“For Security Reasons”: The Surreal Reality of Post-Oslo Palestine

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Since March 1997, when negotiations were suspended following Israel’s decision to proceed with the construction of the Jews-only Har Homa settlement on Jabal Abu Ghneim, the peace process has been described as “stalled.” That adjective, however, belies Israel’s continuing-and, indeed, accelerated-activity designed to consolidate and expand its control over the land of Palestine.

Most striking to this writer on a recent visit to Palestine and Israel was the degree to which armed Israeli soldiers control access to everything, arbitrarily determining who can enter and leave the cities of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, Jericho, Ramallah, Hebron and, of course, Jerusalem and the entire Gaza Strip, as well as the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem’s Old City and Hebron’s Ibrahimi mosque.

In conjunction with its control over their freedom of movement, Israel’s destruction of Palestinians’ homes and concurrent expansion of Jewish settlements and bypass roads is succeeding in choking off the cities and neighborhoods where Palestinians live, separating families and friends and destroying community and national life-all under the guise of “security reasons.”

One’s overwhelming reaction is that the entire situation is surreal-except that, for Palestinians, it is all too real. A visit to Hebron confirmed just how pervasive and devastating this reality is to their lives.

Hebron

The Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) has maintained a presence in Hebron since June 1995, with some half-dozen permanent and short-term volunteers there at any one time. Through their courageous and nonviolent presence, they hope to defuse tense situations and prevent the destruction of the homes of Palestinians and the theft of their properties and livelihoods. Walking down Old Shallala Street, the site of frequent clashes between Israeli soldiers and young Hebronites, two CPTers-23-year-old Pierre Shantz of Ontario, Canada and 44-year-old Kathleen Kamphoefner, an assistant professor of interpersonal/intercultural communication at Indiana’s Manchester College who is spending her third summer in Hebron-matter-of-factly describe the frequent confrontations and shootings that occur. This street leads into Hebron’s main market where, on Jan. 1, 1997, an “off-duty” Israeli soldier, spraying the market with his automatic weapon, wounded seven Hebronites. Today it is quiet, although Israeli soldiers stationed in and around the market play “war games,” sprinting from their posts and aiming their machine guns into the market at imaginary targets.

The CPTers point out the various barricades-from rolls of barbed wire to a two-story-high iron gate that can be closed at a moment’s notice-that block off Hebron streets from the city’s 120,000 Palestinian residents for the benefit of its 400 Jewish settlers. These barricades, however, do not constrain the settlers from expanding their illegal presence: scaffolding extending over the roof of the marketplace is evidence of continued settlement construction in Hebron-a tactic also being used in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Nor, Robert Frost notwithstanding, do “good fences make good neighbors”: the settlers’ active and continual harassment of Palestinian Hebronites-including lobbing rocks and debrisinto the marketplace below, another tactic shared with their Jerusalem co-religionists-has driven shoppers from businesses located near the settlement, causing many unfortunate merchants to close their shops, and thus by default ceding more of Hebron to the settlers.

At CPT headquarters over Hebron’s chicken market-chosen for its proximity to the main market and the Jewish yeshiva and settlements, thereby making it easier to respond quickly to trouble-staff member Pierre Shantz discussed Israel’s continuing fragmentation of the greater Hebron area. The map he referred to depicted the roads that encircle the city on three sides, making expansion impossible, with the settlements that complete the task guarding the larger periphery. Shantz apologized for the fact that the map was somewhat out of date and did not show the newest Israeli settlements constructed in the past few months.

Distressing as this cartographic representation was, it was possible to maintain some emotional distance. This distance vanished completely, however, during our visit to the family of Yussef and Zuhoor Al-Atrash. Along with their 10 children-five boys and five girls ranging in age from 18 to 2-they are living in a tent on the outskirts of Hebron after Israeli soldiers demolished their home for the third time.

The family’s tragedy is that their home is located just inside Area C (under sole Israeli control) near a Jewish settlement, and overlooks a bypass road serving settlements. Not only is the family unique (so far) in the number of times their home has been destroyed, but the usual Israeli excuse that they did not have a legal building permit did not apply to them either, since their application for a permit was still under consideration when their home was demolished the last time.

