Archive for October 2010
Balata Camp started as tents in the fifties, grew cement blocks in the sixties, installed sewage and water in the seventies, and has stretched ever upwards until now. The camp boasts the densest population in the West Bank: at least 25,000 people in a couple of square kilometres (the inhabitants claim up to 40,000). The buildings are so tightly packed that the kids forced out to play in the shadowed alleyways suffer from Vitamin D deficiency, sun deprivation. There are eight to ten people to a residential room. In school there are 50 children to a class. UNRWA schools and the graveyard take up most space. Most of the graves are those of people killed in the streets of the camp.
It’s a remarkably friendly place, but also discomfiting. Many of the young are prematurely aged and many of the old seem broken. There’s a higher proportion of wheelchairs than anywhere else I’ve been. In a comparatively wide street I found boys playing table football in front of a memorial to their murdered playmate. They laughed and screamed.
I was at the border, a British national with an Arab name on my way into Palestine-Israel. The Jordanians were suspicious but not at all intimidating. It felt more like an unexpected cup of tea with an avuncular officer (which it was) than an interrogation. I learnt about Abu Tariq’s children and he learned about my reasons for crossing, my travels, and my career. He noted everything down before shaking my hand.
The bus through no-man’s land was full of Palestinian-Israelis, descendants of the remnant not driven out in 1948 – those the Israelis call ‘Arab-Israelis’, as if they were recent immigrants from Kuwait or Algeria. The sun bubbled the box of our bus. It was airless and sweaty inside.
Israeli border control is staffed by teenaged girls in low-slung military trousers backed up by men with sunglasses and enormous guns. The girls clocked my (Arabic) name, and my bags were searched. Then I was closely questioned. Then I had to wait. Fortunately it was Yom Kippur: they let me through an hour later when they closed up early.
Then by car through the the ethnically-cleansed city of Beesan (signposted in Arabic script with the Hebrew name – Beit She’an), and into the West Bank. The roadsigns here are very democratically scripted in Hebrew, English and Arabic, except for those in Hebrew only. But Palestinian towns and villages are never posted. A visitor travelling a Jews-only road wouldn’t realise that such places exist. Jerusalem is written in Arabic as “Urushaleem,” and then between brackets “al-Quds”, which is the actual, ancient and contemporary Arab name. In such ways the attempt is made to occupy the land’s abstract Arab qualities, to control history and memory, the past as well as the present and future.
Israeli forces shelled Gaza.
The Palestinian Authority arrested 53 men in overnight raids.
I passed a settlement built during Netanyahu’s ten-month settlement freeze.
Two settlers were shot in the legs by Palestinian fighters while driving near Hebron.
PA president Mahmoud Abbas let slip that he might not pull out of peace talks when the settlement freeze lapses.
The Palestinian Authority arrested 20 men in overnight raids.
Dana wrote a story about a girl raped by a relative.
Hamas forces closed down a Gaza restaurant because a woman had publicly smoked the argileh there.
How many Britons are aware of the British-Iraq war of May 1941? Not many. Yet such past wars are the producers of today’s reality. People in Iraq remember. If Westerners don’t remember the past they will inevitably fail to understand the present moment.
The urge to remind the reader so as to better contextualise the present is the laudable motive energising Eugene Rogan’s “The Arabs. A History,” which covers the last five hundred years.
The history starts in 1516 with the Ottoman defeat of the Mamluk slave-elite, the regime which in previous centuries had repelled Mongols and Crusaders from the Arab heartlands. The Mamluks weren’t Arabs, but they’d ruled from Arab capitals. Now power moved to Istanbul, which makes the moment a good place to begin. From the 1516 collapse in Cairo until the present day, many key decisions governing Arab life have been made in foreign cities. Rogan calls the process “the cycle of subordination to other people’s rules.”
