Wednesday, February 21

MCC Palestine Update #13

MCC Palestine Update #13

21 February 2001

The gloom and desperation which has been hanging over Palestine/Israel for the past five months has become more intense over the past week. Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon appears poised to form a "national unity" government which will dash all hopes of a final status accord with the Palestinians (although many analysts predict yet another "interim" accord which will, as before, further solidify Israel's occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem). The Palestinian and Israeli death tolls continued their macabre rise, with Palestinians killed in Gaza and Hebron and eight Israelis killed by a Palestinian bus driver. Twenty families in the Mawasi section of the Gaza Strip, hemmed in by the Gush Qatif bloc of settlements, had their homes demolished by Israeli army bulldozers: international protest had provided a momentary reprieve from the demolitions earlier in the week, but the Israeli military returned when the international spotlight had moved on. Travel within the occupied territories has become increasingly difficult for Palestinians, the noose of checkpoints, tanks, and dirt and cement blockades hemming in movement.

This past week the MCC Palestine office hosted visitors from MCC's Middle East, Peace Office, Washington, D.C., New York, and Ottawa desks to meet with MCC's Palestinian partners and to brainstorm about how MCC can be most creative and effective in its advocacy for justice in Palestine/Israel within Mennonite congregations and to the Canadian and United States governments: your thoughts on this topic, of course, are very much appreciated.

Below are two pieces from the Israeli press. The first, by Gideon Levy, is a reflection on the holiday of Tu B-Shvat, an Arbor Day equivalent. The second, by former Jerusalem deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti, nicely captures the grim mood of the present hour and ends with a long-term vision of hope for Palestinian-Israeli equality and coexistence in one, binational, secular state in the entire land of Palestine/Israel.

1. Do you remember the tree that you planted?
Gideon Levy
Haaretz, 11 February 2001

It's said that God is in the detail. Maybe the devil is as well. Sometimes the tales about the little conquests teach more than do the stories of big atrocities. The seemingly marginal tales reveal Israel's double moral standard. The mass uprooting of trees in the territories in recent months, by the army and by the settlers, does not usually involve bloodshed. Israel's conquest has often been accompanied by cruel actions in which more than just the trees are victims. But on Tu Bishvat, Israel's Arbor Day, last Thursday, the hypocrisy was again apparent. This country, which devotes so much effort to tree planting, that has a special festival for trees, whose children have long been called on to contribute to the exalted cause, whose poets have heaped praise on the tree, at the same time so easily uproots and chops down thousands of trees that belong to others.

From the biblical verse, "And you will come to the land and you will plant trees in it" to Naomi Shemer's "Do not uproot what is planted"; from the trees that we planted in our childhood and the weekly Friday donation in the Jewish National Fund's blue box, the tree holds a special place in our hearts. When Tu Bishvat arrives and the country is awash with ceremonies, songs and slogans in praise of trees, while at the same time thousands of trees in the territories have been deliberately uprooted by that same tree-loving nation, the beautiful childhood festival of trees is turned into an ugly adult festival of hypocrisy.

"Do you remember the tree that you planted in your childhood?" was the question asked by the announcer with the pleasant voice in JNF's recent broadcasts, to the sound of chirping birds in the background. "It's now become a forest." The farmer Yassin Shamalwa also remembers the trees that his father and grandfather planted. But they're not a forest now. Now they are a pile of dead twigs. A few weeks ago, late one evening, Shamalwa was frightened by the pulsating sound of a bulldozer in his olive orchard. He rushed over to the area, but soldiers with drawn guns stopped him from getting near. He ran to the mosque in his village, Kafr Hares, near Ariel, and used the muezzin's loudspeaker to call out desperately for assistance. It didn't help. The bulldozer uprooted 30 of the trees planted by his father and grandfather.

He was given no advance notice, as laid down in the law, and nobody bothered to explain the reasons for the action to him. No one presented him with a written order, he was given no opportunity to appeal, nor did anybody offer him compensation for the state's act of vandalism on his land. "Why do you do this?" he tried asking in English, and according to Shamalwa a soldier answered, "Go to Arafat and Yossi Sarid. They'll explain to you."

The official justification, of course, is security: stones were thrown at travelers on the nearby road, and apparently they came from the olive orchard. Now, instead of the trees that could conceal stone throwers, there are piles of chopped trees that are equally able to conceal someone, and an old Palestinian farmer whose world has collapsed around him. For him the trees were much more than a possession. As the JNF says in its announcements, they are "presented with love" and cutting them down entails much more than just the loss of income. The small group of devoted activists from B'Tselem, the human rights organization, who, on Tu Bishvat brought him new olive saplings, made him a little emotional. It should be emphasized that it was B'Tselem and not the JNF that loves the forests so much.

