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Chris Hedges, whose column is published weekly on Truthdig, has written 11 books, including the New York Times best seller “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” (2012), which he co-authored with the cartoonist Joe Sacco. Some of his other books include “Death of the Liberal Class” (2010),...
Israel’s Barrier to Peace
I often have to leave my car behind and walk to villages, villages that have not had access to roads for two or three years. Crude barriers of dirt, trenches or torn-up strips of asphalt make the roads impassible. Weeds grow up on either side of the roads. The crude barriers will be replaced soon by walls and fences and ditches and wire.
I am walking down an empty dirt road. It is covered with stones. I am walking to the farming hamlet of al-Nuaman. The farmers have been legally dispossessed, ethnic cleansing by administrative fiat. It was a specialty of the Bosnian Muslims, who did not want the ethnic Croats and Serbs to go back to their old apartments in Sarajevo. So they used the courts to strip them of their property.
There are tens of thousands of Palestinians whom Israeli courts have declared squatters in their own homes, homes they were born and raised in, homes which have been in the family for generations.
The cicadas sing out in a cacophonous chorus. The heat feels like the blast from a furnace. Olive groves, with rows of thick, gnarled trees, line the slope to the valley below me. The hilltops are rocky and gray. There are a few patches of light green.
The road to the hamlet was closed in 1995 by the Israelis. The bulldozers blocked it with dirt and scooped out a huge trench at the edge of the village, tossing the chunks of black asphalt to the side. The Israelis changed the name of the hamlet to Mazmouria, although no Israelis live here. I see the hamlet ahead of me. It is tiny, with 26 modest homes, all with flat roofs and stucco exteriors.
I walk down into the trench. Youssif Dara’wi, a large man with a heavy girth, is standing on the other side looking down at me. He helps me up. He is wearing sandals. He clutches a cellphone. There is a large ring of keys on a silver clasp fastened to his belt. I get into his car and we drive to his house. He has set out a dozen white plastic chairs under the one tree in his front yard. Older men, when they see us, come to introduce themselves and take a seat.
Youssif was born in the hamlet. As far as he can tell, his family has been here for 180 years, but probably longer. He owns about 100 acres of olive groves, making him one of the largest landowners here. The farmers in the village together have 1,000 acres. When they were occupied by Israeli troops in 1967 they were given Israeli identification cards. The cards said they were residents of the West Bank. They were incorporated into the Bethlehem municipality.
“It all began to change after the start of the first Palestinian uprising in 1987,” Youssif says.
Israeli officials forbade any new construction. When anyone tried to build a house or expand existing ones, Israeli bulldozers tore the structures down. After the Oslo peace agreement the pressure eased, only to come back in greater force with the latest uprising. The road was closed. The children in the village, who had gone to Jerusalem for their schooling, were barred from the city. The Israelis expanded the boundaries of the Jerusalem municipality. The farmers have become West Bank squatters illegally encamped inside Israel. It is a neat little legal trick.
Members of the community pooled their money to hire an Israeli lawyer. But cases, even when they get to the Supreme Court, even when they result in a decision in favor of the Palestinians, can be immediately overruled by the state on grounds of national security. National security, as in my own country, is the god that is destroying us all.
“I am not allowed to be here or to meet you according to Israeli law,” Youssif says. “I am not allowed to be on my own land.”
The water to the hamlet was cut three years ago. Water comes now from wells and water trucks.
He pulls out a topographical map. It is marked with colored zones and colored lines to indicate settlements, the barrier under construction around Jerusalem, the land that has been confiscated, the land that will be confiscated and the new demarcation lines for the hamlet. The blue line, he explains, is the new boundary for Jerusalem. The hamlet is within the boundary. The yellow line is the barrier, which when we look up we can see being built down the hill in front of a new hilltop settlement with several hundred concrete apartment blocks. He traces his thick finger around the roads, the settlements and the barrier to show how the hamlet will be encircled, how he and his neighbors will soon lose nearly all their land and live illegally in a ghetto with no running water. I have seen this now many times.
Most Palestinians carry maps. They keep them tucked into their shirt pockets and pull them out at the slightest provocation. They spread them on the ground and chart for you the course of their own demise. It happens so often it gets boring, but I always listen and nod and pretend the information is new. The ritual is repeated over and over and seems to be part of the struggle to cope with the scale and horror of what is happening.
