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Two Days In Palestine

Who was perpetrating 'terror' in the Occupied Territories twenty years ago -- when there was no PLO there, not to mention Hamas? An account of 'normal life' in Palestine in 1989.

Two Days In Palestine
| Photos by C.M. Naim
Two Days In Palestine
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

The following essay, Two Days in Palestine,’ was written in April 1989, soon after a brief trip to the occupied territories with some colleagues. It was published in two parts in the August 1989 (pp. 11–18) and September 1989 (pp. 21–27, 36) issues of The Message International (New York), the monthly magazine published by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA). The editors, in their wisdom, changed the title to In the Eye of the Intifada, A Muslim’s Journey to the Land of Oppression; they also added pictures and inserts of their own. Here is the original text, with some minor corrections, and some pictures that I took during the trip

The first Intifada began in December 1987 and is generally considered to have continued till the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993. During that time Israeli security forces killed 1070 Palestinians in the Occupied Territories (including East Jerusalem), including 237 minors; in addition 54 Palestinians, including 13 minors were killed by Israeli civilians. The Israeli casualties at the hands of the Palestinians during the same time were 47 civilians, including 3 minors, and 43 army personnel.  [Source: B'tSelem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, as viewed on 10 April 2009]

Introduction

There were six of us in the group: five academics from the University of Chicago and one lawyer. Five males and one female. One of us was a devout Catholic, three claimed Islam as their religion, while the remaining two identified with Judaism. Four of us were American by birth; of the others one had been an Indian and the other a Palestinian before settling in the United States. In these general terms we indeed formed a diverse group. What had brought us together was a common concern with the abuse of human rights in the Occupied Territories and the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people. We had come to the West Bank and Gaza -- some for the first time -- to discover for ourselves the faces, voices and landscape of the events we had been reading about for some time. Our week - long trip was sponsored by the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC) in Chicago.

As we went through the Immigration at the airport in Tel Aviv each of us was asked where he planned to stay. When the security discovered that the six Americans were all going to the same hotel in East Jerusalem, they became more curious about our intentions. We told them we were on a ‘fact-finding’ tour, sponsored by the PHRC. After a brief delay they waved us on, out into the cheerful light of late afternoon where we were met by Kathy, a volunteer with a Maronite Christian organization.

It was near dusk when we entered Jerusalem. Kathy drove us to the Mount of Olive to let us catch a glimpse of the great city in the final light of the sun, a breathtaking view. Closest to us was the Temple Mount or Haram Sharif, with the golden Dome of the Rock dominating the entire scene. Millennia of history lay all around us. A hawker approached us. "4O picture cards for one dollar." Who could refuse such a bargain! But at that be-witching hour when normally the panoramic spot should have been thronged with tourists and pilgrims -- we had arrived at the start of the Easter Week -- there were just six of us, sadly outnumbered by the vendors. No wonder the man, after he had sold us the cards, let loose a string of curses: "God damn Reagan!" "God damn Israelis!

Our hotel in East Jerusalem also looked mostly empty and forlorn. Easter pilgrims had stayed away, frightened by all the news. The local Arabs suffered much loss in income but I didn't hear anyone—Christian or Muslim—complain. When I brought up the subject with the service in the hotel, they merely nodded and said, "Yes, it's sad," and let it go at that. That evening, some of us walked over to American Colony Hotel for a drink. The streets were dark, soulless, not at all what one expected on a nice cool night in a Middle Eastern city. Even the fancier hotel turned out to be unusually quiet. When we returned to the National Palace, we learned that there had been some terrible events in Gaza: five Palestinians had been killed in just two days.

Starting the next day we followed a busy schedule. After an early breakfast we'd get into a van or a large taxi and drive around with some guide from one of the human rights organizations. To different cities: Nablus, Baita, Qabatiya, Nazareth, Ramallah, Umm Fahm, Hebron, Gaza. To camps: Dheisha, Aida, and Jabaliya. To hospitals, homes of the "martyrs," sites of demolished homes, offices of lawyers, activists and politicians—Israeli and Arab, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. Most days, on our return in the evening, we would find a small group or two waiting for us: European volunteers, Israeli lawyers and peace activists, representatives of smaller Palestinian organizations, including women groups.

Some overall facts: Since the Intifada started in December 1987, close to five hundred Palestinians have been killed, a great many of them in their teens. For every person killed one must count at least ten persons wounded. The rubber bullets that one reads about are not made of rubber, they are heavy metal bullets with a thin rubber coating. The plastic bullets are sharply pointed. But the key fact, which one doesn't see mentioned, is that they are all fired from high velocity guns. The soldiers also use bullets, which shatter inside the body. We saw a number of young boys with horrible abdominal wounds. The high impact rubber bullets do not penetrate the body but they can shatter bones and also cause severe neurological damage. Plastic bullets can penetrate the body; we saw an x-ray photograph where a plastic bullet had lodged in the skull of the victim; in April 1989 one young boy died when a plastic bullet penetrated his heart.


