Pamela Olson
20 April 2005

So, politically things have been taking some weird turns, and I feel kind of off balance. I waver between giddy hope and resigned cynicism. A checkpoint is eased here, a heart patient's son is beaten there. Some new jobs are created here, three Rafah teenagers are shot and killed there. Bush says no more settlements here, Sharon builds more settlements there. Some Palestinian friends relax and start visiting Israel here, some Apartheid Wall security guards shoot four unarmed farmers there.

The Wall keeps spreading like a virulent cancer, and if East Jerusalemites are going to have to get permits to enter the West Bank once it's finished, hundreds of thousands of lives will be ruined.

I have no idea what Sharon is thinking. Maybe he is bluffing about his hard stances to placate his right wing foes, and after the disengagement happens, the dam will be broken and the two-state solution will be right around the corner. It's either that, the one-state solution (i.e. no more Jewish state), or apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and endless conflict.

So it's gotta be the two-state solution, right? And not the fake ghetto/apartheid/Bantustan two-"state" solution, which will mean endless conflict. Geneva at the very least. For Israel's sake if nothing else. Am I missing something? Does Sharon have something else in mind? Or is he really just absolutely out of his tree?

A few things are clear, though (quoted from Haaretz):

"The settlements put up in the heart of [the West Bank] were scattered throughout the heart of the Palestinian area to prevent any political agreement. Building a security fence around those settlements [like Ariel and Qedumim, which are deep inside the West Bank], whose political fate is sealed [they would destroy the possibility of a Palestinian state, and so must be dismantled], broadening their jurisdictions without consideration while chopping down olive groves and stealing private [Palestinian] property shows that the need to be generous in withdrawal and the future settlement to enable the Palestinians to live honorably on their land has not been fully grasped yet on Israel's side.

"The [Wall contruction] plan is meant to delay as much as possible any future discussion of the settlements in the Ariel bloc. All the harassment of the Palestinians in this interim period, harming their source of livelihood, their lands, homes and freedom of movement, will only sow more hatred. Ultimately, no separation fence route will be able to defend Israel from that hatred."

Palestinians don't want to hate. But Israel is making brotherly love pretty hard.

* * *

A few weeks ago I went to Tel Aviv to watch the Israel/Ireland soccer match. It was the highest-level game I’ve ever seen, and for me it was thrilling.

But it wasn’t the best game of soccer ever. Ireland scored in the first 3 minutes, and then just sat on it for the next 87. Israel could barely get a shot off most of the game, but finally an “Arab Israeli” (the Israeli euphemism for Palestinians who were left over inside Israel proper after the ethnic cleansing of 1948) named Abbas Suan equalized in the 90th minute.

I had mixed feelings. Mostly I was just disappointed because the party mood of the Irish I was hanging out with was hopelessly dashed by the embarrassing tie with Israel. Also, Ireland had the ball about 60% of the time, and I felt like they deserved a win.

Then again, it was pretty pansy-ass to sit on a 1-0 lead for 87 minutes. But in any case it was nice to see a crowd full of blue and white cheering on a Palestinian hero.

In Israel’s next match against France, another Palestinian Israeli, Walid Badir, scored the equalizer. Strike one for Israeli/Palestinian relations, right?

Well... Suan, the captain of the Israeli Arab team Bnei Sakhnin, hero of the Ireland game, was put firmly in his place the next time his local team played Betar Jerusalem. Before the game, the Betar management presented Suan with a bouquet of flowers to congratulate him for his national score.

But the gesture was greeted with hissing and booing from Betar’s fans. They unfurled a banner that said, “You don’t represent us, Abbas Suan.” And during the game, they chanted “No Arabs, no terrorism” every time he touched the ball.

Israel’s mainstream leftist newspaper Haaretz ran an editorial beseeching the Israeli government to crack down on these embarrassing racist thugs, which I found highly amusing. Imagine if the current Israeli government did come out chastising the anti-Arab racists in Israel. It would be like FDR asking Americans to please not be racist against the Japanese who were being interned on the West Coast, or Andrew Jackson asking us not to be racist against Native Americans.

