The waiting game (GUARDIAN UK) Ahdaf Soueif 11/24/03)
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Three years ago, the acclaimed Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif
travelled through the West Bank to write a special report for G2.
This month, she returned for the first time
I thought it was bad three years ago. Now the landscape itself is
changed. New settlements spring up everywhere; more than 60 since I
was here last. You can watch their metamorphosis from a handful of
caravans, to some Portakabins, then basic bungalows and, finally, the
bristling, concrete hilltop fortress that is an Israeli settlement.
Hardly a Palestinian village exists without an Israeli settlement
lowering down on it from above. Everywhere there is construction
going on - illegally: wide, Israeli-only highways to connect the
settlements to each other, great mounds of rubble and yellow steel
gates to block the old roads between Palestinian villages. And there
are people waiting; waiting with bundles, with briefcases, with
babies, at gates, at roadblocks, at checkpoints, waiting to perform
the most ordinary tasks of their everyday lives.
All this, Israel tells the world, is in the cause of security. On my
first morning here we drive up through the West Bank to see the
biggest construction of all: Israel´s "security fence", a monster
barrier of steel and concrete that separates farmers from their land
and refugees from their homes. Brute technology hacking away at a
living body of land and people. It rears up to block the sunset and
the evening breeze from the people of Qalqilya, then spreads out to
swallow great stretches of land cultivated over hundreds of years by
the neighbouring villages.
This section of the barrier has been built right up close to the
western side of the village of Jayyus. From the windows of the
village hall you see it slide down the hill, snake into a huge S and
vanish around the farmland to the right. Running along the inside of
the barbed wire is a deep trench. There is also a patrol road, a
swept sand track to reveal footprints and an electronic fence with
hidden cameras. Alongside this barrier, at short intervals, red signs
in Arabic, English and Hebrew proclaim: ANY PERSON WHO PASSES OR
DAMAGES THE FENCE ENDANGERS HIS LIFE.
You cannot read the signs from here, but you can see them punctuating
the acres that the mayor of this village has spent the past 40 years
of his life cultivating. From his office window he can watch - on his
land on the other side of the barrier - his olive trees waiting to be
harvested, his guava trees dropping their ripe fruit on the ground.
In each of his three greenhouses, 40,000 kilograms of cucumbers are
From this village of 3,000 souls, 2,300 acres have been confiscated
for the barrier. And on the other side of the barrier another 2,150
acres, with six groundwater wells, are inaccessible, 12,000 olive
trees stand unharvested, and the vegetables in 120 giant greenhouses
are spoiling. Three thousand five hundred sheep have been driven off
the land; actually, 3,498, because one man has lost two lambs. Three
hundred families are totally dependent on their farms. Now their
harvest is rotting before their eyes and they cannot get to it. They
are feeding their flocks the husks from last year´s planting.
There are yellow steel gates in the barbed wire but they are closed.
Farmers are busy making phone calls, some are going to see the
Israeli military to demand that the gates be opened. Eventually,
soldiers arrive. Harvesting is a family affair so the soldiers face a
crowd of men, women and children. What they do is this. First they
collect all their identity papers. Then they call the people out one
by one. Today they have decided that no male between the ages of 12
and 38 will be allowed on his land. Also, no woman will be allowed
unless she is over 28 and married. So the majority of the farmers -
men, women and teenagers - stand at the gate, the Israeli soldiers
and the barrier between them and the harvest that is their sustenance
and income for the coming year.
Two men set off to try and find a way of infiltrating their own land.
The rest make their way back to the village hall. On the mayor´s desk
lie some 600 permits that appeared in the village this morning. They
are issued by the Israeli authorities and made out to individual
farmers. About half of them are in the names of people who can´t use
them: babies, infants, a couple of men who have been in Australia for
15 years. But that is not the point. The point is that the people
know that if they use these permits they are implicitly accepting
their terms: three months´ access with no recognition of any rights
to the land. They suspect that after three months Israel will start
playing games with them. Permits like these were one of the
mechanisms by which their parents and grandparents were dispossessed
of their land in 1948. What should they do? Use the permits and try
to salvage their crops and deal with the rest later? Boycott the
permits and starve?
The next day a Jewish Israeli woman gives me a copy of the military
order on which the permits are based. It names the West Bank land now
trapped between the barrier and Israel´s borders the "Seam Zone". It
states that the people who have the right to be in the Seam Zone
without permits are Israelis or anyone who can come to Israel under
the Law of Return. That is, any Jewish person from anywhere in the
world. But in this district alone, 11,550 Palestinians have their
homes in the Seam Zone. "It is Nuremberg all over again," she says.
Today, the mayor is beside himself as he tries to get advice from the
governor. One man tells me that his father, who is 65, is talking of
buying explosives. "There will be no life for us anyway without the
land," he says. The fighters and the suicide bombers have generally
come from the urban deprivation of the camps. Now they will come from
the villages, too.
Monday, Jerusalem al-Quds
Our taxi driver says: "The Israelis are clever. They build the wall
and now everybody is talking about the wall. The wall is just a wall.
