Ramallah Trip Report, July 16-22, 2004

Background:

Several months ago I signed a letter to the President protesting his endorsement of Sharon’s latest initiative. Once again, Bush had rolled over for the apparently unstoppable Israeli, and given away the store. The letter was drafted in the office of the Washington Report for Middle East Affairs, by former ambassador Andy Killgore and associates. Quite a few retired ambassadors signed on, and other concerned individuals..

We held a press conference in the National Press Club to spread the word, and several of us spoke briefly to TV and newspaper people who came. Almost entirely, they represented the foreign media. There was no play to speak of in the USA, but our initiative attracted a fair amount of attention in Europe and the Middle East.

Andy called me about the beginning of June to ask me to join a delegation of the letter’s signers, to visit the West Bank and see the situation there first hand. The invitation came from the Palestinians, who undertook to provide our air tickets, plus the best available hotel accomodations. I had some scheduling problems, and so did they, but eventually we all agreed on a July 14 departure and return July 22. The return date was stretched later to July 24 or 25, but I peeled off a day early, leaving the West Bank the 22nd and getting home the 23rd.

Who, exactly, was inviting us? Basically, Yasser Arafat in his capacity as President of the Palestinian Authority, a government that was established under the Oslo accords twenty-odd years ago. Arafat has led the PA ever since the accords were signed. He is also the Chairman of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is older. The PLO represents the Palestinian diaspora as well as the people in the West Bank and Gaza. The two entities are parallel but separate. For example, the PA has a Foreign Minister in Ramallah, to which ambassadors from many countries are accredited (most of them resident in Israel). The PLO also has a Foreign Minister, resident in Tunis, who covers UN and other issues involving refugee affairs and similar matters.

Who was footing the bill, a not inconsiderable sum, even if you just consider the cost of the air fares? Well, it was the PA, and the Palestinans do have that kind of money, if they want to spend it that way, as I found out during the course of the visit. The European Union subsidizes the organization to the extent of several hundred million dollars a year, mostly for infrastructure and related development projects, while the Saudis put up most of the money that pays the salaries of the authority’s bureaucracy. In addition, there is a certain amount of money from bilateral aid programs and NGO’s.

The person most directly engaged in managing the visit was Said Ahmed, the deputy chief of mission of the PA’s office in Washington. That office functions as the PA’s embassy to the USA but cannot call itself that because we don’t recognize the PA. Said is a Palestinian-born US citizen. When we got to Ramallah Nabil Zneid joined us. He has dual ciitizenship, both Palestinian and US, and will soon be joining Said in Washington, charged with working with the US media.

I never did figure out exactly who it was that originated the idea of inviting us. Perhaps Arafat himself, perhaps someone on his staff with a bright idea aimed at what for them was a truly vital task: turning around the US media and getting the American public to recognize what a terrible fix they were in, and why. If they really expected us to do all that they were of course wildly optimistic. But never mind, it was a cri de coeur; they really are desperate, and grasping at straws.

Personnel:

We were a delegation of senior diplomats. Some of us had been ambassadors, all of us had had diplomatic experience in the area, and almost all of us could honestly claim to be pretty senior. Ambassador Andy Killgore is in his eighties, tall and courtly, Alabama accent, could pass for a US Senator anywhere. His associate at the Washington Report, Dick Curtis, is almost equally well along in years. Gene Bird, of the Council for the National Interest (CNI) is also pretty senior, probably equaling my 77 years. Ed Peck’s career has to some extent paralleled mine, though his service has stuck closer to the Middle East, and his ambassadorship (Mauretania) was in an Arab country, unlike mine. Ed remains vigorously outspoken, like me; the two of us made more noise than all the others put together except for Brady, “the kid.”

John Brady Kiesling is probably about half Andy’s age. He was Political Counselor in Athens until last spring, when he resigned as a matter of conscience, with a well publicized letter blasting the policies of the Bush administration. He has had lots of experience in the Middle East and was a welcome addition.

Janet McMahon, managing editor at the Washington Report, Delinda Hanley, news editor, and ‘Alia Hamad, Sa’id’s daughter, rounded out our little band and provided relief from the antiquity and maleness of most of the rest of us.

That will do by way of background. The rest of the story will emerge, I hope, in the transcript that follows of the notes I scribbled every evening. I shall edit them fairly heavily since they wouldn’t be intelligible otherwise.

Friday, July 16:

It was a long trip from home, especially for me, as I had a ten hour wait in Frankfurt, where I joined the group. We reached our hotel in Amman after 3 am and had to reassemble at 9 for departure for the Allenby Bridge. I slept well in that brief interval, which turned me around, jetlag-wise. Just as well, for I was entering a strange new world, and needed the full possession of my faculties.

Said herded us into a small bus. He explained that the trip to Ramallah, that used to take about an hour, would possibly take all day. He was right. We left Amman at 10:30, and arrived at our hotel in Ramallah at 4:30 in the afternoon. I shall comment on that trip in some detail, for first impressions are important.

