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Facts on the Ground

Tuesday, October 30, Jerusalem
Hanging onto Hope

In our first full day here we learned and experienced a great deal about a complicated situation. Looking at many maps in two presentations, from both the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and the United Nations Office on Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), we saw the geography: the land controlled by Israel, and that of the Palestinians; the security barrier, 450 miles of cement wall and electric fence, separating people from jobs and fields; the Israeli settlements, more than 300 in the West Bank alone; the access roads linking these settlements and the major cities, mostly forbidden to Palestinians to drive on; the checkpoints, 100 in the West Bank, through which Palestinians must pass to get to work, school, fields. Facts on the ground, unarguable.

We also visited several settlements, including Ma’ale Adumim, which will be larger in area than Tel Aviv when completed. It looked like a segment of America, with a big swimming pool, beautiful landscaping, and modern malls. A nearby Palestinian neighborhood has no trash collection.

When we see the shape of the barrier snaking its way across the map, it’s obvious that its real purpose is not securing the borders – if so, it would just run along the border. It is obvious that its real purpose is to isolate, contain, and eventually push out the Palestinian people, and that the clock is ticking for these people to remain here. Both sides have deeply felt stories, and they are so irreconcilable that optimism about achieving peace here seems real foolishness.

And so are many of us feeling when Tom, in our evening meeting, reads a talk by Desmond Tutu, archbishop and peacemaker from South Africa. After saying that he is not optimistic about an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he continues, “However, that does not mean I am without hope. I am a Christian. I am constrained by my faith to hope against hope, placing my trust in things as yet unseen. Hope persists in the face of evidence to the contrary… I believe a resolution will be found. It will not be perfect, but it can be just; and if it is just, it will usher in a future of peace… God has a dream for all of his children. It is about a day when all people enjoy …security and live free of fear… God’s dream is about a day when all people are accorded equal dignity because they are human beings. In God’s beautiful dream, no other reason is required….God’s dream begins with the mutual recognition – we are not strangers, we are kin…”

My husband Mike and I hesitated about coming on this trip, fearing that we would be taking into ourselves a heart-breaking situation that felt hopeless. So must the South African situation have felt before peace was achieved there. If Desmond Tutu could hang onto hope then, and now, then we must too…

--Judy White

Facts on the Ground

There are few conflicts layered with so much mythology or governed by such contradictory narratives as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People who have not chosen to study the conflict or are not able or willing to closely observe current events demonstrate or sometimes discover to their own surprise strongly held views that influence how they view and assess the conflict. To understand what is going on there, it is best, if nigh unto impossible, to clear one’s vision of unconscious clutter before approaching the situation or attempting to imagine a solution to a century’s conflict over this small piece of earth.

The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions has a very useful approach to understanding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Rather than starting with an understanding, explanation or analysis, ICAHD looks closely at “the facts on the ground.” ICAHD (its founder and coordinator Jeff Halper, and the other staff and advisors) then builds an understanding of what is being attempted or accomplished based on what is readily observed.

During our delegation's first day in Jerusalem, we got a full dose of exposure to the facts on the ground. We began with an orientation by Lucia Pizzaro, coordinator of international programs for ICAHD. Lucia gave a riveting description of what sense ICAHD has been able to make of Israel’s “matrix of control” over the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). She employed the metaphor of a prison, in which the inmates may well control more than 90% of the facility’s space, but the guards control the population by controlling the perimeter, corridors and doors. So too, Pizzaro explained, the Israeli state has instituted effective control over the entire West Bank, even those areas putatively assigned to Palestinian control. This system includes the Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, a network of Israeli only “by-pass roads” connecting the settlements to Israel within its 1949-1967 borders (and a new parallel system of Palestinian only bypass roads, bridges and tunnels connecting isolated Palestinian communities just beginning construction), closures, roadblocks and checkpoints restricting movement of Palestinians within the areas in which they live (as opposed to between occupied Palestinian lands and Israel proper), restrictive planning law and building permits, and house demolitions, and the new security or separation barrier snaking along what most believe will be the new border between Israel and the OPT.

As a convert “by conviction to Judaism” and a new immigrant to Israel, Lucia described her discovery of a nation “desperate to ‘Judaize’ this place.” Judaization amounts to taking any measures necessary to guarantee a “Jewish majority” in the population. The Israeli government has, with support of a national consensus, constructed a “boring, administrative system” that creates “facts on the ground that physically prevent creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.”

