Occupation: are we indifferent to the cruelty imposed on Palestinians?

Feb 2, 2023
Israel vs Palestine. Close-up of man holding Israeli and Palestine flag.

The actions of Israeli Defence Force troops last Wednesday — entering the Jenin refugee camp and killing nine Palestinians — seemed inexplicable from the brief reports I heard on the ABC and SBS.

The major Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported:

“Three and a half months ago … a terrorist from the Shoafat refugee camp named Uday Tamimi killed a Border Police officer named Noa Lazar. Tamimi was killed attempting another attack two weeks later. On Wednesday, hundreds of police officers raided the refugee camp in order to demolish Tamimi’s house. Demolishing a dead terrorist’s house is an outrageous action, both morally and legally, as it is clearly a case of punishing the innocent.” (my emphasis)

Moral and legal outrage at an attempt to muzzle the High Court has sparked huge uprisings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem against the aggressive and repressive policies of the Netanyahu government, policies described in a Haaretz headline as a “foolproof recipe for a continuation of the violence”.

The Australian public has always appeared bemused or indifferent towards the bizarre and cruel conditions under which Palestinians live, perhaps because our journalists are under strong pressure not to report honestly on conditions there; John Lyons detailed his experiences in “Dateline Jerusalem” 2021. Too often it is said that the issues in the Israel-Palestinian conflict are ‘extraordinarily complicated’. The history is indeed complex, but today’s injustices are today’s issues for which today’s solutions must be found.

The area where most Palestinians currently live, most of the potential Palestinian state, is known variously as the West Bank, the Occupied Territories, or, in the obscure intricacy of Israeli law, areas A, B and C. The Palestinian Authority administers the internal affairs of areas A & B — 40% of the West Bank — and the armed soldiers of the Israeli Defence Force, the IDF, roam through that area and the rest of the West Bank at will. Gaza, the other part of a potential Palestinian state, is known as a prison because the residents have no control over their borders and contact with the outside world is closely monitored by the IDF. Israel’s policies rely on defining Palestinians as a permanent existential threat to Israel. The Israeli Defence Force, the IDF, sees to it that the threat never materialises.

The IDF, is the immediate instrument of control. All young Israelis, except for religious scholars, are required to train as soldiers for two years. They patrol check-points and borders, and arrest Palestinians who object to their actions. The Jewish settlers living in towns built by the Israeli government in the Palestinian territories take a good deal of the IDF’s attention as their interaction with the Palestinians farmers is often aggressive. It was a book by Israeli scholar David Shulman about Israeli citizens’ efforts to protect those poor Palestinian farmers from those settlers that led to my late husband Hal Wootten’s decision to spend three months in the ‘Holy Land’ in 2008 at the age of 86. That book was Dark Hope.

Hal was committed to fairness and to understanding both sides of any dispute. He detested shrill partisanship, slogans and casual put-downs. He was also a careful listener and observer and was sceptical of partisan passions. What follows is a sample from one of Hal’s early ‘missives’, diary-like accounts of his experiences in Israel and Palestine. This extract recounts a journey to three places of ongoing conflict between Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories and the Palestinian residents. Note his ‘twinge of understanding’ for the IDF soldier!

Missive One

W was the guide and interpreter. D was from Europe, a visitor working in the human rights organisation Al Haq.


Today W took D and myself to Hebron, the best part of two hours by taxi each way. We went first to the South Hebron Hills, driving on a road that sliced through beautiful green valley flats covered in vines, orchards and other crops. We came to the village of Twani, with a population of some 200 and one of 12 villages in an area where some of the earliest post-1967 Israeli settlements were made. There is a stark contrast between the prosperous settlements on green hills and the miserable village, frozen in time on bare, dried out hills.

Settlers had consistently tried to get rid of the villagers and in 1997 were successful in having the whole population moved to the nearby town of Yatta. Proceedings were taken in the Israeli High Court which decided that the villagers could return provided no new construction took place. This made the villages non-viable in a parched area where there is a constant battle to maintain a water supply, and the settlers from the three nearby settlements set out to make their continued existence impossible.

