Ramallah Revelations

“My favourite movie is Life is Beautiful,” Refaat Sabbah tells me. “I love the way the hero protects his son from the experience of the concentration camp. I try to protect my children from the horrors around us too,” he adds with a gentle smile. “I notice my daughter doesn’t draw guns and tanks.”

We are sitting in a covered porch in his modest home in a downtown Ramallah neighbourhood. The night before, Israeli troops nearly destroyed Yasser Arafat’s compound nearby. Refaat and his wife Soreida were up all night. The shelling began at 2 a.m. and continued until 6 a.m. The children — a girl, nine, and a boy, four, slept through it. Not so the little girl next door, who has been crying ever since.

This is life in Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian territories. Refaat is the founder and head of the Teacher Creativity Center here, and Soreida works with women’s groups. They are intelligent, charming, and passionate about life. Like many activists I meet here, they are remarkably without hatred or bitterness. Sabbah tells me that he tries to avoid crossing the checkpoints that surround Ramallah so that he won’t get too angry with the Israelis.

I am in Palestine. Even the term makes me a little uncomfortable — I am Jewish, born and bred. I went to Hebrew school. My first battle for equality was to insist on having a bat mitzvah in my 13th year: in those days, only boys had the coming-of-age ceremony. My father was a major fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal, with most of the money going to Israel. Israel is supposed to be my homeland.

I went to the Palestinian territories recently as part of a fact-finding trip organized by Alternatives, a Montreal-based organization with a history of 20 years of work with groups in Israel and Palestine. I accepted the invitation because I had become increasingly disturbed by the Israeli occupation of the territories, and the uncritical support for Israel by Canada’s organized Jewish community.

What I saw was both deeply disturbing and strangely inspiring. The inspiration came from people I met on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. I was already aware of the brave people of the Israeli peace movement who stand up against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, land that Israel agreed to withdraw from under the Oslo accords. What I didn’t know was that there is a strong, growing movement of activists in the Palestinian territories who call themselves the democratic opposition. Most work through the non-governmental organizations that provide what is left of social services in the Palestinian territories. Like Refaat and Soreida, these are compassionate people with a strong commitment to democracy, equality and peace. As one told me, “I only wish the Israelis realized that their best hope of security is a strong Palestinian state. The rest of the Arab world hates them, we don’t — we know them, they are our neighbours.”

While the outside media rarely mentions the democratic opposition, their popularity in Palestine is growing, and some plan to run for office in the coming elections early in the new year. The most prominent figure among the democratic opposition is Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, president of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees. “What we are witnessing,” he argues, “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 added, “will decide if there will be two independent states — Israel and Palestine — or one apartheid state of Israel.”

Barghouthi’s words have echoed in my head since my return to Canada, as the Israeli aggression has stepped up. While there, I saw the series of checkpoints as a new Berlin Wall in the making. Now, they’re building the wall.

Visiting the West Bank is a frustrating experience because of the checkpoints, while living there seems almost impossible. On the first day that we visited Ramallah, the checkpoint on the road linking the city with Jerusalem closed at about 4 p.m. The scene we observed while waiting for the bus to take us back to Jerusalem was not unusual. Palestinians working in Jerusalem and living in Ramallah couldn’t get home, so frustration grew as the afternoon wore on. A few walked forward to speak with the guards, and no one would leave, despite orders to do so from the soldiers. Then, the soldiers fired tear gas to disperse them.

A few boys, whom I had seen earlier gathering rocks, started throwing them at the soldiers. That’s when the soldiers started shooting. People ran in all directions. “Come, come,” one man yelled. He waved at us to take refuge behind a car parked nearby. We weren’t frightened because it seemed impossible that they were using live ammunition — but they were.

As extraordinary as the experience was for us, it is a daily ritual here. According to Barghouthi, these checkpoint dramas are simply a method of harassing Palestinians, like the thousands of students at Birzeit University living in Ramallah who must cross a checkpoint twice — there and back — to get to school, walking more than a kilometre each way. The checkpoints divide the West Bank into 120 different areas. If you want to go from one area to the next, you cross a checkpoint. You never know if it will be open, and it’s impossible to know how long you will wait. If you’re sick, old or pregnant, you still wait. If you want to visit your aging parents in the next village, you need permission from the Israelis. “We cannot breathe,” one woman said, jammed against us in the crowd at a checkpoint. “We cannot work, or take care of our families. They have taken away our lives.”

In Canada, we hear much more about the horror of suicide bombings than about the killing of Palestinian civilians. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, 1,599 Palestinians — 85 percent of them civilians — have been killed and 19,452 injured since September, 2000, when the second intifada began. In the same period, 563 Israelis have been killed and 3,545 injured, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The suicide bombings, as terrible as they are, are not the reason for Israeli aggression in the Palestinian territories. The real reason is to protect ever-expanding Israeli settlements. But the bombings do provide a moral and political justification for the occupation. The Israeli peace movement that was so powerful only a few years ago is now isolated, with 70 per cent of Israelis supporting the aggressive policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Adam Keller is a Jewish activist from the peace group Gush Shalom. “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 our families or we will be victims. But what makes me different is that while I believe they are wrong, 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.”

The checkpoints, 24-hour curfews, mass arrests of adult males, rotating invasions, strafing and bulldozing of houses, occupations of cities and refugee camps, and refusal to allow Palestinians to work in or trade with Israel, are all justified by the attempt to stop suicide bombings. Now, they’re building a wall around the West Bank. What next?

My experience convinced me that Israeli aggression simply plants the seeds for more suicide bombings. Everywhere we went were posters of “martyrs,” both suicide bombers and young men posing with machine guns who were killed resisting the Israeli invasion last April. In one refugee camp, young boys wore photos of the “martyrs” in pendants around their necks — like saints’ medals. “I am not afraid of the Israelis,” Refaat Sabbah told me. “I am afraid that violence is becoming a positive moral value in our society. And from that we will never recover.”

All the activists we met oppose the suicide bombings, both morally and politically. But they are frustrated that no one in the outside world asks why so many young people are desperate enough to blow themselves up. The week after our visit, a large number of Palestinian intellectuals and activists made a public statement condemning suicide bombing and calling on extremist Palestinian groups, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to stop recruiting young people for these acts of terror.

The state of Israel is not in danger. The Palestinians have no army, and other Arab countries are not leaping to their defence. Only Israel has the power to stop the escalating violence. Surely memory is not so short — and Israelis can remember when they were a people without their own land or an army to defend them, and with a strong, proud identity and history of resisting persecution. What struck me most in my visit was how similar are the Palestinians and the Jews. One man in East Jerusalem asked me: “If you are Jewish, why don’t you support the Israelis?” I responded that I couldn’t accept that my people, who suffered for so many centuries, could turn around and persecute another people. There is no justice in that — and where there is no justice, there will be no peace.

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