News and opinions on situation in the Middle East
29/10/03 Three short essays by Nick Pretzlik

A Fading Flower 20 October 2003 Nick Pretzlik in Jerusalem

To the casual observer Jerusalem is as alluring and lustrous as ever. A more critical look, however, reveals that increasingly it is a city of two halves. The western portion - the Israeli sector - has lost its spark. The atmosphere is anaemic, the people fearful and angry. By contrast, the eastern half - the Palestinian section - remains vibrant. The traffic there is still chaotic, horns honk, pavements are crowded, voices are raised in greeting or anger and the air is rich with the aroma of herbs and spices and grilling street side kebabs. The plaintive cry of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer adds to the sensory assault.

What is going on? Could it be that with so much to lose the Jewish community is less resilient than the deprived Palestinian community? Is it possible that thirty years of occupation have immunized Palestinians from pain, and that family and community bonds, as well as spiritual resources have actually been strengthened in the process? Could it be that the consumer based material hopes and aspirations of Israeli society are providing vulnerable and that the occupation and its ramifications are more corrosive to the occupier than to the occupied? If that is so, then Israel has much to worry about.

In Israel the economic outlook continues to be bleak. Strikes are widespread, unemployment is high and looks to rise further. Deflation - as per the Consumer Price Index - is running at an eye watering annualised rate of minus 4.6% and there are no obvious remedies in sight. Senior treasury and bank officials are quoted in the press as believing that the difficulties stem largely from the Intifada - the Palestinian struggle - and the associated political/security problems. Given the Israeli government's hard-line attitude towards the peace process, that is a definite downer. The government displays every intention of maintaining its unyielding attitude. Having successfully undermined the Roadmap by continuing the policy of extra judicial killings - then blaming the Palestinians for retaliating - it is now busily engaged in rubbishing the Geneva Accords, the latest peace initiative.

Perhaps Prime Minister Sharon is drawing comfort from the sight last week of three thousand Christian Zionists from around the globe celebrating the Feast of the Tabernacle in the streets of Jerusalem as a show of solidarity with Israel. Christian Zionists oppose any territorial concessions to Palestinians due to their belief that Jewish settlements built on Palestinian territory in the Holy Land will bring about the Second Coming of Christ. If Ariel Sharon and his government are relying on support like that for their hard-line policies, Israelis must be sleeping uneasily in their beds.

 

"Go to the West Bank" yelled the soldier Nick Pretzlik an eyewitness report from Wadi al Naam 22 October 2003

The first that Fares Abu Mohamer and his wife knew of the catastrophe, which was about to befall them was when they heard that roar of the bulldozer. That was at 9 o'clock this morning and their baby was still asleep in his cot. They were given 10 minutes to collect a few items and told to vacate the black tent and corrugated zinc shack which passed as their home.

Fifteen minutes later Fares stood with his pregnant wife, his young son, his two sisters and his mother looking at the rubble of their home. Many of the family's possessions had been destroyed. There was no time to save the baby food and the police and soldiers even refused Fares a few extra minutes to salvage his wife's jewellery - her only personal possession. Instead the soldiers yelled at him "Go to the West Bank".

Of course the irony is that were Fares and his family already in the West Bank there would have been nothing unusual about the dawn demolition of their house. It happens there all the time. But Fares does not live in the West Bank. He lives in Wadi al Naam in Israel's northern Negev and, like all Negev Bedouin, Fares and his family are Israeli citizens. They pay taxes and vote in national elections.

So how can it be that Israeli citizens have their home demolished by the authorities? Is such a thing possible? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. What makes it worse is that house demolition is a regular occurrence and that the explanation for it is simple. Fares and his fellow Bedouin are not Jews. They are Arabs and as Shmuel Rifman, chairperson of the Ramat HaNegev Regional Council said on the occasion of Israel's 55th Independence Day "We came to this country to establish a Jewish state in the land of Israel. Ben Gurion did not intend to establish a Bedouin state". He was echoing Moshe Dayan's well-known statement of July 1963 that "We [Israelis] must turn Bedouin into urban labourers. The Bedouin will no longer live on a land with his flocks, but will become an urbanite who comes home in the evening and puts on his slippers. The reality that is known as the Bedouin will disappear." Dayan's intention was to hand over Bedouin lands to Jewish settlers.

In 1965, two years after Moshe Dayan's comments, the Building and Planning Law was passed in the Israeli Knesset and Bedouin villages present in the Negev since Ottoman times, and later under the British Mandate, suddenly ceased to exist or - to use the official jargon - became 'Unrecognised'. As a consequence the 70,000 Bedouin like Fares and his family living on their traditional lands around Beer Sheva - and not yet herded into purpose built ghettos - are today seen as 'illegal'. And they are likely to remain illegal. In spite of the brutal tactics employed by the police, the army and the so-called Green Patrol, which now include crop spraying with toxic chemicals - often carelessly and dangerously close to schools and villages - the Bedouin remain steadfast. Fares' house will be rebuilt by the community. He will not be becoming an urbanite. Not yet anyway.

What does this say about Israeli democracy? Democracy is more than paying taxes and having the vote. It requires a state to ensure that every citizen has equal rights - something Arab Israelis do not enjoy. Until the start of last year, out of 3,000 Bedouin cases brought before Israeli courts, not one had been decided in favour of the Bedouin. Not one! For the Bedouin of Israel, democracy is a myth, as it is for the rest of the 20% of Israel's population who are not Jewish.

 

The First Day of Ramadan Nick Pretzlik in Jenin October 29 2003

In the late autumn heat, and as puffs of grey dust rise from under the feet of the people of Jenin, I sense the lethargy blanketing the town. Ramadan has started and energy levels are low. But in any case people have little to do. The Palestinian economy is dead and what money remains in Jenin is slipping away fast - much of it into Israel itself to pay for electricity, gas, water and telephones, to list just a few of the bills which have to be settled. None of the money comes back. It is hard for a large family to live on just US $10 per day and be energetic.

Since last I was here, three months ago, the shops are more pitted with pockmarks from bullets and the roads more damaged by the treads of Israeli tanks. And more Palestinians have died. Violence and death at the hands of the Israelis are no strangers to the inhabitants of Jenin.

But some aspects of life have remained the same. The women are dignified, the men hospitable and the children noisy. Little Naim's street side coffee flavoured with cardamom tastes as delicious as ever and he welcomes me still with one prickly kiss on each cheek. And although Said's girth is somewhat reduced - he had plenty to lose - his falafels have yet to be bettered. Most important of all society continues to function; families are united, the community is intact and services operate.

So is it the lethargy of Ramadan, which is eroding the inhabitants of Jenin's feistiness, or is it the poverty and the ferocity of the occupation? Or is it perhaps the apartheid wall being constructed within sight of the town - a symbol of a future without hope?

The occasional voices of international criticism of Israel and its behaviour in the Occupied Territories can barely be heard in Jenin. Like rafts on a storm tossed sea, they are hardly detectable in the maelstrom of people's lives. It seems to them that the world is averting its eyes and they do not understand why.

Contact Nick on upretzlik@brookes.ac.uk