Monday, June 3. Monique Simard and I watched from atop a hill. At first, the scene was not so strange: the tear gas, the people running away and back again. It was a little like the scene at the fence in Quebec City last April.
But here there was one difference. When the shooting began, no one knew if the soldiers were shooting real bullets.
For most of the afternoon, checkpoints on the road linking Jerusalem and Ramallah had remained closed. Palestinians working in Jerusalem and living in Ramallah couldn’t get home. Frustration grew as the afternoon wore on. A few walked forward to speak or argue with the guards.
Travelling with a French delegation, we had entered Ramallah hours earlier for meetings. But the checkpoints closed after the morning commuter rush. As evening approached, a crowd of several hundred Palestinians still waited to re-enter the city.
Soldiers shot tear gas to disperse them. A few young boys who I had seen earlier gathering rocks started throwing them at the soldiers.
That’s when the soldiers started shooting. People ran in all directions.
As we had been instructed, we walked slowly away.
“Come, come,” one man yelled. He waved us to take refuge from the bullets behind a car parked nearby.
As extraordinary as the experience was for us, here it is a daily ritual. Earlier in the afternoon, we watched Israeli soldiers drive their tanks back and forth, scattering people waiting to cross another checkpoint.
There seemed to be no clear reason for either incident. We met today with Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees. According to Barghouthi, these checkpoint dramas are simply a method of harassing and humiliating Palestinians.
Like the 5,000 students at Birzeit University living in Ramallah who must cross two checkpoints to get to school – back and forth every day – walking one kilometre at each checkpoint.
“There is no security reason for this checkpoint. It is just to humiliate the Palestinians and to provoke even more rage,” says Barghouthi. The Occupation, he insists, continues fully: “To tell you the truth, there is no Palestinian Authority.”
What we are witnessing, argues Barghouthi, is an annexation of the West Bank – the same process as in 1948 when the State of Israel was founded on previously Palestinian land. This is a war of settlements, and the ultimate goal is to annex the West Bank.
The current struggle, he said, will decide if there will be 2 independent states – Israel and Palestine – or one apartheid State of Israel. Tuesday, June 4. It feels like a Berlin Wall in the making. Last night we watched as soldiers tear-gassed and shot at the line of people waiting at a checkpoint on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah. This morning we were there again, waiting with the people in line.
Our delegation left the hotel at 7 a.m. to reach a conference scheduled for 10:30 in Ramallah. It was just 10 kilometres away, but we barely made it in time. The trip took three hours. Frustrating. But our experience here is daily reality for the women we spoke to while stalled at the checkpoint.
“We cannot breathe,” one woman said, jammed up against us in the crowd. “We cannot work – we cannot take care of our families. They have taken away our lives.”
After waiting for ninety minutes, half of the people were turned back. Today they were only allowing in foreigners and people who lived in Ramallah. Tomorrow, who knows?
We met a dentist who lives in Jerusalem and works in Ramallah. “It is just awful,” she told us. “I told them my patients are waiting for me on the other side. But they don’t care.”
Like everyone else here, she asked us to tell people in Canada what is happening. She is angry at the Israelis and – as with many here – her anger is entangled with anti-Semitism. “They control the media,” she explains.
I have to admit that, sweating among these frustrated people, I was not about to tell her that I too am Jewish. Or that the problem is not that Jews “control the media” – but that the Israeli government and its supporters around the world are brilliant at getting their message out.
One example. Yesterday, I learned that the right of return for refugees was not the reason for the Palestinian rejection of the Camp David proposals. (Not widely reported in the West.) Rather, the Israelis refused to agree to the Palestinians controlling their own borders; they were not actually ceding control of East Jerusalem.
Most important, to protect Arafat’s credibility, the Palestinians wanted joint control of Haram Al-Sharif – one of Islam’s holiest sites, also believed to contain the ruins of Judaism’ holiest temple. But the Israelis weren’t budging.
The deepest hate that I saw today was not among the Palestinians in line, though. It appeared in the expression of one Israeli soldier. He kept walking up to our line and ordering us to move back. On one occasion, he spit in front of us with such hatred in his face that I felt, for the first time, truly afraid. Yesterday we met with Adam Keller, a Jewish activist from the peace group Gush Shalom. He seemed terribly tired.
