Reporting On Palestine
People look back on apartheid South Africa with horror and disgust. But you don't have to go to the history books to find out what apartheid is like. You only need to visit Palestine.
Since the Oslo peace accords were signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993, the United States has acted as if Palestinians all but had their own state. But try to visit the land that Palestinians supposedly control, and you realize what a lie that is.
Even in the small amount of historic Palestine that is now controlled by the Palestinian Authority is broken into numerous bantustans. The West Bank alone is divided into 64 sub-regions, with border points controlled by heavily armed Israeli security guards.
During our visit, one family outside the Palestinian town of Ramallah, had the second floor of their home seized by the Israeli army for "security" reasons.
While politicians talk about peace, Israeli settlements continue to expand rapidly on Palestinian land. Settlements have nearly doubled during the Oslo period -- under both Labor and Likud governments, but more rapidly under Labor. There are now around 200,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza and another 200,000 in Jerusalem.
During our visit, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited a settlement in the Golan Heights and proclaimed, "Only through developing the Golan, expanding the Jewish population, expanding the settlements and bringing in new residents ... will we be able to turn the settlement of the Golan to a reality that cannot be reversed."
One settlement that we drove by, Ariel, has a university with 6,500 students, a modern sports complex, and high-speed Internet access. "The faculty says it is holding fast to ... a master plan that calls for 20,000 students [at Ariel] by the year 2020," the Jerusalem Post reports.
Ariel's lush lawns are kept green with water taken from Palestinian lands. Meanwhile, nearby Palestinians living nearby face terrible poverty.
They also face harassment and routine violence from zealots in the settler movement who seek to drive even more Palestinians from their land. Olive groves, which are a staple of the Palestinian economy, are routinely burned down by Israelis. The army also uproots olive trees as one of its many forms of collective punishment.
In Medar, a village near Ariel and a dense cluster of other settlements, a local agricultural center helping Palestinian farmers was ransacked by settlers.
The settlers also have a license to kill from the Israeli army. Ahmed Hofash lost his son Amin last year to a settler who deliberately drove his car off the road and aimed toward Amin, then aged 7, and his 15-year-old brother. No one from the IDF came to investigate the murder.
"Nobody cared," says his father.
Most of Israel's settlements are connected by Israeli-only bypass roads, modern highways that cut through Palestinian territory. In contrast, every Palestinian road is a maze of Israeli "security checkpoints," where Israeli soldiers disrupt and dominate the lives of every Palestinian.
One day during our visit, two Palestinians -- a woman giving birth and man having a hear attack -- died while being held at Israeli checkpoints.
Other Palestinian roads have simply been blocked off by the Israeli army with piles of concrete. "Hundreds of roads were demolished," explains Tayseer Arouri, a Physics professor at Bir Zeit University and a board member of the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center, based in Ramallah.
"People living in the western part of Ramallah, they used to have access directly to Ramallah in twenty minutes. Now they have to follow a road which goes five, six times longer, with many check posts. They need minimum two hours to come from Ramallah, sometimes more."
This spring, students at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah found that one their way to school one day, the access roads had been closed. Students, faculty, and staff had to walk through two security checkpoints to get to the campus.
Since the beginning of the second Intifada last fall, Israel has sealed its borders to Palestinians -- and replaced its Palestinian workers with indentured slaves brought in from Thailand, Singapore, and other poor countries.
The Occupied Territories are literally under a state of siege. As a result, unemployment has skyrocketed, families have been separated, and lives have been torn apart. In Gaza, unemployment is estimated at 50-70 percent.
Israel has also escalated its campaign of demolishing homes of Palestinians. On one day during our visit, the Israeli army destroyed fourteen homes in the Shufat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. Residents were given only a day's notice that their homes would be torn down because of "permit" violations.
It is almost impossible for a Palestinian to get a building permit from Israeli authorities. Israelis, of course, expand their homes with government encouragement.
"They came with bulldozers and just tore them down," says Hassan, telling us about the demolition of his home and 13 others in Shufat. When Hassan, his family, neighbors, and anti-demolition activists tried to stop the soldiers, they were beaten. Journalists trying to cover the demolition, and lawyers trying to stop it, were brutally pushed aside.
Hassan, who walks on crutches because of a childhood case of polio, now has difficulty making his way through the rubble that remains of his home. Because of the demolition, Hassan and his brothers, one of whom has scars on his back from an Israeli soldier's rifle, are forced to share a small room with their mother and her grandchildren. One brother was planning to get married, but now Hassan's mother fears, "We think she will not come."
The same week, Israeli's tore town 22 Palestinian homes in Rafah, a southern town in the Gaza Strip near the Egyptian border. "The only thing I have left is the red shirt I am wearing," said Mohammed Abu Lideh, whose home was destroyed. "I spent all my savings to build this house."
In an even larger demolition during our visit, Israel destroyed the homes of hundreds of Palestinian shepherds in the South Hebron hills. "The destroyers blocked up the wells -- the source of life for these families that have neither running water nor electricity," Ha'aretz Magazine reported. "Now hundreds of children have no roof over their heads in the midsummer sun, and nowhere to go."
Palestinians we met consistently said that their living conditions have dropped steadily since the PLO signed the Oslo accords with Israel. But everywhere we went in Palestine, people were clear: They won't give up their struggle for their freedom and justice.
Some day people will look back on the United States' political, military, and economic backing of Israel the way they look back on its open support for apartheid in South Africa. We have to work to make sure that day is soon.
An extended version of this report will appear at www.socialistworker.org. To find out about a solidarity rally for Palestinians planned in Montreal on September 15, visit: http://www.sphr.org/rally/Rally.htm.