On the ground in Palestine: An eyewitness assessment

For the past few weeks I was fortunate to travel throughout the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. Under the aegis of an organization know as Mideast Citizens Diplomacy, the group with which I traveled met with Palestinians and Israelis of all political and religious stripes, from various socio-economic classes. We dined with them, slept in their homes and, above all, encouraged them to tell us the stories of their lives and their day-to-day realities. Our purpose was to be active and non-judgmental listeners to all perspectives on the current status of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

It is an understatement to say that social and political reality in any Middle East country is complex. I would say that this is doubly true in Israel and the Palestinian territories that Israel has militarily occupied since the1967 War. In this small geographic area you have religions, languages and customs of a multitude of cultures bumping up against each other like large tectonic plates. Each culture claims its own special link to this historic land and each possesses its own version of the truth.

Each cultural group tenaciously clings to its own reality as it clamors to forward its causes. There is a lot of talking -- maybe more accurately, shouting -- and very little listening. There is a lot of fear and very little examining of the basis of this fear. These inadequacies are the rocks that block the road to peace in this area of the world.

To talk about what I have seen and heard means having to paint a verbal picture that runs counter to prevailing images and common wisdom held by most Americans about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that the "rocks" blocking the road to peace have been put there and maintained by people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, in the United States, we generally only hear about those belonging to Palestinians. This trip allowed me to witness a spectrum of opinion that spans from far right to far left in both cultures and directly experience a rare reality: the reality of the systematic violation of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the Fourth Geneva Convention by Israel in its treatment of the Palestinians.

In the United States, there is little tolerance for observations and opinions that are not favorable to the state of Israel. In a July 11, 1999 Los Angeles Times article, Norman Birnbaum, an American Jew and professor at the Georgetown University Law Center wrote:

...we can debate anything and everything in this country [the U.S.] except the conduct of the Israel government and people toward the Palestinians. Kosovo Albanians, Tibetans and Northern Irish Catholics have human rights; they may merit American intervention on their behalf. Palestinians constitute an exception, an unpeople whose complaints are irrelevant, tedious or mischievous.

Professor Birnbaum goes on to say:

That ties of solidarity and sympathy connect us to the people of Israel is clear. There is, however, a flagrant contradiction between our enjoyment of citizenship in a multiethnic, multi-religious and multiracial democracy [the U.S.] and the notion that solidarity with Israel requires that we accept any policy it may choose to follow toward the Arabs it rules. The matter is made worse when Jews who think differently are branded as self-hating, and Gentiles who disagree are told that they are anti-Semitic.

This stifling of discussion and debate has two deleterious effects. First, as Birnbaum notes, it seriously undermines the essence of democracy in the United States. And, secondly, it allows the United States Government to actively support an Israeli policy that most Americans, if they knew about it, would find reprehensible.

The Fourth Geneva Convention on Rules of War was adopted by the international community in August 1949 in response to Nazi atrocities during World War II. Among other things, this international treaty governs the treatment of civilians in territory under military occupation. The convention outlaws torture, collective punishment and the resettlement by an occupying power of its own civilians on territory under its military control.

There is massive empirical evidence demonstrating that Israel has violated the spirit and letter of the Fourth Geneva Convention, a fact that the government of Israel does not seem to deny. What it does deny is that it, Israel, is bound by the terms of this treaty. Israel's justification for torture, collective punishment and resettlement of occupied territories is that it is surrounded by a hostile people who threaten the physical safety of Israelis. There is little recognition that the perceived hostility may be caused and exacerbated by Israeli government behavior that violates the humanitarian conditions of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Consider the following issues and behavior:

Torture - After a long struggle by Israeli human rights groups, Israel's fairly routine use of torture against Palestinians was just recently acknowledged and repudiated by the Israeli Supreme Court. Now, over one-third of the members of the Knesset are support legislation to over-rule the Supreme Court. In a recent editorial, the Los Angeles Times noted the proposed legislation would allow what are euphemistically called "special interrogation means" against Palestinian prisoners, defined as "physical pressure on the suspect's body." The word-smithing is reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984 and is not worthy of a nation founded on the democratic principles that undergird the state of Israel. As the Times notes: "The Knesset will soon face a fateful choice. If it makes Israel the only nation to legally sanction torture, it will earn the contempt of every other democracy."

Resettlement of Occupied Territories - Since 1967, Israel has removed thousands of Palestinians from their homes and their land. This land has, in turn, been given to people from North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa who claim to be Jewish and who have adopted Israel as their new homeland. The irony is that Palestinians who have lived on land for decades, if not hundreds of years, can have their land taken away, with no legal recourse, and have it given to someone from Brooklyn or Johannesburg. All of this is in violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which maintains that: "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."

