Friday, February 13

MCC Palestine Update #95

MCC Palestine Update #95

February 13, 2004

“The Government of Israel does not believe that pilgrims and tourists have normal cause to visit Gaza.” That’s what an official from the Israeli Embassy in Great Britain told a Catholic priest who had called to inquire about troubling new Israeli regulations that were being handed to many international visitors upon their arrivals in Israel, informing them that entry into “Palestinian Authority” areas—Bethlehem, Gaza, Ramallah, Jericho—was forbidden without prior written authorisation. The Israeli official denied that the regulations applied say, to tourists and pilgrims wishing to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, but only to Gaza. With the pattern of the past years having been one of increased restrictions on movement, and with the fences and walls Israel is erecting in the West Bank progressively giving it the capability it has in Gaza of enclosing entire populations, one can legitimately be sceptical that, in the future, entry to Bethlehem and Jericho, say, will not become difficult to impossible. For now, however, it’s abundantly clear that Israel plans to place severe limits on internationals wishing to enter the Gaza Strip. Diplomats, aid workers (including MCCers), UN staff usually can gain access, even if they have their stories of frustration. Others, however, will most likely be turned away.

On February 10, 2004, MCC workers accompanied a group of students and professors from Eastern Mennonite University, in the country as part of a cross-cultural semester in the Middle East. The group has been staying in the Bethlehem area (and thus in “Area A,” in violation of the regulations as spelled out in the recent travel warning), enjoying Palestinian hospitality, attending lectures, being immersed in the historical, social, religious, and political complexities of Palestine/Israel. The past several times EMU groups have been in the country, they have incorporated trips to Gaza, where they met with MCC mission partners.

This week the group was to have visited the local Catholic church and school in Gaza and children’s centers operated by the Culture and Free Thought Association in the refugee camps of the southern Gaza Strip. Despite the fact that I had been in repeated contact with the Israeli military officials at the Erez crossing point into the Gaza Strip, furnishing them weeks in advance with the passport information for each member of the group, the group was denied entry, simply told that authorisation had not been granted; over an hour of follow-up phone calls were in vain.

We at MCC are very disturbed by this denial of entry to the EMU group. We believe that Christians have very compelling reasons to visit the Gaza Strip (beyond enjoying the sea, which is lovely, the food, which is delicious, and visiting Byzantine, Crusader, Mamluke, and Ottoman-era churches, mosques, and baths). Christians should be allowed to visit the Gaza Strip in order to be in spiritual solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ who worship at Gaza’s Orthodox, Catholic, and Baptist churches. Christians should be allowed to visit the Gaza Strip as a show of support to Christian institutions such as the Near East Council of Churches and the Ahli Arabi Hospital. Christians should be allowed to visit non-Christian Organisations, such as the Culture and Free Thought Association, who join with Christian Organisations such as MCC to promote the development of healthy, thriving communities. [Persons of other faiths, of course, would have other valid reasons for wanting to visit Gaza.]

Any claims that restrictions on entry into the Gaza Strip are motivated by security are suspect at best. Israel tightly controls the Gaza Strip, with all passage in and out going through multiple passport controls, with baggage checks and metal detectors. Meanwhile, Israeli officials say, tourists and pilgrims can still go into Bethlehem (from which, for the time being, it is possible, with some determination, to exit without being subject to Israeli checks). It is hard to escape the conclusion that Israel’s primary motivation for keeping internationals out of the Gaza Strip is to reduce the number of people who witness Israeli policies of dispossession in practice. The Gaza Strip is constantly stereotyped: its people are terrorists, its cities and refugee camps are squalid, etc. Visits by tourists and pilgrims to the Strip are concrete ways of breaking down such inaccurate portrayals. The current Israeli government, however, appears much less intent on fostering bridge-building than on shoring up psychological, legal, and concrete walls that generate hate.

