31 August, 2006

Hello everyone,

As you can see I’ve taken a long time to write my promised ‘letter from home’. Not surprisingly, my mind and heart were in a bit of turmoil.

So many great personal things have happened since I got back from Palestine. I saw my granddaughter again, little Lilla, who had turned into a gorgeous bonny smiley baby in my absence. We had some good fun for a couple of months before she decamped to France with mum and dad Cornelius and Mette. They got married in Chamonix in June. It was a simple wedding (‘elegant but fun’ someone called it) in an idyllic setting and we had a great weekend with extended family we don’t often see. Also in June, my nephew Charles married Jo in the equally idyllic setting of the Yorkshire Dales. And last but not least, Amaranta and José Luis had little Rafael Rubén on midsummer’s day. Rafa is gorgeous too, his shock of black hair slowly changing to brown and his initial rather worried expression turning to a smile. I am truly lucky, so many things to rejoice in.

I long to enjoy my good fortune to the full, but even now when I wake in the morning my first thoughts are not of them but of the nightmare for Palestinian farmers losing their land behind the Separation Barrier ……

In fact I still can’t believe what I saw on the West Bank. I wake up thinking I must have been dreaming. I can’t possibly have been in a place where a 9 metre Wall is being built to imprison people, where towns are encircled on three sides with a checkpoint on the fourth, and cut off from their land. I couldn’t have been in a place in its fortieth year of Occupation, with a third generation living in refugee camps, and the international community looking the other way. I couldn’t have been in a place where young men protest this Occupation by strapping dynamite round themselves and blowing up innocent civilians on buses. Could the new prime minister of the country building the Wall really have got a standing ovation for his deeds in the Congress of the world’s only superpower? Is that superpower once thought to defend human rights really paying for its construction? Could economic sanctions actually have been imposed on an occupied territory, for the first time in history? Sanctioning the victims of occupation instead of the perpetrators, what’s that? Could half the elected parliament of that occupied territory have been abducted and imprisoned? It beggars belief. I pinch myself. But I am awake and, unbelievably, it is true. It’s the world turned completely upside down.

(This is keeping to my brief of banging on about the Occupation of the West Bank and not including the starvation and killings inflicted on Gaza, or the recent bout of military savagery in Lebanon and Israel)

I struggle with the geopolitics of it all, disentangling the vested interests. I try to compare the points at which the Palestinian and Israeli narratives diverge, or if indeed they can meet, and to understand the historical validity in them both. I recognise the fear and anger underlying the intransigence in each. I want to empathise with the humanity in the Israeli people and believe that many seek to weigh their own security needs against Palestinian rights. It is a genuine predicament. But in the end I can only talk about what I witnessed. And the truth is I saw great injustice being done. There is a special corner of my sleeping and waking mind that is still inhabited by the Palestinian farmers I got to know. Not long after I got home I had some awful news. It stays with me as an enduring reminder of the Occupation.

I told you in one of my other letters about Khaled, a young farmer who helped us liaise with his community in Deir Al Ghusun. His family was one of the many that three years ago watched in despair as the Separation Barrier advanced nearer and nearer their land. If the barrier kept to the Green Line they would lose 500 metres under the buffer zone. In the event at Deir al Ghusun the barrier looped 3 miles inside the West Bank and Khaled’s family ended up with 80% of their land on the Israeli side. (Half their land had already been confiscated in 1948 when Khaled’s father fled to the West Bank. Never being allowed back, he was considered an absentee landlord.)

Khald Soboh at Gate holding his papers

Khaled joined the other farmers in a constant battle to get permits to use the agricultural gates set in the barrier. I’ve already explained the arbitrary nature of getting permits, and that even with a permit, crossing the barrier was not plain sailing. I told you about how we stood at the gates and watched farmers refused entry, harassed and humiliated.