Despite the domination of public discourse with “security” for the Jewish people, in the West and the USA as well as in Israel, Pizzaro made the startling statement that, according to ICAHD’s observation and analysis, none of the measures taken by Israel in the OPT and against the Palestinians can be explained or justified by security. This observation is true of the demolition of Palestinian houses, the “wall” that is effectively annexing another 10% or more of the OPT to Israel (as opposed to a security barrier that respects and follows Israel’s internationally recognized border), hundreds of actions disrupting movement within and between Palestinian communities (as opposed to movement of Palestinians into Israel), or the series of seven settlement blocs that place hundreds of thousands of Jewish civilian communities deep into hostile Palestinian territory. While doing little to enhance and sometimes putting Israel more at risk, such measures have expanded Israel’s territory and control of water and other resources, further divided the Palestinian population from its land and from one another, and rendered a Palestinian state impossible.

For those of us hoping for a diplomatic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lucia Pizzaro’s presentation was quite sobering. The following three hour bus tour of Jewish settlements around East Jerusalem with ICAHD staffer Sliman Khader reinforced the ominous picture that Lucia had painted for us. Sliman is an East Jerusalemite but his family were refugees from a village inside what became Israel following the 1948 war (what the Israeli’s call “the War for Independence” and Palestinians call “al Nakba” or “the catastrophe”). His family was again uprooted from their home in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem following the 1967 war and moved to Shuafaat Refugee Camp north of Jerusalem. Sliman now lives in Anata, next to Shuafaat.

Sliman provided commentary as we stopped at several Jewish settlements planted in the midst of or above Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem including Nof Zion, Ras al Amud [Hebrew name “Scent of Olives”], and Silwan. We also drove through Ma’ale Adumim, a major settlement city with land area larger than Tel Aviv expected to grow to 80,000 inhabitants by 2010. We not only saw the wall, bypass roads and other mechanisms of splintering the Palestinian population and guaranteeing Israeli Jewish control, but also saw homes that had been demolished, the beginnings of a new parallel road system where still another wall separates cars from Palestinian communities from those traveling to/from the Jewish settlements. We learned that Palestinian Arabs constitute 30% of the population of ‘greater Jerusalem,’ pay 40% of taxes, and receive only 8% of the services delivered by the municipality. Sliman commented that there are 36 municipal or public swimming pools in Jewish West Jerusalem, and none in Palestinian East Jerusalem. He ran off a series of other comparable statistics revealing an extreme disparity in delivery of services and quality of life between the Jewish and Palestinian sectors.

ICAHD’s claims and our observations were confirmed by an hour and a half briefing provided by Ray Dolphin of the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. His work’s primary focus is to determine and evaluate how access -- the restricted flow of the Palestinian population, goods and services within the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- impacts the economic life and humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Dolphin’s detailed presentation included detailed maps and aerial photographs overlaid with symbols and representation of Israel’s dozen or so means of restricting access, such as formal checkpoints, trenches, mounds of dirt or large concrete blocs closing roads to vehicular traffic, large metal gates, the separation barrier, bypass roads, etc. His presentation, available on the web, graphically represented the dismembering of the West Bank into a series of isolated enclaves. It showed how Palestinians are choked by the sophisticated system of bypass roads, settlements, the “separation barrier” or what many Palestinians call “the apartheid wall,” and other means.

Dolphin asserted that establishing security checkpoints on the internationally recognized border between the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel is a legitimate action taken by Israel. Indeed it is a responsibility of a nation to provide protection to its population. But, reiterating a point made earlier by ICAHD’s Pizzaro and Khader, only 17 of some 600 various means of impeding Palestinian movement and restricting access are situated on the border. The vast majority are located inside of, around or between Palestinian communities. These obstacles make the movement of people and goods uncertain if not impossible, in turn inducing economic collapse and a growing humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian population. While our focus with Dolphin was the West Bank, he assured us that Israel’s continued control of the borders of the Gaza Strip has the same effect there. Despite suggestions by the USA and announcements by Israel’s Prime Minister Olmert that Israel would be easing such restrictions as a confidence-building measure in anticipation of November peace talks, the number of obstacles to access have actually increased since June of 2007.

Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion is famously reported to have observed, "It doesn't matter what the Gentiles say; what is important is what the Jews do.” This statement seems to sum up the Israeli government’s prevailing attitude about creating “facts on the ground.” Such “facts” as the Jewish settlements in the OPT have more to do with shaping political options than diplomatic rhetoric. Such “facts” as the bypass roads point to the future being built in the Palestinian territories more than stated goals such as improving the quality of life for Palestinians under occupation. Such “facts” belie the stated intentions of Israel and the US that they support a Two State Solution, while American diplomatic, military and financial power have supported four decades of occupation that has made such a political solution unlikely if not impossible.

Such “facts on the ground” compellingly argue that the road to peace at this point is far steeper than generally acknowledged -- if not a dead-end.

--Scott Kennedy



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