Until the Intifada began 16 months ago, the Basilica of the Annunciation attracted queues of thousands of pilgrims from around the globe each day. But for the past three months, the peace inside the church has been shattered by pneumatic drills and bulldozers digging in the neighbouring car park, as well as the five-times-a-day call to prayer by the local sheikh using a loudspeaker mounted on a makeshift pulpit of palm leaves.
When the Arab village of Al-Naim got its first junior school two years ago – a caravan – the teacher spent the first day explaining to her 35 new charges what a toilet was. It was the first one they had ever seen. Al-Naim and its 700 inhabitants are all Israeli citizens living a few miles from Haifa, one of the country’s most modern and vibrant cities.
The town in the Galilee, in which Christ grew up, has not escaped the commercialisation of Christmas. Shining from shop awnings along Nazareth’s main street are hundreds of inflatable Father Christmases and glossy Rudolph the Red- Nose Reindeers gently swaying in the cool breeze of winter. Silver trees and artificial snow are in almost every window. Competing for attention as dusk fell last week on Paul VI Street were the constant explosions of firecrackers thrown by children celebrating the final days of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, which this year coincided with the build-up to Christmas. Parents marked the occasion in more subdued fashion by snaking long strings of green lights — the colour associated with Islam — along their balconies and windows.
The town in Galilee in which Christ grew up has not escaped the commercialisation of Christmas. Shining from shop awnings along Nazareth’s main street are hundreds of inflatable Father Christmases swaying in the cool breeze of an Israeli winter.
The Labour Party — in its current guise and earlier incarnation as Mapai — has ruled Israel for most of the country’s 53 years. But, since Ehud Barak’s huge 25- point defeat in last February’s elections, ideological and political infighting has torn the party apart. Today there are almost as many separate voices in the party as there are Labour members in the Knesset. The fate of Labour has been inextricably tied to the success of the peace process ever since its late leader Yitzhak Rabin declared his conversion to the cause of peace with the Palestinians at Oslo in 1993. Now with that process in tatters, the party is adrift and directionless as its traditional rival, Likud, rallies the Israeli public to a new cause, that of war.
Drivers arriving in Tel Aviv are being greeted with a giant message of reassurance. Some 24,000 light bulbs have been draped over one of the Azriela Towers — Israel’s very own version of New York’s now-departed Twin Towers — to form a huge Star of David. The Azriela company is also handing out 25,000 miniature Israeli flags and half a million stickers bearing a slogan demanding steadfastness from the Israeli public: “It’s up to us.” The purpose of all this jingoism, says the firm, is to prevent the country yielding to “an exaggerated prophecy of destruction that will become self-fulfilling.” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is surely delighted: he believes that Israelis need to demonstrate the same patriotic spirit that has so rapidly infected the American public realm since 11 September.
Said Rabih received his letter from the army last March, shortly before his eighteenth birthday. Like thousands of other young Israelis, he was told that he was being called up for three years of military service. But eight months later, Rabih is still a civilian and determined never to wear the uniform of his country’s army – even though he faces a lengthy jail sentence should the authorities catch up with him. And sooner or later they will. The next time he is stopped for a spot-check his identity card will give him away – clearly marked are both his date of birth and the word “Druze.” Since 1956 Israel’s 80,000 Druze have been required by law to do military service alongside Jews. The country’s other Palestinian communities – Muslims, Christians and Bedouin – are exempted.
The banging by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the door for entry to the coalition against terror has grown deafening in the past weeks. After his meeting with President George W. Bush in Washington on Sunday, which coincided with a weekend of the worst violence inflicted on Israel since 1996, he was finally admitted. Sharon wasted no time in launching his own single- handed war on terrorism on his return from the US the next day. But his target was not Hamas, the group responsible for the weekend’s spate of suicide bomb attacks — two plus a car bomb in the heart of West Jerusalem and another on a bus in Haifa — that left 26 Israelis dead and at least 275 injured. Instead his goal was the political and personal destruction of the Palestinian Authority leader, Yasser Arafat.
Last week saw a crucial moment in the 14- month-old Al-Aqsa Intifada, launched in late September 2000 by the outpouring of Palestinian anger at Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to Haram Al-Sharif. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his internal security minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, who headed the Israeli cabinet when the Intifada broke out, took the witness stand over their role in a spate of Palestinian deaths that spurred on the Intifada. Both Barak and Ben Ami were giving evidence to the Or Commission, a judicial inquiry investigating the slayings of 13 unarmed Palestinian-born Israeli citizens by police in the country’s Galilee region. It is the first time either Barak or Ben Ami have been officially questioned about the event, which occurred in the immediate aftermath of the start of the uprising.