But all in all, within the injustice of the Occupation, Khaled was lucky. His papers were meticulously in order, his land tenure was secure, his inheritance well documented, he was over 30, a married man with children. That is, all Israeli requirements fulfilled. Speaking good Hebrew also helped. He had a two-year permit and expected it to be renewed when it expired at the end of May. But the unimaginable happened. When Khaled went to the Israeli DCO to renew his permit, he was refused on “Security Grounds”. He went back with Sharen, the English woman who replaced me on the Tulkarem team. Lo and behold, the officer in charge that day reversed the decision. Khaled got a paper saying he would get a permit. But when he went to collect it he was again refused and the paper taken away. A “Security” classification means no explanation has to be given. Possibly there is a reason, Khaled may have a dark secret we don’t know about. It also possible an informer told the DCO that Khaled acts as a spokesman for the farmers, i.e. a troublemaker. Or it is also possible he himself will be asked to inform and be offered a permit in return. There is no way of knowing since there is no transparency. This is how it works, say the farmers. Khaled’s brothers’ permits weren’t renewed either. Uncultivated land can be confiscated under Israeli law, so they face a repetition of the theft of their father’s land sixty years earlier.

There was, however, another twist to the tale. Khaled joined the pool of cheap labour competing for scarce jobs but managed to get plastering work in Ramallah 7 hours away. His brother, meanwhile, kept badgering the DCO for a permit for himself. One day he spied the officer who had issued Khaled’s original paper for a renewed permit. It took two hours to get the officer’s attention but when tackled on the issue again, he matter of factly produced a six-month permit for Khaled (still nothing for the brother). So Khaled is back running the gauntlet at the Gate 16. But come October (with the olive harvest due) he’ll again be in that permit queue begging for access to farm his own land. This bizarre tale makes a nonsense of the “Security” argument but suggests the barrier’s real purpose. If the security barrier ran along the Green Line there would be no reason for Palestinian farmers to cross it at all.

When I think of Khaled’s life, I remember the words of that young Israeli TV producer I met in Jerusalem. “What are a few farmers compared to the security of six million Israelis?” he asked. A few farmers? Thousands like Khaled fall into the category that Mark Curtis calls “Unpeople”: those whose lives are deemed worthless, expendable, “the modern equivalent of the ‘savages’ who in the days of the colonies could be mown down by guns in virtual secrecy, or in circumstances where the perpetrators were hailed as the upholders of civilisation.” The pawns in geopolitical games. The victims of bigger global plans. Or as the Israeli peace camp calls the Palestinians, “the victims of the victims of the Holocaust.” Forty years of having little control over their lives, and sometimes paying the ultimate price.

And yet, it’s incredible how resilient they are, defiant in the face of their shrinking possibilities. Palestinians refuse to be Unpeople. They don’t see why they should. They don’t want to be reduced to subsistance agriculture again, to just eat and sleep, kept alive by aid packages. They want education, professions, jobs, future, like the rest of us. I met a sixteen-year old called Majid in Tulkarem who wants to be an aeronautical engineer. How optimistic is that?
Comparing my journals with what is being written by EAPPI volunteers now, I can see how much the situation has deteriorated on the West Bank since I left.

Maps produced by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) show how the Israeli road blocks and physical obstacles (now grown to about 600) have effectively dissected the West Bank into North, Central and South areas. The North is further divided into three main enclaves (round Tulkarem, Jenin and Nablus) and smaller enclaves within them, isolating Palestinian communities from their neighbours. The Jordan Valley is now practically out of bounds to Palestinians and produce from the growing illegal Israeli settlements on that productive land are found in our local supermarkets marked Israel, and now even more cynically West Bank. Jericho is cut off by a ditch encircling the city on three sides. This confinement hampers the EU initiative that redirected funds from the Palestinian Authority (after the Hamas election) to the private sector to try and maintain Palestinian incomes and economic opportunities. The private sector depends on free movement of goods and labour that has all but ended. Palestinian economic decline is set to worsen sharply in the course of the year.