Anyway, after the Ireland game, we gathered in a “Traditional Irish Pub” in Tel Aviv with the rest of the fans and mingled over Shepherd’s pies and Guinnesses. I was six hours late to work the next morning.

It also happened to be the Jewish holiday of Purim, complete with costumes, parties, good humor, a comprehensive West Bank closure, and costumed drunken armed settlers rampaging through Palestinian towns on what Israeli papers described as “pogroms.” Just another weekend in Israel/Palestine.

* * *

The next weekend there was some armed rampaging going on in Ramallah as well, but this time it was Palestinian rather than Israeli thugs. Some Palestinian militants who had been seeking refuge in the Muqata’a for several years refused to join the Palestinian security forces or hand over their weapons, as Israel had demanded that Abu Mazen demand of wanted men.

But instead of being confronted and arrested as they should have been, the militants were kicked out of the government compound and onto the streets on Thursday, March 31.

Brilliant plan. Set a bunch of wanted, angry, armed thugs with four years worth of cabin fever loose on a civilian town on a Thursday night with nowhere to go. Not entirely unpredictably, they set off on a rampage, targeting at the ruling elite who had failed them and whatever else happened to be in their path. They shot at Abu Mazen’s office and then shot up a couple of nice restaurants in town where people were having dinner. No one was hurt, thank God, but it was awful.

A friend and I toured the worst-hit restaurant, Darna, the next day. It was left open to the public so people could come in and see for themselves what the scumbags had done. A Palestinian guy showed us around, still in a state of semi-shock. He said, “It’s unbelievable. Like something out of a Wild West movie. No one can believe it happened here.”

Darna is the most chi chi restaurant in town, beautifully decorated with fountains and friezes and paintings and greenery, silk tablecloths and expensive wines and Lebanese and Arabic food. It’s where the crème de la crème hang out, Palestinian Authority bigwigs, foreign journalists, UN workers, Foreign Ministers, heads of state, Kofi Annan, etc.

The first time I saw it, when I was used to the hardships of Palestinian life elsewhere, it seemed a bit obscene to me. But as I’ve settled in to the easy life of Ramallah’s upper crust, it just seemed like a restaurant. I’ve only been there once, on a company dinner, and in general I can’t afford it and it’s not my scene. It’s the kind of place I might have taken a visiting friend from out of town.

It looked like a war zone. Two hundred guests had been dining there when a dozen or so gunmen burst in. I can’t imagine the chaos and terror of that scene. The large panes of glass between the foyer and the main dining hall had been shattered by rifle butts. There were bullet holes in the ceiling. A wine rack had been overturned along with half the tables. Broken glass was everywhere.

As sickening as all this was, the kitchen was worse. There were bullet holes in the tiles along the shelves at waist height. For some reason, the thought of the cooks being bullied and terrorized in this cramped space hit me harder than the chaos in the big posh dining room.

Two drink refrigerators in the kitchen, the kind with glass fronts that have Coke and Sprite and Fanta and mango juice lined up inside, were shot through at chest height with one bullet each. It would almost have been comical if it hadn’t been such a thuggishly juvenile, not to mention dangerous, act of wanton destruction. The bar upstairs was hit hard, too, with alcohol puddled around shattered bottles.

The restaurant owners had called the police of course, but the Palestinian police – young, ill-trained, and badly armed – had run in precisely the opposite direction. To add further insult to injury, the thugs had been given refuge by Arafat and were members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a military wing of Fatah, Abu Mazen’s own party.

Ramallah was in a state of collective outrage and shock for the thugs' inexcusable and senseless actions. In their defense, the thugs weakly claimed that they were protesting the decadence and lax morals of Ramallah, exemplified by the culture of drinking, which barely exists in more strongly Muslim communities like Nablus and Jenin.

But this was clearly bollocks and curried them no favor anywhere. A popular politician named Muhammad Muqbel said, “That’s just a false slogan to cover themselves. We’re in a democratic state; we're not in Iran. There is a church here and a mosque there and a bar here, and people can chose where to go.”

