On the 24th of May the Israeli army invaded the West Bank city of Ramallah, my current home. In the middle of the day, undercover Israeli forces performed an “arrest operation” on a Palestinian militant in the centre of Ramallah. When their cover was blown, a large force of Israeli soldiers were sent in so that they could shoot their way out of the city past the angry crowds of Palestinians that had assembled. The Palestinian fighters were, for the most part, nowhere to be seen during the invasion. It was left to crowds of youths to defend the city from this act of aggression, using whatever came to hand. Stones, tins of paint, scrap metal – all of it was thrown at the soldier’s jeeps from the rooftops of Ramallah. In the course of events, the Israeli army martyred three civilians and one Policeman (who was apparently unarmed at the time) and injured about thirty others, shooting rubber-coated and live ammunition at the crowds of civilians. In this act of war, Israel violated the entirely one-way ceasefire that Hamas and all the other armed Palestinian factions (apart from Islamic Jihad) had been sticking to since February 2005, despite regular Israeli military operations and killings in the Palestinian territories.
Such “arrest operations” are not uncommon in Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarem, but in Ramallah such a bold-faced incursion does not often happen. It has never happened during any of the times I have spent living in the city. In the last couple of months, though, there had started to be press reports of arrest operations in Ramallah. The Israeli military come into a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city, arrest a militant leader and get out quickly. Recently, they arrested Ibrahim Hamed the Ramallah head of the armed wing of Hamas. You hear or read about these things occasionally, but by the time you do so it’s over. This day-time incursion was on an entirely different scale. Working in the ISM Media Office, we first heard about it through the lightning-fast Palestinian grapevine and from hearing the sound of gunfire coming from the direction of al-Manara (the public square in the centre of Ramallah). We started to watch events unfold on al-Jazeera news. It was incredibly frustrating, watching this happen and not being able to do anything about it. Eventually, when we saw large crowds of civilians spontaneously demonstrating against the presence of the occupiers in the city, a few of us decided to leave the office with cameras. By the time we got there, the soldiers had left, leaving a trail of destruction and death behind them. We did, however, arrive in time to witness the immediate aftermath. Stones and other forms of improvised ammunition were strewn in the street everywhere; we saw bullet holes in someone’s car. A blood stain on the pavement went un-photographed, because we were so used to seeing such things after the Bil’in demonstrations, and some of us from the recent Nablus incursions. We managed to take pictures of the burnt-out shell of the white transit van the undercover forces had used to enter the city just before city cleaners took it away.
The whole episode left me with one overwhelming feeling: powerlessness. I had always assumed Ramallah to be something of a safe haven — the occupying power does not casually wander around the city as it does in Hebron. The event proved to me that this feeling was something of an illusion, and that the Israeli army can come in when it feels like doing so. Over the last year I have lived in Ramallah for over four months. Imagine, then, how people who live here all the time and have little or no alternative feel: “this is really their country – they go where they feel like. I don’t know what the hell we are doing here”. The bitterness and frustration in the voice of my Palestinian friend in the immediate aftermath of in invasion were palpable.
Palestinians, like any occupied and oppressed people do not like to project a weak image of themselves to the world. In common with all of humanity, they want to live dignified lives in peace with those around them. The crushing weight of the occupation finally leads some to snap and to strike back, sometimes using tactics that deliberately (and criminally) target Israeli civilians. Contrary to their image in the west, the Palestinians are mostly a very patient people – the first suicide bombing did not happen until 1994, forty-six years after “al-Nakba” (the disaster), know by Israelis as “The War of Independence”.
During the disaster of 1948, 750,000 Palestinians were either directly driven out their homes by the victorious new Jewish state, or fled for fear of the massacres carried out by the “only democracy in the middle east”. Unlike refugees in most other wars, they were not allowed to return to their homes after the ceasefire between the newly established Israel and the Arab states. The Jewish state was too worried about the “demographic problem” – too many of the wrong kind of human beings in the Jewish state. It continues to be worried about this “problem” to this day, with academic conferences and weighty tomes by the most highly regarded Israeli minds devoted to the subject.