After the Israelis destroyed their six-room home in 1988, the Al-Atrashes rebuilt. At 8 a.m. on March 3, 1993, Israeli soldiers arrived at their home with a bulldozer. Zuhoor, who was home caring for her youngest children, refused to come out of the house. To force her out, the soldiers put a gun to the head of her three-year-old son. When Zuhoor ran out to rescue him, they shoved her into a ditch, threw the family’s possessions in the dirt outside, and proceeded to demolish the family’s home again.

Undeterred, on March 8 the family began to rebuild again. Within hours, some 100 Jewish settlers accompanied by Israeli soldiers arrived and threatened the Al-Atrashes with physical harm if they continued to rebuild. The family contacted CPT, who moved in with the family to provide 24-hour-a-day protection.

Then, on March 22, in the presence of Israeli journalist Gideon Levy and human rights activist Bassem Eid, Israeli soldiers arrived yet again and arrested Yussef, Zuhoor and their two oldest children, 18-year-old Hussam and 17-year-old Manal. The videotape of the soldiers beating mother and daughter and dragging Zuhoor on the ground caused an uproar when it was broadcast on Israeli TV and worldwide on CNN. (Israeli soldiers now bring their own cameramen when they demolish a Palestinian home.)

Despite the eyewitness evidence, Yussef and his son Hussam were charged at a pretrial hearing following their arrest with assaulting the soldiers. Rather than spend three months in prison awaiting trial, they pled guilty and were fined 1,500 shekels ($500) each.

In early June the family completed construction of their new three-room home. The following morning, June 11, Israeli soldiers arrived and bulldozed that home as well, along with the concrete foundation the family had constructed to cover the ground under their tent.

After surveying the bleak scene, we joined the entire Al-Atrash family in their tent, which provided some respite from the relentless sun and contained the family’s bedding, a television set and a fan broken in the demolition. “We can work and we can eat, and that’s it,” said Zuhoor Al-Atrash, a passionate and determined woman. “We just want to live like any human beings. Right now we don’t live, we only exist-without clothes or food, sitting on the ground.

“[Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu brings the settlers here and they can’t let one poor family stay in their home. What have these kids done to the Israeli people? They’re not terrorists-they haven’t even seen the sea!”

Then, having finally gotten the TV to work, Yussef Al-Atrash played the video of the March 22 confrontation with Israeli soldiers. With the exception of Manal, who went outside because that day’s events are too traumatic for her to relive, the entire family watched their parents and older siblings being beaten and arrested by Israeli soldiers. All of us who were watching for the first time, including the Palestinian taxi driver who brought us, were in tears. Manal, outside, was weeping.

The video then jumped to scenes of the family completing the rebuilding of their home, with Yussef finishing the tile floor and Zuhoor planting vegetables. It ended with Israeli soldiers again destroying all that the family had built.

“Let Clinton come and see this. Ask him if he could live like this for a year,” Zuhoor demanded. “I’m not talking to Netanyahu, I’m talking to Clinton, because he’s the one giving Israel all the money. I hope to God that Clinton will listen to these words.”

As we left the Al-Atrashes standing amid the ruins of their family home, Yussef said he would continue trying to obtain a building permit. “Every time I have hope,” he explained.

For our return to Jerusalem, we caught a service taxi whose other passengers were several young Palestinian mothers with their children. Outside Jerusalem, we had to stop at one of the Israeli checkpoints set up following the 1996 suicide bombings and never taken down. Israeli soldiers carrying their machine guns in the casual manner to which I was becoming accustomed demanded our IDs. One of the young mothers evidently did not have papers allowing her to enter Jerusalem, and the soldier ordered the taxi to turn back.

Normally this would mean taking the circuitous and dangerous Wadi al-Nar road which circles Jerusalem and finding a way to enter the city which did not entail going through an Israeli checkpoint. Our driver, however, had another scenario in mind. Taking the first turn-off on the road back, he drove up into the hills and dropped off the young woman, who left her son in the taxi. The driver then returned back through the same checkpoint. After the taxi was passed through and had gone a short distance, he pulled over to the side of the road and waited for his passenger, who had walked around the checkpoint, to meet up with the taxi. As we saw her coming down the ramp to the highway, the driver raised the hood of his vehicle as though he were having engine trouble, to deflect attention from the woman in hijab hurrying toward the highway. When she reached the vehicle she quickly got in, and we proceeded into Jerusalem without further incident.

