May 15, 2006
Israel is 58 years old today. Israelis have already celebrated with barbecues and parties. And so they should, for they've pulled off an amazing stunt: the creation of a state for one people on the land of another - and at their massive expense - without incurring effective sanction. Some of those not celebrating, the Arab citizens of Israel, were also there, demonstrating to remind the world that Israel displaced 250,000 to take their land without compensation. Millions more Palestinians will demonstrate today in the refugee camps of Gaza, the West Bank and neighboring Arab states against their expulsion by Israel. The world, however, is not listening, any more than it did in 1948, when most of Palestine's inhabitants were expelled to make way for Jewish immigrants.
My family was among those displaced and, though a child, I vividly remember the panic and misery of that flight from our home in Jerusalem on an April morning in 1948, with the scent of spring in the air. Palestine by then had become a raging battleground as Jews fought to seize our land in the wake of the 1947 UN partition resolution. My parents decided to evacuate us temporarily. "We will return," they insisted, "the world will not let such injustice happen!" They were wrong: the world let it happen and we never returned. Little comfort in knowing that we were among many others, that we did not end up in tents, that conflicts do such things. Our lives, our history and our future had been traduced. In those early days, I would wonder with anguish how the Jewish incomers who took over our house could sleep at night, seeing our belongings, family photos, children's toys. Subsequently, Israelis made much of the danger they faced from five Arab armies in the 1948-49 war, but in reality their forces were greater than all their opponents' combined, and the latter ill equipped and poorly trained.
Growing up in Britain, I got no sympathy but rather kept being told about the need to give Jews a state they could feel safe in. But at whose expense was this generosity? We Palestinians had no hand in the Holocaust, nor in persecuting Jews. But we were transformed from a peaceable agrarian people into a nation of beggars under occupation, refugees, exiles and second-class citizens of Israel. Worse still, we are now labelled terrorists, suicide bombers or Islamic extremists. Our crime? We were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And for that we have been repeatedly punished, most recently for electing the "wrong" government, headed by a party the west, not Palestinians, labels as terrorist.
I went to "Palestine" last month to see what 58 years of Israel had done. It was also springtime, but this was a shadow of the land I had known. I found a pathetically fragmented society, clinging to a fading dream of statehood against the odds. Israel's policies have broken up the Palestinian territories into ghettos behind barriers and checkpoints. Gaza, supposedly liberated, is a big prison where, according to the World Bank, 75% are under the poverty line and a quarter of children are malnourished. Since January, Israel has kept the cargo crossings into Gaza closed most of the time. Flour ran out last month, and now medicines. The UN has warned of a humanitarian disaster. Now Israel is threatening to cut off fuel because of outstanding Palestinian debts, normally paid from Palestinian tax receipts, which Israel has illegally held back since January. The barrier wall, sealing off whole towns and villages, makes normal life impossible.
The new, democratically elected Palestinian government is paralyzed because of Israeli and western sanctions. International aid to the Palestinians, $1bn annually, has been stopped; $70m donated by Arab states is blocked because banks, fearing international sanctions, refuse to transfer the funds. Money has run out for 150,000 public workers and their approximately 1 million dependents. I found deserted supermarkets and shopkeepers in despair. Armed men roam the streets full of anger at their loss of livelihood. Meanwhile, Israel's assault on the Palestinians continues. Last week the army killed nine and wounded 24. It mounted 38 incursions into Palestinian towns and arrested 61 people, including 11 children.
The Quartet powers have agreed a three-month emergency aid package. Because of the freeze on relations with Hamas, the aid will bypass the government, though how essential services can be run without a central administration is hard to imagine. Arab foreign ministers have warned of a breakdown in law and order if the Palestinian Authority collapses, but to no avail. The world's silence in the face of this cruelty is astonishing. There is no international outcry against a policy whose transparent objective is to goad the Palestinians into overthrowing the government they elected in favor of one more pliant to Israel's designs. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan is to draw Israel's border "unilaterally", annexing the large West Bank settlement blocs and keeping Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. The roads connecting it to Israel will bisect Palestinian territory.
What remains, 58% at most, together with the Gaza prison, will form the "Palestinian state". Olmert will be in Washington soon, no doubt seeking a rubber stamp. The idea is presumably that the Palestinians - dispersed and powerless - will then no longer be in Israel's way. Anyone who believes this, as the west's unthinking support for Israel seems to suggest, knows nothing about history or the will of peoples to resist injustice. The Palestinians are no exception.
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