Asaf Bartov (ijon) wrote,
Asaf Bartov

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A visit to the occupied territories

Today, for the first time in years, I have entered the occupied territories. I did so to take a close look at the "separation fence/wall" the Israeli government is building all over the occupied territories (henceforth OT) and learn first-hand what life is like behind the fences. I joined a team of peace and human rights activists (details below), specifically brought together by some TAU students trying to form an activist coalition in the TAU campus, one of whom is a fellow Classics and Theory of Literature major. I was joined by arnulf and another friend.

Our destination was the area of the village of Masxa (מסחה), where on Dec 26th 2003, the IDF fired live ammunition at unarmed Israeli and Palestinian activists who attempted to force open the fence (yes, they employed force, and I disapprove), severely wounding Gil Na'amati, an Israeli activist. Masxa is less than ten kilometers east of the border ("the green line"), and a large Israeli religious settlement called Elkana (אלקנה) is just west of it.

Israeli road #5 used to go from the Glilot junction near the northern Tel-Aviv Mediterannean coast east to the Kassem junction (near Arab-Israeli Kafr-Kassem and Jewish-Israeli Rosh Ha-ayin), east of which is the border, and right past it into the OT, to the Elkana junction, the Ariel junction, and the Tapuax junction. The road was a well-maintained highway, and Bidya, a village east of Masxa, used to have a huge market right next to the road, frequented by thousands of Israelis 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

Today, road #5 stops after the Elkana junction, right at the end of the settlement. It ends in the "separation fence", a complex set of barbed-wire fences, sophisticated electronic fences, and eight-meter high cement walls. It is next to this fence that Naamati was shot by the IDF. We drove right up to within twenty meters of the fence unhindered (the "transparent" border and lack of military presence is a symptom of Israel's unwillingness to recognize its borders and its attempt to create the illusion that the settlements in the OT are just "more Israel").

We got off the bus (hired for the purpose) and began walking up to the fence. Some IDF soldiers were nearby, and they stopped us and inquired what we were doing there. We explained we are just interested civilians, and that we want to take a look at the fence and the area. The soldiers were suspicious. We waited patiently while some officer (not present) was consulted, and after some ten minutes, were allowed to proceed. Note that technically, we were already several kilometers into the OT, where civilians are not allowed according to international law, but nobody ever paid any attention to that in Israel, not even the IDF and the government, even though they're eager to keep "nosy" activists away.

We came up to the fence. It is quite an impressive thing. It's not a single fence; as I said, at its most developed sections, it has three or four parts, spaced several meters apart, spanning a strip of land between 15 and 25 meters wide. I wish I had a digital camera with me; I'd have taken some very illustrative photographs.

The fence was decreed legal by the Israeli Supreme Court, on condition that the gates in it remain open, i.e. that passage would be possible at all times for Palestinians unless specifically forbidden by curfews etc. However, the Elkana gate was never open all day long. At first, it would be open for two hours every morning, two hours at noon, and two more in the evening. Then at some point the IDF decreased the open times to twenty minutes three times a day ("Why?", one of us asked; "Because. No one knows why." was the answer). Then, just recently, following Prime Minister Sharon's visit to Elkana (where, I imagine, some humane settler whispered something in his ear about those damn Palestinians), the gate was closed permanently, and is now never opened.

But there's something odd at that gate. It is just some thirty meters from the easternmost houses of Elkana, but there's one Palestinian, named Haani Amer, whose house is almost adjacent to those easternmost houses of Elkana (of course, it was there long before those were built). Amer's house was considered part of the village Masxa, but since it is about one kilometer to the west of the village, the fence passes immediately to the east of the house. So the house is outside (i.e. west of) the fence.

On the other hand, those outer houses of Elkana are surrounded a (simple) fence of their own. The result is that Amer's solitary house is literally caged between the fence of Elkana on the west, and the separation fence on the three other sides (with that huge eight-meter-high cement wall to the east, and tall fences to the north and south of the house). It really must be seen for the absurdity to be appreciated; a solitary house, surrounded by expensive walls and fences on all four sides, housing a single Palestinian family. The soldiers are required to let them pass into the Masxa side of the fence whenever they want, because according to Israeli policy they "belong" to the Palestinian side, but the Amers' actual freedom of movement depends on IDF soldiers actually granting them passage (unlocking a special little gate in the separation fence made for their passage), and thus on an IDF detachment's being present when they need to cross to the other side etc. They are effectively caged with supposedly-lax security going eastward.

