June 2002

Wajee is keeping a low profile this week. The 17-year-old from Jenin, who sells vegetables from a stall in the souq of the Galilean town of Nazareth, is one of a small and embattled group of Palestinians who can still find employment in Israel. Last week, in the wake of a suicide attack near Gilo that killed 19 Israelis, the authorities declared war not just on the bombers but on Wajee and other Palestinians who continue working in Israel in contravention of a general closure of the occupied territories designed to keep them out. Estimates suggest that maybe fewer than 10,000 Palestinians now find employment in Israel. Before the Intifada erupted in September 2000, some 120,000 Palestinians crossed each day into Israel to work.

If anyone was in any doubt about who was going to emerge victorious from the public relations battle between an American billionaire media mogul and the Israeli government, the answer was reliably delivered by Cable News Network (CNN). The American 24-hour television channel filled the screen with a short message brought to the viewers in big red type: “Ted Turner’s views are his own and they do not in any way reflect the views of CNN.” The row that followed CNN founder Ted Turner’s comparison last week of Israel’s military actions in the occupied territories with Palestinian suicide attacks — saying both were forms of terrorism — was an object lesson in the intimidatory practices now routinely employed by the Jewish lobby and the Israeli government against the foreign media.

Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer briefly strode through scrubland close to Salem military checkpoint on Sunday backed by a heavy security contingent to oversee the official launch of work on a 360-kilometre electrified fence to separate Israel from the West Bank. There was no ribbon-cutting. Three bulldozers carefully piled up mounds of earth next to a few scattered olive trees on the hillside overlooking the Israeli Arab village of Salem for the benefit of reporters. Once they had left, the diggers uprooted the trees too. With Israeli flags at his back, Ben-Eliezer addressed the journalists: “The terrorist attacks that have been haunting Israel have obliged us to build a continuous obstacle to stop the infiltration of terrorists into Israel.”

Hidden amid the narrow back streets of the town of Arrabe in Galilee is the modest cinderblock home of the Jarbouni family. Until a few weeks ago the building was as anonymous as most others in Arrabe, itself just another deprived Arab town in Israel far from Tel Aviv and its sprawling suburbs. But today the Jarbouni sisters, Lena and Lamis, are well-known– at least by reputation– to Israelis. They and Arrabe have been making headlines since the women’s arrests for allegedly helping Palestinians plot terror attacks. The Jarbouni family have shied away from publicity but it has not stopped a spate of news reports painting the sisters as monstrous traitors, a new kind of enemy in Israel’s “war on terror”.

Under mounting legal pressure, the Israeli army has promised to stop using Palestinian civilians as human shields, a practice widely employed during Israel’s recent military invasion of the West Bank according to evidence compiled by human rights groups. The army made the promise during a hearing before the Israeli high court, although it refused to confirm or deny whether it had a policy of using human shields. But lawyers at the Adalah centre for Arab minority rights in Israel, which filed the petition, said the military’s decision to issue an order banning the use of human shields was an implicit admission that soldiers were resorting to such tactics. Adalah doubted, however, that even with the ban in place it would be possible to prove to the court’s satisfaction that in individual cases people had been taken as human shields.

United Nations special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen entered Jenin refugee camp on April 18, shortly after Israel lifted its news blackout, and declared the sight of the devastated camp “horrific beyond belief”. He was not alone in being appalled. The pictures of a vast wasteland that days before had been home to thousands of Palestinians shocked the world. Six weeks later, the horror of the camp is undiminished. The only visible difference is that peacemakers like Roed-Larsen are nowhere to be found. Last week, there were plenty of families sitting out the midday heat under makeshift tents or in crumbling buildings propped up with wooden scaffolding. At least 2,000 people are homeless and some were still scavenging for whatever belongings survived the collapse of their homes.