It was built and it can be removed. The real questions are the
borders, the settlements, Jerusalem and the refugees."
It is less than two months to Christmas and the streets of Bethlehem
are empty. There are no tourists, no pilgrims. On Star Street many of
the shops are closed. The market where the neighbouring villages
brought their produce to feed the town is deserted. The closures
imposed by the Israeli army mean that farmers cannot come into
Bethlehem and Bethlehemites cannot leave the town. The Monument to
Peace built to celebrate Bethlehem 2000 has been demolished by
Israeli tanks. The International Peace Centre - built on land where
Turkish, then British, then Jordanian police stations each stood in
turn - was used by the Israeli army as its headquarters when it
besieged the Church of the Nativity. "They put up a crane with a box
on top," says the friend who is taking us round, "with lights and a
camera and an automatic sniper. And recordings. They played terrible
sounds: explosions, animals, people screaming. All the time. Into the
In the church today, an old priest dozes on a chair. Two Franciscan
monks are silently busy about the Armenian altar. A young man - one
of the besieged "gunmen" - explains the Tree of Life mosaic to a
group of schoolgirls. Three young women in hijab sit in a pew
reading. And Christ and the Madonna observe us from the walls.
The settlements of Gilo, Har Gilo and Har Homa surround the city.
Israel´s military edicts are doing their best to strangle her, but
Bethlehem will not lie down and die. The Peace Centre hosts an
exhibition of Nativity scenes sent in by schools from all over the
world. Annadwa, a new cultural centre, is buzzing with activity. The
staff there are young and dedicated. They are headed by the softly
spoken Reverend Dr Mitri al-Raheb, a gentle and impressive man who is
fluent in many languages and has a beautiful and stylish wife. They
run an exhibition space currently featuring a Norwegian artist, a
gift shop that sells its merchandise on the internet, a workshop, a
state-of-the-art media centre and a theatre. Today, Al-Raheb has been
refused a permit to travel to a church meeting in Washington DC.
Every road out of Bethlehem is blocked by mounds of dirt and a
checkpoint. Imagine driving along as you have always done, between
Hampstead, say, and Regent´s Park, when you come upon a barrier of
earth thrown up the night before. Soldiers stand at the barrier in
full battle gear, yelling at you in a strange language or a pidgin
version of your own. They tell you to get out of your car - you´re
not allowed to drive here any more. If you´re allowed to carry on,
you will do so on foot. They yell at you to line up and they take
their time checking your papers, questioning you - Where are you
going? Why do you want to go there? Prove to me that your
daughter/best friend/dentist/music teacher lives there. A few metres
away you can see the new highway that cuts across your old road. Cars
are speeding along on it, driven by men and women of that other
people, the people that the soldiers belong to.
We stand at one of these checkpoints, my son taking photographs of
the pedestrians waiting to be allowed to walk to the next village.
Two soldiers leave the checkpoint and stride towards us, raising
their M16s to the level of our heads and shouting: "No photographs!
Give me your camera. You! No photos."
"Where´s the notice that says no photography?" we call.
"Everyone knows. Give me the camera. I can shoot you. You take photo
"We took photos of the people waiting."
"You took photo of me. I can shoot you..."
"What´s the problem? Are you ashamed of what you´re doing? Show me
the paper that says we can´t take photos." This is Tony, our
Palestinian guide. He´s a film editor with an international press
agency and has a US passport.
"I don´t need no fucking paper. I can shoot you, that´s my paper."
"Show me the paper."
"This is Israel, I do what I like. I can shoot you. Here I do what I
"This isn´t Israel. This is the West Bank."
"West Bank? What is this West Bank?" The soldier turns to his friend
My son tries to chip in but I stamp on his foot.
"Look: in there, is Palestine. You do what you want. Here is Israel.
In your country, can you take pictures of secret soldiers?"
After a bit more of this Tony gets out his mobile and phones the
army. The soldiers take off their shades and turn into unhappy young
men: "You think I like to do this? You think I like to stand all day
wearing this, and this, and this? This I have to do so my mother is
safe in Tel Aviv." We suggest it might be a happier situation all
round if they did this on the green line. "Green line? They can creep
under the green line. Look: we give them everything. They always want
more. We give them land, we give them water, we give them
electricity. They want more..."
"But you are stealing these people´s land. What about the
"That is for the politicians. We don´t know about that. It is the
politicians." They go back to the checkpoint. We keep the camera.
Tony has to take our photos to the army censor for clearance within
Tony´s family´s business is on Star Street, close to Manger Square.
Four years ago he and his father pooled their savings and built a
spacious home on five floors: one each for Tony and his three
sisters, the parents at the top. He is married to a diaspora
Palestinian who has come back from Europe to live with him in
Bethlehem. Two weeks ago his first child was born. I guess he is
thinking a lot about what kind of life his child will have here. On
the walls in the street the portrait of Edward Said has taken its
place alongside the pictures of Christine Saada, the 10-year-old girl
shot in her father´s car in March, and Abed Ismail, the 11-year-old
boy killed by a sniper in Manger Square.