A teenaged boy wounded by a 'rubber bullet' in Gaza.

At any given time there are thousands of Palestinians in jail, some duly tried and sentenced but a many more held in what is euphemistically called "administrative detention." In every Arab town we visited there were one or two prisons. The Israeli Army was present everywhere with soldiers posted on roofs at strategic points. Almost every one we talked to had had some experience of detention and/or torture, and everyone that we met had had some close relative in jail. We learned that anyone over the age of twelve was considered an 'adult,' and could be—in fact many were—sentenced to jail. When children under twelve are arrested their parents must bail them out by paying heavy fines, and if the parents can‘t pay the fine they are themselves arrested. We saw several demolished houses. The owners had not been tried or sentenced; just a suspicion against one among the many living in the house had been enough in each instance. When one house in a congested area is demolished several other houses also get damaged. Needless to say, no one receives any compensation.

One new thing we learned was that since January ‘89 the Israelis had imposed a kind of 'war tax' on all Palestinians. It is in the shape of an extra levy, sometimes with the tax for license plates, sometime with other taxes. And if anyone refuses to pay he cannot get even a birth certificate not to mention a work permit or a travel pass. Not only he, even his relatives are denied access to these civil rights.

Most Palestinian males work in Israel; they may not spend the night in Israel and must return home. They pay union dues and insurance fees equal to the Israeli workers but don't get equal benefits of health and job security. The hospitals in the occupied territories are in sad shapes; they however pay huge amounts to Israeli hospitals for all the cases they must refer to them. They can save much by investing those amounts in improvements but cannot do so without the permission of the Israeli authorities, which has always been refused.

All schools and universities in the Occupied Territories have now been closed for over one year. They were closed by the army. Every attempt to start local schools is punished. The few lower level schools still functioning—and only in Gaza, not in the West Bank—were run by the U.N. Consider this in the context of the fact that traditionally the Palestinians have been the most highly educated among the Arabs. Not only the private schools are raided but also any other project of a self-help kind. It is obvious that the Israeli army would like to create a generation of uneducated, dependent people, whom they could then manipulate and exploit. One hears these days of the Israelis seeking to talk with local leaders and not finding any; we met four Palestinian mayors (Muslims and Christians) who were legally elected in 1976 and then deposed by the Israelis in 1983 or earlier. We met Bassam Abu Shakar of Nablus who lost both his legs when a bomb exploded in his car soon after he was elected as mayor; the bomb was planted by Israeli extremists. He is still full of fire. On New Year’s Eve his house was again raided and he and his wife were threatened and abused by soldiers. He is a Muslim. In Ramallah when we arrived at the house of its deposed mayor, Mr. Rantisi, a Christian clergy, he immediately showed us the van of his nephew who had arrived minutes earlier. Its windshield had been shattered by a rubber bullet and there were marks of other bullets on the van. Apparently some soldier had fired at his van from a rooftop as he was coming to visit his cousin with his young son beside him.


The mayor of Nablus, Bassam Abu Shakar with the author from the left, two colleagues (Rashid Khalidi and Ralph Austen) and the mayor's wife.

Everywhere in the West Bank we saw new Jewish settlements. Even in the midst of the hellhole that is Gaza, the Israelis have set up three settlements, one of them a large, Club Med-type resort! Most settlements are built for purely strategic reasons, on high hilltops overlooking Arab towns, main roads and passes. There is a ring of such settlements around Jerusalem itself. Almost one-half of all land in the Occupied Territories is now under exclusive Israeli control under one guise or another: settlements, land attached to the settlements, army posts, security zones, prisons, detention camps, etc. The new settlements are not at all like the old kibbutz; they are only bedroon1communities or in a few cases high-tech groups. Sadly enough, they seem also to be favorites with American Jews.

For over one year now all stores in the Occupied Territories (including East Jerusalem) remain open only for three hours in the morning (9–l2); the only places exempted are factories and pharmacies. It was an eerie sight to see the closed shops, the deserted streets, day after day. There may perhaps be some coercion, but there is no doubt that it also has much popular support. It no doubt causes a great deal of economic hardship, but the money sent in by the 3.5 million Palestinians in the diaspora helps the local people carry the burden. Another, more significant, development is the emergence of all kind of self-help groups, consumer co-ops, women's craft-centers, etc. Some of these are frowned upon by the military authorities. The Intifada has also brought about tremendous tensions within the family, not only of the generational kind, but also between the sexes. The patriarchy begins to loose its grip when women and children fight side by side with the men; in fact the women seemed to be doing a great deal more to hold the families together. In any case, Palestinian women have always been more educated and active compared with the rest of the Arab world.

The Intifada has also set up a challenge for the PLO and the diaspora. It has a life of its own now and there is no way that someone from outside can stop it. It will stop only when some definite concessions are made by the Israeli government and when concrete plans are put into place towards the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the territories. What was inspiring to see in this regard was the cooperation between any number of Israelis and Palestinians towards a negotiated peace. Unfortunately, not much of it gets reported in the American press.

