My Trip to Palestine




Palestinian children pour into the streets of Nablus to greet the international volunteers.



As I write this I’ve just learned that two individuals, Susan Barclay of Seattle and Lisa Jones of the UK, two very brave human beings, are amongst the five international solidarity workers missing after being abducted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on Sept. 5. It’s 9 p.m. in New York and it’s 3 a.m. in Palestine. Can’t call. Have to wait. Can’t reach anyone in the States either. Damn!

This is so much like the Palestine I visited in July. I see it only as e-mails now. Every day, often even every few minutes, word comes of a new emergency, a new disaster for someone or some community in Palestine. There’s never enough time or people or resources to really deal with all the crises.

What I saw was a sham called “the Oslo peace process.” The deal was first brokered by Bill Clinton and agreed to in 1993 by Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Don’t believe it. It’s just a con.

Under cover of “Oslo,” the rate of new Jewish settler construction has increased an incredible seven times over that of 1993, while Palestinian poverty in the occupied territories has doubled. (The occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, are areas illegally occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. It constitutes a mere 22 percent of historic Palestine).

These supposedly Palestinian-administered lands are broken up into tiny South Africa-style Bantustans, with the ultimate authority resting in the hands of the Israelis. (See “The New Intifada,” Verso Books, 2001.)

I was in Palestine with the International Solid-arity Movement, a relatively new organization formed in August 2001, almost a year after the onset of the “New Intifada,” or uprising, which began on Sept. 29, 2000.

Our small group, brave people all, were from the U.S., the UK, Norway, Sweden, and Japan. We were stationed in the Balata Refugee Camp in the West Bank city of Nablus. Although Balata was still under UN supervision, modest apartment buildings had replaced the tents of 1948.

We were there to protect the home of a family threatened with demolition. Why demolition? Israel’s policy is to demolish the homes of families of resistance fighters and, inevitably, that of their neighbors too. Family members are deported to Gaza, where conditions are worst of all.

Does Israel require evidence that links the family’s to that of the accused? Not at all! The policy is in absolute defiance of the 1949 Geneva Convention agreements on war, designed to avoid a repetition of Nazi atrocities against civilians!

We stayed with a wonderful family in the throes of a tragedy. They had just lost their son. He and another young man blew themselves up at a dinner, killing three in addition to themselves. The three were immigrant workers, said the papers, and were not Jews.

The family was devastated. They were heartsick over what happened-but had just lost a son. I can attest that these were a gentle people; kind in every sense. Relatives and friends came to the house, which is occupied by three families, to give them comfort. I remember the many times I was asked to sit next to someone to eat, to drink, or to just talk.

“Tell Bush we’re not all terrorists. The Israelis are the real terrorists,” was the thought I most often heard there and actually throughout my trip. The father told me that “I was now family.”

There is a warmth in Palestine I’ve seen in few other places. Everyone, I mean everyone, is friendly. Kids pour out into the streets to greet internationals as they walk by. Cars stop and kids jump out just to wave.

Some thoughts on the son: What more can an oppressed people do than explode their own bodies? Can anything so desperate reveal as strikingly that this is a war of unequal forces; that there is oppression?

Yes, in a war the target should be military but when have the Israelis ever obeyed their pompous lectures on terrorism? History records that the state of Israel itself was founded on terrorism; massacres were followed by 750,000 Palestinian refugees fleeing their homeland in 1948. Some 320, 000 more fled in the 1967 war.

Consider this: The Israelis have all the planes (U.S.-made F-16s), all the helicopters (U.S.-made Apaches), and almost all the guns (U.S.-made M-16 rifles). The civilian death tolls have always weighed heaviest on the Palestinian side. How could it be otherwise with such absolute military superiority? In Balata bullet holes from Israeli planes and tanks ran across apartment windows and shop windows with the clear intent to kill anything that moved.