According to the Zionist historian Benny Morris, there were twenty-four direct massacres carried out by the Israeli Haganah (the pre-state paramilitary force that was the precursor to the modern day Israeli army) and other Jewish terrorist groups of the time, killing hundreds of Palestinians. From his vast research into contemporary Israeli military archives, he recounts that there was “a great deal of arbitrary killing. Two old men are spotted walking in a field – they are shot. A woman is found in an abandoned village – she is shot. There are cases such as the village of Dawayima [in the Hebron region], in which a column entered the village with all guns blazing and killed anything that moved”. In addition, his more recent archival research reveals that there was “about a dozen” cases of rape by Israeli soldiers during the Nakba.
Morris does not condemn all this. On the contrary, he approves: “you can’t make an omelet [sic] without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands… There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing”. He goes even further and actually criticises David Ben-Gurion (the first prime minister of Israel) for not going far enough: “maybe he should have done a complete job… if he had carried out a full expulsion – rather than a partial one – he would have stabilized the State of Israel for generations”. This is the stability of the grave – the lives of other peoples are mere “eggs” to be crushed underfoot.
When the origins of Zionism are so wrapped up in ethnic cleansing, and when even those Zionists like Morris who are considered to be radical leftists call such barbarities “justified”, then it’s really not surprising that the primary focus of the Israeli occupation today is still ethnic cleansing. It is a more slow-motion version of ethnic cleansing, going largely reported and unnoticed in the US – the constituency that matters most in all this since the funding for it comes mostly from the US government. Meanwhile, before the cleansing is complete, the “wild animal… has to be locked up” as Morris puts it in overtly racist terms. The cage he is referring to is presumably the annexation wall that is being built in the West Bank, dividing Palestinians from each other and killing all hope of a two-state solution.
These policies have a serious affect on Palestinian society. Although the gun-strewn martyr posters popular here and the bellicose language of some Palestinian politicians project an image of strength in the face of oppression, the everyday language of Palestinians tell a different story. By and large, oppression and terror works. Although it is often pointed out that military occupation of an unwilling population can not be sustained indefinitely, it is equally true that it will ultimately succeed if the Zionist slogan “a land without a people” is made into a reality and all the Palestinians are pushed out. Although the disastrous current projects of American empire make us forget, there have been cases in history when occupation and repression has succeeded. Palestine may yet turn out to be one of those cases. “I really feel like I hate myself. I want to leave Palestine”, a Palestinian friend of mine recently told me. And he is not the type of person to use defeatist language. Life is stifled here. Abnormality is normal.
Another Palestinian friend, after being harassed and shouted at by Israeli Border Police at checkpoints on the way to Jerusalem, unhappily confessed to me that “sometimes, when the soldiers treat me like this, I start to hate my Jewish friends”. The same woman had been chatting and laughing with Israeli friends at one of the Bil’in demonstrations only a week before. On traveling to Nablus and back, she related to me her experience of being detained at the numerous checkpoints between her home in Ramallah and Nablus, causing the trip to last hours longer than necessary: “I feel so humiliated. I start to hate myself”. The psychological effects are real and palpable. Mental illness is rampant here, yet there is little specialised medical infrastructure to treat it.
The main affect of the occupation is to make Palestinians feel like they have no dignity, or to make life unbearable enough that they want to leave. The human desire to have a happy and normal life is crushed. Those lucky enough to have somewhere else to go, and the financial means to do so, may be able to rebuild their lives elsewhere. If enough people leave, Palestine will eventually cease to exist, reduced to isolated ‘Arab reservations’ in the scraps of the West Bank that will eventually be left after Israel’s “convergence” plan has reached its logical conclusion. Israel seems to be following the North American colonial model. And, indeed, Benny Morris positively invokes it to support ethnic cleansing: “even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians”.
The apologists for war-crimes, genocide and empire will always find ways to justify their projects by shrouding them in intellectual language, while at the same time bitterly condemning the same crimes committed by official enemies. It’s up to us to make the effort to see through their lies, and act to support those living under occupation and oppression.
If there is a glimmer of hope in all this it is those Palestinians, Israelis and internationals who stand together in their popular resistance to the occupation. The main thing you can do to join those who stand united against Israeli apartheid (identified as such by veterans of the struggle against South African apartheid, including Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and the South African Trades Unions) is to support the call of Palestinian civil society for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights. Although the boycott Israel campaign is still in its early stages, it recently made important gains when a Canadian and a British trade union passed resolutions in support of the campaign. Read this action alert for examples of what you can do to help.
For more pictures from the invasion of Ramallah see my photo gallery.