Israel’s broken promise seals a village’s fate

9 October 2002

BIRAM, Israel: Biram’s cemetery, nestling amid apple and olive trees in the rolling blue hills of the Upper Galilee in northern Israel, is carefully tended each day by Abrahim Iassa, 68, even though the village it once served no longer exists. The 1,000 Christian inhabitants of Biram were asked to leave their homes by the Israeli army in October 1948 – a few months after the establishment of the Jewish state – while soldiers cleared the area of enemy forces. Today, 54 years later, they are still waiting for permission to return. Iassa is increasingly pessimistic about his chances. “I’ll be honest,” he says. “I think there is only one way they will let me back to my village – and that is in a coffin.”

Destroying the soul

3 October 2002

Damon sits atop a wooded ridge of the Carmel mountain overlooking the shimmering blue of the Mediterranean near the northern Israeli city of Haifa. The view is the most pleasant part of a visit to the prison, an old farmhouse-turned-jail that was closed three years ago after the government deemed it unfit for human habitation. During the Intifada it has been hurriedly pressed back into service. Visiting times are fixed — sessions on Tuesday morning — but not strictly observed. A metal three door bars entry, leaving visitors to sit on the dusty ground by the whitewashed outer wall in the heat and glare of the late morning. It is difficult to know precisely how many Palestinians are currently being held in Israeli detention.

Olives and lives

1 October 2002

Isaac Shabati was back in the West Bank last weekend for the first time since he completed his Israeli military service in the reserves more than a decade ago. But this time he found himself on the “wrong” side of the ethnic divide of the occupation — with the Palestinians rather than the Israeli army. Shabati, a 54-year-old marketing manager from the village of Vradim in central Galilee, was among a small group of Israelis who had come to Kfar Yasuf to help protect Palestinian farmers with their olive harvest. The village, one of several close to Nablus that over the past month have been at the receiving end of violence from settlers, was the first to hit the headlines, at the start of October, when local settlers tried to steal the crop two weeks before the olives were ripe.

Heavy price for occupation and resistance

26 September 2002

The luxury Renaissance hotel in Nazareth, completed only months before the outbreak of the Intifada, is perched on a dramatic cliff above the Jezreel Valley in the Lower Galilee. Designed to accommodate pilgrims visiting the town in which Christ was raised, there are 250 air-conditioned rooms, a large outdoor swimming pool, and bars and restaurants with spectacular views of Mount Tabor. But the Renaissance, like most hotels in Israel, has barely had an occupant in the past two years. This month the management announced that it was to be put to new use. It is to become a detention centre for foreign workers, mainly Thais, Filipinos, Koreans and Nigerians, whose work permits have expired and are due to be deported.

The impossible state?

26 September 2002

PLO officials have completed their first maps of the West Bank detailing Israel’s plans for its 360km security fence and have concluded that Israel is rapidly destroying any negotiating options for the Palestinians, particularly over the long- running stumbling block of Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Task Force, working for Abu Mazen’s negotiation affairs department, which presented Palestinian positions at the Camp David and Taba talks, says the completion of the electronic fence will make the realisation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel impossible. President George W Bush has repeatedly stated that he favours the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.

A Nelson Mandela for the Palestinians?

24 September 2002

JERUSALEM: Back in January when Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank’s Fatah leader, was still a free man, he penned a commentary in The Washington Post (IHT, Jan. 18) which rather exaggerated the likelihood of his death. Warning that he would probably pay with his life for his advocacy of the Palestinian right to resist Israeli occupation, he concluded: “So let my position be clear in order that my death not be lightly dismissed by the world as just one more statistic in Israel’s war on terrorism.” But Barghouti is not resting in a Palestinian cemetery, another victim of targeted assassination. Instead he is on trial, surrounded by the world’s media, charged with terrorism offenses.

Flexing democratic muscles

19 September 2002

It was the final nail in Yasser Arafat’s coffin, or so some observers in Israel confidently asserted. The forced resignation of all 21 members of Arafat’s cabinet, effectively the collapse of his government, was the dramatic climax to the three- day meeting of the Palestinian Parliament, the Legislative Council, in Ramallah last week. Arafat had suspected that he would face grievances from the delegates, who have had to endure enforced impotence during most of the Intifada, unable to meet or voice growing complaints about Arafat’s autocratic style, the widespread corruption among his ministers and the Palestinian failure to stop or challenge Israel’s reoccupation of West Bank cities.

The ‘enemy’ within

12 September 2002

Israel’s lengthy Or Commission ended hurriedly last month, as Arab lawyers produced last-minute evidence of ministerial cover-ups, political intrigues and a secret police document suggesting that commanders had adopted a policy of treating the country’s Arab minority as an enemy since 1994, in what were the early days of the Oslo peace process when Israel was supposed to be reaching a permanent agreement with the Palestinians. The inquiry, which has been taking place over the past 18 months, has been examining events at the start of the Intifada in early October 2000 when the country’s police force shot dead 13 Palestinian citizens.

