From Irish Political Review: February 2007

Reflections On Palestine —Part One

Going to Palestine, I was somewhat prepared for the conditions I´d find among the Arabs. What I was completely unprepared for was the condition of the Jews. I knew it was a militarised state but not the extent of the militarisation. Official statistics state delicately that 48% of the workforce is in "non-civilian employment". And that doesn´t take into account the vast private security industry employed at airports, rail and bus stations, public buildings and virtually every shop and office, and at many bars and cafes.

My first impression was of a kind of static military baggage train. But even the baggage trains that followed the armies in days gone by displayed a kind of social solidarity that I found absent among Israelis: People not socialising in bars or on public transport or on the street, just sitting or walking in their own world.

The absence of manners: No one said "please" or "thank you" or "excuse me". People passed each other in narrow spaces by pushing each other out of the way. On trains and busses people hogged two seats and were unpleasant to anyone who wished to sit next to them, to the extent of sometimes making their aggressive gestures with their rifles. So many people carrying rifles that there is an announcement every few minutes at Ben Gurion airport reminding travellers that the carrying of weapons in the airport buildings is prohibited.

By contrast, in the West Bank, young men and women routinely give up their seats to older people and even wait for the next bus if there is the possibility of an older person not being able to board.

So the baggage train analogy had to be qualified in my mind by Margaret Thatcher´s dictum: "there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families". These observations were not confined to the great metropolis of Tel Aviv, but were everywhere I went, including Jerusalem and the beautiful city of Haifa.

The condition of the Jews in Israel came as a shock to me particularly as I have lived among Jewish communities in London and had entirely different experiences there.

In South Tottenham I found Jews to be integrated in the same way as the Irish are integrated. They still retain their own culture and are generally a jolly and sociable lot. Like the Irish, they are disproportionately involved in local politics—especially left politics.

I have also lived in Stoke Newington in the middle of the Hassidic district. These have an extremely coherent community, while still rubbing along well enough with everyone else. I have had a lot to do with the public charitable side of the Reformed Synagogue in Stamford Hill, and society certainly existed among the friends and acquaintances I made there.

I was told that Tel Aviv was a vibrant party city. I found it a bit of a wasteground in the daytime—with office workers racing around between architectural monstrosities and down-at-heel apartment blocks. I wasn´t there in the night but, on enquiring, was told that the party was largely drug-fuelled and that there is a serious drug problem throughout Israel.

The first time I was processed through a checkpoint it was obvious to me that several of the soldiers, especially the older, and I presume more permanent, ones were, as they say, out of their faces. This impression was reinforced every time I had dealings with the Israeli Army—and that was pretty often.

Before I went there I had been aware for many years that the place was a major centre for drug trafficking. While there, I was told that it was second only to Dubai for its involvement in sex-trafficking from Eastern Europe. Certainly, I´ve never seen anywhere where pornography was so much in your face.

Without making any moral point about either prostitution or pornography, the extent of it there was so great that I felt it must reflect a very extensive atomisation of the society.

Until relatively recently, I believe, that the Israeli project, like it or not, was a highly idealistic project. My impression is that this idealism is almost gone. The Kibbutz movement is on its last legs. And I think that Sharon´s coma is extremely convenient, as he and his family stood accused of corruption on a grand scale.

I had planned to visit Jewish settlements but ran out of time. But what I was told about them was very interesting. A minority were inhabited by settler types, especially Americans, who wanted nothing less than to drive the Arabs across the River Jordan. The rest were dumping grounds for those Russians who didn´t manage to make it to America.

Indeed it is doubtful if most of these are Jewish at all. Certainly Orthodox churches which were previously empty are now packed to the rafters. So there may be a lot of Christian settlements in the West Bank—and not at all the kind of Christians that the US Christian Right would approve of or that might be expected to do its bidding!

I didn't meet anyone in the West Bank who thought that a "two-states" solution was possible, even if it was desirable. Geography, or rather political geography, alone rules it out.