We drove across desert landscape for a while, then began our descent to the Jordan Valley. Everything was brown and parched. We reached the Jordanian side of the border with no difficulty, but when we crossed the bridge to Israel-controlled territory we noticed two things, an expanse of green lawn and a large crowd of waiting people. The lawn was the only patch of green we had seen since we left Amman. It figures. Here’s a quote from Jeff Halpern’s “Matrix of Control”: “Eighty per cent of the waters of the Mountain Aquifer, the only source of groundwater for the West Bank, go to Israel and its settlements. One third of Israel’s water comes from the Jordan River; none goes to the Palestinians of the West Bank. Israeli settlers use six times more water per capita than Palestinians. Per capita water consumption in the West Bank for domestic, urban and domestic use is only 60 liters per person per day, below the minimum water intake of 100 liters per person per day recommended by the World Health Organization. Overall, Israelis consume 350 liters per person per day. Each settler is allocated 1,450 cubic meters of water per year, each Palestinian 83. 215,000 Palestinians in 270 West Bank villages have no running water.” [Note: “Matrix of Control” is a superb study, covering more authoritatively, and in much more detail, the facts I shall try to summarize here. Several versions are available on the internet.]

The explanation for the crowd became apparent when we got out of the bus and lined up for passport control, after surrendering our baggage to some authority. We entered a huge room with hundreds of applicants, more or less standing in several lines. We found a line for “other visitors” and waited. Three girls, who looked to me like they were in their late adolescence, sat in their olive green uniforms behind glass, chattering with each other. Occasionally they would glance at the crowd awaiting their attention, in a bored, supercilious way, and about once every ten minutes one of them would pick up a rubber stamp, and apply it to somebody’s passport. The line would inch forward. Some of us got a bit unhappy at this treatment but Said counseled patience. Apparently that’s a commodity the Palestinians need a great deal of. We finally got past that control point, into another huge barn of a room where several hundred bags had been tossed, ours and everyone else’s. It took a while but I finally found my stuff, and at long last we reassembled and got into another bus.

We were traveling on an excellent modern highway. We left the Dead Sea on our left and ascended gradually out of the Jordan Valley into the Judean hills. I learned for the first time that the highway was built by Israel and was for Israelis only, not for Palestinian Arabs, unless they had the necessary permits. Our bus had yellow plates, which provided prima facie evidence to the police and others that we could use the road. Palestinians normally had white or green plates and if they were caught driving on a main road they were arrested. It wasn’t clear to me just where the second class citizens actually could use their vehicles. It still isn’t. By and large, such vehicles are used only inside the increasing number of smaller and smaller ghettos within which the ordinary Palestians are confined. When some such serf wants to move some commodity out of one ghetto into another, he contracts with someone in the second ghetto, and meets him at a specified “back-to-back” transfer point, where the commodity is transferred to the second vehicle. This also applies to personnel. Taxis mostly have yellow plates, but ordinary Palestinians are not allowed to use them, except within their own assigned ghetto. In case of medical emergencies, the authorities will sometimes let an ambulance through checkpoints, but only at the whim of the soldier in charge. Hence the many reports of Palestians dying or giving birth at checkpoints.

We took a long detour around Jericho, which is now surrounded by a trench, courtesy of the Israelis, to avoid the many checkpoints that existed along the various approaches to Ramallah. Finally we reached the VIP point of entry for the city. There are two ways of entering Ramallah, all other access roads having been blocked off. Ours was uncrowded, but a bored soldier, with flak jacket and Uzi, took our passports off and made us wait for an hour. While we waited a few other vehicles, mostly with consular or diplomatic tags, went through. Then the guard came out of his hut and said no, we could not enter. I asked Said, was this a decision taken up the line by some higher authority, based on the nature of our mission? Said said no, the soldiers at the various points of entry were given a lot of authority, this was pure capriciousness. We drove around the outside perimeter of the city and eventually reached a checkpoint full of scores of trucks, taxis, and other vehicles. There was the usual milling around and occasional honking, but the line was moving, albeit slowly, and when it was our turn they let us through without much fuss.

Ramallah is the de facto capital of Palestine and with a population of a half million, it is one of the largest cities in the West Bank. Under the Oslo Agreements, Israel was to turn over both administration and security to the Arabs, and in fact they did so, in a way. That is, they divided the city into three sectors, arranged in concentric rings, and in the central sector the Palestians really did run their own show. I never did figure out exactly what the differences were between Sectors A through C, and not being a lawyer or a Talmudic scholar, I have no desire to try. Anyway, the issue is moot, for when the intifada began the Israelis sent their troops back in and asserted their control throughout the city. Let’s put it this way: as you get into the city, and proceed towards its center, the Israeli presence becomes less visible.

Ramallah sits on a mini-mountain range, the southern extension of the mountains that so prominently lie behind Beirut and the northern reaches of Lebanon. Our destination, the Grand Park Hotel, was situated on the tip-top of one of the little peaks that dominate the town. It was well appointed, with comfortable rooms, a well stocked bar, a good cuisine, and a swimming pool. We were relieved to learn that we would stay there for our whole visit, making sallies each day into various parts of the West Bank (which is, after all, not that big a place; if it weren’t for the Israeli controls, there’s no place in the whole region you couldn’t drive to in less than an hour).

I sat out on the open veranda that evening, drinking a beer, and drowsy with residual jet lag. I heard the call to evening prayers coming through a loudspeaker and thought, here I am at last, back in the familar arms of the Middle East and its traditional culture. But then a drumbeat intruded into the chant, and took on a remarkably modern rhythm. The chant became more of a hip Arab song. I looked over the balcony and behold, in the street below a wedding procession was wending its way past the hotel. So much for the clash of civilizations. It occurred to me that perhaps we were overplaying the religious angle, that the clash was not so much between a traditional, Islam based culture and a thoroughly modern one, as between two essentially modern and secular cultures, in which tradition and religion were being hyped as playing a more important role than was in fact the case.

