Palestine: 60 years after the Nakba

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Sabby Sagall recently visited Palestine as part of a twinning project. Here he describes the daily struggles of Palestinians as they continue to resist the Israeli occupation.

The taxi skirts round the 16th century Ottoman wall of Jerusalem's Old City, reaching for the hills of Palestine. The rocky, sun-dried slopes roll east towards the Jordan river and north towards Galilee; silent witnesses of the unending suffering of the Palestinian people, but also of their unbelievable courage and resilience.

The solidity of these highlands seems to mirror the stubborn resistance of the Palestinians in this 60th anniversary year of the Nakba. Palestinians remember the expulsion and mourn the loss of their homeland, but they continue to stand firm, fortified in the knowledge of growing awareness and support in the outside world.

Palestinians have grown used to the Israeli harassment and humiliation that long ago became routine. Up and down the West Bank, there are more than 700 military checkpoints. Some of these are so-called "flying checkpoints", totally unpredictable. They render impossible any kind of planning of life and work. In Abu Dis - a town of 25,000 which was once a suburb of Jerusalem - Israel's Apartheid Wall slices through the town like a knife through a heart. Students at its Al-Quds university who live outside the town are never sure of being able to attend classes in the normal way.

Patients, even emergency cases, never know whether they will be allowed to reach their hospital on the Israeli side of the wall. Many have died waiting, prisoners of the whims of Israeli soldiers, often teenage conscripts suddenly endowed with the power of life and death over fellow human beings.

Another form of harassment is the dumping of Israeli rubbish on Palestinian land. On the east side of Abu Dis, the Israelis expanded their garbage dumping area without consultation. The owners of the land had planted wheat and barley as usual in the winter. An Israeli contractor, paid millions by the Jerusalem municipality to dump the rubbish, was this time protected by three Israeli army jeeps. When a member of the Abu Dis municipal council challenged the contractor's right to dump additional rubbish, he was given short shrift: "If you don't like it, take me to court!" One does not need to be a legal genius to know that an Israeli court, confronted by a Palestinian plaintiff, will invariably rule in favour of the official Israeli defendant. To add insult to injury, the Palestinians have to pay the Jerusalem municipality for the right to use the rubbish dump on their land.

There is something strangely symbolic about this form of harassment. After all, what is Zionism if not the dumping of responsibility for European anti-Semitism, in particular the Holocaust, on the Palestinian people?

Another issue, entirely familiar to Palestinians, is the plan to confiscate a piece of land from the university, currently a sports ground for the students. The Israelis plan to move the Wall eastwards so as to build another settlers-only road along its western edge. Israel constantly shaves off bits of Palestinian territory. From Abu Dis, one can see the 35,000-strong 'settlement' of Ma'ale Adumim, with its gleaming white houses, while Palestinian buildings fall into disrepair for lack of funds. And recently, Israel announced plans to expand the settlement of Giv'at Ze'ev by 750 houses, rendering the Annapolis "peace initiative" a charade. There are plans for a further 1,400 houses. Meanwhile, between 2000 and 2007, Israel demolished 1,663 Palestinian homes in Israeli controlled 'Area C', which is 60 percent of the West Bank. Israel's continuing occupation and confiscation of Palestinian land, squeezing the people into an ever-narrower area, makes the achievement of a Palestinian state increasingly impossible, and the eventual creation of a single state, for Israelis and Palestinians to share, the inevitable solution.

Except that this is not what's in the mind of the Israelis. They intend to make life as difficult and intolerable as possible for the Palestinian people, hoping to pressurise them into leaving for Jordan, Syria - or wherever - leaving an ethnically pure Jewish state as the sole occupiers of historical Palestine. There is no other description of this except "indirect ethnic cleansing", completing the work started by the Zionist militias in 1948. The problem for Israel is that it won't work.

Symptomatic of the pathological nature of Israeli society is the recent statement by the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Metzger, calling for the transfer of the people of Gaza to the Sinai Desert where a state resembling Arizona could be built for them by Britain, the EU and the US. According to Israel's Association for Civil Rights, racism against Israel's Palestinian citizens increased dramatically last year, including a 26 percent rise in hostile incidents. The number of Jews expressing feelings of hatred towards Arabs has doubled. According to the June 2007 Democracy Index of the Israeli Democracy Institute, only half of the Israeli public believe that Jews and Palestinians must have full equal rights. Among Jewish respondents, 55 percent supported the idea that the state should encourage Palestinian emigration from Israel.

During the Gaza upsurge in January, there were demonstrations in solidarity throughout the West Bank. Abu Dis experienced three days of clashes with the Israeli army. Every day the army provoked conflict; stopping Palestinians at random, especially young people. Over three nights, a number were arrested through raids and picking on people in the street. Around 20 young people built barricades and threw stones at the tanks. There were also rallies in solidarity with the people of Gaza; after one rally, protesters carried candles in the street. The army have released four of the arrested, but 16 remain in custody. We are used to seeing two images of Palestinians in the western media: as victims and terrorists. But during the Gaza rebellion, and in the subsequent solidarity action, we saw them in a less familiar but more accurate light - as collective resisters.

The last word goes to an Abu Dis activist: "Twinning, the boycott campaigns, and other solidarity from abroad, have given the people hope, encouraged them to resist."