The West Bank itself is small enough. Now the Wall on the West side has cut a large slice away. While to the East along the Jordan River is an occupied zone several kilometres wide. Here permanent farms have been established by agri-businesses in what is now established Israeli territory. Jericho, theoretically under Palestinian control, is in the middle of this and cut off from the outside world, i.e. from both the West Bank and Jordan, and accessible only through Israeli checkpoints.

The present system is the result of the Oslo Agreement which is seen by everyone I met as the root of most evils. The West Bank is divided into three types of Area. Areas A were to be under Palestinian Authority control, Areas B under joint control, and Areas C under Israeli control. Areas B are in fact under Israeli control also. It is not possible to travel from one Area A to another, or to an Area B, without passing through an Area C. The checkpoints are never fully manned, so the process is extremely slow—especially at times when people are going to and from work.

For example, those Palestinians with special permits to work in Jerusalem have to start queuing at the Bethlehem checkpoint at 4 AM. Bethlehem is about 5km from Jerusalem!

Another example is the large university in Nablus. Many of the students come from surrounding villages and towns. But they have to go to the expense of finding lodgings in Nablus or face four to six hours a day at the checkpoints, assuming these are not arbitrarily closed by the soldiers. These checkpoints have airport type security with metal detectors and baggage conveyors.

It has become an almost everyday occurrence for people to be shot on suspicion at these checkpoints—especially youngsters between 12 and 14, for some reason. "He looked like a suicide bomber" is the accepted and sufficient excuse.

Most of the Arabs I spoke to, both Christian and Muslim, were members of Fatah or its associated organisations. All but two of these had voted for Hamas at the last election and detested Abbas. The disintegration within Fatah is illustrated by the fact that in the last election seven seats in Bethlehem were contested by twenty-one "Fatah" candidates.

Great displays are put on by the Fatah-led police and army (which is supposed not to exist) whenever an official is on the move. These are not security-related, they are a bit of a shambles. But they give an aura of importance to officials and reinforce the feeling of loyalty in the security force. It is in this context that the formation of a military force by Hamas has to be seen—Hamas is after all the elected Government! (I will say more about the internal politics next month.)

When the Israelis make their incursions the Palestinian police are no longer to be seen. It is not that they are cowardly or completely incapable, but they are reined in by their leaders. I remembered when Arafat returned and refused to do the Israeli's bidding—i.e. suppress militants, especially Hamas—the Palestinian police gave a good account of themselves and put the Israelis to flight, until the tanks arrived.

After that it was the Palestinian police rather than the militias who became the main targets for killing. The first sight one sees entering Ramallah or Nablus is a huge pile of rubble. Palestinian barracks destroyed by F16 bombers—the use of which in such circumstances is yet another breach of the international laws of war.
Areas A are of course reminded nightly that they are not really autonomous, as the Israelis raid them, arrest people, and shoot up the towns.

An immediately obvious problem on the Palestinian side is the absence of effective armaments. Every tupenny-halfpenny guerilla group in the world has at least a few rocket launchers and heavy machine guns. The Palestinians do not and so have no defence against tanks and helicopters.)

Settlements exist all over the West Bank and continue to be built. These are not small affairs but can house 30-40,000 people. They surround the Palestinian towns and are usually built on hilltops. (There are also the military settlements.) In the case of Bethlehem they surround the city except for a gap towards the desert—with all that that implies.

They are also being incorporated into Greater Jerusalem, which is now officially a part of Israel—indeed its Capital.

Connecting the settlements is the main road system, paid for by the Americans, under the Oslo Accords. These roads are lined with electrified fences and almost all are barred to Palestinian traffic. Arab territory is therefore a series of isolated districts surrounded by Israeli-settled and controlled districts, and only accessible to each other through roadblocks and checkpoints. And they are reminded nightly of their vulnerability.

East Jerusalem has been annexed and incorporated into Israel.

This mess is what is supposed to form the second "state" in the "two-states solution". The Arabs I met cope with Israeli occupation and even make jokes about it. But they get really angry at any mention of the "two-states solution". The Israelis are an observable enemy. The "two-states solution" is mocking them.

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