Below you will find three pieces. The first, by Amira Hass of Haaretz, critically dissects the claim made by Israeli National Security Advisor Giora Eiland that “The planners of the fence failed to predict its effects on innocent Palestinians.” The problem was not one of a failure of prediction, but rather a failure to care. The second, again by Hass, looks at life in the village of Budrus, west of Ramallah and only a few kilometres east of the “Green Line” between Israel and the West Bank; the separation wall, as Hass describes, will have a devastating effect on this community. In the final piece, US commentators Ali Abunimah and Hussein Ibisih take a critical look at the rhetoric and the reality of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s proposed evacuation of Gaza Strip settlements.

--Alain Epp Weaver

1. Failed predictions, Haaretz, Feb. 11, 2004

By Amira Hass

"The planners of the fence failed to predict its effects on innocent Palestinians," National Security Advisor Giora Eiland told a high-level diplomatic-security forum in Germany this week (Haaretz, February 9). Like Eiland, other Israeli representatives are now trying to convince the western countries and the United States in particular that the route of the separation fence is a human, localized and almost chance error that can be corrected to minimize the damage.

We have a new sentry to blame for what has gone wrong: the rather anonymous planners of the separation fence. Some sort of personal, individual limitation caused them to fail and not to predict the extent to which "the lives of innocent people would be affected" by the construction of the fortifications, which has destroyed and is destroying wells that are essential to agriculture, is uprooting tens of thousands of olive trees and other trees and is wiping out hundreds of greenhouses in which thousands of people have invested the savings of years.

One really does need special analytical powers to predict that caging thousands of people behind iron gates and stationing 19-year-old soldiers to open them, if they feel like it, two or three times a day - would have a deleterious affect on studies at schools and universities, sabotage medical treatment for cancer and kidney patients and split up families. After all, only especially creative minds could have guessed that it would be very hard for 260,000 people to maintain "a normal fabric of life" in the 81 enclaves of various sorts that the fence creates. Eighty-one enclaves that separate them from neighboring villages, from the provincial towns and from the rest of the West Bank, shutting them in behind barbed wire fences and guard towers and excavations and double fences and bureaucratic-military systems of permits to go in and out of the enclaves that are needed by garbage collectors and doctors, family members and teachers.

The truth is that what was hard to predict was the international shock at the fence. United States National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is not pleased (and not only the United nations General Assembly) and Western diplomats are saying things in inner conclaves, especially when it turns out that development projects that had been funded by their countries have been destroyed under the fence's bulldozers.

The European countries are opposed to holding the deliberations at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, but they too have reservations about the fence's route and the damage it causes. Television channels around the world are showing documentary films about the fence and its ills, and it isn't possible to keep repeating the chorus that the motives are anti-Semitic. If it were not for all this, it is doubtful that various representatives of the state - like the Prosecutor's Office and before that, military sources - would be hinting about a change in the route of the fence and admitting a failure to "predict" how bad the damage would be to the innocent. They simply did not care about the damage.

After all, the kinds of damage that the fence is causing are not new. The Israeli occupation regime has been testing them successfully for 37 years now, sometimes in the name of security and sometimes in the name of the Jewish people's right to preferential rights in this country.

Neither the Meridor committee nor the Oslo agreement did away with the Israeli habit of harming the Palestinians' rights to water, land, freedom of movement, earning a living and development.

By the second half of 2002 it was already possible to know that the route of the fence was far from the Green Line (pre-Six Day War border), that it creates enclaves and that it harms the "vegetable garden" of the Palestinian economy. But at that time it was hard to bring to the Israeli media - which evinced no interest in the matter at that stage - reports about the extent of the fence's damage to the civilian population. The data and the reports on massive confiscations and uprooting of trees that were published by various Palestinian Organisations were not read in Hebrew. B'Tselem published its first position paper in September, 2002, which warned of the implications of the route of the fence, including a mortal blow to Palestinian life. Who remembers?

By the middle of 2003 the planners of the route of the fence had full backing - from the political system, from the print and the electronic media, from the street and from key figures in the Israeli peace camp. The idea of the fence, without going into detail, offered people frightened by the suicide terror attacks a hope that their personal security was achievable with no connection to any political solution. It offered a refuge from the disturbing knowledge that Israel is evading an offer of a sustainable political, humane, rational solution that the Palestinians can accept.