Nimer Sultany leans forward to reveal the wound to the top of his head. Still visible through his cropped hair, more than two weeks after the Israeli police kicked him and hit him with batons, is a large, bloodied gash. “This,” the young lawyer says, “is how the police deal with us when we demonstrate non-violently.” Seated under the billowing plastic sheeting of his town’s protest tent, Sultany points to the bulldozers 50 metres or so away, close to where he was attacked by the Yassam, an elite unit of the Israeli police. “They were like wild dogs. They just laid into us all; women, children, it didn’t matter.” Hundreds of demonstrators, including students, local farmers, Arab members of the Knesset and activists from Jewish environmental groups, turned out on 30 October to protest at the confiscation of the town’s fields on the outskirts of Tira in central Israel.
Israel’s “Margaret Thatcher” is forcing more than 370,000 Palestinian students to learn Zionist values and salute the Israeli flag. Jonathan Cook writes from Nazareth Head teacher Faisal Taha raised the Israeli flag over his dilapidated secondary school in Nazareth last week for the first time since the outbreak of the Intifada. There was nothing nationalistic, or even voluntary, about the act. Had he not done so, the school risked losing thousands of dollars in funding. Taha stopped flying the flag in October last year in response to anger from pupils and parents at the slayings of 13 Arab citizens of Israel by the police in the Galilee, including three deaths in Nazareth itself. Local education officials objected to his decision and withheld a $9,500 grant.
The Israeli leadership was steering a collision course with its Palestinian minority this week when it stripped Knesset member Azmi Bishara, one of the country’s most outspoken critics, of his parliamentary immunity in order to put him on trial for treason. The decision allows Bishara to be prosecuted in the criminal courts for his political comments.
The spotlight of Israel’s judicial investigation into the killings of 13 Palestinian civilians last October, at the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, has shifted its focus from the police to the political leadership. The early sign of this shift were that the minister responsible for the security forces at the time, Shlomo Ben-Ami, was distancing himself as much as possible from the actions of his police officers. Five months of police testimony to the Or Commission have brought revelations of execution-style killings by officers and the deployment of a sniper squad, which is usually used against terrorists.
For good reason 67-year-old cemetery keeper Abrahim Iassa tends the graves on a hillside overlooking the village of Biram with an unusual degree of dedication. “At the moment,” he says, “there is only one way I will be allowed to return to my village — in a coffin. I’m an old man but Israel thinks I am a security threat as long as I’m alive.” He is not alone. The 1,000 original inhabitants of Biram, located in the Upper Galilee, have been waging a 53-year battle with successive Israeli governments to be allowed to return to the land from which they were evacuated during the 1948 war.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1948 war that founded Israel, the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, established a new law: families would receive a large cash sum on the birth of their 10th child. The policy was a central plank in Ben-Gurion’s plans to repopulate a land from which most of the Palestinian people had fled or were forcibly expelled. The policy did not last long, however. A short time later, when he asked his officials how the scheme was doing, Ben-Gurion was surprised to learn that, although many women had been claiming the payment, almost none were Jewish. The main beneficiaries were the 150,000-strong community of Arabs that had stayed on their lands and become Israeli citizens. The scheme was scrapped.
Nowadays, all roads in the West Bank city of Ramallah lead either to a traffic jam or a dead end. The journey starts promisingly enough. The centre of Ramallah is a huge roundabout called the Minara with a skeletal metal sculpture at its heart, the outline of what appears to be a rocket pointing to the stars. Two years ago it was made more imposing with the addition of four life-size stone lions around the base, each standing at the head of a road and roaring at the horizon. There has been much speculation among Palestinians about these lions, which were hewn from stone in China. It is generally accepted that they represent the city’s four great hamulas, or families.
In Israel’s Supreme Court building in Jerusalem, there is a room divided by a wall of reinforced glass. On one side sit the families of 13 Arab citizens of Israel shot dead last October by the country’s police force; on the other, a panel of judges, court officials and witnesses, there to shed light on the events surrounding the deaths. Although both sides can see and hear each other through the wall, it might as well be made of concrete.
Dominating the front pages of Israeli newspapers for the past two months has been evidence that last October, as world attention was focused on the violence of the Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza, police snipers were carrying out execution-style killings of their own citizens. All 13 victims were Arabs, suggesting to many that the motive for the killings was racist.
Israelis have been reading disturbing revelations about their police force for the past two months. Dominating the front pages of newspapers is evidence that last October, as world attention was distracted by the violence of the Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza, police snipers were quietly carrying out execution-style killings of their own citizens. All 13 victims were Arabs, suggesting to many that the motive for the killings was racist.
The school playground in the village of Al-Khader, near Bethlehem, has been a children’s battleground for the past six months: pupils finish classes at midday and congregate to throw stones at the Israeli soldiers stationed in the hills around their homes. The confrontation was relatively trouble-free until last month when soldiers fired tear gas into the playground. One canister landed only a few feet from 13-year-old Sliman Salah, enveloping him in a cloud of gas described by witnesses as an unfamiliar, yellow colour. Within a minute he was unconscious.