Rather, said Mr. Khlaef, the general manager of Darna, “This is... a challenge to Abu Mazen. Who’s going to run the show, him or the gunmen?”

Two days earlier, another wanted member of Al Aqsa died in a car accident. His friends fired their weapons into the air in mourning and then forced almost every shop in Ramallah to close down as a show of respect. An empty show, since it was forced. (And an annoying show, since I was hungry and nothing was open.)

Mr. Muqbel said, “I believe the Palestinian Authority has lost its legitimacy, because it has no authority on the ground when two armed guys can shut down the city.”

I don't know if I'd go quite that far, but it was a point well taken. The PA needs to get it's butt in gear, and it needs to do it now.

The Jerusalem Post reported that Mr. Abbas threatened to resign at a Fatah meeting in Gaza City over attempts by other officials, including Mr. Qurei, to block change, and talked of canceling a visit to Washington in April unless he had Fatah backing for administrative, financial, and security improvements. Let’s hope some of this bears fruit.

Anyway, not to restate the obvious, but how can anyone expect the PA to suddenly rule the streets when Israel has systematically destroyed their entire civil infrastructure, including police stations, training facilities, town halls, and prisons? Just recently in Hebron, Israeli soldiers detained and beat unarmed Palestinian traffic cops for no apparent reason.

Some liken Abbas’ position to someone being tied up with chains and thrown into a river, and then being asked why he’s having trouble swimming.

The chaos Israel has wrought with its invasions, killings, robberies, and destruction has predictably bred a culture of anarchy and thuggery along with the culture of resistance and solidarity.

The occupier has murdered children in their homes, bombed neighborhoods in the night, ritually humiliated every single Palestinian in the territories (and most of the internationals) countless times, beaten fathers and insulted mothers in front of their children, built Walls and checkpoints on the private property of helpless victims, raided homes and villages, demolished homes and businesses, destroyed the natural economy, and terrorized Palestinian families for decades.

Some of the men who manage to obtain weapons are freedom fighters acting within their rights under international law to defend themselves against illegal attacks by an illegal occupier and have the best interests of their nation at heart. Some are neighborhood defenders, Quixotically -- and legally -- standing up to a massive imperialist power against all odds.

Others are sexually frustrated undereducated unemployed geeks on a power trip who have nothing better to do and no other source of self-esteem, and who don’t mind terrorizing their neighbors when there’s nothing else around to terrorize. Most of them have grown up under the aegis of Palestine’s occupier, which has demonstrated to them over and over that force is the only language, the rule of law is optional at best, and human dignity is only reserved for certain people, not all. (The miracle is that most Palestinians have been able to look beyond this and maintain their humanity and respect for the rule of law.) It's a big problem for Abu Mazen to figure out how to deal with these guys.

Anyway, if nothing else, the rampage incident lit a fire under Abu Mazen, whose party Fatah will be in big trouble in the coming Palestinian Legislative Council elections if it’s still not providing adequate security. He has to find a way, even though his hands are tied. He’s trying to give the most notorious gunmen cushy government jobs in exchange for their weapons and loyalty, and their salaries can be paid for by the abundance of international aid coming in. It’s not perfect, but here’s hoping it works.

I don’t think anyone in the world envies the tasks ahead of Abu Mazen.

Of course, if Fatah doesn’t deliver, the only other political tickets available are Hamas and Dr. Barghouthi’s coalition. Which makes me extremely glad that Dr. Barghouthi’s coalition is there. It’s being marginalized by Fatah as much as possible (much like the Dems crucified Nader), but they’re plugging along, surfing on popular support for liberal democratic ideals, while Fatah surfs on institutionalized connections, international favor, wealth, and power, and Hamas surfs along on people’s disenchantment with the possibility of using the institutions of international law to achieve justice.