The house is not connected to a sewage system. Two small children were playing in front of the house, on the strip of old road that was included in the cage. One was driving a tricycle back and forth, reaching one end of the cage, touching the fence, muttering to herself -- perhaps playing some make-believe game -- and turning back. Her younger brother, no more than five years alled, wandered around and peered at us curiously, eventually deciding to just lie down in the dry mud and stare at the soldiers (who remained nearby for the duration of our visit in Amer's cage). Mrs. Amer came out of the house after a few minutes, with a kettle of spicy tea for us (we were about twenty people in all -- most were TAU students, but there were a few others, notably two Arab-Israeli girls from Jaffa). I sharply regretted not being able to speak Arabic, not least for not being able to talk to the children.

Before this absurd cage was constructed, Haani Amer was offered money by Israelis if he would agree to leave his house. He refused. We spoke to his wife (he was out, on his way to a courthouse to file yet another complaint about settlers throwing stones at his family), and asked her why her husband wouldn't accept the proposal. She said "We lost our homes in 1948 and became refugees. We're not going to becomes refugees a second time. If we ever leave this house, it would be to return to Kafr-Kassem, where we came from, before 1948. Some things matter more than money." The Palestinian Tsumud incarnate. She said they were living on one thousand NIS a month, income from what they manage to produce on their land. Before the Intifada, she says (not commenting on the Intifada itself), they made five thousand NIS a month.

Israelis and the world are regularly fed malicious propaganda: the fence/wall project is clearly not about security for Israelis, but about annexing (de facto; de jure can wait) Palestinian land by creating facts (this kind of fence/wall complex is a strong fact with a good potential for permanence through any future agreements) and about breaking Palestinian spirit by making their lives intolerable and sometimes simply economically unviable.

Consider: a fence built to provide security, i.e. prevent/reduce terror bombings and shootings, would have two simple characteristics --
  1. It would be made as short as possible. Shorter fence = more security for smaller costs in money and military manpower.
  2. It would be contiguous. A fence with whole missing sections in it is not much of a fence, is it?
The fence-and-wall system actually constructed by the Israeli government in the OT fails both requirements:
  1. It is serpentine, with fjord-like reaches into the depths of the OT, in order to keep various Israeli settlements outside the fence (i.e. free) while confining the surrounding Palestinian villages. Maps available at and with ICAHD's Prof. Jeff Halper's article The Matrix of Control clearly show the layout of the fence, both present and future segments of it. This not only annexes all the land between the general north-south line of the fence (generally east of the border, by the way) and the settlement the in-reach is made for, but prevents Palestinian passage from one side of the in-reach to the other. Much absurdity is consequent upon this.
  2. In the most "sensitive" sections of the fence, in the hottest points of international debate, the Israeli goverment is not building the complete fence-and-wall set, using either a simple barbed-wire fence or nothing at all. Yes! The most controversial points along the ostensible course of the fence are actually open, because, quoth the Israeli government, "we cannot resist the strong international pressure". This is some sort of political maneuver between several sections of the Israeli public opinion and the rest of the world. The fact of the matter is that these areas have the least gain in security by the fence.
What does the fence achieve, then? The scenario proposed by Prof. Halper (do read his article; he explains this better than I do) is scary, but not unlikely: Israel is trying to "create facts in the field", as the Hebrew idiom goes, namely to divide the OT into cantons with little or no physical contact. Certain villages are to be so completely enclosed by the fence that their only opening to the rest of the world (i.e. anything beyond their village and possibly the next one) would be a single checkpoint manned by IDF soldiers.

While pretending to only be keeping the peace, Israel, through the IDF, will be delivering constant blows to Palestinian morale, by forcing them to constantly brush up against bureaucracy and force. By force I do not mean violence, but rather the force (as in potential for coercion) possessed by every IDF soldier over any Palestinian; the mere fact that if the soldier, for whatever reason, wishes to, he can detain the Palestinian and prevent him from moving about between two villages in the same area, or from accessing his own field, often separated from his residence by the fence.

Add to that the fact that the closed gates (the Elkana gate is not the only one that is no longer opened) force Palestinians to make ludicrous circumnavigations. Here's an example: to get to Masxa on the other side of the gate, the houses of which we could clearly see with our own eyes less than a kilometer ahead, we had to drive back to the Elkana junction, go south and then way east and then back north and west again, through Bidya, until we reached another blocked road (no fence, just a road blocked with concrete cubes preventing the passage of vehicles), near Karawe. There we left our bus, walked past the vehicle blockade, and met our Palestinian host, Nazzih, who lives in Masxa. Two Palestinian vehicles were put at our disposal (we paid fuel expenses), and we drove west, past Karawe and through Bidya (the largest village and economic heart of the region; now as economically dead as the rest of the area), to Masxa.

