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.
A huge, modern glass edifice dominates the entrance to the West Bank city of Jericho. Two years ago, it was a magnet for thousands of Israelis, who were drawn each weekend to its gaming tables. Today the Oasis casino is dark and locked, and two security guards prevent anyone approaching.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen entered Jenin refugee camp and declared the sight of the devastated camp “horrific beyond belief”. The pictures of a vast wasteland that days before had been home to thousands of Palestinians shocked the world. Weeks later, the horror of the camp is undiminished.
Hands scratching frantically at the grey dust were searching for a body under the rubble. Watching intently were the brothers of Jamal Fayid, a mentally and physically handicapped man of 37 who died when Israeli bulldozers demolished the family’s house before Jamal could be evacuated. His body has been missing for seven weeks.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat plunged himself deeper into his promised institutional reforms by agreeing, under pressure from the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), to a six-month deadline for parliamentary and presidential ballots. His pledge, though, has failed to silence critics, domestic and foreign, largely because of the conditions attached. Elections, it was announced, will be held only if Israel withdraws to its September 2000 lines. Dissatisfaction with Arafat’s handling of the 20- month uprising has been increasingly voiced by Palestinians since he emerged from his besieged Ramallah compound.
The large arched sign over the village entrance reads “Welcome to Ghajar” in Arabic and Hebrew, but the approach road and soldiers dug into a nearby fortified army post belie the greeting. Ghajar, which along with the rest of the Syrian Golan Heights was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, can only be reached by a four-mile road marked with frequent yellow signs warning “Danger: Mines” and a humming electrified fence reinforced with barbed wire. On the other side is Lebanon. Our car’s way into the village is blocked by concrete barriers. To the right, just visible in a raised concrete pillbox, a soldier studies the horizon through a pair of high-powered binoculars. An armoured vehicle with a machine-gun mounting peeks out from behind a high grass embankment, where more troops are hidden from view.
An arched sign at the village entrance reads “Welcome to Ghajar” in Arabic and Hebrew, but the approach road and soldiers dug into an army post belie the greeting. Ghajar, which was captured by Israel in 1967, is reached by a road marked with signs warning “Danger: Mines” and a humming electrified fence.
Lawyers and international observers are excluded from Ofer detention camp at Betunia, near Ramallah, where it is believed 1,400 prisoners are currently being held. More than 5,000 Palestinians have passed through the camp since the start of Israel’s “Defensive Shield” operation. Seven leading Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations were due to appear before Israel’s high court today to demand that they be allowed to see conditions at the camp. New emergency laws permit Israel to hold suspects for up to 18 days without access to a lawyer or a hearing before a judge. Detainees have then either been released or sent on to military prisons such as Ketziot in the Negev desert and Megiddo in northern Israel.