March 2003

Hidden hunger

28 March 2003

Palestinians, reduced by a year of Israeli military invasion to a society of “handout seekers”, are rapidly finding that even the handouts are drying up. That is the verdict of aid agencies, including the World Bank and the United Nations refugee agency UNRWA, both of which recently published reports on the humanitarian catastrophe unfurling in the West Bank and Gaza. Sixty-year-old Mohamed Misleh hardly needed telling that. He had been nervously waiting all morning for UN supplies of rice, flour, sugar and oil in the dark corridors of the Charity Society’s offices in the West Bank town of Azzoun, along with three hundred other refugee families.

There is every sign that Washington is playing for time on the “road map” to a Palestinian state by 2005. Few now remember that the draft plan, presented in October, required both Israel and the Palestinians to implement the first phase of confidence-building measures leading to an end to the violence within two months — that is, by December 2002. Such obligations were soon brushed aside in favour of endless adjustments, negotiations and delays. First President Bush agreed to postpone the road map’s publication until after Israel’s elections, then the deadline was the formation of an Israeli government. Now it is dependent on the new Palestinian prime minister, Abu Mazen, announcing his cabinet, or maybe it will have to wait until “after” the war in Iraq, whatever that might mean.

Thwarting the state

27 March 2003

Less than a fortnight ago Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took his cabinet ministers on a well- publicised tour of the northern sections of the 360km separation fence, ostensibly being built around the West Bank to protect Israelis from Palestinian attack. Addressing them afterwards, Sharon adopted his standard posture: the electrified fence, he said, was purely a “security measure” and would not become a “political” border — code among the right and settlers for the government’s refusal to demarcate the borders of a future Palestinian state. That has been the constant refrain since Sharon was cornered into accepting the separation wall by his former Labour coalition partners last June. However, in contrast to his previous utterances, this time Sharon may not have meant what he said. The ministerial tour appears to have heralded a dramatic new phase in Sharon’s thinking.

With the clock ticking down the last minutes before a US-led war against Iraq, Israeli officials have put on hold promises made in court last month to deliver gas masks to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in so-called “Area C” — huge swaths of the West Bank and parts of Gaza that were never handed over to Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority under the Oslo accords. They join the rest of the Palestinian population in being denied protection by Israel from possible chemical and biological attack if President Saddam Hussein decides to go out dramatically, all super-guns blazing.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent out deliberately confusing messages this week as he prepared for the return of US peace envoy General Anthony Zinni, a sign of America’s renewed, though possibly temporary, interest in the conflict. The familiar “hawk” Sharon drove the army deeper into Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank at the weekend, putting into action his earlier declared pledge to inflict heavy casualties. Dozens of Palestinians were killed in the bloodiest week of the Intifada as tanks and troops entered West Bank refugee camps and the air force again pounded the Gaza Strip.

In the struggle for what little is left of world attention when all eyes are on Iraq, one Palestinian’s suffering must compete with another’s, one tragedy overshadows the next. The pain of each is seen in isolation, a separate case crying out for more or less sympathy, with a stronger or weaker claim on our compassion. Some instances of such suffering are not even understood as Palestinian. Last week the media reported that the UN children’s agency UNICEF had criticised the Israeli army for demolishing a home in Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on 3 March that led to a building collapsing on a pregnant 37-year-old woman, Noha Sabri Sweidan. The mother of 10 bled to death under the ruins.

There are not many aspects of Israeli life untouched by the celebrated Amnon Rubinstein, a lawyer, turned professor, turned political party founder, turned government minister, turned journalist and writer. After his recent retirement from politics and the mildly dovish Meretz party, he is spending more time pontificating in the Israeli media on his favorite topics. Which unfortunately means more of Rubinstein’s regular columns in the daily Ha’aretz newspaper using figures, usually supplied by the Central Bureau of Statistics, designed to prove that Israel is being unfairly demonized. A week ago, he turned his attention to the large gaps in educational achievement between Israel’s Muslim and Jewish population.

Communal pitfalls

6 March 2003

The small brown-domed Roman Catholic church in the village of Rama, located in the foothills of the central Galilee in northern Israel, is hidden among steep narrow winding streets. That may explain why an anti-tank missile fired three weeks ago missed the church, presumed to be its target, and hit instead a neighbouring building housing a group of Brazilian nuns. The thick stone walls halted the missile’s progress, leaving only damaged stone and shattered windows. Three nuns who were inside needed treatment for shock. “There was a huge explosion. Had the wall been made of concrete, the missile would have penetrated the building and all three of them might have been killed,” said a trainee priest, Ibrahim Zbeit. “It’s like a little Lebanon here at the moment.”

RAMALLAH, West Bank: The streets of Ramallah, unlike those of most other West Bank cities, are usually free of Israeli soldiers. Despite appearances, however, the army has stamped its control on the West Bank’s capital as certainly as its tanks have left deep tread marks on all the city’s roads. Nowadays soldiers move in only occasionally from their entrenched positions around the city to patrol the streets, make arrests or further humiliate the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, who is holed up in the only building in his compound of offices not bulldozed by the Israeli army.