Saturday, July 17:

A busy day. We drove up and down hills within Ramallah to a well appointed, modern office building housing the Negotiations Affairs Department, headed by Saeb Erekat, who has the rank of Minister and is a member of Arafat’s cabinet. Erekat talked to us and answered questions, then an assistant gave us a power point presentation. Here are some highlights from Erekat’s forceful presentation:

–The present Government of Israel is not interested in a two-state solution. It aims to annex the entire West Bank. Looking ahead, it sees its main security threat coming from a Jordan dominated by Palestinians. Therefore it has insisted on holding a security zone along its intended eastern frontier, bordering the Jordan River.

–As far as the West Bank is concerned, we are now in the end game. The new wall is not designed to protect Israelis against Palestinian terrorists, it is designed to ensure that Jerusalem goes their way, and to preclude any semblance of a two-state solution. It doesn’t separate Israelis from Arabs, for the Israelis remain in control everywhere. It separates Palestinians from other Palestinians.

–The wall will complete the process of breaking the Palestinian population into a series of small ghettos, thus making it impossible for any central Palestinian entity to govern with authority and credibility. There will be nobody to talk to the Israelis about a two-state solution. When one side holds all the cards, true negotiation becomes impossible.

–When the US Government tells us we should not take our case to the General Assembly, they forget that all other approaches have been closed, and we have no other option except violence.

–How do the Israelis define what is legal? Well, as a practical matter, they can do what they want, and if the Americans don’t object, it’s legal.

–I am a moderate, and oppose violence. But people like me are the ones Sharon fears. He destroys us, anticipating that in the end the terrorists will take over, and Palestinians will destroy each other, doing his work for him. People like me are living on borrowed time.

After this uplifting presentation, we drove to Hebron, on Israeli roads through a checkerboard of Israeli settlements and a few Palestinian villages, grimly hanging on though mostly isolated by a web of roads and settlements. Surprisingly, they didn’t differ that much in their physical appearance, since both the settlements and the older villages were made of solid stone buildings, hewn from the same quarries. When you saw a minaret, the village was Palestinian, but when you saw water towers on the hilltop, it was a settlement. We saw more water towers than minarets on that trip.

Hebron is about the same size as Ramallah in terms of population, and somewhat similar in appearance, but unlike Ramallah it had lost its heart, the old city centered on the Ibrahimi mosque, a particularly holy place for Muslims. It was here that in 1994, the radical American settler Dr. Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Muslims at prayer. A few determined Hebrew zealots had moved in, there had been problems, which Dr. Goldstein’s action did nothing to alleviate, and increasing numbers of Israeli troops had to move in to protect the settlers. Now there are about 400 Hasidic zealots living around the mosque in the heart of the city, protected by about 2000 Israeli soldiers. They live in a zone clearly demarcated with barriers across the streets that formerly connected to the rest of the city, so that Israelis control who goes into the zone and who leaves it. All the Palestinians, by now, have left. Streets are lined with shops with the metal shutters down. It is quiet, and all you see is an occasional black-clad Hasidic Jew strolling around what used to be a bustling urban core. But I am getting ahead of my story.

Our first stop was Hebron University, a spacious campus on a hill, with many students going back and forth. We were welcomed by the University’s President, Dr. Khuloqi Khanfar, and assorted senior faculty; the atmosphere at first was about the same as at any substantial university in the USA. We went to a conference hall and listened to various words of welcome from our hosts, and then a series of speeches. I guess it is endemic to any university that anyone who gets the floor tries to talk for fifty minutes, and will do so unless the presiding authority can shut him up. We suffered through a lot of talk, in imperfect English part of the time and imperfectly translated Arabic the rest of the time. The themes were predictable, and were repeated many times for the most part. I noted the following points that seemed relevant: The university started in 1971 and has since been closed for a total of five years. In 1982 the Israelis shot and killed three students on the campus. In the past four years there were 400 days of complete curfew, and 200 more of partial curfew.

Perhaps the most effective presentation was by a nun. She passed out cards but they didn’t identify her by name, only the organization, called “Palestinian Charitable Women Arrangement Organization” Here are some highlights: There are many Palestinian women in Israeli jails who have been cut off from their families. The goal of Palestinian women is to keep their children from getting killed by Israeli bullets. We are a nation looking for dignity. Independence is our goal as well, but the most important thing is our honor, our dignity, which has been taken from us. 64% of Palestine’s 3.5 million people are youth, and many are in our universities. Every family in Palestine has been directly affected by the Israeli occupation. We believe in peace, but what will happen to our young people, growing up in this atmosphere of total oppression? We fear for the future.

We extricated ourselves and left the campus, headed for a lunch hosted by the university heads in another part of town. Unwisely perhaps, we stopped at the checkpoint barring the only access to the old city. We waited for a long time and finally the Israeli guard let us in, with instructions to follow a white jeep that led us to the mosque. We took a few pictures, like normal tourists (there were none in evidence), then drove back through deserted streets, past the checkpoint and on to our luncheon rendezvous at a local hotel. We were quite late but noone seemed to mind. It seems punctuality, and even the expectation of it, has become one of the first casualties of the checkpoint system. We had a huge three course lunch and more speeches.

After stuffing ourselves with food and more speeches, we drove to a center where moppets in uniform sang for us, and we heard more speeches. It seemed as though everyone in the West Bank south of Jerusalem was ganging up on us that day to send us the same cry of pain and distress, saying please, for God’s sake, will you Americans do something to lean on the Israelis and make them stop oppressing us? Mercifully, the next stop was a glass factory, a small cottage industry, where some of our number could really forget the mission, act like tourists, and buy trinkets. And then back to the hotel in Ramallah.

