By Neve Gordon '97M.A., '99Ph.D.
"It was about 7 in the morning," Widad Al-Nuajah told us, unable to hide her despair. "Fourteen military jeeps accompanied by two bulldozers arrived. The soldiers instructed us to remove our belongings from the cave, but even before we finished the bulldozers began the demolition."
Together with a few other Israelis, I had left Jerusalem very early that morning. For security reasons, we drove through Israel around the occupied West Bank, entering the Palestinian territories from the south; instead of a 45-minutes ride, it took us two-and-a-half hours. After meeting our Palestinian friends at the Susya junction, we continued together to their encampment on a dirt road, creating a cloud of dust on the light brown, almost yellow, desert hills. Widad was among several people waiting for us. They had come to apprise us of the situation.
"First, they destroyed the six sheds," Widad continued to recount the event, "and then the two caves, one in which we slept and the other where we kept our livestock. Next, they wrecked the two wells, and uprooted the vines and fig trees. Within an hour and a half everything was in ruins."
"Look," she said, as she pointed toward two sealed holes in the ground, "these were our wells."
Twenty-nine-year-old Widad is one of a few hundred destitute Palestinians who live in manmade caves used to shelter them from the harsh desert weather. Extremely hot in the summer and cold in the winter, the South Hebron region is barren, and little vegetation can survive without some form of human intervention.
The soldiers, as we were told, drove to Widad's neighbors and there too wreaked havoc. Later, they returned and tried to convince the now homeless families to leave their land and migrate to a different region in the West Bank. The coercion, intimidation, persuasion combo did not succeed, however, since no one from the Al-Nuajah tribe was willing to budge.
A few weeks passed before the military showed up again, only this time they were determined to transfer the families by force. Armed to their teeth, they succeeded in carrying out their mission. Luckily, though, the Israeli Supreme Court, following a last moment appeal, issued an injunction allowing the Palestinian residents to return to their land until the court resolves the case.
Widad's cousin, Muhammad, handed me a small glass of hot tea as we stood talking under the scorching sun. "You want to know who is responsible for this cruelty?" he asked. "All you have to do is lift your head toward the horizon."
No more than 800 yards from the remains of the ruined caves, across a narrow ridge, stands the small Jewish settlement Susya. Assembled on a hillside are about 100 suburban houses with green lawns; I even distinguished ornamental trees scattered on the terrain, a playground, and a community center. The stark contrast is mind-boggling, considering that the Al-Nuajah family doesn't even have running water, electricity or a road leading to their home.
Al-Nuajah's story is, in many respects, a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After repeatedly visiting the region in the past months with other Palestinian and Jewish Israeli activists who belong to a grassroots group called Ta'ayush -- which means "living together" in Arabic -- I realized that an alliance has been formed between the settlers, orthodox Jews who are living on confiscated Palestinian land, and the Israeli military. The major objective of this alliance, which is supported by the Israeli government, is to expand the settlement's territory while making its vicinity "Palestinian free." The desire to annex the region to Israel proper accounts for the military's attempt to transfer the Al-Nuajahs from the area; demolishing their property, or, more precisely, their infrastructure of existence, is merely a ruthless ploy to ensure that they won't return.
Without recognizing the significance of these territorial conflicts, one cannot understand the irruption of the second Palestinian intifada (popular uprising) in September 2000; indeed, one cannot understand the ongoing cycle of violence that has plagued the Middle East.
Susya, built on Palestinian land that had been occupied by Jordan, was captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. Following the war, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 242, which stated that a just and lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors should include two principles: 1) "withdrawal of Israel's armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict" and 2) respect for the right of every state in the area "to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of war." Many years later these principles became the framework for the peace agreements between Israel and its two neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, as well as the framework for the Oslo Accords that were signed by Israel's former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993.
Considering that the basis of the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is land for peace, one would have expected Israel to stop building houses and settling Jews in the occupied territories -- territories that were to become, according to the agreement, the nascent Palestinian state. Within this context, the ongoing efforts to expand Susya's territory are, in fact, antithetical to peace.
The crucial point, though, is that Susya is in no way exceptional. Israel has built more than 20,000 house units in the occupied territories since Rabin signed the Oslo Accords, not counting the construction of new Jewish neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem. The Jewish population living in the territories has increased from about 110,000 in 1993 to close to 200,000 in 2000. These settlers now control about 42 percent of the land.
These numbers plainly indicate that while Israel is employing the rhetoric of peace, it is doing everything in its power to create an irreversible situation on the ground, settling thousands of Jews on expropriated Palestinian land. When the Chinese employed this practice in Tibet, the administration in D.C. condemned it; but Israel's expansionist policy barely warrants a murmur of protest. It certainly has not endangered the nearly $3 billion in foreign aid that Israel receives each year from the United States.
While part of this money has been used to build Jewish settlements, another portion has been spent on miles and miles of "Palestinian-free" bypass roads that connect the settlements to Israel proper. These roads have a sinister political purpose.