Adding to the physical terror is the fact that almost everyone I spoke with couldn’t find work. I saw recently that unemployment in the occupied territories may reach 80 percent and that the poverty is so bad it approaches famine conditions. In order to help, the UN does distribute a limited number of bags of flour and some milk, but many Palestinians sell their portions just to have a little cash. I saw bags of flour stacked in one grocery store around the corner from a UN truck.

Clearly, Israeli policy is to terrorize the Palestinian people, destroy them, pulverize them, demoralize them, starve them, and humiliate them at military check-points, until they leave Palestine and never return. Or, at least imprison them in a racist hell. The Zionist madmen are now actually constructing a physical wall around the West Bank. Can you believe it? The Nazis too erected a wall-but theirs was to contain Jews living in the Warsaw ghetto!

As one young Palestinian put it to me, “The biggest problem here is the occupation. There is no difference between being alive or dead.”

Night time in Balata

Guarding the family’s house against demolition was as frightening as anything any of us had ever done. The family faced it with incredible calm. I don’t know how they did it.

Our object was to show the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) that internationals were present, we hoped, to act as a deterrent. Someone was always on the roof at night and as visible as possible. We heard that homes were demolished in the middle of night so we stayed up until the early hours taking turns on the roof and at our places inside.

Inside, we devised a plan to surround the women and possibly prevent arrest and brutality. One of us, Sherrill, was ready with a megaphone not far behind the steel door that we fully expected the IDF to blast open with explosive charges. It was Sherrill’s job to persuade the IDF, over the racket made by tanks, that we were non-violent and were there to observe. That strategy and a press release was all that we had.

Fortunately, the IDF never came. Was it because of us? Who knows? But many other homes have been demolished since. Their wonderful home could still be blown up at any time. The ISM is still there.

But night in Balata was still filled with terrors. There were occasional bursts of machine gun fire striking who knows where. Tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) could be heard all night long like giant monsters rumbling down Jerusalem Street near the house or even across town, stopping to rev their engines, then go a short distance, only to stop and repeat the incredibly noisy sequence all over again.

To what purpose? Said Palestinians, “psychological terror.”

Occasionally, we heard rapidly firing cannons originating from the military base on the mountaintop overlooking Balata. I was told by a friend that the guns fired non-explosive “big bullets” capable of incredible penetration.

Twice I saw, but couldn’t photograph, a powerful green laser sighting device used to scan the entire town also originating from the mountaintop. It was like something right out of the 1950s science fiction classic, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

Check-point Charlies

An important ISM objective was to open check-points established to enforce the ever-present curfews imposed on the occupied territories. Curfews are used to torment Palestinians psychologically and prevent them from working or just seeing loved ones in even the same town.

I was told that the Balata camp was the only place the Israelis couldn’t really impose a curfew, due to the incredible determination of rock-throwing kids. I myself witnessed kids chasing an Israeli Armored Personnel Carrier (APC). True or not, it sure looked very possible!

The first check-point conflict we heard about was on the road to the town of Tel, located on top of the mile-high Ebal Mountain outside Nablus. It’s where God, someone said, spoke to Abraham.

It was near curfew time at 1 p.m. and up to 100 Palestinians were trying to return home to Tel. If they could not get home, then what could they do? Wander the streets during curfew?

With the Palestinians’ permission about 10 ISMers led the procession toward the check-point. We began to plead with one soldier holding an M-16 machine gun. Women with children, some handicapped, and seniors holding special medications begged the soldiers, some breaking out in tears.

After the soldiers had given several warnings-and a gunshot to the ground-ISMers put our bodies between the soldiers and the Palestinians. In the end, the soldiers allowed just a few through before hurling a sound bomb and then a smoke grenade. We all retreated and we then escorted the people, at their asking, by a very rugged and roundabout route to the top of the mountain to Tel.

On succeeding nights three internationalists-Ethan, Meka, and Eric-went again to Tel. There they saw the horrific sight of three immigrant workers the IDF thought to be “terrorists,” all dead, with at least one having had the top of his head virtually blown off. The IDF had tried to prevent them and the townspeople from seeing the bodies. As he protested, Ethan was punched and then threatened by a Jewish soldier of Ethiopian origin.