"Look at it! Look at it!" The arc of Tony´s arm takes in the brand-
new conference centre completed in 2000 and shelled by the Israelis a
few months later. The large hotel and leisure complex set up next to
Solomon´s Pools and also shelled by the Israelis. And then the wall.
Here it comes, creeping up on the west of Bethlehem...
Three years ago, Birzeit university was 20 minutes´ drive from
Ramallah. Now, on a good day, it takes over an hour to get there. The
Israeli army has blocked the road at Surda and though today the
checkpoint is not manned, people have to get out of their transport
and climb on foot over the rubble. I´m told that anyone attempting to
remove rubble is shot at and that the rubble is replenished from time
to time by the army.
We climb over and proceed on foot for one kilometre till the next
roadblock. Alongside the road a market has sprung up with stalls
selling food, drinks and housewares. There are horses and donkeys for
hire, mule-drawn carriages and small carts pushed by men. There are
also some young volunteers with wheelchairs for the infirm and
We walk along in the crush and I´m thinking of how one of the tasks
of the occupation is to push people into more and more primitive
conditions. But I am also thinking that this doesn´t really matter,
that it´s manageable, that it´s not the worst thing that can happen.
Then I hear a low but spreading murmur - "They´ve come, they´ve
come" - and a Humvee appears at my shoulder. The car is squat and
broad and its windows are completely black. It is shouting
incomprehensible commands throughits Tannoy as it moves in jagged,
erratic bursts among the crowd. People step quietly out of the way
but no one looks up. This, in general, is how the people treat the
Israeli army: by ignoring it as much as possible. But I can feel in
my stomach and my spine that the Humvee is here to show us all who is
master, who runs this road.
Getting to class here is an act of resistance and at the university
the Kamal Nasser Auditorium is full. No one wants to talk about the
occupation. For three hours, these students and their teachers want
to talk literature, theatre, music. And they want to do it in
But over lunch they tell me that earlier in the day the Humvee had
parked across the university gates and the Tannoy had sputtered
insults. "Provocation. They provoke the students and hope one of them
throws something then they can begin to shoot." One young man tells
me that a few days before, when the checkpoint was manned, he had
been among some 200 students that the soldiers had detained there.
Eventually, as the students protested about being made late for
class, one soldier had a bright idea: every young man who had gel in
his hair could go through. "Today," he said, "gel will buy you an
Sunday, Jerusalem al-Quds
Daphna Golan teaches human rights at the Hebrew University. She takes
her students out to the "field", the West Bank, to research specific
topics. The right to education, for example. Today, they have been
south of al-Khalil (Hebron). The settlers there have been terrorising
children on their way to and from school. The kids´ journey should
take 20 minutes but to avoid the settlers they go by back routes
which take them two hours. I ask how old the children are. "Seven or
eight. Today they went the short way because we were with them and
the settlers could not harm them but we could see that the children
were very, very frightened." I ask how the settlers terrorise
them. "They beat them. And they are armed. It is very strange," she
says. "You know, these are not the settlers that you imagine. These
are young people like hippies. Long hair, bright clothes, rasta hats.
They grow organic vegetables. They carry their guitars and their guns
and they are vicious."
How many stories can I tell? How many can you read? In the end they
all point in the same direction. Every Palestinian I meet (and many
Israelis) tells me the same thing: what Israel wants is a Palestine
as free of Arabs as possible. This is the big push, the second
instalment of 1948. Israeli policies make life unbearable so that
every Palestinian who has a choice will go. The ones left behind -
the ones with no options - will be a captive population, severed from
their land, from their community, caged behind barriers, walls and
gates. This is the labour that will work in the industrial zones
Israel is already building near the barrier.
The Palestinians describe what is happening as ethnic cleansing. They
also say that they have lived through 1948 and there is no way they
are leaving. Dr Nazmi al-Ju´ba has the optimistic job of restoring
old Arab architecture in Palestine. "The Palestinians have many
options," he tells me, smiling. "We can live in a binational state,
we can live in a Palestinian state, we can live under occupation -
but we will live in any case. And we will live as a collective; as a
Thursday November 20, Jayyus
The farmers took the permits. Finally, they could not bear to watch
their harvest die. And then the games began. Abdullatif Khalid, the
engineer who runs the Emergency Centre at Jayyus, tells me he has
just come back from a smallholding owned by four brothers. They are
struggling to feed their flock of 150 sheep. Since the beginning of
November they, like all the other farmers, have been dividing a day´s
food over five days. They are trying to slow down the process of
starvation. Some of their ewes have miscarried and some of their
lambs have died. They drive their sheep to the yellow steel gate in
the barrier. They have their permits and the Israeli soldiers have no
problem letting them through to their pasture. But they refuse to let
in the sheep. They have no orders, they say, to let in sheep.
Khalid says that all the sheep owned by the village are going to
starve, while their pastures lie across the Israeli security
barrier. "Can somebody intervene here?" he asks. "You know when birds
get stuck in oil slicks or whales get beached, everybody rushes to
help them. Maybe helping the Palestinians is complicated. But the
world could help the sheep. That should be simple." (Guardian
Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003 11/24/03)
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