Wednesday, August 21

MCC Palestine Update #57

MCC Palestine Update #57

August 21, 2002

This week international humanitarian organizations in the occupied territories issued a statement in response to studies showing alarming levels of malnutrition in the occupied territories. This statement, signed by MCC, noted that we are looking not at a "natural disaster" here but at an all-too-human creation of a regime of curfews, closures, restrictions on movement, and subsequently high unemployment. The statement reads as follows:

"As international humanitarian organizations with relief and development programs across the West Bank and Gaza, we ar deeply concerned by the high levels of malnutrition and anemia documented in the recent CARE and Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics surveys. These surveys confirm what we have witnessed through our work in Palestinian communities- the steadily declining ability of Palestinian families to access and afford goods to meet their basic human needs, leading to an alarming decline in nutritional status."

"We must emphasize that the cause of this crisis is not a general food shortage. As these surveys document, shortages of high protein foods (meat, fish and dairy) exist as a result of border closures to Gaza, and road closures, checkpoints, curfews and military conflict in the West Bank. Further, where food is available locally, it is inaccessible to the population because of a lack of money or because of closures and curfews which make it impossible for people with money to get to the market. In other words, the cause is strictly a result of political decisions."

"The Geneva Conventions, to which Israel is a signatory, require that people under military occupation must have their basic human needs met by the occupying power. With the alarming malnutrition and anemia levels now extant in the West Bank and Gaza, it is clear that this is not the case."

"We call on Israel to end the curfews and closures which entail collective punishment, illegal under the Geneva Conventions, and which have led to this humanitarian emergency. We call on Israel to give humanitarian agencies safe passage to the populations at risk. We urge the international community to address this situation, including through the use of diplomatic, legal and political action."

Below you will find three pieces by journalists for the leading Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. In the first, Gideon Levy dissects the troubling meaning of new Israeli military coinages such as "pressure cooker" and "neighbor procedure." Meron Benvenisti then issues a warning that Israel might try to use a US attack against Iraq as cover and justification for actions in the occupied territories which it might not otherwise carry out. Finally, Danny Rubinstein examines how Palestinians are managing to cope with record-high unemployment.

--Alain Epp Weaver

1. Some lives are cheaper than others
Gideon Levy

Which is preferable - "pressure cooker" or "neighbor procedure"? Is it better to detonate a building with the occupants inside - a practice known in the Israel Defense Forces as "pressure cooker" - or to send one of the local neighbors to defend the soldiers bodily, the "neighbor procedure" in IDF argot. In the moral deterioration of the IDF in the territories, which has been greatly accelerated in the past few weeks, the choices that are made by the army's commanding officers are often described as an alternative between two controversial actions, in which the non-use of one automatically validates the other, and both of them together are automatically justified within the framework of the war on terrorism in which just about everything now goes. Thus it was that the IDF tried, at week's end, to justify the appalling use that soldiers made of an innocent neighbor, 19-year-old Nidal Abu Muhsein, who was equipped with a protective vest and sent to his death by soldiers who were engaged in a manhunt for a wanted individual, Nasser Jerar, in the village of Tubas, near Jenin. The other choice the soldiers had, according to the IDF, was to resort to the "pressure cooker" tactic. In fact, in this case the IDF did not balk at using that method as well: after the "neighbor procedure" failed, the army buried the disabled Jerar alive - he lost both legs and an arm a year ago - under the ruins of the building, which IDF bulldozers brought down without knowing whether there was anyone else inside. This act drew no response from anyone in Israel. An innocent neighbor is ordered to go to his death, a bulldozer topples a building on a live wanted person - however cruel and however senior he may have been in his organization -without anyone knowing who else was in the house, and officers and politicians justify the operation without blinking an eye. If we have any desire to know how deep our insensitivity now runs and how morally obtuse we have become, this can make for an excellent case study: the nifty names the IDF has chosen - "pressure cooker" and "neighbor procedure" - can no longer mitigate the serious implications of both actions, which not even the most just war against terrorism can justify. The use of bodies of Palestinians for the IDF's needs is not new. In the first intifada, residents young and old were ordered to climb electricity poles to remove banned Palestinian flags, some of whom died of electrocution, while others were made to clear away barriers made of stones for fear that they might be booby-trapped. There were also cases in which Palestinians were forced to sit on the hoods of jeeps in order to protect the soldiers with their bodies. The exacerbation of the measures being used in the war against the second intifada has also brought about an exacerbation of the use of Palestinians as human shields: Palestinians have been made to enter buildings that were suspected of being booby-trapped, to carry out packages thought to be explosive devices and assist in manhunts for wanted individuals. Nor are these cases departures from the norm: they are part of a declared and fixed policy, so much so that they have become rooted as a "procedure." Underlying all these practices is the fact that the IDF holds Palestinian life to be cheap, and consequently, we can endanger them as much as we like. By the same token, the prevailing notion that in order to protect our soldiers we are allowed to make use of whatever means strikes our fancy, including the lives of innocent Palestinians, is a twisted concept morally and legally. The lives of the soldiers are precious, and it is the IDF's duty to safeguard them to the utmost, but the lives of the Palestinians are precious too. In the operation in which the neighbor was killed, the IDF deceived the High Court of Justice and showed contempt for the State Prosecutor's Office. Only three months ago the state's representative, attorney Michael Balas, told the High Court, "The IDF has decided to issue an unequivocal order to the forces operating in the field according to which it is absolutely forbidden to make use of civilians anywhere as a human shield against shooting or terrorist attacks." This ban applies to buildings, streets and wherever IDF troops are operating." Now comes this operation, which apparently was not the only one of its kind, and proves that in the eyes of the IDF a commitment made to the justices of the Supreme Court is totally worthless. The liquidation in Tubas thus symbolizes another stage in the deterioration of the rule of law in Israel. An army that makes an explicit commitment to justices of the Supreme Court to refrain from making use of a certain procedure, and then ignores its undertaking so flagrantly - as though it had never been made - is an army that poses a danger to democracy. There is no one to put a stop to this tendency today. The liquidation in Tubas may have prevented a "mega-terrorist attack." But like every other liquidation, it did not defeat terrorism. It is extremely doubtful that it deterred the Palestinians, but some of the events in Tubas should be of deep concern to Israelis. The "neighbor procedure" reflects not only what remains of our neighborly relations with the Palestinians, but also what is happening to us.

2. Preemptive warnings of fantastic scenarios
Meron Benvenisti

Day after day and seemingly deliberately, someone else fans the flames of hysteria about the possibility that an American campaign against Iraq will bring a nuclear-biological-chemical (NBC) attack on Israel. After the flaws in the old protective kits were revealed and raised the sense of danger from toxic gases, there followed anxieties about terrible epidemics of anthrax and smallpox and fears of nuclear radiation.

Those fanning the anxiety are doing it in a sophisticated, indirect way, through comments and leaks about "being prepared for the threats." These are ostensibly meant to relieve public fears and prove that the authorities are ready for action in even the worst cases of "existential danger."

After the statements about the need for mass vaccinations and issuing pills against radiation sickness, the public should be catatonic by now. But there seems to be no panic, and there is a distinct lukewarm response to calls to bring protective kits to be refurbished. The decision makers seem more anxious than the public - maybe they are afraid of future complaints about "failures," or maybe there are interests at work beyond the narrow matter of being ready for any threats.

Public hysteria will no doubt peak when the authorities announce a "voluntary inoculation campaign," placing responsibility in the hands of the citizens, and taking it out of the hands of the authorities, who will then be able to say they only provided what the public wanted.

But fanning anxiety with reports of "Home Front readiness" are not only about "defensive" measures. They are also about declarations by the Sharon government that "this time (as opposed to the Gulf War of 1991) Israel will certainly respond to any Iraqi attack." The worse the hysterical fear of an NBC attack - little children crying as nurses administer vaccinations on their arms - the more the pressure will rise to "stick it" to Saddam Hussein, whether it is necessary or not.

According to government statements, Israel might end up as the only American ally in the war - aside perhaps from Britain. The warnings about the destructive ramifications of an attack on Iraq for the entire Middle East are not deterring Israel - they are encouraging it.

