My brother in-law Labib runs the Palestinian Bible Society. With its main office in east Jerusalem, the Society works in Bethlehem, Ramallah and Nablus, and has an office and a bookstore in the center of Gaza City.
Due to the current situation, the manager of the bookstore has been back home in the West Bank ever since the closure. Not that he has been any safer, as shells have fallen not far from his home in Beit Sahour.
Travel from the West Bank to Gaza is impossible. The idea of getting the manager to cross into Jordan and fly into Gaza was nixed once Gaza International Airport was closed. Last week, Labib thought he would go to Gaza just to check that the store had not been damaged by recent Israeli shelling.
Normally Labib, a resident of Jerusalem, is allowed into Gaza. This time however, the Israelis at the Erez checkpoint would not let him in. They say that the army has issued a blanket order forbidding any Israeli from entering Gaza, and as a resident of Jerusalem, Labib is technically considered an Israeli.
The ban was, of course, not limited to east Jerusalemites. Others, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, were also banned, including a delegation of Israeli-Arab Knesset members. MK Ahmed Tibi (Arab Movement for Renewal), who recently helped broker the unsuccessful cease-fire agreement between Regional Cooperation Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, was among those refused entry.
In defending the ban on the normally immune Knesset members, Israel Radio quoted an Israeli official as saying that it was for the safety of all Israelis.
In times of conflict and danger, countries issue travel advisories, warning people not to travel to certain trouble spots, and at times of high danger, they make it a crime for their citizens to travel to danger zones. That was the case with regard to Americans visiting Lebanon for many years. But what is curious is that this attempt to shield people from danger is conspicuously absent as far as Jewish settlers living in the occupied territories are concerned.
In 33 years of occupation, no Israeli official has ever advised Jewish settlers not to travel to the West Bank or to the Gaza Strip. Certainly no Israeli government or military official has ever physically barred settlers from entering these “dangerous” areas. The Israeli army does demand that settlers coordinate their travel schedules, and at times of danger provides military escorts.
In the propaganda war that parallels the shooting, bombing and shelling of Palestinians, Israel and its apologists continuously attack Palestinians for allowing children into the battle zone. Israeli spin doctors even go as far as to claim that Palestinian officials, and even parents, literally push their children to the front lines so that they can get killed, and therefore rack up PR points for the Palestinians.
Last week, the father of a boy killed in Ramallah explained in an interview how he had been unable to keep his son locked up at home. He had literally brought him home 10 times, only to have his son go back out, with his latest outing becoming his last.
Palestinian Minister of Culture and Information Yasser Abed Rabo also stated last week that the Palestinian police have been instructed to keep children under 16 away from the areas of confrontation.
But Jewish settlers are not even asked to stay away, despite the fact that all the violence is taking place around the settlements.
Palestinians and Israelis are getting killed in what seems to be the struggle for settlements, many of which Israel has privately indicated it wishes to leave.
Jewish leaders have often repeated the statement that it is better to save life than land. The futile defense of these Jewish settlements is a perfect example of life being wasted for the protection of these buildings surrounded by endless barbed wire.
In recent days the Israeli Peace Now movement has called these settlements a burden on the Israeli army. In large ads published in the press – including the Palestinian press it has called on Prime Minister Ehud Barak to withdraw from many of these settlements.
For the sake of 400 Jewish settlers in Hebron, 30,000 Palestinians have been placed under curfew for weeks. In Gaza, where 3,000 settlers are living on one third of the land of the tiny Gaza Strip, there is little logic in holding on to these settlements. In the Camp David II talks, Israel indicated that it plans to quit all the Gaza settlements.
The time is now ripe for uprooting some of the settlements as a goodwill gesture. Certainly those like Netzarim and Kfar Darom must go immediately. Too many Palestinians and Israelis have died or been injured around these strategically and religiously useless settlements. The same applies to settlements in the West Bank like Psagot near Ramallah, Rachel’s Tomb at the entrance to Bethlehem, and others.
In the negotiations over the implementation of the Oslo Agreement, Palestinians pleaded with the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to withdraw from Netzarim and Kfar Darom in the middle of densely populated Gaza, but to no avail. Rabin claimed, then, that he had promised not to withdraw from any settlements during the interim phase.
Now that the interim phase is over, there is no reason why these settlements, built provocatively in the center of populated Palestinian areas, should stay. Certainly, in the interest of saving lives, these withdrawals should be made immediately.
If for any reason the Israelis don’t want to look weak by simply leaving these settlements, they can opt to have them turned over to a neutral third party for safekeeping, until the permanent-status talks can produce a peace treaty that deals with the future of all settlements. But to keep Israeli soldiers protecting them, and to have to escort civilians under army protection in and out of them, is simply a formula for the continued bloodshed of Palestinians and Israelis.