April 2004

In less than three weeks, Israel’s most notorious prisoner will be released. Mordechai Vanunu, the man who exposed his country’s secret nuclear weapons programme, will walk free after 18 years behind bars – most of them in harsh solitary confinement. For nearly two decades, the Israeli authorities have been dreading the moment when Vanunu would be free to speak to the world in person about Israel’s development of nuclear arms, his abduction by Mossad agents and the details of his incarceration. The timing of his release – as the issue of weapons of mass destruction tops Washington’s Middle East agenda – could not be worse.

Yesterday a procession of pilgrims, each holding a palm branch, made their way up the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives from the Palestinian village of Eizariya, once the Biblical town of Bethany and home to Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. The annual procession follows the route of Jesus’s triumphal journey to Jerusalem, where he would soon suffer the agonies of the Passion so graphically portrayed in Mel Gibson’s recent blockbuster, and is one of the final moments of celebration in the Christian calendar before Easter. Churches around the world marked Palm Sunday with their own symbolic processions and a final blessing of palm branches.

HAIFA, Israel: It was a historic moment, personified in the diminutive figure of a 35-year-old scientist from Toronto, Canada who took the stage in Haifa at the weekend to tell a mixed audience of Palestinians and Israeli Jews: “I am the poster girl for the right of return.” Ayeda Ayed – both of whose names derive from the Arabic word for return – was in the Israeli port city on a double mission. First, she was there to attend the first-ever conference held in Israel on the right of return for the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war that founded Israel. The Palestinian refugee population, now standing at 5 million, is the largest in modern history, with some 3.5 million Palestinians languishing in camps across the Middle East more than 50 years after the war.

Broken lives

1 April 2004

Away from the protests marking the 28th anniversary of Land Day this week, the plight of two villages — one a former Muslim community, now destroyed, inside the state of Israel; the other an inhabited, largely Christian community located in occupied East Jerusalem — illustrates the continuing and unifying struggle of Palestinians to prevent their ever greater dispossession by Israel. Land Day commemorates the killing by the Israeli police of six Palestinian citizens in the Galilean town of Sakhnin in 1976 during protests against a wave of land confiscations by the state from the town’s inhabitants. The land was later transferred to a Jewish local authority, which built a ring of settlements around Sakhnin.

While the clashes over land confiscation from Palestinians in the West Bank have been capturing the headlines, another shocking development in the evolution of Israel’s wall, in Jerusalem, has gone entirely unnoticed. IIn recent weeks, Israeli bulldozers have finished their work at the Palestinian village of Abu Dis, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and moved to the very heart of the Holy City: the Mount of Olives. There demolition crews have begun scarring the eastern slopes of the mountain and uprooting hundreds of ancient olive trees. Paradoxically, the place where Israel’s activity is concentrated is at a hamlet known as Bait Fagi, which at this time of year is the focus of global Christian attention.

No concession

1 April 2004

There is an understandable, though unhealthy, trend among prominent critics of Israel, including both Palestinians and Israeli anti- Zionists, to suggest that any scheme proposed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that appears to benefit the Palestinians must be a “phantom” plan, or illusion, as Mustafa Barghouti recently put it on these pages. Their logic is appealing. Sharon’s “disengagement” — the evacuation of settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip — would effectively be an end to the 37-year occupation. All Israeli leaders, and most especially Sharon, have struggled to make sure there would never be a Palestinian state. Ergo, Sharon is lying. “Sharon is not changed or changing anything,” writes Barghouti.