The military plan to build elevated bridges and sunken roads between the enclaves is a bone thrown to international public opinion and another vain solution offered to the Israelis that diverts attention from the essence. The planners of the route that harms the Palestinians are doing this on behalf of the state of Israel, which almost unhindered has built in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip a regime of Jewish superiority that inevitably violates the rights of the Palestinian individual and collective. Key parts of Israeli society have become blind to the damage, and the occupation regime is as much taken for granted as the sunrise in the east.

2. The village against the fence, Haaretz, Feb. 11, 2004

By Amira Hass

A serious-looking black dog, whose eyes looked almost hollow, freely crossed the naked strip of land west of the villages of Qibiya and Budrus, which stretches from the village of Rantis, about five
kilometers to the north.

A young resident of Qibiya guiding the visitors among the olive groves and fruit orchards of his village, up to the route of the fence, hastened to cross the ditch that has already been dug on both sides of the route, and to disappear among the trees. It was soon clear why – an Israeli security vehicle was approaching from the north toward those walking on the exposed strip, as soon as it detected them.

The vehicle stopped and two men got out. One, the shorter and older, carrying a rifle, was from Kfar Yonah; the second was from a Bedouin community in the Galilee. The one with the rifle angrily demanded that the visitors who came on foot leave immediately, or he would call the police so they would explain, if you insist, that this is a closed military area, even if he had no papers to prove it. His friend, who served in the army for seven years and was discharged half a year ago, calmed things down before they heated up.

The one with the rifle asserted that the presence of cameras encourages people to come and demonstrate, and that's how the waves of riots begin. "Isn't it you, by your work, who are causing the waves of rioting?" he asked, and the question wasn't quite understood. What are you talking about, we are doing our work, explained the younger man. And of course I support the fence, so I won't explode with my family in a restaurant.

The "riots" the two were talking about are a series of demonstrations against the fence that have been held by the residents of Budrus for about a month. "We decided that unlike other places until now, where international peace activists conducted the battle against the fence and the Palestinians supported them, we, the residents of Budrus, would wage our own battle."

Those are the words of Ayad Murar, 42, a veteran Fatah activist, who with his brother Naim was among the founders of the popular committee in the village "for the struggle against the apartheid wall." The popular committee, he says, emphasized to the people that the battle against the bulldozers and the many soldiers and police who protect them must be conducted without violence.

Curfew and arrests

All residents answered the call to demonstrate - young and old, men and women. What began as a strike along the route of the fence reached a climax on December 30. Somebody saw a bulldozer approaching the olive grove. The speaker in the mosque quickly announced it, and everyone who was in the village ran westward, toward the grove.

School children ran out of the classrooms, books in hand. Tear gas, rubber bullets and blows did not stop the villagers, who dispersed and returned to stand or to sit in front of the soldiers and the police, on the ground. Eyewitnesses say that the female students sat in front of the many soldiers, who retreated to their jeeps. The appearance of several television cameras helped.

During the following days, the Israel Defense Forces imposed a curfew on the village in order to prevent the residents from going out to demonstrate. Mainly young men violated the curfew and walked to the olive grove, to prevent the bulldozers from doing their work. Up to this week, the bulldozers have not returned to work - after they already uprooted about 60 olive trees. The people of Budrus attribute this to their stubbornness and determination.

A few days after this demonstration, the IDF arrested Naim Murar. He was released on January 11, but didn't manage to be home for more than three days when the army came again to arrest him and his brother Ayad. The military prosecutor demanded that they be placed under administrative detention.

In the military court at the Ofer army base, the judge, Major Adrian Agassi, decided to release Ayad. "I found it proper to intervene in the decision of the military commander," ruled Agassi in his decision. "After all, we cannot allow the military commander to use his authority to order the administrative detention of a person only because of this activity [against the fence]. In my opinion, this is a mistaken decision that did not stem from clear security considerations."

But the judge decided to approve the decision of the military commander to place Naim Murar under administrative detention. As is customary in administrative detention, only the judge was allowed to peruse the classified documents given to him by members of the Shin Bet security services, and according to these documents, "the intelligence material attributes to him activity in support of terror, in the context of the Tanzim organization."