Email from Jericho

26 August 2002

A huge, modern glass edifice dominates the entrance to the West Bank city of Jericho. Two years ago, before the outbreak of the intifada, it was a magnet for thousands of Israelis, who were drawn each weekend to its gaming tables. They were waited on by more than a thousand Palestinians, who staffed the bars and roulette wheels, while hundreds more pampered the Israelis staying at the neighbouring five-star Inter-Continental hotel. Today the Oasis casino is dark and locked, and two security guards prevent anyone approaching. The price of a hotel room has been slashed to entice visitors but the guests, invariably diplomats, rarely outnumber the eight staff who keep the place ticking over until better times return.

Reservations reborn

15 August 2002

The scores of corrugated zinc shacks that form the village of Wadi Al-Naam, south of Beersheva, almost visibly vibrate to the humming of thousands of volts of electricity that surge through the power lines overhead. There are as many pylons to be found here as homes. The population of 3,900 Bedouins, who have lived on this land and farmed it since well before the creation of the state of Israel, have been left in no doubt of how much their presence at the site is valued. Over the past decades the state’s planning authorities have turned Wadi Al-Naam into the bleakest of environmental blackspots. To the west of the village has been built a vast chemical dump, Ramat Hubab, the site at which all of Israel’s toxic chemical waste is disposed.

Israel’s Vietnam

8 August 2002

The small fleet of light aircraft swept in low over the northern Negev on a clear spring morning bearing a message from the Israeli government for the region’s Bedouin farmers. The planes released their load of toxic chemicals, stored in canisters under the wings, a hundred feet or so above fields of cereal crops. A fine mist settled on the plants, darkening each stalk over the next few days until it shrivelled and died. Over some areas, the pilots paid scant attention to where they were spraying: 1000 students at the Al-Amar school in the village of Chirbe Alutan, close to farming land, also received a dose of the pesticide, although no one was sent by the authorities to check on the effects.

Punishing blood ties

25 July 2002

Israel’s latest plan for cracking down on suicide attacks managed the seemingly impossible: it lined up the whole international community, from the Arab League to the United States, against Israel and its policy of exiling the families of Palestinian militants. For several weeks the Israeli security cabinet and the army had been secretly discussing ways to deter suicide bombers. The proposals included trying to block the transfer of money from Arab states to the bombers’ families and arresting Palestinian clerics who support attacks against Israel. The hard-liners in both the cabinet and the military, however, were seeking harsher and more direct retaliation against the families, including deporting them abroad, possibly to Jordan, and extending the military practice of demolishing their homes. Some officers argued that this was the only way to make Palestinians think twice before enlisting on suicide missions.

Restricting humanitarian aid

18 July 2002

Eva Rimsten, a 34-year-old Swedish lawyer, arrived at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on an early morning flight on 24 June. She had with her a letter from one of the leading humanitarian organisations in Gaza, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, explaining that she was a volunteer specialising in children’s rights. The centre’s legal investigations of human rights violations committed by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have earned it an international reputation. But Rimsten never made it to Gaza. In fact she never made it beyond passport control. Asked the purpose of her stay, she showed officials the letter.

The walls around Jericho

11 July 2002

Two years ago, before the outbreak of the Intifada, several thousand wealthy customers, mainly Israelis, gathered each weekend to play the tables of the Oasis casino in Jericho. More than a thousand Palestinians staffed the bars and roulette wheels, and hundreds more pampered the guests staying in the 181 luxurious rooms of the attached Inter-Continental hotel. Today the casino is dark and locked, and two security guards prevent anyone approaching. The price of a room at the hotel has been slashed in an attempt to entice foreign visitors, the only people still allowed unfettered access to the oldest city in the world. But the guests, invariably diplomats, rarely outnumber the eight staff who keep the place ticking over until better times return.

Curfew!

4 July 2002

It was a far shorter visit than I intended. Within 55 minutes of entering Jenin, my meeting at the Al-Razi hospital was cut short and I was joining everyone else in an unexpected and tank- enforced “rush hour” to get home. Minutes earlier, a doctor had burst into the consulting room of pediatrician Dr Ali Jabareen to tell us that the curfew, which had been lifted by the army till 6pm, was being reimposed with immediate effect. I looked at my watch: it was 1.08pm. The streets that moments earlier were busy with shoppers, were emptying. Stores clattered down their shopfront grills and house doors were hurriedly locked. Road junctions grew noisily congested as drivers battled against the traffic to leave the town centre.

A false vacuum

4 July 2002

It was presumably not what US President George W Bush had in mind last week when he proclaimed in his Middle East speech that a new Palestinian leadership must emerge before talks could begin on the shape of an interim Palestinian state. Hossam Nazzal, a 41-year-old political unknown, faxed a letter to the Palestinian Authority on Monday declaring his candidacy against Yasser Arafat for the presidential elections due next January. Nazzal, a psychiatrist from the West Bank town of Jenin, has been living in France for the past 16 years. His name will be added to a very short list: so far the only other contender is Abdel-Sattar Qassem, a 54-year- old dissident academic from Al-Najah University in Nablus.

Palestinians need not apply

30 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.

Censorship with a global reach

30 June 2002

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.

Adding another fence

20 June 2002

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.”

‘Ticking timebombs?’

13 June 2002

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”.