Imagine that along route I-90 connecting South Bend to Chicago is a road so narrow that its width is not enough to accommodate two cars, even though cars are moving in both directions. Imagine also that the last time this road was paved was 20 years ago, and that it is full of potholes. Now picture yourself driving your car to work at about 30 mph on this narrow road while cars are passing on the newly constructed highway at 65 mph. The only reason you can't drive on the highway is because you're a Palestinian and not a Jew. In South Africa it was called apartheid; in Israel it's called security.
The Israeli government says it constructs these roads to protect the settlers but fails to mention that the Jew-only roads encircle Palestinian villages and towns, thus severing Palestinian communities from one another. The ability of bypass roads to create small island-like enclaves demonstrates how roads too can be employed as a mechanism of control.
Regardless of which road I am driving on, I am always amazed by the extent to which the Palestinian landscape is characterized by grinding poverty. In the territories, no more than two miles from my Jerusalem apartment, which I rent for $600 a month, are thousands of Palestinians living on $2 a day per household, that is, two adults and four children. A recent Israeli military report suggests that more than 60 percent of the population actually live on less.
The intense sense of despair is now ubiquitous in the territories. I first felt it when I took part in another Ta'ayush activity: a food convoy to the northern part of the West Bank. About 70 cars and two trucks loaded with such basic foods as oil, flour, sugar and canned goods made their way to the Palestinian village Burkin. The access roads to the village were blocked by dirt mounds in order to prevent the population from exiting. After digging through the mounds with hoes -- the military decided not to stop us -- the cars managed to pass but the trucks couldn't make it through. Using human chains, we transferred about 20 tons of food from the trucks, over the mounds, and onto old tractors belonging to the Burkin residents.
After we had finished loading the tractors, we drove two miles from the blockade to the village school, where we planned to unload the food. I took a local resident with me in the car, but since it was packed with pea and bean cans he could squeeze only into the back seat. Although he looked as if he were in his mid-60s, I soon learned that he was actually only 45 and had eight children. I asked him what he did for a living, and he told me that he used to work for a carpenter inside Israel. Since the military siege began he had been unemployed; he had been out of work for nine months.
"From what do you live?" I asked.
He was silent for a moment. I looked in the car mirror and could see his blue eyes shying away from my glance. "People leave money outside the door," he said, then added, "at night."
This is the backdrop of the current intifada, which has resulted in horrific violence. Israel has, in the past year, bombed Nablus with American-made Apache helicopters and Gaza with F-16 fighter jets, dropping one-ton bombs on buildings in the center of the city. Tank and infantry units have entered such cities as Bethlehem and Jenin, and Israeli death squads operate regularly in the Palestinian territories of Tulkarm, Hebron and Ramallah. Hundreds have died -- including many children -- and thousands more have been injured. Simultaneously, Palestinians have sent suicide bombers to city centers inside Israel and have been shooting soldiers and citizens both inside and outside the occupied territories. They too have killed scores of innocent men, women and children and injured hundreds of others.
This conflict, we need to remember, is about real grievances. It is not, as the American media often portray it, a clash of civilizations, whereby Israel as the representative of the West is challenged by an inferior but highly dangerous Islamic civilization. Even a prominent columnist like George Will has succumbed to this demagoguery, writing for the Washington Post that "this is not a dispute between Israelis and Palestinians about land, it is a clash of civilization and it is not solvable by splitting differences." The notion of a clash of civilizations is actually employed as a concealing mechanism. In our case, it is meant to hide the oppression and subjugation of the Palestinian people.
But the clash-of-civilizations discourse is also a thinly veiled racist attempt to create an "us" versus "them" mentality. The best way to counter this mentality and to expose the fallacy of the "clash of civilizations" is through dialogue. This is also one of the objectives of Ta'ayush. Dialogue, though, is not always easy.
I clearly remember the meeting, which we convened in order to discuss the possibility of organizing a food convoy to the cave-dwellers who had just been evicted from their land. About 30 people had attended it, and everything seemed to be going well. We were already deliberating which date would be most suitable to transfer the supplies when Muhammad, Widad's cousin, interrupted. He said that he, as the representative of the families, did not want our food.
Most of us did not know Muhammad at the time and were taken aback, but he stood firm, insisting that he would not accept our help. I asked him why.
"We will survive without your food," he said. "More important for us is that you go back to Israel and educate people there about the brutality of the occupation, about the injustices committed against the Palestinian people. If you have come here to help us," he continued, "then please go home. But, if you have come because your liberation is tied with ours, then and only then can we work together."
There was a moment of silence in the room. One could hear a car passing outside the window. Muhammad's powerful words were reverberating in my mind, and I at least felt that he was echoing the message of the prophets who once wandered through the desert that he calls home. He was asking us to take responsibility, which is, in a sense, the true meaning of Ta'ayush.
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Neve Gordon is a contributor to The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent (New Press 2002). He currently teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University in Israel and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.