Simply put, support for Hamas is a measure of people’s lack of faith in the world, led by America, following its own laws and treaties and ideals. As long as America vetoes every UN resolution it doesn’t like regardless of its merit, Israel laughs in the face of the International Court of Justice, and Europe just stands by wringing its hands, people can hardly be blamed for wanting to take matters into their own hands, for dignity’s sake if nothing else. In the current world climate, international law is a tiger with no teeth, and no one has any reason to expect it to be implemented unless American happens to want it to.

All else being equal, I’m against violence, and I don’t think it even makes tactical sense in this case. Palestine has an obvious PR and justice advantage and an equally obvious military disadvantage.

But if Gandhi had been helicopter bombed by Britain along with a dozen of his friends and family members, I wonder what the Indians would have done.

Vietnam and Lebanon and Gaza and Iraq have demonstrated, at least to the eyes of oppressed people, that even large and arrogant powers eventually get tired of fighting and dying for causes they don’t really believe in and have little or no stake in. There’s only so long a government can hold its cracking illusions together, and it becomes more difficult when the people we are supposedly liberating, or at least holding under “enlightened occupation”, are constantly trying to kill us.

Following through with our own humanistic principles and getting out of Vietnam or Iraq (or Lebanon or Gaza in Israel's case) earlier would have prevented a lot of needless hardship and violence. History will likely show that the same is true of the West Bank.

There’s talk that once Gaza is ‘liberated’ this summer, if the disengagement happens and life in Gaza improves significantly, and if the international community does not put a halt to Israel’s practices of isolating and annexing East Jerusalem, ghettoizing the West Bank and stealing and destroying Palestinian land and property, checkpointing people’s lives and schedules and the economy to death, invading and terrorizing towns, expanding settlements toward major Palestinian population centers, and building the Apartheid Wall, the Palestinian people have no interest in standing around watching their nation turned into a latter-day Indian reservation.

So both sides are gearing up for more conflicts in the aftermath, which is sickeningly absurd considering that if Israel will just withdraw to approximately the Green Line, which it’s bound to be forced to do eventually anyway, the fighting will be over and Israel will have won 78% of historic Palestine outright. (All nations in the Arab League have agree to recognize Israel as a sovereign and secure nation state if it withdraws to the Green Line.)

They can either withdraw now, on the best possible terms, while Israel still has the upper hand and can appear to be generous, or wait until Qassam rockets start landing in West Jerusalem and Kfar Sava.

The West Bank is quite a bit bigger than Gaza, and they couldn’t stop weapons smuggling tunnels along the ten kilometer border between Gaza and Egypt, or people smuggling between Gaza and Israel. Who are they fooling to think they’ll be able to do it for the entire 700-odd kilometers of the Apartheid Wall? Who are they to think that dozens more of their soldiers (and civilians!) will be willing to die for the sake of the settlements?

With health care and education in crisis in Israel, who are they to think people will be willing to sacrifice their health and the health and future of their children for the sake of the settlements? Since when is quantity of territory so much more urgently important than security and quality of life?

Luckily, the vast majority of the people on both sides are civil and reasonably intelligent, and they believe firmly in democracy, law, and order. If the political situation ever settles down into something both sides can live with, I highly doubt these kinds of shenanigans, including state-sponsored theft and extra-state violence, will be tolerated for any length of time.

It’s the instability, the never knowing what’s coming next, that keeps everything chaotic and off-balance. How can anyone think about the long-term when everyone's business or property might be blown up or confiscated at any moment? When anyone's town might be invaded or besieged or ghettoized at any time? When anyone's movement might be blocked at any time? When the border might be here, or it might be twenty kilometers that way? When East Jerusalem might be wiped off the map as a major Arab city if drastic measures aren't taken?

Genuine negotiations about final status issues based on international law would clear that right up.

I think the average Israeli would welcome this as much as the average Palestinian. Then both sides can focus on making life livable instead of just possible.

* * *

Incidentally, the problem of lawlessness isn’t unique to Palestine at the moment. Israel is dealing with its own thugs and rebels, the radical settlers who are currently terrorizing innocent Palestinians in ways much more violent and deadly than anything these Palestinian thugs did to their own. They’ve been doing it for decades, and they’re rarely if ever punished for beating, stealing from, or even killing Palestinians.