It had been a full day, but it wasn’t yet over. At 8 pm we sat down to a briefing session conducted by the Minister of Trade and the Economy, Mr. Maher Masri. I didn’t feel very alert but in fact it was one of the most informative meetings of the whole visit. Here are some highlights:

–As I reported earlier, the PA depends on external support and is getting it. Several hundred million dollars a year come from the European Union, the Saudis provide budgetary support, and then there is the bilateral and NGO aid. It’s a lot of sweat and funds to keep the Palestinian economy going. And for a while it worked. The economy grew at better than 9% per annum for the two years prior to 2001. It’s a productive economy, at least potentially, with a big marble industry, plus leather, clothing and other exports.

–But then came the intifada and the economy tanked. The Israeli restrictions on commerce put the kibosh to much of the economy’s earning power. You cannot keep an export market if you cannot guarantee delivery times. He gave an example of a company that had an important contract but could not get permission to get a key delivery to Gaza because the Israelis, for no evident reason, would not let it go through. Agriculture has similarly tanked due to all the new restrictions on access to farmland. I asked if Israeli harrassment was a conscious policy determined at a high level or just capricious behavior by subordinates. He didn’t commit himself, but indicated that much of the unpredictability was low-level capriciousness.

–The Europeans, not to mention the Saudis, are getting pretty fed up with a situation where they are pouring money in just to see the results vitiated by a malicious Israeli government backed by the US. The iconic case in point is the airport in Gaza, which the Europeans built only to see Israeli forces blow it apart.

–Since the intifada began, unemployment has shot up. It’s now over 70% in Gaza, and while it’s not that high in the West Bank, it’s pretty bad here too. Given the high percentage of young people in the population as a whole, an explosive situation is building up.

Sunday, July 18:

We left the hotel about 9 for Qalqilya, a medium-sized town (c. 50,000) north of Ramallah that has been in the news lately in that it has been almost completely surrounded and cut off from its hinterland by the new wall. Our guide was Ann, an intelligent and superbly informed Canadian woman, who is with an NGO working with Erekat’s Dept of Negotiations. Ann does these tours frequently for visiting firemen, when she isn’t helping research, and writing the department’s frequent reports on current developments. Her tours double in usefulness in that she gathers daily inputs on what the Israelis are doing, info that is only available on the ground.

On the way north we skirted the so-called Ariel “finger” which is a string of settlements punching its way due east through the heart of the larger portion of the West Bank, effectively bisecting that portion much as the corridor east from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and the Allenby Bridge bisects the territory farther south. When you see where the settlements are growing, and where the maximum push is being exerted, the conclusion is inescapable that Sharon and company are not playing chess, they are playing the oriental game of Go, breaking up the enemy’s territory, encircling it and containing it in ever smaller pockets. In the Ariel finger, the strategy involves building a major settlement well to the east of any existing Israeli settlements, then filling up space in between, as fast as possible, with smaller settlements. Meanwhile further settlements are being organized even beyond Ariel, punching further through the Palestinian heartland. By now they have almost reached the Israeli security zone along the Jordan River. These forward settlements are populated by the diehards, the most fanatical of the Israeli religious zealots, who constitute the hardened point of Israel’s divide and conquer territorial ambitions.

This is not just my own theorizing. Ann explained it this way, and demonstrated it by showing us where new construction, both roads and settlements, is proceeding at breakneck speed. It is plausible that Sharon and company want to have the basic elements of the web that destroys the territorial integrity of the West Bank in place by November. Just in case Bush loses.

The settlers in these outposts, according to Ann, all have cellphones and are totally organized. If a Palestinian kid throws a stone at a passing vehicle, in minutes vigilantes from all the surrounding settlements come down on him like a ton of bricks, and clobber him if they can catch him. Whether they do or not, they’ll likely destroy some nearby olive trees just to compensate for their effort. We saw some trees that had been chopped and even uprooted. Needless to say, the Palestinians for the most part watch the progress of the Israeli settlements with mute horror, and do nothing to resist.

Pretty soon we reached Qalqilya and saw another aspect of Israel’s oppressive tactics. The new wall separates the town from its entire hinterland. It hasn’t been incorporated into Israel, which lies only a short distance to the west, it has just been cordoned off and left to strangle. It hasn’t strangled yet, for the wall is still a-building and the doom the city faces hasn’t yet played itself out, but there is no way it can survive as a central place and market center under present circumstances.

We went through the one checkpoint that provides regular access to the city and drove to the center of town. It looked like a fairly normal center in any Arab country in the region. Ann had been busy on the cellphone and pretty soon Atta showed up. He spoke pretty good English and told us he had been running a good business growing ornamental plants, mostly for the Israeli market, in a number of greenhouses on a couple of dozen acres of land he owned on the edge of the city. A little while ago the Israelis put in bulldozers and smashed through the middle of his property to build the wall, destroying a number of his greenhouses and cutting most of the others off from the city. He only had one or two greenhouses left on the city side. His land on the other side of the fence would be expropriated, since he would not be able to get permission to get to it. He was ruined.

We went to the site and took photos. A wide stretch of his land had been bulldozed. The wall was in place already on one side of a temporary gate, closed tight. On the other side of the gate trenches had been dug with strings of razor accordion wire and other barriers. An Israeli soldier sauntered over to the other side of the gate to see what was going on. Atta accosted him: “You know who owns the land you are standing on? I do. It is my land.” The soldier sniffed and turned his back. Atta came back to the rest of us: “They don’t want the poeple. Only the land. Every child know this!” What could we do? We took more pictures.

