Amidst horror, the screeching metal of turnstiles haunts our conscienceNov 11, 2023
We tramped along streets of rubble and twisted girders of metal in Gaza – these had been a home, a school and even a hospital. From one heap of rubble, a sobbing Granny ran up to me – it was winter and bitterly cold. She was camped in a hollow in the bombed out ruin of her family home, where she had been the only survivor from a family of 21 people. She grabbed and hugged me and begged me to tell the world what was happening in Gaza. I made a promise to her that I would.
I was to be in the West Bank these weeks in a voluntary capacity and working, as I have done in previous years, with a Scandinavian female NGO. Our purpose has been to monitor human rights and to help with the olive harvest. Sadly, I had to bow out this year as Peter, my partner, is currently not in the best of health. Recent reports however say that the West Bank is now under a vicious Israeli lock-down and the armed settlers have seriously escalated their brutal violent incursions into Palestinian villages. It seems, in the situation, that I made the right decision.
All human life is precious. The mass attacks committed recently by Hamas against Israeli citizens were horrific, unconscionable and inhumane. They amounted to war crimes and there is no justification in international law for the indiscriminate killing of civilians or the holding of civilian hostages. But, as I see it, the problem is not Hamas but the decades of colonial and apartheid policies that Israel has inflicted on the Palestinians; it makes violent outburst of brutality like this predictable. Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, was quoted as saying a few days ago “violence does not come in a vacuum.”
The world is now watching the barbarity and inhumanity of the genocide of a starving civilian population. Collective punishment by the Israelis at its most grotesque is a flagrant violation of international law and a war crime according to the Geneva Convention. Tragically, it is heading towards creating the worst man-made humanitarian catastrophe since World War Two. There should be righteous anger at the inhumanity of people justifying these atrocities.
I cannot, and will not, read, watch or listen to the media’s coverage of the horror being inflicted in the Palestine/Israeli conflict. My heart is breaking and filled with sorrow and helplessness as I write this. As you all know, the world is awash with analysis, commentary, graphic devastating images, gross mistruths and shocking propaganda. This is being fuelled by the news that the US/UK are ramping up their own war machines and sending massive unconditional military support to Israel – in the case of the US, amounting to an additional $14.3 billion.
I know that the following will be grim reading – the facts of which are rarely and quite deliberately missing from both the media and our governments. To help me in my current deep sadness, I want to share with you my years of first hand witness accounts in the area as a measure of balance and a glimpse into life on the “other” side of this 75 year conflict.
Fifteen years ago, I arrived with my husband in Jordan to commence his posting, bathed in total ignorance of the humanitarian turmoil that I was entering. Within weeks, we were on a journey down into the Jordan Valley on our way to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem. We were taken aback at the treatment we received at the Allenby border crossing. I thought in my ignorance that we were going into Palestine. But no, the bullying and aggression we received from the Israeli border guards in fact told us that we were entering a Palestine controlled by an Israeli army of swaggering, menacing 19 year olds, all decked from head to toe in military hard wear and hell bent on making us feel quite unwelcome.
Driving through Palestinian East Jerusalem, we bounced along roads full of potholes and streets of family houses, mainly run-down and in great disrepair. Bizarrely, among these appeared a few houses displaying the Israeli flag and decorated with giant menorahs on their roofs. (We later learned that these Palestinian houses had been forcibly taken over and stolen by groups of thuggish settler colonialists.) Further on, strolling through the cobbled laneways of the medieval Muslim quarter of old Jerusalem, on our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we passed groups of the IDF (Israeli Defence Force). They were donned in military attire and brandished lethal guns, all at the ready. They seemed delighted with their menacing appearance and spent their bored hours voicing unpleasant comments at the passing Palestinian women who were doing their daily market shopping. Seeing this made us feel very annoyed and disgusted with their abuse. We were impressed though by the way the women bore all this harassment with great dignity.
After the stunning and crowded Easter Service, we ventured through the other quarters of the city – no military presence here – eventually to emerge through David’s Gate into Israeli West Jerusalem. I can only describe it as going through the wardrobe doors in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was overwhelming. I could have been in London, New York or Sydney – shopping malls, expensive high rises, cafes and sealed roads carrying a state of the art tram system. Not a hint of a military presence here either. The contrast between this wealth and consumerism, and the medieval atmosphere I had just left, told me that there was a deep tension within Jerusalem.
During the course of our posting, I returned many times to Jerusalem despite all the stress of gaining entry through the Allenby Crossing. On each crossing, I was taken aside by the IDF, made to sit in a freezing room for hours and aggressively interrogated by four teenage-looking military, all hiding behind their computer screens and demanding why I was returning to Jerusalem yet again.