In the early years, Ottoman rule “in the Arab provinces was marked by great diversity and extensive autonomy.” Sulayman’s perspicacious laws, public building projects and reasonable prosperity followed. But the global centre of gravity was shifting, and the long decline set in.
This was written six months ago and recently published in Political Insight.
A sigh of relief blew across Syria when the Bush administration was retired. Bush had backed Israel’s reoccupation of West Bank cities, described Ariel ‘the Bulldozer’ Sharon as “a man of peace”, given Syria two million Iraqi refugees and an inflation crisis, and blamed Syria for the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Veiled American threats of “regime change” scared the Syrian people – who observed the blood rushing from neighbouring Iraq – almost as much as they scared the regime itself.
Obama’s re-engagement signalled an end to the days of considering Syria – in the predatorial neo-con phrase – “low-hanging fruit”, but American overtures have remained cautious, the new administration’s policy severely limited by its commitments to Israel and the domestic Israel lobby. Obama nominated Robert Ford as the first American ambassador to Damascus in five years, but the appointment has since been blocked by the Senate. In May, Obama renewed Bush-era sanctions, citing Syria’s “continuing support for terrorist organizations and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile programs,” which, “continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
So not much has changed. The neoconservative language is still in place, the same elision of distance between American and Israeli interests, and between anti-occupation militias and al-Qa’ida-style terrorists, plus a flat refusal to understand that the countries really under unusual and extraordinary threat of attack are Syria, Lebanon, and – Netanyahu’s “new Amalek” – Iran.
During the journey from Ramallah to Nablus I got talking to the middle-aged man sitting beside me. It turned out he’d been in prison for five years, cramped in a cockroach-run tent with tens of other men. At the kiosk at the end of my street I got talking to a white-haired young man. A few nights earlier the two owners of the kiosk had been taken away in an Israeli jeep. The white-haired man’s brother had been killed in 2007. He himself had done eleven years inside. I got talking to a writing student whose brother was constantly detained. A Palestinian friend of mine who now lives outside did ten years in Israeli jails. Two and a half of them were underground. Almost every male I met in Nablus had been imprisoned at some point. There are at least 8500 prisoners currently inside. But my friend tells me he felt more free inside the small prison than he did inside the larger. So here’s the statistic that counts: in all the territories controlled by the apartheid state of Israel there are 5,300,000 Palestinian prisoners. The other half of the Palestinian people is locked outside in exile. Here’s Saed Abu-Hijleh describing temporary detention.
My visit to Nablus coincided with the first Palestinian Human Rights Film Festival at an-Najah University. Even better than the films shown were the panel discussions afterwards, on issues such as refugees, resistance and women’s rights. The first film I saw was “To Shoot an Elephant” (watch it here), a brutal, highly-recommended documentary shot by International Solidarity Movement activists who happened to be in Gaza as the 2008/09 massacre unfolded. After the screening the audience communicated with director Alberto Arce via a video link-up to Spain. (Alberto is permanently banned from entry into Israeli-controlled territory.)
Alberto said this: “It is not my job to tell the Palestinians what to do. It’s my job to support the Palestinians and to witness what’s happening to them. The Palestinians have suffered so much from the actions of foreigners, and foreigners have no right to impose their beliefs on Palestinians.”
This video concerns Israel’s 2002 murder of a Palestinian teacher,cultural activist and neighbourhood organiser, Shaden al-Saleh. Shaden was the mother of Saed Abu Hijleh, who witnessed the murder and gives his own account here. Saed teaches political geography at Nablus’s an-Najah University, writes poetry, blogs, organises, and provides me with wonderful food and information, for which I’m very grateful. He’s a well-educated member of the Nablus middle classes. He’s also been shot in the belly and in the shoulder and has been imprisoned five times. But his suffering is not unusual. Everybody in Nablus has a story to tell. I’ve just returned from the prison, and over the next couple of weeks I aim to convey a few of the stories I heard. An example of Saed’s English-language poetry is over the fold.
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