But now it’s intensifying in a series of attempts to derail the Gaza ‘disengagement’ plan, a plan to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank. The pogroms tend to happen in the most remote and defenseless villages.

They’ve also been openly entertaining the use of tactics like violence, suicide, or blowing up Islamic sites to stir up conflict and try to derail the disengagement. Jerusalem was sent into a state of highest alert on April 10 when a group of Jewish extremists threatened to flood into the Noble Sanctuary (the area around the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, what Israel calls the Temple Mount) and cause trouble. There are also extremists who want to blow up the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock to make way for a Third Temple. This would have approximately the same effect as Muslim extremists blowing up St. Peter’s Basilica.

Jewish extremists are clashing with Israeli police and soldiers, blocking intersections, calling Israeli soldiers and police ‘Nazis’ while wearing orange bands on their arms, and have even threatened the life of Prime Minister Sharon on numerous occasions. They've also defiled former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's grave several times. Sharon has joked that he might have his first meeting with Abu Mazen in Ramallah instead of in Israel, because he’ll need fewer security guards in Ramallah.

Furthermore, Sharon himself still refuses to carry out Israeli laws that call for the dismantling of illegal outposts in the West Bank. (They’re all illegal according to international law, but the outposts are illegal even under Israeli law.) He says the scenes with the crazed settlers would be too emotional and ugly. Er, what kind of strong democratic leader can’t even stand up to a load of hilltop hooligans?

He’s also a maniac who thinks buildings and territory are more important than peace, justice, security, and quality of life.

So much for law and order.

* * *

By the way, those coming to visit me soon, please don't freak out about the things mentioned above. Most of it only happens in specific areas, which we can avoid, and none of it is directed at foreigners. The Darna incident, the only thing that truly freaked me out, is very unlikely to be repeated. So far no foreigners have even been scratched, and nothing has resulted in serious injury or death except for Palestinian victims in remote areas and settlers trying to block major Israeli intersections with their teeth.

Things are a little touchy right now, and the nutcases are the only ones on the news, as usual, and it's all overhyped, as usual. But the sane, polite, and lovely people do outnumber the freaks by a very wide margin, as usual.

* * *

I also hear there’s fairly serious talk about America withdrawing from Iraq in 2006 whether there’s a perfect democracy in place or not. We’re long past winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis with our heartless and mindless policies, and we can’t fight the whole nation of Iraq at once unless a draft is instated, and a draft is political suicide.

I don’t know if any aspect of America has been bettered by this criminal war, and our coffers have been drained into the pockets of defense and oil companies and the top 1% who got all those tax cuts. Our health care and education are in the crapper, and our boys (not to mention the Iraqis) are dying in unacceptable numbers for something they have no stake in. What more do we hope to accomplish there?

Of course, “withdrawal” from Iraq, if it happens, will probably look a lot like the Israeli model during Oslo, with a puppet government acting as a security subcontractor and holding down the masses while the economic elite of America enjoy full control over its natural resources; a means to legitimize and cheaply stabilize what Israel and America are doing to imprison, carve up, and destroy the state and society of Iraq and Palestine to our own imagined advantage. That’s what the world has come to expect of us, and we probably won’t disappoint.

But many people are hopeful that a crack has been opened that will allow local democratic movements to flourish in the Middle East. The genie's been let out of the bottle, and Bush has already lost control of it.

People want real democracy, not American-imposed democracy, where some kinds of democracy are compulsory and others are forbidden, and all of it involves lots and lots of brown civilian casualties and bloated American defense contractors.

Because America, by its actions, clearly does not stand for democracy these days, pro-democracy activists in the Arab world take pains to distance themselves from America as much as possible.

So nowadays you’re only trusted as a true proponent of democracy if you’re also anti-American government.

Nice job, Bush.


P.S. I finally saw Control Room this weekend, about perceptions of the U.S. and its war in Iraq with an emphasis on Al Jazeera’s coverage.