A fellow passenger explained to me that this was a potentially dangerous maneuver for all: had the same Israeli soldier been at the checkpoint when we passed through a second time (in fact, he was just further down the road), he might well have questioned the whereabouts of the missing passenger; or, if the young mother had been questioned as she traversed the neighborhood where she had been dropped off, she would have been found to lack the necessary papers and possibly been jailed. Lesser incidents then this, I was told, had resulted in Israeli soldiers opening fire on vehicles carrying Palestinians.

Jerusalem

Jerusalem is “ground zero” for Palestinians and Israelis alike. A beautiful and evocative city, the old stone houses in both East and West Jerusalem testify to the fact that virtually the entire city had been Arab a mere half-century ago. Despite its physical beauty, I was told more than once that Jerusalem is no longer a pleasant place to live.

All of the Israelis I met in Jerusalem-who were secular and (at least) “liberal”-thought their country had no future. Rarely, however, was this because of the inherent injustice of its founding or the current injustice of its treatment of Palestinians. Rather, these liberal Jews, who could barely bring themselves to utter the name of their prime minister, based their assessment on purely domestic concerns.

An editor for Israeli television, who had moved after her former neighbors slashed the tires on her parked car, was thinking of leaving the city altogether because of the increasing power and presence of the ultra-Orthodox right wing. (At no point did I hear expressed any recognition of the similarity between this not-uncommon situation and that of Palestinians who must contend with an even more hostile presence.)

An Israeli intellectual and art-lover, who took us to a Palestinian gallery he had discovered in East Jerusalem and who knew nearly every nook and cranny of the Old City, stated categorically that Israel was no longer a democracy-because of the new law allowing direct election of the prime minister.

As we were having mezze in the gallery’s elegant garden restaurant, I asked these two well-educated Israelis if they thought the day would ever come when Palestinians as well as Jews could live anywhere in Israel. “No-it’s impossible!” they exclaimed in unison,

“It’s like the blacks in America,” the editor stunned me by saying. The art-lover infuriated my Dutch friend by comparing the situation between Israelis and Palestinians with that of the Walloons and the Flemish in Belgium. Neither my friend nor I could comprehend this level of ignorance on the part of two such sophisticated individuals, who had worked with Palestinians and admired their culture, and who wanted Palestinians to like them in turn. Nor could we decide whether their ignorance was willful or pathological-or both.

“I will not bet on the stability of Israel, despite its military and economic strength,” stated Michael Warshawsky, director of the Alternative Information Center, a non-profit Palestinian-Israeli organization founded in 1984. “High conflict has been the unifying factor within Israel” since its establishment in 1948, he continued. “With that gone, conflicts between religious and secular Israelis, and between the old elite and the marginalized majority” have come to define public life in the Jewish state. In fact “Mikado,” as he is known to his friends, did not discount the possibility that there might be an “Israeli fundamentalist state, on the model of Iran, 10 years or so in the future.”

In the meantime, under the Likud government of Binyamin Netanyahu, “the process will continue, but peace is not on the agenda at all,” Mikado contended. “This is why the Palestinians need a long-term vision.”

In addition to publishing the monthly News From Within and numerous books and reports in Arabic, Hebrew and English, the AIC offers study tours to Israelis as well as to international journalists and other visitors. I accompanied a group of social workers attending a conference in Jerusalem and a three-person Dutch television crew on a tour of “Greater Jerusalem Settlements.” The minibus tour illustrated only too clearly the Israeli strategy of “maximum [Israeli-controlled] territory, minimum [Palestinian] population.”

We drove out of Jerusalem on Road 1, built some 10 years ago to bypass East Jerusalem for Israelis traveling to Jewish settlements in the northern West Bank. The road’s other original function-as a border between East and West Jerusalem- has become superfluous, however, since the estimated 170,000 Jewish settlers in “Arab” East Jerusalem now outnumber the Palestinians there. Indeed, Mikado noted, Ramot, one of the first Jewish settlements to be built, is now considered by Israelis to be a neighborhood of Jerusalem. “Many people who live there don’t even know they’re living in a settlement,” he said.

Turning west, we soon began to see “facts on the ground,” the Israeli settlements which have been established in a belt at the edge of Jerusalem, physically separating and isolating Jerusalem Palestinians from their West Bank neighbors. Spreading out across hilltops with their densely packed red-tile roofs (“They think they’re living in Swiss chalets,” Mikado remarked), these “settlements” are a far cry from the isolated outposts of America’s Old West. Instead they come complete with sidewalks, paved roads, speed bumps and bus shelters, not to mention synagogues, schools, and swimming pools-all subsidized by the Israeli taxpayer.