Furthermore, although President Olmert came to power promising to freeze illegal settlements on the West Bank, he has done like every other Israeli government before him and approved tenders for huge new housing units. Many of them will be in the controversial E1 area that connects the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumin to Jerusalem. This creates still more ‘irreversible’ facts on the ground ahead of the convergence plan (albeit now on hold). It both reneges on election promises and contravenes commitments made to the Road Map.

The Wall, too, continues apace. The effects of separating people from their work, health care, and family are accelerating the Palestinian exodus from Jerusalem, amid considerable bitterness. If as many people believe, sharing Jerusalem remains the key to a just and viable peace, surely Israel’s continual unilateral Judaizing of Jerusalem jeopardises just that. Palestinians can never willingly give up their economic, cultural, religious, social heart. Resistance to the Wall is still strong in places like Bil’in, but peaceful demonstrations are being met with increased force. Israeli protesters are being prevented from supporting Palestinians, and more internationals are being turned back at Tel Aviv airport. Palestinians who hold foreign passports are being denied entry/reentry despite having lived on the West Bank for decades in some cases

So, conditions on the West Bank have deteriorated sharply while the world has been watching Lebanon or not watching as in case of Gaza.

This makes EAPPI’s aim of working to end the Occupation even more compelling. Apart from the Justice in ending Palestinian suffering and granting them a viable state alongside Israel, there are five other good reasons for it.

1. Legal. UN Security Council resolution 242 says Israel must withdraw behind the 1949 Armistice Line ( Green Line). This has been ignored by Israel along with 69 other UN resolutions pertaining to this conflict. Another 29 have been vetoed in the Security Council by the US.

Moreover, Israel contravenes rules applicable to occupation spelled out in the 4th Geneva Convention:

It settles Israelis on Palestinian land, uses collective punishment against a civilian population, transfers

Palestinian prisoners to Israeli jails, carries out extra judicial executions, exacts reprisals, etc, etc…

2. Geo-political. Much of the vicious circle of escalating violence in the Middle East links back to the Occupation. While for the Palestinians it is a direct source of dispossession, for other Arab states and organisations it provides a cause, a glaring symbol of colonial power.

3. Morality. Continued occupation reinforces the militarisation of Israeli life, damaging its society and eroding the humanist values in Judaism (while making nobody more secure)

4. Pragmatic. Israel has created an insoluble dilemma for itself by settling the West Bank and having to defend the settlers by continued occupation. Israel cannot have an ethnic Jewish state (Zionism), a democratic state, and Eretz Yisrael (the whole land of Israel) at one and the same time, because these three things are antithetical without total ethnic cleansing. Sharon’s convergence plan recognised this dilemma of demographics.

5. Economic. Development projects financed by the aid agencies are stymied by the Occupation, so much so that they are now reduced to merely dispensing humanitarian aid. This means that donor countries are effectively underwriting the Occupation. UNCTAD says that for every dollar in aid given to the occupied territories, 45 cents flows back to Israel.

Despite such compelling arguments, little progress has been made in forty years. A forest of paper has been written about why the various rounds of peace talks have ended in trading insults and blaming each other for intransigence. But reading the history of it, one thing is clear to me. And that is how badly served both Israel and the Palestinians have been by their leaders. There has been plenty of hubris, self-interest and corruption but little of the political imagination that could change the patterns of anger and fear.

Again, much has been written about why the international community has been unable or unwilling to force Israel to comply with international law for so long. Western leaders apparently have no balls either. They too seem frozen by ignorance, inertia or the fear of this sensitive and seemingly intractable issue being a stumbling block to their careers. They take stabs at it but won’t bite the bullet. They prefer the impasse, looking the other way, ignoring promises. And this even before the Bush era in the US (now supported by Europe) supported Israel 100%.