During some of my visits, I would take the bus (40 minutes) across Israel to Tel Aviv and Jaffa and play tourist. I was always puzzled as to why the landscape en route appeared wooded and green in total contrast with the semi-desert I had left less than half an hour before. Years later I learned that plantations had been sown after 1948, covering up the villages and homes of the Palestinians that had been violently displaced by the settling Israelis and who, as refugees, were forced to relocate to places like Gaza.
On one visit, and out of curiosity, I sought out a bus that would take me to Qalandia, the crossing point into the West Bank. This was a very unpleasant experience. I was forced into a metal hellhole of cages, queued for at least an hour, deafened by the screeching metal of turnstiles, while being locked in and then out of waiting passages. Flashing lights of green and red dazzled me while I was screamed at through speakers to “hurry up”! Palestinians from Ramallah, if they are lucky to hold work visas, have to endure this every day. There is little work for them in the West Bank and they are desperate to seek work in Jerusalem. During this daily ordeal, if the all-seeing cameras notice a facial grimace or a look of annoyance on their faces, their visas are cancelled on the spot. Relieved to be out of the cattle pen, I made my way out into the West Bank. I had indeed entered another world.
So, several years later and anxious to know more, I found myself back as part of an international three week non-governmental study tour of Palestine and Israel. This tour was comprehensive and wide-ranging and, by the end, I had a far better understanding of the complexity of the situation in this area.
We arrived in Tel Aviv. On our first day, we were given access to a local high school and embarked on a discussion with senior students focussing how they viewed their lives. Their responses were all the same; they enjoyed good times. shopping, clubbing, dancing, surfing…in fact all the lifestyle of a typical teenager here at home. The only difference was their comments about their conscription at 18 years into the IDF and how they were all looking forward to it as “a bit of fun over there” and as a rite of passage. However, on leaving the school, strung along the corridors were poignant dramatic posters with blazing warnings not to go near the dangerous West Bank border as it was a “land of terrorists”! This was our first exposure to the fact that there was a tension in the area.
Later that day, we visited a beautifully equipped kindergarten where the children’s colouring and counting books were not depicting flowers and animals but army tanks and fighter planes.
It had been organised that we receive invitations to family houses in Tel Aviv and Haifa, to share meals and to hear very mixed views on the present situation. Many argued that Palestinians should have their freedom and their own state and others argued that Israelis needed to continue to occupy the West Bank for their own safety.
I swam in the Mediterranean on Tel Aviv beach. I could have been in Miami or the Gold Coast and enjoyed all the trappings of a sophisticated tourist resort.
We had a very interesting visit to a huge date plantation in the Jordan Valley, where the manager boasted that they were exporting their dates world wide. I learned later that the plantation was on land recently confiscated from three Palestinian families.
Further south, we spent half a day as guests of the town of Sderot, the nearest Israeli settlement to Gaza. In fact, from a man-made hill close by, we could see over to Gaza. Life here was relaxed and one with which we are very familiar – parks, designer houses, a shopping mall etc. We were welcomed effusively by the mayor and, in his presentation, he mentioned that his town had never suffered a Hamas attack. He went on in detail to tell us that they were protected by the Israeli military “iron dome” (Hamas rockets are very crude and have a short range) and that his country was the world’s most technologically advanced and powerfully armed. He further added that, as extra protection, his government had built underground tunnels through the town and robust overground shelters. (I might add that, without the massive flow of US arms amounting to $3.8 billion annually, and US diplomatic support, Israel would not be in this commanding position).
After ten days, we made our way through the ghastly Qalandia checkpoint into the West Bank. This land has been under a brutal and intense Israeli military occupation and oppression for many decades. There is no free movement here; the West Bank is riddled with hundreds of military checkpoints so travel is agonisingly slow and stressful. At one particular checkpoint, we had to wait in a queue for over two hours while being told that we were lucky today as yesterday the soldiers had decided not to open the checkpoint at all! School children living only half a mile from their school have to pass through such checkpoints twice daily, often having their uniforms searched and bags ransacked by soldiers who enjoy humiliating and taunting these young ones.
No Palestinian is allowed to rebuild, extend their home, building or farm. We visited a desperately poor village school in chronic need of classrooms. They thought they could evade this restriction by building three very basic concrete classrooms, leaving empty spaces for windows and doors, in other words, a shell. Sitting in this would be fierce for the children in both the searing summer and freezing winter. Another three rooms were then added, built of mud and dried grass. However, only a few days after our visit, the local Israeli authorities flattened the buildings with one of their military bulldozers – they deemed the new buildings unlawful.
In every village and town we visited, there were clusters of young and heavily armed Israeli military roaming the streets, almost looking for trouble. It was so obvious that the Palestinian inhabitants were deeply intimidated by their presence and the atmosphere throughout was one of fear and reticence.
As Noam Chomsky has said, a key feature of the Israeli occupation has always been one of the ongoing humiliation of the Palestinian population.
As we travelled on to Gaza, worse was to meet us.
To be continued… watch for the second part of this article in tomorrow’s edition of P&I.