LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
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
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.
Palestinians don't want to hate. But Israel is making
brotherly love pretty hard.
"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."
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
In Israel’s next match against France, another
Palestinian Israeli, Walid Badir, scored the
equalizer. Strike one for Israeli/Palestinian
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
Which is not much of a testament to our democratic
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
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
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