Monday, August 10, 2009

Palestinian-Israeli relations

Anti-Israel graffiti in central city Ramallah

Across the West Bank are acres of stumps. Just row after row of thin sticks poking out of what looks like infertile brown soil. They are all that is left of thousands of silvery gray olive trees cut down by Israelis trying to flush Palestinians from areas of the West Bank they want, especially outside of Jerusalem. These leafless orchards are an especially raw and ugly sight,  but far from the only jarring signs of ethnic warfare here.

 Angry graffiti explodes across every wall and fence, not just the prison walls around Palestine. The West Bank is filthy too with litter. At the checkpoints and border crossings, disgusted drivers hurl garbage at the walls and at the armed guards. In Hebron, where the Jewish settlement Arabs find so intrusive sits above and to the side of the central city market, netting has been stretched above the stalls. It is intended to catch paper and worse thrown down into the Arab gutter from the Jewish heights. The net is filled, though you have to wonder if it never cleared out in order that the accumulation looks worse.

Vendors in Hebron boldly urge tourists to buy their slocky wares by saying, "Hey help me out. It's hard to make a living here and the Jews came 40 years ago!" For their part, Israeli guards seem to purposefully drag out and taunt drivers in ways mean and petty. We were denied entrance to the Tomb of Abner (not the cartoon character, Abraham, patriarch of Judaism and Christianity) by Israeli guards on the Arab side. Prayer is beginning in a half hour, they told us, so you can't go in. We'll be fast, we tried, we've come all the way from New York! "Go to the Jewish side," they told us without sympathy. Of course, our Palestinian guide, would not be allowed entrance there, which they knew. And he knew. We decided to eat Turkish delight and shop instead. Palestinians are barred from even driving the most direct route into Hebron from Jerusalem. They take a snaky, roller-coaster route that winds through mountains and villages. It's takes two hours in a hot car to go the 35 km and most of the time you look out the window into a valley far below at the sleek, shiny black ribbon of highway that is only for Israelis.

Coming here I thought the conflict similar to the ethnic hatred of the Balkans, but the better metaphor is from the US. Cast the Israelis as the American settlers and the Palestinians as Native Americans and you understand something of the conflict here. Both sides -- with reason -- feel under threat and, therefore, justified in whatever defensive or offensive measures they take including attacks that leave the innocent maimed, imprisonment and sabotage. When the US government wanted land the Navajos considered theirs in Nevada, Renee, noted, it had all the pinyon pine trees the Indians depended on cut down. The Arabs, like the Indians, are splintered and have no powerful outside allies. Other Arab nations except Jordan have supported them mostly just with rhetoric. The Israelis out-number and out-class the Palestinians in resources. (In some ways the fight in the Balkans seems more fair because the three sides are more evenly matched than here.) 

I thought this an original observation until I talked with Jeff Price, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun whose many assignments included the West Bank. After the Six Day War, he said, he asked an Israeli official when they were gonna give back the West Bank.

The official snorted and retorted: "When you give back Arizona."

 UN human rights experts compare the situation on the West Bank to apartheid South Africa where Bantustans -- little fake states -- were set up as a way to keep blacks disjointed and isolated -- controllable. The idea is that Israel is fragmenting the territory of the West Bank and restricting movement among and between those fragments not to mention sending in Jewish settlers into even the areas that clearly have been Palestinian.

I kept trying to think pro-Israeli during my days here, trying not to be swayed by the sight of tree stumps and teenagers with guns and walls and poverty. But I don't feel it. The same Israelis who had the wisdom and resources to turn the desert green and build stunning cities in 60 years can't figure out a better way than this? History's most oppressed minority can't handle the minority within its own borders in some way different from how brutes in Europe dealt with them?  You just really want to see the story of Israel end up better than what I saw here.

As for the future, well, there was that Jewish family behind me on the people mover going through Ben Gurion Airport on the way home. The mother, obviously American from her accent, was commenting on a series of beautiful posters on the airport walls to educate her children as we moved by them. Each commemorated one of  60 years in the history of Israel. We got to 1967 when the Israelis took over the West Bank after defeating its Arab attackers in the Six Day War and the mother asked her children, "What happened important that year?" The little boy immediately answered, "Jerusalem was reunited." "Right!" she answered brightly.

Just as American settlers saw their hold over the entire continent as Manifest Destiny, the Israelis seem able to overlook the suffering and displacement of the people in the way.


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