A short distance along the projected wall from Atta’s expropriated property there is a dirt road leading to a crossing point that allows farmers living in Qalqilya to cross an Israeli road to get to a patch of land that they still can own and farm, if they can get there. The problem is that they like to get to their land early in the day and work it in the morning, but the checkpoint usually opens only later in the day, when it opens at all. We drove down that road to the checkpoint and shared the good fortune of the farmers, because on that day, the checkpost had just opened. A horsecart and then a couple of donkey carts loaded with produce passed us, the farmers grinning happily, for they had lucked in, and been allowed to practice their normal trade for once.

We went back to the center of town, dropped Atta, and picked up a farmer named Jalal. He had a big chicken farm, but unfortunately it was on the wrong side of the wall. When the wall first came up, he applied for a permit allowing him to visit it and take care of his poultry. The permit was eventually issued, but meanwhile he lost 160,000 birds. That permit is due to expire in two more days, and now he is sweating out getting it renewed. If the renewal doesn’t come through in time, he said, he’s finished. As with Atta, we expressed sympathy and took pictures.

The third farmer we contacted was Omar Sherif, an ebullient, energetic man who had about 40 acres of prime farmland across the wall in a kind of pocket between a couple of settlements. Ann told us he’d sent seven sons through college on the strength of his income from his farm. The Israelis tried to confiscate his land several years ago, but he’d taken it to an Israeli court and won. Now there were rumors that the Israeli military was going to move in and expropriate it for their purposes. No Israeli court was likely to block that.

Sherif was going to meet us there, but we didn’t see him, so we drove over to a central point on his property and waited for him. A disagreeable young Israeli in a quasi-military uniform came over and told us to leave. He claimed to represent Shabak, the Security force. Ann, visibly distressed, tried to find out why. He would tell her only that the land was off limits to civilians until 4 pm. Why remained a mystery. But it looked to Ann as though the military was moving in. She spent some time with headquarters on the cell phone. She was advised not to argue, just “get the hell out of there.” Another case of an Israeli land grab to add to the file. We talked to Sherif later. He knew nothing about the young Israeli or why he had ordered us to leave. He observed that if they wanted to put a firing range there, they’d have to be careful or they’d shoot their own settlers, since the settlements were all around his land. I suppose he’d have at least some satisfaction if that happened, but it’s a strange way to have to lose your livelihood, none the less.

I noticed that there were no yellow license plates in Qalqilya. She explained that since it was a market town, close to Israel proper, Israelis used to visit frequently to shop. Produce was much cheaper than in Israel. The authorities put a stop to it, by requiring yellow plates to have a special permit to get through the checkpoint into the town. I suppose the official explanation relates to concern for the safety of Israeli citizens. But it’s also true that the local economy depended on this trade and cutting it off drove another nail in the coffin of the town. Qalqilya, Ann concluded, is doomed, unless there is an abrupt change in Israeli policy.

What does that mean, doomed? It means that any resident with some money or connections will get out, either emigrate to another country or resettle in another part of the West Bank, if he can find some way to earn a living. Pretty soon the town will be dead economically, with a burgeoning crop of disaffected youth living on handouts from the UN and other relief agencies. A Petri dish for the breeding of terrorists. Is that what Sharon really wants? Is that what the Bush administration really wants? When will someone come forward and stop this madness?

This goes to the heart of the intentions of the Sharon government. If its only purpose were to protect Israeli citizens against attacks by Palestinian suicide bombers and other terrorists, surely it could have found better ways to accomplish this than the paths it has actually taken. By now, I concluded, the evidence was overwhelming. Saeb Erakat was not exaggerating. The aim is to make the entire West Bank an integral part of Israel, with as many Israelis in it as possible, and few if any Arabs. The two state formula is strictly for show, to keep the Americans placated and the rest of the world at bay, while the settlements expand and take hold and create irreversible facts on the ground. It isn’t just Qalqilya that is doomed.

The trip back to Ramallah took us past many more settlements, more “facts on the ground.” Plus a few more dead olive trees, and back-to-back transit stations. It had been a busy day. But we were not allowed to collapse and reflect, for our managers had scheduled another meeting for us, at 8 pm in the hotel, with the Minister for Local Governments, Jamal Showbaki. My notes at this point become less than coherent, as I was pretty tired, and was still sorting out the impressions gleaned during the day. Here, for what it may be worth, are the highlights.

Mr. Showbaki said the issue of holding elections had become a major concern. The majority of Palestinians want them, both local elections and national ones. Local elections are coming. Registration is due to begin in early September. Hamas is the largest party with 23% of the registered voters. No national election is scheduled but he hopes we’ll have one soon. We have asked both the European Union and the US to guarantee that Israel will not interfere with the elections. The Israeli reply is that they’ll promise not to interfere if Arafat promises not to run.

Monday, July 19:

Today was the big day, the day we had an appointment with Arafat. But first, we filled the morning with calls on other officials.

We met first with the speaker of the Palestine Legislative Council, Rawhi Fattouh, and others. The PLC is the legislative branch of the PA and its 88 members were elected in 1996 pursuant to the Oslo Agreement that established the PA. That election, supervised by foreign observers, was the first and last, so far. It is time, many observers think, to hold another election. A new election law is being prepared and the aim is to hold elections before the end of the year. A major obstacle is the checkpoints that restrict voters’ mobility. There are 700 such checkpoints in the West Bank alone.