But these collections of buildings, massive as they may seem, are only the tip of the iceberg. Each settlement consists not only of the houses and infrastructure visible to the naked eye, but of an often much larger surrounding area on which there are as yet no buildings. (Calculating on the basis of territory, Mikado said, Ma’ale Adumim, the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank, is larger than West Jerusalem, three times as large as Tel Aviv, and the second largest city in the Middle East, after Cairo.)

Thus, when the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sent a letter to then-Secretary of State James Baker guaranteeing to build no new settlements beyond the “natural growth” of existing ones, he was leaving Israel plenty of room to maneuver. New settlements, by this definition, are really only extensions of already-existing ones, on land already claimed by Israel. A standard tactic of settlement expansion, in fact, is to build “neighborhoods” at either end of the land area in question and slowly but steadily fill in the gap.

By-pass roads and accessories such as gas stations require additional Palestinian land. We stopped at a gas station (on the top of a hill, naturally) which doubles as a pick-up point for Jewish hitchhikers. Inside a shelter where the prospective passenger waits is a device whereby the hitchhiker can press a button for the settlement to which he is headed. The button activates a corresponding light at the settlement in question, where a dispatcher then issues a call to drivers in the area notifying them of the hitchhiker’s location and destination. If no car is in the vicinity, someone from the settlement will drive to the gas station and pick up the hitchhiker. This well-orchestrated system successfully minimizes any contact with Palestinian towns, villages or individuals among whom the settlers live.

The bypass roads connecting Jewish settlements in the West Bank with each other and with Jerusalem not only separate Palestinian towns and villages from one another, but often separate Palestinian farmers from their land. Since these roads frequently define the limits of “greater Jerusalem,” a family’s home may be on one side of the road and its land on the other; the family may be Jerusalem residents but its land outside the city’s border, or vice versa. The definition since 1993 of a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem as one whose “center of life” is in the city has resulted in the denial or withdrawal of residency permits from between 65,000 and 85,000 Palestinians, many of whom were forced literally to move across the street in order to farm their land or otherwise make a living.

The bypass road for Palestinians is another matter entirely. Wadi al-Nar-which means “valley of hell”-is a tortuous and treacherous two-lane road connecting Ramallah, Jericho and Bethlehem not by way of Jerusalem. It is the only route available for one and a half million Palestinians, and the effect on their lives has been catastrophic. Because it is so dangerous, many refuse to travel on it unless absolutely necessary. Families that used to visit each other regularly now do so rarely. The extra hours added to each trip-especially during rush hour, which can find scores of cars creeping up a steep incline behind a slow-moving truck-make it next to impossible to do much more than commute to and from work. (I tried to imagine Washingtonians, who can barely manage to stop for a red light, living under such conditions-and the Beltway is no Wadi al-Nar! )

This fragmentation of Palestinian life-in both space and time-has economic, social and national implications, according to Mikado. “It is as though there are four Palestines-Gaza, Jericho, the northern West Bank and the southern West Bank,” he said. For NGOs such as his, coordinating activities has become virtually impossible because of the difficulty in traveling between West Bank cities. The AIC board, for example, which consists of Palestinians and Israelis, has not been able to hold a meeting which everyone could attend in months.

“Jerusalem is dying,” the Israeli activist stated. “It is like a heart without a body.” Through the closure of the city and the closing of Palestinian institutions-“especially after Oslo”-“Israel is taking the Palestinian character out of the city.”

The city’s function of providing services to surrounding Palestinian cities and towns, he said, has been severely debilitated. “The closure cuts off services from the people who use them,” he explained, citing as an example Makassad Hospital, which has functioned for decades as a “national hospital” for Palestine. Today its doctors and nurses may have permits to come to work in Jerusalem, but its patients do not, and the institution is currently operating at only 65 to 75 percent of capacity. Building another hospital in Ramallah poses a cruel dilemma as well, a choice between serving the people of the area or contributing to the Israeli plan of separating Palestine from itself.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of our tour was when we stopped by the Greek Orthodox monastery in Oubediah and, crossing a field, stood looking across Wadi al-Nar at the Old City, with the Dome of the Rock gleaming in the sunlight. For many Palestinians, this is as close as they now can get to Jerusalem.

That afternoon I was in the Old City-as a foreigner, I don’t require Israeli permission to be there-to meet Ali M. Jiddah, a trilingual “Afro-Palestinian alternative tour guide,” known as the “mayor of East Jerusalem.” I almost walked right by him, convinced by his stance and demeanor that he was an American.