Destruction of Property - Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention also states: "Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons, or to the State, or to other public authorities, or to social or cooperative organizations, is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations."

Despite this international prohibition, the Israeli government has destroyed literally thousands of Arab homes since 1967. Israel claims that the houses they destroyed were built without the necessary construction permits and that they are "just enforcing the law." However, this claim of requires further examination. For instance, 73 percent of the West Bank (excluding those areas confiscated and settled by Israeli citizens) is declared to be agricultural land, a fact that makes it almost impossible for a Palestinian to get a building permit. While the Israeli settlements in the West Bank are allowed to expand on the grounds of "natural population growth," the Palestinian towns are prevented from expanding their borders or erecting new buildings to accommodate their natural population growth.


Coll,ective Punishment - Moreover, Palestinian homes have been destroyed as a form of collective punishment. It is a frequent occurrence that a member of a family is sought by the Israeli authorities for alleged crimes against the state. When the authorities have been unable to apprehend the person, they have labeled the entire family as "guilty" and demolished their homes as punishment. This is also a clear violation of Article 33, which states: "No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited."

Strategic construction of settlements and the Israeli-Only Roads - The construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is not a random affair. Israelis I talked to indicated that their placement is strategic and designed to encircle Arab towns and villages. Soon after the 1995 Oslo II agreement, the government of Israel began a $330 million project to construct a road system that links all of the settlements with each other and with the state of Israel. This road system, which includes 20 new roads over an expanse of 300 miles, will result in the confiscation of thousands of acres of Palestinian land and the demolishing of hundreds of homes.

A few import points need to be made about this new road system and the strategic location of the Israeli settlements:

1. The roads are being built near or actually parallel to existing roads. In other words, the purpose of their construction is not to create a road system where there is none.

2. The new road system can only be used by Israelis. Palestinians will be denied access to these highways.

3. The geographic placement of the settlements is creating a situation in which Palestinians will have no territorial contiguity. By encircling Palestinian communities, Israel is turning the map of the West Bank into something that resembles Swiss cheese where Arab communities will be isolated from each other into Bantustans reminiscent of those created by South Africa's apartheid regime.

4. All of this construction activity would lead one to the belief that Israel does not intend to allow the Palestinians to create a viable state side-by-side with Israel. At best, the negotiations will result in a Palestine that is fragmented into enclaves that are economically and politically unviable.

5. And, finally, it should be noted that the United States supports this Israeli policy politically and with U.S. taxpayer dollars.

All of the foregoing just begins to scratch the surface of Israel's inhumane treatment of the Palestinians and their lack of forthrightness with the international community. Since 1948 there have been in excess of sixty-five United Nations resolutions concerning Israel's treatment of Arabs and Arab properties. Most have been ignored.

I would like to close with a few final observations from my trip to Israel. In talking to Israelis, it is clear that centuries of mistreatment, shunning and murder have scared the national psyche of the world's Jews. The crowning blow came when the Nazis attempted genocide against the Jewish people while most of the world stood by and watched. Given all of this, the need for a nation-state -- a safe harbor -- to protect the Jewish people is a very understandable desire. But what has happened is that the need for security has become the driving force and rationale behind almost all Israeli policy and behavior. Security has become and obsession.

As I watched the behavior of the people of Israel and listened to what they had to say, I was constantly reminded of the research findings on the subject of family systems and family abuse theory. The pattern of behavior that defines the cycle of family abuse is very analogous to the pattern of behavior exhibited by the Israeli government,. In brief, th,is model maintains that a person who grows up in an environment where they are physically and emotionally abused is very likely to become a similar abuser when they are in a position of authority.

Many of the Israeli abuses of Palestinians are similar in kind to the abusive behavior experienced by the European Jews under Nazi rule. Norman Birnbaum notes at the end of his Los Angeles Times article that this behavior is already acknowledged and discussed in Israel. He says, "A good many Israelis see that if conflict with the Arabs continues, they are in danger of becoming like the Germans from 1933 to 1945 -- accomplices if not perpetrators of permanent oppression." If a good many Israelis recognize and discuss this aspect of their government's behavior, it is essential that it also be discussed openly within the United States, which is the biggest financial and political supporter of Israel. If we don't there is danger that we all could become guilty of complicity in a form of policy behavior that is condemned worldwide.

David Andrus is a lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the University of Southern California.

Article appears courtesy of American Muslims for Global Peace and Justice

  Category: World Affairs
  Topics: Foreign Policy, Fourth Geneva Convention, Occupation
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