Sabby Sagall and Hilary Westlake were part of an international delegation which travelled to Israel to greet Mordechai Vanunu on his release from jail. Here they recount their experiences.
Wednesday 21 April 2004
We are gathered, over 200 international and Israeli supporters of Mordechai Vanunu, outside Ashkelon prison, waiting for his car to emerge through the gate. But before he leaves the prison, he gives an impromptu press conference, calling on Israel to give up its nuclear weapons and insisting that whatever information he had is 20 years old and well out of date. We had hoped that he would come across the road to greet his supporters but there is a right wing counter-demonstration, so his car speeds off as we call out 'Hero' and toss flowers onto the car.
Mordechai's freedom is qualified, however. He can choose his city of residence but cannot leave it without police permission. He must not talk to foreigners including those resident in Israel. Worst of all, he is denied a passport for one year. These restrictions can be renewed indefinitely. It is clear to us that the Campaign to Free Vanunu must continue until he is granted unconditional freedom.
That evening we travel from Jaffa to Jerusalem's St George's Cathedral, where he has been given sanctuary. Vanunu's life has been threatened: a right wing group even asked, 'Who will be our Jack Ruby?'(the man who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, accused of Kennedy's assassination in 1963). As a special concession, we are allowed to meet him.
Over 50 of us are waiting in the reception area when suddenly he appears. After years of campaigning, he moves among us, embracing each in turn. After the hugging, he makes a short speech. He is well dressed, relaxed and composed, betraying no sign of almost 18 years of incarceration, nearly 12 in solitary. The Israeli authorities have failed to break his spirit. In a firm voice Mordechai Vanunu calls for an ever more vigorous struggle against nuclear weapons and for justice for the Palestinians.
Thursday 22 April
We arrive in Abu Dis, a small West Bank town close to Jerusalem, once mooted as a possible Palestinian capital. We are met by our host, Salah Ayyad, chair of the Water Society, who introduces us to his friends. They escort us around the area, showing us the new checkpoint that impedes Bethlehem residents from reaching Abu Dis - students attending classes at Al Quds University and people getting to their workplaces. We are then taken to the apartheid wall. A French protester has scrawled, 'This is a wall of hatred.' It has split the community, separated children from schools, people from hospitals, farmers from their lands, workers from jobs, husbands from their families. The group we met - a teacher, a journalist, a hotel manager and an electrician - had previously worked in Jerusalem, but since the wall all have lost their jobs. There is no work in Abu Dis: shops and businesses have closed down, cut off as they now are from Jerusalem and given the unwillingness of people to invest in such an insecure environment.
Families have been split up. Abdulwahab Sabbah graduated in marketing and management. Since the wall he has been recategorised as a West Bank resident, with the result that he lost his job in a Jerusalem hotel and now drives a van in Abu Dis. He cannot live with his wife and children because they are classified as Jerusalem residents.
Nearly everyone in Abu Dis has lost land. The wall has invaded Abu Dis territory, which the Israeli authorities have simply confiscated. Land, which is now on the Israeli side, is declared 'absentees' land' and simply taken over. Legal challenges always fail. 'Families who have tilled their land for centuries, who have devoted their entire lives to planting and tilling, overnight have nothing.' There have been many demonstrations against the wall throughout the West Bank. Many Palestinians have been killed by the army.
As a result of the assassinations of Sheikh Yassin and Abdul Aziz Rantisi, Palestinians are even more determined to fight back. 'The Israelis want to break our spirit but new leaders always emerge,' says Salah.
Hamas has grown, not because of religion but because they lead the resistance, are not corrupt and provide essential social services: schools, healthcare and housing for the families of martyrs and prisoners, whose houses have been demolished as a collective punishment. On a recent Palestinian Authority poll, 35 percent supported Hamas and only 27 percent Fatah (President Arafat's party).
It is clear, say Salah and Abdulwahab, that the reason for the wall is not security but stealing more Palestinian land. The Israelis want to corral the Palestinians into an ever narrowing territory. The residents of Anata Camp find themselves on the wrong side of the wall. Currently with Jerusalem ID, it is a matter of time before they are redefined as West Bankers.
As Salah and Abdulwahab see it, the Israelis hope to make life so miserable, so intolerable for the Palestinians that they abandon their rapidly diminishing country, moving perhaps to Jordan or Syria, leaving their land available for the expansion of the Zionist state. But as Salah says, 'Resistance is the only choice.' And as Yussuf Asfour from Jaffa put it, 'The Palestinians will never leave their land - they will always fight back.'