The speaker asserted that he opposes attacks on civilians within Israel and has asked Hamas and Islamic Jihad to stop doing them. He made this proposal about a month ago and now the PLC as a whole accepts it. Hamas is considering it favorably and Islamic Jihad accepts it. The speaker has, meanwhile, communicated with the Knesset, proposing that Israel stop attacks on Palestinian civilians, like the recent ones in Rafah. Specifically, the PLC has asked the Knesset to press this message on the Israel executive, as he is doing with his.

Someone asked the speaker if there was any proposal for direct talks between the PLC and members of the Knesset. Actually, the speaker replied, there was a proposal along that line, and a meeting was proposed on neutral ground, in Ireland. That initiative died when the Israelis kidnapped and jailed Marwan Barghouti, a member of the PLC Executive Council, together with a colleague. Barghouti was jailed because he helped start Fatah in ‘89, but he is a realist and always was a force for peace. That’s not the type Sharon wants to deal with, because he’s a strong leader and might actually accomplish something at the negotiating table.

We left the Legislative Council and went on to the PA’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for a meeting with the Deputy Minister, Abdullah Abdullah, and Dr.Mufeed Shami, Director General of the Ministry’s North America Department. Dr. Abdullah got to the point with commendable celerity.

Your visit is important, he began. We need to figure out how we can cope with the wall of misinformation that pushes a great country like yours into such total misperceptions of our situation. We support your values. We don’t want to hurt anybody. We just want to be free. But what is happening here? What about the husband who has to stand and watch while his wife gives birth in front of Israeli soldiers at some checkpoint? What is in his mind? This way lies madness. We want peace, but the point comes when the government is unable to control its people. Present Israeli policy regards the West Bank as theirs, and its Palestinian inhabitants as tenants. We cannot accept this. We insist on our right to exist as a free people on at least a little portion of our land. We must keep at least a spark of hope alive in our people. If that spark goes out, we in the government lose control.

There is a cabinet meeting going on right now, Abdullah continued, discussing political issues. The situation is grave everywhere but especially in Gaza where most of the people are living on less than $2 a day. We are a proud people, we don’t like to live on charity. When I served as ambassador to Canada, not one single Palestinian there was on welfare. Palestinians are hard workers. But now we are denied even the basic necessities.

Someone asked, why did Sharon make his move on Gaza? Abdullah thought it was a ploy to head off criticism in Europe and stifle small signs of dissent that are beginning to show up in the USA. He asked us to remember that the intifada is not a structured movement that the government can direct. When people become angry and desperate they cannot be controlled.

On that note we got back in our bus and headed for Arafat’s beleaguered headquarters. As our bus started up, I calculated our chances of seeing Arafat himself as close to nil. The cabinet crisis Abdullah had referred to was all over the press. The Jerusalem Post, which we had in the hotel, made it sound as though Arafat was fighting desperately for his political survival against a rising tide of dissent from his own people. It certainly sounded unlikely that in these circumstances he could spare much time for the likes of us. A photo op perhaps, with a briefing by subordinates, was the best we could expect.

The crowd thickened as we approached Arafat’s headquarters. A troop of boys in red hats, Arafat supporters, reluctantly made way for our bus, which slowly picked its way past an open square filled with oil drums with pipes sticking up (anti-chopper, someone speculated) and into an inner courtyard. A pile of wrecked autos and other equipment added a bizarre touch to the decor. We descended from the bus in front of an unimpressive entry and ran a small gauntlet of TV cameramen. Inside the building we went through a couple of corridors and into a smallish conference room, less impressive than the ones we had just left, in the offices of the PLC and the Foreign Ministry. There was the usual offering of bottles of water and soda. I was stilll expecting word that Arafat couldn’t make it, when in he came. A surprisingly small, elfish person with a puckish smile, exuding warmth and personality. He put us at our ease instantly. He had that extraordinary, and exceedingly rare quality which is inadequately known as charisma, which can radiate the impression to a group that he is concerned with you personally, directly. Someone told me he had total recall of everyone he ever met, so that if he only met you once, briefly, and saw you twenty years later, he’d remember everything about the earlier meeting, and a lot about you, instantly.

He stayed with us for two hours. First he talked to us. Then he answered questions. Then we were all served a full meal and ate while we chatted. Finally we left and he accompanied us to the building’s exit where we ran another press gauntlet. All the while he showed not the least sign of concern for anything that might be going on outside the room where we were meeting. No harried looking aides sliding in and whispering in his ear or slipping him notes. Just us.

Arafat led off with a highly personalized account of the history of the PLO and the PA, the ups and downs in his relations with the world’s leaders. I don’t recall anything he said that I found particularly groundbreaking or new, though perhaps someone more familiar with the events he covered would have found nuggets of great value. But we were not taking notes, not because we’d been asked not to, but because it seemed inappropriate.

When it came to question time, I asked Arafat whether the intifada would stop if Sharon publicly recommitted himself to the two-state solution and took substantial steps on the ground, involving the settlements and the checkpoints, that demonstrated his intent to move in that direction. Arafat replied at length, with a historical recapitulation of past efforts at achieving a cease fire. Several episodes involved his discussions with George Tenet of the CIA. In one episode, Arafat agreed to a temporary truce which he then extended at Tenet’s urging, but the Israelis took advantage of the truce and didn’t reciprocate. In another instance Arafat agreed to a truce, and the Israelis then murdered Sheikh Yassin, abruptly terminating that initiative.

