We met Atta in the center of the West Bank town of Qalqilya and went with him to the edge of town, where he had had a prospering business growing ornamental plants in a dozen or so greenhouses. The Wall had just been punched through the middle of his land. Several greenhouses had been flattened and most of the others were on the other side, visible through a gap in the wall that was closed off by a barricade of accordion wire and trenches.
An Israeli soldier stood on the other side of the barricade. Atta walked up to him, as close as he could get, and shouted, “You know whose land you’re standing on? It’s my land! It’s been in my family for generations!” The soldier sniffed disdainfully and walked away. Atta came back to us and said: “They only want our land; they don’t want our people. Every child know that!”
The new wall the Israelis are building, ostensibly to protect against Palestinian suicide bombers, has two other purposes that are delicately overlooked by the American media, but are brutally evident to the people on whose land it is being built.
First, the wall is a colossal land grab, a means of transferring some of the best agricultural land in the West Bank from its Palestinian owners to Israeli settlers without bothering with even the formalities of due process.. When the wall separates a farmer from his land and livelihood, he is finished. He needs a permit to visit his land, and usually doesn’t get it, and pretty soon his land is taken over by the Israeli state under a law for absentee landlords. Atta’s plight was not the only example we saw. There were others around Qalqilya, around Hebron, and in other places we visited.
Second, the Wall accelerates the process of slicing and dicing the West Bank into many little territories, so that the Palestinians in each are prevented from moving outside the bounds of their own little ghettoes. This process has advanced much farther than I had previously realized. It began with the establishment of the settlements and the construction of a modern highway system linking them, These roads now crisscross the entire West Bank. Ordinary Palestinians are not allowed on these roads without a special permit, hard to obtain. If a man or a woman without a permit is caught on such a road, say in a taxi, he is arrested and the taxi driver will be fined or lose his license. He can only cross the road at a designated checkpoint. There are about 700 such checkpoints in the West Bank. A few provide access to major centers and are open all the time, and are very crowded. It can take hours to get to the head of the line, and even then there is no assurance the Israeli soldiers manning the post will let you through. During the week our delegation was in the West bank, we spent a total of about ten hours waiting at these checkpoints. I suspect that if we had been there as guests of the Government of Israel, instead of the Palestininan Authority, the situation would have been quite different..
At other checkpoints, Palestinians can cross roads and get to the next ghetto, but they are only open part time, and the soldiers manning them can deny passage for no evident reason, and often do. Furthermore, the hours these checkpoints are open are irregular and hard to predict. This uncertainty imparts a sense of claustrophobia that affects every aspect of daily life, for farmers and businessmen, students, and ordinary citizens. It explains why so many mothers give birth at checkpoints, and why gravely ill people sometimes die at them. Seen from the Palestinian perspective, the Israeli authorities are playing a cruel game, making it as hard as possible for people to move around, while telling the outside world that of course, we have to have checkpoints for security reasons, but otherwise everything is quite normal, thank you.
I was well aware that my hosts had a point of view and that the message I was receiving was only one side of the story. But it is a side that hardly ever gets told in America. The other side is all over the daily press: anguished Israeli parents weeping over the torn body of a loved victim of a suicide bomber, for example. So this first exposure to the stark reality of the Palestinians’ situation came as a chilling shock. I tried hard to reconcile the two perspectives, by looking for evidence that the Israelis were only trying to prevent terrorist attacks, and that hardships inflicted on innocent Palestinians were regrettable but necessary consequences. I did not find any such evidence. On the contrary, all I found was that when there were several options open to the Israeli government to protect against terrorist attacks, it invariably chose the one that would contribute most effectively to breaking up and atomizing Palestinian society.
I reluctantly conclude that Sharon has no intention of abiding by the so-called “Road Map.” Instead, he only gives lip service the formula of a two-state solution, to placate the Americans and hold the rest of the world at bay while he pursues the dream of absorbing the West Bank and repopulating it with a Jewish majority. Perhaps his strategy does not include absorbing Gaza. At least not in this decade. But his plan for the West Bank is well advanced, perhaps already beyond the point of no return. The infrastructure for the settlements is in place and many Israelis are moving in, lured by the attraction of low-cost housing and other financial incentives.
Twenty-odd years ago, the Oslo Agreements established a Palestinian Authority which was in effect a national government for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza. Generous foreign aid came, from the European Union and other Arab states. For a while it looked as though a viable state might be within reach. The Palestinian economy grew at annual rate of 9% during each of the two years before the intifada. But with the intifada came the sweeping Israeli controls, and the economy tanked. Businesses could no longer guarantee deliveries, farmers lost markets, officials of the Palestine Authority lost their mobility, universities could no longer recruit students outside their home towns–everything started collapsing at once. Now, with the Wall half built, the outlook is grim. Qalqilya, tightly surrounded by barbed wire and the Wall, is already dying as a commercial center. So is Hebron, its heart cut out by a few radical Israeli settlers and a couple of thousand Israeli troops stationed there to protect them. Bethlehem has completely lost the tourist industry that used to sustain it. Ramallah, the capital, is erratically accessible through only two checkpoints. There is a general sense of hopelessness and frustration as formerly prosperous farmers and businessmen see themselves ruined, as city streets are now empty, their shops all shuttered, and as the countryside sprouts ever more Israeli settlements.
Where is all this leading? What will happen to the people in Qalqilya, or Hebron, or other urban centers as the noose tightens, as everyone with any means gets out, and as the people who remain increasingly come to resemble inmates in a gulag? As Atta said, every child will know when his people, his culture, his homeland, is doomed. Inevitably, as hope vanishes, these formerly thriving commercial centers will become prime breeding grounds for terrorists. Sharon’s greed and lack of common humanity is driving his great country on a course that will guarantee that it will have to cope with suicide bombers and perhaps newer and more sophisticated forms of terrorism for at least another generation.
Of course, everything Israel does is legal, or so its lawyers argue. Before you grab somebody’s land, you pass a law. I asked Saeb Erekat, the PA’s Minister for Negotiations, how the Israelis determined what was legal and what wasn’t. Simple, he replied, you do whatever you want, and if the Americans don’t object, it’s legal.
Everything I saw suggests that Sharon intends to destroy the Palestinian entity on the West Bank, and nothing short of strong American pressure will deflect him. The longer we wait, the stronger his case will become, as the settlements grow and the infrastructure that supports them becomes entrenched. It may still not be too late for us to make a difference, but I am fearful of the consequences if the United States keeps on blindly supporting Sharon after a new administration takes over next year. We will be confirmed in the eyes of Palestinians, other Arabs, and in fact the whole world as accessories to an Israeli policy that aims at a complete colonialist takeover of the West Bank. And we will share with Israel the distinction of creating a prime incubator of international terrorism, and guaranteeing that the US will remain a target for terrorist attacks, for at least a generation to come.
Carl Coon 7/31/04
Note: For an explanation of the nature of my visit to the West Bank, and more details, see my essay, “Trip Report-Ramallah” on this website.