I'll just recount my three scariest moments in the Middle East. One was when I found myself
in an off-duty Palestinian ambulance during
a clash at a checkpoint, and we began taking in wounded, mostly 15-year-old boys but also
a woman who had stomach pains. I could hear gunshots outside, but I couldn't see outside. Israeli
soldiers have shot at Palestinian ambulances on several occasions, and I was terrified
of a shot being fired at us.
The second was at a Palestinian non-violent demonstration against the Wall in Bil'in, a village west
of Ramallah. The "Separation" Wall in this area is stealing
half of Bil'in's privately-owned agricultural land for the sake of illegal settlement expansion.
Israeli soldiers responded to the protest by beating
and arresting protestors, shooting rubber-coated steel bullets, and hurling projectiles at us.
A grenade hit me on the back of the leg as I ran -- I had no idea what kind of grenade it was at the time or what kind of danger I was in -- and bounced off and exploded behind me.
I was left partially deaf for several hours because of the blast.
After the fact I realized it had been a stun grenade (aka concussion or flashbang grenade).
This type of grenade
is not generally lethal, but if it had exploded on impact instead of bouncing off,
it would have burned me, possibly severely.
As it was I just had a deep bruise on my calf that made walking painful for weeks.
My worst experience was during a midnight arrest raid by Israeli soldiers in
Ramallah. On the way home from a night on the town with a German and a Canadian
friend, our cab unwittingly pulled up behind an armored Jeep in the dark, and an Israeli soldier
popped up out of the top and aimed a large-caliber gun at our windshield. He did not know there were foreigners
inside, and Israeli soldiers tend to have a low tolerance for risk to soldiers and a fairly high
tolerance for Palestinian collateral damage. A soldier next to the Jeep was aiming his gun wildly
in all directions, as if daring a Palestinian to peek out of an upper-story window in the building
next to the road.
We didn't dare open a door or window to speak or show him our American and European documents, as
he could have interpreted any movement as aggression.
We kept very
still and very silent and prayed that the soldier aiming the gun at us would not get spooked
by anything. After several minutes, they had apparently gotten what they came for and drove off.
Palestinian militants occasionally held armed rallies through Main Street,
but to my knowledge these never lead to anyone being killed or injured in the West Bank. I felt pretty comfortable attending the proceedings. Non-violent protests and rallies were much more common, but you wouldn't know that watching the mainstream news.
Militants occasionally shot up or ransacked restaurants or bars,
ostensibly to protest the upper crust's decadence, loose morals, and/or indifference to or lack of
support for militants and the unemployed, but mostly just as an empty show of frustration and power.
These never killed or injured anyone while
I was there. They were exceptionally rare, not directed at foreigners, and always soundly decried by the population at large.
were very occasionally kidnapped briefly by numbskull militants who had
no idea what they were doing.
No foreign kidnappees have been killed by Palestinians, although a few Israeli kidnappees have been.
The times when I felt scared in general was
when I was on a rooftop in range of Israeli snipers, especially in Gaza (which has been described
by Israeli soldiers as a
or sleeping in my apartment in Ramallah listening
to Israeli war planes fly over. Israeli planes bomb Palestinian civilian areas with relative
impunity, usually claiming to be aiming at a wanted man. Extrajudicial assassinations are illegal according to the Geneva Conventions, and Israel's assassinations often result in the deaths of innocent bystanders.
A friend of mine had her entire apartment block bulldozed as collective
punishment for a militant taking refuge in one of the apartments, which she had nothing to do with. The militant had already been captured and killed. In another incident, an Israeli pilot dropped a one-ton bomb on an apartment building in Gaza in AUgust 2002, to assassinate one militant. The bomb killed the man plus
14 innocents, half of them children. Assassinations in Gaza overall killed more bystanders than targets.
I sincerely hoped that no one in my flat had any questionable acquaintances.
Broad daylight Israeli raids were also terrifying. If they came in the middle of a workday,
shop owners and office workers would quickly shutter their shops and hide inside. Looking out of
a window was a good way to get shot. Sometimes a lone figure would dart out of a door and throw
a rock at the armored Jeeps or Hummers and then quickly run away again. This was another good
way to get shot.