Arafat never did answer my question directly, but gave the impression he was rather like the Peanuts cartoon’s Charlie Brown and the football. Over and over again he had been talked into truces only to have the other side pull the rug out from under him (or the football, in Charlie Brown’s case). In other words, his implicit answer was ok, but show me, and this time it better be good.

I came away from that meeting thinking perhaps I had just been given the key that would unlock much of the mystery that surrounds the whole Palestine issue. Arafat’s singular personality, his overwhelming charisma, could explain his very high level of popular support, despite constant charges of corruption and the fact that conditions keep getting worse for most Palestinians. But the very qualities that give him such direct personal appeal operate against his ability to institutionalize his support, to use it to build the kinds of bureaucratic structures that can endure changes at the top, and can control cronyism and corruption. I don’t think Arafat is personally corrupt. Certainly our meeting suggests he isn’t living a life of luxury. But when a leader relies almost entirely on personal relations as opposed to institutional structures, cronyism is bound to creep in, and not all cronies will resist the lure of personal enrichment with equal success.

I also think I better understand why Sharon needs Arafat, at least for a while. That shrewd old fighter probably sees Arafat as the essential linchpin holding the Palestinian nation together and preventing total chaos, while also serving the supremely important purpose of preventing people like Saeb Erekat and Marwan Barghouti from rising to positions where they can actually make a difference. I believe Sharon foresees a time in the not too distant future when he is ready to move, and when Arafat’s usefulness will end. But that time is not yet.

Enough theorizing. We are now back in our bus, leaving Arafat’scompound, heading for our next engagement, a discussion with Majdi Khaldi, Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs. I thought we had already had enough exposure to the Ministry, but as it turned out Khaldi had some useful additions to the potful of information simmering in our overstuffed minds.

Khaldi confirmed what Minister Abdullah had suggested, namely that intensive meetings were taking place throughout the day of great importance to the future of the Palestinian leadership. The meetings involved power sharing, ie, devolution of some of Arafat’s authority to others. A central issue was whether and how to bring all security functions under one individual. A bit later, Khaldi said that insurgent groups had formed spontaneously within Fatah and other youth groups as reactions to harsh Israeli controls; now these groups were demanding roles in the search for a political solution.

Khaldi described the rather convoluted relations between the PA’s Foreign Ministry, based in Ramallah and Gaza, and the PLO’s Foreign Ministry, based in Tunis, and concluded with the less than credible assertion that there was perfect coordination and no problems between them.

Khaldi was upbeat about the prospects for Palestine becoming a modern secular state, if it could ever become free. He cited a recent IBRD report that concluded that Sharon’s plan for disengagement from Gaza would not help much unless economic controls in the West Bank were relaxed. That, concluded the Bank, could raise the national income by a third very quickly, with a further improvement following. This would pretty much balance the budget. As matters stand now there is a serious shortfall that is covered by foreign aid. Khaldi digressed at this point into a brief analysis of politics between various Arab states as related to the issue of aiding Palestine. He asserted, credibly this time, that the subject is inordinately complicated.

Khaldi discussed Sharon’s proposed pullout from Gaza several times. It’s fine but it’s not enough. Likewise the road map. Nothing will work without external pressure on Sharon to stop choking the West Bank. Sharon gives something away then takes it back. He told the Egyptians they could control their border with Gaza but his cabinet was opposed, and his military was opposed, so he went back to the Egyptians and said sorry, no can do.

Tuesday, July 20:

We’d been looking forward to a breakfast meeting with a representative of Fatah, but he cancelled at the last minute due to an incident in Ramallah the previous evening. A PLC member had been shot. We spent part of the morning touring Bethany and viewing the wall in its various configurations. Then we visited Al Quds University. In many ways it was a repeat of the visit to Hebron University. We met the top people and had a discussion and then repaired to an enormous hall where we dined with most of the faculty. In between and during and after all this were the inevitable speeches. Two of the diner/speakers were the ranking clerics of the Greek Orthodox church and the local Muslim community, who evidently travel together to present themselves on public occasions, their inseparability symbolizing the close and cordial relations between their two faiths.

This affair filled up much of the day. We toured the wall a bit more, then returned to the hotel for a quiet evening.

Wednesday, July 21:

We left the hotel at 9:30 for a visit to the little town of Bethlehem. The drive ought to take 15 or 20 minutes. It took us two hours and five minutes, including waiting at three checkpoints.

Our first meeting was with Hanna Nassa, the mayor. He told us that formerly tourism was 70% of the local economy. It stopped almost completely wth the intifada, and per capita income has plummeted, from $1700 to $400. With settlements all around, the town is surrounded, all possibilities of growth or expansion gone. The citizens are trapped, cannot leave without a permit that most of them cannot obtain. The Israelis have taken all the vacant land around the town and most of the water. The local university has lost all its students except the few that live in town. When there is a medical emergency it is treated locally, or the patient has to engage back to back ambulances to get to an outside hospital. Many die or are stillborn on the way. When the mayor visits Ramallah, the route we took isn’t available, he has to go via an even more roundabout and time-consuming route. The Christians and Muslims coexist amicably here, as always, but many have left: four thousand Christians and seven thousand Muslims. It is not easy to leave, our roots are deep. Nassa’s own family has records here going back to 1609. But the wall is eating our substance. Any land we own that is on the other side is regarded by the Israelis as coming under their absentee landlord law and Israel takes legal title to it. The wall does nothing for Israel’s security, it is a simple land grab. All hotels, all but a couple of restaurants, almost all tourist shops are closed. Even Israeli tour groups are stopped at the checkpoints. We still have a little help from the European Union and the World Bank, but basically the city is kaput, we are broke.