Lastly, mention must be made of the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism in Palestine as well as in Israel. At least on the surface these are two separate movements. In the recent local government elections in Israel, the Arab town of Umm Fahm elected a fundamentalist mayor. We met him as he sat in his tiny office, under the picture of the President of Israel. They are opening mosques, starting religious schools, making women wear 'modest' clothes and doing a great deal of community work. Previously the town had elected Communists. The mayor had studied the writings of Maulana Maududi and Maulana Abul Hasan Ali Nadvi. When he learned that I was from India he asked me to convey his greetings to Maulana Nadvi. I couldn't tell him that the last thing I did on my most recent trip to India was to write a rejoinder to one of the Maulana’s homilies to Indian Muslims.


A demolished house in Gaza. Demolished as collective punishment to the family of an accused Palestinian.

During that week we saw and heard much, some of it new, some already familiar. But the critical experience was to see all of it for ourselves, to behold specific names and faces with whom we palpably shared our humanity, to breathe the same air as they did, to see the same shadows and walk the same streets. Lifeless numbers became actual individuals; what was merely a name now became the dead son of a mother whose angry tears we saw and can recall; "a demolished house" became a pile of concrete and stones that we felt under our feet and whose earlier residents served us tea in the one room they were now living in thanks to the generosity of a neighbor. Things were shown to us but we also saw things on our own; people told us about their lives but also frankly answered our questions.

What follows then is a detailed account of just two days: our first day in the West Bank and our only day in the Gaza Strip. Obviously, these days were not typical or representative. The five days not described here also taught us a great deal. But my most urgent need is to share my experience with others now, and in a way that would bring them close to the actual words and sights. This is what I have sought here, and this is also what my limited time and talent allowed me to do. (The conversations are reconstructions based on extensive notes; they are not verbatim.)

A Day In The West Bank: 20 March 1989

Our guide and chauffeur for our first full day in Palestine was Kathy, who was waiting for us as we came out of the dining room of the hotel. She took us to the office of the Palestine Human Rights Information Campaign, where we were briefed by Jane Abu Shakra. PHRIC has a total of l5 fieldworkers who gather relevant information, but two of them were at the time in prison and one under "administrative detention." A few had been confined to Gaza and could not travel to Jerusalem, or anywhere else for that matter. Jane told us about the effectiveness of the continuing strike—the decision to open stores for only three hours in the morning. (Factories, bakeries and pharmacies are exempted.) According to Jane, the West Bank and Gaza now imported from Israel only one-third of what it used to before. This must be a rude blow to Israel‘s economy, since the Occupied Territories had been its chief market for two decades, in fact a customer with no choice. Also: 20% to 25% of the Palestinian labor force was staying away from their jobs in Israel. All this means a great deal of sacrifice and hardship on the part of ordinary people, and only shows how desperate their desire was to be rid of the occupation.

Jane also told us about the political scene in the Arab areas within the Green Line -- the post-'47 Israel. Apparently the Communists have lost their monopoly of Arab support; a Progressive Party is trying to replace it, but -- much more significantly -- a new Islamic Movement has suddenly gained major prominence. There is an Islamic Movement (HAMAS) within the Occupied Territories, but the Islamic Movement in Israel itself acknowledges no ties to it; their goal seems to be a kind of autonomy for the Muslim Arab population within the state of Israel. Its supporters have not taken any public position in re the Intifada, but they have sometimes provided relief supplies and such, choosing to work with local leaders. Jane told us about the Arab town of Umm Fahm where the Islamic Movement gained a majority in local elections and now runs the municipal administration. She praised their efforts to deal with civic causes, their moral message, and their slogans of self-respect and self-sufficiency. I wondered about the attitude of the Israeli government. Will they outlaw this new radical phenomenon? Or will it be patronized and then used to create dissension between Christian and Muslim Palestinians?

Our next stop was the Maqassed Hospital, the largest health facility for the Arab population of Jerusalem. That's where all the dying and the wounded of the demonstrations in Jerusalem and the nearby camps are brought. We got a quick tour of some of the wards and talked with a few of the wounded.

Amar Abd-al-Latif Shakra was a shopkeeper in Nablus. One day he noticed some trouble brewing on his street. Before he could close his shop he was attacked by five soldiers. They knocked him down and beat him; since then he has been paralyzed from the chest down. He had been in the hospital for more than four months. Above his bed was a small poster showing the map of Palestine and a PLO flag. Amar talked with great passion about how God created all men equal and quoted from the Qur'an. "We want justice. We want only l/l000th of what has been given to Israel." In Nablus he had been the sole provider for his six children, his wife, and his old mother.

Salah Jabar had lived in Al-'Aroof camp all 20 years of his life. He was one of eight brothers in his family, two of them in jail for "security offences." He was returning to the camp after visiting a friend at the Maqassed Hospital when the Border Police stopped him at the checkpoint.

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