There was a discussion after the film by one of the editors of the documentary, a Brazilian girl. She said that when the film was showing at theaters and film festivals all over the U.S., the producer would make appearances in all the big cities, leaving her to go around to all the whiter-than-white small towns where it was showing.

I asked her what kind of response she got, and to my surprise she said the response was tremendous. Even big burly guys from Texas would come up afterwards and give her a hug and thank her for bringing this reality to them. Apart from being full of fascinating information and perspectives, the documentary is also extremely watchable, enjoyable, and at times hilarious. It puts a very sympathetic human face on Al Jazeera’s reporters, most of whom have previously worked for CNN or the BBC and are highly educated and have a wicked sense of humor.

Small town America responding favorably to such a human piece of work, even if it does destroy a lot of their illusions, supports my pet theory that people are generally good, and when given complete and accurate information are usually able to make rational and humane decisions.

Unfortunately, those who are not able to make humane and rational decisions even when given complete and accurate information are called politicians.

Either way, it’s a great testament to our democratic ideals that the documentary got such a wide release in our own country.

One of the main personalities in the documentary was the American press officer for the U.S. military. He seemed to have an open mind and a genuine concern for Arab perceptions of America, and although he got a little fun poked at him for being such a clueless American, he ended up being a very sympathetic and human character.

He kept accusing the al-Jazeera journalists of anti-U.S. bias, with some justification. But by the time the movie was released, he began to realize that the American media is even more biased the other way, and even more full of lies and cover-ups. He ended up being dismissed from his post by the U.S. government because of interviews he gave about his new perspective.

Which is not much of a testament to our democratic ideals.

Probably the most shocking and revealing incident in the documentary was the part about the Al Jazeera television offices in Baghdad being bombed by American planes, killing one of their decorated journalists and forcing the team to evacuate. America issued no apology and launched no investigation into the criminal incident. Instead, they made it clear that it would happen again if Al Jazeera kept reporting things America didn’t want the world to see.

Which shamefully contradicts our professed democratic ideals.

For me, who two years ago thought that Al Jazeera was a terrorist propaganda network, the most fascinating part was to see that Al Jazeera is actually a beloved media channel in the Arab world with a Western mentality. I know that by now, but it would have been great to see two years ago.

It's the CNN of the Middle East, but with balls. They'll put people on the air who are pro-Iraq war and give him a say. The senior producer of Al Jazeera said on camera that he wants to send his kids to college in America, straight up, no apologies. And they've been kicked out of several Arab countries for criticizing the regimes. Ever seen Ted Koppel criticize the American regime? Ever seen Wolf Blitzer give an interview? Forget softball -- it's more like wiffleball.

Al Jazeera supports free press, freedom of speech, freedom to criticize one’s government, equal rights for women, the democratic ideals of the U.S. Constitution and international law, and on and on. It's biased, of course. Who isn't? It’s important to keep in mind that if 9/11 was emotional for American journalists, the war in Iraq was 100 times as emotional for Arab journalists. Yes, sometimes they go overboard, just like American journalists went overboard on 9/11. Americans weren't 100% objective about the horrors of 9/11, and Arabs aren't 100% objective about the orders of magnitude greater horrors of the Iraq war. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that's fair enough, right? I mean, Rumsfeld and Fox News have no business throwing stones here.

But it's the best and most Westernized the Arab world has. If Bush were really sincere about his wish to imbue the Arab world with egalitarian democratic principles and Western ideals, Al Jazeera would be his and Sharansky’s dream come true.

But the rub is, Al Jazeera uses the ideals of a free press to report honestly when America is not living up to any of its own standards, especially in Iraq.

So Al Jazeera is the most respected satellite channel in the world that is willing to talk forthrightly about the horrendous suffering inflicted on Arabs by American and Israeli forces. Therefore, since Bush is much more interested in American ascendancy than in truth and democracy, Al Jazeera, a relatively free press with the best interests of Arabs at heart, is his worst nightmare.

Next: Passover, Ronaldo, Richard Gere

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