Nassa concluded this lament by calling for international intervention to stop the Israeli aggression. He added that as a Christian himself, he was dismayed at the support Christian groups in America were giv ing the present Israeli government in its aggressive policies in the Holy Land.

We went on to one of the surviving restaurants for another filling meal. Once again I found myself sitting across from the Orthodox and Muslim clerics. The priest, a large and imposing figure in his flowing black robes, told us he was there illegally. Once again they rose at an appropriate point and made lengthy speeches that more or less echoed Mayor Nassa’s tale of woe. The priest said religious values were being trampled underfoot, and this message must be heard in America.

After lunch we made a brief tour of the city, looking out at all the land that it had lost to the Israelis, including a patch that Bethlehem had reforested a few years back, now transformed into the Har Homa settlement. Then we proceeded to Jerusalem and the American Colony Hotel , arriving two hours late.

Bob Pelletreau joined us. He is a retired Foreign Service Officer and a friend, who has recently moved to Jerusalem to take over the local office of the international organization, Search for Common Ground. We had a good discussion of the local scene, including Bob’s planned activities in such fields as public hygiene.

Then Mr. Jeffrey Beals, of the US Consulate General in Jerusalem, joined us for a tour d’horizon. It was our first and last meeting with an American official.

We also met with Tom Neu of ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid) and Azmi Bishara, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset. They both provided insights into the local scene. Bishara had just conducted a hunger strike against Israel’s new wall, so it was hardly surprising that he expressed strong anti-government views.

Bishara minced no words. Politics in Israel is like pornography in America, it fascinates and repels. Every minister is corrupt in that in order to make his ministry work he has to devise ingenious ways to divert appropriated funds, ways that remain invisible to everyone until he loses his job and his successor starts tracing his paper trail. He sometimes does this for the public good but in the process he may help himself a little, or his friends. Anyway, this is why the Israeli press is always screaming about corruption. It is part of the Israeli way of life.

Sharon, Bishara continued, is fascinated with the problem of the demographic bomb. He delves deeply into details of schemes to control non-Jews within Israel; he heads commissions and studies on this. He wants non-Jews in Israel to decide “realistically” what they want to be. If they want to stay they have to commit themselves completely, and serve in the army; no lingering commitment to the former culture or country is admissible. Under his stewardship, the Knesset recently voted in favor of a new and more restrictive law of citizenship.

Sharon’s strategic plan, according to Bishara, foresees pushing the Palestinian Authority into Jordan. His day-to-day measures are all designed to help him reach this goal. He is tough, and rolls over just about every American that he deals with. Phil Habib stood up to him, and the two men hated each other.

Tom Neu was equally opposed to Sharon’s policies. Israeli actions are aimed at destroying the integrity of the Palestinian society and culture by breaking the West Bank up into little sealed ghettos. This ruins the economy and destroys prospects for political reform. Society reverts to a more primitive level. It is an incredibly cruel program. It just creates a lot of little breeding grounds for terrorists.

We left Jerusalem after dark and, true to form, got hung up at the checkpoint entering Ramallah. We all got out and walked, when the refusal was deemed final, across the barrier and to a taxi. Another long day.

Thursday, July 22:

This was the day I parted from the group to head home. Their program involved a trip north, to Jenin, which I missed. But first we had a chat at the hotel with a news photographer, Khaled Zhigari, and another press conference of sorts. Khaled and I hit it off and he offered to drive me to Jerusalem, a better jumping off point for Jordan than Ramallah. I readily agreed.

Khaled is a press photographer and film producer working for CBS and BBC. He has the distinction, if you can call it that, of having gotten a major scoop when the intifada began, but the authorities confiscated his film and shot him in the leg into the bargain. The occasion was Sharon’s visit to the Dome of the Rock, which touched off the intifada. Khaled was the only photographer to record the scene. They smashed his camera, confiscated his film, then deliberately, at zero range, shot him in the leg. He could have bled to death but an Israeli press officer he knew got him to a hospital in time. Then they confiscated his press card, which is usually necessary to get back and forth across the many barriers to movement. He tried to get it back and they “invited him to come in for a chat.” In other words, if he wanted it back he’d have to turn quisling. He declined. He has developed remarkable skills at getting around, on the strength of his Israeli ID card and a lot of technology. His little car has five mirrors and two mounted cellphones, plus three other cellphones on his belt. He is in constant communication with somebody or other, much of it grapevine with advice about which route to take when, in order to get through most easily. He bluffed his way past one checkpoint while I was with him. Pretty good, Israeli soldiers don’t bluff that easily.

Khalid has an Israeli ID card because he lives in Jerusalem. His apartment costs him half his salary but he cannot go back and live in his house in Bethlehem or the Israelis would lift his ID in a minute. Recently they ran a surprise inspection at his apartment, looked in the closet and the refrigerator, trying to discover evidence he was really living elsewhere and using the apartment as an excuse to keep his ID. Brave new world. Big brother. A fitting note on which to end my trip.

A taxi took me from Jerusalem to the Jordanian border, which I crossed without much delay, then caught another cab to Amman. It’s easy to leave the West Bank. I guess Israel wants everyone to leave, except for their own people. It’s a whole lot harder to stay.

Carl Coon 7/26/04

This entry was posted in Topical Issues. Bookmark the permalink.