A drive along the roads of Samaria shows a depressing picture. There are hundreds of uprooted trees, mostly olive trees, along the roadsides, the fruit of recent weeks' labor. B'Tselem's on-site researchers have counted 2,200 uprooted trees just in the area around Nablus, in addition to 2,100 that have been destroyed since the Intifada broke out. Palestinian organizations give higher numbers. Sometimes trees are dug up with their roots, sometimes only the branches are sawn off. Sometimes plots of land on both sides of the road are dug up, sometimes only one side - which is somewhat puzzling. Sometimes the farmers give up and capitulate, and sometimes, as in the case of the orchards of the village of Dir Isstia, they replant the stumps with stubbornness and devotion. Sometimes the destruction is caused by the IDF and sometimes by the settlers, as an act of retaliation. Tabeth Iyov, a farmer in the village of Nebi Salah, west of Ramallah, had his whole orchard, 146 trees, destroyed when the settlers were venting their anger, the day after the killing of Sarah Lisha from Halamish, in November. Of course, Iyov is not the only farmer to fall victim to such acts of revenge. The settlers, with their pretensions to being the greatest "lovers of the land," are not sickened by the destruction of the landscape.

"In the Land of Israel the trees cry. Soldiers of Rome raze dunam after dunam. They have no compassion for the land's covering, for the seven species." So the poet, Aharon Shabtai wrote in a poem published in last week's culture and literature supplement of Ha'aretz (in Hebrew). Shabtai laments the digging up of trees in order "to give building rights to Burger King and to Kentucky Fried Chicken" - which is another matter. But not far away, even more shockingly, Israel is mercilessly chopping down other trees, "non-Jewish" trees; and in so doing it causes not only the trees to weep, but also those who plant them: those who remember the trees planted in their childhood - trees that can no longer grow .

2. The worst script is coming true
Meron Benvenisti
Haaretz, 15 February 2001

How tempting it is to mock those who preached in favor of a crusade against Ariel Sharon: "fanatic nationalist," "blood-shedder," "yesterday's man" (Amos Oz, The Guardian, February 8), who find themselves facing the crawling of Ehud Barak (who was "ahead of [his] time" and had "the courage to compromise and make peace") and his party toward a national unity government. A few of them express fierce opposition "to the betrayal of the way of peace," but others "feel a great yearning for unity, in light of the intensification of the terror" and find solace in the agreed-upon platform of the government, according to which the "effort toward a final agreement" would continue, as well as its opposite: "advancing peace through interim agreements.". But the mockery over the sermonizing of the "Council of Leftist Sages," which evaporated in the emptiness of its words, was erased by the terrible tragedy that occurred yesterday in these parts. Now "national unity" - that tribal closing of ranks against the murderous Other - has become a necessity that no one can oppose, and any attempt to control events, even by proposing a realistic diplomatic alternative, is hopeless.

The worst script is about to take place: severe retaliatory actions will lead to acts of blood revenge whose motives are personal; these in turn will prompt even harsher collective punishment, which will ruin the remnants of authority remaining to the Palestinian Authority. Attempts to consolidate a rational approach that aspires to launch a joint effort to manage the crisis will run into internal disagreements, which will be won by those who always thrive on the rotting bed of hate and bloodletting.

The atmosphere, which enables only the increasing use of force, will lead to an extreme escalation that will create pressure for international intervention. The chances for external intervention along the lines of Bosnia or Kosovo are extremely slight, both because the world's cop is shrugging off its duties, with the United States increasingly isolating itself, and also because the intervention - which would restrain the actions of the Jewish State - would be seen as an anti-Semitic act and thus there would be hesitation to initiate it. The situation that will be created will make all the usual "solutions" - two states for two peoples, an end to the occupation, the dismantling of settlements, final status agreements, interim agreements, and others - laughable.

Reality would be exposed in all its nakedness not as a "problem" but as a "condition": a reality that was described nearly 20 years ago, earning a torrent of ridicule and the name "the theory of irreversibility." "A basic, almost primitive conflict, not an international conflict; a conflict that raises existential and meta-political questions of self-identity, denial of the identity of the opposing side, atavistic fears of physical annihilation, deep feelings of absolute justice that brooks no compromise and feelings of exclusive possessiveness; a dynamic, violent and unstable conflict - as in every binational or multi-ethnic state where the ruling group has a monopoly on the power of enforcement, the group that is ruled turns to violent civil disobedience to which the ruling group responds with violence. The confrontation escalates but it is confined to its internal, Israeli-Palestinian framework." It's not generally accepted for someone to quote himself, but perhaps these harsh words will serve as food for thought for anyone who was drawn to illusions concerning the "end of the conflict" and is now hopeless in the face of the collapse of his illusions. Out of the cycle of violence the gradual, hesitant understanding - perhaps the dream - will grow, that the only way is through a struggle to create a land of Israel/Palestine that is undivided in both physical and human terms, pluralistic and open; a land in which civilized relations, human touch, intimate coexistence and a link to a common homeland would be stronger than militant tribalism and the separation into national ghettoes. Many years may have to pass until the notion of a binational framework - federated or otherwise - will become a legitimate topic for Israeli and Palestinian political discourse. In the meantime, we can certainly expect a great deal of sermonizing regarding "separation" and "the establishment of a Palestinian state" as indispensable solutions; at least this preaching should be carried out with the humility dictated by events and not with the arrogance of know-it-alls .

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