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.
Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s victory in the election for prime minister has provoked much gnashing of teeth among Israel’s left-wing peace campaigners. As their standard-bearer, Ehud Barak, slipped ever further in the polls, his reputation sullied by months of fruitless negotiations with Yasser Arafat, the future they painted was doom-laden. If anyone is certain to sink the peace process, they wail, it is the right-wing general. And yet if Sharon succeeds in chasing the peace movement off to the margins of Israeli politics, it will be no bad thing.
Being a postman in Nazareth is trickier than in most towns. The danger of attack by dog is probably no greater than elsewhere in Israel, but finding an address requires an unusually intimate knowledge of the tangle of back streets: most have no name, and the houses no numbers. Space is at such a premium that as families grow so do their homes – through a series of extensions and additions, most of them illegal. As one resident observed: “If the council can’t find room to build pavements, how are we expected to find a plot for a new home?”
Tairif Abu Dayya has had a hectic month. In his PLO shop in Gaza City, amid dozens of inflatable Yasser Arafat dolls dangling from the ceiling, he and his family have been hurriedly sewing 3,000 flags. The order, placed by the Palestinian National Authority before the start of the Camp David summit a fortnight ago, should ensure there are enough flags to mark the declaration of Palestinian statehood, long threatened by Arafat for mid-September.