Ali Jiddah, however, is a native Jerusalemite. His father, a Muslim from Chad, decided to settle in Jerusalem while visiting the city as part of a tour of Islamic holy sites. He settled in the African quarter of the Old City, where Ali Jiddah now lives with his own family in the house where he was born in 1950.

He vividly remembers the 1967 Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem and the change it wrought virtually overnight-particularly the arrogance and disrespect with which the victorious Israeli soldiers treated the Palestinian residents. Ali and several of his friends got together to fight the occupation. Twice they set off bombs in Jerusalem, following Israeli attacks on Lebanon. When one of the young men was caught and confessed under torture, Ali was arrested and sentenced in 1968 to 25 years in prison. In 1985 he was released as part of a prisoner exchange-1,125 Palestinians for 8 Israelis-and, when the International Red Cross asked him where in the world he wanted to be sent to live, Ali replied that he wanted to return to his home, Jerusalem. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” he told me.

Today Ali Jiddah has renounced violence-but not the struggle for his homeland. Ironically, he is now frequently interviewed by Israeli media as a spokesman for Jerusalem’s Palestinians. A serious and dignified man who seems to know everyone in the Old City-bestowing monikers such as “George Habash” and “Omar Sharif” on some of his young Jerusalem friends we encountered-he does not back down from the Israeli soldiers and settlers in his midst, nor does he hide his disgust.

Walking through the narrow streets of the Old City, he pointed out the latest Jewish settlement, at the entrance to the Christian Quarter, as an example of the Israeli strategy to take over-or at least fragment-Arab Jerusalem. Many of these settlers are members of Ateret Cohanim, a clandestine group that works in concert with Jerusalem authorities, it is believed, to identify and confiscate Palestinian homes and property in Jerusalem. Most prominent among the American Jews who contribute financial support to Ateret Cohanim is Dr. Irving I. Moskowitz, the Florida millionaire who also helped fund the opening of the controversial “tourist” tunnel adjacent to the Haram al-Sharif.

As we walked through the souq, I noticed that virtually all the Palestinian tourist shops now sold, along with their traditional merchandise, menorahs and yarmulkes as well as T-shirts saying “Don’t Worry America-Israel Is Behind You” and, bearing Nike’s trademark swoosh, “Israel-Just Do It.” The Jewish shop whose Israeli flag announced its presence in the midst of Palestinian merchants was only the most aggressive sign of the relentless Israeli attack on the Old City.

Ali Jiddah introduced some of the Old City’s merchants: one whose son had been sitting outside the walls of the city when he was shot dead by a Jewish settler who jumped out of his car and started firing randomly; others who had been injured by hand grenades thrown down into the market by Jews living in rooftop settlements. Climbing up to the roof, Ali pointed out a small playground where the children of the Old City used to play. Now, however, it has been taken over as part of a Jewish settlement, and the Arab children can only sit and watch the children of Jewish settlers playing on the swings and slide.

Leaving Ali Jiddah inside the Jaffa Gate, I felt a mixture of admiration for his strength and determination and concern for his future and safety. I wish I could say I felt hope as well.

Gaza

Arriving at the Erez crossing into Gaza, we passed the lines of Palestinians waiting for Israeli permission to enter Palestine, following into the VIP checkpoint the same Dutch TV crew which had been on the AIC settlement tour. Waiting there impatiently was Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, then Palestinian minister of higher education, who was en route-and now late-to a conference in Gaza. “I’ve never been on time for a meeting yet,” she fumed, “no matter how early I leave.”

This time the Israeli soldiers were saying that her two assistants, who had always accompanied her in the past, could not enter Gaza. Clearly fed up with this “racist” harassment-“and you can imagine what ‘non-VIPs’ have to go through,” she pointed out-Ashrawi nevertheless was powerless to do anything. Finally the Israelis decreed that one of the minister’s assistants could proceed on with her-but “for the last time.” As Ashrawi and the anointed aide finally drove off, the other sat down to begin the indefinite wait that stretched before him. Once again I was struck by the time Palestinians must waste on a daily basis because of the Israeli checkpoints, roadblocks, detours, permissions, ID checks and numerous other regulations around which Palestinians must try to arrange their lives.

