September 2008

The words “Jewish” and “terrorist” are not easily uttered together by Israelis. But just occasionally, such as last week when one of the country’s leading intellectuals was injured by a pipe bomb placed at the front door of his home, they find themselves with little choice. The target was 73-year-old Zeev Sternhell, a politics professor specialising in European fascism. Shortly afterwards, police found pamphlets nearby offering 1.1 million shekels to anyone assassinating a Peace Now leader.

From just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, the simple stone and cinder-block homes of Silwan cascade southwards into a valley, known as the Holy Basin. The Palestinian residents are used to living in the shadow of history and religion, given dramatic physical form as the great silver dome of the al Aqsa mosque and the looming presence of the Mount of Olives. But of late, history has become a curse for most of Silwan’s residents. “We have cameras everywhere watching us night and day,” said Jawad Siyam.

“It is not right to hide behind fences, to live in ghettoes. This land belongs to the Jewish people and we must claim it proudly and without fear,” says 17-year-old Lital, enjoying the shade of an ancient olive tree in the West Bank with her teenage friends. In long flowing skirts, they gently strum guitars and play hand-carved flutes, a picture of back-to-nature wholesomeness. In the type of violation of international law that the UN’s Middle East envoy has urged the incoming Israeli prime minister Tzipi Livni to address, Lital lives deep in the West Bank next to the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

The ground floor of Zaki Khimayl’s home is a cafe where patrons can drink mint tea or fresh juice as they smoke on a water pipe. Located by Jaffa’s beach, a stone’s throw from Tel Aviv, the business should be thriving. Mr Khimayl, however, like hundreds of other families in the Arab neighbourhoods of Ajami and Jabaliya, is up to his eyes in debt and trapped in a world of bureaucratic regulations apparently designed with only one end in mind: his eviction from Jaffa.

Israel’s enduring use of Palestinian collaborators to entrench the occupation and destroy Palestinian resistance was once the great unmentionable of the Middle East conflict. When the subject was dealt with by the international and local media, it was solely in the context of the failings of the Palestinian legal system, which allowed the summary execution of collaborators by lynch mobs and kangaroo courts. That is beginning to change with a trickle of reports indicating the extent of Israel’s use of collaborators and the unwholesome techniques it uses to recruit them.

Scrawled across a wall on a busy main street is the statement in Hebrew: “Fashion equals promiscuity”. For women in some Israeli communities, such public sentiments are not simply idle graffiti – they are a warning, and one that is increasingly backed by threats of physical violence. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, religious fundamentalists who believe it is more important to follow their interpretation of God’s precepts than abide by Israeli laws, choose to live in separate neighbourhoods and towns, often close to the holy sites of Jerusalem.

The window through which Salam Amira, 16, filmed the moment when an Israeli soldier shot from close range a handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinian detainee has a large hole at its centre with cracks running in every direction. “Since my video was shown, the soldiers shoot at our house all the time,” she said. The shattered and cracked windows at the front of the building confirm her story. “When we leave the windows open, they fire tear gas inside too.” Her home looks out over the Israeli road block guarding the only entrance to the village of Nilin.

Today’s West Bank is a land of shocking contrasts – of one set of rules and rights for Palestinians and another for Jewish settlers. Palestinian lives are under the absolute control of the Israeli army, which can either seal off communities with roadblocks or invade them at will. The Palestinian economy is being slowly strangled by the separation barrier. Few Palestinians are allowed any longer to seek work inside Israel, and their freedom to move around the West Bank is severely curtailed by hundreds of checkpoints and the need for almost unattainable travel permits.