“It is very difficult,” he told us. “Like all Israelis, I am afraid of the suicide bombers. Every day we live this fear, never knowing if we or our families will be victims of a bombing. But what makes me different is that I understand that this is the only way Palestinians feel they can fight back against the terrible injustice being inflicted on them by my government.”
He says that most Israelis know more about what’s going on in New York or Paris than they do about daily life in Ramallah. “Most of the Israeli media has become a war propaganda machine. Israelis are terrorized and this favours Sharon’s policies.”
Most of the Palestinians we have talked with don’t agree with the suicide bombers and even feel that they are hurting the Palestinian cause. But many won’t denounce them. One NGO official told us that the Palestinians have developed a culture of resistance that includes the “romance of sacrifice.” He says the ones to denounce are those who recruit young people as suicide bombers, exploiting their desperation for political ends.
Adam tells us a story of hope in an apparently hopeless situation: He decided to help out an Arab friend forced to flee his job as a cook when it became illegal for Palestinian nationals to work in Israel. When Adam went to the bank to arrange a monthly transfer of funds to his friend in Ramallah, he discovered that many Israelis were doing the same thing.
“Perhaps these individual relationships between Israelis and Palestinians can give us some hope,” he said, if sadly. “But then my aunt has told me stories about how some of the worst anti-Semites in Poland hid Jews they knew personally from the Nazis.”
I do find cause for hope in the people I am meeting here – people working in the many NGOs that seem to provide most of the social services and infrastructure. More on this soon.
Tomorrow, we go to Gaza.
This morning, as you probably know, there was another suicide bombing. It was a car bomb that blew up next to a bus and at least 18 people were killed. We were on our way to Gaza when it happened and we had turn back because all checkpoints were closed.
Our driver, a Palestinian, expressed the horror of the ordinary people here. “No-one knows what is going to happen next. I have lived here 44 years and it has never been so bad. Before there was war but now everyone from the new born baby to the 100 year old woman is affected.”
Last night, I met the cousin of a suicide bomber.
Our group was having a beer debriefing and planning the next few days.
Asseil, the Palestinian student in our group suddenly asks, “Would you like to meet the parents of a suicide bomber?” We turned to him a bit stunned. How would we do that?
He points to the man at the next table to whom he has been chatting in Arabic. He is the cousin of suicide bomber. We invited the man who I will call Ahmed to talk with us.
He said he felt very bad about his cousin. He explained that the whole extended family was suffering in the aftermath of the bombing. That afterwards the family felt this young man was a bit different than them, easily manipulated perhaps. Before the bombing, however, they had no idea he would do something like that.
His cousin had lost his job a few weeks before but he said, “I lost my job too because of the Israelis, many people have lost their jobs and they haven’t done anything like that.”
Ahmed worries that the world sees the Palestinian people as violent and bloodthirsty. “We just want to be left alone to live,” he explained. “We don’t like the violence or the blood. I don’t like seeing my brother killed. We want peace.”
“There was peace for so many years, from 1994 to 2000. Who ended the peace?” he asks. “It was not us who drove tanks into Tel Aviv.”
We assumed that he was critical of his cousin’s action. But as the conversation proceeded, it became clear that we were projecting.
Ahmed is proud of his cousin. “He died for us,” he went on. “He died for the Palestinian people. He is a hero.” Then in the next breath, “we wish he had had a child so he would not have done this. I have a child and that’s why I would never do it.”
Proud of his cousin for what he did, Ahmid only feels badly because his cousin is dead.
“But if you call him a hero,” asked Monique, “won’t other young people want to do the same thing?’ A shrug in reply “And doesn’t it bother you that he killed innocent people,” I ask.
“They (the Israelis) kill innocent people.” “But that’s bad isn’t it?”
“Yes but everything here is bad.”
Ahmed was in an Israeli prison for two years, for being a student activist, he says. At first he doesn’t want to talk about it and has tears in his eyes even thinking about it. Later he says, “I would like you to spend just one night in that prison and for one or two nights wear the shirt I had to wear, summer and winter.”
Later he shows us a slightly mangled foot. “The Israeli soldier stood on the top of the jeep and jumped down on my foot,” he describes how it happened.
“We need an alternative,” he says. “But until then we have to fight back.”