With the non-Palestinian “VIPs,” however, the Israeli guards on duty that day were almost jovial. Despite (or perhaps because of) the machine guns nonchalantly lying across their laps, they couldn’t have been more friendly. One of the guards, learning I was from Washington, said he had lived with his uncle for five years in nearby Rockville, Maryland, and could I tell him how the Orioles were doing? I told him I thought they were in the cellar.

Our Gaza hosts took us first to a seaside hotel, where we sat in a beautiful garden drinking mint tea and watching children frolic in the waves. Lunch was at what must be one of the world’s best fish restaurants, where the diner selects freshly caught fish for the chef to prepare and gratefully relishes the result.

Having experienced the beautiful Gaza, we then drove through the refugee Gaza, along gutted roads-if they were paved at all-amid shacks and sand and shoeless children.

“Many of these people used to be farmers and merchants leading normal, dignified lives,” an UNRWA worker explained. “And they’ve been living like this for the past 50 years.”

As my eyes took in the misery before me, my mind recalled the beautiful countryside we had driven through on the way to Gaza where many of these people must have lived. I thought, too, of my trip last year to Vietnam and Cambodia, where being there did not really enable me to understand the past: I couldn’t picture American soldiers landing on the pristine beach north of Danang, for example, or trampling through rice paddies; nor could the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh or my friend’s stories of her life under the Pol Pot regime explain the insanity of the Khmer Rouge. But here I was in Gaza-as in Hebron, and in Jerusalem-and it was hard to comprehend the present, even though it was happening before my eyes .

That evening, walking along the beach at twilight, a young Gazan who studies at Bethlehem University described the mood of her generation. During the intifada, she told me, students would respond en masse to such events as the assassination of Yahya Ayash, known as “the Engineer.” When his successor, Mohiadin el-Sharif, was recently killed, however, her fellow students reacted with indifference, and when demonstrations to commemorate al-Nakba were announced, their frustration was complete: “What were we supposed to be demonstrating against,” she asked, “al-Nakba? The Israelis? The Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat? The peace process? There are so many things wrong, there’s no point in demonstrating anymore. That’s the worst of what’s happened since Oslo-they’ve killed our feelings !”

The following day we toured southern Gaza. Just a short way beyond where I had walked on the beach the previous night, a checkpoint marked the point at which Israeli control of the coastal road began-and continued to the border with Egypt. “This is autonomy?” I thought, reverting to the Long Island vernacular of my youth.

We drove past strategically placed Jewish settlements, which followed the same pattern I had seen in Jerusalem and the West Bank, breaking up any continuity of Palestinian territory. One of the settlements, I was told, located near the center of the Gaza Strip, served as a distribution point for supplies-including weapons-to the other settlements there. The largest settlement, Gosh Qativ consisted of 11 large and 13 small “neighborhoods,” along with its own schools, university and airport.

Israelis, moreover, control the only source of “sweet water” in Gaza and, since Oslo, have seized by force additional Palestinian land, including an archeological site, the artifacts from which were removed from Gaza to Israel, and the highest hilltop in Rafah, taken just months ago after an armed battle. It now is designated an Israeli military outpost.

Outside the first settlement we passed, the Jewish residents had thrown their trash in a smoldering heap on “Palestinian-controlled” land. Another settlement, I was told, had decided that-“for security reasons”-no Palestinian car carrying just the driver could travel on the road passing that settlement. In response, resourceful Palestinian children now position themselves on either side of the settlement for hire as “passengers,” exiting on the other side and thus allowing the driver to continue his journey uninterrupted.

We stopped in Rafah, at the southern tip of Gaza, where Governor Abdullah Abu-Samhadaneh was addressing a gathering of summer school students in a large tent on the beach. Following his speech, the Gaza native described the isolation of his district, which many Gazans no longer visit because they never know whether they will be detained at an Israeli checkpoint and thus delayed indefinitely from returning home on schedule.

Although the Oslo accords gave full responsibility over Rafah to the civil authority, “for Israelis, ‘security’ comes first,” the governor said, and under that pretext they have prevented construction equipment and materials, medical supplies and even electricity from reaching Rafah. One of his constituents told him he wanted “just one bottle of milk” for his son. “They’d like to prevent oxygen from getting here if they could,” Abu-Samhadaneh commented.

“We are in a big jail now,” the governor observed, noting that Israeli border guards frequently prevent him from leaving Gaza to attend meetings in Hebron of the Council of Governors. “And they’ve known me for over 30 years.”

