By Ritu Menon, Womens Feature Service
I doubt that I will ever again be able to utter that innocuous word “occupation” with equanimity. In Palestine it hits you smack between the eyes, trips you, ties you down. You can never put enough distance between it and yourself. It’s hard – when 90 per cent of your land is under the Israelis and only 10 per cent can be claimed as your own – with their permission. When the colour of your Identity Card – blue for Jerusalem, green for the West Bank, brown for Gaza – determines your mobility within your own country. When there are 570 checkpoints controlled by the Israeli Defence Forces in the tiny area of the West Bank.
Raja Shehadeh, the highly regarded Palestinian writer, author of Palestinian Walks, says: ‘Where I live, not only has a mere 5900 sq. kms. been divided into 227 geographical areas, I also live next to a people some of whom show signs of derangement with which they try to infect us. Some 60 years ago they cleared away an entire nation and thought that by renaming their ancient places they would wipe clean the slate of history. Those who tried to return were called infiltrators and shot. A new military order, No. 1650, just passed, defines all Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank as infiltrators.’
When I said cheerfully to Suad over the phone, “See you soon in Jerusalem,” she replied gently, “I’m not allowed into Jerusalem, Ritu, I’ll see you in Nablus.”
On Victory Day, May 1945, David Ben-Gurion entered a quotation from the Prophet Hosea (9:1) in his diary: “Do not rejoice, O Israel; do not be jubilant like the other nations.” And on the day after the surrender he wrote, “Victory Day. Sad, very sad.” Ben-Gurion reckoned that Britain would no longer fulfill its commitments to Zionism, and that meant war with the Arabs. “I began to prepare for war,” he wrote to his wife, Paula.
The war that began then, in 1948, the year of the Palestinian Naqba, has been waging ever since.
Were the Arabs mistaken in refusing UN Resolution 181 in 1948, which assigned 48 per cent of historic Palestine to the Palestinians and 49 per cent to the Zionists? Could they have forestalled the appropriation of 78 per cent of their land by the immigrants? Could they have foreseen the erosion of their farms, the nibbling away of their territory, the assault of the settlements?
All the ‘What Ifs’ of history…
Land. Not any old land. The Holy Land. Who can claim it, who owns it, who controls it, who appropriates it, who is dispossessed… Suad says, “I tell you, Ritu, the Israelis they say, ‘Peace, peace, peace’, but they take Land, land, land.”
Land for roads, land for the settlers, land for the Wall, for the righteous, land that is rearranged… The Palestinian-American writer, Susan Abulhawa’s book, ‘Mornings in Jenin’, from which she read in Jerusalem, opens with: ‘In a distant time, before history marched over the hills and shattered present and future, before wind grabbed the land at one corner and shook it of its name and character, before Amal was born, a small village east of Haifa lived quietly on figs and olives, open frontiers and sunshine.’
The landscape is Biblical. Low hills, rich in the pale ivory stone that all Palestinian buildings are made of, but scrabbly and quite barren otherwise. Except for the olive trees, which dot the hills and valleys, yielding the most luscious of olives, the lightest and clearest of oils.
Olives. Almonds. Pomegranate. Loquat. The grapes of Hebron and the apricots of Beit Jala… a cornucopia of fruit from a land under siege, a land divided by a wall.
The Wall – 600 kilometres of electrified concrete slabs, eight metres high, topped with razor wire, arc lights, surveillance cameras, encircling the West Bank, snaking through fields and olive groves, through city streets, alongside homes, dividing friends and families, erecting barriers and checkpoints. The Israelis call it a “security fence”, a protection against suicide bombers; the Palestinians call it the Apartheid Wall. Estimated to have cost $ 3.2 billion, it is two-thirds complete, and its human and economic costs have been staggering. Thousands of olive trees, some over 600 years old, have been uprooted; hundreds of thousands villagers dispossessed, their farming at a standstill. The Wall is supposed to follow the contours of the Green Line – the ceasefire line of 1967 – but it doesn’t. Whenever an illegal or new settlement on Palestinian territory needs to be “protected” by being drawn into “Israel” the wall goes around it, confiscating more Palestinian land in the process.
The irony of the Wall is that it was the brainchild of the Israeli Left, vigorously opposed by the Right because they feared it would eventually demarcate the Palestinian state from the Israeli one. In the event, it has succeeded in isolating and entrapping any number of villages, and squeezing the towns of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah into smaller and smaller zones called “envelopes”.
Our first sighting of the Wall was in Abu Dis in East Jerusalem, on the Al Quds university campus. Right by the football field, which it would have bisected, annexing almost one-third of the campus if it hadn’t been for strenuous resistance by the students. The shock of seeing it looming ahead as you make your way to the Museum of Mathematics pulls you up short. Covered with graffiti – “This is a wall of shame. But what goes around must come around”; “Solidarity is the only answer,” and “Palestine will be free!” – and as far as the eye can see, row upon row of the Keys of Return, symbol of the refugees’ right to return to their homes. Idyllic pastoral scenes have been painted next to masked militants reflecting both the hope and the hopelessness of their predicament.
Hard by is the Museum of Political Prisoners, one of the few I’ve ever seen. Despite the harrowing nature of its subject and the gruesome accounts of torture and detention, it’s a strangely uplifting space. The walls are covered with posters of defiance and resistance, many of surprising sophistication in draughtsmanship and conceptualisation. Declarations like “I will kiss the ground of my cell because it is part of my homeland” throw a challenge both to the fact of imprisonment and to the Israeli state that has occupied – usurped – the homeland. That is hell bent on changing the facts on the ground.
And there is disquiet in the air. At Al Quds, at the edge of Jerusalem, which the Zionists insist will be an undisputed part of Israel, the student body votes 43 per cent Hamas, and roughly 50 per cent of the women wear the ‘hijab’ (headscarf).
It is illegal for Israelis to enter the West Bank, for Palestinians to go to Israel; both are punishable offences. Road signs everywhere prohibit entry and exit – Israeli roads are barred to Palestinians, Palestinians cannot repair or tar their roads without Israel’s permission. On the road to Nablus, north of Jerusalem, the contrast couldn’t be sharper. Broad, smooth, beautifully maintained roads on the Israeli side stretching towards the settlements, mostly empty because only cars with Israeli license plates are allowed to use them. At traffic intersections, the speeding cars of settlers have right of way, even though the roads have built on Palestinian land and paid for with Palestinian taxes. In any case, Palestinian vehicles aren’t likely to overtake them – their roads are pitted and pot-holed, caved in at places, with street vendors and pavement shops lining the edges. Somehow, the feeling of abandonment is inescapable.