonstrators or civilian houses. We saw several shelled houses, and even met the young children who had to cower on the floor while their windows were shot out). These shellings with 50mm rounds and tank shells are in retaliation for small arms fire coming from certain neighbourhoods and are sprayed indiscriminately over a large area.

The Palestinian gunmen answer to the Palestinian Authority, and are deaf to the families who ask them not to fire. But it is the Israelis who have no respect for civilian life, as their willingness to fire live rounds (or “rubber bullets,” which, at least the ones I have seen lying around Hebron, have very little rubber in them) at demonstrators armed only with rocks amply demonstrates.

The story of the Israeli occupation of Palestine is one of the most mis-told stories in the American media today. The well-funded and well-connected Israeli media portrays a beleaguered Israeli nation combating its belligerent and insatiably violent neighbours. The truth is just the opposite, as the body counts show; for every Israeli soldier who is killed by a PA sniper (and the PA, it is important to note, enjoys only limited support from the Palestinian population) ten Palestinian civilians, many children or young men, are shot dead on their own streets. Often, as we were told by international human rights observers who are gagged by compromise agreements with the Israeli government from publishing their findings abroad, blatant acts of soldier aggression or even cruelty are described as nothing more than “an exchange of fire resulting in three Palestinian casualties” in the media.

Israel boasts of having “made the desert bloom,” neglecting to mention both the history of the desert in question (it was conquered from the Palestinians in 1948; more than 400 Palestinian villages were liquidated or depopulated in the years following the second World War) or the reason that it is suddenly so productive (85% of Palestinian water resources are stolen by Israel, either used in West Bank settlements or piped directly into Israel.) Although the Palestinian fields we saw were well tended, they cannot match the production of Israeli agriculture.

No Palestinians we met were themselves violent or engaged in violent resistance against their armed oppressors; I saw a thousand armed Israelis before I saw one armed Palestinian, and he was a policeman. Most are far too busy trying to feed and shelter their families in a time of fifty percent unemployment and non-existent tourist trade to think about much political activity. But the Palestinian people are angry about what has happened to them and the way the world turns a blind eye; all expressed gratitude that Americans and Canadians were coming to see what was going on.

While we were in Jerusalem we went to hear a talk from a South African religious leader who had been active against apartheid, even being jailed by the white South African regime. “People say that the way the Palestinians live is like South Africa under apartheid, but this is not true,” he said, “the situation for the Palestinians is much, much worse.”

Jacob Jost, aged 17, is now in Germany attending the University of Marburg. aufhebung@trilidun.org

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