Before 1967, he recalled, Gaza was a free zone, where residents could buy Egyptian products “cheaper than in Egypt,” farmers could export their produce, imported goods were available, and students were able to study in Egypt tuition-free. The Israeli occupation following the Six-Day War brought, in addition to the ubiquitous presence of the occupying Israeli army, the death of domestic industry, as “the occupation changed [Gaza] laborers to workers in Israel,” the Rafah official said.

Since Oslo, however, the Israelis have increased restrictions on the people of Gaza “to make them feel that the Palestinian Authority has brought them nothing.” Fishermen are limited to a six-mile zone off the Gaza coast, and everyone must ask Israeli permission to enter or leave Gaza, whether for a government meeting, to attend school in the West Bank, or receive emergency medical treatment. Many people do not even bother to ask anymore. Moreover, Governor Abu-Samhadaneh observed, “before Oslo, the Israelis rarely closed the border. Now,” he said, “they do it at the least excuse.”

Tarek Abdel-Ghany, a Jordanian representative of the Near East Foundation, was also visiting Rafah that day. “We thought as Arabs that the real core of the Middle East problem would be solved,” he observed. Since Oslo, however, business confidence is down and the peace process is “losing momentum,” he said with obvious concern and disappointment.

With our host’s prediction that “if this area explodes, no one will be safe” echoing in our minds, we left the balcony where we had been sitting as close to the wall as possible, because the Israeli authorities-“for security reasons”-refuse to allow the governor of Rafah to build an awning on his roof to provide shade from the sun.

Continuing on our tour of Gaza, we saw several impressive projects awaiting completion-i.e., waiting for Israel to release construction materials, technical equipment and other necessities being held up for a variety of “security reasons.” These projects included the Gaza International Airport, with its lovely interior and already-completed runway, and a new regional hospital built with European Union assistance.

Passing one of the most desolate refugee camps in Gaza, which was forbidden to receive electricity through the lines that were connected to it, a little further on we drove by an Israeli utility crew repairing an electric line which served a nearby settlement.

The Gazans I met spared nothing in the warmth and generosity of their hospitality. They opened their homes and lives with a grace, humor and dignity I have come to associate with the Arab world, and I admired anew the strong ties that bind their families together.

It was all the more upsetting, therefore, to sense the effects of their virtual imprisonment on the people of Gaza: an underlying boredom and restlessness, where “our only entertainment is the sea” and visits with family and friends, all of whom are similarly confined. One young Gazan, unable to go to her Birzeit University graduation party in Ramallah, was simultaneously unhappy and resigned; another told me of a classmate who had been unable to get Israeli permission to return home to Gaza for three years. And these were the fortunate Gazans who were not living as refugees.

As we watched the World Cup final on television-everyone was rooting for France-I recalled how a major complaint of former East Berliners was their inability to travel abroad, while they could see on their TV sets the evidence of a wider world. (Nor was it the first occasion I had to compare Gaza and East Berlin: when told of the refugee Palestinians living in “Canada Camp” in Egypt who, when they tried to sneak back into Gaza, were shot and killed by Israeli border guards, I had a fleeting recollection of war crimes trials being demanded for those Israeli soldiers’ East German counterparts.)

But it was only when we had left Palestine and Israel that I realized how mentally oppressive a place it had become-and after only two weeks! To suddenly realize, in Jordan, that there were no checkpoints ahead, and that the houses under construction were not settlements built on stolen land, gave one a conscious sense of freedom.

At the same time, the surrealism I experienced has stayed with me back home in Washington. On the afternoon of my return, standing in line at my neighborhood Safeway, I was behind two young people who were talking about a shooting incident. I soon learned that they had been talking about the killing of two police officers which had taken place only hours earlier on Capitol Hill, where they worked. I remembered the “deranged” Israeli who had shot and wounded shoppers in Hebron’s market, and a young Israeli’s immediate response upon hearing that I was going to Gaza: “Be careful!”

A few days later, leaving the office for lunch, I recoiled at the sight of a bulldozer clearing rubble for a new restaurant across the street. I knew that I would no longer see bulldozers as neutral machines, but rather in the same way I have reacted to helicopters since the Vietnam War: as malevolent instruments of destruction and death.

Finally, shortly after my return, I saw in the grocery story someone who reminded me of Ali Jiddah. I wondered with sadness if Ali ever would be able to do something as automatic and mundane as shop in peace for food in the city he lived in and loved.

Janet McMahon is the managing editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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