The raids were extremely offensive and humiliating. You can imagine how
you would feel if armed foreign teenagers imposed terrible danger on you and the town and people
you loved completely at will. Some Palestinians got tired of cowering properly.
Settlers were also threatening and scary at times, and even less restrained than Israeli soldiers.
Once a settler who occupied the upper floors of the Hebron Old City poured slop water down on the
Palestinian area below, and it nearly hit me and a Jewish friend on the head. (Judging from the trash nestled in the chicken wire above our heads, the settlers made a habit of this.) Settlers have also
beaten several members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams and others who have tried to protect
Palestinian school children from settler violence. Several times settlers have shot and killed
Palestinians in cold blood.
While spending time in Israel, particularly in cafes and on buses, I couldn't help but look around
to see if I could spot anyone with a suspiciously bulky midsection. The prospect of someone
blowing himself up in the middle of a peaceful civilian scene was truly horrifying.
But to put it in
perspective, Israelis have a better chance of being killed in a car accident than in a Palestinian
attack, especially since Hamas has unilaterally held to a ceasefire since February 2005.
On the other hand, every single Palestinian is targeted by debilitating movement restrictions
(checkpoints, Walls, road blocks, etc.)
and land and water theft,
thousands are targeted by home demolitions and mass arrest raids,
and thousands have been killed and wounded in Israeli bombing
raids, shootings, and settler terrorist attacks.
In the suffering contest, Palestinians "win" by several orders of magnitude. The intense suffering and humiliation caused by the occupation are severely counter-productive to Israel's security.
But in general, 90% of the time I felt very safe.
As long as Israeli soldiers could see that I was not a Palestinian,
they had an excellent PR reason not to hurt me. Palestinians treated me as a welcomed guest in their country.
In Arab culture, guests are treated excellently. My parents and several Jewish, Israeli, and American
friends visited me in the West Bank and had a great time.
4. Is Palestine actually a country?
Palestine is a nation, but not yet a country. It is one of the unfortunate legacies of
European colonialism that many nations have been left over without a country of their own and
without the basic right of self-determination.
Historically, Palestine was a territory that encompassed
all of the area of modern Israel plus the West Bank and Gaza Strip. After WWII, this territory, which at the
time was a British colonial mandate, was turned over to the UN, which voted to partition the land
between Arabs and Jews, giving Jews 55% of the land despite the fact that they owned only 7% of it.
Arabs throughout the region rejected the partition, considering it a European colonial giveaway of historically
In the war that followed in 1948, most of the Arab armies
failed to live up to their anti-colonial rhetoric.
Iraqis, for example -- themselves having been under a British colonial mandate for decades
-- had outdated equipment and ineffectual leadership.
Some Iraqi soldiers were sent to war without shoes, much less weapons. The Arabs were humiliatingly
defeated, and 78%
of historic Palestine -- which is today known as Israel -- was conquered
decisively by the mostly European Jews.
In the process 700,000 Palestinians, mostly farmers and shopkeepers,
but also poets, artists, professionals, and
intellectuals, fled or were expelled.
To this day the vast majority have not been allowed to return home.
They and their descendents now number in the millions, and many
live in squalid refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan,
Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere, dreaming of the day when they can once again inhabit or at least
visit the homeland of their grandfathers, the cradle of their culture and identity.
Some of them still have the keys to the front doors they hastily
locked as they fled the violence, expecting to return home in a matter of weeks.
Israelis blocked their return by force of arms in
contravention of international law.
Nearly 60 years later, Palestinian refugees make up the oldest and largest
unresolved refugee population in modern history.
The West Bank was administered by Jordan and
the Gaza Strip by Egypt from 1948 until 1967,
when Israel conquered and occupied both territories.
Today, most Palestinians are struggling for a homeland on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the last 22%
of their historic homeland. Unfortunately, Israel has been building settlements and
transferring Israeli citizens to Palestinian territory for decades in contravention of the
Geneva Conventions, to which Israel is a signatory, in the hope of permanently annexing large
and vital areas of the West Bank. Illegal settlers in the West Bank now
number around 400,000, including those in Arab East Jerusalem.