No doubt I’ll be accused of being naïve but what it tells me is that, there as here, there is a gulf between the leaders and what ordinary people want. Official voices have had neither the ability nor courage to propose the daring inclusive solutions that ordinary people posit. Against all odds, ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, joined together in special interest organisations, are still talking to each other. To listen to members of Bereaved Families for Peace talk about feeling each others’ (their enemies) pain is truly uplifting. They say “surely if we, despite all our grief, can talk to each other, anybody can.” Ex-soldiers from both sides come together in Combatants for Peace to try and break the monolithic image of the “other.” Likewise, the joint projects of Tayush, Windows for Peace, New Profile, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Bitter Lemons media, various research foundations, and many others. Gush Shalom is endlessly inventive in finding ways to maintain contacts increasingly hampered by The Wall and other government obstacles. They all echo the philosophy of Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan orchestra. By searching deep inside to examine their prejudices and bringing out the best in themselves, Jewish and Arab musicians find the key to getting on.

Margaret Mead said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Perhaps not the only thing, but nonetheless very important.

Granted my work didn’t bring me into contact with Jihadi militants, but every single Palestinian I did meet longed for an end to the suffering. The political wing of Hamas surely must respond to this desire by stopping the bickering and power play, and forming a Palestinian Unity government. (And clamp down on those pointless and fruitless Qassam rocket raids.) Similarly, our only contact with extremist settlers was on the end of a stone, but so many of the ordinary Israelis I met were sick and tired of the primacy of the ‘security’ rhetoric that excuses every brutality and may eventually alienate even the firmest of Israel’s friends. Even the die-hards might be persuaded away from traditional military responses by imaginative and creative leadership. What about “Hey, the IDF heavy hammer doesn’t work, why not try something really different? Like reconciliation, like reconfiguring relationships with neighbouring countries, like negotiating a win/win solution with enemies. How about seeking real peace instead of pacification?” Covering up political flaws by military superiority may not work forever.

So, their leaders may be midgets, but ordinary Israelis and Palestinians have the foresight, imagination and humanity to oppose the dead end of militarism. Their organisations working together for peace need our support. Look on their websites (they’re on my new blog). Write to them, encourage them, send them money. EAPPI’s backing for them is crucial, but we need more support too, and more volunteers. In Jerusalem I had several conversations with Israeli nuclear whistle-blower Mordecai Vanunu. When I asked him what he thought of the EAPPI project, he said it would have so much more impact if we were 3,000 volunteers instead of 30 at a time. How right. So get off your bums. You can only understand the Occupation when you’ve seen it for yourselves. You don’t have to give up four months like I did. Go as tourists, visitors, travellers. One ride in a collective taxi from Hebron in the south to Jenin in the north gives the Occupation panorama in a nutshell. Avoiding checkpoints and roadblocks can turn the 120 mile journey into a twelve-hour tour of the whole territory. You could call it tourism at the coal face. Stay with ordinary Palestinians (their hospitality is overwhelming), help with the olive harvest. Go on alternative tours of the Jerusalem/Bethlehem/Ramallah triangle, or on study tours further afield. What else? Get involved with solidarity movements, read more, learn more about both sides of the argument, so that you can argue facts instead of myths. Look at The Other Israel otherisr@actcom.co.il for good articles. Or info@gush-shalom.org Buy Palestinian olive oil products. I help distribute for a cooperative called Zaytoun (www.zaytoun.org for your local supplier). Buy in bulk, distribute it yourself. Sponsor an olive tree through Ycare to replace those uprooted by the Wall and settlements. Write to t your MEP, your MP (those of you in the UK get them to sign EDM 596 that calls for an international human rights observation and protection force), write to your local newspaper, call your local radio station. Do anything, do something!.

Borrow my films to show to friends. I have an excellent 4-part series made by an Israeli TV presenter Haim Yavin called “Land of the Settlers”.

For my part, I find action is the only way to keep up morale in the face of unethical government policy. Fulfilling our main commitment to the EAPPI programme – relating our experiences through articles and presentations – is gratifying. From what I can see from some of the bloggers who replied to my articles on Guardian Unlimited (comments ranging from “naïve”, “stupid” to “Fascist” “anti-Semitic” and “jew-hater”), vilification will be par for the course. It’s my first experience of personal abuse in all the years I’ve worked in solidarity and human rights work. I think I’ll be tough enough. The distinction between admiring Jews as friends and as a people, and opposing Israeli government policy, is quite clear to me. To test the temperature of the water I’ve been practising my presentation on my mates (cowardly, eh?). I’ve had forty at a time to the house for a slide presentation, film “The Iron Wall” and discussion. After three such evenings, I’ve run out of people to invite. But although feelings ran high, I was encouraged by the high level of interest, the positive debate around both narratives, and the concrete offers of collaboration.

I’m also encouraged by what seems to be a shift in public opinion in Europe towards greater understanding of the Palestinian cause. If the press is to be believed, that is. Even in EU corridors of power there is a willingness “to talk to all relevant parties” (Solano). A European diplomatic initiative would be welcome given that since 9/11, the ‘war on terror’ tunnel vision of the US and UK governments and their symbiotic relationship with Israel have meant they have abrogated their roles as mediators. For peace to come, mediators have to hold both parties to identical standards on ending the violence. Both sides use terror, both kill innocent civilians, the only difference being the imbalance in the number of victims. Breaking the cycle of violence is the key to ending the conflict, so how about an international force for the West Bank and Gaza like the one being sent to Lebanon under UNSC resolution 1701. For Hezbollah write Hamas, for Blue Line write Green Line. Why not?

It may be a propitious time to reiterate the mantra of a ‘just and lasting settlement of the conflict in accordance with international law and UN resolutions’. Resolution 242 has at its heart ‘secure and recognised borders for Israel’. Israel has been obsessed by the ‘secure’ and neglected the ‘recognised’, hence the years of occupation and unilateralism. Failure to win in Lebanon, however, might lead to the realisation that only recognised and legitimate borders are secure. And this implies negotiation and an international guarantee. It would divert from what Jeff Halper calls “Israel’s tendency to see peace in terms of exclusive sovereignty and control.”

To end, I’ll go back to Khaled. He has recently been followed, detained, charged with not going to his land but to work in Israel, and been beaten up to the tune of two broken ribs. I compare his precarious existence with my own. I feel guilty because my life, all our lives, are so normal. They aren’t controlled by the arbitrary decisions of teenage soldiers with a blinkered view of the world and for whom wielding power provides a surge perhaps unimagined back home. Decisions made by men in uniforms or flash suits in fancy offices the other side of the world don’t wreck our lives. True, political and social constraints might influence our lives, even curtail certain aspects of them, but except in extraordinary circumstances they don’t wreck them, they don’t kill us. Most of us live lives of blissful banality and ignorance of what it might like to be Khaled.

Ironically, when my team left Deir Al Ghusun, Khaled and the other farmers wrote a letter of thanks to our project for the help we gave them. I say ironically because we really should have thanked them. Our help was nothing compared to the inspiration they gave us.

Lots of love, Ann

NB. One of the worst aspects of this conflict for me is the obscene and senseless cost of it. Not only in lives, but in infrastructure. Take the Gaza electricity generating plant destroyed by Israel in July 2006, for example. It was apparently originally built by Enron for $50 million, and later bought out by Morganti, a Connecticut company. Morganti insured the plant for $48 million through the US taxpayer-funded Overseas Private Insurance Corporation, the US government-sponsored “insurance agency of last resort.” After Israel used its US taxpayer-funded and armed military to destroy the US built plant, Morganti notified the US government that it wants $48 in insurance money. And then there’s the cost of rebuilding it. Another $50 million? How crazy is this? Is it that upside down world again or plain corruption? (Will anyone in Congress call for taking the $48 million out of the annual $3 billion aid to Israel?)