From 1979 to 1989 I reported for THE VILLAGE VOICE and other US publications from Israel and the West Bank. During those years I witnessed the rapid growth of Israel’s settlements and the seizure of Palestinian land and water for them: today Israel controls over half the West Bank’s resources and a third of Gaza’s. I interviewed ultra-right-wing settlers and settler-leaders whose cry was: “Let them bow their heads, or let Israel expel them.” Within Israel I witnessed the increasing polarization of Israeli society by the occupation; the growing, virulent racism of new generations. For instance Moroccan Jews in Kiryat Shemona, members of Menachem Begin’s voting base about whom I wrote for THE VILLAGE VOICE in 1982, most commonly told me, “The only good Arab is a dead Arab.”
I interviewed Palestinian villagers who had suffered settler vigilante actions running the gamut from wanton destruction of property and crops through rampages in villages with cries of “Death to the Arabs,” casual in-the-street humiliation of Palestinian civilians, beatings, murder. I wrote portraits of Palestinian towns that suffered 23-hour-a-day curfews for weeks on end – collective punishment for the alleged acts of individuals (stone-throwing was the usual offense: suicide bombers are a 1990s post-Oslo phenomenon as it became clear that the famed “generous offer” made no provision for settlement-evacuation, but instead consolidated the Bantustanization of the territories, their towns and cities encircled in nooses of settlements whose population actually doubled after the accords. I interviewed villagers in front of homes dynamited and bulldozed by the army – another form of collective punishment, as common as bad weather. I interviewed townspeople who had been jailed, abused, and tortured in Israeli jails (well documented by human rights organizations from the 80s on, according to THE FINANCIAL TIMES it is now underway in the Ofer detention center near Ramallah.) I witnessed the casual landscape of apartheid: blue license plates for Palestinians, yellow for Israelis, and the differing treatment of Palestinians on the one hand, Jews and internationals on the other, at omnipresent checkpoints. I wrote about the mayors of several Palestinian towns after their cars were booby-trapped by Jewish extremists and two were maimed for life. Israel had permitted democratic elections in the West Bank in the middle 70s and, finding the mayors pro-PLO, never repeated the gesture. Instead, “Village Leagues” supporting Israel were installed to police the population. At this time Israel also began supporting Hamas. Both enterprises failed – the latter with the catastrophic effects Israel is feeling today.
A “Master Plan for the Development of Settlements in Judea and Samaria, 1979-1983” had just been drafted when I first arrived. In it Matityahu Drobles, head of the World Zionist Organization’s Department for Rural settlement wrote: “The disposition of the [Israeli] settlements must be carried out not only around the settlements of the minorities” – by settlements Drobles referred to towns and villages centuries old like Bethlehem and Hebron; by “minorities” was meant the Palestinian people – “but also in between them.” Drobles’s rationale for this was that “over the course of time, with or without peace, we will have to learn to live with the minorities and among them while fostering good-neighborly relations.” Thus from the start of occupation Israeli policy-makers planned the permanent colonization of the West Bank and, later, Gaza. To single Ariel Sharon out as Israel’s exceptional evil – if only he were gone and polite, decent folks like Shimon Peres could guide the nation – is to be oblivious of history. It wasn’t under Ariel Sharon that the Drobles Plan was drafted, nor under Sharon that Kiryat Arba was established in 1968, but under Labor. Permanent settlement, retention and expansion of the settlements: this has driven Israeli policy under all every government since 1967.
34 years of occupation have produced today’s catastrophe. As I write, collective punishment is ratcheted up a thousand fold in Israel’s war on the West Bank and Gaza. Every day for the past week my computer has delivered to hourly, desperate cries for help from Ramallah and other West Bank cities. “We have no electricity and no water,” begins the e-mail that just reached me this morning, April 8. “Our water tanks have been destroyed from the intensity of the Israeli bombardment. Our wives are crying and our kids are screaming. There’s no television to distract them. All they are hearing is the explosions all around them. Where is the conscience of the world when we are being massacred and no one is intervening to stop it?” – Jamal Abu Al-Haije, resident of Jenin Camp” Dr. Ali Jabareen of Jenin Hospital reports that the hospital needs help reaching the injured and dead. “People are being left to bleed in the streets and other people are being buried under the rubble of their homes,” the e-mail continues. “No idea how many people are dead. The hospital ambulances are not being allowed to move. UNRWA and the International Committee of the Red Cross are not able to function. Is there anyone to help?” Many of last week’s e-mails describe casual, wanton invasion of homes, vandalism, looting. From a letter by Majdi al-Malki, Birzeit University sociology professor, took refuge with his family at a friend’s house because shelling in his neighborhood was traumatizing his eight-year-old daughter. When he and his family returned home, “On the stairs there was leftover food, urine . . . In the apartment there was unbelievable dirt all over . . . then we began to discover what they had stolen: all my wife’s gold, my children’s jewelry, even the little gold bracelets and earrings of our one-year-old, Reem. . . They also stole my sunglasses, my cell-phone charger . . . The kitchen utensils were on the floor with our provisions, like rice and lentils. . . Even Dalia’s storybooks and toys were torn and on the floor . . . They even stepped on and soiled Reem’s bed covers for reasons I just cannot understand . . . I feel bitter, very bitter.” It is sure that such vandalism continues: in London’s Independent Robert Fisk observes that the Israeli army did the same in Southern Lebanon in 1982, so these desecrations of an army that boasts its “purity” are a time-worn abuse.
Other communications, all marked “urgent,” describe civilians killed by the Israeli army: the Bethlehem bell-ringer shot at the Church of the Nativity; the old woman who went to have her cast removed and who was shot as she came limping home in Ramallah; the journalists and unarmed international protestors shot or blasted with stun grenades; ambulances shot at and stopped from arriving at their destinations; hospitals invaded and medical personnel prevented at gunpoint from carrying out their responsibilities; people bleeding to death while soldiers block, at gunpoint and in tanks, their safe passage to medical relief; corpses rotting in hospitals and homes (numerous e-mails warn of the threat of imminent epidemics); relatives forbidden to carry out decent burials (one group of the slain had to be buried in a Ramallah parking lot); civilians shot if they venture out their doors; cultural institutions invaded and files destroyed; electrical systems for water pumps destroyed so that whole urban areas have their water supplies cut off. These atrocities are being committed, as I write, in Nablus, Jenin, and elsewhere in the West Bank. The Israeli army also began striking Gaza Sunday, April 7.
Sharon, the Milosevic twin ordering these atrocities, is the self-same man who commanded Unit 101 which killed 99 defenseless civilians at Kibyeh in October, 1953; who in August, 1977 ordered the destruction of 2000 Gaza homes and expulsion from them of 16,000 civilians during an Israeli “pacification” onslaught in the strip; who oversaw the IDF while it enabled the Phalangist massacre of over a thousand Palestinian civilians in the Beirut refugee camps Sabra and Shatila in 1982; who triggered the second intifada when, with an escort of 1000 soldiers, he “visited” Al Aksa mosque September 28, 2000. A personal note: by an accident of birth I am Jewish. I am old enough to remember a childhood just after World War II. I am filled with a mix of grief, helplessness, despair and anger as Israel, using the Nazi holocaust against the Jews to exonerate its crimes, proceeds with a clear effort to obliterate the economy, the social, political and cultural institutions, and the entire infrastructure of the Palestinian people. Those who do not speak out against this unholy war are complicit by their silence.