Hopes for a peaceful
two-state solution hinge on a negotiated solution based on international law. UN Resolution 242
is the legal framework for a solution to the conflict, recognizing Israel within secure borders
on 78% of historic Palestine and Palestine within secure borders on the remainder: the West Bank
and Gaza Strip. The Arab League has in principle accepted these conditions, and in 2002 proposed the Saudi Initiative, which agrees to recognize Israel within secure borders in exchange for a negotiated Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights, and a fair and agreed-upon solution to the 1948 refugee problem.
Israel has refused even to consider the generous offer, claiming that a withdrawal from the West Bank would be detrimental to Israeli security. In reality, nothing would be better for Israeli security, and the only people who would be hurt by the move would be the ideological settlers and Israeli politicians who would be forced to abandon 60 years of mendacious rhetoric. It is the only reasonable way for Israel to integrate sustainably into the region. And without regional integration, and with Europe increasingly frustrated by Israel's violent intransigence, and with America on the fringes of the beginning of a debate about whether Israel is a strategic asset after all, Israel's future prospects look dim and dangerous.
Innocent civilians on both sides continue
to suffer horribly. In the Palestinian territories, crippling movement restrictions,
land theft for and by illegal settlements and Israeli army bases, discriminatory laws,
and frequent Israeli raids, home demolitions, broad-daylight assassinations in busy civilian
areas, and bombing campaigns against civilian areas and infrastructure make life extremely difficult
and often dangerous. In addition, the Israeli army operates under a culture of impunity that rarely punishes soldiers who kill Palestinians in questionable circumstances (including a captain who was cleared of all charges after he deliberately pumped 20 bullets into a ten-year-old school girl). Additionally, under Israeli law, Palestinians are not allowed to sue the Israeli government for wrongful death or damage inflicted by Israeli soldiers and police.
In Israel, horrific suicide bombing attacks by Palestinian militants have become very rare since Hamas unilaterally ceased its attacks two years ago in 2004. A rogue faction called Islamic Jihad has struck about six times in the past two years, killing about 40 innocent Israelis.
In the past six years, about 3,700 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis have been killed. About 70% of
each were civilians, including 720 Palestinian children and 100 Israeli children. Many thousands
more have been injured and left disfigured or disabled. Thousands of Palestinians are living
in deplorable conditions in Israeli jails, hundreds of them, like the Guantanamo detainees,
without charge or trial, and hundreds of them women or children.
For a counterpoint, a brief overview of the conflicts that is only slightly biased toward the Israeli perspective (IMHO), see this narrative
from Mid East Web, an Israeli site with several Arab contributors.
It is occasionally incorrect on its figures, including leaving out the 200,000 East Jerusalem settlers
from its settler count and implying that Israel offered Palestinians 97% of the West
Bank at Camp David and Taba, a figure I and Tanya Reinhart of Tel Aviv University
do not believe
5. What do you think about Israel's Wall?
I, along with the
Court of Justice and the
High Court, consider it
a land grab, a device used to entrench illegal annexation of Palestinian land. The way it follows
the contours of planned settlement expansion leaves little doubt. The Wall was originally
claimed by Israel to be built as a "temporary security measure with no political significance."
Yet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made it clear in the past few months that he wishes to retain the
Palestinian land sliced away by the Wall inside the future borders of the state of Israel.
The Wall is also a hideous post-modern nightmare of a scar on an ancient and beautiful landscape that truly has to be seen to be believed. The way it severs Bethlehem from Jerusalem severely infringes on the rights of Palestinian Christians and Muslims to worship and travel freely. It indiscriminately separates Palestinians from their lands, schools, hospitals, and families.
Over 700 km long, the massive, expensive structure
dwarfs the Berlin Wall. It steals 10% of the West Bank's land, its most important
water resources, its capital East Jerusalem, the farmland and livelihood of dozens of
towns and villages,
and the West Bank's border with Jordan. (See the maps to the left.) It also divides
the West Bank into three cantons or "Bantustans" that cannot be traveled between without Israeli
permission and only with great difficulty. Under Olmert's "unilateral convergence" plan,
Israel will permanently annex the lands stolen by the Wall, and Palestinians will be left caged inside with no control over airspace, water, borders, imports, exports, water,
The Wall's path renders any possible Palestinian state
non-viable and non-sovereign.