A group of Israeli soldiers appeared in the hamlet four months ago. They said Israel was willing to compensate farmers whose homes had been built before 1992. They told the farmer to submit compensation forms. The army would determine the price to be paid. The other homes, they said, would be demolished. If any home was built after 1992 the family would receive nothing. None of the farmers filed for compensation.
Then the physical harassment began. Soldiers arrived early one morning in July and roused six farmers from their beds and drove them to a nearby military outpost. They were told they would be released when they signed papers saying they would not enter Israeli territory. The farmers signed the papers. They spent the rest of the night walking home.
“I signed,” Abid Ataya, 55, tells me as we sit in a half circle of chairs under a pine tree. “I didn’t realize that according to them I live in an Israeli area.”
Soldiers come frequently to demand other signatures. They were there the night before, their jeeps roaring into the hamlet at 2:30 a.m.. The soldiers handcuffed 20 farmers and took them to the military outpost. All refused to sign. In the morning, after squatting all night outside the compound, they were released.
“The soldiers laughed at us,” Mahmoud Ali Hussein, 43, says. “They told us when the wall was finished we would not be able to enter Israel or the West Bank. They told us we would have no land. They sent us home and told us to wait. They said our time is almost up.”
The farmers sit, bewildered, trying to comprehend it all, the ability to declare reality to be one way when it is another, the ability to swiftly and irrevocably destroy their life, the only life they have known. I say nothing, so we sit like this for a long time.
“Does a condemned prisoner sign an agreement authorizing his own execution?” asks Mahmoud suddenly.
A boy with a tray holding glasses of lukewarm soda moves between us handing out drinks. We sip the soda. The farmers light cigarettes. Ribbons of thin bluish smoke waft toward the pine branches over our heads. Again we are silent, thinking about it all.
“Too much pressure makes explosions,” my host says. “When you deny us education, medical care and work what do you think we will do? When you take our homes and our land from us, when we cannot feed our families, when you strip us of our dignity, how do you think we will behave? How can you ask us to be neighbors after this? What chance do you think there will be for peace?”
The men nod.
“We are going to change the name of our village,” he says. “We are going to call it Transfer 2004.”
No one laughs.
And what of the good Israelis? Where are they? What are they doing?
I found Allegra Pacheco mopping the floors of her small second-story apartment in Bethlehem. Her infant son is asleep. The furniture is upended in the corner of the living room. She is scrubbing away. The scent of ammonia from the tiled floor fills the room, even with the windows open.
“We will have to go outside,” she says.
We sit on her balcony. We look out over the cramped and squalid hovels of the Deheisha refugee camp. The camp cascades, one hovel nearly on top of the next, down a slope. The pope used the camp as a backdrop in 2000 when he visited. He was there long enough for the press to get images and cover his kind beneficence. The camp exploded into rioting five minutes after the pope departed. The local police station was badly vandalized. There was never a coherent explanation for the rioting, other than the obvious, the frustration and rage of a people used once again as a stage prop and then forgotten.
Allegra is a Jew. She grew up in Long Island, where she was a member of a “Zionist-oriented family.” She visited Israel as a teenager on one of the tours designed to get Americans to bond with the Jewish state. She went to Barnard and Columbia Law School. She began to ask questions, questions many around her refused to ask.
She read about the Middle East. The story of the Palestinians began to unsettle her. She began to see another side of Israel. She moved to Israel after a few years as a lawyer in New York. She studied for the Israeli bar. She looked to Lea Tsmel, the Israeli lawyer who has often defended Palestinians, as a mentor.
She opened a law office in Bethlehem. She was the only Israeli ever to open a law office in Palestinian territory. She handled cases involving house demolitions, land confiscations, torture and prisoners who had been incarcerated without ever being charged. She documented some torture practices, at first denied by Israel, and took the case to the Supreme Court. Most of the practices were outlawed.
The second Palestinian uprising began as she had taken a break and was writing a book as a Peace Fellow at Harvard University. She dropped the manuscript and came back. The restrictions, however, were so draconian she often could not get through the checkpoints to her office. It was hard to see clients or make court appearances. She took over the case of a Palestinian human rights activist, Abed al-Rahman al-Ahmar, being held without charge in administrative detention.
“I met my husband Abed in 1996, when he was under interrogation and being tortured,” she says. “He was then sent to two and a half years of administrative detention and I continued to represent him. When he was released, he helped me set up my law office and worked with me. That’s how we fell in love.”
They married. They spent their honeymoon trapped in their apartment under almost continuous curfew.
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