Graveyard visit

An out-of-work teacher, who had also become a friend, was prevented from working in Israel, like so many others, basically because he’s Palestinian.

My new friend took me on a tour of Balata, which included a stop at a graveyard where a number of young men spend time being near departed loved ones. Everyone had time in Balata. There are simply no jobs to go to. Said one man, “We haven’t any money to live. [I’m] two years without a job. What can we do?”

I listened to their stories. During roughly March and April, the Balata camp was attacked for some 21 days. In the attack, said one man, 21, he lost his brother, 23, who was killed next to his home when the Israelis attacked and he himself was shot in the leg.

Another man, 24, said his brother, 32, was shot on the border of Balata when the army surrounded the camp a few days before the attack. There was fighting as tanks fired their machine guns into Balata.

The brother’s woman companion, 21, was a university student in Nablus and died from a shot in the head-but not before witnessing the death of her lover and the man’s older brother.

A third man, 26, told me he was shot at by a Jewish settler as he passed a nearby hillside Jewish area. He showed me a row of missing teeth where the bullet struck. Did he report it, I naively asked? “No,” said the man, “We cannot tell the police. There is no justice here.”

Another man’s two-year-old son was killed by gunfire; as he was burying the child with the help of a friend the Israelis fired rockets into the graveyard, which killed his friend. The father said that the Israelis believed they were burying explosives in the graveyard and actually unearthed the dead two-year old to examine the grave! (Note: The graves contain more than one body due to a shortage of space.)

Others described their own situation. One man recounted his hellish two years in prison for taking part in a demonstration. There were 20 in his cell, which he described as four meters by four meters. During that time visits from relatives were prohibited. He has three children and no job.

Yet another man said that “an explosive bullet” struck his left hand, which is now completely gone. He went three hours without treatment and says that Israeli travel restrictions and a lack of money prevent him from getting proper treatment to this day.

As we left the graveyard a man beckoned to us to enter his family’s home and see its bullet-riddled interior, which they had luckily left just in time. As we said goodbye his neighbor said to us, “We have very great hatred for Israel, but especially Bush. He is the biggest terrorist in the world. He is a big racist. We are like the Black people of America.”

Families under the gun

With other internationals I visited two families whose homes were being occupied by the IDF. The troops come and go without warning and stay for up to a month or more.

In a home in Al-Masaken, three families are confined to the bottom floor of their house. They have no money and no food. We bring them a food package that should last them until a scheduled lifting of the curfew in a few days.

The soldiers, sometimes 40 in number, stole about $200 worth of food. When the curfew briefly lifts the families quickly check in with their neighbors, who try to help as best they can. The families complain about hearing guns going off and noisy parties. Every hour at night one of the 10 tanks parked outside will rev their engines.

In an upper-middle-class neighborhood just outside Nablus, strategically located atop a mountain overlooking the city, a home to a family of six had recently been occupied for the fifth time by the IDF. The last time over 40 soldiers came shooting their automatic rifles into the air after shooting out the glass widows of their car.

The family has no guns in the house but when the father opened the door all the soldier’s guns were pointed at him. An Apache helicopter hovered above their roof. Twenty tanks and 10 APCs were outside. The family was confined to one bedroom.

During the occupation Palestinian prisoners were taken to their living room blindfolded and handcuffed, then interrogated and beaten. The family, of course, heard it all. Soldiers would sometimes shoot at Palestinians from their balcony.

Finally, the family was ordered to leave the house after 10 days and ordered not to return until the soldiers left. They learned of the IDF’s departure only after neighbors informed them.

The family estimates the damage to their home at $100,000. They haven’t received a penny. Said the oldest daughter, 20, “Are we the criminals or are the soldiers criminals?”

As I conclude this, I’ve just learned that my ISM friends are safe after being abducted by the IDF. They were dumped on a highway and banned from reentering Nablus. They made it to Jerusalem, from what I hear.

How long will they be safe? Who knows? But, for Palestinians, they are never safe in occupied Palestine-“peace process” or not.

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