Sometimes the Wall is a concrete structure 30 feet high, particularly in urban areas.
Other times it is a chain-length
fence with electric sensors, a 100-meter security buffer around it, and an army access road
built on either side of it. Approaching the fence without authorization carries a serious
risk of summary execution. Farmers are supposed to be given ready access to their lands
that are isolated by the Wall, but this almost never happens. Even if farmers can get
permits from Israel to visit their own lands, their day-to-day access is entirely up
to the whims of the soldiers on duty. This creates intolerable working conditions
for Palestinian farmers.
bombings have decreased since Wall construction commenced, evidence indicates that this is not
primarily due to
the Wall. Hamas agreed to a ceasefire in February of 2005, and since then it has not attacked
Israeli soil, chosing instead to try to achieve legitimacy and accomplish goals through democratic
Illegal Palestinian workers easily slip through the Wall daily; suicide
bombers can do the same if they so choose. Additionally, the Wall cannot prevent Palestinian rocket attacks, home-made or otherwise, or tunnel digging, as the Gaza Strip has shown.
As long as there is no negotiated solution based on international law, Israelis and Palestinians will never know
peace and security. A Wall only makes this more difficult and does not solve any problems.
6. What do you think about Hamas's victory in the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections?
I'm working on a more comprehensive answer to this question, but for now I will just say that
the elections were far from a landslide. Hamas actually received 45% of the vote compared to Fatah's
41%, and secular and leftist parties secured the remaining 14%. The reason Hamas won so many more
seats than Fatah is because Fatah foolishly split the vote in many districts due to internal
Why did Hamas get even that many votes, given that most Palestinians are in favor of a negotiated
two-state solution? In my opinion, this is largely for three reasons:
Palestinians voted for Mahmoud Abbas for President in January 2005 primarily because Israel
indicated that he was the only guy they would talk to; the only hope for peaceful negotiations
leading to a fair final status solution. But the Israeli government
refused to talk to him, too,
calling him "no partner" and "irrelevant" almost immediately, ostensibly
because of his weakness -- yet this weakness had a lot to do with the fact
that Israel wouldn't talk to him. It was a bit of a catch-22.
If Israel didn't want to talk to Yasser Arafat, that
was one thing. But if they refused even to talk to non-violent vanilla Abbas, who had always
opposed violence and called for negotiations, who on earth would they talk to? Abbas's
major selling point was that Israel would talk to him. When Israel refused, Abbas was rendered
impotent to carry out what he had promised the Palestinian voters.
Fatah is spectacularly corrupt. Palestinians detest this corruption. They were willing
to give Fatah one more chance with Abbas. With Israel's help, Abbas blew it. Thousands
of Palestinians voted for Hamas as a protest vote to punish Fatah,
not realizing that Hamas would actually win.
- Israeli violence and settlement expansion seem to continue no matter what Palestinians do.
Fatah hasn't been able to gain any ground at all. Why not try out Hamas? At least they aren't
corrupt. It is widely known that when they get monetary donations earmarked for community
works and public service, it gets where it needs to go. Hamas's public services among Palestine's poorest has won them many supporters.
Of course, Palestinians didn't count on America leading the way in sanctioning and punishing
Palestinians for their democratic choice. America and Israel imposed a hideous and ongoing collective punishment of comprehensive sanctions that is making life hell for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians by withholding international aid and Palestinian Authority tax revenues, which are needed to pay the salaries of civil servants, including teachers, nurses, and counselors. Middle-aged women are selling their bride's gold and wedding rings to buy bread, and the gold is running out.
This showed the Arab world exactly what America means
when it promotes democracy in the Middle East: Apparently, some democracy is compulsory, and
some democracy is forbidden.
Questions? Comments? Corrections?
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First letter: Welcome to the Holy Land