But in Budrus people are convinced that the second detention of Naim Murar - like that of eight other activists against the fence - is an attempt to dismantle the opposition in the village. From Budrus' threatened olive grove sounds of firing can be heard - sounds of training exercises. They come from the Adam military base, which is a few dozen meters to the west, 20-30 meters west of the Green Line.

In Budrus they believe that because of this army base, which is a few dozen meters from the Green Line, the route of the fence was pushed straight into the beautiful olive grove that they have been nurturing for decades. Budrus lost most of its lands in 1948 - many thousands of dunams, some count up to 20,000, remained on the western side of the Green Line.

Some land remained in the demilitarized zone, which both Israeli and Jordanian forces were forbidden to enter. Since 1967, say the villagers, the demilitarized zone has become Israeli, and they weren't allowed to return to work their land there as well.

The route that is planned according to the map of the Israeli security services looks as though it is right on the Green Line. But in reality, all the difference lies in several dozen meters east of the Green Line. Now, of the 5,000 dunams that remain to the approximately 1,400 residents of Budrus, they estimate that they will lose about one fifth.

Some of this land is being confiscated for the fence itself, part of the area of the village will remain behind the fence - between the fence and the Green Line. The villagers estimate that 3,000 olive trees, which cover an area of about 5,000 dunams, will be lost under the teeth of the bulldozers or will be trapped in areas where entry is forbidden.

They figure that the "fence" - namely, two ditches that will be dug on both sides of it, and the two barbed wire fences, and the electronic fence with the sensors, and the patrol roads between them, and the watchtowers - will almost touch some of the most western houses in the village, including the school.

Imprisoned enclave

The occupation and preparation of the land here, west of Kibiya and Budrus, are being carried out in the context of the second stage of the building of the security fence. According to the plan, and as long as it has not been decided or proved otherwise, in the context of this stage two Palestinian enclaves will be created west of Ramallah.

These are two out of 81 Palestinian enclaves that have been created and will be created all along the fence, which are discussed in the report by B'Tselem. Some will be between the fence and the Green Line, some in small "loops" created by the fence, and some will be the result of "secondary obstacles," as the army puts it.

Budrus is one of the nine Palestinian villages that will find themselves in an enclave with an area of 53.2 square kilometers. These villages include Luban al Gharabiyeh, Rantis, Shuqba, Qibiya, Shabtin, Budrus,
Midya, Na'lin and Dir Kadis. The village of Midiya will be surrounded on all sides by the separation fence, as in a loop.

According to the map of the Israeli security services, one could have concluded immediately that an enclave would be created here. The routes of the western and eastern fences are the same color, as though there is no difference between them.

Military spokesman did in fact explain to members of the support unit of the Palestinian negotiating division that the eastern fence would not be similar to the western one, and would apparently be composed of what is called a "secondary obstacle" (a system of ditches and barbed wire fences) and an eastern gate on the roads to Ramallah and the villages surrounding it - which would be locked and blocked off only in case of security alerts. But in any case, this promise does not reassure the village residents, who know that they are losing thousands of dunams of their land.

In the past three years they have already had a taste of checkpoints that prevented their access to the neighboring villages or to the district center, Ramallah. And even if the gate or the gates in the eastern, "secondary" fence are open most of the time - in Rantis, Budrus and the other villages they point to the maps and to the new political geography that is being created before their eyes.

The two small Palestinian enclaves that are being created west of Ramallah leave two large settlement blocs outside of them, which cut deep into the Palestinian territory and are joined within Israel itself,
until one can no longer see that there was a Green Line.

"That's why we are fighting against this fence," says Ayad Murar from his home, talking about this new geography. "It is part of our struggle for a peaceful solution to the conflict - the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel."

Between November and December 2003, military orders began to be posted in the Rantis, Budrus and other villages, regarding the "temporary" seizure of land (until December 2005) for military purposes. According to these orders, which are signed by the chief of Central Command Major General Moshe Kaplinsky, the width of the strips of land confiscated from the villages will range from 68 to 490 meters. The entire length of the (primary and secondary) fence that will surround the nine villages in the enclave - 32.2 kilometers.