Under the cover of George Bush getting even for his father, Ariel Sharon will be able to settle his own old accounts, going back to the days of Beirut. Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan hinted at the strong connection between a war in Iraq and the war against the Palestinians when he said "an American attack on Iraq will also hurt the Palestinian Authority." It makes one wonder if the IDF has operational plans directly linking a reaction to an Iraqi attack with the war in the territories.

Since the Israeli government is coming up with "worst case scenarios" on NBC attacks, here's another one - an American assault on Iraq against Arab and world opposition, and an Israeli involvement, even if only symbolic, leads to the collapse of the Hashemite regime in Jordan. Israel then executes the old "Jordanian option" - expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians across the Jordan River.

There has never been a better opportunity for that option. The ideology, moral dissolution, and motives of hatred and revenge that already allow collective punishment, curfews, closures, assassinations, house demolitions, expulsions, annulment of Israeli citizenship, and denials of legal defense, have all created a reality in which mass expulsion, wholesale house demolition, and destruction of vegetation are not considered reprehensible steps toward a criminal ethnic cleansing. A state of war - "the threat of nuclear radiation and smallpox" - could justify such "an appropriate" response.

Just as the authorities are getting ready for an NBC attack, worried Israelis should get ready for the possibility of a mass "transfer" of Palestinians in case of war in Iraq. Anyone who regards such ethnic cleansing as a horrible crime must raise their voice now, without any of the "ifs, ands or buts" so typical of the response to the punishment already being meted out in ever more strict steps.

Warnings about ethnic cleansing should not only come from committed leftists, but from people whose patriotism cannot be questioned. And let nobody say it would be unnecessary protest because nobody is plotting "transfer." Immunizations against smallpox, and pills against atomic radiation are based on an even more fantastic scenario.

And last but not least, a word to the Americans. They should also be warned that an assault on Iraq could unleash ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. Nobody should be allowed to say they weren't warned.