All in all, it took us over 50 minutes to get from one side of the fence (Elkana and Amer's house) to the other (the rest of Masxa) -- remember: there's a gate in this fence, yes? It is meant, ostensibly, to facilitate just this passage. It does not. Now consider a Palestinian without a vehicle, and take into account that Palestinians are likely to get detained and questioned by army patrols, which we were mostly spared.

Nazzih owns some land outside the fence (that is, in the area unofficially [but very palpably, thanks to the fence] annexed to Elkana and the other nearby settlement). The Israeli Government, after much local and international pressure, declared that it will give permission to Palestinians to work in their fields outside the fence. The government does give out such authorizations, on paper permits. Nazzih showed us such a permit that he was able to obtain to work his fields. The permit explicitly says, in Hebrew and Arabic, among general curfew-like limitations, that "this does not grant the bearer any legal rights on land or property". So the Israeli government doesn't quite recognize ownership of the areas outside the fence (hence my use of 'annex'), and the Palestinians accept these permits because they're better than nothing. The permits expire after three months. "Why?"; "Because. We don't know. They say that we don't have proof that we own the land. The previous permit is no proof, they remind us, as it clearly says no rights are to be inferred from it." See the catch?

To get to his field, Nazzih can't go through the gate, because it is closed ("Why?"; "Because. It just is."), so he drives east, then north, then west, to a different gate. There the road is blocked again for vehicles, so he must leave his car there; his car, in fact, can only travel inside his village and up to the vicinity of that other gate. That's it. He is physically prevented from going anywhere else in the OT (not to mention Israel) in his car. So he leaves his car there, and passes through the gate, using his permit. That's about 35 minutes so far. Then he must walk all the way back almost to his village, to tend to his field on the other side of the fence. This takes another 90 minutes or so. Four hours, then, are wasted every time he needs to go to his field and back.

And here's the clincher: despite having a permit, carrying no weapons, obeying all instructions, and minding his own business, Nazzih is a criminal. Why? Because to get to his field, he must cross some of the annexed land that the fence is keeping separate from Masxa itself, and that land is designated "closed military ground", forbidden for civilians and Palestinians (but actually forbidden only to left-wing civilians and Palestinians -- settlers roam it freely). To get to his field, Nazzih physically has no other choice but to walk through those grounds (all belonging to Palestinians from Masxa!), but by walking through them, he is transgressing against the IDF-imposed regulations. If he is "caught" (i.e. if the soldiers decide to pick him up), he may be tried and punished for seeking access to his field, access purportedly granted him by the permit. So Nazzih must choose between risking trial and punishment, and abandoning his field. Guess which result the people who create this situation are hoping for. See the trick? Then, when he has not tended the field in three years, Israeli law (like many other law systems) declares the field forfeit and then the IDF gets to decide what to do with it. Can you guess what the IDF would do with the land? If your guess is "give it officially to Elkana", you're right.

To say that it reminds one of Kafka is to belittle it. Kafka described a world of incomprehensible obstacles and faceless bureaucracy; Nazzih and his fellow villagers understand what is being done to them, and by whom. The children understand it too. And the children will grow up, and remember.

Nazzih explains all this calmly and without evident anger. Only occasionally his eyes would turn moist, or he would pause his fluent Hebrew speech for a moment. We were not the first group he was receiving in Masxa, not the first time he was delivering these speeches explaining the situation, and he must have gained detachment from these terrible truths, enough to explain them and demonstrate them without letting his rage out. I assume he feels rage; I certainly would.

The shops in Masxa were all closed. We wondered whether it was because it's Friday (which isn't a good reason), or whether they were out of business. It is the latter. Most of the men are unemployed, and poverty is everywhere. Whole economic structures have completely collapsed, and people who own dozens of square kilometers of land miss the days they were working as hired menial laborers in Israel, because they were actually making three times as much money than they manage to produce out of the land in the current economic climate.

Most ironically of all, perhaps, is this: desperate for employment, many of the local Palestinians have actually built the buildings and fences in and around the nearby settlements and worked on constructing the fence-wall complex that's making their lives so much more miserable now. Some of these villagers have physically labored on creating their own cages, their own devices of torture and endless frustration. It makes me furious.

Alright, enough. I have, of course, omitted many details and explanations, but these are the main points of this short trip, and I'm glad I took it. Some things must be seen to be properly understood.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson "I quake for my country."

I'll write more on my future plans regarding political activism, some time later. This was taxing enough.

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