May 18, 2013
Chris Hedges, whose column is published Mondays on Truthdig, spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The...
Israel’s Barrier to Peace
She was eight months pregnant when Abed was arrested for the 13th time. He was sent to Ofra prison. The prisoners live 20 to a tent in the desert. They sleep on wooden pallets. The tents are sweltering in the summer and cold in the winter.
“Abed sleeps under 10 blankets in the winter,” she said. “There is no heat.”
There is an open sewer nearby and swarms of mosquitoes. He is being held on secret evidence, which means he has not been told the charges against him. Abed has never been sentenced. His six-month military detention order had been extended for another six months in June. It too was done in secret. It can be renewed indefinitely. Amnesty International has adopted him as a prisoner of conscience.
His health is precarious. When he was 16 he was arrested for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. He was tied to a chair in contorted positions. His back and stomach were under tremendous pressure. He was in great pain. His head was covered with a bag soaked in urine. Allegra has sued the army for the torture he underwent in 1996. He was also tortured on three other occasions while in detention.
“They have told him he will be released if [we] drop the lawsuit,” she says. “He will not.”
She gave birth to their first child, Quds, the Arabic name for Jerusalem, this spring. Abed has never seen his son. When Allegra asked for the address of the prison to mail her husband pictures of their child she was told there was no address.
“My husband has been banned from Jerusalem for 20 years, so we brought Jerusalem to us,” she says.
She is an Israeli citizen, but because her husband is Palestinian, because of his ethnicity, he is refused citizenship. She was born in Long Island. He was born here. This is how it works in Israel. Israel is a democracy only for Jews. If she had married a Jew he would have a passport and citizenship.
“What democratic state builds its laws based on a person’s ethnicity?” she asks. “The goal of the South African apartheid regime was to separate whites and blacks to preserve white privilege. How is this different from what is being done to the Palestinians?”
“Who is really being shut out by this wall?” she adds. “Who is being shut in? Israel will be a closed society when the wall is finished. It will even further shun reality.”
Her son wakes up and begins to cry. She gets up and walks to his room. She comes back with the infant in her arms. She begins to breast-feed him.
As she coos over her son she lets me read a notebook smuggled out of the prison. It has drawings by one of the prisoners for her child Quds with stories by her husband. On the cover of the ruled school notebook are the words “Quds Smart Notebook.”
In one picture a small boy is feeding a bird.
“This is Quds’ bird,” it says. “Quds feeds the bird. The bird loves Quds. The birds are playing in Quds’ beautiful garden. They know Quds. They love him very much.”
She slips her wedding ring off her finger so I can read the inscription on the band inside. It has two letter A’s with a heart between them. The word “forever” is etched into the band. She cradles the child in her arms and whispers words of comfort to him.
She looks up, weary and sad.
“In Israel, I’m considered radical because I advocate equal rights for all persons residing between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea,” she says.
It does not matter where I turn. I see the noose tightening. There is no escape. The barrier is closing in from every side, grinding and crushing everything in its path. I begin to feel the claustrophobia, the sense of inevitable doom, the awful fatalness of it all.
Palestinians cling to what they have like shipwrecked sailors clinging to the hull of a sinking boat. There is a mass migration. They are being forced from their homes. Some have moved into their fields. They have set up squalid little encampments in vegetable patches. It is their last stand.
I walk over the heavy earth on the Israeli side of the fence from the village of Jayyous. The village has some 2,200 acres, along with six wells and pumping stations. The fence has separated the farmers in the village from 73% of its irrigated farmland. About 300 families are losing their only source of income.
My feet are covered with dirt. I see across the fields the sparks shooting up from numerous campfires. I hear voices, the idle chatter of children, women and men.
Suffian Youssef, 30, stands beside an old blue truck. His two brothers, his mother and his father are with him. It is nearly dark. They have set up a small tarp and a crude shack. It is where they sleep. There is a brass coffee pot on the brazier over the fire. I smell wood smoke.