Meanwhile, some of the residents of Budrus continue to sneak into Israel on foot, to make a living, mainly in construction. Others, who have lost their jobs in Israel in recent years, have found various jobs in the Ramallah area. But if they are closed within an enclave, they are liable to lose these places of work. Palestinian employers cannot withstand the frequent incidents of lateness caused by the blocks and the checkpoints.

"Come to live in Ramallah, or leave the job," they are told. Grocery store owners are feeling the difference. People come in infrequently, buy on credit, they buy only what is essential. It's hard to imagine what else will happen when the large olive grove is crushed beneath the teeth of the bulldozers or is swallowed up on the other side of the fence, and when it won't be possible to work in Israel at all any longer.

3. Chicago Tribune

February 6, 2004
What does Sharon's latest settlement move mean for Israel?
By Ali Abunimah and Hussein Ibish

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's announcement that he plans to remove virtually all Israeli settlers from the occupied Gaza Strip has caused a shock wave in Israel.

Has some sudden epiphany convinced Sharon that the settlements are the key obstacle to peace and that Israel's future is jeopardized by the continued attempt to incorporate occupied Palestinian territories into a greater Israel?

Many Israelis, especially in the military, have long felt that the Gaza settlements are pointless, and a massive drain on national resources for no serious purpose. The small Gaza settlements are purely symbolic, in stark contrast to the massive settlements on the West Bank, which have literally reshaped the landscape and are designed also to transform its demographic and political realities, making Israel's control permanent.

While Sharon talks about removing settlements in Gaza, he is continuing to build them all over the West Bank, because he has no intention of permitting a real Palestinian state to be constructed.

One of the main reasons President Bush's "road map" for peace failed was that Sharon reneged on promises that he would start removing new settlement "outposts." Instead, he made a show of removing a few small, uninhabited sites, while setting up many more new ones and expanding dozens of major settlements up and down the West Bank.

Since Sharon broke those promises, Israel has announced thousands of new settler housing units. It recently allocated $1 million for yet another Jewish-only road in the West Bank, this one to connect an outpost settlement to a school run by an extremist Israeli group the U.S. State Department has formally designated as a terrorist organization.

Sharon's announcement could simply be a ploy to offset scandals at home, and growing pressure on Israel abroad, by trying to create the impression that he is taking some far-reaching initiative without intending to actually do anything.

Within Israel, his proposal has divided the opposition.

The right now is split between those who see him as a traitor to the cause of settling all of "Eretz Yisrael," or the Land of Israel, and those who see him as a pragmatist who can make tough decisions. Some on the left mistrust him completely, while others, like Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, welcome his proposals.

Sharon's announcement has also drawn international attention away from the appalling separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank.

Sharon probably does intend to remove the settlements from Gaza, although his strategic vision has only been hinted at.

His spokesman Raanan Gissin explained that "Sharon envisages territorial exchanges with the Palestinians as part of future permanent arrangements, under which Arab Israeli localities would pass under the sovereignty of the latter, while Jewish settlements [in the West Bank] would be integrated into
Israeli territory."

Sharon seems to be looking for a way to keep control of the West Bank--hence all the new settlements and the separation wall deep inside Palestinian territory--but maintain a Jewish majority among citizens of Israel.

Twenty percent of Israel's citizens are Arabs. Gissin is proposing to strip at least some of them of their citizenship and transfer their villages to a Palestinian mini-state within a greater Israel.

From what we can piece together from his actions and statements, Sharon's vision includes offloading to a faux Palestinian state the burden of Gaza, political responsibility for Palestinians in the West Bank, and a significant number of Israeli citizens of Arab origin as well.

Such an arrangement would closely resemble efforts by South Africa's apartheid rulers to maintain white rule and strip black citizens of their rights as South Africans by creating ostensibly independent states for them known as Bantustans.

That ploy failed disastrously because the international community saw this deception for what it was, while the injustices it created on the ground led to ever more determined protest and resistance.

It appears that Sharon is hoping to pull the same trick and get away with it.

Ali Abunimah is a political analyst based in Chicago. Hussein Ibish is communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

No comments: