Early every morning—Shabbat excepting—across from the Beit Arabiya peace center in the West Bank town of Anata, just northeast of Jerusalem, a huge Caterpillar earth-moving machine would move ponderously down the steep dusty road from the newly-constructed Shin Bet headquarters (Israel’s secret police) across the rocky valley, its hellish screeching and groaning a daily reminder of the brutality and crushing reality of the Israeli occupation. We were in Anata from August 8th through the 22nd as volunteers with ICAHD’s (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions) 2004 summer work camp to help rebuild a Bedouin home destroyed by the Israelis only a few months before. There were about twenty of us “internationals”—from Europe, the UK, Canada and the US, our ages ranging from early twenties to mid seventies. Some had been to Palestine before, but for many, including myself, it was the first time. The site of the demolished home was on a hill directly behind the peace center, Beit Arabiya, itself the fifth incarnation of the home of camp coordinator, Salim Shawamre, his wife Arabiya and their seven children, rebuilt for the fourth time a year earlier by ICAHD volunteers and forbidden by Israeli authorities to be used as a home. The Shawamre family now lives in an apartment in Kafur Akab, next to the Qalandiya refugee camp. Beit Arabiya’s status is subject to review by the Israelis. They may tear it down again.
The scale of house demolitions in the Occupied Territories is not widely understood in the US. In the immediate vicinity of our work 20 homes had been demolished in the last several years. 200 more are slated for destruction. Since 1967 Israeli forces have demolished more than 12,000 homes in the West Bank and Gaza. I went to Palestine considering myself relatively well informed but was shocked to learn of the merciless bureaucratic cruelty of what Israel euphemistically calls its “Civil Administration.” I was under the impression that houses were destroyed because of purported associations with “terrorist” activities, and while Israel does use this as an excuse to demolish houses (owing to the illegal policy of collective punishment carried out on a far greater scale than conceivably warranted), the majority of homes are destroyed for the most banal of reasons—insufficient paperwork. We were amazed to hear Salim’s account of the four demolitions of his home, all because, the Israelis said, his applications for building permits were not valid, even though he’d done everything asked of him to the point of absurd redundancy. The Civil Administration, for example, told him that his deed was missing two signatures to verify the legitimacy of his property. He collected hundreds, to no avail.
To experience directly in life and death terms the machinations of a seemingly arbitrary, impossibly convoluted bureaucratic process—which Salim frequently described as “Kafkaesque”—to have one’s home not once but four times deliberately destroyed, with incalculable lifetime effects on family members, is something few, if any, in the United States have suffered or can even imagine. Salim’s wife, Arabiya, incurred long-lasting psychological damage, unable to speak for months after the second demolition of her home. All of their children have been permanently scarred. What needs to be understood, however, is that while the bureaucracy that controls our lives in the West is a creature that has taken on a Frankenstein life of its own, operating under an inhuman, absurd logic, essentially independent, indeed, frequently master of its human creators, the bureaucracy of occupation serves as tool, not commander, of Israeli calculation. As ICAHD’s founder, Jeff Halper, has brilliantly demonstrated in his analysis of the situation, in what he terms the “Matrix of Control,” Israel’s “administrative” bureaucratic machine operates with a convincingly premeditated purpose, which is to acquire ever more land for “Greater Israel” while at the same time making life as difficult as humanly possible for Palestinians.
I caught my first glimpse of life in the Occupied Territories several hours after arriving in Jerusalem, riding in a Palestinian cab at 8:30 at night with a young ICAHD volunteer from northern Italy. We were headed towards Beit Arabiya, after first passing through the checkpoint at the entrance to Shu’fat, the village directly to the west of Anata. It was my first encounter with a checkpoint and it was all that I’d expected, with a long line of idling vehicles backed up in the darkness as an Israeli soldier in a coiled stance behind a brown jeep shined a powerful flashlight into the face of the driver first in line while two other soldiers examined the occupants’ papers. The clouds of dust and exhaust fumes illuminated by the vehicles’ headlights, the rumbling engines, auditory correlative to the explosive emotions of the waiting queue, the menacing kinetic energy of teenage boys, the shebab, shadowy figures darting about on the sidewalks and in the surrounding alleys, created a vivid tableau that, in my sleep-deprived yet hyper-alert state etched itself forever in my memory. From the relative calm of Jerusalem streets we’d plunged into the maelstrom of the Occupied Territories, a parallel universe which, encountering for the first time, caused me to stare in amazement.
That first evening’s ride through Shu’fat and Anata revealed, on the surface, the ordinary activities and small establishments of a struggling mercantile culture. The poverty of Shu’fat and Anata, while appalling, is not as dire as it is in some of the other villages of the West Bank and nowhere near the level of misery that exists in Gaza. We passed stores selling clothes, groceries, appliances, shoes, luggage and furniture. There were small eateries where one could buy the usual fare—hummus, pita, falafel, shwarma, Turkish coffee and pastries. Mechanics worked on cars in their small garages. Delayed several minutes in a traffic jam I watched from the cab as a middle-aged woodworker in his storefront shop carefully measured and cut a plank of light-colored wood on a table saw, his tools neatly arranged on the walls of his tiny space, all the while a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Groups of cigarette-smoking men gathered in front of stores to talk and watch the happenings in the narrow streets filled with jockeying cars and trucks jerking to sudden stops and speeding off, a fractious anarchic progress that became more coherent and relaxed as distance from the checkpoint increased. I saw two older men in a brightly lit butcher shop sitting at a round table smoking a nargila with slabs of meat hanging around them. Groups of women in hijab hurried along, their heads slightly bowed, frequently laughing or giggling as if in response to comments from the men or perhaps at pointed observations from some of their own company. Men and women headed home carrying sagging plastic bags full of groceries. Teenage boys on the move slipped between cars and down dark alleys. Two middle-aged men smoking cigarettes and playing backgammon sat on the steps of a store full of wedding gowns. Some men sat by themselves, staring morosely at the traffic, smoking cigarettes. In Palestine, it seemed, everyone smoked.
We finally arrived at Beit Arabiya, and after a meal of lamb, chicken, falafel, hummus, pita, tomatoes and cucumbers prepared by Arabiya and her daughters and served with hot glasses of sweet tea, a handful of us newly-arrived internationals sat with our Palestinian hosts in the open-sided tent that served as the men’s sleeping quarters. Hani Shaheen, owner of the construction company whose crew we would assist in building the home, pointed out the distant lights of Jordan. With Hani were Salim, Mohammed and Ahmad, two of Salim’s assistants, and Abu Musa, the chief of the local Bedouin community of 400 and through whose village the separation wall will soon pass, with disastrous consequences. Abu Musa, a handsome, grizzled fellow in his sixties who wore the same brown shirt, jacket, trousers, pointy black shoes and traditional Arab headdress every time he appeared in camp, impressed me immediately with his self-assuredness as tribal elder and what I imagined to be his Bedouin manner as he reclined with a casual, dignified air on one of the covered foam mattresses around us as if on the floor of some marvelous Bedouin tent in the middle of the desert a century or more earlier. Abu Musa, a man of twinkling good humor of the slightly disreputable sort—he was clearly pleased with the influx of female volunteers—was a favorite not only with the internationals but also with the Palestinians. He had three wives and let it be known that he was looking for a fourth, actually expecting, I sometimes thought, that one of the women of the work camp might be interested. Halfway through our stay at the camp he invited four of the women to his home (a typically wretched hovel of loosely-constructed corrugated metal that most Bedouins seem to inhabit) to dress up in his wives’ gowns, which occasioned considerable girlish delight among these thoroughly liberated women.
Salim, who spoke fluent English, was our primary interlocutor among the Palestinians. A man of generous personality and good humor, Salim was well suited to his role as camp coordinator. As we sat facing him, Ahmad, Mohammed, Hani and Abu Musa, Salim told the story of Beit Arabiya, of the many demolitions and traumas, his surreal experience with Israeli authorities trying to obtain a building permit, how his application was denied because of the slope of the land, it’s classification as “agricultural land” and insufficient proof of ownership despite the hundreds of signatures he’d collected. Hani corroborated Salim’s experience and recounted some of his own interactions with the Israelis. His home was in Hebron, where a particularly ugly situation has evolved over the years due to the influx of extreme right wing Jewish settlers. Because of ongoing closures and long delays at checkpoints the drive to Hebron, which normally takes less than an hour from Anata, frequently became impossible, causing Hani to be separated from his family. His only alternative to the direct route was an eastern loop that took six hours. Hani, a sweet and gentle man, loved by everybody in the camp, often spoke of his difficulties. “The Israelis have ruined my life,” he would say. “All I want is to be left alone—to have a normal life. But I don’t hate the Israelis. I don’t hate anyone.”
The first day in camp was given over to general instruction on the ramifications of what we were doing (illegal) and role-playing sessions on non-violent resistance in the event the Israelis should show up. The year before some Israeli police came to the work site to intimidate everybody in their usual arrogant manner and then confiscated some of the building materials. While it was unlikely that the Israelis would bother any of the internationals it was quite possible they would arrest Palestinians, and we discussed and role-played the ways we might react. We all hoped this would never happen and each of us wondered how we would actually respond if it did. In general the strategy was to interpose ourselves between the authorities and the Palestinians in a graduated response from verbal intercession (partly as a distraction to give the Palestinians time to get away) to physical passive resistance, placing our bodies between the Israelis and Palestinians. If this were to happen we would likely be arrested, detained, questioned for hours and possibly deported, probably never allowed into the country again.
After the training and lunch we walked up the hill to the building site where the Palestinian crew had already constructed most of the pillars. We formed an international bucket brigade and passed heavy two-gallon black plastic buckets along a line from the tired, clanking mixer powered by a raucous fume-spewing generator to the worker up on the ladder—a husky, pleasant fellow named Abed—who poured the cement into forms made of wooden boards so worn and battered they looked as if they’d been in use since the first Intifada. For someone with experience on construction sites in the US the poverty of equipment and much of the material was sobering. The next day I and a few others spent hours pulling rusty nails from these boards, stripped after the cement had hardened, hammering them straight and putting them in metal cans for future use. The building was rising on the same spot where it had formerly stood, the foundation and ground floor remaining after the June 3 demolition, the immediate surroundings typically West Bank, the mounds and layers of windblown trash, piles of concrete chunks, the savagely twisted rebar protruding like arteries from exploded carcasses, the glittering of countless glass shards embedded in the hard pallid dirt, the endless tangles of cassette tape with their mute and mysterious messages, the atmosphere dense, hot, toxic from burning plastic trash fires, the mundane oppressive background odor of human waste.
The unhealthiness of the environment is the result of a combination of factors. Despite the fact that much of Anata belongs to municipal Jerusalem and residents pay taxes for services there is very little of it, notably garbage collection. Add the lack of service to what is essentially a state of siege—the checkpoints, house demolitions, induced poverty, the separation wall, periodic cut-offs of water supply, regular military incursions, the constant stress and humiliation of occupation, and it is little wonder that the village is in such condition. In such extreme situations as most Palestinians live, a kind of psychological triage operates, where the most pressing concerns, food, shelter, survival, take center stage to a degree that people in better circumstances have difficulty comprehending. Trash disposal occupies a lower rung on the ladder of priorities. In any case it’s likely that if there were an organized effort on the part of Palestinians to collect and dispose of trash Israeli authorities would find some bureaucratic rule to thwart it. Few demonstrable signs of self-improvement or entrenched organizational structures are to be tolerated. A functioning Palestinian trash collecting system would be a symbol of hope, and these symbols are the first to be crushed. Any talk of organized waste disposal however, is in the realm of fantasy. Palestinians are so poor that the cost of purchasing and maintaining a fleet of garbage trucks and operating some sort of landfill would be insurmountable. As far as sewage is concerned, if it is virtually impossible to obtain permits to build homes, when the subsequent “illegal” building that does occur is finished as quickly as possible before the Israelis come with their guns and bulldozers, one might begin to understand why there are rudimentary waste systems for these houses.
We worked hard that first day, as we did every day, but it was nothing compared to the fierce urgency with which the Palestinians worked. They were a tough, strong and serious bunch, stopping only for a brief lunch and a couple of tea breaks and then up again, impelled by the demands of their hardscrabble existence and the overarching threat of the Israelis to finish their work quickly. With the Shin Bet headquarters in plain view there was no question that the Israelis knew what was going on and it was generally felt that the presence of the internationals inhibited them from coming around, though hardly a guarantee. With the sound of each truck or heavy vehicle that approached or helicopter that flew overhead a subtle tremor of apprehension passed through everyone at the site. Living near an Air Force base I am used to the chuttering brown death machines flying over my house, but in Palestine they assumed their full menacing significance and I felt for the first time in my life the vulnerability of the targeted and unprotected in the face of such destructive power. Most of the time the helicopters flew at a high altitude but when they were lower everyone, including the Palestinians, looked up silently. The fourth day at the site two soldiers stationed on guard duty overlooking the Caterpillar’s work came up over the ridge to within a couple of hundred meters of the house and all activity ceased. It turned out that they were clearing the area because of blasting about to occur on the road. I was surprised by the display of consideration. They came up again the next day and rocks came thumping around us after one of the blasts. The soldiers were young Russians, who, along with Ethiopians, have a reputation for meanness. As the most recent of immigrants it is said this attitude is adopted with the intent of impressing their superiors.
The object of our labors belonged to a Bedouin family of 23, the Kabu’ahs, parents, children and grandchildren, whose head, an unsmiling man named Abu Jamal, would appear from time to time, frequently in headdress, wearing an expression of dour proprietorship. He was, at least superficially, the opposite of the genial and gregarious Abu Musa, and, unlike the popular chieftain, bore the burdens of his life with obvious heaviness. He seemed an unhappy guy, not easily approachable, and when greeted by an international would summon up a smile almost heartbreaking in its effort. He too had at least a couple of wives—I never found out how many—one of whom, tall, silent and somber, was particularly striking. She reminded me of Anna Magnani in “Zorba the Greek,” usually in black, always the hijab and never so much as a spot of dirt or wrinkle on her clothes, pretty amazing considering the pervasive whiteness of the cement dust, cinder blocks and chalky dirt, and even more amazing considering that she frequently worked, with several small children in tow, hauling rubble from the remains of the old house to a refuse pile nearby. Her husband, on the other hand, never helped with the work, at least when the internationals were around. I saw him once pick up a piece of debris and throw it out of the way, wiping his hands of the dirt. The family’s children were always at the site, mostly watching, their attitudes at first wary then gradually warming as the days unfolded. One girl, whose age I estimated at about 11, always moved in aggressively to help pass cinder blocks and buckets of cement. One time on the line she handed the heavy blocks to me for about 45 minutes, with only occasional moments for rest when work periodically halted. Moving concrete blocks is tiring work for anyone, let alone an 11-year-old girl, but she grimly continued until the end, grunting audibly with each pass, strands of her dark hair pasted to her sweaty and dusty forehead. She never returned my smiles and never said a word, animated by a kind of dark indomitability that was as spooky as it was awesome.
The design of the house was straightforward, a box consisting of cinder block walls and concrete pillars. After the walls were completed a temporary ceiling was made from the boards used as forms in the construction of the pillars, held in place by numerous adjustable iron jacks. This temporary ceiling was in fact itself a form, supporting an array of flat cinder blocks and rebar that tied the whole mass together, with retaining boards around the perimeter, on top of which a layer of cement was poured. When the cement had sufficiently hardened, about four days later, the jacks and boards were removed and a clean six-inch slab was in place, supported by the walls and pillars. This solid slab might also some day serve as the floor of a second story, should there be opportunity to build one, the exposed rebar from the pillars sticking vertically about four feet into the air ready to reinforce later, hopeful additions, a remote proposition to be sure.
The night the roof was poured there was a presentation and video at Beit Arabiya by Anarchists Against the Wall, an organization of courageous Israelis and internationals dedicated to opposing in creative ways the construction of the separation wall. Hani took me and another international aside to see the work and we picked our way in the dark up the hill to the work site where an anxious crew of Palestinians, ghostly in the floodlit night, awaited the first of two cement trucks. Soon the elephantine mixer arrived and the work began in earnest, conducted at night so as not to attract undue attention, though the lights and noise would surely be noticed at Shin Bet headquarters across the way. The cement from the mixer came slushing and rattling down the chute into a hopper on a smaller truck and from there it was pumped up through a large flexible tube held by two men on the roof while two others stood by with implements to push and cajole the heavy caustic slop into nooks and crannies. The mixer, the gas-powered pump, the rushing cement, produced a Niagara of overwhelming noise as we watched the men wrestle the thrashing tube, like some huge violently regurgitating serpent that threatened to pitch them from the roof. It was indeed dangerous work, difficult enough in broad daylight, and on top of it all the constant menace of Israeli authorities, the unrelenting strain of operating in an environment saturated with their ill intent. “We must come like thieves in the night to build our own homes,” said Hani.
A major component of ICAHD’s mission is educational, and when we weren’t working on the house we spent our time listening, talking, debating and going on bus tours to different parts of the West Bank and Israel, the purpose of all this activity to better understand the Palestinian/Israeli situation in general and in particular to grasp the basic concepts and lineaments of the Matrix of Control, Jeff Halper’s analysis of Israel’s program of expansion, expropriation and expulsion. Halper, the founder and guiding light of ICAHD, has convincingly deciphered Israel’s myriad mechanisms of control which, taken together, serve to turn what little remains of viable Palestinian life and land into something resembling a slowly but inexorably constricting trash bin. In formulating his Matrix analysis, Professor Halper (formerly Senior Instructor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University, now working full time for ICAHD), with the help of Michael Younan, has created a series of maps that show, among other things, the clear and dramatic diminution of Palestinian territory from the 1947 UN partition to the present and beyond. The result of this trend, if it continues, is what they call the “emerging Palestinian Bantustan”—what’s left of the West Bank and Gaza—conceivably comprising11 percent of all Israel/Palestine, half of the current 22 percent, actually a misleading figure that doesn’t take Jewish settlements (Ma’ale Adumim, Modi’in, Ariel, Gush Etzion etc.) into account.
Israel tries very hard to achieve its goals of domination and land expropriation with as unobtrusive a military profile as possible, though what passes for unobtrusive in Israel strikes the visitor as a full-fledged police state. The IDF (Israeli Defense Force) and police are everywhere, and to a Palestinian the notion of a “low military profile” would be laughable. But it is the image projected to the outside world that the Israelis are concerned about, not the Palestinians. This charade is particularly striking in its dealings with the United States, which with a wink and a nod makes pro forma rhetorical demands for “fairness” and a restraint from violence “on both sides” and proceeds to give Israel billions of US taxpayer dollars each year, much of which goes right back as subsidies to US weapons manufacturers.
Israel also operates under the constraints of common morality, an especially sensitive and nettlesome subject given the Jews’ recent history. It doesn’t look good nor does it sit well with conscience to subjugate, eliminate or transfer an entire people because one feels revulsion towards them or wants control of their land. Therefore one creates a story or a situation and frames the perception whereby one is viewed as victim, surrounded by implacable, marginally human enemies bent on total annihilation. This framing of the issue is augmented by undeniable historical referents to suffering and victimhood and marketed assiduously to the two populations that matter, its own and that of the benefactor nation, the United States. This is why in Halper’s analysis such emphasis is placed on re-framing the issue in order to first gain the understanding that the crux of the matter, contrary to popular belief in the two propagandized nations, is the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories, and such things as suicide bombings and the Intifadas are the direct results of this cruel reality. There is no chicken or egg paradox here. The Occupation came first, after Israel’s overwhelming victory in the Six Day War, and Palestinians have been living under merciless domination for 38 years.
If, however, the conflict remains framed according to the Zionist fable, then virtually any measures taken by Israel to “defend itself” are justified, first and foremost the Occupation, though Israel refuses to use that term because of its legal ramifications under the Fourth Geneva Convention, referring to the military domination instead as “Civil Administration.” The euphemism exemplifies the Orwellian double speak and transparent legal legerdemain that Israel employs in its program of expansion, expropriation and expulsion, the drive to realize the goal of “Greater Israel,” the securing of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, including most of the Palestinian West Bank, which for religious Israelis is Judea and Samaria and for the secular types—the vast majority—land, water and agriculture.
The issue of security though is the shibboleth employed by the government to justify controlling the Palestinians, which, in addition to the use of brute active force—demolition of infrastructure, houses, orchards, water resources, the routine wholesale killing of civilians that goes along with so-called targeted assassinations—also includes the strikingly ugly and profoundly disgraceful separation wall. From a distance, as pure phenomenon, it is the most depressing expression of human failure I have ever seen. The Berlin Wall, not nearly as large, as much a symbol of competing ideologies as it was a restrictive barrier, seems virtually quaint in comparison. The message that Israel’s wall conveys, in plain, unambiguous terms, is revulsion towards the other. As someone who grew up identifying with Judaism—my father was Jewish—it leaves me with a deep sadness that these extraordinary people, historically at odds with so much of the world, are somehow managing once again to re-establish this useless dynamic. For in the process of rejecting—and imprisoning—their Palestinian neighbors in the name of security, they are at the same time imprisoning themselves, creating, as it were, a national shtetl, bristling with righteousness, fear and nuclear weapons.
The wall, eight meters high, one-and-a-half meters thick, snakes along the contours of the land, a kind of brutal, demoralizing 21st century answer to Christo’s lyrical Running Fence: the anti-Christo. Often referred to as the “apartheid wall,” it is the most visibly dramatic component of the Matrix of Control, its wildly circuitous course putting the lie to Israel’s claim that it is strictly a “security” barrier, which, if it were, would follow the 1949 Armistice Line, the “Green Line,” the internationally recognized demarcation between Israeli and Palestinian land of historic 78-22 percent formulation. Instead the wall plunges deeply into Palestinian territory, expropriating prime agricultural areas and water resources, bisecting and separating towns, its projected construction to encircle the areas around the huge settlements as well as isolated Palestinian “enclaves,” or “cantons,” forming, in essence, a series of open-air prisons. The process is relatively fluid, the ongoing settlement building determining the ultimate course of the wall, but the basic lineaments are clear enough, outlined in great detail on Halper’s and Younan’s maps. Throughout most of its length—eventually to cover around 400 miles—the wall is actually fence, the massive concrete sections running only through populated areas. As one might imagine, this is not your garden-variety fence but rather a state-of-the-art barrier of the most malignant intent and invention. Electrified, stoutly constructed of chain link and metal poles, it is roughly three-and-a-half meters high, with concertina wire coiled along the top. After these standard features come the accessories, motion detectors, video cameras and, rumored to appear in the north, remote control guns that can be actuated by technicians kilometers away. There are, as well, regularly spaced guard towers. On either side of the fence is a strip of ground about three meters wide composed of a white powdery impressionable grit, perhaps crushed cement, that easily records footprints.
If the separation wall is the most dramatic and visible facet of the Matrix of Control, the less obvious aspects, falling under the innocuous rubrics of “urban planning,” “highway construction,” “zoning,” and the like, serve just as effectively to further isolate and squeeze the Palestinian population. We witnessed two striking manifestations of this banal bureaucratic “planning” on several day tours that we took when we saw the huge city-settlements, Modi’in and Ma’ale Adumim, and the new Trans-Israel Highway as well as some of the by-pass roads. As Halper explained in one of his talks, the Trans-Israel Highway serves not only to connect north and south, but also to shift the population from the coastal west to the east, closer to the West Bank and—this is where the “settlements” come in—facilitate the long range plan of one huge megalopolis that includes Ma’ale Adumim, Jerusalem, Modi’in and Tel Aviv, cutting the West Bank in half. These are monstrous examples of the notorious “facts on the ground” that Sharon and others talk about, a veritable field of nightmares where, the plan has it, if built they will come. The “they” the planners hope to attract to the new city-settlements are ordinary Israeli Jews, drawn by certain financial inducements such as lower mortgage rates and so forth. Again, the effects on Palestinians, since much of this planning and building involves their territory, are predictable, cruel, and, in all likelihood, irreversible, the final nails in the coffin of the two state solution, which, in any case, Halper says, is already probably dead.
These facts on the ground, highways and buildings, are as ugly as they are undeniable, essentially covering much of this tiny country in asphalt and cement, destroying what’s left of the natural environment. The scale and pace of the construction has an almost manic, obsessive quality, mirroring, in a way, the fevered building of the Palestinians, as if they need to hurry up and get it done before the rest of the world finds out what they’re up to—while there’s still time to put the screws to the nettlesome population—while the political climate in the benefactor nation remains favorable. The overall impression a visitor has is of whiteness, the whiteness of boulders in the landscape, the pale earth—but most of all the whiteness of cement, everywhere, from the smaller village buildings to the towering futuristic kitsch of the high rises at Ma’ale Adumim and Modi’in, part of the development process that, one has to imagine, is making some people very rich. A simple on-line trawl yields such names as Nesher Israel Cement Factories Ltd., Gadish Group Engineering and Management, and Herouth Ltd., all major players in the construction industry and who have long enjoyed the felicitous connection between “Greater Israel” and greater profits—the beauty of it being that the Americans are paying for much of it. Israel gets six billion dollars in aid each year from US taxpayers, 60 percent for military purposes and 40 percent for economic aid. This amount is disbursed annually in a lump sum, with not a jot of accountability.
At the same time as white buildings rise and dominate the landscape, pushing not only the environment but the Palestinians farther into a corner, the three-billion dollar system of Israeli-only settler highways and by-pass roads serves just as effectively, if not more so, as the separation wall to disrupt, restrict, isolate and demoralize the targeted population. While contributing to the virtual imprisonment of Palestinians in cantons, the by-pass roads also serve to facilitate the movement of the Jewish population eastward, into the settlements and to bring eastern settlers into the mainstream. Traveling the by-pass roads through the West Bank one keenly experiences the sense of an alien people beyond the “security zones”—strips of empty space that flank the highways—fences and walls where villages and clusters of white buildings with the telltale black water tanks on the roofs that mark them as Palestinian (the tanks hold water in reserve for the times when the supply is cut off) sit mutely in the distant haze, far removed existentially from the hurrying preoccupied traffic. There are also sections of by-pass roads that have concrete sight barriers painted with happy blue skies and green hills so that travelers can’t see nearby villages. On the Trans-Israel Highway near Tulkarem a prettily landscaped embankment slopes upwards to conceal a length of eight-meter high separation wall. These Orwellian constructions serve as a metaphor that encapsulates much of the Israeli citizenry’s attitude towards the Palestinian “problem.” Though opinion polls in Israel favor an end to the Occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state, they also support the wall. One gets the distinct impression that most Israelis—and we heard this from Israeli activists who spoke with us—would rather not know very much about what’s going on in the Occupied Territories and tacitly accept whatever their government does to handle the situation.
There is a phenomenon in Israel of the stands of prickly pear cactus, or sabra, that grow where the homes of Palestinians were razed during “Al Naqba” (the catastrophe) in 1948, when 418 Palestinian villages were destroyed by the Israelis. We saw some of these stands on a trip to the Galilee, visiting the site of the former Palestinian village of Saffuriya, destroyed in 1948. The cactuses were huge, much larger than any I’d ever seen. I asked one of our Palestinian guides about the phenomenon and he imparted a mystical air to it, as if the sabra were somehow embodiments of the spirits of the former inhabitants, but in fact they served as hedges, the fruit utilized as food. Saffuriya, now named Zippori, was a thriving agricultural village, home to a population that actively resisted the Zionist project. As we stood in the overgrown cemetery looking across the valley and at the forested hills where Saffuriya once stood, a scattering of large Israeli homes in the foreground, our guide, Ziad, a poet from Nazareth whose grandparents lived in the village and fled at the arrival of the Zionists, recounted the events of the ’48 war and subsequent history. Like many Palestinians who left their homes Ziad’s grandparents thought that they would be allowed to return when the fighting was over. Why so many people thought this to be true remains something of a mystery, but it is likely connected to Ben Gurion’s policy of sowing confusion and uncertainty by not issuing written orders regarding the indigenous population, leaving it up to the commanders in the field to push events as far as they dared, creating, in effect, plausible deniability. In any case they went to Lebanon and, after a period of time, made the trek, on foot, back to their home where they found the Israelis moved in, already reconfiguring the land to suit their purposes as well as having begun to destroy the village’s mud and stone houses.
Ziad told his grandparents’ story of struggle, heartbreak and eventual move to Nazareth, and in the telling produced a calendar with a reproduction of a photo taken of Saffuriya in the late thirties. As he had no doubt done in front of other groups Ziad held the picture aloft to present a stark contrast between the old village and the present reality. We saw hills now covered with thick forest filled with Palestinian homes, densely-packed in the usual manner, hundreds of pomegranate and olive trees growing in the valley. Shmuel Dayan, father of Moshe Dayan and leader of the Moshav Movement (immigrant settlements) wrote at the time, “Pomegranates from the ancient trees are not fit for marketing. We shall have to lay out tens of thousands of pounds (old Israeli currency) to uproot them. The residents expect the trees to be uprooted, and will afterwards use the land for growing cattle fodder.” The whole area is now designated as a national park, the hillside trees planted years ago by the Jewish National Fund, an organization to which I may have donated as a child.
As dramatic and poignant as Ziad’s presentation was, the visual evidence of an active, working community and culture with its 10,000 human stories supplanted by a hill of silent pines and a valley where once stood lovingly tended pomegranate and olive trees now thick with wild growing foliage, even more powerful and haunting for me were the miles of terraced hills I saw while riding on by-pass road 45 from Jerusalem to the Trans-Israel Highway the day we visited Modi’in and the two “mixed” towns of Ramle and Lod. Beautifully constructed, their vertical planes consisting of white stone walls, the terraces stretched along the path of the highway, so much a part of the rolling landscape that it was easy to overlook them. The horizontal planes, where once grew thousands of olive trees, were barren, silent testimony to a way of life that was destroyed and presumably lost forever. I tried to imagine what it must have looked like at an earlier time, the trees, the flocks of sheep and goats, the old villages. The by-pass road on which we traveled, bisecting what was once seamless inhabited space, farmland and pasture, was an axe splitting a piece of wood whose halves now lay inertly on the ground. A person on the bus said that some Israeli Jews referred to these exquisite structures as “Jewish engineering,” the implication, apparently, being that primitive Arabs could never on their own have conceived or built such a thing, that they were somehow copied or derivative. In fact the real copies we saw were on other sections of road near Modi’in, where smaller hills were terraced in similar fashion as landscaping, using manufactured white bricks instead of stones, its effect distressingly artificial, if not to say grotesque, which is in keeping with the aesthetics of the city-settlements.
The next to last day at Beit Arabiya, the house essentially completed and ready for the family, there was a celebration and a feast that encompassed the contradictions, frustrations, beauty and tragedy of this land. In a large tent erected for the occasion dozens of people—Israelis, Palestinians, Bedouins and internationals—sat for poems, speeches, music and dance. Abu Musa gave us his blessings. Abu Marouf, the imposing mayor of Anata, said a few words. Salim Anati, a legendary doctor from the nearby Shu’fat refugee camp, spoke, as did Jeff, Salim and others from the ICAHD family. Abu Jamal shed his gloomy countenance for the occasion and offered his gratitude and even a few smiles. A group of young teenage girls from the Shu’fat camp, dressed in traditional garb, danced on a mean wooden platform that reminded me of the forms used in the house construction, the dabke music coming from the booming sound system in Ahmad’s white hatchback. After a few minutes Ahmad’s system broke and he worked feverishly to fix it, to no avail. A man came with a small tape player and the girls continued with their dancing. One of the girls, the leader, commanded particular attention. Beautiful and lithe, she danced with pride and animation, springing high in the air, a graceful counterpoint to the Shin Bet headquarters squatting grimly in the background. The mood, celebratory and warm, was jarred slightly when an even younger girl, severely costumed in hijab and dark dress and something of a demonic prodigy, recited a militant poem about revenge and martyrdom while standing on a chair. An earlier discordant note had been struck when before the festivities Abu Jamal and another Bedouin man got into a heated argument and almost came to blows, having to be separated by fellow tribesmen. This near violent confrontation on what we assumed to be a happy and harmonious occasion shocked and discomfited me and the other internationals present. One of the Israeli volunteers, an occasional visitor, shook his head and muttered something about this being the reason that “they” will never be able to get it together, a comment that was as disturbing as the confrontation. It was the use of the term “they” that bothered me, as well as the conviction he evinced concerning “their” lack of whatever it takes to realize unity and independence, opening in my mind, as if sutures being ripped apart, the wound we’d been working in our modest way to heal.
When the celebration was finished, olive trees were ritually planted around the house with internationals, Israelis and Palestinians joining in. Great steaming pots of food augmented by two freshly slaughtered Bedouin sheep fed dozens of people sitting in the house and outside in the gathering darkness. Laughter, toasts and animated conversation filled the space where two weeks before there had been nothing but rubble and white dust. I sat next to a young Israeli intellectual who earlier in the day had talked to our group about the perennial questions of Jewish identity and how, paradoxically, with nationhood, these questions had intensified. He left for another engagement and Angela Godfrey, one of ICAHD’s tour guides and a committed full-time activist, sat down with a plate full of food. Angela, colorful, articulate and passionate, a favorite of the internationals, talked about the difficulties and great rewards of her days living in the Sinai running a Bedouin handicrafts center and her plans to run a mobile health clinic there. Across the table from us sat the son of Abu Jamal, a strong-looking handsome man, and his son, an eight-year-old compact bundle of irrepressible energy. Angela and I talked about the country and the everyday tragedies, how living in it was an addictive drug that pushed one to extremes of action and feeling and in comparison to which other “normal” places seemed pale and dull. She told me of her yearning for peace and a quiet life where she could once again do her artwork, but really, in the face of so much to be done, how distant it all seemed. I told Angela about my moment of panic and doubt on the plane coming into Tel Aviv when I’d looked around at the Israeli families and children, human beings of not quite ordinary struggle and care, tired and rumpled in the way of airline travelers, and wondered just what in hell I was doing stepping into this land of complexity and deep history, a total stranger, almost completely ignorant, and how I’d decided right then that the only sensible attitude was of humility and openness in the face of it—no attitudes, no righteousness—and how then in the airport lobby a hurrying burly man had pushed me aside and I knew that I was definitely in Israel, picking up some attitude right away in spite of my good intentions. Angela smiled and said that she understood completely. This is a place that sucks you in, she said, and does what it will. I told her how drained I was from my two weeks and how much I admired her strength and commitment. It was the Palestinian people who kept her going, she said. There was so much that was needed. Then Angela excused herself and I found myself outside in the dark walking down the hill towards Beit Arabiya. It was a clear night, with more than the usual amount of stars. Jordan glowed on the horizon. Closer, the encroaching settlements sparkled benignly, masking the depressing reality. Across the valley two brown police vans, their oddly pleasing blue lights flashing, silently sped out of the garishly lit Shin Bet compound onto the highway. Laughter and voices filtered down from Abu Jamal’s new house. Below, Beit Arabiya sat quietly. Something glittering on the ground caught my attention and I picked it up. It was a piece of glass, tapering to a point, and after looking at it for a moment I realized it was shaped like the country, and I thought, this is what it is, a dagger, a jagged shard of glass lodged in the weeping heart of the world.
1 Jeff Halper and Michael Younan, Obstacles to Peace, A Re-Framing of the Palestinian- Israeli Conflict (Jerusalem: ICAHD—Al Manar Printing Press, 2004) 19.
2 Halper and Younan, xvii-xxxi.
3 Frida Berrigan and William D. Hartung, “U.S. Arms Transfers and Security Assistance to Israel,” ATRC Fact Sheet (Arms Trade Resource Center of the World Policy Institute), available from http//antiwar.com/orig/israelweapons.html; accessed 3 January 2005.
4 Matt Bowles, “US Aid Lifeblood of the Occupation,” Left Turn, 4 March 2002.
5 Yuval Elizur, “Israel Banks on a Fence,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2003.
6 Meron Benvenisti, Sacred Landscape, The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948, trans. Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta (London: University of California Press, 2000) 216.