Q&A with Justin Podur in Ramallah

On Tuesday, June 18, shortly after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 19 people on a bus outside Jerusalem, Ariel Sharon announced his intention to invade areas formally controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and not leave until Palestinian suicide bombings stop. On Wednesday morning, another Palestinian suicide bomber killed 6 people at a bus stop, prompting Bush to delay a speech in which he planned to push for a provisional Palestinian state. At this writing, the Israeli Defense Forces have invaded Jenin and Nablus, and according to Justin are amassing in the suburbs of Ramallah. Cynthia Peters spoke with him by cell phone on Wednesday evening, June 19, 2002.

Where are you?

I am in central Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, in the Palestinian Agricultural Research Centre (PARC) — where a lot of human rights organizations and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have their offices. In previous attacks on Ramallah, the IDF has particularly focused on this building. They come here, trash the computers, wipe out the hard drives, beat and arrest people. Our presence as observers makes it less likely for them to be abusive. Other international volunteers are stationed at Arafat’s compound.

What has the just announced Israeli policy of retaking pieces of the West Bank meant on the ground?

So far — keep in mind they just announced it 30 hours ago — it has the same look and feel of previous invasions. In Jenin and Nablus, the IDF has supposedly set up mobile homes and brought in water trucks, which suggests a more permanent stay. For now, I think Palestinians are experiencing it as another in a series of invasions. The tanks go door to door. The army breaks down doors with sledgehammers, arrests people, bulldozes homes. The difference with this one, apparently, is they’re going to hold what they take. It will mean an intensification of the occupation. Whole areas could be under curfew. Palestinians will have even fewer freedoms.

But remember Israel has been occupying this place for a long time. In some ways, this is simply an expansion of what they were already doing.

How does the Israeli peace movement analyze the recent bombing in Jerusalem? What do Palestinians say? Are there different views on this?

I can’t speak for the Israeli peace movement, but it seems clear that when peaceful channels are blocked, people resort to horrible means. This is well understood in mainstream circles. Cherie Blair, Tony Blair’s wife, captured the basic idea when she said, “As long as young people feel they have got no hope but to blow themselves up, you are never going to make progress.” It’s an appalling situation. The suicide bombings are terrible crimes that leave innocent people dead. But the fact remains, if you want to stop a crime from happening, you have to look at the cause. Neta Golan, a peace activist here, told me in an interview earlier today that you can’t live with any dignity under an occupation. Some people are convinced that at least they can die with dignity. For them, choosing to die is not such an irrational choice. It’s a death with dignity.

But the “War on Terrorism” does not allow for any investigation of the roots of the problem. It cuts off dialogue and has created a situation where asking why is practically censored. It’s simply not allowed. [Cherie Blair was severely criticized for her remarks -- the suggestion being that any examination of the root of the problem is somehow a justification. She has rushed to apologize for her remarks.]

Among Palestinians, opinions are diverse. But one thing is true, you don’t see Palestinian people celebrating a suicide bombing. They are more bracing themselves for the retaliation that they know is imminent. Everyone knows that suicide bombings just bring on more suffering.

Is the fence (the Israeli constructed fence sealing off the territories) real? Does it have any effect yet?

Yes, I think it’s real. I think they’re going to build it and complete it. This fence is an odd creature because it’s something on which the settlers and the peace movement have the same position: they both oppose it. The settlers don’t want it because they’ll be on the outside of it, making them feel abandoned by Israel, though in reality, there will probably be secured roads between the settlements and Israel. (65% of Israelis have said they’d give up the settlements, which adds to the tension between many mainstream Israelis and the settlers. The wall could have the effect of heightening those tensions.) The peace movement doesn’t want it because it will make the West Bank even more like a prison. Look at Gaza, where there already is a fence. It’s like one big prison. There’s one way in and one way out. Unemployment is 67 percent. Crossing checkpoints takes hours and hours. That’s what they would be recreating on the West Bank. They’ve already started building it in the North. As it is currently planned, the fence will be outside the Green line — stealing more Palestinian land.

What is Israel up to with respect to Arafat?

The peace activists I talk to here in Ramallah are afraid the Israelis are going to attack him tonight. Each time the Israelis attack, they destroy more of the compound. I was in the compound yesterday and earlier today. There’s rubble everywhere. There’s only one standing building. This time around, the speculation is that they might deport him or arrest him. But it is unlikely Arafat will allow himself to be arrested. And the Israelis know that. My feeling is that Arafat is good for Israel because he is easy to blame for the violence and they have also won many concessions from him. He’s alive because they want him alive.

Do peace activists want Bush to announce a US initiative/peace plan or not?

Bush postponed his speech in which he planned to propose a provisional Palestinian state. But what does this initiative really mean? Is it credible? Most people here don’t think so. Bush has offered no timetable for Israeli withdrawal. He has not spoken of any consequences for Israel regarding their continued occupation. If Bush had a sincere peace initiative, then Sharon would not be able to do what he’s doing. If Bush were to do something credible, that would be welcome. But that would be a full-scale policy change for the United States.

 What are your impressions being there?

I am seeing stuff I’ve never seen before. But there’s nothing surprising in it. Palestinians live with this everyday. They are living in a state of siege. Despite the terrible conditions, however, this is one of the most hospitable places I’ve ever been. You might expect that Palestinians would harbor resentment towards North Americans and/or Jews. In fact, the guide book I have warns of exactly that. It says nothing about checkpoints or the violence of the Israeli occupation. But it does recommend that you be careful travelling in the West Bank if you look Jewish. That’s so far from the truth. As Jewish volunteers have repeatedly told me, the one thing you *don’t* need to be afraid of is the thing they warn you about in the traveler’s guide. Most Palestinians have no special hatred of Jews or Americans. But they do hate the occupation.

 Any words for activists?

The more internationals who come here the better. The International Solidarity Movement (ISM) has been planning “Freedom Summer” — which was supposed to be this big, non-violent, action-oriented solidarity campaign. They were planning on planting trees, accompanying Palestinians across checkpoints, and helping to rebuild recently destroyed homes. But now Freedom Summer is looking like it will take place in the context of the invasion. It is more likely that ISM activists will more play the role of witnesses and human shields.

If people want to help, they should support the ISM. Consider coming to Palestine. Send money to the ISM www.palsolidarity.org. Set up speaking engagements and media interviews for returning ISM volunteers.

And people should do all the usual stuff — write letters to the media and to elected officials, demonstrate, talk to people. Keep up with the news via alternative media.

Sharon’s current policy — indefinite occupation until Palestinian-sponsored violence stops — is a continuation of his previous policy. And we’ve seen over and over again that it yields more violence. There will be indefinite violence until the occupation stops. Even if the suicide bombings stopped tomorrow, there’d still be all the violence and indignity of the occupation.

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