3. Hardship in the territories
Danny Rubinstein

Almost five months have passed since Operation Defensive Shield, and the change in daily life in the West Bank is clearly evident. Though life before then was difficult in the territories due to restrictions on movement, the closures and encirclements since the operation, which to a certain extent renewed the military occupation of the West Bank, have made the distress much worse.How long can this go on? It is hard to tell. Ghassan Al-Khatib, the labor minister in Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's new cabinet, draws attention to the unemployment level. He says that while five months ago unemployment in the PA areas had reached 40 percent of the work force, recent surveys of the situation put the current figure at 80 percent. This means that unemployment has doubled in this short time. As in the past, the main reason for the unemployment is the restrictions on movement.The closures and the encirclements, which have become tougher in recent months, have been joined by continuous days of curfew in the various towns that the Israel Defense Forces have entered. The situation in the towns changes all the time. Most days last week, for example, there was a curfew in Nablus and life was paralyzed.In Tul Karm, Qalqilyah and Jenin, there was a partial curfew, usually for most of the nighttime hours, which was extended to other towns and villages. In Ramallah, on the other hand, there has been no curfew for a month now and anyone wandering around the center of town can see that life is more or less normal.No one can predict where the IDF will invade next and when the next curfew will be, and this uncertainty basically brings economic life to a standstill. The Al-Ayam newspaper, based in Ramallah, recently published interviews with workers from quarries in Samaria who had stopped working because the quarries' owners had closed them, and with workers who had been laid off from their jobs in sewing workshops in Nablus.The quarries were closed down because it was impossible to remove the quarried building stones from them. Those who buy from quarries in Samaria are contractors from the territories, and from Israel and the Arab world - and if there is a curfew in the Samarian towns and restrictions on movement on the roads between towns, the quarries are paralyzed. The situation is similar in the sewing workshops in Nablus. The workshops manufacture clothing for stores in Israel, and apart from the problems with the curfew and the road blocks, the demand for clothing has dropped sharply, reflecting the economic crisis in Israel and the effect of cheap imports from China. The Palestinian media have lately been reporting harsh descriptions of life on the threshold of hunger in a list of places in the territories. Schools in the Gaza Strip reported a clear increase in dropouts in the second half of the last school year. Children as young as 10 are leaving the classroom and going out to the streets to try to earn a little money. Some stand at street corners trying to sell bottles of water, pencils, dusters and cigarette lighters to passing drivers, while others wash car windows when the drivers stop at traffic lights, in the hope of receiving some payment.The Palestinian law allows children to work only from age 14, but no one takes any notice. Dozens of small workplaces in the territories currently employ children for only a few shekels a day. Many Palestinian children manage to slip past IDF checkpoints and work in Israel, usually in Arab villages. A harsh description of children from the Jenin refugee camp who work in Nazareth, was recently published by the Palestinian press. A 16-year-old boy named Firas led a group of children aged 10-15 across the Green Line near Umm al Fahm and reached Nazareth. They wandered around the streets looking for casual work. Many people take pity on them and helped. The children sleep on the roof of an abandoned building in the city."We are not beggars asking for handouts," said Shadi, 14, to the journalist who interviewed him. "We have come here because there is no food in Jenin, no money and no classes." Then he rolled up his sleeve to show the reporter the Hamas symbol he had scratched onto his arm and added, "After I get a little money, I will go back to Jenin and join the fighters." Such youngsters can also be seen in Jerusalem, where they have come from the Hebron region. Until a short time ago, they had also succeeded in reaching the Jewish neighborhoods of western Jerusalem.Now policemen and security personnel keep them away and they wander around only in the Arab neighborhoods. Sa'id Al-Mudallah, who heads the employment department at the PA Labor Ministry, says that data collected by his office in the West Bank and Gaza shows that there are about 30,000 Palestinian children under the age of 14 who are not going to school and are in the streets, looking for work. "Child labor on this scale affects the whole society," says Al-Mudallah, "because these children grow up exposed to physical and emotional harm."A report by Palestinian educators, based on similar cases throughout the world, indicates that these children who grow up in the streets and adopt street language and behavior will lead lives of misery. How indeed do people in the West Bank and Gaza manage to make a living in spite of everything? The Palestinian work force in the territories numbers about 850,000 (of a population of 3 million). Some 150,000 people are employed by the PA and public institutions, such as local authorities. The PA continues to pay low government wages. Most ministries are late in paying salaries. For example, a few ministries paid May's salaries just last week. The PA receives money for salaries mainly from the assistance fund financed by the Arab states and from loans and grants from Europe.The PA also has revenues from government companies (such as the fuel, cement and cigarette monopolies). In recent weeks Israel has begun to pay the Palestinian treasury some of the tax monies that Israel mainly collected from customs duties for it. At the beginning of the intifada the Israeli government halted the transfer of these payments. Arafat has ordered that 10 percent be deducted from the salaries of all PA employees and that the money be transferred to a fund to support the unemployed. Support payments are made via the offices of the workers' unions, headed by Shaher Saad of Nablus and Rasim Biari in Gaza. Every unemployed person is supposed to receive NIS 500 per month, but the fuss surrounding these payments is tremendous. The workers' unions have no precise lists of those eligible to receive payments and there is not enough money to pay everyone so payments are made only once every two or three months.A short time ago a Palestinian reporter from Nablus described how people crammed into the workers' unions' offices to get those unemployment payments when the curfew was lifted in that city, but only a few were lucky.There are several charitable organizations in the territories that distribute monetary allocations or basic foodstuffs. These are Muslim organizations, both local and foreign (from the Gulf States), Christian organizations from the West and humanitarian organizations from around the world. The United Nations' welfare and employment agencies has renewed distribution of food packages, an activity that had been cut back drastically in previous years. Lately the International Red Cross has also begun distributing food vouchers. The needy families who receive these vouchers take them to their local grocery stores to buy food. The storekeepers then redeem the vouchers for cash from the Red Cross. The vouchers are for up to NIS 300 of food and cannot be used to purchase cigarettes or alcoholic beverages. Many families, particularly in the West Bank, receive financial assistance from their relatives overseas. Over 20 years ago economists determined that about 25 percent of the revenues in the West Bank and Gaza came from money sent by family members working in Arab oil states. After the expulsion of the Palestinians from Kuwait (in 1991, after the Gulf War), revenues from these sources dropped sharply.The economic picture is therefore of a Palestinian population barely getting by on donations and handouts, with even the government salaries considered a gift because most offices are not even operating. What is saving this population is its traditional way of life, with its high level of mutual family assistance. When one (extended) family member is earning something, he shares it with the whole family, so the family manages to survive.

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