“We began to sleep in our fields a month ago,” he said. “We fear that if they close the gate we will not be able to get to our crop. We are having trouble getting our crop to market. We took the crates of potatoes up to the gate in the truck a few days ago. The Border Police told us to take the crates off the truck and load them back on the truck four times. When we took them off for the fourth time they dumped the potatoes on the ground and crushed them with their boots. They beat us with their rifle butts.”
Crickets chirp softly. I see a half moon poking through the haze in the sky.
The roadblocks and checkpoints mean that farmers cannot get their produce to urban areas in the West Bank. There are now Israeli suppliers, who can use the settler roads, who have taken over these markets. Prices, because vegetables are bottled up in agricultural areas, have plummeted.
“We may not have enough money next year to plant a crop,” Youssef says.
When I leave it is night. I stumble out of the fields. I know they will not be here next year.
It is late afternoon at Gate Number 542 in the farming village of Zita, north of Tulkarm. A sign on the electric fence that runs along the dirt track for as far as the eye can see reads: “Danger. Military Area. Anyone crossing or touching the fence does so at his own risk.” It is in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
The iron gates are painted yellow. There are motion sensors and television cameras mounted along the fence. There is a smooth strip of sand to detect unauthorized footprints. There is a dirt service road. There is a trench about seven feet deep to stop vehicles from crashing through the barrier. There is a paved road for the army jeeps. There are coils of razor wire. The land on either side of the barrier, about 100 feet wide, is desolate. Blackened stumps from uprooted olive trees poke up from the dirt. All living things on or near the barrier have been killed. It tastes of death. This is what the barrier will look like in most places on the West Bank.
There are poles mounted with powerful floodlights along the barrier to turn night into day. The farmers who live on the edge of the wasteland, often once their farmland, cannot sleep because of the glare of the lights.
A dozen poor farmers and shepherds are clustered on the other side of the barrier. They have grazed their flocks or tended their plants on their land, land Israel has swallowed up. They have been there for an hour. The gate is supposed to be opened at 6 p.m. On some nights the border police come early. Other nights they come late. There are times they do not come at all. When they do not come the farmers and shepherds sleep on the ground near the gate until morning.
Jamal Hassouna, 43, a farmer, is standing with me. We are standing on land that once belonged to him but was taken without compensation to build the barrier.
“If anyone touches the fence, even a child, they are not allowed to pass,” he says. “Every soldier is a little Ariel Sharon.”
Two green armored jeeps from the border police roar down the asphalt strip enclosed by the two electric fences. They halt and five policemen climb out. They hold their M-16 assault rifles at an angle. They are wearing helmets. One soldier, watched by two others, goes to open the padlock on the gate on the other side. He swings the gate open and the motley crowd walks out into the empty space, across the tarred road and the dirt road to the yellow gate on my side. They show the police their special permits before they are allowed through the yellow gate.
The police are silent. Jamal says it is because I am present. On many nights, he says, farmers are insulted, cursed, made to lift their shirts or humiliated by being told they have to crawl through the gates. Wives and children no longer cross to spare themselves the harassment. There are many farmers who, although they are never told why, are no longer allowed to pass. Their fields are dying.
I walk to tomato fields covered by gauzy brown netting. Iyad Abu Hamdi, 27, is seated alone on the lip of a small drainage ditch next to the field of tomatoes. His land is on the other side of the barrier.
He was tending his crop of peppers a few days ago when a patrol of the border police arrived at his field. The two policemen began to make lewd remarks to his wife, who was working with him. They ordered her to make them coffee. She obeyed. They ordered her sister to bring them water. She refused. They threw their thermos at his brother and told him to fill it with water. He also refused.
“They began to beat my brother,” Hamdi says. “They tossed the coffee in our faces. They cursed us. They shouted at us. They confiscated our identification cards. The soldiers told my wife to accept their advances or they would ruin her reputation.”
When he says “accept their advances” his voice quivers with emotion and he turns his head away to avoid my eyes.
The sun is dipping below the earth. There is a dim yellow glow across the fields. His voice is shaking. He bows his head between his knees and looks at the ground.
“This happened on Aug. 3,” he begins again. “I have not been allowed to cross since. They slam the gate shut in my face. My crop is dying.”
The tears roll down his cheeks. They too are serpent’s teeth.
Dig last updated on Jul. 25, 2006