Survival has been possible only with the help of international organisations, whose presence has also assisted in staying some of the army’s attempts to completely enforce the development ban when villagers have defied it. A health centre funded by Germany was allowed to be built, and Oxfam has negotiated the right to truck water in once a year to replenish the main village well. When we were in the village the Red Crescent Society was engaged in the construction of a new well.

Israeli police never intervened to protect villagers but told them to lodge a complaint. Complaints never led to any action so villagers co-operated closely and went to work in a group on Fridays. Police in fact routinely arrested the victim who was attacked by a settler, and release could be obtained only on payment of 3000 shekels.

A school built with overseas funding was ordered to be demolished, but the Israeli High Court had ruled it could stay for ten years. This time was now up and demolition was threatened. The school serves all the villages and children walked to and fro. Because of settler harassment international volunteers walked them to and from school until one of the volunteers was beaten up by a settler. The police then provided an escort vehicle which drove in front while the children walked behind. To avoid going close to the settlements the police took a much longer route which the children (from about 6 to 14 years old) had to walk both ways. If settlers still harassed the children, police just put their heads down and drove on.

Muard and Fatima thanked us for coming and asked us to tell their story.

Jerusalem Old City

After lunch near the old city we walked through it. A number of buildings had been taken over by settlers. The army considered that this created a security risk. Instead of taking action against the settlers it closed off the area from Palestinian access, installed watchtowers and occupied other vantage points for surveillance to protect the settlers. A number of Palestinians lost their homes and businesses without compensation. A school for Palestinian children was converted into a school for settler children. The main street along one side of the occupied buildings, which had been lined with shops and stalls had become empty, but gradually businesses had been resumed by Palestinians. Netting had to be placed above the street to protect them from bricks and other objects dropped by the settlers. One shopkeeper in an area which was not netted indignantly showed us a heavy piece of brick that had been dropped near him. “These people don’t want peace,” he said.

In Hebron

As a Canadian and an Australian with a Palestinian companion, we got through the checkpoints reasonably quickly. One Israeli soldier offered a proprietorial, smiling ‘Welcome to Hebron’. W was unimpressed, noting that a young Palestinian who went through at the same time had his ID taken and was still waiting for its return when we came back an hour later.

Al-Haq made a film about what has happened in the old city called In the Spider’s Web, and we visited the home of its central character, who has been under constant pressure to vacate his home, which adjoins settler-held buildings. We went up onto the roof, on to which a room opens. It was used as a bedroom for his children, but one night Israeli soldiers came up and kicked the door open, and said it must never be shut again. When it has been found shut, the whole family has been made to vacate the house and stand in the street for some hours.

While we were on the roof W remarked that he hoped our hosts weren’t punished for allowing us to visit. An Israeli soldier on the roof of an adjoining building overheard and indignantly demanded that W ask our host if he had ever been punished for having visitors. W later did so and our host said that the settlers had kept him under constant pressure to leave, shooting holes in his water tank which he had to replace five times, breaking windows and throwing rats through them, which he had countered by placing mesh over them. The soldiers had not done things like this themselves but were there to protect settlers who did. I had a twinge of understanding for an Israeli soldier with his professional pride who may have felt he was just doing a job assigned to him rather than behaving like a hoon. From a Palestinian point of view, the soldier had the choice of being part of the oppression or becoming a refusenik, as many had done. I asked if our host had ever encountered an individual soldier or settler who tried to be friendly. The question produced a negative answer and no doubt sounded naive to my Palestinian friends.

Our host said he had had many visitors as a result of the film, and it was only because of such support that he had felt able to hold out.

I spent some weeks with Hal in Ramallah and travelling though the West Bank and Israel meeting many Israelis and Palestinian, academics, artists and assorted others. Some years later we returned to Jerusalem and while Hal visited Gaza, I travelled to Nablas. Palestinians’ plight was evident everywhere. But the peoples’ warmth and widely proclaimed response of Samud — calm endurance — made visiting Palestine not only exciting and informative, but very enjoyable. Meeting David Schulman and some senior Israeli military men made it clear that there were sane voices on both sides who said; “the land must be shared”.

Hal was 86 when he went to Palestine, and while he spoke, and wrote some short pieces, he did not manage to complete the major essay he had planned. His core argument was always: THE OCCUPATION MUST END. No solution is possible while Israel occupies the Palestinian territories.

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